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.


After the election

“they kilt us but they aint whupped us yit”
~ William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (Random House, 1936)
~ Senator Tim Kaine, Nov. 9, 2016

How can we move forward from the 2016 U.S. presidential election? The pundits and pollsters may have gotten this one wrong, and, like many people, I have my own ideas why, but I will leave it to them to explore. Meanwhile, here are some random thoughts inspired by the events of Tuesday, November 8, 2016.

In his endorsement last June, President Obama described Hillary Clinton as the most qualified person to ever run for president. And yet. A recent study found that women only apply for jobs for which they are 100% qualified, compared to 60% for men. A Harvard Business Review analysis of this study went on to note that the reason for this was not a simply a lack of confidence; less than 10% of women feared they would not be able to do the job if they did not meet all the qualifications. The most gendered reasons given for not applying for jobs had to do with the application process itself, with women much more likely than men to report being afraid of failure or breaking the rules. The HBR report goes on to cite a McKinsey & Company study which noted that “women are often evaluated for promotions primarily on performance, while men are often promoted on potential.” Taking this one step further, Vu Lee has written about how nonprofit job descriptions mask biases which not only lead to employers filtering out applicants, but also to job-seekers disqualifying themselves; either way, the result is a less diverse job force. In the correlation of qualification to hiring, promotion, and diversity, this U.S. election has lessons for both workers and employers.

On election day, I attended the National Philanthropy Day events at my local AFP Chapter. In the afternoon panel discussion, a Community Dialogue, philanthropists and leaders from local corporations, foundations, and nonprofits talked about how to move our city forward. Key priorities, brought forward by major donors and organizations alike, were addressing income inequality and gaps in opportunity and achievement. They spoke at length about the Milwaukee neighborhoods located in 53206, “America’s most incarcerated zip code.” They discussed scalability, sustainability, collaboration, place-based giving, “halo” benefits, and whole-system thinking. The conversation wasn’t political, but it was both strategic and caring. It was philanthropic, and it gives me hope.

I won’t pretend my hopes and dreams survived wholly intact after the early hours of November 9th. As a woman, a feminist, and the daughter and mother of strong women, electing a female president mattered deeply to me. Statements made by our president-elect have reawakened painful memories from my own life. And, with two LGBTQ daughters, I worry even more now for their future opportunities, freedoms, and safety.

But now it’s time to get back up again, and get back to work. It’s more important now than ever.

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.


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

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.
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.


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.


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.


Really Simple Stewardship

After I wrote and posted this, I checked Twitter. All Thanksgiving-week long, Milwaukee Film Festival sent out simple, 140 character acts of stewardship like these, which demonstrate just how well they know their donors, and how deeply they appreciate them. Well done, Milwaukee Film, well done!


Giving Thanks

snow - cropped (4)

April may be the cruelest month, but November – with Veterans Day, National Philanthropy Day®, and Thanksgiving – may just be the most appreciative.

 Years ago, gift processing was a large part of my job, especially at the end of the year. Back then, part of me always dreaded this time of year – as the amount of daylight got ever shorter, the length of my working hours got ever longer. And while my co-workers were using their remaining vacation time for last minute errands, I was rolling mine over into the New Year. And yet, even though I was doing a lot of data entry, booking all those year-end gifts, I also got to do one of the most special things we can do in fundraising. I got to thank people – a lot of people.

 I’ve used this quote before, but I never get tired of it. A colleague at one of my favorite organizations says that gift processing should really be called “gift stewardship.” Indeed, stewardship and gratitude often begin long before a gift is made, and continue with properly booking the gift, but they come to fruition in the thank you letter. And letter it should be. A thank you on the landing page after an online gift is submitted, an automated email, or even a printed receipt will bring efficiencies to your process, but how different do they make you from Amazon? Those automated acknowledgements are simply too transactional. They are just too much about the tax language and not nearly enough about the donor’s very personal philanthropy or aspirations. To my mind nothing beats a real letter for expressing gratitude and building the relationship.

 So take a pause after you run the acknowledgement mail merge. Think of this moment as an opportunity. You’ve probably already customized your merge template to allow you to segment your acknowledgments so that your text is matched to donor intent. And once your file is output to the word processing program, you will make sure the right name or nickname is in the salutation, the gift amount and allocation are correct, and that there are no typos or weird merge effects. But you should also take this opportunity to make the letters more personal. Longstanding donors? Add a word or phrase which recognizes and appreciates their loyalty and faith in what you do. New donors? Thank them for deciding to place their trust in you to help them achieve their vision.

 A letter offers an additional opportunity that no electronic communication ever can. You can add a handwritten note. Back in my gift processing days, I attached a sticky note to the letters with little nuggets about the donors (“donor since ’95,” “3rd gift this year,” “father was a trustee,” “missed the gala for the 1st time in 7 years.”). This gave the agency’s president, who signed all of our acknowledgements, a quick reminder whenever there was something special to acknowledge in a handwritten note.

 In the last few weeks I’ve come full circle, back to writing thank you letters, this time to help steward my client’s scholarship donors. And I’m thankful that, once again, as the days grow shorter and colder, and friends and families gather closer, I get to use my time to thank others.


3 Ways Being a Mentor Can Help You*

A simple internet search on the word “mentor” will find the above image, from Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus did not return home after the Trojan War, his son, Telemachus, searched for him, accompanied by the goddess Athena disguised as his childhood teacher and guardian, Mentor (you can read more here). The same internet search will also find a ton of how-to articles and websites. But here is what mentoring means to me, and why I think you should give it a try:

Paying it forward: yes, absolutely, mentoring is a feel-good. You are paying it forward by freely sharing your expertise and your time. When I was president of APRA Wisconsin, I wrote a whole column in our newsletter about the philanthropy inherent in sharing and teaching. I still feel strongly that a passion for working in the philanthropic sector must include service. (I feel just as strongly that it doesn’t mean working for poverty wages, but that’s a soap-box I won’t climb onto here.)

Seeing through new eyes: when I taught high school in the last millennium, discussing literature (yes – that included the Odyssey) through ever-changing points of view was one of my greatest joys. Something similar happens in a great mentoring relationship, one which crosses skill sets and generations. The give and take of the best mentoring relationships should give you the opportunity to re-examine how you’ve always done things. A new generation brings new ideas, and together, with your different skills, points of view, and assumptions, you may just come up with a new and better way of doing something. The problems they need solving may be ones you haven’t thought about for years, or they may be ones you never would have foreseen. You may just head down a path neither of you could have found on your own.

Polishing your skills: there is nothing like teaching someone else to help you sharpen your own skills. Obviously, you will want to be at the top of your game for the sake of your “mentee” (and, oh, how I hate that word – but I don’t like protégé either), and for the sake of your own personal pride. However, as you and your mentee work through the challenges they’ve identified, you are likely to learn new skills and relearn dormant ones. You are also likely to need to say “I don’t know” more than once, and then head back to your office to figure things out before you meet again. But beyond the honing of specific technical skills, mentoring also gives you the opportunity to work on your “soft” skills in a friendly room: leadership, presenting, training, project management, as well as eye-contact, modulating your voice, and learning which clichés fall flat.

So when you think about mentoring, give yourself permission to be a little selfish in your approach to service. Because you will get back so much more than you give.

*I’ve heard (most recently from Josh Birkholz at the APRA Illinois data analytics conference at Loyola on Oct. 3rd), that one of the ways to attract readers to your content is to lead with a number. I thought I’d give it a shot.