Tips for Tailoring Your Research

Blank NotepadThe following post is adapted from “More Than Data: How Prospect Research can Help You Fine-Tune Your Ask, Allowing You to Raise More Money More Cost-Effectively,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, v18n1, January-February 2011 (reprinted with permission) You can read the whole article here.

Researchers today have access to more information, more quickly, than ever before. But are they looking for the right information in the right places? Are fundraisers making the best use of the information? Making sure that the wheat is being separated efficiently from the chaff has become a crucial management function for today’s fundraising executives.

While many fundraisers still think of “research” as the briefing they get before going into the field, research can play important roles in every stage of an organization’s development process. As Robert D. Scott, executive director of development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, in Cambridge, Mass., and president of the board of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA, www. explains, “Think of researchers as fundraisers who may not be making the ask, but who are using other resources to bring money into the institution.” Thanks to the efforts of AFP and APRA, a culture of mutual respect among fundraisers and prospect researchers is emerging, one in which the analytical skills of researchers and the people skills and storytelling savvy of fundraisers are being combined to achieve greater success in turning prospects into lifelong donors.

If your organization has a researcher on staff, to whom does he or she report? This may vary according to the size and mission of a particular organization, but a researcher’s place in the organization is less important than his or her ability to work closely with field staff throughout the entire fundraising cycle. In many organizations, researchers are the institutional memory, able to draw on the breadth and depth of collected information about, not just individual donors, but also giving trends and demographic changes.

As critical as the research function is to a successful fundraising strategy, most small organizations and even many midsize ones cannot afford a dedicated prospect researcher. Frequently, such organizations will tap other staff to tackle a prospect research task. However, that may not end up being the bargain that it at first seemed, warns researcher, trainer and speaker Maria Semple, principal of The Prospect Finder LLC in Bridgewater, N.J. (

“Very often I find that someone who’s doing grant writing is asked to extend their skills to research individuals in the community,” she says. “But you’re using different skills and data resources.”

Semple warns that the job can be overwhelming to someone who lacks the combination of organizational knowledge, technological skills and resource access of an experienced prospect researcher.

When looking for outside research consultants, consider their expertise and skill sets. Do they have broad knowledge or a single focus, for example on government resources? How long have they been in business? What resources do they have access to, especially fee-based databases? How will the information be delivered? Everyone on the fundraising team should always request and carefully review sample outputs, such as reports or prospect profiles.

The level of research should always be commensurate with the task at hand, Semple advises. If you already have a prospect in mind, it is better to start with a one-to-one conversation and let the research provide initial talking points. Too much research, or the wrong kind of research, wastes everyone’s time and money. “If the output is simply going to sit on a shelf somewhere, and the board is not going to solicit the individuals, you should not use sophisticated tools,” she cautions. “The tool doesn’t make the relationship for you.”


Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.