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Answer This Question! Give Me A Report!

By Gil Israeli, GI Financial Resource Development and Dir. of Operation, Osher ELC

The Director of Development in a small operation says to the Development Associate, “Answer this question!”

Then: “Just her gifts.”

Or: “What boards is she on?”

“Answer this question!” is common in the nonprofit where the ED and Dir. of Development may be the same person. On a shoestring budget, she can’t afford a wealth screening or to buy prospect lists or to bring in a hotshot consultant. Perhaps the database and prospect pool are sorely lacking. She can’t spend time writing research reports…

It takes many small gifts to meet that $2.3 million budget and a shortfall could mean a serious decline in the nonprofit’s services or even its closure. Instead, once a prospect is identified or drawn out of the database, there may be just enough time and resources to get basic information and identify the purported “hook” to better connect and, hopefully, develop a relationship.

What about the other request?

Give me a Report!

In the small nonprofit, when you do have a skilled researcher (but no subscription tools), the prospect report is comprised of a time-consuming slate of data cobbled together from the usual free sites: Guidestar, Executive Salary Wizard, Zillow, Follow the Money, SECDatabase and Market Watch Insiders.

Universities (hospitals and museums) do have major budgets and can easily generate a sizable pool of prospects with native affinity thanks to a built-in constituency or members, supported by a wealth screening with algorithmically processed data.

More so, the full-fledged research department can generate unique analytical narratives, for example, the dissolution of a particular family empire of companies, how it was split up, the current assets (and new foundations) and interests and relations of the different family members. (I had to do this with the Pritzker family.) These reports, like the more challenging reactive research and good proactive research, involve a process as you gradually unearth your semi-fossilized data which you then need to put together in a meaningful construct.

Call it hard to believe, I had to pick up the phone (yes, that ancient device) to track down digital and nondigital sources. A specific facet of emotional intelligence is necessary. Your one advantage is that people enjoy talking about their work and the information they carry around in their gray matter. Reality is that no one research tool can cleanly deliver this report, and, if you use a collection of tools, their application is not a lock-step progression, from A to Z.

More importantly – and this is a researcher’s elite pedigree – you must have the refined nose of a bloodhound to identify exactly what is significant in the mish-mosh of actual data. One road sign: if you answer the right “how” questions (how the prospect gives, invests, affiliates, gets along with her family), you can sometimes intuit human values and then the all-important STRATEGY for fundraisers to start with.

The lucky prospect researcher that gets these types of assignments evolves into something like a qualitative researcher which bolsters his sharp prospect research skills. Give him or her an idiosyncratic prospect (or topic) to research and the request for an original, substantiated interpretation (not the canned algorithmic stuff) and consider it done.

This pair – the templated slate of data and the unique synthesized report – speaks to our epistemological tactics for engaging the world. Archilochus, the Greek philosopher, posited an unlikely dyad of two animals as exemplars: the fox (who knows many things) and the hedgehog (who knows one big thing). Stephen J. Gould, the paleontologist, described the literal meaning of this: the fox has a dozen ways to escape a predator (some not reliable) and the hedgehog does one sure-fire thing: he rolls into an impenetrable ball and emits a repelling scent.

Here I posit that this metaphor also applies to researchers – that is, in terms of their work.

But in terms of approaches to thinking, are the two mutually exclusive or can one draw on the strengths of both approaches?

To illustrate this, take the case of my father’s career path at Salton Inc. In the 1960s, he started as a mechanical engineer (a tool and die maker), designing molds to fashion plastic and metal pieces, all incorporated in made-to-last luxury household appliances such as hot-trays with sandal wood handles, pizza warmers and peanut butter machines. To analogize, the parts he fashioned were equivalent to the discrete answers of the prospect report – his contribution to the overall process and product.

Over 24 years, he also became an electrical engineer, then a visionary who conceptualized initial ideas to novel final products that served niche luxury customers, then Vice President of Engineering. Like all creative engineers with a broad mandate, he then designed the machines that fabricated the parts, while also managing the entire production line that turned out the product. To modernize the operation, he brought in the first generation of those IBM card-punched computers to better manage the business. To analogize this, the creation of a product (actually, the whole company catalog), from A to Z, was the large thing that he realized over his career (growing from a fox into a hedgehog). One fairly obvious point is that the nature of your work (given enough time) will ultimately influence your personality, your mentality, your values and your worldview.

Likewise, can a researcher’s work evolve?

On the practical level, a researcher can move from elementary (look up the data) to strategic prospect research and grow as a professional and also as a human being.

It’s not enough to know the tools.

First, always orient and inform your research with knowledge of your organization’s priority projects. It’s the same with proactive prospect research. If you want to hit the bowling pins, you need to know where they are. Identify prospects for your prospect pool for specific needs (unrestricted funding is also a category). Remember William Blake’s maxim: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.”

Then there’s appropriateness of fit (more pins). Some projects have tricky financing issues. Capital projects require cash gifts (at least immediate partial outlays). Then there are planned gifts, stock and property… all ways to finance other kinds of projects. This is one way of saying that researchers usually don’t consider liquidity issues. We’re a bit myopic on this point and vaguelly understand that it’s handled by the fundraisers. If you don’t have “fundraiser eyes,” you don’t understand how to do your prospect research.

What should you read? Nonprofit Pro is a better use of your time in supermarket lines than the National Inquirer. White papers: from Blackbaud, Grenzeback, Glier and Associates and WealthEngine. Research centers are a must: the Lilly School of Philanthropy, the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy and the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy. Add the annual reports: Giving USA (June) and Bank of America studies on the state of philanthropy (November). To understand your nonprofit work from organizational and economic perspectives, consume the The Harvard Business Review and The Stanford Social Innovation Review websites.

Being a fox is the required training for learning to answer the many small discrete prospect research questions. Becoming a hedgehog is the longer-term endeavor because it naturally draws on interaction with other talented people beyond the desk. Fashioning the “one big thing” – the unique synthesized report or running an operation – comes with years of experience, the broader view and your aforementioned growth into a professional with a few qualitative and quantitative skills.

After we’ve told the unfolding story of a prospect’s life, a family’s restructured financial empire, the best practices of a peer organization and, more complexly, as we’ve interpreted (not just read) societal trends per philanthropy, we may engage the inimitable human ability to transfer the skills of the crafty fox and the wisdom of the steadfast hedgehog to other domains of our lives – and this is the budding of maturity.

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