Armando Zumaya speaking at #SAWACON

Go Big or Go Home: How Prospect Research Can Help You Achieve Major Gifts

Armando Zumaya is a nationally-noted trainer, lecturer and development officer. He focuses on helping non-profits bridge the gap between prospect research, management teams and the field development officers with which they work.

Zumaya is also a former investigative journalist. He applies his investigative skills as the foundation for his approach to donor “prospecting.” Prospect researchers are those who help organizations identify the people that are that are most likely to give based on their personal interests, financial situation, giving history and more.

The fundraising cycle

To begin his session, Zumaya shared his framework for the fundraising cycle. He noted that this cycle takes time to complete and, sometimes, years.

  1. Identification is the first step. This entails using research and networking to find the right people who are most likely to give. Zumaya noted that simply asking your family or the families of board members for funds is not enough. Once you’ve identified a person to call, it’s important to reach out. Having a list isn’t helpful if you don’t use it!
    Zumaya is a believer in cold calling as a way to begin the fundraising process. Tips for doing this well include:

    • Be persistent
    • Be flexible
    • Call at different times
    • Make it easy to meet in person
  2. Qualification is the process of getting to know someone in an effort to determine whether they are a good candidate to give to your organization. This includes personal visits to get to know each other, as well as attendance at events, facility tours and more.
    Zumaya advised that meeting in person is the most effective way to qualify potential donors. It’s also very important to ask tough questions to determine if the prospect really has the intention and ability to give. Asking questions such as: “Where do we rank in your philanthropic priorities?” is a good, straightforward way to get that conversation started.

  3. Cultivation is the process of improving upon the relationship with your potential donors. This can include asking them to attend events, more personal visits and correspondence in all forms.  Zumaya emphasized that effective cultivation requires “putting their hands in the dirt” or showing a prospective donor the ins and outs of your organization. Introducing them to staff, volunteers or clients can accomplish this goal. Ask yourself how you can take them behind the scenes, but do this ethically. Holding smaller events can be more effective than larger galas, especially when the guest list is targeted and the right people are in the room.
  4. Solicitation is the act of asking for a donation. Although asking for money can be uncomfortable, if the other stages of the process has gone well, the request will be more natural and expected. Training staff and board members to do this well is important. Zumaya recommended aiming high when you ask to make sure you aren’t leaving money on the table.
  5. Stewardship is continuing to build the relationship after a donation. Zumaya noted that large organizations often don’t do this well because they have so many donors to manage. Small organizations have the opportunity to poach donors by treating them better and being more attentive to the relationship overall.Going beyond thank you notes and getting creative will help your organization stand out.

The challenge of development roles

Zumaya noted that it takes more than one person to move large numbers of donors through the fundraising cycle. He recommends that nonprofits hire more than one development staff member to accomplish this. Asking one person to cover foundations, individuals and corporate giving is a lot of responsibility.

“82% of philanthropy is from individuals, not foundations.”

Zumaya also advised against spending too much time courting foundation gifts. There’s too much competition for these donations, and they are often conditional on diversifying sources moving forward, so other sources of funding will be needed anyway.

Zumaya believes that seeking out major gifts is critical, even for small organizations. In fact, he sees major gifts as the primary way that small organizations become larger ones. Seeking out major gifts requires understanding as to who may be in the community already that isn’t currently giving, or is who is giving at a lower level than they could.

Elevating fundraising through prospect research

“You have to spend it to raise it!”

Having prospect research is helpful when building a major gifts program. Determining who will play the role of prospect researcher is the first step to success.

Prospect researchers can work as either full-time, part-time or contract employees. Zumaya noted that using a trained volunteer or staff member can work but is risky. A professional, experienced prospect researcher is likely to deliver better results more quickly.

Prospect researchers deliver results either as profiles of people likely to give, or lists of people to call.

  • Expect to pay a full time prospect researcher $45k – $75k.
  • A freelance firm is likely to cost $1k – $3k monthly. There are lists of freelance prospect researchers on the FRPA list on LinkedIn. You can also find people under “Prospect L” listserve and APRA.
  • Training a prospect researcher costs $2k – $3k as a start.

If you need to justify the cost to your board, Zumaya emphasized that prospect research is an investment. Putting money into developing a list of prospects is worth it, especially if it nets a large gift. He also advised letting your team and board know that prospect researchers are commonly used by larger organizations and also for profits who look for investors.

Overall, Zumaya emphasized that it takes effort and creativity to fundraise effectively. Using research to fuel fundraising can elevate the effort and give the team a head start.


This article was written live during the 2015 Annual Society of Animal Welfare Administrators Conference. This post reflects our bloggers’ understanding of the session and the materials shared by presenters.


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