Sector Insight

01. Introduction

This chapter analyses the responses to RiF’s 2020 prospect researcher survey and compares these to the results of our previous survey in 2014.

Almost 90 respondents took part in the 2020 survey; the location of respondents ranges across Africa (country not specified), Australia, Bangladesh, Israel, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and the USA.

Survey questions were designed to provide the reader with:

  • A broad view of the skills required to carry out prospect research.
  • The training used to build these skills.
  • An overview of the organisations, causes and sectors employing respondents, and the scale of their operations.

A picture emerges of the prospect researcher as typically working in larger non-profit organisations (mostly with revenues of £1m or more), supporting major gifts, corporate partnerships, or trusts and foundations teams, and typically using specialist web-based resources to discover intelligence around a prospect’s interests, networks, and capacity to give.

There are more nuanced aspects to the responses: two-thirds of respondents perform non-research tasks as part of their role (often stewardship, database management or insight), and while prospect identification was the top priority in both the 2014 and 2020 surveys, the rise of portfolio management was evident across the period, perhaps a result of greater pressure to find efficiencies and drive income.

Potential areas for greater exploration are also suggested. Strikingly:

  • 50% of respondents chose not to answer key questions on return on investment (ROI), and the textual answers indicated a broad lack of clarity on how best to demonstrate ROI and impact of research.
  • A 27% rise in on-the-job training raises questions as to whether necessary investment and opportunity are available for researchers to hone and update their skills.
  • A relatively low 11% of respondents say they are looking to stay in their current role, while 35% say they are thinking of exploring other areas of fundraising for future career moves.

This makes it plain that there is more to do to strengthen opportunities for career progression within prospect research, and to expand existing avenues for career growth.

02. About the Individual

This section focusses on responses to survey questions under the headings of ‘About You’ and ‘About Your Experience.’

First, the survey delves into demographics of prospect researchers; where they are based, their age, gender, and details of their roles.

Most respondents are based in the UK, in London and the South-East, and this is consistent throughout both surveys.

  • There is an increase in international respondents in 2020, with 30% based outside the UK compared to 5% in 2014.
  • 25% of respondents are US-based.

This is possibly an indicator of the increase in international philanthropy and organisations looking outside of their home country for supporters or could simply reflect the growing reach of RiF.

Regarding respondent demographics:

  • The gender split in 2020 was 71:27 female to male, compared to 67% female in 2014, so there is no meaningful change here;
  • 2% of respondents prefer not to say.
  • There is a consistently wide age range for researchers, from 25-64.

Regarding education and job role:

  • Both surveys show most researchers have an undergraduate or postgraduate degree.
  • There is an increase in salary splits from 2014 to 2020 (see graph 1), which suggests there has been an increase in senior prospect research roles, although this could also reflect an increase in the seniority of survey respondents.
Graph showing comparison of salary changes from 2014 to 2020

The variety of previous roles held by prospect researchers is vast, as you can see by the word cloud below. There is no single lead-in career path that stands out, although a lot of respondents had experience in development and business functions of some kind. This WordCloud shows many of the different roles:

Wordcloud showing roles previously held by prospect researchers

In response to how they got into prospect research, the answers again vary widely:

  • 32% of respondents say they started in prospect research either by accident, or because it appropriately uses their skills.
  • 15% came from another fundraising role.
  • 10% were promoted into the role or tasked to set up a new prospect research function.

There is an increase in reported years of experience in prospect research which suggests people are remaining in the field longer, and perhaps that those who responded to the initial 2014 survey also completed the 2020 survey and are now in more senior positions (see Graph 2). Note there is a potential reporting bias here in the early years, as the 2014 asked for experience in years and so did not have a 0-1 year category.

Comparison of researcher years of experience between 2014 and 2020

Finally, the surveys look at number of positions held in prospect research and the nature of the respondents’ current roles, including criteria such as whether they are part time, full time, or permanent. There is an increase in the number of respondents with four or more positions in the field which again suggests people are entering and then staying in the field.

Comparison of 2014 and 2020 results showing number of prospect research positions held

There is no notable change in respondents’ current roles with:

  • 73% reporting full-time permanent roles in 2020 in comparison to 77% in 2014.
  • In both years, 8% report being in a full-time temporary or contract role.
  • In 2020 11% were in a part-time permanent or part-time temporary or contract role compared to 10% in 2014.
  • 5% of respondents in each year report being either self-employed or pro bono workers.
  • There is an additional category in 2020 where 2% report temporary reduced hours due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

03. About the Organisation

This section explores the responses given to questions that deal with the nature of the organisations where respondents are employed. This covers things like:

  • The main activities of a respondent’s organisation.
  • Relationships with frontline fundraisers.
  • The division of responsibilities between fundraisers and prospect researchers.

To begin with, respondents were asked to describe the principal activities of their organisation.

In 2020, respondents’ represented organisations as follows:

Pie chart showing principal activities of organisations in 2020

Looking at responses to the same question in 2014, education and higher education organisations employed 40% of all respondents to the survey. In 2020, this proportion shrunk considerably, with respondents from these organisations representing fewer than 30.7% of responses.

Pie chart showing principal activities of organisations in 2014

This might point to an increase in the number of prospect researchers employed across other cause areas, with prospect research team sizes increasing in previously underrepresented cause areas.

  • For instance, while we received 46% more responses to the 2020 survey than the 2014 survey, the number of respondents representing environmental organisations and the number of respondents representing arts, culture, and heritage organisations increased by 200% each.

Respondents were asked about the annual turnover (income) of their organisation.

In 2020, respondents replied as follows:

Graph showing the annual turnover of the organisations prospect researchers work for

Almost 40% of all respondents are employed by organisations with significant turnover (more than £100m), perhaps supporting the belief that prospect researchers are viewed as a nice to have / added value role. Likewise, smaller organisations may not be able to afford a prospect researcher or may absorb the responsibility for prospect research into other roles.

  • Almost 9 in 10 respondents are employed by organisations with an annual turnover of at least £1 million.

Unfortunately we didn’t ask this question in 2014 so we don’t have any data to compare, however it may serve to provide an interesting benchmark in the future.

Respondents were asked about the number of frontline fundraisers they support in their role.

Graph showing the number of fundraisers prospect researchers support

Respondents most commonly report supporting:

  • Between 5 and 10 frontline fundraisers (26.14%).
  • Closely followed by 22.73% of respondents who report supporting more than 20 fundraisers.
  • On the other end of the scale, 21.59% of respondents report supporting between 1 and 5 frontline fundraisers.

Respondents were asked to report on which areas of fundraising they undertake prospect research for.

In 2014, respondents undertook prospect research for fundraising across the following areas:

  • Major Giving: 88.33%
  • Charitable Trusts: 86.67%
  • Corporate Fundraising: 73.33%
  • Individual Giving: 51.67%
  • Legacies: 40%
  • Community Fundraising: 15%

(Note: Principal Giving and Statutory Fundraising were not provided as answer options in the 2014 survey.)

In 2020, respondents undertook prospect research for fundraising across the following areas:

  • Major Giving/Philanthropy & Partnerships: 92.05%
  • Charitable Trusts: 80.68%
  • Corporate Fundraising: 77.27%
  • Principal Giving: 63.64%
  • Individual Giving: 54.55%
  • Legacies: 45.45%
  • Community Fundraising: 26.14%
  • Statutory Fundraising: 18.18%
Comparison of the 2014 and 2020 data showing the areas of fundraising researchers undertake prospect research for.

In 2014 and 2020, respondents reported that they were supporting fundraising across broadly the same areas. The greatest change appeared with community fundraising:

  • 26.14% of respondents are now carrying out prospect research compared to only 15% of respondents in 2014.

Respondents were asked to rate their relationships with the fundraising teams they support.

The question used a scale from 1 to 10. Note that grades were not defined in detailed terms, so each respondent made a subjective decision on meaning.2020 saw many more respondents scoring their relationships with the fundraising team more positively than in 2014:

  • In 2014, just over half (58.33%) the respondents rated their relationship to the fundraising team as an 8, 9 or 10.
  • 76.14% of respondents in 2020 rate their relationship with the fundraising team in the 8, 9, or 10 range.
  • In 2020, the most common response to this question is at the very top of the scale on 10
  • Only 8.33% of respondents responded this way in 2014.

Respondents were asked to set out the ROI or conversion rate at their organisation of prospects to donors.

52.7% of respondents answered, “It’s complicated,” and provided a range of responses when prompted to provide further details. Several respondents replied to say that their team is currently working on establishing conversion rates. The following are a selection of the other responses received:

“Different rates across different teams – no fair way to calculate an average.”

“The conversion for ask to donor is c.3 to 1, a conversion from identify to donor is harder to calculate as there are disagreements between who should and shouldn’t be included in this as historically prospects had been assigned even when there wasn’t any route to the prospect.”

“We currently have a regular churn of prospects allocated and dropped, often from unsolicited donations and extended networks of our internal SMT. The ROI from these activities is low in terms of conversion rates, but potentially quite high with regards to donation amount. This runs alongside a targeted, strategic approach, which has a greater ROI both in conversion rates and donation amount, but limited data as of yet.”

“The only metric we deal with is hitting the budget or not!”

Respondents were asked to describe the other functions and activities they carried out in addition to prospect research.

Respondents report carrying out a range of functions and activities in addition to prospect research. The most common include:

  • Database management: 45.45%
  • Project planning or proposal writing: 19.31%
  • Stewardship: 14.77%
  • Prospect management: 11.36%
  • Frontline fundraising: 9.09%
Graph showing the activities undertaken in addition to prospect research duties.

Respondents were also asked about whether fundraisers at their organisation carry out any of their own prospect research.

In 2014, 56.67% of respondents reported that fundraisers carried out their own prospect research. However, by 2020, the percentage of respondents reporting that fundraisers at their organisation carry out their own prospect research fell to 35.2%.

This decrease could suggest an increased propensity for organisations to demarcate the roles and responsibilities of fundraisers from dedicated prospect researchers. It could also reflect an increasing appreciation across sectors of the specialist skillset of prospect researchers.

04. About Roles and Responsibilities

This section explores the responses given to questions in the survey that deal with the nature of the prospect research role. This covers things like the scope and remit of prospect research in the respondents’ organisations, where responsibility sits for different activities, and how prospect research works with other teams.

Respondents were asked which functions and activities were part of their role in addition to prospect research.

  • 35% of respondents report that they “only do prospect research”.
  • For those respondents who had other functions or activities as part of their role, database management was the most popular of these. 29% of respondents did this in addition to prospect research.
  • 13% of respondents also had stewardship as part of their role.

Respondents were asked whether they were responsible for due diligence in their organisation.

  • 70% say that they are responsible for due diligence. This was up from 63% in the 2014 survey.
Graph showing the difference between number of prospect researchers with due diligence responsibilities in 2014 and 2020.

Respondents were asked if they conducted international prospect research.

  • 72% of respondents said they conduct international prospect research, down from 75% in 2014.
  • The most popular areas for international prospect research are North America and Southeast Asia.

Respondents were asked who was responsible for portfolio management (defined as assigning and reassigning prospects and reviewing progress) in their organisation.

  • 67% of respondents say the prospect research team is responsible for portfolio management; this question was not asked in the 2014 survey.
  • Many responses to this question state that portfolio management is a shared responsibility between different teams within their fundraising function.

Respondents were asked if they had commissioned any research from an external agency or a freelancer (note that we did not provide a time scale for when these commissions could have taken place).

26% of respondents have commissioned research from an external agency or a freelancer. Below are some of the reasons given for commissioning this research:

“As additional capacity to ensure targeted projects were completed through outsourcing, whilst the team could concentrate on objectives and targets. I find it beneficial to being in different perspectives and skills. In an ideal world I would like freelancers to have the option to spend time physically in the team to enable this, but appreciate not all freelancers can do this.”

“Complexity of research challenge and need for specialist knowledge”

“We were struggling with recruitment and needed to clear some projects”

“Primarily at the behest of our team’s Director of Development”

Respondents were asked what their research budget was for resources and/or projects such as wealth screening.

For those that answered this question, the following budget bands are reported. 12 survey respondents did not answer this question (13.5% of all respondents).

Budget Band20202020 %20142014 %
£20,000 +1115%1220%
£10,000 – 20,0001014%813%
£5,000 – 10,0001622%1322%
No Budget1011%NA 
Don’t Know / Other89%813%

Respondents were asked if their role gives them access to senior management.

81% of respondents report that their role does give them access to senior management. In 2014 this was 80%.

Respondents were asked what specific key performance indicators (KPIs) were assigned to their prospect research team, if any.

  • 50% of survey respondents did not answer this question. It is not clear whether this should be taken as a proxy for not knowing the answer, or if there are other reasons that respondents chose not to answer.
  • Of the half that did give an answer, 68% said that they did have KPIs. The most common KPIs referenced are around identifying and qualifying new prospects.
  • This question was not asked in the 2014 survey so we cannot compare results.

Respondents were asked about whether they were currently working on a fundraising campaign. As a follow up, they were asked about their campaign financial target.

  • Exactly 50%of respondents said that they are working on a fundraising campaign.
  • There is a huge variation in responses to the question about campaign targets. The highest is £4.3 billion and the lowest is £4 million.
  • In the 2014 survey, 40% of respondents were working on a fundraising campaign. Targets ranged from £4.3 billion to £100,000.

Respondents were asked what their current top priorities were. They were given seven different options to select and rate each from 1 (low priority) to 4 (top priority)

The percentage of respondents who rated the available options as a top priority are shown in the table below.

Graph showing top priorities for prospect researchers in 2020

The below table shows which options were selected as top priority in the 2014 survey.

Graph showing top priorities for prospect researchers in 2014

A follow up question asked respondents to list other priorities that had not been mentioned in the previous question. A selection of the responses provided are listed below.

“Policy development (due diligence), procedure documentation (for data quality and consistency), team and talent development”

“I have also been writing a couple of applications to corporate foundations, partly because grant-writing is in my development plan and also partly to support the Corporate Partnerships team who are down on resource due to furlough”

“Process design, resource management, metrics”

“COVID-19 specific research on individuals/companies/funding opportunities”

“Institutional funding opportunities, cross team/department project work”

Section summary

  • Responses to this section of the survey demonstrate the breadth of work covered within the role of the prospect researcher. Many respondents work across a range of fundraising teams, for example major giving, corporate, and trust and foundation teams, and a sizable number of respondents have other responsibilities alongside prospect research.
  • Many respondents are also responsible for overseeing areas of work such as due diligence and prospect management, alongside historic areas of focus such as prospect identification and briefings.
  • Identification of prospects does, however, remain by far the highest priority for prospect researchers – although prospect and portfolio management has become a significantly higher priority over the years, becoming a top priority for 44% of respondents in 2020, up from 28% in 2014.
  • Where freelance researchers or external agencies are commissioned, these are primarily for specific projects where specialist knowledge is required, or to fill a short-term resourcing gap. It is also noted that such commissioning is often influenced or driven by the senior leadership of the organisation or team, rather than by prospect researchers themselves.
  • Most respondents reported good relationships with fundraising colleagues, and most felt they have a high level of access to senior management.
  • Levels of budget allocated to prospect research have not changed notably since 2014, which may be surprising given the growth in the scope and scale of activity reported elsewhere.

05. About the Tools, Resources, and Systems Used

This section reviews trends and makes comparisons between findings from survey respondents in 2014 and 2020, around the use of paid-for and free subscriptions and resources, and CRM systems.


In terms of CRM systems used, the main change from 2014 to 2020 is the relative advance of Salesforce, which consolidates its place as the 2nd most-used solution following Blackbaud’s Raiser’s Edge (RE). This is counteracted to some extent by an increased use of Blackbaud’s CRM product.

  • The predominance of Raiser’s Edge is clear, with more respondents citing RE as their main CRM solution than all other alternatives combined.

Another notable trend is an increase in use of in-house and bespoke solutions over widely-available ones.

  • Almost as many (11 respondents) say they use an in-house solution (including Siebel, Cancer Research UK’s bespoke Oracle database) as use the 2nd-placed market CRM, Salesforce (12 respondents).

This may, however, be a function of an uptick in numbers of respondents from one of the sector’s largest prospect research teams.

The remaining results are characterised by a long tail of other CRM solutions being used by a small number of organisations. Among these, new entrants such as Donorfy are notable, as is the resilience of older tools, including Microsoft Excel.

Graph comparing the popularity of different CRM solutions in 2014 and 2020

Interestingly, 53% of respondents to the question “Is your organisation planning to change or update your CRM system in the next 3-5 years?” indicate their organisations do not intend a change or update in the next 3-5 years, with just 33% saying they do expect an update to take place, with the remainder unsure. This seems to indicate that prospects for growth among the challenger providers, chiefly Salesforce, may be limited.

Favourite Resources

A broad shift seems to have taken place since 2014 among paid for resources:

  • Platforms such as Candid and iWave have grown their market share.
  • Some users appear to have moved from using paid for tools to free platforms such as Google. Duedil, Lexis Nexis, Mint, CapitalIQ and DASH all featured in 2014 but are not mentioned by any respondents in 2020 (this is partly due to unavailability as Mint and WealthEngine have been discontinued).
  • The UK Companies House web service consolidated its lead as the most favoured resource, with iWave coming in second.

A notable addition in 2020 is use of the public library. There were also numerous anecdotal mentions of using public library resources at RiF’s 2019 conference which suggest it is more likely an oversight in the 2014 survey results than researchers only accessing public library resources for the first time in 2020.

Graph showing prospect researchers favourite tools and resources comparing 2014 and 2020 responses

A wide range of other resources received either one or two nominations in both survey years, and respondent comments elucidate the need among modern researchers for reasonably-priced, comprehensive, and usable products which have as broad a geographic scope as possible.

Not all resources cited as being helpful are digital or web-based. One respondent said that “talking to donors” was a fruitful means of gleaning relevant information, while another recommended “local newsletters” as a good potential source.

06. About Training and CPD

This section explores the responses given in 2014 and in 2020 to the same, or similar, questions around training and continuous professional development (CPD) for prospect researchers. It also explores career goals and aspirations.

Types of training undertaken

Participants were asked to identify the different ways they access training and CPD.

Comparison of training undertaken by prospect researchers in 2014 and in 2020

Training trends

  • Increase of a sizable 27% from 2014 to 2020 in the number of people whose training is largely undertaken on the job.
  • Fewer people are accessing free introductory courses in 2020 compared to 2014, but introductory courses in themselves have remained popular.
  • Conferences are one of the most popular means of CPD in both years.
  • Almost a third of those who responded attended the Chartered Institute of Fundraising Convention in 2020, a question not asked in 2014.
  • In both 2014 and 2020 seminars and webinars are identified by over half the participants as being part of their training and CPD: an indication of the high value of this type of learning to the sector.
  • 20% of all 2020 respondents have undertaken specific Due Diligence training. This question was not asked in 2014 but as it was felt to be important to ask this question in 2020 this could indicate a shift in focus for some prospect research roles towards more due diligence work.

Types of training – other

Respondents were asked to identify any other means of training and CPD that they engage in for their prospect research roles. The following responses were received:

  • Informal forums
  • Reading books, websites, blogs
  • Prospecting For Gold seminars
  • Training from colleagues in-house
  • Ad hoc external training – not a course
  • Excel training
  • Presenting with Impact training
  • Management development training
  • Local APRA chapter training
  • Journalism training
  • First Thursday forum
  • APRA Canada training
  • APRA Australia conference
  • Local PR networking meetings
  • Private 1-2-1 training
  • Philanthropy seminars

Membership of professional bodies and support organisations

Respondents were asked to identify which of the following organisations they are members of and have compared the results from 2014 with those from 2020.

 Percentage of Respondents who were members in 2014Percentage of Respondents who were members in 2020
Chartered Institute of Fundraising – individual member30%23%
Chartered Institute of Fundraising – organisational member33%16%

We also asked which other organisations researchers are members of and all the following are mentioned by one or more respondent in either 2014 or 2020. The list below incorporates organisations specific to prospect research and those more generally associated with fundraising and research:

Career goals and aspirations

In our 2020 survey, prospect researchers were asked about their career progression plans and here are some of the responses given:

  • Head of income generation / fundraising role
  • Qualitative research specialism or analytics role
  • “Find a permanent rather than temporary role”
  • Remain freelance
  • “There’s nowhere for me to go in my existing organisation”
  • A full-time leadership role
  • “Higher level fundraising operations position”
  • Prospect Development Lead
  • “Hands-on fundraising”
  • Research Manager
  • “A more strategic fundraising role”
  • Head of Insight
  • Donor relations / stewardship role
  • “A role where I can create and build a new research function”
  • “A senior management role”
  • Head of Prospect Research
  • Civil Service
  • Senior development role
  • “Something completely different”
  • Private sector research role
  • Fundraising Director
  • “More data analysis”
  • Retirement
  • “A more frontline role in mental health sector”
  • Trusts and Foundations role

These show prospect researchers are considering a variety of sideways and upwards progression routes both within and outside fundraising.

From the responses given in 2020, there is evidence of some job uncertainty and a sense of there being fewer options for researchers, with the COVID-19 pandemic cited as the most common cause of this. Several respondents report looking to move away from the fundraising sector entirely due to lack of opportunity and job security. However, plenty of respondents also report feeling happy with their current role and state their intention to remain in that role. Most respondents have career aspirations within fundraising without only 10% identifying a firm intention to look outside prospect research compared to 57% stating their intention to remain in prospect research or another fundraising role. The table below shows these trends in more detail.

Common responsesNumber of people who have this responsePercentage of people who gave this response
Express uncertainty / lack of job security89%
Pandemic references33%
Happy in current role1011%
Identify a career aspiration within a different area of fundraising3135%
Aspire to a more senior / leadership / managerial role in prospect research2023%
Identify a career aspiration outside prospect research910%
Identify need to upskill before moving roles78%

07. Summary

The 2020 survey results in themselves, and the comparison with the 2014 data, provide thought-provoking insight into prospect research that helps broaden understanding of both the individuals undertaking the role and the types of organisations they are working on behalf of. An interesting frame of reference is also created for anyone wishing to make a high-level comparison of their own research role, practices, and tools with others.

Based on the results, both challenges and opportunities are evident for the sector in the short and longer term. It is clear there is a robust and consistent demand from a range of organisations for the skillset provided by prospect research and portfolio management professionals. The strong positive relationship between prospect researchers and frontline fundraisers suggests that fundraising research is valued and respected. As data types and sources continue to proliferate, the results are suggestive of a growing need for the information management and insight capabilities provided by prospect researchers for the foreseeable future.

However, it a cause for concern that many respondents said they did not intend to remain within prospect research; responses that are likely to be indicative of a need for more training and skills development offering, and for a clearer and more direct career path for prospect researchers to progress. One clear requirement for those seeking to progress is the ability to demonstrate impact within their organisations, and the fact that so many respondents said they did not, or did not know how to, demonstrate return on investment (ROI) points to an urgent need to develop better ways to do this. The skew towards respondents working in larger organisations contains an implicit imperative for smaller organisations or sole fundraisers to receive more attention in training and upskilling in prospect research.

Perhaps what our survey lacks is insight into those who do not see themselves in the typical job titles and profile of a prospect researcher, which may include those carrying out prospect or fundraising research as part of a broader role in smaller organisations, or in a voluntary capacity. RiF’s ambition for future surveys is to bring together an even wider range of prospect and fundraising researchers, and thus provide more comprehensive insight into the work carried out as part of this important fundraising function.

To conclude this chapter, we must thank all those who contributed to the data we were able to collect, as without their time and input we wouldn’t be able to provide such a wide-reaching set of insights.

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