CARA Conference: The Plight of the Prospect Researcher

Recently, I ventured to Palm Springs for the annual CARA (California Advancement Researchers Association) Conference. EverTrue was pleased to be a sponsoring partner of the conference, appropriately headlined “Hot Springs, Cool Prospects.” For those who have never experienced 108-degree temperatures, I highly recommend proximity to an air conditioning vent and a tall, frosty glass.

There was plenty of talk about prospect development, pulse ratings, and—of course—scores:  priority scores, velocity scores, connection scores, geographic scores, major giving scores, and planned giving scores. Throughout most of the presentations, it was clear that prospect researchers have become increasingly focused on analytics and data-driven decision making. It was also clear that this particular group of researchers was very good, very smart, and very loyal to their profession and to their institutions.

In several of the presentations and many of my one-on-one conversations, however, I sensed a strong undertone of unhappiness with the amount of respect that these researchers, their colleagues, and their data and scores are afforded by their advancement teams. In several follow-up interviews, I confirmed much of that dissatisfaction.

Where’s the disconnect? It seems that, at many institutions, senior leadership is often not on board with researchers’ access to powerful new data. Many decision makers are distrustful of the data and suspicious of new forms of research, no matter how many case studies back up the methods. These leaders seem more comfortable with “old fashioned” research—a deep dive into a single constituent record to find out everything about a potential donor.

In the interest of full disclosure, my professional background is in educational fundraising, and I spent more than three decades relying on the work of researchers to point me, my team, and my volunteers in the direction of the very best prospects. But at some point, enough information on a prospect is enough! Rather than giving me more evidence that one of my potential donors has lots of money (I KNOW that already!), help me understand who has the highest likelihood of making major gifts now.

The biggest challenge for researchers is that this distrust from senior management means they have to invest significant time and energy in both analyzing the data and in continuing with the “deep dive” method, considerably limiting the volume of prospects that can be effectively researched. Distrust of the scores and analytics also means that the data has to be justified every time—and that takes a LOT of time. And it’s no secret that advancement services is often understaffed, the first part of the organization to absorb a budget cut, and the last to recover a lost position.

Case in point:  I asked at least six conference attendees to describe for me the activity that requires the most effort but—from their perspective—adds the least value. All the researchers agreed that the preparation of prospect profiles and briefings for a big event was massively time consuming with very little benefit. Here’s a sampling of what they had to say:


“Those people are already coming to an event—the MGOs are going to give us more and better information back if they actually talk to someone than we can give them in advance.”


“A list of job title, company, and whether or not they are donors should be enough. Doing full research on 100 people coming to an event is a waste of time.”


“If it is a small thing at a table with the president, fine, but if it is for a big event—especially if they aren’t even wearing name tags—give me a break!”


“To assume that someone needs every possible bit of information on a constituent is preposterous!”


You get my point. Although access to complete dossiers of known prospects who come to events does have some utility, it is not nearly as valuable as knowing who should be moving up and along the track to making a major gift.

What are the solutions to this challenge? How can a critical segment of the development profession that is under-resourced yet held to high expectations prove its value? Clearly, researchers need more technology, but of course, technological tools are a double-edged sword. As one senior researcher told me, “We desperately need more technology, but we also need enough staff to use the technology, and we need for them to have the training and the time to learn about these new tools.”

And, in a not so blatant plug for GivingTree, several of the researchers I spoke with mentioned that they needed mobile apps for gift officers “so they can get their jobs done more efficiently and do more of it themselves, allowing us as researchers to focus on true prospect development!”

Institutions might also re-examine the reporting structure of research. While prospect research generally reports to advancement services (Well, why not? It is a service that supports advancement, right?), the extra layer of bureaucracy between research and fundraising often gets in the way. The relationship between researchers and frontline gift officers is fundamentally symbiotic and should be treated as such. It is not acceptable that researchers find out long after the fact—and usually from reading a gift report—that a prospect they identified and researched has made a major commitment. That notion of shared success is unfortunately, and far too often, overlooked.

Finally, several researchers suggested that while they appreciated my interest in their plight, management doesn’t come to CARA or APRA conferences, so complaining at these events often feels like preaching to the choir. As one researcher told me, “You need to make CASE people read your blog so they understand!”

If you share the frustrations of the advancement services professionals I met at CARA, read our review of CASE’s new book Score! Data-Driven Success for Your Advancement Team and share it with your senior management.

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