Posted on March 24, 2006.
We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give. — Winston Churchill
There are as many types of service as there are needs. As information professionals in non-profit organizations (NPOs), we use our research skills in the service of identifying the right people for the right need at the right time. Formerly this process is known as prospect identification and it is one of the important factors in the success of any fundraising program.
Identifying donors who have an interest in philanthropy or charitable giving is more of an art than a science. Though many of the skills associated with reference librarians, whether in a special, public or academic library are invaluable to the prospect researcher their application differs from the traditional reference library. Creating a profile of a donor individual, corporation or foundation requires thorough knowledge of resources, privacy legislation, strong writing skills and an understanding of how the project relates to the potential donor.
As first timers to a Non-Profit Organization, we have had to study the sector to appreciate the roles of philanthropy and fundraising in order to work effectively within our organizations. NPOs provide essential services such as education through the universities, health research (Heart and Stroke Foundation, Canadian Cancer Society), lobby governments for change (Nature Canada), offer assistance in times of crisis (Martha House, Casey House), work for social justice (War Child Canada) and so on. To continue providing these services or leading change they need funding. The funding comes from generous donors who give gifts with or without solicitation, and through fundraising drives. Since arriving in the realm of the NPOs, we have learned a lot about capital campaigns, annual giving, designated funding, and grassroots fundraising events.
In relationship to these, we have learned to look beyond the basic facts to understand why people give and what motivates them to give to their choice of charity. The book “Seven Faces of Philanthropy” as well as several articles on Canadian philanthropists were insightful and offered perspective when profiling major gift donors.
We have used the phrase prospect identification otherwise known as donor identification, but what does this really mean? Identifying a prospect whether an individual, corporation or foundation is more than providing a name and address to a development officer (DO). With in-depth research and analysis we assist the DO in determining whom to approach for a gift as well as identifying that donor’s capacity to give. The process of qualifying a donor requires the researcher to take into consideration affinity (to your cause), capacity (through wealth indicators) and circle of influence (to your board or committee members).
Our financial background proved an asset when researching wealth indicators of executives in public companies. Finding their salary, bonus and alternative forms of compensation using proxy circulars and other public documents found through SEDAR or EDGAR and insider trading reports on SEDI, can be done with relative ease, as can identifying corporate affiliations using the Directory of Directors, Who’s Who in Canadian Business, or community affiliations with Who’s Who in Canada. Using news aggregators such as FPInfomart, Factiva or Lexis/Nexis assist in rounding out the executive profile. Similarly, these tools assist in the evaluation of corporations and, in a few cases, foundations. All these research tools and more, familiar to those in the library world, help to build a profile on individuals.
When profiling individuals or companies in the community who do not have a high public profile or determining the full giving history of a donor, neither of which is a simplistic exercise, databases such as Imagine Canada, Pro Platinum and BIG Online are great assets. Of course, using those “Super Searchers” Internet tricks of the trade come in really handy. Keeping abreast of the various search engines features is important.
Of extreme importance to any fund raising organization is the privacy of its donors and prospects.
Prospect researchers are educated on privacy laws as they relate to the ethics of handling donor information as well as the type of information collected on potential donors. Information contained within a record must be publicly available. All staff members have to be extremely vigilant in what is recorded in a donor profile and to whom within the organization they discuss the information. Special librarians, particularly in the financial sector though not limited to, who are privy to mergers, acquisitions, divestitures or sensitive customer information know full well the consequences of misplaced information and therefore uphold privacy laws as they pertain to their specific industry. While not divulging the donor’s private information is one thing, when looking for information to round out a profile, those same laws often hamper the discovery of helpful information.
The greatest challenge to the prospect researcher is finding somewhere to begin when looking for donors. There are the annual lists of the wealthy, the powerful, the popular, the innovative, etc., of which almost everyone is beating a path to their door. The key is finding the link to these people or institutions. It becomes similar to playing the six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon game. Who knows whom, and do you know them too?
One of the most powerful tools, if a NPO has established one, is its own donor database. There is a wealth of information contained within these complex databases. Larger organizations often have a dedicated IT staff person(s) managing the database who work closely with research, while smaller shops rely strictly on their researchers to manage their donor database. Previous experience in the creation and maintenance of a special library database can help the new researcher hit the ground running.
The value of the database becomes very apparent, depending on time and money, when the organization can put datamining to use. Whether through a third party specializing in data mining (Blackbaud, MapInfo, HEP) or working through the data internally, some very interesting patterns can emerge. Interests and capacity become evident revealing a way to prioritize your next steps. Taken a step further, predictive modeling can yield fantastic results which assist the fund raisers in identifying clusters of donors who may fall into the categories of major gift, annual giving or planned giving donor in addition to identifying the appropriate projects for these donors.
Predictive modeling, data segmentation, capacity, major gifts, development officers, capital campaigns, sybunts and lybunts, the list goes on. There are so many concepts to learn in fund raising, it’s a good thing there is excellent professional development available. The Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA) (www.aprahome.org) and its Canadian Chapter APRA Canada (www.apracanada.ca) are the main associations for people in the industry. They offer teleconferences, virtual seminars and international conference. All of these offer excellent learning opportunities for developing the skills and identifying the tools prospect researcher requires. For a nominal fee APRA & APRA Canada run teleconference sessions, which are presented by other peers on topics that are truly relevant and actionable to the work prospect researcher conduct everyday. The participation rate in these teleconferences is high, and the participants are really engaged in the Q&A portion. It is a great way to spend a lunch hour.
As with any library the reactive and proactive tasks jockey for position. The priority is always new prospects, but the need for on the spot reference advice or project management has to be addressed too. On the good days regular media tracking offers new leads, or a new profile offers new linkages, scanning the latest industry journal presents a new idea just as reading through a major gift report might spur a new strategy. Who would have thought reading the city social pages would be part of your job and not just a mid afternoon mental margarita!
It has been said that a prospect researcher does not necessarily have to be a librarian and can come from various professions, but having a corporate library background can contribute tremendously to the adjustment in the role of prospect researching. Like any other job, it helps if you have some idea of what your doing before your start.
Why did two veteran business information specialists, who together spent almost 20 years on Bay Street, become prospect researchers?
Radikha Jaggernauth: I love researching and thoroughly enjoy it but had decided the time had come to move out of the financial sector. I became a prospect researcher after searching for almost a year for a ‘change’. When I accepted the position as Major Gifts Researcher I was confident I could do the job, no question about it. I am a strong researcher, expert in using most online commercial databases including some sophisticated and exorbitantly expensive ones, proactive in introducing innovative products and services. However, substantial corporate experience does not mean non-profit work will be a breeze. It has been said that a “prospect researcher’s personal qualities are a better indicator of success than previous career experience” and we’ll see why…
Stephanie Hilson: It was of a combination of wanting to earn a living and contribute to the quality of my community. With a young son and a husband whose job often requires unusual hours, in addition to being a full-time solo librarian, finding extra time to volunteer wasn’t realistic.
I had looked into the qualifications of a prospect researcher several years ago, I attended a FIS course on prospect research and I was fortunate to find a mentor who was highly skilled in this area. I knew the change between the corporate finance world and the university fundraising realm would be vastly different, but I was prepared and I needed the change.
Granted I miss the frenetic energy of Bay Street, not to mention the bonuses and awesome Christmas bashes, but that is small price to pay for work that fits my lifestyle rather than changing my lifestyle to fit work.
Hogan, Cecila. Prospect Research for Growing Nonprofits Boston: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2004.
Prince , Russ Alan and Karen Maru File. The Seven Faces of Philanthropy: A New Approach to Cultivating Major Donors San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.
Faculty of Information Science (U of T) – Continuing Education
Introduction to Prospect Research
Association of Prospect Researchers for Advancement
Council for the Advancement and Support of Education
Radikha Jaggernauth is currently the Major Gift Researcher with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario. Radikha has extensive experience in financial industry with previous positions at Rothschild Canada, BMO Nesbitt Burns and the TSX. Radikha was one (of two) APRA Canada 2005 Conference Scholarship winners.
Stephanie Hilson is a senior research officer with McMaster University Advancement. Stephanie has been a solo librarian with AIC Investment services and an information specialist with the TSX and BMO Nesbitt Burns.