So after much soul-searching and advice from friends, partners, relatives and career/guidance counselors, you’ve decided that prospect research is the career path for you. Congratulations! It’s the best job in the world. Yes, really.
You’re not alone, though – this time of year I usually speak with three or four people who have recently discovered prospect research and are interested in informational interviews to learn more about breaking into the field. Most of the time they ask, “How can I differentiate myself?” Here’s my advice for ways to do that:
1. Do your homework
If you want to get into prospect research, you need to prove that you’re a natural at it. Prospective employers are looking for people that can’t help but find the answers to questions. Here are some to get you started:
- What professional associations do prospect researchers belong to? Is there a local chapter nearby?
- Do the professional associations provide introductory training?
- Are there other places for training available as well?
- Is there a listserv for prospect researchers?
- Are there leaders in the prospect research/fundraising field active on social media? (Follow them! Read what they recommend!)
Contact people in the field near you and ask them to meet you for 30 minutes in person (preferred) or on the phone for an informational interview. Chances are good they are not going to hire you, but if you make a good impression and they hear of a job in the near future, you could end up on someone else’s short list. Some key things to remember:
- Be respectful of their time. Start wrapping up your call or visit after 28 minutes have passed – if they encourage you to stay longer, follow their lead.
- Have your list of questions ready – remember, you are the interviewer.
- Provide them with a resume at least 24 hours prior to meeting you.
- If it’s natural, weave into the conversation things you have learned about prospect research from your homework as a basis for your questions. (For example, “I saw on prspct-l that researchers talk a lot about analytics. Would you say this is an area of growth in the field?”)
- Ask for others they might recommend you speak with (but don’t be surprised if they ask to think it over).
- Send a thank you note or email within 24 hours.
- When you do get a job in the field, get back in touch to let them know and thank them again for their time with you.
3. Educate yourself
Remember those local chapters and those training sessions you found out about when you were doing your homework? Go.
- If you’re serious about a career in prospect research (or any field), you need to invest in your future. You’d expect to take the time to learn and to pay for an advanced degree in business, architecture or any other specialty before you broke into those fields, wouldn’t you?
4. Offer to volunteer
Some established prospect research shops need extra help that they can’t afford to pay for. In exchange for some of your time, you’ll get valuable on-the-job training and (if you do a good job) a reference and another line or two on your resume.
- Although nonprofits large and small need volunteers, if you are specifically looking for prospect research training, focus on volunteering where there are experienced researchers that you can learn from.
- Be willing to do some clerical work in exchange for training on research resources, methods, and search skills, but be clear in your expectations for volunteering what you want to gain from the experience.
5. Keep a positive attitude
I know, it’s really hard to break into a new field. But if this was what you were born to do, keep at it. There are nonprofits hiring researchers right now, and there are job boards to keep a watch on. Keep educating yourself and become engaged in the research community.
Have you been successful in breaking into the prospect research field recently? What suggestions do you have for others?