Best Prospect Research Comes From The Prospect

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.

18 thoughts on “Best Prospect Research Comes From The Prospect

  1. I would just like to add that while researchers and fundraisers talk about prospective donors, they will also discuss ways to try to get in front of the prospective donor and what approach is likely to be more successful. Research does not provide an excuse to hide behind a desk. A good researcher will encourage the fundraiser to go out and have more meetings. I sometimes have to remind some of the fundraisers I’ve worked with in the past that they should pick up the phone or go and meet a prospective donor and have a plan rather than send a speculative letter asking for money or randomly invite them to things. It does happen.

    There are many personal accounts from philanthropists who say they would give more if they were asked and often they’re not asked because they’re hidden on a database somewhere and no-one had the time or knowledge to go and find them. Wealth screening is one way that helps you do this. Working as a team and sharing information helps you to identify those individuals who might like to be asked to support your cause and what likely motivation they might have for doing so.

    It is good business to maximise income and minimise cost (in terms of time and money). Many companies do it in a much more aggressive way than fundraising researchers. I always have the prospective donors interests in mind as well as those of my organisation. If the information is not useful or relevant or publicly available, then I don’t use it. I am not a spy and what I do is not creepy. I’m personally more creeped out when I log on to a website and it tells me what other things I might like to buy based on what I’ve previously bought or what other people have bought, or what websites I’ve recently visited. Fundraisers and researchers are not looking to sell things, we’re looking to develop strong relationships with people who have an interest in the organisation we work for that are mutually beneficial and long-lasting.

    You’d never attend an interview without reading up on the company or the person first. You want to get the most out of the meeting and you want to know what sort of questions to ask beforehand – you want to be prepared. A research profile is much the same and many donors would expect you to have done your homework and be flattered that you’ve taken an interest in their business they’ve spent their lives building, etc. Those that don’t are missing the point or are misinformed and we must tackle these prejudices head-on and stop apologising for wanting to be more effective. Researchers should also not be tucked away in a back office somewhere like a dirty little secret, but be open and honest and proud of the work we do by going along to events or meetings with prospective donors ourselves.

    Surely a prospective donor would be reassured to know that you are using your often limited resources effectively in order to increase your income and therefore your organisation’s ability to provide the help it was set up to do? Wouldn’t that make them feel as if their donation to your cause would not be wasted?

  2. The term “prospect research” can refer to various things, and does. The usage of the word in the title and in this post refers to only one aspect of prospect research, finding facts and interests. Tony, I’m glad that you state this outright in paragraph two, but your continued reference to your fact-finding activity while meeting face-to-face as “prospect research” is misleading, and frankly, harmful.

    No one will dispute that nothing can top the value of a discovery visit with a prospect…when it comes to learning about that one particular prospect. You will most likely learn more in a few moments with a prospect than the best researcher can ever find back at the office. But to compare the two activities, would be to misunderstand much of prospect research.

    Tony, even after making the necessary distinction, you conclude your post with, “that’s the best prospect research, much better than any data points you can buy.” But the reasons for purchasing data points are often different than the reasons for conducting a discovery visit! And the two activities tend to co-exist as a part of any successful fundraising program. How can one be better, if the two are different, and necessary, aspects of the same activity? You seem to say that you realize what the differences are between identification, qualification and fact collection, but with statements like this, I must question that.

    I could just as easily do a reversal and compare the cost and expense of actually meeting thousands of people one-on-one to an exercise that I conduct every fall that only takes me a few hours, and that very quickly reveals whom all the best new parent prospects will be, at my college. If I chose to then only focus on this one exercise, I could then conclude that “the best prospect research does not come from the prospects themselves.” This is in essence what you have done.

    We shouldn’t focus on one function of prospect research and then make statements about that one function as if it were the whole, comparing it to something else, which is different. Something else, mind you, which also is a necessary and indispensable part of the process. To do so, belittles the profession, and misinforms.

  3. Others have responded effectively to add some balance to this point of view, so all I will add is this: It is helpful for fundraisers to think of themselves as researchers (because they are), and for researchers to think of themselves as fundraisers (because they are). I was a prospect researcher for five years, and now I’m a data miner — so in a way, I’m even farther removed from the front lines. But I am definitely a fundraiser. I’ve written a bit on this topic, but essentially the point is that data miners and researchers are the exploratory geologists who lead the diggers to the richest ore — and as you point out, the diggers are explorers too. We don’t need to fully understand how the other goes about their job, but we do need to have respect for each other.

  4. Thank you for commenting, Bernie,

    You and Jay Frost have the same thoughts. Ready in advance with some information, a good meeting can be made great. You’re right about trustee candidates.


  5. Jay,

    You’re always such a thoughtful commenter, thank you.

    You point out the value of having research to improve meeting outcomes. I don’t want to go in cold–though I have–if I don’t have to.

    Thanks again,

  6. Thanks for commenting, Sam,

    I see the Prospect Researcher as critical to the analysis and sharing of information throughout the nonprofit.


  7. Tony,

    Many Prospect Researchers spend time on honing communication skills. The prospect research that you advocate is most useful when it is shared in a consistent, thoughtful, and appropriate manner with the rest of the organization.

    When shared in this way, it enhances the Prospect Researcher’s ability to identify new prospects, it prevents the relationship from being set back to zero if a Development Officer moves to a different organization or position, and it ensures that each Donor can be given opportunities to partner in those causes about which they care the most.

    Scientists, historians, fundraisers all live by the same law – research means nothing until it is documented!


  8. The basic lessons are often forgotten. Not getting out to meet people is more common than you might think.

    Thanks a lot for your comment, Haley,

  9. I would think it is basic Fundraising 101 to know that you HAVE to get out and meet your donors. Any organization whose fundraisers use Prospect Research as an excuse not to get out and talk with donors has serious problems.

  10. Tony, while I agree that the type of information gathered in a meeting with a constituent is invaluable and that many of the insights a person can collect one on one are not possible through secondary sources, I do think that is an entirely separate activity from prospect research, a development function with its own virtues. Here are just a few quick examples of how prospect research can help to make the type of appointments you described even more valuable. First, prospect research can be used to qualify your appointments. Fundraisers have limited time to meet with people and a good prospect research program can work wonders to ensure that you have a pool of qualified prospects for your visits. Second, prospect research can provide a useful platform to help to launch for your conversation, such as giving you biographical background, names of family members also associated with the institution or places where the individual have given previously. This kind of preliminary information in the hands of a skilled fundraiser can make a good conversation great. Third, prospect research can help time your conversation by giving you essential information on an individual’s recent decisions or life events. A good fundraiser armed with this type of insight can determine when its right to broach certain subjects or ask for support. These are just a few of the ways skilled prospect researchers can use public information to arm fundraisers for better appointments in order to build stronger relationships and make more successful solicitations. Now, if only the Wall Street Journal understood the importance of knowing donors as well as you and I!

  11. Very nicely said! It is true that sometimes a fundraiser here or there exercises a bit of procrastination when demanding information on a qualified prospect before picking up the phone. For smaller organizations I even advocate picking up the phone first from a list generated by screening data and calling me after they know the prospect is interested in their organization.
    P.S. I found the link to your article through the PRSPCT-L listserv.

  12. Prospect Reserach is necessary for preparing for meetings with donors so one is intelligent about who you are meeting with. Follow-up research, I agree, is equally important. I think even the donor appreciates if you are intelligent about what business they are in and what boards they sit on and how they prioritize their major gifts. Also, research can steer you away from asking too little from a donor who can give a large contribution. Also, without research, it is hard to find a good fit for Trusteeships.

  13. I absolutely agree, David, thanks for your comment.

    I’m focusing on the best research AFTER prospect identification. I hope to motivate (remind?) fundraisers to get out and meet people. Meeting the right people is essential, as you point out.


  14. I agree with you Tony but only to a point.

    First, researchers say exactly what you’re saying – the best information is not contained in data points or public information but with the prospect. What you describe is the essence and most important part of development work – calling on real people. Without that, you might as well pack up and go home!

    However, I think of your post as a description of how to fire a gun. Select the right caliber, safety rules, now get your stance right and fire! The only problem is you haven’t aimed and you have no sights on your gun.

    Research is exactly that – focusing your time where it will have the biggest impact, generating new leads so that you can be busy doing development work and not trying to cold call random lists of people. If you don’t call random lists of people then you, as a development officer, are ALREADY doing research!

    The fact is that research is NOT essential to development (nor is a full-time staff, a FAX line, or a website) but, like the aforementioned things, it is an extremely useful too to focus and speed up the development process (more money faster!).

  15. Excellent.

    Prospect research activities have always caused me some concern. They seem to only create a semi-valid excuse to sit behind a desk and talk ABOUT your donors – rather than talking and listening TO them.

    Pick up the phone, schedule a time to get together, and enjoy yourself.

    Great post, Tony!

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