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Thoughts on a Decade in Prospect Research

Thu, March 30, 2017 3:58 PM | Laura Parshall

The 30th anniversary of NEDRA seems to be bringing up a lot of reflection on how far we've come--not just the organization, but each of us as individual researchers. In this month's feature, departing (alas!) board member Tim Enman reflects on his own experiences in research, and with NEDRA.

Thoughts on a Decade in Prospect Research

by Tim Enman

After about a decade in prospect research, I recently accepted a new position in my organization in Advancement Services. It’s been a bittersweet move. I’m excited by my new responsibilities, but they also fall outside the realm of development research, as defined by my organization, so it is a step away from the NEDRA community that has been so generous to me in terms of education and opportunity. As we celebrate Research Pride Month and the beginning of NEDRA’s 30th anniversary year, it seems appropriate to share a few reflections on the profession and organization of which I’ve been so proud to belong to.

 At 36, I’ve spent more time doing prospect research than almost anything else.  When I started, I was a few years out of college, where I majored in creative writing and philosophy/history. I left university with a couple poems I was proud of, a fuzzy understanding of Kant’s concept of the sublime, and an even fuzzier idea of what a mortgage was. After graduation, I tried out a career as a broker of private air travel for high net worth clients before deciding it wasn’t for me and landing in the Alumni Office of Clark University. Even after working closely with the super wealthy on arranging their travel on a daily basis, I still had very little idea of how they made their money. As the son of an engineer and a nurse, the world of asset management and private fortunes were totally foreign to me. My supervisor, Karen Doherty, paid for me to attend an eye-opening NEDRA boot camp taught by David Sterling, and with that I was mostly left to explore on my own, with the occasional correction. (Like a couple months in, when I discovered that the numbers in parentheses on a financial statement represented a loss instead of a gain…) I’ve since grown into a prospect research professional who must be restrained from boring entire roomfuls of people with discussions of securities, the peculiarities of real estate in New York, London, or Hong Kong, dynastic succession in particular royal families, compensation trends in the asset management industry, and the mechanics of CRUTs, CRATs, and CLATs.


 All this growth was enabled by, yes, being plugged into Google and LexisNexis for 8 hours a day for 10 years, but more meaningfully by an exceptionally open and generous professional community that helped to put all that information in context. The NEDRA boot camp was an indispensable starting point, and meeting other researchers through NEDRA programming over the years raised my sights in terms of the breadth of understanding and confidence of presentation I might aspire to.

 I was particularly impressed (and thankful) for the programming on the financial services industry which Amy Begg coordinated during her time on the programming committee. I wanted become a researcher more like her, to be able to provide the kinds of insights she could provide to her institution, so I started volunteering with her programming committee. At that stage in my career, I was three years in and still often felt like I was winging it, relying on a dog-eared photocopy of an Investment Dealers Digest compensation survey from 2007 for insight into the financial lives of my institution’s wealthiest prospects. I volunteered on the programming committee she chaired, and spent the first year lurking on the monthly conference calls, hoping not to embarrass myself in front of the group of experienced researchers who made up the committee. That NEDRA had a working board was obvious from the visible effort that Amy and other members made to recruit (free) speakers, find (free) space, and promote events while managing their own workloads. I waded a bit more deeply into volunteering by coordinating a Q&A with Rick MacDonald, then the Director of Planned Giving at Clark. (Despite a major snow storm, a half-dozen hardy NEDRA members still showed up.) A couple years later, I took the plunge and volunteered to present a full-day boot camp, after which I finally felt like a “real” researcher. I later had the opportunity to join the NEDRA board, where I and co-chaired the programming committee for the past two years and had the satisfaction of encouraging fantastic researchers to step into a well-deserved spotlight and share their skills and knowledge with the community.  

 My career in prospect research has not been without its downsides. While researchers get by on everyday salaries, we spend our days contemplating the finances of those much better off. It’s easy to make the mistake of comparing your self-worth to your ultra-wealthy prospect’s net worth, in a world which often encourages us to equate the two. And while it’s exciting to discover a wealthy new prospect, we sometimes learn uncomfortable truths about how their fortune was made. The markets reward innovation and brilliance, but they also award sharp practice. We need to trust our gift officers and institutional leaders not to hand over the keys to our institution’s values to people just because they can write a big check.

 But my time is prospect research has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, if the career didn’t exist, I would not have been so optimistic as to wish for a job as interesting as this one. I’ve been fortunate to learn widely and deeply in the service of organizations which have a positive impact not just locally, but globally. During my career supporting higher education, my efforts have contributed to the founding of new centers of learning, built new buildings and transformed old ones, and helped to bring students from many different walks of life together to study. I’ve seen colleagues take on roles with prominent national organizations, and bring the knowledge they gained from research into careers at the highest levels of their organization’s strategic planning.

 Advancement Services isn’t too far from Prospect Research (my new desk is literally two cubes over), but learning computer programming languages is something I would have not considered possible for myself without the growth I experienced as a prospect researcher, a role where it is your job to figure out what you don’t know.  It’s been a journey that, for me, has pushed backed the boundaries, sometimes self-imposed, of what we can learn and the tasks we can accomplish with curiosity, persistence, and some savvy Googling.


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