Is the Prospect Profile Dead?

When I started doing prospect research, profiles were king.

I spent my first few years writing profiles that detailed every job move, every insider stock transaction, every board position, every grant on a Form 990, every political gift, yada, yada, yada. Then I began to realize that while my profiles contained a lot of data—a BOATLOAD of data—they rarely told a story. In fact, they were usually a one-way communication.


So I changed tactics. I turned to conversation—by email, on the phone, or in person. And since it was a conversation, not a monologue, I started to gain insight into what the fundraisers knew that the Internet didn’t. At that agency, the fundraisers were our board of trustees, so the world of what they knew often rivaled what I found on the web.

Once, at the request of the agency’s board chair, I researched a hedge fund manager. My mind was blown when I found the assets under management on the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website, and I applied what I could of the Two and Twenty rule to those assets. This was a big fish!

It got even more interesting when I did some more searching and found that he gave his largest gifts to the organizations where his wife served on the board. At one particular organization, the wives of this hedge fund manager’s direct reports rotated on and off the board and the gala committees, and everyone in the C-suite of that company was on that organization’s donor list at one time or another.


Then, in one of those awkward moments we prospect researchers secretly treasure, I ran into our board chair in a bar. And we had a conversation. About the hedge fund manager’s wife and her volunteer service.

I left the agency before that story ended, but the power of that conversation—and the many others like it which that agency encouraged—has stuck with me.

At my next job, they had already stepped up the collaboration a notch. (This was a university, not a social service agency, so the frontline fundraisers were employees rather than trustees.) In fact, shortly after my arrival, we moved to a brand new building, and my floor was designed so that researchers and development officers worked side by side. My boss described it as “embedding” research in development.

Yes, we discussed new prospects and fielded requests for information with development officers in our monthly portfolio meetings. But we also introduced new prospects or new strategies over the cube wall, in the kitchen, on the stairs, and walking back from all-staffs. Creating a full-blown prospect profile for a development director was a rare thing, indeed.

There were other bonuses, too. Overhearing one particular fundraiser in my cube block making cold call after cold call not only gave me a new appreciation for her skill, but also informed my research. Knowing the types of obstacles she was able to overcome on the phone led me to change my assumptions about the best prospects to assign to her. It even changed my assumptions about who the university’s best prospects might be.

And that’s how I approach things now. At my K-12 independent school client—where I work onsite—if I discover a new prospect, or something new about a prospect on social media or the traditional Internet, I run into my client’s office. I don’t even pick up the phone. I might write an email if they’re not around. But I’ve found that, with this client, it’s in the face-to-face that data spins into strategy.

The doors in that advancement office swing both ways. If the development director or the alumni relations officer has an idea for a region or industry to prospect in, or some new names to research, they are just as likely to come into my office. We talk things through, and we’ll come up with better direction and tactics than any of us would have thinking alone.


As a prospect research consultant, I know that profiles aren’t dead. Many organizations and development directors still want them, many effective and nuanced gift solicitations still require them, and many prospect researchers have found ways to infuse profiles with analysis and strategy.

But researchers also know that collaborating with development directors is a lot like the cultivation process. We need to go beyond the profile to ensure that the information we hunt down is both actionable AND acted on. Just as the most successful gift cultivations are person to person, so too are the most successful working relationships between researchers and development officers.

Missed Sarah’s last post about the essentials of researching philanthropic data? Check it out now

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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