Forensic Fundraising: Study, Research, and Analysis

Posted by David G Phillips on Aug 10, 2018 8:40:24 AM

My youngest daughter is a big fan of the crime scene investigation shows. She tries to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed at the end of the show. While watching television with her one night, it occurred to me that fundraising was a lot like crime scene investigation, except, of course, for the corpses lying around.

“Collect the evidence” – CSI

Our campaigns begin with a thorough examination of the scene. We call this a Feasibility and Planning Study. The investigation calls for our study director to canvas the area, learning as much as he or she can about the community, the client and “known associates.” This includes board, staff, volunteers, donors and community leaders

By learning all we can about the client and their needs, we are able to prepare our investigative tools -- interview questionnaires, mail surveys and other instruments. Using these tools, we “collect the evidence” of potential support for their mission and proposed project.

“Round up the usual suspects” – Claude Raines, Casablanca

A comprehensive Feasibility and Planning Study gives us background information we need. With this evidence and a list of “suspects” we can conduct research into the motives and motivations of each “suspect,” to determine whether they are capable of committing the act of philanthropy. As the detectives say, we look at “motive, means and opportunity.”

The campaign provides the opportunity. The suspects’ assets and financial status provide the means. Motive is frequently the most difficult to establish.

What are an individual’s “hot buttons?” What compels him or her to give? Obviously, the more closely associated that person is with the organization, the more likely they are to give, when asked. But when the connection is tenuous, or the association unclear, how do we determine the individual’s motivation?

There are several reasons that motivate people to give: religious beliefs, reinforcement and values, confidence and trust, involvement in the organization, peer and social pressure, recognition, tax savings and altruism. Your job is to find which one fits your “suspect” best and apply it to get your gift.

Assessing the capability of a potential prospect is relatively straightforward. You can access county tax roles to see what type of property they own, and its value. If they are listed in Hoover’s Rich List, or in Forbes, you have a pretty good indication of their capacity to give. A Google search or other Boolean search engines can provide you with links to a person’s background and assets, if the information is public.

“Quick Watson, the game’s afoot!” – Sherlock Holmes

Determining motivation and interests is another story. This is where our investigator must get creative and dogged.

Most libraries have a Periodical Index which lists area newspapers, magazines, etc. These are indexed by subject, so you can look up an individual’s name and see which publications have articles written about or by that individual. The media coverage of a person’s life and activities gives an indication as to that person’s interests and motivations.

With what organizations is this person affiliated? What boards does he or she serve on? To which organizations has the prospect made significant gifts? By examining these aspects you can tell where your prospects interest lies.

A private individual’s tax returns are not part of the public record. But the gifts one makes to private nonprofits are. Any organization which files a 990 form, the nonprofit corporate tax return form, must list their major contributors as well as identify their board members.

Many states will also provide information on board members and registered agents of corporations, including private for-profit and not-for-profit corporations. This is generally available through the Secretary of State from each individual state government. Some states make the information readily available, others charge a fee. But you can identify which boards a person serves on, as well as any private enterprises with which he or she is associated. Annual reports of those corporations may be available to you.

Motive, means and opportunity. These are the ingredients necessary to commit first degree philanthropy. Good luck on your search through the forensics of fundraising.


Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS) is one of the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada.  If you have a fundraising question, please call CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to info@cdsfunds.com.

Topics: Capital Campaigns, fundraising consultants, Fundraising Principles, fundraising strategy, fundraising tips

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