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What Fundraisers Want

Begging Businessman

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

I’ve gotten better at doing prospect research over the years, primarily because fundraiser colleagues have been generous in describing their work to me. After I provide them research, I follow up with the same five questions:

– How was the research useful?

– More specifically, in your meetings with the prospect, what research data did you leverage to get additional information from (about) the prospect?

– How did the meeting go?

– What’s your next step?

– Do you need additional research?

This is a good launching point for a rich conversation which will lead to plenty of other relevant topics such as prospect cultivation methods, planned giving, payment schedules, etc. The value here is that you may gain “fundraiser eyes” – a critical appendage for someone who is usually behind a desk – for doing your job well requires that you understand how fundraisers do their job well.

One example of research that marked my transition from a good to better researcher involved the generous philanthropist Lorry Lokey. Lokey, a Stanford graduate, developed a major news agency and eventually sold it for several hundred million to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in March of 2006. With the profit, he now had the means to bankroll what has become a spectacular career as a philanthropist. My initial research indicated that he had made multiple major gifts to his elementary school, universities in Israel, the University of Oregon and Stanford. Those to the universities were in the eight-figure area (as high as seventy-some million) and obviously well publicized. (Lokey is also a signatory to the Giving Pledge.) The Chronicle of Philanthropy offered basic articles and clean data on Lokey – numbers, dates and descriptions about all these gifts, his board activities and his career.

This is what we expect in a research report – and, generally, we have gotten used to accepting this as the norm.

After delving much deeper, I found a detailed Stanford newsletter which covered a chapter of his philanthropy to his alma mater. This information was personal and revealing; it indicated that Lokey was a beloved figure on campus, an avid (Stanford) soccer fan and a very active participant in his philanthropy. Two stories will more finely flesh these points.

First, upon hearing that Stanford’s soccer stadium was in disrepair and would delay the start of the next year’s soccer season, Lokey entered the Development Office and challenged the school to have the stadium ready in time for the ensuing season. He announced that he would fund the most immediate new construction. Lokey’s energy was infectious and his challenge charged the university to get the job done in record time.

Second, upon construction of a Lokey-funded building on campus, he circled the construction site in person, watching the demolition, trying to determine if any insulation materials could be salvaged and reused. These stories communicate values: that Lokey is a proactive philanthropist who is also thrifty and knows how to get the best value for every philanthropic dollar he invests. The emphasis here is on investment and participation – characteristics that are becoming more common among younger donors and also the most savvy major gift donors.

In brief, this more insightful research can be attained through a refocusing on specific data that have different valences than what comprises the run-of-the mill research report.

The data sources are:

– geared to a local audience versus a global one

– personal in nature versus public in spirit

– detailed versus general


– grounded in true anecdotes versus cold numerical data

You know you’re on the mark in providing helpful data for your fundraiser colleagues if you’re telling what sounds like a cohesive life story or a good chapter of one.

Look for both types of data – the official story that everyone knows and the one that has genuine life in it.


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