How do you know when to stop researching?

One of my favorite questions to ask candidates applying for open prospect research positions is “How do you know when to stop researching?” It seems like a pretty simple question, but for some reason many people – some of whom have more than a few years of research experience under their belts ­– don’t know how to answer it very well. A poor response to that question isn’t always a dealbreaker for me, but it’s close. Why? Because it tells me how efficient that person will be as a researcher.

Prospect researchers are often known for their willingness to hunt and hunt and hunt for information. This kind of dogged determination can be really beneficial – don’t give up until you find what you need! But the downside to this kind of behavior is that if a person isn’t focused in their efforts, they could spend a long, long time just wandering around the vast expanses of the internet, particularly late in the research process, when they have already gathered most of the easy-to-find information.

This type of aimless wandering can have a huge cost to the organization, as the return on time spent is rapidly diminished, and researchers miss an opportunity to turn their attention to more productive and impactful work. The only way to avoid ending up in this dead-zone of productivity is to know when to stop researching.

When I’ve asked people how they know when to stop, the poorer responses I’ve received have been along these kinds of lines:

  • “I’ll usually wrap it up when I’m about five or six pages in on my google search results.”
  • “When the search results are providing information on the wrong people, I know I’m about at the end of what I’m going to find.”
  • “I stop at about the two-hour point.”

Now imagine if I asked people a similar question, but instead of talking about research, we were talking about taking a trip in a car, and the question is “How do you know when to stop driving?” In this context, the responses I’ve heard would sound completely ludicrous!


  • “I’ll wrap it up after about five or six hundred miles.”
  • “When my car runs out of gas, that’s about as far as I’m going to go.”
  • “I stop driving after two hours.”

Obviously, if I ask you when someone should stop driving, the response is going to be “when they get to their destination.”

The same holds true for research. You stop researching when you’ve found the information you need. This means that a good researcher must define the research “destination” up front, so that he knows exactly when he has “arrived” and can wrap things up.

In some development shops, clearly defining what research is needed is one of the first challenges to overcome. People may make a research request by saying “Just give me everything you can find on Mr. Potentialdonor.” (Or to use the driving analogy, “Just drive really, really far going North.”) At that point, it is up to the researcher to ask good follow-up questions: What are you most interested in learning about Mr. Potentialdonor? Are you planning to solicit Mr. Potentialdonor, or are you just trying to decide whether or not he’s worth a visit? What are you hoping I’ll be able to find? These additional queries can help establish a clearer research destination, which means that the researcher will be able to provide what will be most helpful, and she will likely be able to do so on a much shorter timeline, without having to spend time looking for things nobody really cared about in the first place!

By knowing where we are “going” with our research, we will know when we can stop, without having to waste time dragging out the research process. This will ultimately pay great dividends by freeing us up to move on to other research “trips.”


8 responses to “How do you know when to stop researching?

  1. Excellent points, Mark. And I like the way your “right answer” creates a feedback loop between the researcher and the requester, promoting a better partnership between the front stage and the back stage.

  2. I love the driving analogy! I’m a researcher, and I know I will be quoting you on the “Drive really, really far going north” line! Great article.

  3. Although, unlike driving a car, you may never reach your destination! There has to come a point when you have other priorities – for example, if a lost member of your organisation doesn’t want you to find them, that’s probably an answer in itself!

  4. I agree with most of what you’ve said here, to an extent. For me, I know I find myself researching for too long sometimes, chasing information that isn’t forthcoming, and it’s a fault I’m trying to recognise and drive out of my work. And there definitely some responsibility between the fundraiser and researcher to set guidelines for what is required from research.

    I think where your analogy perhaps falls down a little is in those cases where the researcher is asked for a piece of information that is either very difficult or even impossible to find. For example, a home address or a worth estimate. Sometimes that information is just not forthcoming, and it’s hard to know when to stop researching in those cases – there’s always the frustrating inkling that the information *could* just be in the next thing you’d try.

    That’s the kind of situation where I think you do have to set some kind of time (I’ll spend an hour on this) or volume (just two more pages of Google) limit. Because while it’s all well and good to say you’ll stop when you find the information you need, sometimes that information just isn’t out there, and you’re wasting your time by continuing.

    • Good point, SamB! You’re absolutely right that an elusive “destination” makes the “stop when you get there” prescription a bit impractical. Knowing when to say “I’m just not going to find what I’m looking for” is probably an undervalued skill.

      It is definitely necessary to impose some sort of constraint on your search (like limiting the number of search results pages, or the amount of time) in the event that you can’t find what you’re looking for. I think the best researchers have a well-developed sense of (1) how available a particular type of information might be (and thus, how likely it is that they may or may not find it), and (2) what their most likely resources are going to be for finding that information. When you know what your best resource options are, you can confidently say “I’m going to consult these [number] resources. If they don’t lead me to what I seek, I can probably call it quits, as other resources are really unlikely to get me any closer.”

  5. Just discovered your blog. Sorry for the late entry.
    ALL great points and business lessons.
    I tend to over research it is a bad habit.
    When I’m researching I try to enough info for strategic decisions and the ask.

  6. Pingback: Run your Prospect Research shop like Google or a Swiss Army knife | Managing Prospect Research

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