I have the luxury of working in a well-supported prospect research shop, which means that I typically don’t have to worry about finding free prospect research resources. But a couple years ago, I started doing a lot more freelance consulting and research work on the side on a shoestring budget and I realized I needed to brush up on free prospect research resources. There are a lot out there, but I’ve found that there are just five that I really, really rely on. If I were stuck on a desert island and could access just five resources, these are the sites I’d access:
1. FEC.gov (specifically, the campaign finance disclosure portal advanced search page http://www.fec.gov/finance/disclosure/advindsea.shtml)
The FEC’s advanced search page is a pretty powerful search tool that lets a person search on a number of different criteria so you can query as broadly or as narrowly as you’d like. They’ll even let you drill down in the search results to see the actual original filing. Even when I’m using a paid resource, like a vendor that will aggregate FEC contributions attributed to a particular donor, I will still go directly to the FEC site to verify that the vendor got it right.
One of the things I really like about the FEC filings is that you can often get employment information and home addresses from their filings.
And here’s a tip for searching the filings: use just the donor’s name and their city and state, and when you do, try using the city for their home address AND their work address (assuming you have them).
2. SEC.gov (specifically, the full-text EDGAR filings search page http://searchwww.sec.gov/EDGARFSClient/jsp/EDGAR_MainAccess.jsp)
I do use a vendor for my SEC filing searches in my day job, mostly because their search interface is really, really powerful. However, the SEC’s search interface for their EDGAR database actually isn’t far behind in terms of its robustness. The four-years full-text search can be used in advanced mode, which allows for a lot of flexibility.
3. County assessors’ offices (or more helpfully, pulawski.net, which lists many of the assessors’ office websites from around the United States http://www.pulawski.net/)
Each county assessor’s office is different: some let you search online on a whole bunch of different datapoints; some only let you search on a few; some don’t let you see the property owner’s name; some don’t even let you query their property rolls online. Thankfully, there are enough that provide reasonably good access to make it worth my while to check them out.
There are several benefits to looking up an individual’s property records, two of which I find particularly helpful: (1) you can often confirm that your person owns the property in question (and potentially when they bought it and what they paid for it) and (2) you can often get the name of their spouse. The spouse name goes a long way in confirming info found in other places (appearances in donor lists, for example); the property valuation and ownership info helps shed some light on how wealthy a prospect might be. However, to get a better sense of a property’s value, I avoid relying on the assessor’s market value, and instead prefer my fourth most-valuable resource.
County assessor’s offices are all over the map in terms of how they assign a market value to a property. Some stay pretty close to actual market value (Minnesota is decent) others have specific laws and regulations in place that make it really hard for them to do so (California comes to mind). For this reason, I much prefer to get an estimate of the current property value, and eppraisal is my favorite source for doing so. Not only does eppraisal provide their own property value estimate, but they also show you what value Zillow assigns to the property!
5. The National Center for Charitable Statistics (http://nccsweb.urban.org/PubApps/search.php)
I used to be big on Guidestar and the Foundation Center. They were the only games in town for an easy way of getting to 990 forms.
The National Center for Charitable Statistics has a free, slick search tool that lets you look up information on pretty much any nonprofit organization in the United States. (And you don’t have to register to use it.) Their query tool is very easy to use but flexible enough to do very specific searches, and the results include lots of summary information about nonprofits. The BEST part though is their collection of 990 filings: NCCS provides filings going back seven years (in many cases).
Those are my five! What free prospect research resources do you like?