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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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.

Data In – Profile Out

It should come as no secret that I am a proponent of automating the prospect research profile as much as possible. In fact, in my final presidential column for the APRA Wisconsin newsletter, just about a year ago, that was just one of the paths down which I suggested so-called reactive research would need to head. I won’t rehash what I wrote then; you can read it here.

Of course, it was easy then for me to extol automation. For one thing, it had been over a decade since I had actually typed a profile in a Word template. For another, I was a member of one of Wisconsin’s largest prospect research teams, and had easy access to our database, and several profile report formats, from work or from home.

Now that I am consulting, things are very different. I am still not typing profiles in Word templates, but it is something I consider a possibility, now that more of my work is done remotely and without direct database access. But when I am asked for recommendations, I always try first to find a database solution.

One of my current clients, an independent school, uses The Raiser’s Edge, and had already created a Word merge to pull some individual prospect data – gift summaries, children, contact information, etc. – into a Word document. They didn’t call this a profile, and the task they wanted my help with was in gathering biographic and professional information on each prospect into a brief paragraph which they could type into their Word document. I immediately thought we should put this background information into a Note in The Raiser’s Edge and to add that Note type to their merge template. Creating this new Note type accomplished two things. One, the information was easily retrieved into their prospect document. Two, it was captured in the database to refer to in the future. Best of all, it was easy to add the new Note into the merge file, and even easier to create the new note type.

Fast forward a month or two, and this client now wanted a way to codify foundation interests and to identify potential donors to new capital and programming initiatives. Using the Philanthropic Interests table on the Prospect tab in The Raiser’s Edge was the easy part. It didn’t even take us that long to come up with a list of about 20 different interest areas we’d like to track and be able to query.

But how to capture nonprofit board service, volunteer roles, and gifts to other organizations? Well the Prospect tab of The Raiser’s Edge has a Gifts to Other Organizations table, and my client had already populated it with information from past screenings and data appends. One look at how that table structures data, though, and we could see it would not be our answer this time. For one thing, there isn’t an easy way to enter the dollar ranges found most often on nonprofit annual reports. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Gifts to Other Organizations table does not have a way to visually and strategically connect giving patterns to things like board service or a spouse’s volunteering. A simple Note can do all of that, and can be formatted to export easily into a Word merge or a Crystal Report.

Our solution this time was to create two more Note types. A Philanthropic Note was used to document board and volunteer service, and significant gifts (generally gifts above $1,000). And a Foundation Note was used to capture basic Form 990 information including assets, gifts received and grants paid, a list of directors and officers, and a brief list of the largest grants made. Both of these notes were added to their existing Word merge template, along with the background information note, to form a simple and easily editable, profile.

Each note in The Raiser’s Edge has a Description field, and with our Background, Philanthropic, and Foundation Notes we used this Description field to track the date when the information was last updated. Now, before running a profile report, anyone can quickly see how stale the information might be, and what they might need to refresh.

Once upon a time, a profile may have been a catalog of everything we knew about the prospect. More often today, a profile is strategically designed for a specific purpose and context. Often a profile may not be the only way to answer a question, or it may not be the best way. Each of these philosophies and situations could be satisfied with either a typed document or a database report. Some might even be happy with an email. But I bet they would all agree that if something is in the profile it should also be in the database. Indeed, the profile template should serve to remind us of the categories of information we need to capture and verify, just as a research checklist reminds us to leave no stone unturned. And when profile information is in the database, it can also be used to create prospect pools, or to do data mining or modeling, or simply to help those who follow you understand your prospects as well as you do.


The Value-Add for Prospect Research in SEC Filings

When I am doing prospect research, I always breathe a sigh of relief when an individual I am researching is a member of a public company. Maybe I am just a geek, but I embrace SEC filings, since they provide hard numbers I can plug into a capacity formula. But besides the ever-so-useful sections on executive compensation, beneficial ownership, and options exercise schedules, SEC filings provide so much more, and often there is no math.

Professional Biographies – the bios in proxy filings are so nice and compact, they’re just asking to be copied into a professional note in the database, and they often have an age and a photo. And unlike a LinkedIn bio, these are on a government filing.

Relationships – we are still in the bio section, but now we are looking at the other executives and directors, to see who has served alongside our prospect for the longest or the closest. And we don’t need to stop there, since our prospect’s bio likely lists both previous employers, alma maters, and other organizations, for-profit or nonprofit, for which our prospect serves as a director. All of those will provide sources to scour for relationships and door-openers.

Director Compensation – sometimes the compensation packages for independent directors can be substantial, in the six-figures, and supplement any other salary information you may have found for your prospect.

Footnotes – a veritable goldmine, the footnotes in the compensation, ownership and other tables, and on Form 4 filings, can reveal hidden nuggets. Many times they reference trusts, and will specify whether our prospect has a controlling interest in the trust or not. Sometimes these trusts are for spouses, children or other family members, which provides us additional insight into how our prospect manages wealth. Other footnotes may reference employment agreements, signing and/or retention bonuses, and incentive plans.

Corporate Events – if a merger, acquisition or divestiture has occurred in the time frame a proxy filing describes, that filing will discuss it. Understanding the acquisitions which a company has undertaken can sometimes help us understand the financial and employment packages it has created for the executives who came along with those acquisitions, and the relationships our prospect may have with the company and the other principals.

Stock Holdings – if you read through your prospect’s historic Form 4 filings, you can see who consistently sells the stock they receive or exercises options only to turn around and sell them, who redeems options but holds onto the stock, and who rarely or never exercises options. These behaviors can all be part of the wealth puzzle. And, if there is a Form 4 filing more recent than the last proxy filing, it will provide a more up-to-date report of the prospect’s current stock position(s).

So try not to sweat the math or the fine print, because if you do dig into SEC filings, finding several new and intriguing threads to pull could be the ultimate reward.

Database Best Practices, continued (It Depends, Part II)

In my last post, I discussed some best practices for the data entry in fundraising databases: keeping your data coded, simple, reportable and retrievable, and using common sense to guide your data entry decisions. And I promised to explore how you decide where to store specific kinds of data, and where else you can turn for specific solutions.

Most database packages will offer lots of fields, tabs and tables for you to populate with rich data about your constituents, gifts, memberships, volunteer jobs, contacts, events, etc. Some databases offer optional modules to track special events, grant proposals, and other information, and most databases will offer a number of “user-defined fields” (UDFs) – fields you can label and define to accommodate your specific business practices. And all of these options can be overwhelming.

So, begin with the easy decisions, the sorts of decisions which involve nothing more than coding your data so that it is easily reported and queried. This includes where and how to enter names, addresses, salutations, and gifts. Locate the place to flag anonymous donors; if one does not exist, use a user-defined field and select one which is easy to locate. Identify a user-defined field to store the name your donor wants to be printed in the annual report (if that applies to you). Then document these decisions and do not waver from them.

Will you ever need to query and report on all gifts to a fund by year? Or on every gift to a particular fund? Probably – and so you will need to decide whether to embed your fund codes with dates – OP14 – or if you can query using a gift date range. If you do use embedded dates in your fund codes, keep those dates consistent. That way you can query and report with wild cards to find all the gifts to the Operating fund – OP* – or all the 2014 gifts – *14.

Some of the most important data will be captured in your contact reports and moves management. Most fundraising databases will have a dedicated area for this data – for example, in The Raiser’s Edge it is kept on the Actions tab. The information you enter here not only creates an archive of your prospect’s relationship with your organization, it can also provide a rich trove of data for later data mining. The easiest way to approach coding contact reports in your database is to follow the solicitation cycle (identification, qualification, cultivation, solicitation, stewardship) and/or the grant cycle (letter of intent, proposal, progress report, final report). Don’t forget to have a few loose categories for those gray areas! Many of the contact reports you enter will begin life as calendar ticklers for meetings, phone calls, proposals and reports. Once the meeting or phone call takes place, or the proposal is submitted, don’t simply close or complete the record. Take the time to record what happened in a Note field – your database should provide a way to tie Notes to the contact report.

As I said, your contact reports can be data mined to great effect. Want to find funders for a new initiative? Think of key words tied to that initiative and search the notes in your call reports. For example, if you are building your first soccer field, search the call reports for mentions of soccer. This relatively simple query will find soccer parents, former soccer stars, perhaps even identify prospects who loathe soccer. Something which came up in casual conversation years ago, before soccer was ever on your radar, could suddenly become the key to finding a major donor! But that won’t happen if you don’t record the notes in the first place.

In my last post I also promised you some other places to turn for help:

  • Want to find a local consultant and your search engine just isn’t producing any results? Try an advanced search on LinkedIn, using the name of your database as the key word, and narrow the results with your zip code. It’s not necessarily the slickest tool, but you should find a few names to connect with, who may not have a website that would show up in search engine results.
  • Have a specific question but you don’t know where to turn? Join a listserv and post your questions. Gift processors often turn to FundSvcs, prospect researchers to PRSPCT-L, and data analysts to Prospect-DMM, but there are listservs for every aspect of philanthropy, and many can be found on Most listservs will let you lurk before you post, and this is a great way to discover tips and resources you may not have thought of on your own, and new people to connect with.
  • Use social media. Join a relevant group on LinkedIn – something tied to your database vendor, or to your niche in fundraising – and post your question. Tweet your question.

Each of these approaches has the potential to widen your professional network. And, perhaps the next question you see will be one you can answer!

In Defense of Search Engines

search bar

I once heard on NPR that only 1 out of a million people ever looked beyond 5 pages of Google results. Well, each of us in prospect research is that 1 in a million kind of person! When we “google” a prospect, we are doing so much more.

I believe there is no shame in using a search engine as a primary tool in prospect research. From organizations with little or no budget for research tools, to those with an arsenal of website subscriptions, a search engine will be critical as you build a library of “go-to” websites and to do the kind of creative research which makes you a valuable member of your team.

We often use multiple search engines: Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Blekko, etc. We recognize that search engines all use slightly different algorithms to find, sort and filter the information we request, so the results for the same search term will be different in each search engine. Search engine algorithms change frequently, so a Google search today may not look like the same Google search conducted yesterday, and certainly not like the same Google search conducted in 2007. And, a search engine may tailor results to resemble past searches we have done, as if to say they know what sort of information we are looking for even if we aren’t sure ourselves. There will be times we appreciate that, and times we won’t. So we get in the habit of regularly clearing our internet cache and history files. In Internet Explorer you do this by selecting “Internet Options” on the Tools menu, then clicking Delete on the General Tab to bring up the Delete Browsing History screen:

Delete History IE

Make sure you leave the top selection, “Preserve Favorites website data” unchecked, because that will not clear the cache and history for any website you’ve identified as a Favorite in Internet Explorer.

To get the most out of our searches, we often use quotation marks and Boolean logic in our search terms. When we are searching on names, we make sure to search with nicknames, and both with and without middle initials. We create nuanced searches using our prospect’s name with additional search terms like the city they live in, the company they work for, a nonprofit they support, or simply the words “board,” “director” or “trustee” to filter the results in the direction we are looking. But it is when we aren’t quite sure what we are looking for that a search engine can be the most useful, because it can give us a huge, unfiltered view, one we can drill down into to find those little nuggets of pure gold which offer a unique perspective on our prospect and make our searches so rewarding.

For example, today I was searching to see what I could find out about a prospect for a nonprofit I help support. They had heard that the prospect’s wife was a member of a leading local family. Using DuckDuckGo, I searched on her name (she has a different last name than the prospect) and the name of the leading family. What did I find? Our prospect’s father’s obituary – the prospect’s wife’s name was in parentheses after our prospect’s first name – which identified our prospect’s mother as a member of that famous family. That’s just one easy example – it didn’t take much time or strategy to get there, what I found was not on page 5 of the search results, and it didn’t cost me a website subscription to find it.

It is in that largely unfiltered – if we have the time, and if we’ve cleared our cache – kind of searching that serendipity can often lead to strategy. For the best of us don’t quit when we’ve found what we didn’t know we were looking for. That little nugget we find may lead us to try a different search term entirely, to give us even more information. Along the way, we leave our own breadcrumbs by bookmarking the websites we’ve found, documenting the search terms and tactics we used, and putting what we’ve found out about our prospect into the database.