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| Posted by: Ryan Burdock

Professional Needle Hunters: Prospect Research

How do you turn data into action? What role does ancestry play in prospect research? Ryan Burdock, Senior Recruitment Consultant at Prospectus, sat down with Jason Briggs to find out the answers to these questions and more.

Jason, currently heading up prospect research at the University of Sheffield, has enjoyed a successful career in prospect research. He is an Insight Associate at Graham-Pelton, a Committee Member of the Researchers in Fundraising group at the Institute of Fundraising and a Board member at The Land of Joy. 

1 - If major donor fundraising is seen as the “silver bullet” – what does that make prospect research?

If major donor fundraising is seen as the “silver bullet” then it is prospect research that enables it to be so. Major donors often say that they expect research to take place on them so that their time and donations are used more effectively. As such, prospect research enables major donor fundraisers to have a more significant impact than they could in isolation. This demonstrates the co-dependant relationship between research and major donor fundraising teams. It would be hard to argue that one is more important than the other when it comes to hitting targets.

2 - How do you measure the success of a Research Team? 

At Sheffield we keep a record of all the research work we do, which means we can set informed research KPIs, such as how many new prospects a week our team should research. This helps us measure our research output, so success from that perspective is about whether we’ve hit those numbers or not.

However, I feel another indicator of success is the creative or innovative output of a team. At Sheffield we ensure that a portion of our time is set each week for development. This is spent reading about the industry, practising new skills or cultivating a new idea, so we often experiment with novel ways of research. Giving people time out to think about their work like this helps them feel happier in their role, fuelling creativity! 

So those two things together could be an indicator? The hard numbers you are achieving - as, let’s be real, that’s a main reason we’re there - and the creative output of your team.

3 - Do you keep all functions of prospect research in-house at the University of Sheffield or do you have partners you work with on specific projects? 

Of course we’ll always need some external partners, such as prospect screening and the like, but in general we try to keep our main functions in-house. 

With functions like analytics it is good practice to try and learn those skills yourself, budget and time permitting. This means you don’t have to outsource every time you want to update. Saying that, it can be a real time saver to get a consultant to show you the initial steps but once you’ve got a handle on it, touch base only to ensure you’re not missing out on other ideas.

Often the reason people use external companies is because there is a knowledge gap but there can be other ways to fill that gap too. For example, if you are working at a University, a helpful thing to do is to partner up with smart students or university lecturers in the subject areas where you need guidance.

It’s a balance between using external partners when necessary, as there’s no replacing an expert with years of experience, and being careful not to over-rely on external help to the detriment of team development.

4 - How does Prospect Research differ internationally? Are there different approaches to methods in other countries when prospecting donors? 

Theoretically, prospect research is the same around the globe. You’re looking for income, assets and seniority to evaluate donation potential. However, practically, international research can be very different. 

Culture and language have a huge part to play in what method a researcher may deploy.  A good example of this was spoken about at a Researchers in Fundraising (RiF) Conference. In the Middle East the surname of an individual can be indicative of roots to a royal bloodline. Thus knowing these and tracing them is a unique tactic for this part of the world.  Then there’s the culture of information to consider. Some countries do not hold any centralised data on companies, unlike in the UK, so seeking out specific accounts can require keen detective skills.

It can be very different but this variety, and difficulty, is why people love prospect research! If anyone would like to read more about international research, please follow a link to my article for the Prospect Research Institute.

5 - In your role how do you turn data and information into actionable knowledge?

This is often the job of the Research Manager. They are the bridge between the actionable, i.e. the donor-facing fundraisers, and the ‘theoretical’, the researchers. It’s his or her job to decide what information to focus on and present to the department as ‘actionable knowledge’.

An example of ‘actionable knowledge’ is our Philanthropy For Us Report. This prioritised countries by their philanthropic potential for the University of Sheffield, giving a clear priority for their international fundraising strategy.

For a department to act on data, two things need to be present, 1) good departmental understanding, and 2) good team relations.

On the first, a department has to understand that data comes from people and that following data does work. A great example of this is the Tesco Clubcard, which transformed Tesco into an industry giant. If a department does not understand the power of data then they won’t follow it, no matter how sophisticated your analysis. On the second, the Research Manager has to have a good relationship with the donor-facing fundraising team, otherwise it may be difficult to galvanise support for a change of strategy that data analysis might be suggesting. When those two things are present, then real actionable knowledge is generated.

It’s worth pointing out that data-led strategy is on the rise. You’re seeing research teams being asked to address serious questions in their departments, like Think Tanks. In this respect we’re catching up with the for-profit sector. It’s a very exciting time to be a part of fundraising research!

6 - What are your thoughts on the fundraising regulator and fundraising preference service?

Well, there’s a lot going on right now. I think one of the biggest impacts on prospect research may come from the GDPR not FPS. However, with FPS it’s still not very clear exactly what impact it will have, but clarity is coming.

Personally, I don’t think FPS is going to affect prospect research too much. Yes, we may have to screen data sets to FPS but it may be more about what ways the individual prefers to be approached. For example, they may say ‘I am interested in Higher Education but I just don’t like getting a call in the evening whilst I am eating my dinner’. Also, prospect research often falls into the realm of major donor fundraising and that is a much more personalised peer-to-peer approach. The FPS may be covering more of the ‘automated nature’ of some fundraising, such as mass mail-outs or mass calling. 

Thank you Jason.