The Association of Prospect Researchers in Advancement met recently, and a hot topic was the May Wall Street Journal article, “Is Your Favorite Charity Spying On You.” The article didn’t portray prospect research in the best light, suggesting it’s a furtive, unseemly practice. The Chronicle of Philanthropy covered APRA’s reaction. The Journal focused on finding new prospects through research, and The Chronicle cites stats on new donors found for a campaign. I’m interested in a different kind of prospect research. The kerfuffle (a word I’ve always liked) gets me thinking: The best prospect research I’ve obtained and seen has come from the prospect themselves. No research site or algorithm can substitute for a shared meal and conversation between a prospect and fundraiser. You don’t have to meet over a meal, but I prefer it for several reasons.
You’re sharing the table and the meal. Sharing is a good place to start when the discussion is around a charitable gift–the sharing of the prospect’s money, contacts and/or time with an organization they love. Office distractions aren’t as plentiful in a restaurant. I always silence my cell, because I really don’t want to disturb our meal, and I’m hoping my dining partner will do the same. (Many do, some don’t.) Our timing is controlled by a neutral party, our server, and is familiar to both of us. We know the waitstaff will come at appointed times and we know when we’ll be left alone for long stretches. Our shared understanding of the meal ritual furthers our conversation. That’s a sufficient dining digression.
Nothing beats talking to a person when you want to get to know them. And get to know things about them. Prospects are people, not research projects (I’m not implying prospect researchers think of them that way), so have conversations with them. I’ve talked about children, spouses and siblings, wealth, asset mixes, CEOs and fellow trustees, worries, loves, illnesses, professions, boats, homes, economic forecasts, fears, vacations, country club fees, other charitable interests and estate plans. After technical expertise, the skills I most desire in a fundraiser are listening and conversing.
After a meal with your prospects, you should be rushing to write your notes, which go into your prospect report, to get channeled to your prospect researcher for analysis and thought. That’s the best prospect research, much better than any data points you can buy.