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Connecting the Dots: From Researcher to Strategist

Wed, April 25, 2018 3:25 PM | Laura Parshall

Researchers are adept at finding information, but that's only a small part of the value we can add in our organizations. In this article, Anne Givens, Director of Research and Prospect Management at Gordon College, shows us how we can become strategic partners with our  front-line fundraisers.

Connecting the Dots: From Researcher to Strategist

by Anne Givens

Friends, I love prospect research. I love the thrill of uncovering an important piece of data or finding a high capacity prospect hidden amongst our own constituents. When I started college as an undergrad over twenty years ago I was certain I was going to be the next Indiana Jones as I pursued a career in archaeology (bless my 18-year-old heart). Obviously my career track went in a different direction, but I still consider myself a treasure hunter.

Frequently, as researchers, we gather data and then pass it along to a gift officer or VP to analyze, who then postulate a course of action with a prospect. But we are not limited to simply data collection. Treasure hunters don’t just make a map and hand it to someone else to find the sought after prize. By extrapolating meaning from that data and transitioning it into a course of action, we are establishing ourselves a strategists and earning a seat at the table. It’s a process my CAO, Paul Edwards, refers to as “From ‘what?’ To ‘So what?’ To ‘Therefore.’”

The What

This is the intuitive part for us as researchers – it’s the data. It’s the information we gather about a prospect that sets us on the path of a deeper understanding of who they are. It could be something as simple as their age or life stage, information about the types of assets they hold, or insight into the subjects they are passionate about.

Sometimes the “What?” is found outside of our wealth screening tools. It could be in the visit notes from a gift officer or an article on the internet. Prominent people frequently reveal information in interviews that become the “what”. Perhaps an award they or their company has received is indicative. Always take time to read.

So What?

As it implies, “so what?” is prompting us to ask what the piece of data we just discovered means and why it’s important. Does it tell us a prospect is nearing retirement? Do they favor real estate as a means of investing their cash? Are they passionate about poverty alleviation?

In the case of an award received by the individual or their company, this could indicate the things they value and where they invest their time, effort, and, possibly, their money. If they were given an award by the city they live in for work done to restore parks, then we can conclude that they value land conservation. If their company was awarded for having an exceptionally “green” corporate headquarters, then we can conclude that one of their values is sustainability.


This is the step in the process where you decide how to relate the data and its meaning to your course of action for the prospect, applying what you’ve learned to the specifics of your own organization. It may tell you which member of the staff is most appropriate to cultivate the prospect, which asset type should be part of the formal proposal, or which funding area within your institution would be the most engaging for the prospect. The ability to think critically about this final step is what will get you invited into the conversation, to be seen not just as a data gatherer, but also an analyzer and extrapolator. A key component to excelling in this area is a broad understanding of your organization including key staff, available funding areas and those with the greatest need, and the types of assets it is set up to receive.

Now let’s put it all together. Here are some examples, starting with some simple ones.

What? John Smith is 65 years old.

So What? This means that he is near retirement and will be thinking about his estate plans.

Therefore: We should have our Director of Planned Gifts reach out to him about a bequest.

What? Karen Jones owns numerous properties in the same town.

So What? It’s likely that her assets are based in real estate rather than cash.

Therefore: The member of our staff that is most knowledgeable about real estate transactions should discuss with her the donation of one of her properties to the organization.

For the next two examples I’ll take you a little more in depth with scenarios from my own experience. About a year ago I was researching a prospect we’ll call Mr. Z, a finance executive from Asia. In the course of my research I found an online article that was an interview done with Mr. Z. During the interview he shared a deeply personal story about his struggles with anxiety as a young student under a lot of pressure. I was very surprised to see a man of his background so candidly sharing this piece of his history and being vulnerable in a very public way. At my organization, a small liberal arts college, I knew that the number of our students dealing with anxiety was on the rise and that our counseling center was struggling to meet the needs of the students. They need funding for additional staffing and resources. Mr. Z has both the capacity and passion in this area to be a donor to meet this need. Connecting the dots of the “what?” (Mr. Z struggled with anxiety as a student), to the “so what?” (He can empathize with our students and appreciates the value of emotional support systems), to the “therefore” (We should ask him for a gift in support of additional resources for the counseling center), we developed a potential plan for Mr. Z’s cultivation.

Now let’s look at Ms. J, the CEO a large national company. She and her company have received numerous awards for being excellent employers of women and minorities for providing excellent opportunities to lead and thrive. Based on this track record, it is safe to conclude that Ms. J values equality and equal opportunity as a personal and corporate value. At my organization, we are very excited to have a growing number of our student body being domestic minorities and international students, and we’ve always had more women than men. Our challenge in these areas has been making sure that our faculty, staff, and administration reflects our increasingly diverse population. Ms. J would be an excellent resource for us to invite in and advise us on this topic. Note that this plan is about consultation not solicitation. Oftentimes powerful people like to give their opinions before they give their money, and asking for their advice establishes a connection.

Hopefully this has been a helpful exercise in strategizing and making the most of your data. Gone are the days of researchers being relegated to a back room sifting through data. Our value goes beyond gathering and our contribution can be at every phase of the philanthropic cycle. Be Indie, draw the map, go on the adventure and find the treasure!


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