CoolData blog

9 September 2015

Prospect Research, ten years from now

Guest post by Peter B. Wylie

 

(This opinion piece was originally posted to the PRSPT-L Listserv.)

 

As many of you know, Dave Robertson decided to talk about the future of prospect research in New Orleans via a folk song. It was great. The guy’s got good pipes and plays both the harmonica and the guitar really well.

 

Anyway, here’s what I wrote him back in March. It goes on a bit. So if you get bored, just dump it.

 

It was stiflingly hot on that morning in early September of 1967 when my buddy Bunzy sat down in the amphitheater of Cornell’s med school in Manhattan. He and the rest of his first year classmates were chattering away when an older gentleman scuffled through a side door out to a podium. The room fell silent as the guy peered over his reading glasses out onto a sea of mostly male faces: “I’ll be straight with you, folks. Fifty percent of what we teach you over the next four years will be wrong. The problem is, we don’t know which fifty percent.”

 

I’ve often thought about the wisdom embedded in those words. The old doc was right. It is very hard for any of us to predict what anything will be like twenty years hence. Nate Silver in both his book “The Signal and the Noise” and on his immensely popular website underlines how bad highly regarded experts in most fields are at making even short range predictions.

 

So when Dave Robertson asked me to jot down some ideas about how prospect research will look a decade or more from now, I wanted to say, “Dave, I’ll be happy to give it a shot. But I’ll probably be as off the mark as the futurists in the early eighties. Remember those dudes? They gave us no hint whatsoever of how soon something called the internet would arrive and vastly transform our lives.”

 

With that caveat, I’d like to talk about two topics. The first has to do with something I’m pretty sure will happen. The second has to do with something sprinkled more with hope than certainty.

 

On to the first. I am increasingly convinced prospect researchers a decade or more from now will have far more information about prospects than they currently have. Frankly, I’m not enthusiastic about that possibility. Why? Privacy? Take my situation as I write down my thoughts for Dave. I’m on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico with Linda to celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary. We’ve been here almost two weeks. Any doggedly persistent law enforcement investigator could find out the following:

 

  • What flights we took to get here
  • What we paid for the tickets
  • The cost of each meal we paid for with a credit card
  • What ebooks I purchased while here
  • What shows I watched on Netflix
  • How many miles we’ve driven and where with our rental jeep
  • How happy we seemed with each other while in the field of the many security cameras, even in this rustic setting

 

You get the idea. Right now, I’m gonna assume that the vast majority of prospect researchers have no access to such information. More importantly, I assume their ethical compasses would steer them far away from even wanting to acquire such information.

 

But that’s today. March 2, 2015. How about ten years from now? Or 15 years from now, assuming I’m still able to make fog on a mirror? As it becomes easier and easier to amalgamate data about old Pete, I think all that info will be much easier to access by people willing to purchase it. That includes people who do prospect research. And if those researchers do get access to such data, it will help them enormously in finding out if I’m really the right fit for the mission of their fundraising institution. I guess that’s okay. But at my core, I don’t like the fact that they’ll be able to peek so closely into who I am and what I want in the days I have left on this wacky planet. I just don’t.

 

On to the second thing. Anybody who’s worked in prospect research even a little knows that the vast majority of the money raised by their organization comes from a small group of donors. If you look at university alumni databases, it’s not at all unusual to find that one tenth of one percent of the alums have given almost a half of the total current lifetime dollars. I think that situation needs to change. I think these institutions must find ways to get more involvement from the many folks who really like them and who have the wherewithal to give them big gifts.

 

So … how will the prospect researchers of the future play a key role in helping fundraising organizations (be they universities or general nonprofits) do a far better job of identifying and cultivating donors who have the resources and inclination to pitch in on the major giving front? I think/hope it’s gonna be in the way campaigns are run.

 

Right now, here’s what seems to happen. A campaign is launched with the help of a campaign consultant. A strategy is worked out whereby both the consultants and major gift officers spread out and talk to past major givers and basically say, “Hey, you all were really nice and generous to us in the last campaign. We’re enormously grateful for that. We truly are. But this time around we could use even more of your generosity. So … What can we put you down for?”

 

This is a gross oversimplification of what happens in campaigns. And it’s coming from a guy who doesn’t do campaign consulting. Still, I don’t think I’m too far off the mark. To change this pattern I think prospect researchers will have to be more assertive with the captains of these campaigns: The consultants, the VPs, the executives, all of whom talk so authoritatively about how things should be done and who can simultaneously be as full of crap as a Christmas goose.

 

These prospect researchers are going to have to put their feet down on the accelerator of data driven decision-making. In effect, they’ll need to say:

 

“We now have pretty damn accurate info on how wealthy a whole bunch of our younger donors are. And we have good analytics in place to ascertain which of them are most likely to step it up soon … IF we strategize how to nurture them over the long run. Right now, we’re going after the low hanging fruit that is comprised of tried and true donors. We gotta stop just doing that. Otherwise, we’re leaving way too much money on the table.”

 

All that I’ve been saying in this second part is not new. Not at all. Perhaps what may be a little new is what I have hinted at but not come right out and proclaimed. In the future we’ll need more prospect researchers to stand up and be outspoken to the campaign movers and shakers. To tell these big shots, politely and respectfully, that they need to start paying attention to the data. And do it in such a way that they get listened to.

 

That’s asking a lot of folks whose nature is often quiet, shy, and introverted. I get that. But some of them are not. Perhaps they are not as brazen as James Carvel is/was. But we need more folks like them who will stand up and say, “It’s the data, stupid!” Without yelling and without saying “stupid.”

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