Prospecting drives fundraising. Without viable prospects, leaders of compelling causes are simply shouting into the void.  In this post, we’ll discuss important considerations in strategy, creation, and organization of prospect pipelines.

Strategizing a Pipeline

Before you build your pipeline, reflect on the endgame.

Will certain program areas require more fundraising than others?  If so, should you start prospecting among a certain pool of names known to have a connection to those areas?  Consider your volunteer base – passionate lay voices for your cause, eager to spread the word.  Can you mine their private contact lists?  Can you identify the social and professional spheres in which they move and map out a constellation of potential givers – an illuminating game of connect-the-dots that paints a strategic picture you hadn’t seen before?  Optimized peer-to-peer encounters require an understanding of these networks.

Let’s get a little more granular.  You’re expecting an influx of prospects – does your budget allocate enough funds to reach them?  To pay for a direct mail consultant?  Will you have enough frontline staff with bandwidth to accommodate new finds? Will those staff members have the experience to engage these novel prospects? First-year fundraisers, just out of college, may be full of passion, but if you are identifying prospects with nine-figure capacity, their best efforts may not provide the polish you need.  If your hospital ramps up a grateful patient effort, do you have the prospect research capacity to screen and segment that constant stream of data?  Questions such as these can inform your prospecting effort.

Building a Pipeline

Tools like WealthEngine, NOZA, and Google are mainstays of pipeline-building efforts.  As a first pass at prospecting, however, target the accumulated knowledge of your organization’s staff.  Research tools provide sketches of capacity, but anecdotal information can be as valuable as “hard data.” Real estate values can be checked via Trulia or Zillow, but if you didn’t know that the prospect purchased land through an LLC, you missed a vast amount of wealth.

Wealth screening expectations must be managed, as such tools are biased toward publicly-known wealth sources. In addition to missing the LLC real estate purchaser, screens may not identify prospects who give primarily through donor-advised funds, maintain interests in privately-held business, or hold stock through family offices or holding companies.

When seeking prospects, our clients often struggle with four basic challenges:

  • No Natural Constituency – some organizations, particularly in the social service sector, don’t enjoy a built-in group of prospects connected to an organization,g., a university alumni base.
  • Low-Capacity Prospects – many organizations have long lists of potential prospects – ticketholders, congregants, etc. – but few are poised to make a major gift (yet).
  • Time – prospect research requires much valuable time to conduct!
  • Accuracy – it can be hard to know that you’ve located the right information for the right person – rather than a different individual with the same name.

No silver bullet fixes any of the four.  An organization lacking a natural constituency can target its case all the more clearly to resonate with select constituencies.  Relatedly, a constant return of low-capacity prospects may suggest the need for a strategic shift to new constituencies or a reassessment of expectations.

The research process is always time-consuming. Organizations need to think long and hard about whether to outsource research efforts to a consultant or a larger vendor.  Although a substantial investment up front, the value can quickly become apparent when returns start to materialize.  Similarly, finding the right John Smith can seem like an insurmountable task – again, perhaps one more quickly solved by a research professional.

Organizing a Pipeline

A great prospect shines in each of these “three A” categories:  Ability, Affinity, and Access.  Ability, a.k.a. capacity, can be discerned via known or estimated wealth, prior giving, wealth screenings, and giving to other organizations.  Remember, ability can change over time, depending on age, children in the home, etc.  Today’s low-ability prospect might be highest-ability come tomorrow’s IPO!

Affinity, or likelihood, means the motivation your prospect has to give to your organization.  Alumni want to enhance the value of a degree or give back for scholarships; schoolchildren’s parents want to enrich their child’s education; the grateful patient honors physicians and expresses gratitude; the foundation “moves the needle” on priority issues; the corporation leverages co-branding to increase market share.  Much like ability, affinity can change over time – whether via graduations, treatment outcomes, or good old-fashioned careful cultivation.  As noted in the first section, access relies on mapped spheres of influence among important organizational supporters – trustees, doctors, faculty, etc.

Complex individuals populate pipelines, but effective pipelines themselves are relatively simple structures.  Prospects can be placed in one of four categories depending on their ability, access, and affinity – primed for the Ask, ready for a Briefing, in need of Cultivation, or still subject to Discovery.

Strategic thinking about pipeline construction and management is critical to our successes.

What are your experiences in the field of artful prospecting and analysis? 

Comment below or share your ideas on LinkedInFacebook, or Twitter. For more information on CCS, view our website or email

About the Authors