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The Changing Role of the Prospect Researcher

Fri, December 01, 2017 2:34 PM | Laura Parshall

As a profession, prospect research is still relatively young, but it's a profession that has seen a lot of growth and change over the years. In this article, Pamela McCarthy of Northeastern University highlights some changes she's seen over the course of her own career.

The Changing Role of the Prospect Researcher

by Pamela McCarthy

When I first started as a prospect researcher 17 years ago, it was pretty straightforward. Fundraisers got appointments with prospects, and asked me to research them and write profiles to help prepare them for the meeting. The research itself was involved, and most of my work was focused on determining a prospect’s capacity, philanthropic interests and inclination.


This has changed considerably over the years. As prospect researchers, we still write research, but the way we do it and when we do it has changed. Screenings are a huge part of this. Remember the old days, when you’d get a small skyscraper of paper printouts and a handshake? Now screenings are more targeted. They can be done in a more focused way and on a rolling basis.


Screenings can help lead us to look for the not so hidden gems. Questions then arise: Who are the high-net worth prospects in our universe? Who are the people outside of our donor pool most likely to support our programs and initiatives? How can we connect these people with our organizations? Who are the best people and what are the best ways to approach them?

Data analytics has come to play a larger role in our work and help us answer those questions. Maybe we’re not all data scientists, but more and more of us are familiar with the concepts of data science. Researchers need to make sense of data to find the most likely and best prospects in their organization’s pool. We need to then strategize about how to look at the data and prioritize which data points to use in finding our next best prospects or prospects to screen. Creative ways of thinking how to pull data in a quest to find good prospects for specific projects and programs at our organizations has become a staple in our jobs.

This brings us to prospect management. Although we are not managing fundraisers and fundraisers don’t answer to us, we still have to know about best practices for pipeline management, understand the metrics of our organizations, and present a map of where the fundraisers currently are and where they need to be. We review portfolios, and approach this from different angles, using our own knowledge and the fundraisers’ to help determine who is best to cultivate.

A big part of being a researcher is understanding what the fundraisers really need. When I take a few minutes to talk with the fundraisers, it can save me hours of work. Qualifying a prospect in the field isn’t going to require the same kind of research as preparing for a solicitation. Sometimes the fundraiser simply wants to know something specific, such as the prospect’s philanthropic giving. Ask yourself: what does the fundraiser truly need to get the job done? Talk to fundraisers to figure out what they need and deliver it.

Relationship building and communication is key to being an effective prospect researcher. It’s certainly easier to ask fundraisers about what they need and why they need it when you have a good relationship. I’ve done this in several ways. I meet regularly with one fundraiser I support. He works across campus, so it easier for us to meet for a half an hour. We talk about what is coming up and what he needs. Other fundraisers work on the same floor as I do, making it easy for me to knock on their door and check in with them. I meet fundraisers for coffee as well. Sometimes we veer off the subject of work and talk about other things. I get to know them and they get to know me. This helps build trust.

Communication is important. Years ago, I was asked to find out if a list of people were married. When I asked why, I learned it was because they wanted to know how to address the thank you notes. I pointed out that it would take a lot of time and likely be fruitless, and that it was fine to address the thank you notes to the person who sent the gift. I also suggested that we use this as an opportunity to reach out to prospects. Staff and volunteers could call them to thank them for their gifts. Having a conversation with a donor could uncover relationship statuses and other things about the donor, such as why the organization was important to them.

Our job as researchers are still focused on finding information, but we are also focused on getting the right information to fundraisers, helping them manage their work, finding prospects, and understanding what it is they need.


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