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Fill that Pipeline! Getting Started With Proactive Research

The Alaska oil pipeline reflected in a beautiful lake at sunset

By Sarah Bernstein, Consultant, Prospect Research and Database Support for Non-Profits

Proactive research – identifying and qualifying new prospects for your organization, and just as important, disqualifying and tabling people who will never make a major gift to your mission – is never easy, and very often does not come with a roadmap. All too often, other tasks take priority and it is frequently easier to complete tasks which have a clear path to execution, and to put off those which do not. To make matters worse, it requires both skill and management support to present newly identified prospects to fundraisers so… that they will accept and follow through with the assignment. As a result, some of us put it off, whether the fault is our own or our workload, and some of us have simply never learned the best way to get started.

The reality of proactive research is that it is simply a category within what we do. It is not itself a strategy and it has neither a prescriptive methodology nor a specific action plan. In fact, many of the tools and techniques you will use in proactive research are the same ones you use in so-called reactive research. What sets proactive research apart and can lead to great success is a specific kind of mindset – one which allows for both the pursuit of goals and serendipity. Let me describe two real-life examples.

The private university I formerly worked with was blessed with both a reasonably sized research team and a natural constituency of alumni and parents. One of our most successful techniques for proactive research involved prospecting as a group exercise: working through a single list as each one of us handled one tool – one person in The Raiser’s Edge, one in Research Point, one in Lexis/Nexis, and one in Google, Bing or another search engine. Sometimes we also included fundraisers in these sessions, adding additional knowledge sources and points of view to the mix. Working off a list (business school alumni, freshman parents, constituents with second homes in Florida, the class of ’83), we’d plow through the names like speed-daters. Here’s how we did it.

The need for speed. We didn’t pause to rate the prospects we found, much less to prepare a profile. At these meetings we rarely even verified the assets we found. Our objective while prospecting was simply to identify those prospects we would take a deeper dive with, and those we would not.

Give yourself a long leash. We were not bound by the strategy behind the list we were using; it may have been what led us to identify a prospect, and yet not be the most compelling reason to connect with that prospect. If our speed-prospecting found a prospect whose passions were something else entirely, we would follow that thread rather than disqualifying them or trying to bend their story to fit our goals. For example, I found a business school alum who had made her life’s work in a very different field, one influenced by a profound personal experience and her religious beliefs. However, our strategy for identifying her was driven by a potential business school initiative, and she popped on our list because of her degree and her marriage to a prominent “old money,” non-alum local businessman. In this case, she seemed a better fit for one of the university’s religious programs.

Follow-up and follow-through. When we found a “hot” one, one of us would be assigned to complete the asset verification and rating, and to compile an assignment recommendation. This would be done between our meetings. Sometimes these deeper dives led to disappointment – our prospect did not in fact own the assets we thought, we found a criminal record, or something simply wasn’t what it had initially seemed to be. And other times we hit gold, finding even more wealth and influence than the speed-prospecting had unearthed, or following yet another tangent which suggested how best to create an enduring relationship with the prospect. And we followed through. Sometimes we brought our lists to managing directors to confer about assignments. And sometimes we went right to the fundraiser with our recommendations. With my business school alum, suggesting her possible affinity for the university’s religious initiatives really got the fundraiser excited about making the first call.

Allow for fun and serendipity. Some of our favorite moments came from creative or unusual businesses, job titles, and websites; full house photo previews on Zillow; and the prospects who blogged about their pets or their pet projects, sometimes not very grammatically. Once we were even reprimanded for being too noisy – how often can a prospect researcher say that has happened on the job?

In 90 minutes or 2 hours, we might have gone through 50 or more names, and found 15-20 to research further. Typically, most of the 15-20 would be verified as having major gift capacity, and every now and then we’d find someone at a principal gift level. And we had fun.

OK – I can hear those of you who are saying you don’t have a “research team,” or that you don’t have a “natural constituency.” Well, before I worked for a university, neither did I. But I was still tasked with finding new prospects, year in and year out. I won’t lie; it’s not easy doing this alone, and it’s not easy prospecting without the safety net of alumni, patients or members. But it is possible. Here’s what I did.

Begin with relationships. At the youth service agency I worked at prior to the university, the board served as our fundraisers and our connectors. So I looked for prospects they were likely to know, primarily on corporate and non-profit boards. Searching on a trustee’s name would sometimes give me other leads for relationships – college alumni and fraternities/sororities, school and PTA affiliations, special interest clubs (cars, soccer, yachts, etc.). Most important: keep relationships in mind with every search strategy you employ.

Use the Book of Lists. There’s a reason it exists, and yes, everyone else is also using it. But if relationships are one of your constant filters, your prospect list won’t be the same as everyone else’s, and your list will be one step closer to being actionable.

Screen and/or score your database. It’s a vendor mantra, but a database screening very often does pay for itself. After my organization conducted a database screening, I created queries to sort constituents by the different scores the screening vendor returned to us. I would then conduct further research on the highest scoring constituents – to confirm capacity; develop our knowledge of the prospect, their philanthropy and their interests; and to identify connections with our trustees. I continued to work through those lists sorted by scores.

Work the middle. Can’t afford a screening? Research your middle tier of current donors for people who have the capacity to do more but who have not yet been asked to. Research the middle tier of donors to other organizations who are not your donors. And again, as you work to verify capacity and philanthropy and identify the prospect’s interests and passions, make sure to look for those relationships with your trustees which will help open doors.

Look for similar but not identical causes. When I looked at donor lists of other agencies for potential prospects, I did not select those of our direct “competitors.” I looked for people who supported groups with something in common with our mission – central city, poverty, hunger, employment, education, aspiration – rather than other local youth-serving agencies.

Finally, give yourself a deadline. Working against a deadline can give you the discipline to control the procrastination and distractions that can come with working alone. It gives an urgency to the project, and can also help avoid the tendency to fall down the rabbit-hole.

Proactive research is not a methodology, but an attitude. It can be a fun and fulfilling group activity for any research team, but it can also be rewarding for the individual researcher. Every organization, whether it has a natural constituency or not, needs donors and friends, and approaching proactive research with the right mixture of discipline, diligence, curiosity, creativity and an open mind will help you build that pipeline.


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great article Sarah. What a practical and helpful encouragement to prospect researchers. Well Done!

    July 2, 2014
  2. Carol Belair #

    Very nice article Sarah. I like the practical tips you bring to the important process behind proactive identification and research. I think proactive sessions or activities such as this are essential for successful fundraising programs to continually grow and prosper. Thank you!

    July 9, 2014

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