Having recently celebrated my 10-year anniversary of working for The Helen Brown Group and 20 years spent in this profession, I’ve had occasion to think a bit more than usual about my career.
I’ve thought about how much has changed in the past two decades, about the sheer number of individuals I’ve researched, some of the quirks and oddities I’ve uncovered in the course of my daily work, etc. I’ve also thought about how I got here, which in my case was a fluke, a chance reading of a job description (in the newspaper classifieds, as odd as that now sounds) that left me wide-eyed and astounded that they’d apparently created a job that uniquely fit my talents and interests.
Over the years I’ve heard a lot of my research colleagues talk about what brought them into their first job and many had a similar experience. It’s not like we all graduated from prospect research school after all. Many of us stumbled into our first research job and ended up sticking around.
Even more interesting to me than what led me into research, however, is what keeps me here. After all, 20 years is a long time to be doing one thing (I did take a detour into front line fundraising early on, but that’s another story). Even though it sort of surprises me a little bit every time I say it, I still truly love what I do for a living.
While a lot of what I do is repetitive and unchanging, there remains an element of surprise in not knowing exactly what you’re going to uncover on any given day.
All of this retrospective musing also led me to think a lot about what qualities make a good researcher. I can’t say this line of thought is new to me – when I was in a position of hiring new staff I spent a lot of time considering these qualities and ways to find them in a prospective hire.
I’d like to invite you to give this some thought along with me and contribute your ideas at the end.
So what is it, then, that you’d want in an ideal researcher? Here are just a few ideas off the top of my head:
- Knowledge of and proficiency with online resources such as LexisNexis, Foundation Directory Online, NOZA, etc. but also
- Knowledge of what’s available beyond what’s online
- Experience working with fundraising databases
- Ability to synthesize information and write clear reports
- Evidence of analytical thinking
All of these are important, even essential, and for the most part they are traits that can be easily identified in the hiring process. Any of these will provide the foundation needed to build a good researcher.
But I would argue that one of the most important qualities in a good researcher is something that is a bit harder to recognize and quantify, and that is curiosity.
Without innate curiosity I’m afraid that this job would become mundane very quickly. While it’s true that one could perform pretty much any research task without being curious, the end product would be probably be something that could be done just as easily with automation.
On occasion in conversation around the virtual HBG water cooler we joke about the infinite monkey theorem: Given an infinite length of time, a chimpanzee punching at random on a typewriter would almost surely type out all of Shakespeare’s plays (or, in our case, a research profile).
While I doubt that a pack of Googling monkeys will replace us anytime soon, we still need to make sure we’re providing more than a dry recitation of facts in our reports. Our curiosity is one of the things that sets us apart from those monkeys and we need to take advantage of it.
So how, exactly, can one’s curiosity enhance the work we do? I’m going to toss out a few ideas that are based on my own experience and that of some of the best researchers I’ve known. Again, I invite you to add your own thoughts in the comments at the end.
A curious researcher might…
- read books about New York real estate in order to have a better understanding of the wealth needed for entrance into the more exclusive buildings.
- subscribe to magazines or frequent websites that focus on yachts or fractional ownership of private jets.
- research the cost of items that are purchased by high net worth individuals or learn about country club initiation and membership fees.
- know what it costs to open a boutique winery or own thoroughbred horses.
And that same curious researcher might do all of these things in his or her spare time because they are simply intrigued by the world they inhabit.
While it may seem odd to many that Michael Gross’ book, 740 Park, was part of my bedtime reading when it first came out, I was fascinated enough with the topic that it didn’t matter that my work life had crossed over into my personal time.
How will our curiosity improve our work and keep those Googling monkeys at bay? One of the most important things we can do for the gift officers we support is to put information into context and shift from dry recitation of facts to providing a narrative about a person’s wealth and interests.
If you’d been reading about the cost of expensive watches, for example, you’d know that when a contact report mentions the prospect owned a Richard Mille, you can let the fund raiser know that prospect spent 6 figures on a piece of jewelry. Curiosity enhances knowledge and we can use that knowledge to enhance our work and our value to our teams.
After 20 years I’m still interested in learning about these things and because of that I’m fairly confident that this work will never become boring. The phrase “you learn something new every day” is particularly true for prospect research.
What are you curious about?