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The Hot Seat: Jennifer Filla

Mon, January 11, 2021 9:40 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

The Hot Seat is a series in which prominent industry experts answer grueling questions stemming from prospect research to consulting to analytics. How will they do under pressure? Read to find out!

Jennifer Filla

President, Aspire Research Group LLC; CEO, Prospect Research Institute

Jennifer Filla is a veteran fundraiser with a focus on prospect research. As president of Aspire Research Group, she helps organizations find and connect with their best donor prospects. She is also CEO and Founder of the Prospect Research Institute, which provides step-by-step, hands-on learning to the fundraising research community. She is co-author of “Prospect Research for Fundraisers: The Essential Handbook” and has served as a volunteer and trustee for a number of organizations.

  1. If someone wanted to become a consultant in prospect development, what would be the most important first step? 

    Many people want to become a consultant because they love doing the work and want the autonomy that comes with being your own boss. That was me back in 2007! I like to say the joke was on me because the reality is that while I was doing the work, I also had to bring in the clients. That meant a much heavier workload and less financial security! And working sales was anything but comfortable for me.

    Consulting has been a personally rewarding journey for me, but it has also been a lot of really, really hard work. If I were going to do it all over again now, my first step would have been to better define what was either making me unhappy with work and/or what seemed so attractive about consulting. Then frame it like any other research project and seek to find out if consulting really was a good solution for me.

    I’d like to believe that I would still have chosen consulting, but that I might have gotten additional education sooner for sales and other business skills.

  2. What are your predictions for the prospect development industry in the next 15 years? 

    Information technology has been driving our industry, and software products and companies are now being built and scaled that specifically target the nonprofit sector and fundraising. But we know that Artificial Intelligence and machine learning are fueled by BIG data. A nonprofit doesn’t necessarily need its own big data to benefit from models created, but having your own data is where it begins and is way more powerful.

    If, according to Guidestar (2017), 66.3% of nonprofits have annual budgets of less than $1 million, who can afford to implement A.I. over the years it takes for an A.I. program to learn the business? For that matter, what nonprofit budget size is likely to have a large enough constituency for fundraising to benefit from A.I.? Probably one with a lot more than $1 million!

    For this reason, I suspect that the relatively tiny number of nonprofits at the top will pull even further ahead through the various uses of A.I. The smaller nonprofits will continue to struggle with basic data integrity and analytics implementation issues. What does this mean for prospect development? Lots of opportunity!

    If you work at the big organizations, you can develop specialty skills and receive the accompanying higher compensation, whether that is data science or the analytical prowess to translate information overwhelm into insight and action.

    If you work at the majority of smaller organizations, you can remain a generalist with positive impact for much longer, and in a position where data analytics skills, such as regression models in Excel, will continue to have the potential for outsized impact. 

    As A.I. matures in the fundraising industry and the solutions for the big nonprofits spin into products for smaller nonprofits, prospect development professionals also have the perfect skill set to understand how they work and help organizations make better purchasing and implementation decisions.

    The future is a BIG question and A.I. is only one piece, but I don’t want to close without suggesting another possible opportunity for development research professionals: jobs outside of nonprofits. Fundraising consulting firms of all sizes are already hiring for prospect research and analytics. As the for-profit industry around fundraising continues to grow, new positions are likely to become available for the prospect development skillset.

  3. True or False: Prospect Research can strategically encourage philanthropic giving. Please include a why with your response.

    True. Prospect research professionals have always held a double-edged sword: we choose what to include, and what not to include when we present information to the people who need to act on that information. While prospect research professionals alone are unlikely to effect organizational-wide cultural change, we can choose what words we use to communicate and how we frame the results of data analysis.

    For example, if we notice that the founder of the family business recently named his daughter CEO and retained chairmanship of the board, or a similar situation with a family foundation, we can do more than state the facts. We can suggest that the development officer explore in conversation with the prospect whether there are family succession goals that could be furthered through philanthropy.

    We could also “anchor” development staff on metrics such as affinity or philanthropic inclination by presenting those ratings first, especially in a numerical rating. To the human mind a rating of “10-5-5” is going to feel like a better score because it leads with the number ten and a rating of “5-5-10” is going to feel like it is not as good because it leads with the number five. If the first number represents affinity and the last number represents ability to give, you are encouraging the end user to favor affinity.

    With deliberate attention and effort, we can recognize many ways to strategically encourage philanthropy giving.


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