Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Art, Science, and Magic of Prospect Research / by Patrick O’Toole, UNC Asheville 

I am a sole prospect researcher. My colleagues are continually amazed that I am able to discern the value of a prospect after studying a selection of data points. Having practiced our profession for nearly a decade, I have learned that there are equal measures of art and science in making these appraisals. I have also come to learn that there is … in the eyes of my colleagues … a bit of magic. By embracing the “magical-ness” of our work, we can bring a bit of fun to what we do.

Georges Seurat was a French painter who is best known for using a technique known as pointillism. If you study one of his paintings, such as A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, you will see the picture is composed of thousands of shaded dots. When viewed up close, the picture makes little sense. From a distance, however, this neo-impressionist masterpiece delights. It is the same with prospect research. In our work, we discover small subtly shaded dots about a prospect. Our work becomes artful by seeing these points as a whole. We draw conclusions from each point and are able to paint a coherent picture for our gift officers.

A good example of this is a line I often hear is, “His house is worth half a million dollars!” Taken in exclusion, that data point is intriguing: The prospect was able to purchase a $500,000 home. As prospect researchers, we need to look more closely. Check the mortgage records: What was the debt-to-value ratio? What is the prospect’s estimated annual income? Did the prospect recently sell a home elsewhere and use the proceeds to purchase this one? In short, we need to connect the dot of a home’s assessed value with several other dots to determine a prospect’s liquidity. We have all heard the phrase “house rich and cash poor.” As prospect researchers, we must prove or disprove this notion with every prospect. Are they living within their means? Do they have the capacity to make a gift to our organization?

When evaluating prospects, our gift officers must also share their intended goal. Determining annual giving capacity is different than determining major gift capacity. Annual giving is sometimes referred to as “checkbook giving.” It is the type of philanthropy that is governed by how much is comfortably available in a prospect’s checking account. This usually is driven by a prospect’s income and discretionary spending. Drawing on resources like The Chronicle of Philanthropy and documentation from the Internal Revenue Service, prospect researchers are able to determine estimates of these values. I have cautioned gift officers that an intriguing prospect might own a fine home and two nice cars, but their income is only middle class, they have three children in their teens, and their discretionary income is minuscule. We create magic when we draw all of these data elements together and suggest that the gift officer pursue an annual gift that is respectfully within the prospect’s ability to contribute. Better it is to build relationships for the future than to alienate a prospect with a too-big, too-fast ask amount.

Prospect researchers can create even bigger magic when few … if any … data points are to be found. For several years I was the prospect researcher for a major medical school. I learned that physicians are masters of disguise when it comes to personal data. I learned later that attorneys share this trait. Often, their personal assets are held in trust. These professionals do this to ensure their assets are not in jeopardy if they ever face a lawsuit. As prospect researchers, we often cannot find or confirm anything with physicians and attorneys, but we are able to offer learned interpretations of what we do not see. Granted, we cannot deliver an estimate of wealth that is accurate to two decimal places, but we can offer hints, clues, and ideas. We are trained professionals, and we are used to seeing clarity inside these murky situations.

It often comes down to trusting your intuitions. I cannot count the number of times I have worked through all of the usual resources on a prospect and thought, “Something more is there.” It is feeling beneath the surface—a sensation that we are somehow not seeing as full a picture as we could. Once again, that is where the artful magic of our profession comes into play. There is no one right way of doing what we do. Each of us draws on personal ability and experience to create our answers. Yes, we have standardized resources for reference, but the way in which each of use approaches and uses these resources is unique and … dare I say … magical. Each of us in prospect research is more than the sum of the information in our databases. We are the ether that draws all of this information together and makes sense of it.

As prospect researchers, we have unusual abilities. We are inquisitive. We are diligent. We are resourceful. We are able to size up prospects we have never met from a variety of data sources that mean little to our colleagues. I would like to say that more often than not we are closer to right than wrong in our assessments. To our co-workers, this all appears to be magical. Embrace that perception. We are magical. We have a unique set of skills, and we bring great value to our organizations. Prospect researchers are the forward-looking guides that help to steer their organizations toward goals.

So when one of you gift officers marvels at a research profile you have prepared and comments that you must be magic, just smile. 

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