Free Prospect Research - What You Can Find and Where to Look

A prospect researcher is on the staff “wish list” for many development shops. Wouldn’t it be great to have an expert researcher unearth details about an individual prospect’s background, interests, capacity and connections to other organizational stakeholders before you meet?

In reality, full-time prospect research positions exist mainly in large development operations – i.e. hospital foundations or universities. The rest of us are on our own! To make the best use of your time, it helps to understand what prospect research can and can’t do for your organization’s fundraising efforts.

Prospect Research Fundraising Social Media

Prospect Research Can:

  • Shed light on a person’s background and interests.
  • Illuminate their connections and relationships.
  • Reveal indicators of wealth (e.g., salary, real estate holdings, private and public company wealth)
  • Provide insight into a prospect’s corporate ties, especially if he/she is associated with public companies.

Prospect Research Can’t:

  • Give you a complete picture of someone’s net worth.
  • Show you a person’s cash and bank balances.
  • Show you non-insider stock holdings (i.e. if a person owns Apple stock, but is not an employee or trustee of Apple)
  • Give you an unlisted telephone number.

Ten, or even five, years ago there was not nearly as much information available online as there is today. And because much of this info is free, even budget-challenged fundraisers can learn a lot about donors and prospects using the tools below.

Facebook and LinkedIn

It’s likely that you already have a personal/professional presence on one or both of these social media sites. Of course, you’ll want to be respectful when sifting through a prospect’s online profile. (And remember that these tools often make a person aware when someone else checks them out.)


GuideStar provides information about nonprofit organizations, including foundations. Their free service gives access to 990 tax forms filed with the IRS. Foundation 990s often list organizations a foundation has funded in a given tax year and the grant amounts. See the section below on Public Libraries for how you might be able to tap into GuideStar’s paid service to access even more info.


This is the largest free information source on small companies and business people.

National Center for Charitable Statistics

The NCCS is the national clearinghouse for data on the U.S. nonprofit sector. They provide 990 data, financial data and analysis of trends in charitable giving.


You’ve probably seen some of Forbes’ famous annual lists—Most Powerful Women, Most Expensive ZIP Codes, America's Best Small Companies, The 400 Richest Americans, 400 Best Big Companies, America's Largest Private Companies, Top Earning CEOs, America's Most Generous Companies.

Yahoo! Finance

Yahoo’s finance space is a great source of public company information, including real-time and historical stock quotes.

Zoom Info

This is a business search engine that casts a wide net to deliver profiles on 24 million business people and 2 million companies.

Public Library

Your local public library may be the most underused resource in all of prospect research. Here in Denver, the central branch library provides free access to paid services like GuideStar, the Colorado Grants Guide and The Foundation Center’s Foundation Directory Online (the professional version which costs $1,300/year for a subscription). If a prospect has a family foundation, these resources can help you find it. Reference librarians can also guide you to resources for more complex research projects. Your local library may provide similar access and services.

Although lots of info about people is now available online, and many folks make the conscious choice to live their lives online through social media, ethics is still an important consideration in prospect research. There is no better way to torpedo your relationship with a donor than to give them a sense that you are spying on them or invading their privacy. Be cautious and conservative and when in doubt consult your local association of prospect researchers. The Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement has a thorough code of ethics. Happy hunting!

What other free tools do you recommend? Add your suggestions in the Comments box below!

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