Field research for prospect researchers (and other nonprofiteers)

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

Hopefully, the future of prospect research also includes more exciting hats…

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.

I’d love to continue this conversation with other researchers, feel free to tweet your thoughts, or reach out via email!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Year, new story, and exciting news…

Happy New Year everyone!

I’m back at my desk after a week of family visits and back at my blog after a busy November/December.  Some exciting things happened this past month…

My gothic Midwestern flash fiction piece “Women’s Work” is up at Flash Fiction Online.  I love the art the editorial team picked to be featured with the story so much!  I’d also like to give a shout out to Tanya DePass for consulting on this story.  If you are looking for professional manuscript consultation regarding diversity issues (i.e.  you’re writing characters backgrounds and identities than you and you really don’t want to fall into tired tropes), I highly recommending working with Tanya.

My article “Interviewing Venture Capital and Private Equity Professionals” made the top five most popular article list on the Helen Brown Group’s The Intelligent Edge.  I started reading The Intelligent Edge when I started my first job in prospect research four years ago; reading it helped me dive right into important conversations in the field–so I’m very excited to be included on such a great resource!

On a political note, while I’m frustrated and angry and scared for what the recent U.S. presidential election means for my community, I’ve been impressed by the outpouring of activism and engagement from my professional and social circles.  Some highlights (including resources to bookmark!):

  1.  This call script for contacting public officials, including how to tailor your call based on your official’s voting history.
  2. This action list  by the Southern Poverty Law Center on how to combat everyday bias in ourselves and our communities and the creative activism by Showing Up for Racial Justice during Thanksgiving.
  3. The outpouring of donations to nonprofits that serve and advocate for people likely to be targeted by the Trump administration.
  4. This call to action and responsibility by Helen Brown  for those of us in the information gathering and disseminating profession and a similar call by Barbara Kingsolver.
  5. The insistence that we remember our history and act accordingly, by  Kameron Hurley and Danielle Tanimura.
  6. Seeing my friends, family members, and colleagues take the opportunity to have tough discussions, fundraise, and do difficult self-reflection during the holiday season.  Witnessing my community’s commitment to doing the work needed to build a safer and more just world helps me do the same.

Looking towards the future, I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions this year, but  two phrases have been rolling around in my head during the past month:

Follow the joy.

Do the the work.

I think that sums up my intention for 2017.

Let’s do this.