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The Allure of Proactive Research

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

Why didn’t you do my research first?, said my irritated colleague. I had an appointment!

If you’re a prospect researcher and you’ve ever heard these words, then you may have fallen into a common occupational trap. My intention in today’s post is to caution novice prospect researchers who tend to wander from their assigned duties of reactive research to the promised land of proactive research.

The former is what our colleagues ask for when they’ve already gone through the drawn-out process of identifying a prospect and securing the path to meeting this person. Their research requests are timely and critical. They have impending meetings and need research data (often on short notice) to better strategize their encounters.

To interact at his or best, to be able to best leverage a meeting, a fundraiser needs to know a prospect’s interests, assets, social and professional affiliations and philanthropic history. Absence of data can contribute to a lesser outcome. In contrast, the best proactive research is for the promise of what might happen… and it is even contingent on the fact that the fundraiser has not yet also vetted the prospect as being viable and established a means to meet the prospect!

I recall working in a publishing house many years ago (right after graduating from college) and being told by my supervisor: this is the (plainly named) slush pile. These are unsolicited manuscripts that have come into the house without an agent and I know you’ll start reading these, hoping to discover a promising new writer. She told me: this is part of your responsibilities, but be careful. Don’t lose track of time.

You can see that she knew that I would be drawn to the slush, after all, it’s a wonderful thing to pluck a brilliant unknown from obscurity and give him or her the right attention for fine work. On top of that, you get to be recognized as something of a hero for having done so.

The natural problem is that many more people want to be novelists than the actual number of publishable writers out there. (The problem is that once you start reading the slush, you cover the first five pages of a manuscript, get a quick sense of the quality or lack thereof and then are somewhat addicted to keep moving through the stack.) Likewise, when conducting proactive research, there’s an awful lot of slush to go through until you find one prospect that merits your colleague’s consideration.

When dealing with your finite amount of work time, it makes common sense to budget and be circumstantially frugal. In other words, something is amiss with your fundraising operation if your fundraisers don’t request a good amount of research (reactive research) and if you’re left with an overabundance of time for proactive resesarch. In this case, it means that they’re not going out with enough data or they’re trying to research it for themselves (less effectively and with inferior resources). Bottom line: they shouldn’t be behind a desk!

If you’re aiming to increase your prospect pool and your pipeline, you’ll typically have a portion of time for the proactive research that needs to be done. Work circumstances will usually help you budget your time tightly to you use it in the best possible ways.

As you get more experienced, the good thing is that there are better ways of doing the proactive research. I review an annual list of online publications that routinely reveal several promising new prospects each year. While the work is prodigious and the actual number of found prospects is relatively small, they often have potential major-gift potential in the seven-figure area.

I’ve gathered over 90 lists for prospect research purposes and I’ve tried to discriminate to have those that are worth my time to have an ongoing on-target annual review of (to name a few): the wealthiest philanthropists in the US; major givers in higher education and medicine; leading philanthropic advisors; top 100 investment professionals; fastest growing private companies; entrepreneurs of the year; the top “30 under 30;” the “Million Dollar List” of grants awarded each year; firms that have made recent IPOs; Most Powerful CEOs Under 40; 50 Most Powerful Women; Top 20 Rising Stars of Real Estate; Silicon Alley Insider’s 100 Coolest People in Tech, etc.

In addition, I’ve learned to use my research tools in tandem (each drawing on the prior insightful slice of data) as I move and bounce back and forth from a personally collected, veritable and bookmarked library of essential free websites to Lexis Nexis to IWave to Relationship Science to Blackbaud and sometimes also the Foundation Center’s research tools. I’ve programmed sharp alerts in my Lexis Nexis account to identify major gifts to peer institutions. These alerts have become particularly useful as they not only identify new individual prospects; they also point to the general new type of revenue sources that peer institutions are developing.

It goes without saying that you can get online lists of donors to peer institutions (universities are the best example) and also gift lists (in ranges) for the honoree dinners and annual galas that so many nonprofit organizations convene. If you’re a national organization with multiple regions, it’s easy to collect the donor lists of your peer institution’s gala events and begin the delicate process of introducing yourself to these prospects. Black Tie magazine is a rich resource for the latter with a calendar of events and often useful photographs from events that can give you leads to new prospects.

I’ll also take a tangent to say that, appropriately enough, universities represent a universe of research opportunities. Given their scope, a good researcher can survey university departments, centers and projects to find their respective major donors in every realm including the arts, humanities, science, engineering and every other discipline – all under one roof. Universities also engage their communities. Yet somehow, researchers don’t look at universities as good prospect hunting ground for the diversity of causes that exist.

Finally, I’ve gotten supreme advice from my fundraiser colleagues as to where and how to best fish for new prospects so that I can optimize the use of these online research tools. This advent – gaining “fundraiser eyes” is critical for it is important to understand their part of the business to be successful with our prospect research part of the business. Good advice that broadens your research focus and methods can come from their suggestions – from the type of typical data they observe and collect about their prospects such as what schools and summer camps do the prospects’ children go to and where and how do the families vacation. Often times, the labor will be collaborative: it will be the fundraiser that provides you this information, while you go about the work of placing a monetary value on these activities and experiences.

Proactive research can even be glamorous when it hits its mark. It speaks to the potential of just being smart and reaching out from your desk to provide vital information, it can spark optimism and it can help colleagues rally together around the flag. When proactive research leads to a major gift, it’s a bright spot in a business that is commonly characterized by rejection from prospects. On the other hand, always remember to do your reactive research first. This is your first charge, this is where the fundraisers are on their cutting edge of being most close to raising gifts.

Be reactive to pay the organization’s bills (operating costs and immediate project costs) and think of them as your own bills (rent and groceries). Yet, because proactive research is one of your responsibilities, you may be overly ambitious and susceptible to its allure and slippery slope. When you have the opportunity to be proactive, make sure you’re highly intelligent about how you use this invaluable and limited time.


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