Prospect Research… In the Twighlight Zone

September 2008 will long be remembered as the time when several major financial institutions collapsed.  The subsequent economic impact had a domino effect which resulted in a significant disruption in the flow of credit to businesses and consumers.  The end result was a global recession whose impacts are felt to this day.

The same sort of domino effect also struck the nonprofit world.  Due to financial losses and uncertainty, gifts became harder to secure.  Tax revenues which support many public non-profit institutions also fell off.  Fewer dollars found their way into non-profit budgets.  Often, the decrease in budgets resulted in layoffs.  Sadly, those layoffs were often directed at the support staff, namely, Prospect Research.

For those of us who are fans of the old Twilight Zone television show, Prospect Researchers would have been the typical character for an episode.  Rod Serling often focused on the hard-working, determined introvert who always seemed to get the short end of the stick in the end. I can imagine the introduction:  Submitted for your approval, the case of one, Emily Van Wooten, a hard working Prospect Researcher who has unwittingly stepped beyond the scope of in-depth research and traversed into a whole new dimension, one we call, the Twilight Zone.  

The episode would be centered around how the over-worked, under-appreciated, Emily, along with every other prospect researcher in the world, were sucked into their computers  and found themselves in a researcher’s utopia where their efforts were rewarded with comparable salaries and the respect that comes from being part of the bigger machine.  In a typical Twilight Zone ending, the final scene would depict a flashback to the Development team running around in confusion not knowing where Mr. Megabucks resides, or how to contact him, or what the ask amount should be.  The very final scene of the show would focus on Mr. Megabucks yukking it up with all his peers at the Fremont Club over how he gave this Development Officer from Catatonic State a measly gift and got him to go away.  Mr. Megabucks would close out the show saying, “A toast to a world where nobody will ever know our true worth!”  The camera would pan back from the ceiling showing all the members of the Fremont Club laughing in a sinister manner.

Prospect Researchers were dismissed as they were seen as the least essential part of the fundraising process.  Part of the reason may rest with the fact that executives are often experienced frontline fundraisers themselves and see “feet on the ground” as being more vital to the operation than “back office staff.”  The idea that more people in the field asking for money will result in higher yields is not necessarily true.  In fact, fewer people in the field, but better directed can produce higher results.

In 2008, those operations which eliminated their Prospect Research departments handed a fundraising advantage to their competitors.  Non-profits that maintained their researchers continued to identify more prospects, had better targeted ask amounts and consistently found new sources of information to advance their missions. Fast forward a few years and these institutions had experienced researchers on-board while those that now found the money to again hire prospect researchers were left to scramble and recreate what they so readily dismissed a few years earlier.  Often, these new hires were either inexperienced or needed time to get to know the operation of their new employer.  Again, more lost time and lost information.

I’m inclined to believe that were there to be a similar crisis like the one in 2008, the results could very well be different this time around.  Since 2008, Prospect Research departments have expanded their scope of effectiveness through advances in technologies and techniques.  Information is more easily secured, stored and manipulated.  Data analytics has lent itself to better prospect identification as well as targeted mailing and the like.  Basically, technological advances in the last six years have advanced the efforts of Prospect Researchers to the point where our role in the fundraising process has risen dramatically.

Ironically, Development Officers may now be considered somewhat passé due to technological advances.  Not all of course, but some.  Skype and other interactive technologies have cut back on the need to travel and have empowered Development Officers with the ability to make several virtual visits in the course of a day.  Looking back to 2008, these visits may have taken several weeks to complete due to time spent on travel and logistics.   Undoubtedly at some point a live meeting needs to take place in order to secure a major gift.  However, with the ability to “see” more prospects in a given period, one has to wonder if this efficiency would require the same number of Development Officers as it would have in 2008.  In a twist of fate, technology has shifted the fundraising paradigm in a mere six year period.

We all hope that we never again see a crisis like the recession of 2008.  However, were one to occur today, what result would it have on staffing of non-profit operations?  It may very well reflect the same results as it did six years ago and support staff again gets downsized.  However, as we Prospect Researchers continue to evolve our capabilities and demonstrate the important roles we play in the fundraising process, the more entrenched we become in its operation.  Prospect Research is becoming, “Too big to not avail.”

About the Author
Mark Noll is the Associate Vice President of Research and Development Services at the University of Rhode island Foundation. He has served in similar roles at Kansas State University, the University of Central Florida as well as The University of Scranton. He has been the development field for 18 years and has extensive experience in Prospect Research and Management, Gift Processing, Donor Relations, Campaign Planning and Strategy, Database Management and analytics. A member of AASP as well as APRA, he spends his free time at Starbucks and excels in the art of mediocrity.