Leveraging Prospect Research for Your Virtual Gala: 4 Tips

Recently, fundraising professionals have turned to virtual galas in an effort to sustain annual fundraising events that bring in a lot of funding and engage a wide group of supporters. These events have proven to be convenient and accessible for supporters, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when in-person events have been put on hold. Plus, schools and nonprofits can save on event overhead costs, while still raising a ton to support their causes.

As a fundraising professional, you may be interested in creating a virtual gala to raise money for your school or organization. Perhaps you’ve invested in a virtual gala platform to live stream your event, facilitate a live chat, and engage participants in an exciting bidding process. However, before you can host a successful gala, you need to get attendees on board who are excited and willing to participate, as well as those who can contribute major gifts. That’s where prospect research comes in!

Donorly defines prospect research as “the process of identifying potential major donors for your nonprofit, helping you take a more focused approach to securing major gifts, capital campaign contributors, planned gifts, and more.” You can leverage prospect research when planning your virtual gala in order to:

  1. Identify prospective major donors.
  2. Reach out on supporters’ preferred communication channels. 
  3. Remind supporters of matching gift opportunities. 
  4. Conduct targeted stewardship efforts.

If your school or organization has a comprehensive, clean database of supporter data, you’ll be in a great spot to launch your prospect research efforts. Prospect research will help you be much more intentional about your virtual gala planning by giving you a better idea of who to personally invite to the event and how to steward them towards making a large donation. Let’s dive in!

1. Identify prospective major donors

When it comes to your annual gala, your main goal is likely to engage and continue building relationships with your major donors and prospects. You can use the event as an opportunity to learn more about them and provide a fun night of fundraising activities. This generates goodwill with your organization and can keep donors engaged in giving over the long term.

Even when you’re hosting a virtual gala, you still have the opportunity to express appreciation for these donors and prospects, as well as use the event to keep your organization on their radar. You can ask especially influential supporters to be presenters or speakers during the event to enhance the experience for all participants.

Prospect research assists in this process by helping you identify potential donors who exhibit both an affinity for your cause and the capacity to make a larger contribution. Once you identify these individuals, you can personally invite them to participate in your event with a phone call or tailored written message. As this guide to strategic fundraising explains, you can use your organization’s database to identify prospective donors with characteristics like:

  • A strong relationship with your organization or school system. If an individual has recently donated to your organization or maintains intimate involvement through volunteering or other forms of engagement, they’re more likely to continue helping your cause. 
  • Past donations or engagement with similar organizations. This information signifies a prospective donor’s affinity for similar causes and indicates that they might be willing to contribute to your organization as well. 
  • Wealth markers. These include indicators such as real estate holdings or stock ownership that reveal information about an individual’s giving capacity.

If you’re working through this process on your own, you’ll need tools such as your organization’s donor database, as well as resources such as federal records of stock transactions and social networks like LinkedIn. You can leverage these tools to discover more information about prospective major donors who you may want to invite to your upcoming gala.

You’ll be able to use this background information to craft personalized invites to prospective donors, as well as donors who you’re already in the midst of building relationships with. Also, conducting this research before the event helps prepare your development team with talking points for the night of the event, such as connections to donors’ interests and professional specialties. This may be challenging to implement in a virtual gala, but it’s always worth it to learn more about your supporters to better understand them and create stronger connections.

If you’ve never tackled a project like this before, a prospect research specialist can help facilitate this process and provide detailed insights on top prospects. A consultant can provide the experience and knowledge necessary to complete the process thoroughly and efficiently. This added assistance can be critical for improving your fundraising efforts, not just for your upcoming gala, but also for future campaigns and as you build a pipeline of engaged prospects to cultivate over time.

2. Reach out on supporters’ preferred communication channels.

Since you’ll be asking prospective major donors to contribute a heftier donation, you’ll need to devote more time and effort to building a relationship with them and securing their support. Prospect research can connect you with accurate personal information for potential major donors so you can reach out in the right ways.

For instance, you can use prospect research to segment your donors based on their preferred communication channels. Let’s say you have a group of younger donors who mainly prefer digital communications, while an older audience of prospects might prefer phone calls or direct mail.

Using donor segmentation techniques, you can group supporters based on these shared interests and send more tailored messages to each group. This means you’ll send each group the relevant information in a more thoughtful way, increasing their likelihood to engage with it.

Segmentation is especially useful when it comes time to send your auction invitations. You can create customized invitations for different individuals or groups based on the action you’d like them to take.

Let’s say you’ve identified several groups of prospective donors such as:

  • Those you’d like to ask to donate auction items
  • Those who you think would make great event sponsors
  • Those who you’d like to invite to register for the event
  • Those who would prefer to make a straightforward donation
  • Those who might be interested in a big-ticket, VIP experience

Using segmentation, along with your communication platforms, you can personalize your messages to point recipients to the desired actions. For instance, you can include a link to the gala registration page or a QR code leading to your online donation form. This is an effective way to ensure you’re respecting donors’ preferences and their capacity to give, while garnering much-needed support for your gala.

3. Remind supporters of matching gift opportunities.

If you have access to a comprehensive donor database, you’ll be able to determine more than just donors’ personal information and wealth indicators. You can use optional donation form questions, surveys, or in-person inquiries to determine their employment status, and store this information in your supporter database. Use this data to identify prospective donors who are eligible for employer-sponsored matching gifts.

In a matching gift program, companies pledge to match employee donations to eligible nonprofit organizations. As Double the Donation’s corporate matching gift overview explains, these programs “allow your donors to maximize the impact of their donation, but without having to reach back into their wallets to do so.”

Using your donor database, you can identify prospective donors who work for companies that offer matching gift programs. Then, you can craft targeted messages to encourage these supporters to contribute to your fundraising event and get their gifts matched.

Donors often feel more inclined to give if they know their company matches contributions because they know they can maximize their impact. Matching gifts are also a convenient, simple way for supporters to show their support for your upcoming fundraising event — most matching gift requests take just a few minutes to complete.

You can also leverage your donors’ professional connections if you’re looking for corporate sponsorships or auction item donations for your gala. Corporate social responsibility is now a major fixture of the for-profit world, so plenty of companies in your area probably want to get involved in a philanthropic project.

If you have any donors who work for local companies or who are business owners themselves, highlight how sponsoring your upcoming virtual gala could be a great way to boost brand awareness and position their business as a charitable partner.

4. Conduct targeted stewardship efforts.

One common challenge many fundraising organizations face is low donor retention. Whether supporters move away, get removed from your contact list, or start contributing to other organizations instead, plenty of donors will only contribute once and then fall off your radar.

But when you use prospect research to guide your donor acquisition process, you gain access to donors who are more likely to stay involved with your organization. This is because prospect research opens doors to donors with a proven track record of helping causes similar to yours. And, if you’re fundraising on behalf of a school, prospect research can also help you identify local philanthropists who frequently put money back into the community to help it thrive.

However, even if someone has a proven affinity for your cause, that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically stay engaged with your organization over the long term. You must continue to use your data to actively develop and sustain relationships with supporters and demonstrate your appreciation for their contributions long after the gala ends.

The prospect research process often leads to insights that enhance your donor stewardship efforts. Donor stewardship is critical for boosting your retention rate and securing ongoing support for your cause. After all, as stated in this blog post, it’s much more efficient to retain current donors rather than constantly spend the time and money necessary to acquire new ones.

Use the data you’ve collected through your research to:

  • Provide opportunities for supporters to give feedback through surveys or polls. When you request and implement supporter suggestions, it builds goodwill with your organization. Supporters are more likely to stay engaged with your organization if they know that you care about their opinions. 
  • Offer supporters more ways to get involved. In the weeks leading up to your virtual gala and afterward, invite prospects to get involved in other ways besides just donating. For example, send them an invitation to sign up for your newsletter or participate in a volunteer event. This shows that you value your donors for more than just their wallets. 
  • Express appreciation using supporters’ preferred communication channels. Thanks to your diligent prospect research, you’ll be aware of your supporters’ preferred communication platforms. You can use these channels to send frequent thank-you messages, and use your segmentation strategies to personalize the notes.

Continue these outreach strategies even after your virtual gala ends to keep donors engaged in all your activities. With this approach, you’ll help ensure your donors will stick around for longer than just a one-time contribution.

In addition to the tips above, be sure to actively stay in touch with your higher-value donors and prospects; you should continue engaging with them and learning more about their lives and interests. Your initial prospect research efforts can strengthen your stewardship efforts over time, especially as you learn more about your major donors and prospects and use this information to personalize your communications with them. Your gala can be a powerful piece of your overarching donor stewardship strategy.


When done correctly, prospect research can provide a major boost for your virtual gala’s fundraising efforts and introduce your mission to a wider audience of eager supporters. Remember, if you have little to no experience in this area, a prospect research consultant can equip your team with the strategies and insights needed to make the most of your donor data. Happy fundraising!

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