The Intelligent Edge by Helen Brown

Archive for the ‘General’ Category

6 Reasons Why Real Estate Matters to the Savvy Prospect Researcher


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Driveway of Traditional Craftsman HouseEvery so often, the topic of “Should we or shouldn’t we include real estate as one of the factors we use to determine a prospective donor’s gift capacity” comes up in the prospect research community.

Some folks have this logic: “Well, our prospective major donor is never going to give us their house (or sell their house and give us the money), therefore we shouldn’t include it.”

Which is absolutely true. (<stage whisper>: I won’t mention “planned gift” at this point, okay?)


They are never going to sell their yacht, their plane, or their horses just to make a donation, either. They probably won’t liquidate their art collection, or the diamonds, or that fur they wore to the benefit. The privately-held company they own will remain unsold. Likewise the stock options that don’t convert for another 5 years.

So we should disqualify those assets, too, right?

You can’t pick and choose. If you select one non-liquid asset to take off the table, you have to take all of them. Figuring out someone’s gift capacity is hard enough to begin with. Purposefully handicapping yourself makes absolutely no sense to me.


Real estate certainly isn’t the be-all-end-all, but like all of those other assets I mentioned, it’s an indicator of wealth. So, #1, it’s information. In a realm where anything concrete is already in short enough supply.

But if that’s not enough, here are five more reasons why real estate is important to consider:

2. Real estate is a green flag. When I’m trying to find new prospects in a group of regular donors I may pass over someone who lives in a $850,000 home in San Francisco, but I’m definitely not going to pass over a donor who has a $850,000 condo in Aspen. I’m now going to search for their primary residence.

3. 100% of the world’s high net worth individuals (HNWI) own real estate. And for the more privacy-aware amongst them, real estate is sometimes the ONLY hard asset we can find for them. Knowing what kind of real estate they own gives you clues into the type of personality they are, how they may want to be cultivated, and what philanthropic investments may interest them. The billionaire who owns a 12-bedroom party house on Miami Beach is very different from the one living in a three-bedroom ranch in Omaha. Real estate gives you clues that they may be a good prospect for naming opportunities with big splashy events or funding boots-on-the-ground clinics for vaccine delivery and student scholarships.

4. We can use real estate for estimates. According to the CapGemini World Wealth Report 2013, real estate accounted for 20% on average of a HNWI’s total assets globally. (In the US, it’s 13.5% of total assets; in Europe it’s 27%). Even if all you can find is someone’s real estate holdings you can still come up with a fairly decent guesstimate of their total assets with that one ratio.

5. Super rich owners of real estate are re-shaping our cities. We need to be aware of who these movers and shakers are, and see if they’re among our constituents. According to a recent report by Savills, “Around 3%, or US$5.3 trillion, of the world’s total real estate value is owned directly by 200,000 of the wealthiest individuals (0.003% of the global population). These private owners are also very active in real estate that is held indirectly, through private companies and other entities, making them increasingly central to traded investable property…Around 35% of global big ticket deals (US$10 million-plus) in 2012 were only possible because of private funding. The behaviour of private wealth has the power to transform cities.” Would you want to miss knowing about one of those titans and how influential they are in your town?

6. Planned giving. There, I’ve said it. Let’s say you work at a college and you’ve got childless husband-and-wife alumni with a condo in Vermont, a vacation home at Los Sueños in Costa Rica and a primary residence in Boston’s Back Bay. They’re consistent donors and lifelong volunteers. You bet the planned giving officer needs to know about them. And in this case, it’s not only the real estate that’s interesting, but also what it tells us about them. Here is an active, outdoorsy couple who possibly enjoy golf, tennis and skiing. A pair that enjoys regular seasonal travel, but whose lifestyle may require extra cultivation time because they are not in town very often.


I know you’re dying to ask, so yes, here at HBG we do include primary residence in our total visible wealth calculations on profiles.

We believe it’s an asset.

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You really should get out more


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Strong wind blows the clothes hung on the clotheslineYou need to spring clean your brain – really air it out and get new, fresh ideas in. At least, I know I do. This time of year, I start itching to get out and meet people and learn lots of new things. It’s always worth it when I make the effort.

In addition to gaining a lot of great information, I get to hang out with old friends and meet lots of new and interesting people. Last month’s NEDRA conference really got me jazzed (I mean, have you heard Dan Pallotta speak? Wow!), and no matter how many years I’ve been doing this, I still learn something new at every conference I go to.

If you’re trying to figure out if prospect research is going to help you and your nonprofit, or if you’re a research professional wanting to rev up your game for the year – take a look at this list of great conferences and seminars coming up and just GO.

Most of the conferences are pretty reasonable and many offer scholarships, so even if your nonprofit doesn’t have a training budget there may still be a way for you to attend. Building up your expertise and meeting others who can answer your questions is always worth the investment.


15th: APRA Illinois seminar, Lewis University, Oak Brook. More here.

16th: APRA Indiana, webinar on database segmentation. More here.

16th: New England Development Research Assn., seminar on markers predicting philanthropy, Boston. More here.

16th: APRA Virginia spring conference, Harrisonburg. More here.

17th: APRA Great Plains spring conference, Ames, IA. More here.

17th: APRA Greater Houston, webinar viewing and discussion, University of St. Thomas. More here.

18th: APRA Maryland, webinar viewing and discussion, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. More here.

24th: APRA Metro DC annual conference, American University. More here.


1-2: APRA Georgia annual conference, Atlanta. More here.

1-2: Ohio Prospect Research Network spring conference, Columbus. More here.

6th: APRA Minnesota spring conference, St. Paul. More here.

7th: APRA Canada, webinar, private company valuation. More here.

8-9: APRA Florida annual conference, Tampa. More here.

9th: APRA Wisconsin spring conference, Kenosha. More here.

16th: APRA Michigan annual conference, Lansing. More here.

23rd: APRA Northwest annual conference, Seattle. More here.

27-30: Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference, Philadelphia. More here.


6th: APRA Illinois Basic Skills Workshop, Evanston. More here.

26-27: California Advancement Researchers Association, Palm Springs. More here.

Have I missed anything? Let me know and we’ll get it on the list!

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Why wealth screenings are a waste of money


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Money down the drain

“Yes, we did a wealth screening a couple of years ago. We didn’t really find it very helpful.” <pause>

“Well, to be honest, we didn’t really do anything with the information when it came back. It just kind of sat there.”

If I had a twenty for every time someone said that to me I’d be making major gifts already.

It absolutely kills me, too, because wealth screenings

     a) are not cheap, and

     b) can be worth every single penny.

No matter which screening company you use, no matter if your organization’s database is tiny or gargantuan; every single nonprofit can get something great out of a wealth screening.

And no, the screening companies are not paying me to say that.

Wealth screenings are a waste of money when people aren’t prepared for the process.

I guarantee there is no way you’re going to waste money on a screening if you follow these steps:

Take two hours to make a plan. Here are the three biggest questions to ask:

  1. What do we need to know from the results?
    Be very specific about your goals, and plan ahead for how to measure progress. How else will you know if you achieved success?
  2. Which records will we send?
    Decide how you’re going to segment. Is it based on your budget? how many returns you can reasonably get through? a specific constituency type that you need to know more about? Or do you want (or need) to send the whole group to get a baseline?
  3. Who will be responsible for dealing with the information when it comes back?
    You will need to clear the schedule of the person dealing with the returns so that they have the time to do the analysis, verification, rating, coding and uploading needed. If you can’t, stop right now – seriously. This is the top reason why screenings fail and are a waste of money.

These three questions are the make-or-break for a screening’s success. After you have the answers to those questions, here are a few other pieces of advice for a much-improved experience:

Choose someone (internal or a prospect research consultant) who has experience with screenings to liaise with the vendor. It’s important to have the best data in the right format to send off. If you send bad data, you will get bad data back – it’s as simple as that.

Do a test screening. Each of the vendors will allow you to run a certain number of records through their matching system as a test.

  1. Chose three groups to send: people you know very well (45%); people you don’t know very well (selected at random) (45%); and members of staff who have agreed to participate (10%). This last group isn’t necessary but it can really help you zone in well on where gaps lie and what you need to focus on in the analysis.
  2. Send THE SAME group off to more than one vendor.
  3. Verify these results just as you will when the full-scale screening results come back. This will help you budget and plan for the time needed to do the real analysis work. You can get a feel for what needs to be done, and see which vendor provides you with the most useful information in a format you can work with best.

Understand that a wealth screening (like Lexis Nexis or Google) is just another tool in your prospect identification toolbag. It’s a power tool but it’s not the be-all end-all.

Be an educated buyer. Screenings will only find what is publicly-available. If you want to know about the properties your millionaire constituent holds in trust, or the extent of someone’s private art collection, you will need to utilize entirely different tools. You really can’t blame a hammer for not being a screwdriver.

Rescue the money you would have wasted

You can get so much out of wealth screenings! Follow my advice and you will never waste money doing one again.

For those of you who have gone through screenings before, do you have any other advice to share? Please comment!

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What your capital campaign plan is missing


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There’s a critical piece of information missing from most capital campaign feasibility studies:

          The amount of money an organization’s constituency can actually give.

We need the answer to that before we can set the goal, right?

And yet… most of the time nonprofit organizations launch their campaigns without knowing the full answer to that question. They wait until after they’ve launched to finally get all the pieces in place. Which seems kind of crazy to me.

Here’s how planning for a campaign normally happens:

  1. The nonprofit hires a capital campaign consultant to help them set the goal, outline the fundraising priorities and come up with a campaign plan.
  2. The consultant looks at similar organizations in similar markets with similar constituencies to see what those organizations have raised successfully in their most recent campaigns.
  3. He or she factors in how generous the organization’s constituency was during the last campaign, and what the organization needs to raise money for.
  4. The consultant interviews executive leadership, the board, and a selection of key major donors to get a sense of their interest in and commitment to a potential major campaign.

From that, a fundraising goal is set. chocolate cake

And it’s a good start. But like I said, it’s missing something. A Texas-sized something. With extra frosting. And that something is a wealth screening.

Campaigns are a big deal

Capital campaigns are the largest, most expensive and time intensive undertaking that a nonprofit organization will undergo. Instead of doing a wealth screening after the goal has been set, we need to use the screening to help set the goal.

You may be surprised and encouraged at your organization’s potential or soberly prepared for a long slog ahead. Or maybe you’ll decide to put it off for a year or two until you build up your base. No matter which way you go, you will be better prepared than you’ve ever been before.

Be prepared

  1. Get a screening done early, as part of your pre-campaign due diligence.
  2. Use the results to inform your final goal figures in collaboration with all of the estimates and interviews.

If you’ve had trouble in the past getting good results from a screening, come back here next week when I’ll discuss why most screening dollars go wasted, and what you can do to avoid falling into the same trap.

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What do you say?


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Counter to what you’ve probably been thinking, I do have more to do than simply wax philosophic about what it means to be a provider of fundraising intelligence. I do sometimes go on a bit when I get passionate about a topic, and I realize that my last few blog posts have been heavy on the forty thousand feet and light on, well, the feet.

So let me come back down to earth and talk about that elevator speech I referred to last week. The practical one. The one that answers the question:

What do you say when someone at a party says, “So what do you do?”  

That can be a sticky-wicket question no matter where you work in fundraising, right? I’ve had front-line colleagues tell me that people have physically moved back a step when they’ve said “I’m a fundraiser.” Ouch. So we’re all in the same boat.

When people ask me what I do, my vanilla statement is: “I help lots of different nonprofit organizations find people, companies and foundations that are interested in supporting the work they do.” I say “vanilla” because really, sometimes people are just being polite and they’re really more interested in the canapés than your answer. So it’s the one-liner before I ask them the same.

But: if they say something like “oh, that sounds interesting” or “you must really enjoy your work” I usually go on to tell a brief story, like:

It really is interesting (or yes, I really do love what I do). In fact, a prospective donor that I identified ten years ago recently gave several scholarships. One of them was so that a kid living in a Nairobi slum who had nothing going for him except brains and guts could schlep halfway across the world to get a university degree. He’s now back in the slum – in a shiny new school and community center he set up.

There. See? I’ve talked about the impact my work makes rather than what I mechanically do.

Because really – think about it.  If you meet a surgeon at a party, do you really want to hear every detail about their last operation? No – they can just say “I perform reconstructive surgery on kids with cleft palates” or “I saved three lives last week” and you’re pretty much in awe, right? No need for the gory details.

The gory details

Still, every once in a while, someone will say to me “yes, but HOW do you do that?” So they really do want to know. Which tells me that either:

a) they want to be a prospect researcher (Yes! Another convert! I win the toaster!) or

b) they’re potentially creeped out and here’s my chance to set them straight.

So here’s my more in-depth story:

I used to work at a school of public health and, as you can imagine, most of our graduates went on to work in …public health. Most didn’t come from money to begin with, and most weren’t ever going to get rich working in public health. So the school couldn’t really rely on wealthy alumni to provide scholarships for the next class of needy students.

But the faculty, students and alumni were doing amazing work in just about every country in the world: HIV/AIDS education in Africa; nutrition education that helped prevent kids from being malnourished in the United States; health and human rights work in the Middle East; and cancer prevention work everywhere.

So we got this idea to approach CEOs at multinational companies whose workers were in the geographic areas that the school had an impact. By helping the school’s work, they were helping keep their employees and customers healthy.

My job was to use sources like business directories to find the names of those multinational companies and their CEOs. I gave their business contact information to our fundraisers and volunteers. These folks made contact and, if the CEOs were interested, they were asked to become members of an advisory committee in an area that impacted them most.

Usually what would happen is that the company (and sometimes the CEO as well!) would decide to support that work financially. We were able to create 7 whole committees from scratch of industry leaders who had no prior affiliation with the school but who became committed volunteers and donors.

That’s my usual how-I-do-it story. Hopefully their eyes haven’t glazed over by now, but they asked for it! I keep a few of them in my back pocket – stories that illustrate, with enough detail to satisfy their curiosity without too many boring details.

But really, just keep it simple

Unless you’re a celebrity, chocolate dessert maker or rocket scientist, most people are just being polite when they ask what you do. Metrics and database searching and Boolean logic are way beyond what someone really wants to know when they’re standing holding a glass in one hand and a mini plate with an awkward hors d’oeuvre on it. Trying to be polite and figure out how they’re going to manage this with only two hands.

Offer to hold their glass for them, and tell them a feel-good story.

What’s yours?

Special thanks to Ralph Rohrer and all the commenters on last week’s blog post who inspired this one.


Welcome Heather to HBG!


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It is with great pleasure that we welcome our newest team member, Heather Willis. Heather was one of the first people I trained when I began my consulting business and I have always been impressed by her intelligence, professionalism and can-do attitude. Heather’s background in prospect research includes working for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and for Carroll College. For the past seven years, Heather had been a freelance researcher and owner of her own company, Willis Research Services in Buffalo, Montana.

We’re delighted that Heather is joining our team and are excited about the addition of talents she brings to our Group and our clients.


You’ve Got A Secret…


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So let’s say you want to email a password-protected document to someone.  Or give them access to the back end of your website.  You need to send them the password to open it …but what if they’re half a world away, sound asleep?  Or they’re in a meeting, or just unavailable to take your phone call?  Emailing the word itself just isn’t a secure option, even if you are using your super duper top-secret spy subject-line code:

Trust me, the bad guys are going to figure it out – if they want to hack the document or your website, that would be the first email they’d look at.  And this is the second:

So here’s what you do:

Use a secret sharer.

One Time Secret

One Time Secret does just that – it allows you to share a secret just once.  It can be a word or a phrase that you want, or the site will generate a random password for you.  Just type in the word or phrase, click “Create A Secret Link” and an encrypted link is generated that you can cut and paste into an email.  You can set the period of time for the secret to expire – so when your secret is opened by your authorized person, it automatically disappears and can’t be accessed again.  Likewise, if it doesn’t get accessed within the allotted time, poof – it’s erased.


QuickForget does all the same things that One Time Secret does, but your secret doesn’t have to disappear after the first viewing.  So if you need to send the secret to more than one person, you can choose the number of ‘views’ the secret has as well as the number of hours it’s available for viewing.  There’s a handy email-it feature, too… (*cough*) as long as you don’t go with their suggested subject line…

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More, Ben Franklin and Prospect Research


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The creative fundraising folks at More Partnership in the UK recently put together a small book called More stories, which is the “first in a series of little books about fundraising.”  I hope they put out another little book soon because its 32 pages delighted and entertained me with inspiring and amusing stories on fundraising (just wait ‘til you read the one about the doctor, the lawyer and the development director at the Pearly Gates!).

One of the quotes in the book really hit home for me because it dovetailed nicely with a conversation I’d just had earlier this week…

The executive director of a nonprofit in New York City and I were meeting over coffee.  She asked me how we go about finding board, volunteer and major giving prospects, and I outlined the concentric circles we study:

Starting with those closest to the organization (trustees, lead volunteers, etc.) we work our way outward through their branches of connection, so that the people, foundations and companies we identify already have a clear connection to the organization or to the cause they serve.  We eliminate those who have been previously involved or were asked to serve but could not.  We build a model of the ideal prospect, and see what obvious connections can be branched from there.  And, of course, we do a few other trade-secret-y things.

Our process is hand-tailored and intense because we believe that one warm call that will be answered is much easier for a fundraiser to make than 15 cold calls.  And if it can’t be a warm call, then we suggest one where the potential attraction is so obvious that it has the power to lean the prospect like a magnet toward the new cause.

Reading this quote from Ben Franklin, I was struck by the thought that, even 220 years later, the important things stay the same.

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HBG grows!


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Last week I had the pleasure of welcoming two new colleagues into the Helen Brown Group.  The fundraising world being as small as it is, you never know when you’re going to have the opportunity to work with someone again, and it’s certainly true for me with both Andrea Marks and Maureen Kilcommins.

Andrea Marks

Andrea Marks

I first worked with Andrea Marks ten years ago at Northeastern University when she was just starting out in prospect research.  Bilingual and a cum laude graduate of Boston University in international relations, Andrea was quick to understand the value of research in fundraising and its global possibilities.  Soon graduate school called her, and after receiving an MBA degree specializing in international business and marketing, Andrea worked for three multi-nationals and an NGO managing their payrolls.  I’m delighted that we were able to entice Andrea back into prospect research, and happy to have her international research and language skills.

Maureen Kilcommins

Maureen Kilcommins

Maureen Kilcommins and I have worked together for the last ten years in support of the North American Foundation for the University of Manchester (NAFUM), England.  Previously Maureen worked as director of prospect research and management for Bentley University and as director of annual and special gifts for UC-Santa Cruz and associate director of the Harvard Law School Fund.  Maureen’s experience in research, front-line fundraising and operations brings a triumvirate of value for our clients looking for advice in those areas.  Maureen will continue in her role as North American administrator for both NAFUM and Sightsavers and will work with HBG on a part-time basis.

Welcome Andrea and Maureen!

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17 questions to ask before hiring a research consultant


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The Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration (SOFII) has curated a group of great articles on how to be an effective partner with consultants in our sector.  As a riff on Alison McCants’ great web article sharing her experience, I thought I’d add some questions to ask before engaging a research consultant:

  1. What resources do you use?
  2. Do you purchase them yourself?
  3. How often do you attend continuing education courses to keep up with the latest resources and trends?
  4. Do you teach any training courses?
  5. What types of organizations have you worked for?
  6. What kinds of reports do you provide?
  7. How much do they cost?
  8. May I see samples of your work?
  9. How long does it usually take for you to complete a report?
  10. May I speak with three current/recent clients?
  11. What is your privacy/confidentiality policy? (Thanks to Jen Filla for that one!)

Ask a consultant’s references:

  1. How easy is this consultant to work with?
  2. Do they provide good customer service when something goes wrong?
  3. Do they deliver research when promised?
  4. How do you feel about the quality of what you receive?
  5. Is their work good value for the price?
  6. Are they innovative?

Do you have more questions to add?

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