Take Time to Develop Your Prospect Research Skills | npENGAGE

Take Time to Develop Your Prospect Research Skills

By on Dec 13, 2011


Meredith Hancks, MBA, uses data daily to uncover hidden gems in the database at Western Illinois University, where she is the Director of Prospect Research and Management. She is serving the wider nonprofit community as Chair of the Best Practices in Prospect Development subcommittee for the Association of Advancement Services Professionals. She is currently a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Minnesota completing an Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration. You may follow her on Twitter at @MHancks.

She has graciously shared her knowledge of prospect research for us!


I’d like to do a virtual show-of-hands to see how many researchers sought out the profession when contemplating career choices. I’m guessing there aren’t many. For most of us, Prospect Research came about through other means, and we’ve found ourselves engrossed in this fantastic, fascinating profession almost by accident. We probably go to training sessions after we get the job, not before. So what are the foundations we need to know going in? And where should we start?

My first book, Getting Started in Prospect Research, just came out this fall and details the nuts and bolts of our profession. I hope it serves as a good guide for people! It was certainly a good exercise for me to write it, as it made me thoroughly consider my process for the various aspects of my work. And having that framework makes me continually consider my “Top 10” list of what we need to know.

With that in mind, whether you’re just getting started or you’ve been at it for decades, I’d like to propose we all take some time to develop these Top 5 areas:

  1. Resource list – mine is ongoing and continually evolving. I add to it whenever people suggest sources that I’m not familiar with, which makes it easier when I encounter new research requests.
  2. Research Check List – Whether you use the template that you enter your research in or a separate list to track where you’ve looked, it’s a good idea to have some sort of mechanism to systematically find what you’re looking for and make sure you don’t miss something. Maybe it works better as a menu, where a research option of “discovery bio” only has boxes for a couple of demographic sites, but a research option of “full profile” contains boxes for demographic data, wealth data, past employment, philanthropy, connections to your organization, etc.
  3. Relationships – You might think that a prospect researcher sits alone most of the day doing “research.” But you’ll probably be more successful if you build good relationships with frontline fundraisers, other researchers, database people, and others in the nonprofit sphere. These relationships are vital so you feel comfortable asking follow-up questions throughout your research process.
  4. Professional connections – similar to relationships, but specifically finding connections through APRA, AASP, AFP, CASE, Charity Channel, and other associations and list serves (PRSPCT-L, Prospect-DMM, FUNDSVCS, Advance-L are a few of my favourites) keeps you in the know with what’s going on in the profession. And by staying on top of vendor webinars, you see emerging trends in the field too! 
  5. Data Mining – even if your task is solely research with no modeling requirements, it’s useful to know what makes for good mining…that way you can know how to track and store your research. And it’s fun!

There are more facets of our profession, no doubt. But I believe that if we all develop good habits in these areas, we can be really successful in what we do!

Feel free to leave comments and questions below!


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