Prospect research: The secret service

Marc E. Keller
Marc E. Keller

Marc E. Keller

It’s difficult work keeping nonprofits afloat, and to succeed, organizations rely on strong leadership, wise (and generous) board members, good public relations – and knowing whom to ask for donations.

That’s where prospect research comes in. Just as corporations research their markets, so too does the nonprofit world, except that the market is the pool of potential donors, and prospect research provides information on how to target the right donors at the right times.

Not too long ago, prospect research was a more primitive enterprise, consisting mostly of poring over newspapers, social registers, and directory books such as “Who’s Who.”

Over the past decade, however, the field has been flourishing, though not surprisingly, since the internet puts a phenomenal wealth of information at researchers’ fingertips, much of it at little or no cost.

And using this information is an integral part of an organization’s ability to prioritize its fundraising resources and direct its top “schmoozers” to cultivate and close major prospects.

As important and gratifying as it is to receive donations of any size, prospect research helps to identify those donors who not only are passionate about an organization but capable of making large, transformative gifts.

Research not only points those prospects out, but helps to pinpoint their philanthropic interests, so the organization can present mutually-beneficial giving opportunities.

For example, at Penn, background research helped cultivate an engineering alumnus, the owner of a large energy technology company, who later pledged $20 million to found Penn’s nanotechnology center.

Yet prospect research remains a little-known aspect of philanthropy, perhaps because organizations fear that donors may be squeamish at the idea of professional researchers trying to determine their giving capability and interests.

Prospect research, however, is governed by a strict code of ethics, and the information found by researchers is public information, accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

Philanthropists, too, benefit from prospect research, in that less of their time is wasted by fundraisers asking for inappropriate gifts, whether in purpose or size.

To that end, a quantitative assessment of someone’s approximate giving ability, a key goal of prospect research, is important to fundraisers. Otherwise, the “ask” may be significantly lower than the prospect is able and willing to contribute – the equivalent of an organization “leaving money on the table.”

As more nonprofits are launched and competition for donors intensifies, prospect research will become an even bigger part of the fundraising process.

This not only is a boon to nonprofit organizations large or small, but also to curious people who want to help a favored cause while learning about the world and gaining valuable research and analysis skills.

Certainly, my job is never monotonous: one day I might be researching a corporate lawyer in New York; the next, a fashion executive in Paris; and the next, a merchant in the Philippines.

Whether as a job, a career or even a volunteer role, prospect research offers the opportunity to be pragmatic and efficient; worldly and skeptical; mercenary and gold-digging – all while advancing the warm, fuzzy mission of a nonprofit organization.

Marc E. Keller is a research analyst for the University of Pennsylvania, managing prospect research for Penn’s International Operations and the Institute of Contemporary Art, among other areas of the university. [Note: the opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the University of Pennsylvania.]

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