I recently wrote “The Art of the Interview“, a guide to doing one-on-one interviews with industry insiders as a prospect researcher. The article is live on Connections and is accessible to APRA members.
I decided to write the article as a methodology guide, rather than a case study, based on conversations I’ve had with other prospect researchers about the direction of our field. Many researchers are curious about the direction our field will take in the age of dating mining, data aggregation, and artificial intelligence and are concerned that these tools will replace human prospect researchers at nonprofits. These concerns are valid; I don’t think that human researchers will be be made irrelevant, but I do think our role will shift. In fact, the requests and tasks being fulfilled by researchers right now (per my conversations with colleagues) demonstrate that our role is already shifting.
Prospect researchers are moving from being primarily data collectors, to data curators as more and more information is available through sophisticated data-mining and aggregation tools. In addition, the focus of prospect researchers’ data collection is shifting from straightforward biographical and financial information (addresses, recent donations, estimated compensation etc.) to contextual data; for example, the giving culture of particular industries, the ways social identities influence philanthropic decision-making, and how our supporters view the connection between their donation and our impact.
The shift in prospect research is similar to the shift that occurred in library and information science over the past three decades. My husband is a librarian and when people find out what he does for a living they frequently comment, “Now that we have Google, aren’t librarians irrelevant?” My husband explains (with the infinite patience that good librarians and teachers possess and I do not) that he loves search engines and they are incredible tools, but a search engine can’t teach students data literacy, it can’t build a collection based on changing needs of a community, it can’t help you develop a research question, and it definitely won’t connect you to other search engines who are better experts on a specific topic.
Similarly, while data aggregators are fantastic tools, they can’t conduct focus groups with donors, they can’t use qualitative data to construct a good text-mining project, they can’t translate data into fundraising strategy that fits the mission and culture of an organization, and they certainly won’t consider the ethics of how information is shared and stored.
So now that we have Google are prospect researchers irrelevant? That depends on the kind
of research we are doing and services we provide to our nonprofit colleagues. It also depends on whether or not our fundraising partners see the benefits of contextual research and information curation; in my experience, most nonprofit professionals are hungry for both of those services. The most frequent questions I get from front line fundraisers about data are, “What does this mean?” and “How can I use this to make decisions?” Like modern librarians, these are questions researchers are ideally positioned to answer and they are the kind of questions that drew us to prospect research in the first place.