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The Future of the Prospect Research Profession

Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay

The prospect research profession is gaining momentum. The truth of this is evident in many places, but especially in the number of open positions being advertised and the growing number of researchers with leadership titles, such as AVP and VP. But where is this momentum taking us?

I’m ready to risk being wrong and to make a prediction beyond today’s reality and into the future.

I had a relaxing and social weekend. For me, that’s the equivalent of letting the soup sit for a day before serving – all the separate flavors meld and settle into something delicious. When I sat down to type up a post this Monday morning, lots of different ideas had melded. It’s as if the mist had receded and my crystal ball was crystal clear.

The prospect research profession is going to grow wider AND deeper.

To hear the visionaries talk about artificial intelligence and cognitive colleagues, like Adam Martel of Gravyty and David Lawson of NewSci, respectively, one might believe that the ranks of researchers will be thinned by advancing technology. In my imagination, those visions translate to thousands of prospect research professionals clogging up a funnel that is trickling out only the best multi-skilled research talent – those individuals who can perform higher at all levels.

But three things have happened to dispel that imaginary funnel-fuelled mist.

1| I finished reading a book, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.

Gwande is a surgeon writing about the tortured relationship physicians have with patients at the end of life. A great book for anyone to read, but especially helpful if you are involved in caring for an elderly or terminally ill friend or relative.

In the book Dr. Gawande covers much, but relevant to the prospect research profession, he suggests that most doctors treating a dying patient either take a paternal role and tell the patient what treatment is best or they take a “Dr. Informative” role and present all of the options and leave the decision to the patient.

He advocates for doctors to take a third, very different role, as a coach or guide. Through a series of questions, doctors can better understand how a patient wants to live in the remaining time, explain the options, and recommend a course of treatment that fits the patient’s needs and preferences.

I’m simplifying for the sake of brevity, but consider how this might apply to any profession, including prospect research. Doctors face similar threats from artificial intelligence. Who can read and interpret scans and tests better, and who can spot patterns among lots of drug and other treatment options? Machines, of course.

But it is only a human professional who can understand the technical options, interview a human being, and recommend a course of action. It requires competence, trust, and rapport. This applies just as well to the fundraising researcher.

And this is what I mean when I say that our profession is growing wider. New kinds of roles are opening up to us as professionals.

2| Jason Briggs wrote an article, Out of the Shadows: Why prospect research helps fundraising

In this article, Jason argues that prospect research professionals have the skills to be great leaders, which include the following:

  1. Sound interpersonal skills;

  2. Good decision-making; and

  3. A comprehensive understanding of fundraising.

He doesn’t mention this in the article, but I happen to know that when he was employed by The University of Sheffield, he and the research team created a Philanthropy For Us Insight Report, which went on to win an Insight in Fundraising Award in 2016. What is so special about that?

The team evaluated data on the various countries where the University had alumni and made some surprising discoveries about which countries were most likely to be philanthropic across country boundaries and had a density of alumni. This is a stellar example of the kind of intel that translates to lower costs (countries close by) and higher fundraised dollars (higher gift amounts from more alumni).

When we researchers tell our story well, it’s one of raising more money – sometimes a LOT more money. I call that fundraising prowess. And yes, it is performed from behind a desk.

Growing into top leadership roles is another example of our profession growing wider.

3| I spotted a $500k+ prospect marked “unable to rate” by a screening

I can’t seem to keep my hands out of the nitty gritty of performing research and as I was fussing over trying to get two files to match on database IDs by checking the record counts, I saw some weirdness in the screening results.

Surrendering to forces beyond my control I stopped and ran a quick internet search on the name. I suspect the euphoria of successfully identifying this retired investment banker is something akin to the feeling a gambler feels when hitting the jackpot on the slot machine: total validation that my intuition is better than the odds!

Even with all of the beautiful automation of electronic screenings, sometimes the data is missing or corrupt. No matter how useful a cognitive colleague could become, there are some things people do better than programs.

And this human advantage is how our profession will go deeper.

Already specialization has begun deepening the profession. And I don’t just mean fundraising analytics or prospect management. There are researchers who have extremely deep knowledge of specific industries, such as banking or private equity.

Our profession is poised to grow wide to lead fundraising, development, and even the organization. But we are also growing deep roots of knowledge and understanding to support that leadership.

We are learning how to intuitively leap across data to identify opportunities for decision-making. We are specializing in the knowledge of how people create wealth and decide to give it away. We are coaching our front-line fundraisers to develop custom strategies for philanthropy.

Some may find our profession dull and technical, but our work has amazing results. And now in my imagination I see our profession as a prism through which fundraising refracts into rainbow of opportunities.

The future of the prospect research profession is bright and beautiful!


About the Author:

Jennifer Filla, CEO and founder of the Prospect Research Institute

A resourceful fundraiser with an innovative focus on prospect research, Jen is a researcher, consultant, author, speaker and trainer.

This article has been republished with permission. To read more Jennifer Filla blogs, visit

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