The 'House of Cards' Guide to Prospect Research

What could prospect research possibly learn from House of Cards? That is, if we ignore the obvious parallel: the hours spent chasing an elusive prospect on the Internet or binging on Netflix.


The relationship between politicians and their donors fuels some of the drama of House of Cards, just as it does in real life in my home state of Wisconsin. Indeed, political donations can provide significant insights for prospect research. A substantial campaign contribution or frequent political gifts, without any tax advantages, might suggest the levels at which a prospect could be willing to give charitably. The wealth screening company DonorSearch, after having analyzed political giving and philanthropy over the course of several years, found that political giving is strongly correlated with charitable giving. To this means, here in Wisconsin, the nonprofit Wisconsin Democracy Campaign maintains an online searchable database of political contributions that can act as a resource for researchers.

However, while it can be incredibly useful to understand our prospects’ political giving as a predictor of philanthropy, I would caution researchers against making too many assumptions about a prospect’s interests, priorities, and motivations solely from looking at which politicians and PACs they give the most money to. Political gifts can be made to advance business interests, to protect the status quo, or to advocate for change, and can be given out of altruism, loyalty, or pure self-interest. Federal and state records of political contributions won’t reveal motivation, and often we’ll never know.


That said, House of Cards also offers some less obvious lessons for prospect research.

First off, the series does not show us every last event in the characters’ lives. Some of the most important developments actually happen off screen, in between scenes and episodes. Although these events might have provided great fodder for the screen, the producers are limited to a 13-episode season and committed to the structure on which they’ve built their story. The lesson here? The stories that prospect research writes must be constructed with careful editing to include only what’s relevant and vital, not everything that’s found, or even everything that’s interesting. We aren’t writing a book or a Wikipedia page; the story we tell should be a distillation of the elements of capacity, biography, interests, relationships, and affinity that suggest the next steps our institution may take.


The next lesson lies in the importance of context. As a study of human behavior within the halls of power, the plot of House of Cards is grounded in a contemporary context that viewers can easily understand; we recognize the elements and celebrities of U.S. government, politics, and mass media that permeate the show. The best prospect research also offers context. In a recent webinar for APRA Education Week and a subsequent blog post for APRA Illinois, Amelia Aldred, research analyst at the University of Chicago, pointed out the crucial role that context plays, particularly in international research. Prospect research conducted in different cultures, economies, and languages requires an understanding of the circumstances in which philanthropy may take place outside our nation’s borders. More broadly speaking, prospect research needs to contextualize what we find, analyze, and present, always with the goal of building a lasting relationship between our prospects and our organization.

But what about after you’ve carefully distilled your information and established context? In one of the signature stylistic features of House of Cards, Frank Underwood frequently interrupts the narrative flow to speak directly to the audience, recalling the Shakespearean aside. (The phrase “breaking the fourth wall” comes from the way these direct addresses acknowledge the presence of the audience, as if the imaginary fourth wall, or the screen, was not there.) Similarly, prospect researchers need to acknowledge—and speak to—our audience, whether they are development officers, volunteers, or the university president. Breaking that fourth wall can provide insight, perspective, analysis, and commentary beyond what is communicated by the facts themselves, ultimately helping guide the strategy of our audience and equipping them with a deeper understanding of donors and potential donors.


In the end, like House of Cards, the best prospect research tells a compelling story—one that is focused, edited, and provides context. In the best circumstances, and with all the right elements, a story becomes a conversation.

And now you have a clue as to how I spent my weekend.

For more insights from Sarah, check out her post on using geodata in prospect research!


Sarah Bernstein is an independent consultant in Milwaukee, WI, supporting nonprofit organizations with prospect research and database analysis. She earlier worked in both the social service and higher education sectors. Sarah is an active member of APRA International and past president of the APRA Wisconsin Chapter. She blogs at The Fundraising Back-Office and can also be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.


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