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What is a Prospect Researcher?

Mon, April 06, 2015 11:48 AM | Anonymous member

By Elisa Shoenberger, Senior Prospect Management and Research Analyst at Loyola University Chicago

Recently, I had an individual reach out to me for an informational interview about prospect research. We were asked about what we do, what we love and dislike, etc. We thought it was a great idea for the APRA-IL blog post.

1) What do you like most about working in prospect research?

What I love best about prospect research is how you are constantly learning. Every day, you could end up in an unusual space for a prospect. One day I was trying to determine the average sale price for a cemetery while the next I was looking at a company that sells light fixtures.  No two prospects are the same. Moreover, there is that moment when you find an amazing lead that really brightens your day. Plus I’m a huge fan of corporate and foundation research. I love reading 990 forms (Foundation tax forms).

2) What do you like least about working in prospect research?

I’m not fond of politics but you’ll find them no matter where you work—in or out of the nonprofit world. Another challenge is that we have to explain what we do a lot to people within our organization. We are a niche field and not a lot of people know about it. We also spend time trying to define what we do and do not do.  We are often seen as gatekeepers to data even though we are not its stewards. It can be an awkward place.

3) What is your average day like?

I usually start off with a queue that has requested research from our gift officers and other departments. I first determine what the most important projects are in the queue for the day. Then I begin working on those pressing projects. Throughout the day, gift officers and other staff will ask me questions via email, phone and in person. Occasionally, I’ll have questions myself for the gift officers about projects.  Sometimes I get a priority project that makes me shift gears into another direction. When I’m not working on essential tasks, I’ll work on proactive research, prospect management, and other projects.

4) Can you describe the balance of individual and team work in your position?

In our shop, we were built as a team. We may work individually on projects but we help each other out. We have a client based model, so I am the point person for specific gift officers while my team members work with others. If I have a priority project that I’m working on and I cannot get to another project, I’ll ask for help from a team member. We often collaborate on how to approach projects and people.  There is also a thriving community outside of the office. We belong to APRA-IL of course, which is a great resource for us. There’s also Prospect_L, a list host, where you can ask questions and people do respond.

5) How does data analytics play a role in your job?

It’s the big trend in the field. We have a lot of people, and it’s hard to know where to start to find new prospects. Modeling projects can really help Prospect Management and Research and the gift officers know how to prioritize. For instance, a common modeling idea is: “This major gift prospect looks like this. Who looks like this person in our database but not currently a major gift prospect?” While analytics cannot guarantee that everyone who models well is a winner, it helps to narrow it down. Data visualizations are also key for Prospect Research and fundraising. Dashboards are amazing to understanding your data and realistically your constituency. Seeing data in a new way can really help drive strategy.

6) Are there any specific skills that are particularly important for a position in prospect research?

You need to be detail oriented. There’s a lot of data out there, but it’s not all good data. If you are looking at a prospect, you have to be careful not to confuse that person with someone else. You also have to be alert to possible trends. You have to be curious in this job. You have to be willing to go down the rabbit hole. Sometimes a research project is not cut and dry and you have to dig deeper.

Project management is also key. Budgeting time and segmenting tasks is essential. You’ll get some complicated projects that you’ll have to figure out how to do. Also, research can fill up all the time you have so you have to know when to stop. Sometimes it’s not worth that extra 5 hours to confirm a tiny detail.

7) What advice would you give someone looking to break into prospect research?

I’d read some of the books out there on the field. I started with Cecilia Hogan’s Prospect Research. For analytics, check out Josh Birkholz’s Fundraising Analytics, Peter Wylie’s Data Mining for Fund Raisers, and Kevin MacDonell and Peter Wyle’s Score! There’s also a lot of great blogs out there too like Helen Brown Group’s blog.

Moreover, I’d talk to people who work in the field. Informational interviews are great. Ask them more questions about what they do. Make sure it’s what you want to do. Also, it really helps to know what you are talking about when you go to interviews!

Finally, go to APRA IL events, like the Basic Skills Workshop on May 1st! 

Photo credit: Janneke Staaks


  • Mon, April 06, 2015 2:38 PM | Anonymous
    Thanks Elisa!
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    • Tue, April 28, 2015 1:54 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)
      This was a great overview! I'm just starting in the field, but have had the benefit of working under our current Researcher who has shared her experiences and tips with me and knows our officers and department/campus dynamic. Thanks for posting!
      Link  •  Reply

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