Tag Archives: Prospect Research

Doing More with More

As part of “Research Pride Month,” this post is a reflection on why I think Prospect Research (and more broadly, Prospect Development) is so great and why I’m proud to be a part of this field.

If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you work in the nonprofit sector. And I’ll double down on that bet and say that you probably also have heard – and have to work under the constraints of – that great old phrase, “doing more with less.”

It’s such a trope for those of us working at nonprofits. When I arrived at my current job, I asked around about where the supply closet was for pens, paper, etc. The answer? “There is none.” We don’t have the luxury of a standing inventory of supplies at our fingertips, because we are not a for-profit organization! These things are only purchased when we actually need them, so “go talk to Mary if you need an order placed.” Of course, I’m one of the lucky ones: folks at much smaller organizations sometimes have to come to work with their own supplies.

So yeah, it’s safe to say you are familiar with, and likely work under, the phrase “doing more with less.”

This obviously makes sense in our sector. Any dollar we spend on things like supplies is a dollar that isn’t going to help fulfill the mission of the organization, and for many of us, a big reason we love working for nonprofits is because of how much we value that mission-driven focus.

Regardless of how much sense this makes, it’s tiring and, at times, discouraging. What we really want for our organizations is to do more with more. This is where Prospect Research comes in.

Prospect Research is the key to doing more with more. It’s all about finding more donors (with more dollars). It’s about helping our fundraisers know more about their donors, so they can tap into more of those donors’ passion for our work. It’s about making our fundraising efforts more efficient, and more effective. The organization that invests in Prospect Research essentially is leveraging donor dollars to secure yet more donor dollars. And I use the word “invest” deliberately: this investment provides the donor a compounded charitable “return” on their gift.

This is what makes me most proud to be a Prospect Researcher. The work that we do makes our donors’ dollars go farther. It transforms their contributions from gifts to investments that will continue to pay a return. (I would even go so far as to say that when an organization does not invest in Prospect Research, it borders on simply being inefficient.) Prospect Research is the key to helping our organizations do more with more.

Special thanks to the brilliant Helen Brown, who conceived of and initiated Research Pride Month. Helen has a great blog, and she has compiled a list of other Research Pride blog posts and writings, which I encourage you to check out!

Three Reasons Why Research Request Forms Are a Terrible Idea

Okay, so first let me issue a caveat and say that my title is intentionally provocative: I don’t necessarily think research request forms are always a bad idea. There are contexts in which they make sense. But let me give a few reasons why I prefer not to use them in my shop.

They strip away the personal interaction

In previous posts I have made it pretty clear that it’s important to maintain a good relationship between the researcher and the gift officer. Personal interaction goes a long way in helping to develop and maintain that relationship. When personal interaction decreases, the relationship suffers, and while the work might still get done, I question whether it will be as effective as it could be. When you make a gift officer fill out a form to make a request, they don’t get the benefit of a face to face (or telephone) conversation with you. (And why would you deprive them of that? You know how charming and wonderful you are.)

They strip away the context and background of the request

When someone asks for something, if I understand the context and background of their request I am best positioned to be able to meet their needs. When I know why they’re asking for what they’re requesting, I will have a much better sense of what I really need to do to help them.

For example, there may be a couple of different reasons why a gift officer might need a rating assigned to a prospect: they might be trying to advise a volunteer on how to steer the gift conversation with that prospect; or they might be trying to prioritize some leads referred to them. In the latter case, I would likely take a very quick, “chainsaw cut” approach to estimating capacity. We’re just trying to pit some prospects against one another to see whom we should call first. In the former case, I might spend more time understanding the complete financial picture of the prospect (What visible assets are there? What other obligations and liabilities could this person have? Is it likely that market conditions are impacting this person’s self-perception of their wealth?) The context and motivation behind a request makes a big difference in how I approach the task at hand.

They strip away viable solutions

One of the benefits of a request form is that it helps simplify the process of asking for something: the requester can select option A, B, or C. This is great when three options will suffice. But the reality of fundraising is that the kinds of information we need at any given time vary widely. Our needs often do not fit into neat little boxes. So when people have just a few options to choose from, they select the one that seems like it will get them what they need (and cross their fingers and hope they are right!)

Here’s an example: imagine you have three levels of “profiles” that people can request. Only one of these – the “full biographical profile,” which includes everything AND the kitchen sink – contains information about the boards a prospect serves on. So if a gift officer is trying to get a visit with Joe Potentialdonor, and they want to figure out who might know Mr. Potentialdonor, they will request the “full biographical profile” so they can get information about what boards he is on. The researcher spends eight hours putting together the profile, when the gift officer really only needed some information that could have been compiled in 45 minutes.

If the gift officer has no form to fill out, she’s free to ask for exactly what she needs: people who might help her reach Mr. Potentialdonor. The gift officer has the great idea to start by looking at people who are on the same boards as Mr. Potentialdonor, and the researcher might have other ideas of who to look for (classmates, co-workers, etc.). In this scenario, the gift officer gets even more of what she really needs, and the researcher spends far less time procuring it for her.

If you’re thinking about using a research request form, be sure you consider the trade-offs. They can help streamline the process of asking for standard products, but they strip away some valuable things in the process! Is it worth it?

The five best free prospect research resources

I have the luxury of working in a well-supported prospect research shop, which means that I typically don’t have to worry about finding free prospect research resources. But a couple years ago, I started doing a lot more freelance consulting and research work on the side on a shoestring budget and I realized I needed to brush up on free prospect research resources. There are a lot out there, but I’ve found that there are just five that I really, really rely on. If I were stuck on a desert island and could access just five resources, these are the sites I’d access:

1. FEC.gov (specifically, the campaign finance disclosure portal advanced search page http://www.fec.gov/finance/disclosure/advindsea.shtml)

The FEC’s advanced search page is a pretty powerful search tool that lets a person search on a number of different criteria so you can query as broadly or as narrowly as you’d like. They’ll even let you drill down in the search results to see the actual original filing. Even when I’m using a paid resource, like a vendor that will aggregate FEC contributions attributed to a particular donor, I will still go directly to the FEC site to verify that the vendor got it right.

One of the things I really like about the FEC filings is that you can often get employment information and home addresses from their filings.

And here’s a tip for searching the filings: use just the donor’s name and their city and state, and when you do, try using the city for their home address AND their work address (assuming you have them).

2. SEC.gov (specifically, the full-text EDGAR filings search page http://searchwww.sec.gov/EDGARFSClient/jsp/EDGAR_MainAccess.jsp)

I do use a vendor for my SEC filing searches in my day job, mostly because their search interface is really, really powerful. However, the SEC’s search interface for their EDGAR database actually isn’t far behind in terms of its robustness. The four-years full-text search can be used in advanced mode, which allows for a lot of flexibility.

3. County assessors’ offices (or more helpfully, pulawski.net, which lists many of the assessors’ office websites from around the United States http://www.pulawski.net/)

Each county assessor’s office is different: some let you search online on a whole bunch of different datapoints; some only let you search on a few; some don’t let you see the property owner’s name; some don’t even let you query their property rolls online. Thankfully, there are enough that provide reasonably good access to make it worth my while to check them out.

There are several benefits to looking up an individual’s property records, two of which I find particularly helpful: (1) you can often confirm that your person owns the property in question (and potentially when they bought it and what they paid for it) and (2) you can often get the name of their spouse. The spouse name goes a long way in confirming info found in other places (appearances in donor lists, for example); the property valuation and ownership info helps shed some light on how wealthy a prospect might be. However, to get a better sense of a property’s value, I avoid relying on the assessor’s market value, and instead prefer my fourth most-valuable resource.

4. eppraisal.com

County assessor’s offices are all over the map in terms of how they assign a market value to a property. Some stay pretty close to actual market value (Minnesota is decent) others have specific laws and regulations in place that make it really hard for them to do so (California comes to mind). For this reason, I much prefer to get an estimate of the current property value, and eppraisal is my favorite source for doing so. Not only does eppraisal provide their own property value estimate, but they also show you what value Zillow assigns to the property!

5. The National Center for Charitable Statistics (http://nccsweb.urban.org/PubApps/search.php)

I used to be big on Guidestar and the Foundation Center. They were the only games in town for an easy way of getting to 990 forms.

No more.

The National Center for Charitable Statistics has a free, slick search tool that lets you look up information on pretty much any nonprofit organization in the United States. (And you don’t have to register to use it.) Their query tool is very easy to use but flexible enough to do very specific searches, and the results include lots of summary information about nonprofits. The BEST part though is their collection of 990 filings: NCCS provides filings going back seven years (in many cases).

Those are my five! What free prospect research resources do you like?

Run your Prospect Research shop like the Google Search page or a Swiss Army knife

Google search, for better or worse, plays a pretty central role in the Research profession. Lots of people use it; the best researchers know how to get a lot out of it; lots of development staff mistakenly think researchers spend all their time just “googling” things; it’s loved for its power and ease of use and sometimes dissed for its search personalization. When we talk about research, it’s hard to avoid Google.

But I came across a quote this morning that suggested an even better way we can harness the power of Google: be more like it.

Google’s first female engineer, Marissa Mayer, is reportedly responsible for the site’s clean, minimalist look. She said of the site, “Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It’s simple, it’s elegant, you can slip it in your pocket, but it’s got the great doodad when you need it. …  A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open — and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful.”

The best prospect research and management shops definitely feature the utility of a really complicated Swiss Army knife. From complex prospect identification tools like statistical modeling analysis to robust prospect management systems that track myriad concurrent activities, to rich, in-depth information development – prospect research departments can do a lot of really cool, really useful things.

But do we feature the elegance and simplicity of a closed Swiss Army knife or the Google search interface? Do we make it easy and effortless for our “users” to interact with us? I’m not convinced that we do so as much as we should, and that may be an opportunity for improvement.

A complaint I’ve heard from frontline fundraising staff (not necessarily at my institution) is that it can be too difficult to interact with a prospect management system – entering contact reports or updating prospect or proposal tracking information is too tricky. And that’s a big turnoff and clear deterrent from use.

Similarly, we can analyze and score prospects twelve ways to Tuesday, and the barrage of numbers runs the risk of making people just throw up their hands and say “Uncle! That’s too much for me. I’m just going to ignore all that.”

And if a researcher puts together a prospect profile that goes WAY beyond what is needed for the task at hand, we run the risk of crowding out the most important, most useful information. (Imagine opening ALL the gadgets on a Swiss Army knife and then trying to just use the scissors tool! Anybody need a band-aid?)

To some extent, most of us think about this sort of thing frequently, but I imagine by incorporating more thoughtful, elegant design with a focus on simplicity into everything we do, we make the fruits of our labors more accessible and desirable to use.

SearchAndKnife

Better Researcher-Fundraiser Relationships: A Response to “Prospecting Problems” and “Fundraisingly Frustrated”

About a week ago Chris Cannon wrote a great blog post outlining some prevalent problems plaguing the fundraiser-researcher dynamic. I had to retweet the link with the comment that it was “dead on,” because it is. Based on what I’ve frequently heard from other researchers at APRA conferences, in many shops the relationship between researchers and frontline fundraisers can be tenuous: e.g., researchers often don’t hear much feedback, if any, from the gift officers they help; fundraisers don’t easily engage with the prospect management system. (Just to name a couple things Chris outlined in his post.)

Chris replied to my tweet and asked what I’ve seen work in addressing these issues. The answer to that question deserves more than just 140 characters! (Plus it’s a pretty darn good topic for a blog post.) So I thought I’d touch on it here.

I’ve found that there are two key components that go a long way in tackling the researcher-fundraiser disconnect: getting the right people in place, and getting them to do the right things.

The Right Things

What are the “things” people need to do? Helen Brown, in her own response to Chris’s post, suggests that communication and relationship building are two of the things that are most critical. She’s absolutely right! But what exactly do we do to make that happen? At my institution, Research staff get face time with gift officers. We have both formal and informal meetings where we talk about the work and we just maintain a positive relationship.

  • Every month, we have a formal “research partner meeting” where the researcher and fundraiser get together to review prospect management reports in preparation for the monthly prospect meeting. They go over outstanding and upcoming solicitations; they review prospect lists; they talk about recent visits; they talk about how they can best help one another.
  • As much as possible, we try to have informal interactions with one another. I encourage my research staff to stop by the fundraisers’ offices from time to time or go have coffee with them. Frankly, I don’t care a whole lot about what happens in these encounters, as long as it’s positive. If the researcher and gift officer spend an hour talking about March Madness, great! They’re building that relationship and increasing the good rapport that helps keep open the lines of productive communication.

The Right People

Of course these “things” that we try to do to foster good relationships between researchers and fundraisers are practically worthless if we don’t have the right people in place to do them. If I’ve got a researcher who is too shy to drop in on gift officers, they can’t have successful informal interactions. If my researcher is generally surly and cantankerous, they’re going to have a hard time building a good relationship with the gift officers.

So any time I’m hiring a new researcher, I pay a lot of attention to their personality and general disposition.  Are they generally outgoing? Do they seem relatable and easy to get along with? This is probably more important to me than a person’s research experience or capabilities, because I can train most people to do good research. It is far more difficult (maybe even impossible??) to train someone to be pleasant to be around, or not to be shy.  If they are internally motivated to reach out to the people they work with and they enjoy doing it, that will be one critical piece I won’t have to worry so much about needing to continually push.

Do I feel like I’ve completely solved the problems Chris describes in his post? Nope. (I’ve got one fundraiser, for example, who has said more than once, “I can find plenty of stuff myself on google, but you guys have access to special databases that we don’t.” Sure, it’s true, but it indicates that we haven’t done a good enough job of educating about our capabilities as in-depth information seekers AND as specialized analysts.) But having the right people in place, doing the right things, sure does go a long way in making for a stronger, more productive relationship between Research and frontline fundraisers.

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.”

The “Next Big Thing”

I’ve been involved with programming for a few different professional associations, and there seems to be a constant hunger for “the next big thing.” I’ve even seen other programming committee members say to potential speakers “we’d like you to do a talk on what you think the next big thing is going to be in prospect research and/or development.”

Over the last decade or so, I’ve noticed a few key areas that, in the prospect research world, have taken their turn as “the next big thing:” prospect management and tracking; data mining and modeling (or just analytics); and probably most recently, social media.

People are getting acclimated to social media and its newness is wearing off a little bit, which makes me wonder again, what will be the next big thing in prospect research circles?

I know what it is. Well, I know what I think it should be: Data Visualization.

“Why?” you may be thinking. “Why is this something that we should spend any time on? Why do you think I need someone to tell me how to do this?”

Data visualization is just one of many things that we do in the workplace that people rarely get appropriate training on. (Other such things include giving presentations, hiring, giving feedback, assigning work, writing effectively, etc; [There’s another post in there somewhere…]) We’re just thrown into situations where we’re expected to do these things, and we don’t always get good training on it (if any), so most of us just make it up as we go along and generally get mediocre results. Which tends not to be a problem, because everyone is probably getting mediocre results, so if I do too, I fit right in and nobody knows there’s a problem!

But we should do data visualization better. There are a number of reasons for this. Not least of which is that we should just strive to do everything better on principal! But also because data visualization can be a powerful tool in all of the work that we do.

That data. ALL that data…

As everyone is well aware, data is becoming more and more a part of our lives and the work that we do. You’ll notice that two of the three past “next big things” I listed above are directly involved with data: prospect management systems and analytics. We have more and more access to data and we are finding more and more powerful ways of working with and capitalizing on that data.

But as we gather more information, the signal-to-noise ratio changes dramatically, and it becomes more difficult to determine what is relevant. Patterns are hard to find. The meaningful information gets buried. And our ability to actually take advantage of the data diminishes.

This is where data visualization comes in: it can help us more effectively explore, interpret, and understand our information.

One of our strongest, most utilized senses is that of visual perception. Most of us experience the world through our eyes, and our brains are wired to process visual cues in a tremendously effective way. (Don’t believe me? Check out this site on perception in visualization. There are some powerful examples and tools that illustrate how amazing our preattentive processing is.)

We can take advantage of this hard-wiring by looking at our data (literally) from different perspectives. In doing so, patterns become evident, data of note comes to our attention, and we will understand where further exploration is warranted to identify actionable information.

Let me tell you what I really want to tell you…

In my mind, using visualization to explore our data is reason enough to embrace it and learn as much as we can about how to do so effectively. Case closed!

But let me put on my infomercial pitch-man hat and say “but wait, there’s more!”

Visualizations can be incredibly effective at communicating information. If I’ve got a table of data, I have a few options for communicating that to you:

  • I can just show you the table. You’ll have to comb through it to see where the high and low points are, what trends are occurring (if it’s longitudinal), etc.
  • I can explain it with words. I will have to comb through it to see where the high and low points are, what trends are occurring, etc., and THEN I’m going to have to put that into words and either write it down or just tell you.
  • I can put it into a chart. (Line graph, bar chart… doesn’t matter) The chart will show visually where the high and low points are, what trends are occurring, etc. Even if I don’t put any numbers on the chart, you can compare one datapoint to another and see them relative to one another.

By using a chart, I save myself and the other person lots of mental energy and drastically reduce the chance that there will be a misunderstanding or that the main message won’t be heard.

One of the benefits of this improved communication is the fact that we can more effectively make a particular point. If I want to highlight to our staff the fact that we have steadily increased the number of visit-ready prospects in our pipeline over the past five years, I can certainly just say that. But if I gather the data that supports that statement and put it into a visual format, it will be much more impactful. (See example below.) It also begins to quickly shed light on a number of other questions of the data:

  • How many prospects do we have now, compared to five years ago? (about four times as many, based on a quick look at the first and last columns)
  • When did we have the greatest increase in prospects? (2007-2008 and 2008-2009 look like they experienced the largest jumps)
  • How has the rate of our prospect identification fared recently? (it slowed about two years ago, but looks like it might be picking up)



As our organizations move more and more toward embracing data, it becomes ever more important that we are able to present that data in a way that is understandable and powerful. In my opinion, the only way to do this is with visualizations, and the only way to become more effective at utilizing visualization techniques is to make data visualization “the next big thing” in our professional development.

Only recently have I become seriously interested in data visualization, so I’m just scratching the surface of what is possible. But in spite of my newness to the field of study, I’m tremendously excited about the possibilities. My current books-to-read list includes a number of titles by Edward Tufte and Steven Few, and I’m excited to get deeper into these. What are your favorites?