Research pride: a love story

Prospect Ave cropped

Photo courtesy of Joseph Brooks

I am not so sure my pride in prospect research is even a wee bit altruistic. It’s probably totally selfish.

After all, prospect research is how I make my living. Prospect research is one of the ways I’ve branded myself on LinkedIn and Twitter, and at conferences, cocktail parties, and PTA meetings. Prospect research wasn’t my first career, and it may not be my last, but it has been the lengthiest so far. Prospect research is the career which has drawn upon and stretched the skills I most enjoy using.

Prospect research has given me far more than I could ever give back.

So I think I will tell you a love story. You might think it all began when I was first asked to consider adding prospect research to my job description 17 years ago. But that wouldn’t be telling all of the story.

In fact, it was in college and graduate school that I first fell in love with research. It was as a film and art history major that I learned the basic skills of research, which in those days, before the internet, was primarily library-based. My prospects back then may have been paintings, sculptures, and movies, and my tools the Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature, bibliographies, the card catalogue, and inter-library loan, but it was in college that I first learned the important difference between going down a rabbit hole and taking a leap of faith. I loved the smell of books, I loved the thrill of the chase, I loved strategizing, I loved solving the puzzle, and I loved writing all about it. I loved it all.

It was also in college, as the daughter of a suddenly single mother, that I experienced how profoundly powerful philanthropy could be. It wasn’t my first encounter with giving; I was a Girl Scout, I had trick-or-treated for UNICEF, and I had worked on environmental and political campaigns. But in college I began to realize that I would face no challenge alone; there were many generous donors who had my back. Their visionary philanthropy created the scholarships and fellowships which made my education – and my love of research – possible.

Fast forward. Now the research I love makes all kinds of philanthropy possible. The research I provide to my clients empowers, enriches, and enlivens the relationships they create with their donors. The research I do helps nonprofits help their donors to make this world we all share a much better place. As a prospect researcher, I am constantly learning about the philanthropy of others. Many of the prospects I research inspire and challenge me to do more, as they broaden my horizons by showing me all the ways in which more can be done. This seems even more crucial today.

But because it is how I make my living, prospect research also funds my personal philanthropy. Moreover, doing the work I love has helped our family put two children through college, two children who now make their livings working for nonprofits. Finally, and no less importantly, my experience with prospect research has given me many opportunities to serve, as a manager, mentor, volunteer, and blogger, and as an Apra chapter leader, committee member, and conference presenter.

In the last few months I’ve given two presentations about the nuts and bolts of prospect research to local nonprofit leaders, one through the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee, and one for the Southeastern Wisconsin chapter of AFP. I am very proud of the fact that neither audience wanted to hear about WHY they should make a place for prospect research in their fundraising operation. They already recognized its value, and now they wanted to learn HOW to get it done.

So we talked about which prospects to research, and how to find them. We talked about what kind of information to look for, and where it might be found. We talked about planning a ratings system, and some ways to calculate gift capacity. We talked about composing profiles, and about tailoring the depth, focus, and range of research to the need it serves and the questions it might answer. We finished up by talking about ethics, challenges, and advocacy.

My last slide was about #ResearchPride.

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The Whole Wide World

As an election year in the U.S., 2016 has certainly seen a plethora of hashtags on social media. One of the less political ones this summer was #firstsevenjobs. I didn’t post to this conversation, perhaps because for me, at least five of those jobs would be “waitress.” I like to think that says more about the era in which I went to college than it does about how I got to where I am today.

More recently, as a response to a Washington Post article about college majors which I shared on Twitter, Jen Filla started a little Twitter trend among prospect researchers to share their college majors, which she Storified here.

This all happened as I was in the middle of my first foray, as a consultant, to identify potential new donors. And not just any new donors. I needed to seek prospects in a number of different countries and cultures who might be interested in funding a client’s international project.

This wasn’t the first time I’d ever done prospecting for people who were not already in the donor base for one reason or another. In fact, the brief for this project brought back memories of one of my former bosses, who liked to say, “Sarah, I just need you to find some new $25,000 donors.”

It also wasn’t the first time I had done research on international prospects, or the first time I had done prospect research in a language I don’t speak or read. I had Yahoo’s currency converter bookmarked. I knew Google’s “translate this page” feature would be my new best friend, in part because it would give me at least one good laugh every day.

So, I did have some tricks up my sleeve, and some ideas of how to get started.

I’d go the whole wide world
I’d go the whole wide world
Just to find her
I’d go the whole wide world
I’d go the whole wide world
Find out where they hide her
~ Wreckless Eric, 1977

But it wasn’t going to be that easy. After a bit of trial and a lot of error, I realized that I couldn’t simply “export” the strategies I was comfortable using when prospecting within the United States. It wasn’t just that I was searching in different cultures and languages. Most of the countries in which I would be searching for prospects have histories of conquest and colonization, and several are now seeing an influx of refugees and immigrants.

I needed to acknowledge something I never thought much about in prospect research: my own cultural bias and privilege.

Back to that Washington Post story, and even, perhaps, to my #firstsevenjobs. I like to think that college majors shouldn’t exist solely to prepare us for jobs in our fields, but more importantly to provide a very narrow platform upon which we can learn how to think deeply and critically. And thinking about my own cultural bias and privilege was something I had learned to do in my college classes.

So for each country and culture I explored I first needed to re-think what “philanthropy” might mean. I needed to learn each day again what a “charitable foundation” looks like, and how wealth and prestige were acquired, measured, and honored. I learned to look for the little British flag or “EN” on corporate websites that toggles between English and the native language, for which most U.S. websites have no equivalent. All of this helped me to identify a fairly diverse list of philanthropists from nearly every country. People of all colors; men and women; gay and straight; Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus; descendants of slaves, colonists, immigrants, and indigenous people. Acknowledging privilege doesn’t make it go away, but it’s a small step.

As Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, reminded us recently on the foundation’s Equal Change Blog, ignorance and the power of privilege are the enemies of justice. We cannot make progress without first asking ourselves:

“Who am I forgetting? Which of my assumptions are flawed? Which of my beliefs are misbegotten?”

His words resonate with me, and I will craft my strategies more carefully next time I get a prospecting project, here or abroad. After all, the gender neutral word for “waitress” is “server,” and some of the most essential skills in food service are listening, empathy, and respect.

atsiii_10nov67_153107

First color photograph of the whole Earth (western Hemisphere), shot from the ATS-3 satellite on 10 November 1967

Reading about Writing

Books - 2

These are some references to accompany the July 27, 2016, workshop on writing which Preeti Gill and I developed for APRA’s Prospect Development 2016. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some safe places to think about writing. Whether your work is primarily in prospect research, or in another area of fundraising, clear communications and effective writing can go a long way. These texts have your back.

Amis, Kingsley. The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Print.

In this book, Amis often gives not only the reason for a rule, but also its history and social context. It is organized alphabetically, with paragraphs and sometimes pages about commonly misused or misunderstood words, phrases, and concepts. The blurb on this book jacket describes Kingsley Amis as “one of the most important figures in postwar British fiction.” I will admit, however, that I have many more books on my shelves by Amis’ son Martin than I do of his.

Cameron, Julia. The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998. Print.

Julia Cameron is a novelist, playwright, poet, and writing teacher. The Right to Write follows a simple model over 42 chapters. First, Cameron issues an “invitation” by discussing a common barrier to writing. She follows that with an “initiation” which consists of concrete writing exercises and tools to give the writer practice in overcoming specific obstacles. While her examples may seem very specific, she always returns to her broader purpose of getting people to integrate writing into their daily lives.

Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Rev. Sir Ernest Gowers. 2nd ed. 1965. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.

I inherited this book from my parents; the original edition was published in 1926. Like the Amis book, for which it served as a model, it is organized dictionary-style. However, there are more pages and the print is tinier, the content is more extensive and exhaustive, the entries often briefer, and the emphasis is much more on the usage of individual words. Fowler, a translator, writer, and former teacher, was a proponent of proper English, and his rules and explanations reveal that bias. Sir Ernest Gowers, a civil servant, hated the jargon he encountered in government. As part of his advocacy for clear language, Gowers undertook the first major revision of Fowler’s book, updating it for the 1960s.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Doubleday, 1994. Print.

Of all the resources on this list, this may be the most fun to read. Anne Lamott is a novelist and columnist. You may already know that she got the title for this book from some advice her father gave her brother as he was working on a last minute paper about birds. Her brother was facing down the writers’ block which procrastination often brings, and their father told him, “bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” This is what Lamott does here with the writing process, giving us as a result both a memoir and honest advice for aspiring writers. Sometimes it is brutally honest advice, ranging from committing to producing “shitty first drafts” to coping with the 27 bad reviews she received for one of her novels.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” 1946. Resources for Graduate Students. University of Texas-Dallas, Sept. 2000. Web. June 30, 2016. <https://www.utdallas.edu/~aria/research/resources/orwell.pdf>

I only just discovered this essay on Twitter in the last few weeks. Written just after World War II, this often tongue-in-cheek examination of political writing resonates just as much today. The lessons here could benefit any persuasive writer, politician or not.

Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. 1959. 50th anniversary ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. Print.

Without question, a classic. This brief but comprehensive guide to English language grammar, usage, and style is organized by topic. To help you find what you are looking for, it offers a detailed table of contents, and includes both a glossary and index. I especially appreciate their advocacy for the serial, or Oxford, comma, which comes on page two of my edition.

Swift, Jonathan. “On Poetry: A Rhapsody.” 1733. The Literature Network. 2000-2016.  Web. June 30, 2016. <http://www.online-literature.com/swift/3515/>

Jonathan Swift was one of the English language’s greatest satirists, and this very long poem skewers pretensions about both poetry and political writing. It was written several years after the more well-known essay “A Modest Proposal” and Gulliver’s Travels.

Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit. 1938. 2nd ed. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1987. Print.

For many years, Brenda Ueland taught a writing class at the Minneapolis YMCA. She was the daughter of a lawyer and a suffragette, and worked as a writer and editor. Much of the book consists of stories about famous artists, the aspiring writers from her classes, and her own experiences, and it is a pleasure to read. She compares the writing process to stringing beads on a necklace, and eschews writing for money or fame. Family friend, Carl Sandberg, called this book “the best book ever written about how to write.”

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 1976. 30th anniversary ed. New York, HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

William Zinsser advocates for simple, clear, and honest prose. He offers advice for removing clutter from writing through reducing adjectives and adverbs, and using (not utilizing) the simplest word choices. He abhors clichés, jargon, and corporate speech. If you need to write a long piece of technical writing, this book will be your ally. Zinsser has written 17 books and countless newspaper and magazine articles, and has taught at Yale, Columbia School of Journalism, and the New School.

The greatest of these is love

I will confess
I compose
More comfortably in prose
Than in poetry
– those sweet bullet points and broken sentences
Of song and story.

But poetry is the medium
Of love and passion;
When poetry is its agent,
Language is aspiration.

Philanthropy is literally
The love of humanity,
And if love is a leap of faith,
Philanthropy is aspiration.

In my corner
Of this hopeful world
Are prospect researchers.
INTPs and INTJs
Who yet so love our missions,
our prospects,
and our profession,
That we, like poets,
Bend our language to
The currency of aspiration
And the wealth of passion.

Prospect research is philanthropy.
Prospect research is faith.
Prospect research is hope.
Prospect research is love.

Prospect research may look like prose
But it is just as likely
To be poetry.

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If I could save time in a bottle

It has been exciting to see so many bloggers answer Helen Brown’s call for writing about #ResearchPride this month in her Proud Voices in Harmony blog post! Helen continues to update the links to #ResearchPride posts, and harmony is definitely the right word to describe the many voices. #ResearchPride is a rich chorus singing a variety of songs about the pride we feel in the work we do.

I am proud of our profession, my career, for so many of the same reasons my colleagues write so eloquently about. I am proud that the work I do contributes in some small way to building a better world. I am thrilled that my work draws on the skills and aspirations I have spent a lifetime honing. And I treasure beyond words the relationships this career has helped me build.

Fundraising is a relationship business. Perhaps that helps explain why, in a recent Pew Research study on workplace automation, non-profit workers were far LESS likely than the public as a whole to think their jobs would be replaced by robots and computers in the next 50 years. But I like to think that, as a profession, prospect development has a more nuanced stance on automation than these statistics might suggest.

Just think of the technological innovations prospect development has introduced to fundraising: from power-googling to wealth screening to in-house analytics and beyond. Some might say we are the very picture of planned obsolescence, as we embrace and endorse technologies which do what we used to do ourselves.

Instead, I believe that when given the challenge of choosing between cheap, fast, and good, we strive to achieve all three. That what we get from technology is both greater reach and time saved; spending less time to find more and better data means we are always and forever looking beyond the horizon. It means we can continue our search for new technology; create more strategic, efficient, and donor-centered research deliverables, tools, and tactics; and develop deeper, more meaningful, and more rewarding relationships with our fellow researchers, and the fundraisers, trustees, executives, and nonprofit missions we serve.

In a conversation with Jen Filla the other day, she used the phrase “fundraising catalyst,” and it has stuck with me. When we are at our best, we are the catalyst which provides data, and in turn, the confidence for fundraising to move forward. We inform, we strategize, and we nudge. To paraphrase Jim Croce, if I could save time in a bottle, I would save every day, to find a better way, to share what I’ve found with you.

Prospect development is the landscape upon which philanthropy, technology, curiosity, and innovation converge. As a liberal arts major with earlier careers in education and IT, this makes me very proud.

Trusting your (prospect research) gut

Lately I have been validating a lot of wealth screening results, but this post is not about how to do that. For those kinds of tips, you can download the recent webinar delivered by Rachael Dietrich Walker during APRA’s 2016 Chapters Share the Knowledge event. Or (shameless plug) you can read this post I wrote last year for EverTrue.

Today, I simply want to tell you a couple of stories; cautionary tales about when to trust your instincts and look outside your vendor’s report during a validation – not to verify information but to supplement it.

Robin-Clipart-300px

Here in the northern half of the U.S. we have tons of snowbirds – fleeing the cold for the more temperate climates in Florida, Arizona, and sometimes California. We also have prospects who love the colder weather, and have condos in ski country or huge forested lands in Wisconsin’s North Woods. And most of the time, your wealth screening vendor will find those second, third, and (yippee!) fourth homes. Indeed, that’s probably the number one reason we researchers love our screening vendors. They make finding those other homes a breeze, especially as search engine filter bubbles increasingly make it a challenge to do on our own.

The problem is, when a vendor’s algorithm doesn’t find those other properties, we don’t know if it’s because they don’t exist, or if there’s another reason. Most vendors match properties on some combination of mailing addresses and names. So what happens when your Wisconsin prospect uses their Florida address as the mailing address for their Florida property?

I always do a few “broad” (aka quick and dirty) internet searches as part of my wealth screening validations. I generally do this at the end of the process, usually just to see if there is any recent news or mega-gift I should share with my clients, and I don’t spend a ton of time. (To be fair, as a consultant, it’s often pretty easy for me to know when to pull the plug before I fall down the rabbit hole, by sensing when the meter has run out for that particular validation report.)

It was during one of those searches last month that I came across a Naples, FL, news story naming Mr. and Mrs. Prospect as the hosts of an upcoming garden party at their Naples home. Which was not in my screening results. I went back to the screening vendor’s website, and redid my search using Florida as the state instead of Wisconsin. There it was, their third multi-million-dollar home.

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If you read Helen Brown’s blog, you know about the growth in family offices, and important clues to recognize them. Helen has also compiled a helpful list of resources. Rather than repeat that here, I simply caution you to pay attention whenever your wealth screening reports an LLC.

Last week I was validating the screening results for a local executive. He has a fairly common name and a leadership role in a public company, so I expected a long slog through mismatched charitable donations and property records, and years of SEC filings. Imagine my surprise when all the screening found was a couple of LLCs, with meager Dun & Bradstreet reports, a few old property records, and remarkably low net worth and gift capacity ratings.

I usually begin my validation process by looking at property records, so I looked up those old properties in the tax assessor website. There I found that the two local properties were now owned by one of those tiny LLCs reported in the wealth screening. Further searching on Zillow confirmed the combined $4M assessed market value for those two properties. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

I checked the business incorporation information my state makes available, and the LLCs were indeed registered in the name of Mr. Prospect. So that was easy. Then, following my validation routine, I looked at the most recent proxy of the public company where Mr. Prospect worked. My usual search tactic with proxies during wealth screening validation is, you guessed it, quick and dirty. I simply search on the prospect’s last name and click through all the hits. The 11th or 12th mention of Mr. Prospect’s name was in a footnote to the Beneficial Owners table. No wonder the screening didn’t have any stock holdings to report! Although a member of the executive team, he wasn’t a stock-holding insider. But one of his LLCs was. The LLC owned more than 11% of the public company’s outstanding stock.

Since this was simply a validation, nowhere near a full profile, at this point I felt I could wrap things up.  I warned my clients that the screening rating were low, how much else I had already found, and that there was likely to be much, much more to the story.

Taking a couple more steps to research these two prospect households a little bit more didn’t add much time to my usual validation process. But in both of these cases what I found added detail and nuance to the screening results, which will help my clients make more informed decisions as they develop cultivation and solicitation strategies, and deepen their relationship with these prospects. And isn’t that the point?

Wealth screenings continue to introduce jaw-dropping efficiencies to prospect development tactics. But no algorithm can yet replace the intellectual leaps a skilled researcher is able to make, when their training and experience evolve into instinct.

 

#APRAPD2015 and My Daily Affirmations

Loading Dock - New Orleans Marriott - July 25, 2015

Loading Dock – New Orleans Marriott – July 25, 2015

Another APRA conference has come and gone, and for the first time I am starting to realize what I possibly gain the most from these conferences, and it’s not what you might think.

Most of us attend – or wish we could attend – conferences like APRA for what we broadly label “professional development.” But what do we mean by that term? Certainly, we are referring to the new approaches, philosophies, and skills we are introduced to by the leading innovators in prospect development. In addition, as Helen Brown recently wrote, we might also be looking for a little “gravity assist” to our careers, networks, and personal relationships which conferences give us the chance to nurture face-to-face.

This is not a post about how to use the energy the conference provides to put new ideas to work; that’s been done, and better than I might have. I want to talk about something else entirely. Something that I didn’t know how much I valued until after the conference concluded.

This year, I thought I was being pretty darn witty during the conference when people asked me how things were going, and I described many of the sessions I attended as “affirming.” Yes, that was a snarky reference to Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley and his daily affirmations. But does it mean I have become one of the mean girls?

And yet. On my return home, I started thinking about what I learned. You know what? That’s when I realized that some of the most important lessons I learned actually came from those “affirming” sessions: that the tools I use, the methods I follow, and the ethics I adhere to, are the right ones.

I started in prospect research as a solo practitioner; in fact, when I started, research was just one of the hats I wore. I devoted a small percentage of my working day to it and I had no dedicated budget. Fifteen years ago I went to my first APRA conference, and began my first prospect research assignment upon my return from Anaheim. In the years to follow, APRA conferences, at the state and international level, would continue to provide most of my training. I also gained a network of mentors to turn to, but they weren’t in my office. Much of what I did, I did alone. Many of the challenges I faced, I faced alone. And many of the techniques I learned, I refined on my own.

Most of us experience imposter syndrome to a varying degree, at one point or another in our careers. Five years ago, Judith Beck, Ph.D., president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy, described imposter syndrome in the Huffington Post:

There’s not really a recognized condition called “the imposter syndrome.” But it’s a handy label to describe the self-doubt that many people, particularly high achievers, experience. It’s that sense that you don’t fully know what you’re doing and that you have fooled other people into believing that you’re more competent and talented than you really are.

It doesn’t matter if you work alone or in a large shop; self-doubt can always sneak in: that worry that someone is going to find out that you are just faking it. There’s nothing quite like hearing someone with impressive credentials describing to a rapt audience a practice which you also do, to help shrink that feeling.

So yes, indeed. It truly is affirming to find that in this career – which I’ve mostly been making up as I go along – I am actually doing things pretty much the right way. This affirmation is probably just as important to me, working solo once again, as any of the new skills and knowledge I learned.

Don’t get me wrong – I value highly the new things I learn at APRA, and I plan to use some of them to my clients’ benefit very soon. Like Helen Brown, and many others on social media, I treasure the gravity assist conference attendance gives me. The opportunity to have a real conversation, about work and life, and to build relationships that extend beyond 140 characters, cannot be compared.

After 15 years in prospect research, and after my sixth APRA conference, discoveries continue. A professional development conference big enough to have two new anthems celebrating prospect research – thank you, Dave Robertson, for Prospect Gold and Research and Philanthropy – is also big enough for us to celebrate affirmation. And the lesson from those small virtual pats on the back, from those sessions that if I trust myself enough, I might perhaps deliver someday? Maybe simply that I am good enough and smart enough.

 

4 Tools You Can Use to Conduct Prospect Research Without a Full-Time Researcher

I am pleased to welcome Bill Tedesco, founder and CEO of DonorSearch, as the first guest blogger on The Fundraising Back-Office.

Bill-Tedesco

In an ideal world, if an organization needed a new staff member, the Executive Director could wiggle her nose, click her heels, make the request, and the perfect employee would appear.

In the real world, funding is tight and nonprofit employees have to be expert multi-taskers, folding numerous job requirements into one-size-doesn’t-really-fit-all positions.

It is quite common that smaller to mid-size nonprofits don’t have the means to hire full-time prospect researchers, but that fact does not make the need for prospect research any less critical.

To help those organizations that want to implement prospect research, but don’t have the ability to hire a researcher at the present time, these four tools can provide the necessary support to get going with your research.

These tools will help guide you through a productive trip down the prospect research rabbit-hole.

#1: Prospect Screening Companies

Subscribing to the services of a prospect screening company, like DonorSearch, is a great way to conduct prospect research without having to hire a full-time research staff member.

Prospect screening companies do the heavy lifting for organizations. They take your donor list, whether it is large or small, and compare those donors and prospects against a group of databases.

Screening companies will use a combination of publicly and privately available databases and then take the information learned and compile the data into prospect profiles.

With a research company’s help, your busy staff can focus its efforts on using the prospect profiles for fundraising, rather than the building of them.

To put this in other terms, imagine the prospect profiles are all homes in a new neighborhood. The screening company is the construction company and your organization is the real estate group.

Not everyone is equipped to build a home. It is important to know your limits and acquire assistance when it is needed. We don’t need any fundraising houses falling down!

#2: The Foundation Center

The Foundation Center is information central for the philanthropic community. The Center houses an extensive and exhaustive database on grants and grantmakers.

The website offers a mix of free and subscription-needed services.

A great feature of the center is its collection of actual libraries that nonprofit professionals can visit and get research help from the librarians on staff.

If you live in one of the following cities:

  • Atlanta
  • Cleveland
  • New York
  • San Francisco
  • Washington, D.C.

Visit a Foundation Center Library and enter prospect research heaven. Even if you cannot get to one of the main libraries, their website is comprehensive and extremely helpful.

While we’re on the topic of libraries, don’t overlook your local public library. Sometimes it helps to incorporate “old-fashioned” methods of investigation into your prospect research.

#3: Social Media

We all have a bit of a sleuth instinct. Social media feeds into that tenfold. Rather than using social media to see what your high school nemesis is up to, put your skills to good and charitable use — conduct prospect research.

LinkedIn and Facebook are great places to start.

If your prospect has a LinkedIn, you’ll learn valuable details about his business affiliations and employer information. You could quickly see returns on some of that information.

Imagine learning that a donor works for a company with a generous matching gift program. Once you know that, you can promote the gifts to the donor and encourage her to submit a request, leaving your nonprofit with twice the expected funding.

A public Facebook profile will result in slightly different, but just as pertinent, information. A person’s Facebook page reveals his or her social connections and interests. The former are good to know for networking reasons, and the latter are good to know for personally connecting to said donor.

People spend much of their time living within their online profiles, and their online presences provide a good outlet for getting to know them better.

#4: Zillow

Real estate ownership acts as a unique marker. It can indicate both a capacity to donate and a philanthropic inclination.

In many ways real estate ownership is considered a traditional wealth marker. If you own real estate with a high dollar value, you have money. One plus one equals two. The relationship makes sense. Interestingly though, certain dollar amount thresholds are statistically connected to charitable giving.

For example, donors that own $2+ million in real estate are 17 times more likely to give than an average prospect.

It is in a nonprofit’s best interest to screen for real estate ownership, but if time and resources are limited, there’s a quick and easy option for searching, Zillow.

Once you have your prospect’s address, which should already be in your donor database, you can search for it using Zillow. The website will give you an estimated property value. It is as simple as that.

If your organization is still looking for more help, but you’re not ready for a full-time staff member, consider contracting prospect research services out to consultants. They can be a strong option, either in the short term or as a program launching point.

There are plenty of other tools and resources out there to supplement the prospect research efforts of nonprofits. They help make the real world slightly more ideal.

 

Bill Tedesco is a well-known entrepreneur in the field of philanthropy with over 15 years of experience at the helm of companies serving the fundraising profession. He has personally conducted original research to identify markers of philanthropy and has developed modelling and analytical products that use those markers to accurately predict future giving.

Since 2007, he’s been the founder, CEO and Managing Partner of DonorSearch. DonorSearch is one of a small group of companies providing wealth screening, philanthropic reviews, and online prospect research tools exclusively to the nonprofit market.

 

No Trespassing? Privacy, Property, and Prospect Research

Home, home, sweet, sweet, home!
There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!
~ Home Sweet Home by John Howard Payne (1791-1852)

According to a recent Pew Research study, only 22% of Americans are comfortable with government putting data about individual mortgages online, while 54% are comfortable with the government sharing real estate transactions online.

Just think for a moment. What might this perception mean for the practice and ethics of prospect research, where online access to property data can be our bread and butter?

When I’ve given how-to presentations about prospect research, I have always advised my audience that prospect research “begins at home.” A double meaning is fully intended. I recommend that they begin with the constituent records housed in their databases, and with their prospects’ homes as the primary identifiable asset. And, for the great majority of the prospects we look at, those whose philanthropic capacity is less than $1 million, a home or homes may be the only hard assets we find to construct that capacity number. In fact, the wealth in homes and neighborhoods can be such reliable predictors of capacity, that the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association uses Census tract data as a placeholder for capacity in prioritizing unrated prospects.

As prospect researchers, we know that transformational gifts are more commonly given from assets than they are from income. So the property assessment or mortgage data we find is often just the beginning of our prospect research story. Many of us will try to take a look at pictures of the property on Google Street View or Zillow, looking for amenities like swimming pools, tennis courts, lake access, and long, winding driveways. In a similar vein, we will comb through contact reports and internet searches for information about things like art collections, boats, and antique cars. All of this helps us refine the asset inventory which shapes our philanthropic capacity calculation, and – often more importantly – provides a glimpse into the interests and passions of our prospects.

So how can we reconcile this Pew Research report with our practice of prospect research? For, just as a home serves as a bellwether for philanthropic capacity in prospect research, it also serves, for many, many people, as the bellwether for their own personal privacy. And I don’t imagine that they would be reassured knowing that the registrar of deeds has paper, microfiche, or electronic copies of all their property transactions and mortgages.

Every year or so there will be a news story about prospect research and advancement offices digging into their donors’ private lives. Jen Filla, of Aspire Research Group, presented an on-point analysis and resource list of this phenomena in 2012. There is no shortage of more recent stories any of us could add to Filla’s bibliography, like this one about social media which appeared in the New York Times on Jan. 4, 2015.

In his book, Privacy (Picador, 2012), Garret Keizer conducts a wide-ranging philosophical and historical analysis of privacy. In discussing the history of the concept of privacy in American law, Keizer points out two important moments, both of which frame their definition of privacy with the home. The first is, of course, in the Bill of Rights, in particular, the Fourth Amendment. This is the amendment which guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search and seizure.” The second moment is in fact the first American court case in which the word “privacy” actually appears: DeMay v. Roberts in 1881, in which the court wrote “the plaintiff had a legal right to the privacy of her apartment.” Keizer describes how American case law equates the home with privacy:

As the judge in Payton v. New York (1980) noted, there is a “zone of privacy” in America that is nowhere “more clearly defined when bounded by the unambiguous dimensions of a person’s home.” (82)

The home can be a symbol of privacy and a measure of wealth. But, in the words of John Howard Payne, the nineteenth century poet and songwriter with whose words I began this piece, it can also be a place of comfort:

To thee I’ll return, overburdened with care;
The heart’s dearest solace will smile on me there;
No more from that cottage again will I roam;
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

A comfortable home: one which offers private solace, and which signifies a certain level of wealth.

It is telling that Pew Research also uses the word comfortable to describe how people feel about the government publishing property data. Does the word “comfortable” suggest that the boundaries of privacy are relative – different for every person – and not simply that which is not public? And, with these hard numbers to show us how people feel about their property data and privacy, is it enough to tell ourselves that the data we access and use in prospect research is always and only public data? I’m afraid I don’t have the answers.

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.