The Best All-In-One Research Tool

Clients ask me this question a lot:

“Which online prospect research tool should I buy?”

Then they’ll go on to say:

“My old colleague tells me to use this one because it’s really inexpensive, my consultants tell me I should use their product, and I just heard about something else that’s supposed to integrate with my database …I’m so confused!  Which one is the best?”

It’s a really good question.

You’ve got limited time, limited staff and a limited budget.  Wouldn’t you love to have a tool to be able to look up a name, push a button and get a perfectly-honed strategic research profile on that exact person?

Yeah, me too.  I’m really sorry; it doesn’t exist.  There is no push-button profile.  Although I’m sure the good people at IBM are looking into ways to maximize Watson beyond Jeopardy!

Until then, there are subscription services to multi-database products designed to get as close as possible to this ideal.  In alpha order, the largest services operating in this space are: DonorScape, DonorSearch, FindWealth Online, Prospect Research Online and ResearchPoint.

These products represent a portion of what I consider the Swiss Army Knives of the prospect research world.  They package as many different databases as possible to help with the variety of wealth-and-philanthropy information needs of the typical development office.  Most of these vendors also provide electronic screenings of your database, but you aren’t required to do a screening with the company to purchase access to their look-up service.

But which one is the best?

I guarantee you that within a week, you will know.  You will need to commit about 5 hours of your time, but that time you spend could save you thousands of dollars (and a lot of aggravation).  This is a big decision and depending on the size of your budget this could be a significant purchase for you.  You want the most for your money and a tool that saves you time.   So when you’re ready, just follow these three easy steps:

STEP ONE: Get the lay of the land

First, visit the vendors’ websites and spend 15 minutes familiarizing yourself with each company’s offering.  You will notice some similar databases and features as well as some differences.  Many of the vendors have pdfs with further information for you to download or print.  If you’re a paper person, create a grid.  If you’re a computer person, try Evernote or Zotero, two very cool tools for saving, filing, and creating notes online.

STEP TWO: Kick some tires

Now that you’ve gotten an overview, call the vendors of the products you’re most interested in.  Arrange for all of the product demonstrations to happen on the same day.  Why?

a)      You will begin to form opinions quickly based on what you’re seeing from one product to the next in that short period.

b)      If you ask, most of the vendors will provide a week’s worth of access to test their product after the demo, and you will be able to test them out side-by-side in the week ahead.

Smart, huh?

At this point I would recommend not asking about pricing.  You want the best product for you, not just the cheapest.  The one you select may actually end up being the least expensive, but don’t let that be a factor – yet.

STEP THREE: Take them for a test drive

Do the exact same searches across all of the products, entering names of donors and volunteers you know very well and those you don’t know well at all.  Ten to fifteen of each group should give you the information you’ll need to make a solid decision.

  • Which had the easiest interface for you to use?  Which was the most confusing?
  • Which gave you the most information?  The least?
  • Which gave you the most accurate information based on what you already knew about your insiders?  Which gave the most false hits?
  • How easy is it to build and store lists?

And some more general questions to ask yourself…

  • How much information do you need to know generally?
  • How much time do you have to sift through information?
  • What questions about prospects will you need to answer over the coming year?

The focus really sharpens now

Usually at this point a fairly clear ranking is emerging on the decision grid.  If you’re ready to buy, now it’s time to call the sales rep(s) to get pricing for your top one(s).

DO:  Ask for and call three references.  How responsive is the vendor’s customer service? What do they love about the product and what do they find frustrating?

DO:  Find out if a professional association you belong to has negotiated any special discounts with the vendor to maximize your budget.

DON’T: Just go with the service your best friend likes.  Your organizations may be similar, but your situation is completely different from theirs.


And there you have it – the very best prospect research Swiss Army Knife lookup service.  You knew I was going to say this all along, didn’t you – it’s the one that’s best for you.

Note: I have specifically omitted tools like Lexis Nexis, Dialog, Factiva, Highbeam, Morningstar and others from this article because I consider them in a different category of information aggregators.  But you can still use the techniques I’ve described above to determine which of those resources would be best for you, too.

Rescue from the Digital Firehose

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about content curation – ways to corral the rushing river of media coming at all of us.  Because we are all drowning in too much information.

Information is a fire hose blasting at us full bore.  If it’s not email, it’s Facebook.  Blogs.  White papers, professional journals and newsletters.  RSS feeds and search alerts.  Some of it we read, most of it we just don’t have time for.

It’s just crazy.  New resources, new services, and even new data-stream-tamers are popping up every day.  It can be overwhelming just deciding which filter to use.

Marketing ninja Mark Schaefer’s recent blog posting about hot new Q&A site Quora elicited this comment from Paul Gailey, another digital consultant:

Observations like that make me feel – ugh – overwhelmed for a second.  It’s true – the information is only going to keep rushing at us.  But there are LOTS of solutions.  We have to filter out the noise, but we absolutely cannot afford to filter out the information that we need to see.

Here at HBG my team and I use several free and fee-based tools to help ourselves and our clients deal with the digital firehose.  I’d like to show one of those easy-to-use free resources that I think you’ll find helpful.  Maybe best of all, you’re not meeting some hot new untested thing.  It’s familiar.  It’s…

Your old pal, Google

You probably use Google every day, but do you have an iGoogle account?  If not, you are truly missing something.  Signing up is easy and free.  Just click iGoogle on the top-right corner of your Google main page and sign up.

Now you can personalize your home page.  Or, if you don’t want to, just skip to item 2.  This is my personalized page with a beach theme at sunset (hey, it’s February.  I live in Boston.):

There are a zillion themes from which you can choose – from beaches, Italian gardens and English lakes to [*ahem*] scenes that are clearly NSFW.  <–(You don’t need to click that if you know what it means).  Click “Change theme” (1) to select your choice.

Once you’ve done that click “Add stuff.” (2)  That’s where you’ll find goodies called ‘widgets’ that add personalized news feeds, weather forecasts, stock market updates, Twitter, Facebook, and lots of other tools.

You can also set up web and news search alerts and have the alerts sent to your iGoogle page via an RSS feed.  That way you’ll be the first in your office to know when a company goes public, someone’s portfolio soars, a foundation you’re tracking announces grants, or the $100-million gift across town gets announced.

But it gets even better.  See on the left where it says “Edit this tab”? (3) (I clicked on the down arrow next to ‘Home’ to show you that pull-down window).  If you select ‘Add a tab” you can create a new tabbed page – just like tabs on your web browser – and name it whatever you like.

I created this tabbed page for fundraising blogs I follow.  You can create tabs by theme, geography, key influencers you’re following …and you can add or delete feeds easily as you find new thought-leaders to follow.

The information you need, curated for you

A ten-minute scan of your tabs first thing in the morning will get you up-to-speed on all the news.  You’re not rooting all over the web to find the information you want; the content’s all coming to you.  You can add new must-see sources as you find them.  Most importantly, you’re not left unaware of critical information that you can’t afford to miss in this busy digital world.

For more about content curation and to find other tools professionals are using,

here are two articles to get you started:

The Content Strategist as Digital Curator, by Erin Scime on the blog A List Apart

Curation is the New Creation, by Paul Gillin on B2BOnline.

The Scoop on Venture Philanthropy

Map of Europe

My friend Chris Carnie at Factary in Bristol, England gave me a scoop that I am excited to share:  Factary is releasing a white paper today on venture philanthropy in the UK and Europe titled The Venture Philanthropists; A Review of Venture Philanthropy Funds in the UK and the People Behind Them.

What makes this study different is that it is written by someone on the inside: Chris is a member of the Finance and Fundraising Committee of the European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA) and works closely with members of the venture philanthropy (VP) community.  This fascinating white paper focuses on the specifics:  Who they are.  How much they give.  What they give to. And most importantly, the keys to involving them.  I asked Chris a few questions:


HELEN BROWN: Chris, how long have you been following this topic and what kind of access have you gotten to the real story?

CHRIS CARNIE: We’ve been tracking venture philanthropy in Europe since it started. I got interested when one of the founders of VP in Europe attended a training course I gave years ago; he came from a private equity background, and wanted to know more about how the nonprofit sector worked. I spent some time with him, and then got to attend the first conference on VP in Europe, in Amsterdam in 2004. Since then, I have stayed involved and now serve on the Finance and Fundraising Committee of the European Venture Philanthropy Association, EVPA.

I’m interested in VP for lots of reasons. First, it has attracted some of the cleverest people I have ever met. People who are happy to throw all of the old ideas out of the window and build something completely new, creating social change in ways that are truly inventive. Second, it reaches a section of the community that has, historically, been very hard to get to – the private equity, City of London [financial district] people. Traditional “charity” is not very attractive to these people, but VP fits perfectly with the way they think. Third, well, when you get invited to speak at a private conference in Venice or Luxembourg, it’s hard to resist…

HB:  So what makes this new white paper a must-read?

CC: It’s a 70-page report on venture philanthropy in the UK. We’ve focused on the 130 or so people in the UK who have led and supported the growth of VP in the UK. The typical venture philanthropist was born in 1960 – so the median age is 51 – and is in private equity.  Eight out of ten VP trustees are male, and the most common source of women on VP boards is from the nonprofit sector.

He’s likely to be wealthy, and in fact the VP community have attracted a high proportion of people of wealth – across just 11 VP funds, we’ve counted 24 who feature in the UK’s best known wealth listing, the Sunday Times Rich List.

There are currently 11 full VP funds in the UK. I’m saying “currently” because the growth rate of VP in Europe has been extraordinary. The EVPA has grown membership 25 times in the last 6 years. They are supporting a very wide range of causes – there’s a shared interest in youth and education, but they are backing health, clean energy, HIV/AIDS too, both in the UK and overseas.

HB: But there are only 11 of these funds?  Why are they so important?

CC: That’s one of the keys to understanding this community of philanthropists – their influence is enormous. What’s happening is that large-scale foundations in Europe are taking a strong interest in the VP model. A number of the heavyweights have started venture funds within the umbrella of the larger foundation: an example in England is Charities Aid Foundation which runs a VP fund called Venturesome.

HB: Is that the future of VP?

CC: In part, yes. The VP model is about scale – growing small, high-impact nonprofits into bigger ones. In the UK we’re just at the start of that process (the first VP fund was set up here in 2002, four years after the Silicon Valley Venture Fund became the first VP in the US).  But we’re going to see stronger growth as the large foundations get on board. We’re also going to see traditional foundations copying the impact measurement tools that the VP community has developed. There will be continued growth in this sector and much of that growth will be international – the VP community has been very good at building links across Europe and the United States. Their conferences and meetings are multi-lingual affairs.

HB:  Thanks Chris for this sneak peek into the white paper.  For more information or to purchase the report for £125 contact

RELATED: The Atlantic magazine’s article “The Rise of the New Global Elite” by Chrystia Freeland provides another fascinating insider look at this group of influential and philanthropic individuals, including their interests and priorities.

Google+Spam=Opportunity (for Bing?)

The Washington Post ran an article on Jan 30th by Michael Rosenwald highlighting the increasing amount of spam on Google.  Spammers have figured out a way to cheat the Google system and are now bringing it direct to you and me.  It’s clogging up the works and many are starting to worry that Google isn’t taking the issue seriously enough.

How the spammers do it

1.      Content farms – businesses created specifically to generate cheap and filling answers to popular search strings – are increasingly padding out the results.

According to Rosenwald, websites like eHow hire freelancers to write how-to articles on a wide variety of topics.  The sites work hard to optimize the page content so that they get pushed to the top of search results, and because we trust Google’s algorithms to give us good hits, we click the link.  And when we click the link, we’ve reinforced to Google that that link is what we’re looking for – Google ranks web pages in part based on how many click-throughs it gets.  Once we actually see the page, we realize it’s crap, but now we’re there, we’ve committed.  We’ve clicked.  Crap.

2.      Nickel-a-clickers – People that are paid to click links to bring a web page higher in the rankings.

Through employment matchup services like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, spammers hire cheap labor to click on links in order to make their site seem more relevant.  Every time the clickers click they get five cents, or whatever the agreed-on rate is.  In order to earn a decent return, they have to click a lot of hotlinks.  I can’t imagine the boredom that entails, but I suppose it’s pretty easy work.

I’d never heard of Mechanical Turk, so I thought I’d have a look-see.  One of the jobs on offer: “CopyEditing and Logically Filling up of Blanks for Recipe Database.”  Job description: “Check for grammer errors.”  Oh good.  Final comment on the job from the employer: “It doesn’t have to be factually correct. As long as the details seems plausible and logical it is fine.” Well, there’s another reason for sticking with reliable ol’ Epicurious.


Big deal, there’s more spam in Google results.  Whatever.

You might say that now, but if spammers are enlisting armies of cheap labor to scam the system, Google’s in big trouble.  Because if we all get fed up, there are several other big engines ready and waiting for the influx of search émigrés.  And Google will be another name like Netscape or Northern Light that you think “Oh yeah! I used to use that all the time!”

And it means trouble for us, too, because some of the pages you click through to are going have more and more distasteful things on them.  And like bedbugs they could start creeping onto your hard drive and lurk there.

What lurks beneath the surface?

Lurking things?  Eww.  Are there options?

Alternatives to Google include Bing, Blekko, and Exalead, just to name a few.  Here at HBG, we check more than one search engine for every search we do and you might want to consider making it a habit too, if you aren’t already.

Here’s another reason why you might want to use more than one engine: studies in recent years by researchers at Penn State, the University of Kashmir, metasearch engine Dogpile and others have shown repeatedly that information overlap between search engines is very low, sometimes as little as 1% in the first page of returned results.  You get a stronger variety of results if you cast your net wider.

[An interesting sidenote here: search guru Danny Sullivan posted an article on the Search Engine Land website yesterday titled “Google: Bing Is Cheating, Copying Our Search Results.”  Apparently Google set up a sting operation recently to prove that Bing has been lurking over their shoulders and copying search results.  Sullivan’s article has pictorial evidence and everything.  Will Bing just clone Google’s results, spam and all?  I sure hope not.]

And finally, consider this: when you search Google or any search engine, you’re looking at a static database of web pages that were scanned in days, weeks or perhaps even months ago.  Which is why sometimes when you click a link you won’t find the word you were looking for.  The page was updated in the interim between when it was saved in the search engine’s database and when you clicked the link.  One search engine may have cataloged a site yesterday and another last month.  Or last year.  For freshness, reliability and completeness, it just pays to use more than one search engine.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Google.  But this spam thing is starting to bug me.  Are you concerned?  Or is this much ado about nothing?