How to Jumpstart Diversifying an Organization’s Donor Pool (Part 3)

By Kristal Enter (she/her), Massachusetts General Hospital

This article is the third in a four-part series. Click here to view part one, which serves as an introduction to the series, covers terminology and explores how prospect researchers can begin this work by first examining how they understand the world and how that impacts their work. Click here to view part two, which looks at how prospect researchers think and talk about prospects.

Nuts and Bolts of Prospect Research and Diversity


Prospect researchers, whether in a large shop or a one-person shop, often scour local and national news sources to keep up with current donors’ major life events, as well as to identify new prospects. While extremely useful, these resources can also sideline stories of interest to diverse communities and often do not represent the perspective of these communities. For example, a shrewd business decision made by a prospect who is a lesbian may not be as thoroughly covered in traditional media sources, such as the Wall Street Journal. Gifts made by a Black philanthropist to support issues important to their local community may not be highlighted or featured in more traditional publications.

To counterbalance this, prospect researchers should augment their list of resources to include those that are made by, and for, historically-excluded groups. These publications are often extremely different to mainstream sources, as they cover what is important to that audience and highlights that community’s voice. These publications can be national in scope, such as The Advocate, or specific to a local community, such as Sampan, the only Chinese-English bilingual newspaper in New England.

Prospect Identification

Proactive research has a key role to play in creating a prospect pool with more prospects from historically-excluded groups. Organizations often have a pool of individuals, including alumni, grateful patients or individuals who hold memberships, that prospect researchers are regularly screening for new prospects. To increase the diversity within an organization’s donor pool, it is worthwhile to examine current prospecting processes and determine if there are ways to incorporate a diversity lens to that existing work. What criteria is being used to initially screen and vet large lists of prospects? Are there pools of prospects that prospect researchers are struggling to research because of bandwidth?

Screenings and analytic scores can be important tools in new prospect identification processes, providing a data point to help prospect researchers prioritize among large lists of prospects. However, based on how these screenings are built and how analytic scores are generated, these can be imprecise tools for finding prospects from historically-excluded groups. They are built to identify prospects who share characteristics with prospects who have given in the past or who share characteristics with known major gift donors. This means that the prospects these tools surface are likely to look a lot like previous donors to the organization. In working to surface new prospects, it is important to be mindful that it may or may not be helpful to use analytic scores and screenings.

Another source of new prospects may be referrals from an organization’s volunteer leadership, staff members or existing donors. These referrals are often highly valued as they represent an established, warm relationship and an “in” with new prospects. However, until an organization can broaden its network to be more inclusive, it is also important to note that tapping into these referrals may perpetuate the cultivation of potential donors who are just like our current donors. If an organization’s board is largely all white and male, referrals from board members are likely to reflect their personal networks, which are more likely to be all white and male. A key step may be to educate board members, staff members and existing donors that not all philanthropists operate in the same way or fit a mold, which may help them better understand and refer prospects from historically-excluded groups.

Apra is committed to ensuring that our association lives the values of diversity, equity and inclusion espoused in our Diversity and Inclusion Statement of Principles and delivers on the objectives set forward in the Diversity and Inclusion pillar of our 2019-2021 Strategic Plan.

In addition to adding a new lens to current prospecting processes, discreet projects can be helpful to highlight prospects that have been overlooked in the past. Even if prospect researchers had access to data on a person’s race, religion or sexual orientation, how to ethically collect, store and use this demographic data is still being defined in our profession. However, an organization does have information in its database that is collected as standard practice, including zip code, marital status and gender. This information can be used to surface prospects who are from historically-excluded groups.

For example, women can be marked as single, widowed or divorced in a database, and prospect researchers likely know these women’s zip codes. These two pieces of information can be used to surface single female prospects living in wealthy zip codes, who may not have been an area of focus for prospect researchers previously. There may be many possibilities for discreet prospecting projects like this and may depend on the data collected at each organization.

There has been much focus on the importance of increasing the number of board members from historically-excluded groups. Success in this area would ensure leadership at an organization reflects the community it serves and that there is a variety of perspectives, experiences and networks represented on the board, which can significantly strengthen its work. Despite this focus, there is still much work to be done in this area. For example, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s January 2020 toolkit notes that 85% of nonprofit board members are white and a quarter of these boards have no person of color.

As prospect researchers, we are well-positioned to make an impact on increasing the number of board members from historically-excluded groups, as we are continually and closely examining prospects with connections to an organization. What may be less clear is where prospect research plugs in within the process of building a board’s membership. As such, the first step may be to better understand how the nomination process to the board works and what characteristics make for a good board member at an organization.

Another step may be to better understand what an organization’s goals are in terms of board membership over the long-term. For example, is the organization hoping to recruit more women? Is it hoping to tap into a key network? If the organization is aiming for more diversity in its board membership, part of this process could be reassessing the value of each board member’s contributions beyond a financial gift. A potential board member may not be inclined to make a major gift but represents the perspective of the community that the organization serves. Does an organization value that type of contribution as highly as a monetary contribution? Answering these questions will help prospect researchers better surface potential board members who are from historically-excluded communities and broaden the organization’s circle of supporters.

Prospect Management

In addition to examining prospect identification practices, it is critical to examine prospect and portfolio management practices that may be undermining efforts to increase the number of donors from historically-excluded groups to an organization.

Organizations have a sense or suspicion that its donor base is not diverse but have not compiled the data that would show that it is homogenous. One possible project may be to analyze all prospects who are currently under management, to examine pieces of demographic data that can suggest overall trends. Again, this may be limited to the data that is readily collected, such as gender, marital status and age. Where do your prospects live? Are they married? Do they have children? How old are they? What industries do they work in? How do donors pursued by the annual fund differ from those pursued by major gifts? An analysis like this may reveal a lot about the type of prospects that are put under management and pursued for philanthropy.

Additionally, it may be necessary to examine practices behind prospect and portfolio management work with major gift fundraisers. Oftentimes, fundraisers are stretched thin and want the shortest path to a gift, which means reinforcing the status quo of pursing major gift prospects who fit the ideal standard of a philanthropist. Essentially, unintentional bias may creep in as prospect researchers and major gift officers work to manage a portfolio and prospects within that portfolio. Additionally, major gift officers may be uncertain of how to even approach new donors from historically-excluded communities or feel that they do not have the tools they need to engage these types of donors. All of this means that prospects from these groups may not be pursued with the same vigor as more typical major gift prospects.

Prospect researchers, in their prospect and portfolio management advisory role, can help fundraisers to question their assumptions, highlight potential biases and explore alternative paths. For example, are we overlooking a prospect because of their age? Does a prospect bring important connections or a network to the table that has not been considered?

Part of this work with major gift officers may be to examine a major gift officer’s approach and how they arrived at that approach. For example, are we conducting qualification outreach to a male prospect for a gift, when it is his spouse that has the connection and/or is the philanthropic decision maker? Why? These can be important questions for prospect researchers to raise to ensure that engagement with prospects from diverse communities is being prioritized the same way as all other prospects.

This article is one of four-parts in a series celebrating Research Pride Month. Read the rest of the series here:


Learn more about the author on the Connections Thought Leadership Page.

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