Down the Rabbit-Hole

(original illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1865)

This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That alone is worthy of celebration, but there is something even more special about Alice for prospect research – or loathed, depending on your point of view. The title of Chapter One gives us one of prospect research’s most used metaphors: “Down the Rabbit-Hole.” Indeed we don’t need to read very far before we run into a paragraph which describes what will sound like a very familiar experience to many of us, on page 3:

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

Of course, this being a metaphor, the prospect research rabbit-hole is a virtual one. The entry point often begins with our favorite search engine on our favorite internet browser, but it can also be provided by a screening service, a property assessment or SEC filing, a subscription website, a contact report or relationship in the database, or just about anywhere data can be found. And while the nuggets of data we start with are our rabbit-hole gateway drugs, anything we find along the way can feed the habit, leading us to more search terms, more results, more tangents, and, ultimately, more to sift through. Once in the rabbit-hole, our curiosity unabated, we eagerly pursue any thread of evidence, any tiny breadcrumb of data. Are those enough mixed metaphors for you?

Many of us would agree that an essential trait for a successful prospect researcher is curiosity. It is curiosity which helps us chase down those tangents which often provide important clues. It is curiosity which leads us to read the footnotes in a proxy statement, and curiosity which leads us to leads us to research all the names on a real estate deed. But curiosity is also behind those hours we might spend on irrelevant details. For, as Anke Bernau, a medieval literature scholar at the University of Manchester, wrote recently on the New Chaucer Society blog: “Curiosity is ‘approach’ rather than ‘goal’ oriented.” In other words, curiosity is not a strategy, it is a tactic.

Instead, prospect research needs to channel curiosity, and use it within a broader strategy, as Meg Kinney recently pointed out in her blog post “Things I Have Left Out of Profiles:”

[Prospect Researchers] have a code of ethics, and a goal in mind–we’re not just poking around out of curiosity, but because we have specific, reasonable questions about charitable interests, assets, etc. We’re not in the business of idle gossip.

The rabbit-hole can be both the bliss and the bane of prospect research, its excess of data alternatively enticing and frustrating. Deep in the rabbit-hole, we find ourselves, like Alice, with “not a moment to think about stopping.” Faced with the allure of continuing down the rabbit-hole, we can be oblivious to the emerging spring weather, and perhaps even to our too-soon busted NCAA basketball brackets. But properly leveraged and filtered, curiosity can help us find the very things which will help nurture a closer relationship between our prospects and our missions.

And, while curiosity may have led me to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the New Chaucer Society blog, it took a bit of strategy to bring them into this post.