Welcome to the Research Rabbit Hole - a blog series exploring all the fun, random paths we end up on at work. Today's entry is from Kathryn Thomas, Senior Prospect Identification Analyst at the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.
How many of us in Prospect Research have done a biographical profile, capacity review, or contact update on Oprah Winfrey? How about Bill & Melinda Gates, MacKenzie Scott, or Sheryl Sandberg? And how many of our organizations have, in turn, received a gift from them? We all know, after working in this field for just days or weeks, that there are white whales of philanthropy. People whose names are quietly vetted by boards in closed conference rooms or lauded as program saviors in prospecting brainstorms.
A request came through our research request queue that perfectly describes my relationship with this type of prospect. One of our campus units focused on environmental sustainability met with their board and a name had been floated as the perfect campaign lead. For the sake of this conversation, I’ll call him “Jack.” You may know Jack; he is infamous for his shenanigans in the middle of the ocean – dancing a jig, falling in love, and tragically drowning despite the availability of a perfectly good, floating raft-like device.
Although his exploits in the ocean didn’t end well, Jack has a passion for clean water. Therefore, he was the perfect whale for our campus unit. The problem, from a researcher’s standpoint, wasn’t affinity, but access. Jack’s contact information wasn’t going to come up on LexisNexis or the YellowPages. His cell phone number and business numbers were as closely guarded as Rose’s grip on that door!
At this point, I was ready for a little research treat (some cerebral junk food to balance out the healthy diet of easy-to-answer capacity review questions and address updates). So, despite knowing it was a longshot and anticipating my request would end up with a recommendation to reach out to Jack’s foundation through formal channels, the hunt was on! And let me tell you, Jack has formidable fans. Sometimes it’s scary how much information we’re able to discover about our prospects, but when researching a celebrity, the information skews less scary and more … odd. I was able to, within an hour, describe where Jack likes to lunch, how he takes his coffee, and his suit measurements. Within two hours, I could name every country he had visited for his philanthropic work, every woman he had ever looked at, and his childhood pet. And within three, I found several addresses, email address, and phone numbers.
In the end, I did not share this contact information with our Development Officer. Not only would contacting Jack on his cell phone be unprofessional, I was certain it would also wig him out and not engender positive feelings toward the cause. But if ever we have dire (and relevant) need of another celebrity phone number, I know just the rabbit hole to jump down.