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Several months ago, Alyce Lee Stansbury (professor and fundraising consultant) asked me to be a guest lecturer for her FSU graduate level course called Fundraising and Fund Development, Askew School of Public Administration, to discuss prospect research. I’ve spoken to her class on this topic in previous years, and I was very much looking forward to another engaging conversation.

Last night as I began, I, as I usually do, informed the class they should feel free to interrupt me with questions, especially if something I said did not quite make complete sense to them. This course tends to have a variety of students – some current practitioners within the nonprofit world, others just interested in the topic of the course, as it’s an elective, so most students were likely rushing into class at the end of a long workday.

Within the first couple of minutes, there was a question about the field of prospect research, “Is this a growing field?” and followed quickly by another, “How much do people really make?” And yet another, “Are there jobs out there for this?” “Do people really seek this out for a living?” “How did you first get started?” And of course, “What did you study?”

I LOVE  a curious group of people! Curiosity is by far one of the hallmarks of a successful researcher. The lecture did move on from “Prospect Research: Career or Passing Fad,” but it did give me reason to reflect on the fundraising industry, and how prospect research fits in.

I pointed out to the class the hunt for and delivery of information is not the point of prospect research, but rather the analysis of information found. The goal is to make better strategic decisions on how to move forward (or not move forward) the relationship between the prospect/donor and the mission of the organization. In fact, more and more people refer to prospect research as fundraising intelligence.

Any presentation about research inevitably turns to tools, and there are certainly no shortage of them for the information professional.  Some of these are out of reach for most nonprofit organizations. However, there are many great data and analysis tools available for little to no cost. Being a constant user of these tools, it still amazes me when people are furiously writing down every resource I provide, especially the free ones.

I cautioned them these tools must  be balanced with the cost of time, which includes opportunity costs. If you, the executive director of a nonprofit, are tasked with prospecting for new donors, and you do not delegate this task, or you delegate this task to someone internally who is not primarily charged with analysis of data and information, then there is something you or your colleague is NOT doing. Whether or not the tool is cheap or free, your time and that of your internal colleague are not free (cheap is relative).

Additionally, the opportunity cost for NOT engaging strategically with data and information is incredibly high. Your organization could have your version of Bill Gates, but your organization is still focused on securing his annual membership renewal (i.e., typically below $1K a year). But your version of Bill Gates, hiding out in plain sight in your CRM/spreadsheet/subscriber list, is capable of giving your nonprofit so much more.

Prospect research, done correctly, is information and data which has been analyzed so a decision can be made. It is the intelligence gleaned, not the data collected, which enables an organization to make better decisions which lead to more dollars raised.

The teaching hour ended way too quickly. Compressing the tasks of a prospect researcher into 60 minutes leaves one breathless, and wishing for  more time. I hope the students walked away with a better understanding  of the value of research, and how much it should always be part of the process of fundraising in order to create a sustainable organization. And to those future grads, I wish them all the best of success and I look forward to each of them doing something extraordinary!

PS My next teaching opportunity is in St. Louis at APRA MOKAN, followed later this month by a virtual course towards fundraising operations certification with Rice University’s Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership.

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