Hiring Prospect Researchers

Every once in a while I hear Prospect Research managers and directors wondering about what interview questions they should ask when hiring a prospect researcher. It’s a fairly specific query. Probably too specific, and it’s tough to answer it well without lots and lots of details.

Trying to find out what “the questions” are to ask when interviewing a potential new-hire prospect researcher is kind of like asking someone “What kind of car should I buy?” and expecting a decent answer. If you’re trying to help someone who poses this question, surely there are scads of questions that come to mind in response: “Well, what do you need it for? Do you have to haul stuff? Are you commuting a lot? Do you have to take lots of people with you? Do you need good gas mileage? Do you want something more stylish?” and on and on.

These questions are the kinds of things I’d ask myself when I was trying to decide what kind of car to buy, and when I’m hiring a prospect researcher, I have a similarly expansive set of questions. But in this case, my questions follow a sort of hierarchy, starting waaaay up at the organizational level, and working my way down to the individual/personal level. Additionally, they address organizational/departmental needs, the distinction between the things we can train a person on vs. how they “are,” and how exactly I can assess the candidate on those things. The questions go something like this:

  • What organizational needs does the Research department meet?
  • How well do the existing Research staff cover those needs? What “gaps” in the department does this new hire need to fill?
  • What specific skills are required to be able to fill those gaps?
  • Which of these skills are actually trainable, and which are difficult/impossible to develop?
  • How will I assess these attributes? (Via the application materials? Through a phone interview? In my in-person interview? Via the in-person interviews they will have with my colleagues?)

Let me walk through each of these questions, using the last hire I made to demonstrate them. In 2011 I was Director of Prospect Research in a small, high-performing Research shop that was part of a mature, sophisticated development operation at a small, private, liberal arts College. I was hiring a Prospect Research Officer, who would be the only other Research staff member. Here’s how I worked through my questions to determine how I would evaluate candidates.

What organizational needs does the Research department meet?

In my shop, we were responsible for traditional biographical research (profiles, new prospect identification and research qualification, etc.), prospect management, and analytics. In addition to handling these specific work areas, one of my priorities was for my shop to have strong relationships with our “clients,” the front-line fundraisers. So these were the areas where I and my new researcher would need to be able to cover all of the bases.

How well do the existing Research staff cover those needs? What “gaps” in the department does this new hire need to fill?

At the time, my biggest need was capacity. I was able to DO all of the different types of things in our department, but I couldn’t handle the volume all by myself. This was especially true with our traditional research and with running the prospect management system. (The analytics piece, on the other hand, was something I could keep up with if needed, though it would be a nice bonus if my new hire could take some of this on as well.)

What specific skills and traits are required to be able to fill those gaps?

Because my needs were in the areas of traditional Research and Prospect Management System facilitation, I basically needed to determine what the specific critical skills and traits are for someone to be able to do that kind of work. This is one area where I’m certain there are varying opinions among Researchers regarding what exactly those are, but for me they include the following:

Traditional Research
Clarifying/identifying the question(s) to be answered
Finding information
Tenacity/curiosity
Evaluating information
Summarizing/synthesizing/tailoring information
Appropriately packaging/delivering information

Prospect Management System Facilitation:
Getting information from gift officers
Building rapport with gift officers
Attention to detail
Understanding reporting, basic data relationships
Translating between gift officers and the tracking system

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it helps lay out many of the things I needed to be looking for and evaluating in candidates.

Which of these skills are actually trainable, and which are difficult/impossible to develop?

Some of the skills and traits listed above are easily trainable. Others are more of a stretch (and some might say they are impossible to train). Among the former are things like finding information; evaluating information; summarizing/synthesizing/tailoring information; packaging/delivering information; understanding reporting and basic data relationships; translating between gift officers and the tracking systems. Others are the kinds of things that one might consider “how a person is wired.” These are the kinds of things that can be a lot more difficult to train someone on (in my experience, anyway), and include tenacity/curiosity; building rapport with gift officers; attention to detail. This is all debatable, of course, but I found that I always had a really difficult time training people on these sorts of things. So I would rather hire someone with those traits, and train on the other qualities.

How will I assess these attributes?

Once I know what exactly I’m looking for in my candidate, it’s really helpful to decide ahead of time how I can assess those traits and skills. The hiring process is really challenging in that I don’t have a lot of information to go on in order to make my decisions about a candidate: their application materials are likely no more than a couple of pages, and I probably won’t have more than a few hours of total interview time with them. So it’s critical that I use the time and information I do have as efficiently as possible.

Some of the traits I am looking for will be readily apparent in their application materials. Any typos or errors show they may not be so great with details. Additionally, their cover letter and resume are a perfect sample for how they summarize, synthesize, tailor, package, and deliver biographical information. (This assumes, of course, that they are responding to a well-written job description. Job descriptions could be another blog post entirely in and of itself!) If they write a rambling, off-point cover letter and include extraneous information in their resume that doesn’t help show me how they are a good candidate for the job, they’re probably not so great at making decisions around what should be included in a profile on a prospective donor. So these pieces of the puzzle can be found through the applicant’s materials, and I don’t need to waste any time in the interviews trying to assess them.

Some of the skills will require some questioning to evaluate. For example, I like to find candidates who are naturally curious and are persistent in their efforts. I might ask them about their hobbies and see if anything like genealogical research or puzzles (e.g., crosswords or sudokus) come up. These kinds of interests tend to go along with curiosity and tenacity. I can ask things like this in a phone interview.

The in-person interviews, with myself as well as with some of my colleagues, are great for evaluating the “soft skills.” A candidate’s demeanor and how well they interact with others can help indicate how they’ll do with rapport building. Additionally, the in-person interviews are a great setting for asking behavioral questions and asking them to work through a role-playing exercise with you. (An example of such an exercise is to have them pretend to be the researcher, gathering information from them for the prospect management system, and you play the role of the gift officer who gives really vague answers to questions that require specificity. How does the candidate go about trying to tease out the necessary information from the gift officer?)

In a lot of cases, we’re hoping to find the “right” questions to ask a candidate. But there really are no “right” questions. Just as in Prospect Research the questions depend on the situation at hand, so too do the questions change in a hiring situation, all depending on the nature of the organization, the Research shop, the staff involved, and the skills and characteristics required. By considering all of these components, we set ourselves on a path to find the best questions and hopefully to hire the best prospect researcher!

Note: This blog post is a joint cross-post, appearing simultaneously on ManagingProspectResearch.wordpress.com and the newly unveiled APRA-MN blog at apra-mn.org.

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2 responses to “Hiring Prospect Researchers

  1. Dear Mark, I am an experienced Prospect Research professional with ten plus years of experience, a strong attention to detail and an insatiable curiosity about people…

    This is an excellent read for any hiring manager who seeks to find the right candidate for the right role at the right time. Much like effective prospecting, as you say. Thank you for your insight!

  2. Pingback: Attracting and retaining great employees - The Helen Brown Group

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