Tracking Unicorns: In Search of the High Level Donor


Recently, I came across a fascinating article about a New York secretary named Sylvia Bloom who, unbeknownst to even those in her inner circle, had built up a large fortune over the course of her lifetime. Known as a frugal woman who rode the subway to work every day until the age of 96, it wasn’t until her passing, and a total bequest of $8.2 million to charity, that her secret was revealed.

One of the lucky organizations was the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which received a gift of $6.24 million to endow a scholarship program for low-income students. Every nonprofit organization should be so fortunate. However, for most, such luck requires careful planning. How can your organization find the Sylvia Blooms (aka unicorns) of the world? We’ve compiled some resources to help with your search.

Understanding the Individual Giving Landscape

Before researching high-net-worth donors such as Sylvia Bloom, it’s a good idea to take a step back and get a big picture view of the individual giving landscape.

If your organization is located in the United States, The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s report How America Gives is a good place to start. This report examines giving trends across the U.S. through analysis of Internal Revenue Service data, providing charitable donation figures from every state, metropolitan area, and county.

One survey specifically dedicated to high-net-worth individuals is 2017 U.S. Trust Insights on Wealth and Worth. Highlights from the resulting report reveal significant differences across the generations in terms of motivations for giving and the ways in which these individuals give back to society.

Two additional resources focus on generational giving. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s report Passing the Torch: Next-Generation Philanthropists attempts to unlock the motivations of millennial philanthropists, a generation which is set to inherit $30 trillion in wealth over the next four decades in the U.S. alone. In addition, the book Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors Are Revolutionizing Giving offers a portrait of Millennial and Gen X donors and their new approach to philanthropy.

If you are looking to understand differences in individual giving across gender lines, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute and Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy have authored a report entitled Giving by and for Women: Understanding high-net-worth donors’ support for women and girls. This study, based on interviews with 23 women who had contributed or pledged a minimum of one million dollars to female-related causes, sheds some light on women’s philanthropy. For those who want a brief overview, they have also put together an informative infographic of the typical high-net-worth female philanthropist.

Researching High-Net-Worth Donors

Now that you have a big picture view of individual giving, how do you go about finding those elusive high-net-worth donors?

First, we recommend that you check out The Giving Pledge, which is a public commitment by some of the world's most affluent people to give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. The website includes a letter from each donor describing their personal motivations for giving. Another useful source of information is The 2018 Philanthropy 50 report, a list of the top 50 donors in the U.S., who in 2017 donated a total of $14.7 billion dollars to charitable causes. A sneak peek at the top ten givers on this year’s list is available here, and information on the biggest living donors in each state (compiled from previous reports) is available here.

In addition, the Million Dollar List (MDL), which provides information on publicly announced gifts of $1 million or more, includes a list of the biggest donors by total dollars. (Warren Buffet makes the top of the list with total donations of $49.61 billion.) Interestingly, this website notes, “Individual donors contribute only 11 percent of the gifts on the MDL, but these constitute nearly 40 percent of the total dollars.”

If you are looking for a more interactive way to research prospective donors, DonorSearch is a research software suite that enables users to identify major gift prospects. The company also hosts a blog with useful information on fundraising and outreach.

For those looking to research potential donors by interest area, the Marquis Who’s Who offers a subscription database, Marquis Biographies Online, which provides biographies on leaders across the globe working in a range of areas, from science, to the arts, to business, and more. Another valuable resource is the Federal Election Commission’s Individual Contributor Search, which is a political giving database. You can search donations by the contributor’s name, state, donation amount, and more to see what political causes interest them. offers a similar database, which also enables searches by the recipient's name.

We hope that these ideas will help get you started on your research. In an upcoming blog post, we will explore the topic of how to build relationships with potential donors.

Action steps you can take today
  • Click on the links above to explore the resources mentioned in the article.
  • Visit the Pathfinder website to discover additional tools and reports that will help you reach your fundraising goals.