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Identifying Prospects without Alumni or Patients

Fri, December 01, 2017 12:45 PM | Laura Parshall

While education and healthcare organizations have existing prospect pools in their alumni and patients, respectively, other kinds of organizations, such as museums or cultural organizations, can find it more difficult to find new prospects. In this article, Renana Greenberg Kehoe of the Harvard Art Museums gives some tips for growing your prospect pool.

Identifying Prospects without Alumni or Patients

by Renana Greenberg Kehoe

There was a great piece on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art a few years ago by the artist Tara Donovan. Donovan used thousands of pins to build a large cube that was taller than most kids walking into the gallery. Sometimes searching for prospects without that database of existing connections can feel like searching for that perfect pin in a giant mass (and they all look the same on the surface!). Having worked on prospect research and identification in museums in the past, I have often had conversations with others in our field about where we get our prospects. Museums and other cultural organizations do not have an alumni base or a grateful patients pool, so where can we look for prospects? Below is a list of the top five sources that proved most fruitful and work with varying budgets as well.


Just as alumni or patients are more inclined to give because of a relationship they have with the institutions, cultural organizations also form unique relationships with constituencies and identifying those connections is the first step in determining the best pool to screen. For most museums, the hottest pool to screen is the membership base. By signing up to become members, these individuals are telling you that they are interested in hearing from you, staying engaged, and visiting, and that they have already taken the first step in making a financial commitment (even if it is at a low level at this point). There are several companies who will mass-screen your members, but I would recommend building into the regular process a system in which new or rejoining members are regularly screened and flagged where there is potential for more, even if it is just a quick search through NOZA or a similar database. In one of the museums at which I worked, we did this monthly and were able to convert a large amount of basic level members into supporting level patrons (four-figures and above).

Annual Fund Donors

Similar to members, small annual fund donors who respond to a mass appeal are worth examining. This pool typically does not perform as well as members because there is usually a reason they did not join (for example, distance can play a factor) but there are still some donors who have the potential for much higher giving than what they gave to the annual fund.

Event Attendees and Visitors

More and more cultural organizations now have systems in place that enable them to sync (or at least connect in some way) their donor database with their ticketing database. While most visitors may not be inclined to share more than their email address at the museum, those who purchase tickets online provide their full mailing address in addition to email. With that information in the database, anyone can pull a list of ticket buyers, exclude current donors/ prospects, and screen this new list for capacity (again, this can be done periodically and outsourced or built into a regular screening process).

Email Registrations

Those visitors who provided no information except their email can be included in a screening with others who sign up for an e-newsletter (either in person at events or online). There are some services that can help narrow down your email lists by location. There was also a great NEDRA article a few months ago about how to use email addresses for prospecting/research (see “Exhilarating Email”). One could argue that this list is not likely to yield prospects with as high an inclination as the previous lists (since a financial transaction has not occurred), but identifying those with a high capacity who were interested enough to sign up for e-news may be a helpful first step in building the relationship further and exploring their potential. 

Peer-to-Peer Screening

At one of my former positions, we were very successful in asking board/committee members (of specific programs or events) to identify constituents in their network or social circle who might be interested in engaging with the museum. Research would prepare these lists carefully depending on the person completing the screening, and would include checkboxes for different areas of engagement with the museum and capacity levels. Part of the reason these performed well is because this was more than a screening, it also provided a soft next step for those performing the screening by suggesting they help the museum engage the people they have identified. These peer screenings do not necessarily have to be done on the board/committee level: they can also be done with other highly-rated prospects or volunteers who are willing to help the museum. Even if they only identify potential prospects without offering to help, these are now new prospects who were not in the pool previously.  

One final suggestion is to always keep an eye open for trends as indicators of potential new sources of prospects. For example, at one of my former positions, we knew art collectors were highly attracted to the museum, so we regularly screened top collector lists and identified potential connections to the museum. 

While museums and other cultural organizations may not have large databases of alumni or patients, they have other relationships that indicate varying degrees of inclination and should be mined for prospects. It does not always have to feel like searching for a needle in a haystack (or a pin in a giant pin cube like Donovan’s work) once you identify the various ways in which individuals connect with your organization.


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