How do I talk about Prospect Research without creeping people out?

“What do you do?”

“Oh, I’m a prospect researcher.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, I help our fundraisers by finding new donors for the college and gathering information about our most important alumni.”

“Hmm. Where do you find this information?”

“Mostly the internet. And some specialized databases.”

“The internet? And secret databases? So, you’re like some sort of cyber-stalker?”

“Um… Well… Not really, but…”

And this is how a number of my conversations have gone with people who don’t know what prospect research is.

Like most researchers, it’s taken me a while to get accustomed to talking about what I do without spooking people. My strategy has essentially evolved to the point where I just say something along the lines of “I work in fundraising. I help find the people we can ask for money.” It’s bland enough (but still descriptive) so people don’t usually ask a lot of follow-up questions.

It took me a while to get to this point though. For some time I would be very straightforward and honest about what exactly I did. Turns out people are a little weirded out by the idea that someone is paying any attention to the value of their home. Or estimating their salary. Or “mining” their data in any way.

So I tried a few new approaches.  A couple of times I’ve said I was just a fundraiser. The usual response to this was “Well don’t bother asking me for money.” Once I told someone “I’m a bureaucrat,” which must have implied that I was surly and grumpy, because the conversation stopped right there.

Given how much I’ve grappled with this, I was pleased to come across an article recently that described research in a couple of innocuous, yet descriptive, ways. (It’s about a long-time APRA-MN member, Fran Corcoran, who also has some unique hobbies.) None of the mentions of Fran’s work made me cringe, which was great! Some of these descriptions included:

  • “Tracking the accomplishments and life events of alumni and donors”
  • “[Writing] stories about people for [our] development staff”
  • “We help fundraisers focus their efforts”
  • “People who are experienced donors expect you to know about them. The very least we can do is show we’ve taken the time to do that.”

Now that I’m armed with these much more pleasant (and less creepy) ways of talking about prospect research, I look forward to the next time someone asks that inevitable question: “So, what do you do?”

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2 responses to “How do I talk about Prospect Research without creeping people out?

  1. Thank you for sharing the article – it was great! A prospect researcher myself, I often tell people that I get to research and write the stories of philanthropic people and that the best part of my job is that I’m looking for all of the “good” things about people. The usual response is “that must be fun!” and of course it is. 😀

    P.S. So glad to find another prospect research blog. I’m going to add you to my “favorite blogs” list on my blog. Cheers!

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