A Day in the Life of a Prospect Researcher – Steffanie Brown

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We’re working with all different kinds of institutions at EverTrue, from higher ed institutions like Oregon State University to independent schools like Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. Despite the range of location and grade levels, all of them have at least one thing in common: building relationships is at the core of what they do. And it’s at the core of what we do here at EverTrue, too, with both our GivingTree software and our Community app.

Last month, we kicked off a “Day in the Life” series to highlight advancement professionals at institutions across the country. Our first post was a Q&A with Albuquerque Academy leadership gift officer Martha Hargrove, who, despite her short tenure in fundraising, has already found considerable success.

In this month’s edition, we feature Steffanie Brown, who has served as Manager for Prospect Research & Development Services at Florida Tech for the past four years and whose prospect research career has spanned nearly two decades. In her current position at Florida Tech, Steffanie supports 10-12 development officers. She’s also on the board of Florida’s APRA chapter, which has chosen “The 500 Hats of a Prospect Researcher” as this year’s conference theme. After reading my Q&A with Steffanie, you’ll better understand why that theme is so fitting:

How long have you been at Florida Tech? What did you do before working there?

It will be four years next month that I’ve been at Florida Tech. I’ve been in development for about 16 years. I was with another educational institution before that for about 12 years.

Did you always know you wanted to work in development?

No, I kind of fell into it. I was doing work study in the development office while I was getting my Masters, and then when I finished and realized I really didn’t want to go into the field that I had studied in, they transitioned my position into a part-time staff position, which later become full-time. It was mainly database-related things, and then the person who was doing the research aspect of it on the side got to the point where he had too much to do and couldn’t devote the time to the research. And he could tell that this would be something I’d be very good at, so he said, “Here’s a Fortune 500 exec—let’s see what you can do in a couple days.” So that ended up on my desk, and that ended up being what I really wanted to specialize in.

Your official title is Manager of Prospect Research & Development Services, but how do you describe what you do to your friends?

That one’s always fun. Because sometimes in describing what I do, it can creep people out. [laughs] One of my colleague’s says I’m the office spy. I do not use that term. There are two analogies I use: One is that I’m the business intelligence aspect of fundraising. The second is that I’m the matchmaker; I match the potential donors with the projects based on their potential interests.

To you does it seem creepy, if you were to flip it on yourself?

I will say that based on what I do, I have put up extra layers of security on my own information so that it’s not necessarily as easily findable as some people’s is. You can’t see anything on my Facebook page. But I know that I’ve been looked at by other people; I’m a strong supporter of where I went to undergrad, and I know that they’ve looked at me and looked for information on me. To me, it’s part of the business.

Is it difficult for you to navigate the ethics of using social data in your research?

Actually, it’s not. I’m well-versed in all of the ethics statements. When social media first started out, people were not aware of how much access they potentially had, and I was a little more squeamish about it. But, if I’m looking up somebody on social media, I’m primarily going on LinkedIn—that is more set up to have people looking at it than something like Facebook. I usually don’t go and look at somebody’s Facebook page. That, to me, is a little bit different because it’s more for a personal audience whereas LinkedIn is more for a professional audience.

What do you look forward to most when you go into work?

The one thing I look forward to is it’s never the same thing any two days in a row. Some days it may be, “I need an event briefing.” Sometimes it’s, “I’m meeting with this particular person” or “I need something for this particular project.” Or sometimes, “This person came in and said they were going to give us a million dollars; we don’t know who they are…are they crazy or what?” You’d be surprised at how often that happens: probably two or three times a year. Someone will just come by and tell us they’re going to give a lot of money, and I think for our fundraisers, their Spidey sense starts going off—“This is probably not all square.”
I get to read and learn about a whole lot of different things; it may be business people. I deal with a whole lot of engineers and people in high-tech fields, so I’m getting a very quick technical education. Sometimes it’s athletes or people in media and actresses and actors, musicians. You never know what’s going to happen. We also have a fair number of international prospects. It’s good for someone who’s curious, like me. It’s fun. I love it!

As much as you love your job, is there any part that’s frustrating for you?

There are a few things. When new staff come on, they sometimes don’t realize the amount of time it takes to really research somebody. It’s not just Googling their name or pushing a button on the database and having a profile some out [laughs]. I tell them, “To fully research somebody, we’re looking at four to six hours…and that’s on the good side.” Sometimes it can take longer if they have a whole lot of different assets and foundations and various layers of information.
Sometimes, the people who are requesting information have ideas that some things are findable that are not, for one reason or another. I can’t see somebody’s bank account. I can’t find out how much they’re paying their ex-spouse in alimony (even if I could, I wouldn’t want to). And unless they’re a purebred or in agility trials, I probably can’t find out the dog’s name.
And the other thing is the international prospects we have, the information that’s available on international prospects is—in most cases—not nearly what’s available on U.S. prospects. We have a lot of prospects from the Middle East, and that level of information that we have here is definitely not available. That’s part of the business.

If you were to describe a typical day for you at Florida Tech, what would that day look like?

My day pretty much starts the same every morning. I go in and read the paper in the morning. I have a few cups of coffee [laughs]. Look through the local paper, see if anyone’s doing anything that’s worthy of my attention. Then, also I have a few different news alert services that I use, and I look and see if anything’s happened like if someone just got a big promotion or just offloaded a bunch of stock or something like that. And if there’s any information on my development officers’ prospects, I send them a little note, saying “Hey, your prospect just cashed out $20 million in stock—you might want to call him.” But that’s kind of how the morning starts.
We add people to the database pretty much every day, so usually in the morning I’ll screen the people who were added the previous day. I run wealth screenings on them and see if there’s anybody who comes up with some big numbers and put that in the database. And if they do, I do a little more looking to make sure it really is the right person and alert the appropriate development officer. Usually when someone’s added to the database it’s because they’ve made a gift. So whichever territory that gift falls into, I’ll go to that development officer and say, “This person just gave $50 to your fund, and they’re a multimillionaire. You might want to pay some attention to them.”
Then, if I have requests for research, I’ll work on those. I’ll maybe do one or two profiles a day. And if there aren’t any requests, I always have a priority list, people who I want to make sure we have good information on. So I do some proactive work, pull together half of a profile, just basic information—what are their financials, what are some of their interests—but don’t go into a whole lot of depth. That’s based on a few factors: I usually start with people who have the highest capacity who haven’t been researched.
I’m also involved on the prospect management side, tracking who’s bringing in money, tracking proposals and their status, and helping our development officers with their portfolios by bringing people in and taking people off.

When you’re looking for new prospects, where do you start? What characteristics stand out for you?

We look for a few things. First, if someone’s been screened, I look for a really high capacity. That’s probably the easiest one. There are a few other things: if somebody’s making a large gift and they’re not assigned, or if they’re making progressively larger gifts over a period of time—especially if they get to $10,000 (our major gift level is $10,000), then they get some attention.
Recently, there was someone who came on the radar whose name I kept seeing on the daily gift reports. Within the space of the calendar year, this person had given four or five gifts, and the most recent one was a four-figure gift. This person is really enthusiastic [laughs]. They’re giving a lot of money; every gift was over $100, and they’re getting bigger. This was a pattern, and this person is potentially going to be a major donor.
There are a few other things. One of my priority lists started off with Forbes’ recent list of the five wealthiest zip codes in the U.S. I took that list and looked to see how many people we had in our database who had addresses in those areas. So I’m going through those and making sure we have good information to see if a person is now the CEO of a big tech company or something similar and then alert the people involved.

While you’re researching and helping to manage prospects, do you use any tools to help you?

We have a couple of big subscriptions. We use Blackbaud’s Research Point, which is for screening and initial research. We also have LexisNexis. And I have a long list of free resources we use for a variety of things. We also have a foundation research component because I also do corporations and foundations, as well as individuals. Having two tools—I call them aggregators—that can pull a lot of information from a variety of sources at once saves so much time. We also have Relationship Science, for relationship mapping.
When I first started in the business years ago, we didn’t have any of that, and it took three or four times the amount of time. I’d have to go to this database, this database, this database, and this and this and this…and this was before social media, too, so it was hard to figure out where a person worked if they weren’t a CEO. Fortunately, Google existed, but a lot of the other stuff we didn’t have.

Given your experience in the field, do you have any advice for other researchers?

For me, the biggest advice I would give to somebody is to learn how to manage time and manage expectations. One of the critical things, also, is to know when to stop researching somebody. You might have a very fascinating prospect who you could follow rabbit trails for three days on. Find out what the development officer wants; they may not want everything you can find on a prospect. They may just want to know where is this person financially and what’re they interested in. They may not want to know all of their background in minute detail.
Also, systematizing—getting everything as systematic as possible. Like having a template for the different profiles or briefings so that it becomes almost automatic. That will save quite a bit of time. And setting up bookmarks and things like that. Basically finding time to save time as much as possible. And a lot of coffee.

Keep up with Steffanie on Twitter, where you can follow her well-used hashtag #morecoffee.

If you have suggestions for an advancement professional to feature in an upcoming “Day in the Life” post, please include the individual’s full name and affiliate institution in the comments below.

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