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Optimism and Prospect Research: The Lifeblood of Fundraising

Optimism monkey and elephant 072414

By Gil Israeli, Director of Prospect Research and Senior Writer, American Technion Society

It takes a remarkable degree of optimism to be a fundraiser since rejection by prospects is a normal occurance… part of the business. One grant-seeking professor told me that his (better-than-average) rate of success was getting one out of every five proposals funded by government agencies. Prospect researchers are one degree removed from the action as fundraisers interact directly with prospects and they require an even stronger dose of optimism in their constitution and daily desk work…

Where does this optimism come from me, or, more pointedly, what is the source of researchers’ motivation? Learning theorists have posited that two factors, challenge and reward, are the contributing factors to developing and sustaining motivation. Challenge can be the desire to better aid one’s organization in its fundraising mission. This can be driven by internal feelings of raising the bar to do better than good enough or external realities – that the fundraising environment has become increasingly more challenging as more fundraising organizations compete to raise dollars from a finite pool of donors. Reward comes in various forms: the remuneration we receive for good work, appreciation from our colleagues and an internal sense of satisfaction.

This dose of optimism is the perfect inspiring force for a researcher to dig in and acquire the essential skills and then to also branch out and connect with his or her colleagues to learn the practices, policies and history of their organization. Without the latter (without helping the researcher gain “fundraiser eyes”), prospect research remains literal and falls short of its potential. With the broader perspective, it can become strategically framed for a fundraiser’s use. When this happens, insightful prospect research, both reactive and proactive, can drive the motivation of fundraisers and provide key information so that they can “hit the pavement,” work their networks, identify connectors, meet with prospects and do the essential and delicate cultivation work that leads to a meaningful gift.

Optimism has grounded all types of innovation, manifestos, revolutions, economic development,  the evolution of cities,  life-changing algorithms enabling the Internet and cell phones, language revivals,  space and ocean exploration, Olympic records, early childhood education and art. Every meaningful human endeavor is a form of “fundraising” as it involves the gathering of resources to achieve a constructive goal. This begins with the optimistic belief that “it can be done.” Circumstantially, optimism has several unique characteristics:

– it is contagious (fundraisers are susceptible)

– it can “reinfect” the original source (researchers can be excited again by their work)

– it can be iterative and repeat in cycles

– as it “goes viral” in and across groups it can multiply in potency

– it drives collaboration

– creativity dwells in its energy

– perseverance is its natural offspring

The prospect researcher behind the desk now has enormous resources to scan a world of information regarding individuals, corporations, foundations and government agencies. His or her provocative output can come in the form of brief, to-the-point emails or more developed prospect profiles. Proactive research, when it hits its mark and leads to a gift, is one hallmark of  shrewd teamwork and can initiate an avalanche of optimism in an entire fundraising organization.

An ensemble of optimistic people (comprised of prospect researchers, fundraisers, management, proposals writers, pr professionals and event planners) can trigger an organization-wide renaissance that is not time-bound. Like sustainable energy, optimism can become a perpetual and even a progressive force. To maintain this precious state, the seminal ensemble needs to gain new members as veteran members leave.

Margaret Mead is often quoted: “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Naturally enough, fundraising is the metaphor that aptly describes the work of the considerable number of small and varied groups that work to change the world and researchers (with our compatriot colleagues) drive the ignition of this trickle down change in society or its grassroots growth.

Optimism is our lifeblood. Optimism: the spark of success.


5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lyn Watner #

    I’d like to post this on my FB page. Is that OK with you? Lyn

    Lyn Watner President LMW Non Profit Associates 410-615-8215

    July 25, 2014
  2. Very enjoyable read… Thanks!

    July 29, 2014
  3. Gil Israeli #

    Sian Nicholson writes:

    (Fundraiser at Spires, Streatham)

    Of course optimism is essential to fundraising, optimism is essential to any job or activity that you truly want to succeed in. However, my question is this, how can you engage with others in your organisation to be optimistic; and how do you sustain the energy of optimism?

    ” Like sustainable energy, optimism can become a perpetual and even a progressive force”

    July 31, 2014
  4. Gil Israeli #

    Gil Israeli, responding to Sian

    Learning theorists like to talk about two motivational factors when engaging a task: challenge and reward (which can be intrinsic). The first optimistic person sees the task as demanding these two aspects and is drawn to the task for this reason. Challenge is appealing because it touches an inner self to go beyond a prior state of accomplishment. Reward – well, that can be financial or even self-satisfaction. The person that starts out with these two natural sparks can share it with others – who then also internalize it and then pass it on (ongoing challenges and rewards may be necessary). It is in our nature (most of us) to want to be challenged and rewarded. We then internalize what has occurred “in public” and then bring it back outward to others (these are the natural cultural processes that make us human) which are well documented in anthropology and psychology. But, as you can see, this would have been another post.

    July 31, 2014

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