Starting from Raised Hands: Reactive vs Proactive Prospect Research

We absolutely love the researchers (advancement superheroes!) who dedicate their careers to finding new prospects. Their work is critical for campaign success today and drives engagement with new donors who will carry our schools and universities for the next 50 years.

In order to keep finding new prospects and build pipeline, researchers have to continually refine their strategy. With a treasure trove of digital and social insights now available, we’re seeing forward-thinking teams shift their approach to discovery from reactive research to proactive prospecting.

Reactive vs. Proactive Prospect Research


Reactive research begins with the institution’s needs in mind. Whether it’s pulling ZIP-code driven lists because a gift officer will be in the area or sifting through Excel sheets of top existing donors for a new campaign, university interests can take precedent over a prospect’s affinity.

There’s a time for this approach, for sure, but reactive research strategies may miss key engagement points when prospects raise their hands and indicate interest. Just looking at static data means ever-changing capacity indicators such as a new job, a company sale, or a move to an upscale neighborhood will pass by unnoticed.


Proactive research begins with deep insights into dynamic engagement data to connect the interests of high-capacity prospects to fundraising priorities. Instead of starting with the institution’s priorities, proactive researchers look for engaged alumni and friends with high capacity, then match their interests to current fundraising campaigns. They’re identifying these interests from engagement on Facebook, career info from LinkedIn, event attendance, email interactions, and more.

With a proactive approach, it’s possible to automatically surface engaged constituents and quickly sort them by interest and capacity to build better prospect pipeline.

But don’t just take our word for it. Let’s hear from innovators who are shifting more and more into proactive research mode.

Oklahoma State University: Matching Interests to Priorities Before a Development Officer Calls

At the Oklahoma State University Foundation, ‎Director of Prospect Research Jacob Astley and two other researchers are prequalifying the affinities of new prospects and teeing up gift officers for successful outreach.

Jacob and co. begin with the fundraising priorities of each college (OSU has gift officers working in 17 different units) and then matches them with most promising potential donors. They look at engagement with Facebook content, pulling lists of everyone who has reacted or commented on relevant Facebook posts, and pair that information with giving history or LinkedIn career information to determine the right fit.

This interest-driven approach has been especially effective in connecting prospects to under-represented departments or hard-to-fund initiatives.

“I looked at recent giving and spotted someone who had given several thousand dollars to a fund in Philosophy, but wasn’t marked as an alum in our system,” Jacob said.

After some more digging, Jacob saw that the donor had received a philosophy degree from another university, but had taken classes at OSU. LinkedIn told Jacob that the prospect had recently retired as president of a large company, so there was solid giving potential.

“He was self-identifying through his giving. Here was someone who raised his hand, someone who loves Philosophy, and had been successful with his degree, too,” said Jacob. “Without EverTrue, he probably would have just kept slipping through.”

The OSU team also recently started digging into Facebook Events to uncover donor interests. The university posts its games on Facebook, and Jacob and his team review anyone who’s interested in or attending each event. This helps the team track prospects and alert gift officers when assigned donors are going to be on campus.

“We use Facebook events to know who’s coming to campus for a game or homecoming,” Jacob said. “I can tell gift officers when a prospect will be in the area or when they can set up meetings during away games.”

With a goal of adding 150 new prospects to development officer portfolios this year, Jacob and the OSU Foundation research team is already on track to exceed that target, thanks to proactive research.

University at Buffalo: Quickly Discover and Qualify Prospects

At the University at Buffalo, its research team is continually expanding lists of qualified prospects to add to development officer portfolios.

To support the effort, Kathleen Pagkos, ‎Associate Director of Prospect Development and Analytics, organized a “research blitz.” She set aside a full day for her team to dig into engagement data and wealth indicators with the sole purpose of proactively building pipeline. The team used home values from Zillow and U.S. Census data on income levels layered with high-powered job titles to find unassigned prospects, dropping names onto a shared list as they came across new potential donors.

In 30 minutes, we found 80 really interesting and seemingly wealthy prospects, which is just unprecedented,” Kathleen said.

After the blitz, Kathleen and the UB researchers dug even deeper into the background of each prospect, using social engagement to indicate interest and rate the capacity of each potential donor before sharing the results with gift officers.

Now those frontline fundraisers can prioritize visits to these already-engaged, “pre-qualified” constituents, instead of scrambling to fill trip itineraries with cold outreach that doesn’t always resonate with prospects.

Boston University: “Chum the Waters” for New Prospects

In a recent webinar, Pat Hewett, Director of Leadership Gifts at Boston University walked us through how the team uses Facebook to build lists of prospects for a brand new project.

Pat is developing a cadre of prospects to support a new project: the Institute for Sustainable Energy. The Institute is a non-degree-issuing research organization, so there isn’t a built-in list of alumni to solicit, so Pat is prospecting from scratch.

To quickly build his list, Pat worked with BU’s engagement team to regularly post on Facebook about sustainability and renewable energy issues. Pat combs through everyone who reacts or comments to those posts, looking for capacity after already knowing they are inclined to support the institute’s mission.

“Anything you can do to narrow the field to build prospect lists is really awesome,” said Pat. “As a leadership gift officer, I had been missing the boat by not working with our communications team. They are super-smart and easy to work with. If you’re a gift officer and don’t know your own engagement team, get to know them. They can help you reach your goals.”

In just a few months, Boston University has compiled a list of 600 prospects who care about sustainability issues thanks to proactive Facebook outreach and interest-driven research, giving a new institute a solid foundation of potential donors.

It’s Time to Make the Move

Shifting to proactive research allows teams to take a more strategic approach to discovery and help gift officers connect with prospects at the right time with the right message.

It’s efficient, too (just ask the University at Buffalo!). Looking at social engagement, obtaining updated career information, digging into email opens and clicks, and exploring event attendance can help researchers uncover better prospects in less time. The approach amplifies the good work research teams already do and sends more qualified prospects into gift officer portfolios.

See how EverTrue can help your team make the shift to proactive prospect research.

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