Josh Birkholz speaks about integrated prospect development and how it is here to stay.

Article authored and published with permission from:  Josh Birkholz, Principal, Bentz Whaley Flessner

Prospect research is not what it used to be. As campaigns continue to grow in size and scope, fundraising operations increasingly professionalize, and tools expand, the information-based support of major gift development also continues to evolve.

 As a prospecting professional now in my 15th year, and one privileged to work alongside some of the most amazing prospecting professionals in the industry, including Bobbie Strand, Randy Bunney, Karen Greene, Diane Crane, Jennifer Cooper, Pamela Poland, Chris Cannon, Ali McLane, Rachel Schaefer, and Alex Oftelie, I’m privileged to have had a unique vantage point to see this evolution first hand.

In 1986, Emily Pfizenmaier Henderson stated in the book edited by Bobbie Strand, Prospect Research: A How-to Guide, the following description of prospect research:
A productive research system must keep research in perspective. It has only one purpose—to support the cultivation and solicitation effort. Unless prospects become donors, research will be in vain.

Surely prospect research saw its origin in the support of cultivation and solicitation. Organizations realized significant risk and costs in developing relationships and asking for gifts with limited information. And, information was difficult to attain. Prospect Research, as an industry, professionalized information acquisition and translated this information into capacity ratings, timing considerations, and supporting strategic information for cultivation.

Did this risk and need for information go away? Certainly not. However, the tools became more accessible, information is now easier to find, donor management systems were able to store and report gathered information, and additional needs now exist. The increase in campaign demands required a substantial investment in prospect identification volume. As Prospect Research demonstrated an increasing ability for proactive research, these programs were tasked with prospect identification.

The added focus of feeding the pipeline required Prospect Research to add new functionality and expertise. Peer review and news alerts were insufficient for achieving campaign prospecting requirements. Massive scale filtering and qualification efforts were necessary. In response, this adaptive field incorporated wealth screening for broad-scale capacity assessment, and predictive analytics for broad-scale likelihood assessment. To evaluate the effectiveness of identification efforts and to address the risk of names slipping through the cracks, Prospect Research also developed complex prospect management systems.

Today, these multi-faceted, integrated programs are even changing their names to Prospect Development. Prospect Development programs are characterized by distributed labor skilled in the following components:

  • Predictive analytics and data acquisition for identifying prospects and large-scale data maintenance
  • Prospect identification research geared towards efficient vetting of leads and feeding the discovery process
  • Prospect management, which ushers leads from assignment to stewardship
  • Prospect research to continue providing the important support of cultivation and solicitation, however more likely directly entering assessments into donor management systems to produce profiles instead of traditional, unfielded shadow Word documents

The Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement, or APRA, continues to evolve and advocate for this dynamic field. Their ability to adopt prospect management and analytics alongside prospect research demonstrates unique awareness of the changing requirements of our industry.

My firm, Bentz Whaley Flessner, an investor into prospecting thought-leadership from our beginnings in the early 1980s, continues to reside at the forefront of developing integrated prospect development programs. In fact, the most common request I get from fundraising executives today is, “Help us develop an integrated prospect development approach.” Organizations that systematically identify, qualify, maintain, and research their best prospects simply raise more money. And, they do it more efficiently.

What about that 1986 definition of prospect research? The same Bobbie Strand, wisely penned this revised observation in 2008 (from A Kaleidoscope of Prospect Development):
Prospect specialists must understand the giving potential—not of one prospect, or a small group—but of the entire constituency in metrical terms. How many? How much? How often? When? Where? How? Numbers of everything, type of constituents, donor levels, percentages of participation… …[to] sustain a steady program of prospect identification, research, and qualification of new and previous prospects to keep the pipeline flowing and the prospect pool robust.

Prospect Research certainly is not what it used to be.  It is so much more.

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