This week I’m delighted to feature an article by Senior Researcher Rick Snyder, who shares his considerable knowledge on pulling at that tricky loose thread of compensation information. Rick’s main takeaway: It’s not just about resources (although he has a nice list of great sources to share), it’s also being mindful of how and when to use them, and how you might be able to ‘back into’ useful information by rocking back on your heels and coming at the problem in a new way. ~Helen
Many of us use research checklists as we do our work and use profile templates where we fill in the blanks. This allows us to be consistent and helps remind us to use all our resources. One by one, we work our way through the list.
Property value? Check.
Foundation affiliations? Check.
Non-profit and corporate board service? Check.
Determining what a prospect earns can be one of the most bedeviling, if not disconcerting, tasks that we perform in our research. Unless you are fortunate enough that you only research insiders at publicly-traded companies, you are faced daily with trying to figure out what your prospects are paid.
While there are numerous job-specific resources available where we can search for answers, the results can be less than conclusive and you find yourself having to guess.
And that can be truly disconcerting. We researchers (not to mention the frontline fundraisers we work with) like solid, reliable answers to our questions. We are data driven, but what do you do when the data is not available? The choices we are left with can be somewhat unnerving because we can only provide estimates, and to someone who seeks certainly, that does feel a lot like guessing.
One of our expectations at The Helen Brown Group is that every research profile we produce will have something in the section on compensation. Even if the job is obscure and comparable salaries are difficult to find, we do our best to describe and explain what we’ve found. Some professions are easier than others – medicine and law, for example – due to the availability of clear and comprehensive compensation reports; however, most do not.
And then there are the really tough ones
Have you ever had to estimate the salary for a Director of Fun? I have. Fun it was not. And recently I researched a person who is a Senior Sovereign Analyst and Strategist (step 1: find out what a sovereign analyst does).
When you do find information on a particular profession, then you have to figure out how closely it matches that of your prospect. It’s relatively easy to find figures for an analyst, but what about a sovereign analyst? A senior sovereign analyst?
Some threads to pull
As you look at the figures, ask yourself if they are for someone who has been in their job for 3 years or for 30? Is the reported position at a firm with 1,000 employees or with 50? Is it an investment firm with $50 million in assets under management or $50 billion? Is it based in New York or Topeka?
One useful place to look is the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), but you have to use the information wisely. Say for example that the BLS says that the median salary for an actor is $87,200, think about what level of fame and celebrity that is. Also, is it for a film actor or a Broadway actor? Rather than finding a clear answer, you will frequently find that you’ve generated even more questions, but they help you get closer to what you’re looking for.
And you have to remember, BLS (and other salary figures) are averages and with all averages there are outliers. If you were writing a profile on, say, Brad Pitt, it wouldn’t be helpful to provide the BLS average for actors ($87.2K) since he clearly earns several magnitudes greater than this. That information would provide little value to your profile and your reader would be less than impressed with your skills.
Two other great resources, SIC (Standard Industrial Classification) codes and NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) codes are very helpful to find information. Both standards were devised by the US government to gather statistical data on businesses and professions. Once you find the code for a specific profession you can use it to search for publicly-held companies of similar size and industry to see if they have compensation data available. (Pro tip: there is no code for Director of Fun).
A different angle can help, too
If there simply isn’t enough information on a position to make a reasonable estimate, you can always back into it. Here’s one way:
If you know the value of your prospect’s real estate, you can estimate the income required to pay the mortgage. Using the purchase price of the home, you can look up the level of income required for the mortgage. (Hat tip to my colleague, Josh, for his useful article on this topic.) Once again, there is a lot of nuance involved here. If you’re researching a couple, are they both working? Did they pay cash for the house? Did they receive the property as part of an inheritance? You will want to think about these things as you make your estimates.
It’s an art, and art is a conundrum
Even after we apply all the tools at our disposal we’ll often find that this is an aspect of prospect research that is far more art than science. Since we don’t have hard numbers we need to make inferences. Compile the information that is available, apply your analysis, and give it your best shot. When all is said and done, you’re still left in the position of having to guess. Just be clear in your explanation and don’t be afraid to say it’s your best estimate.
As I’ve researched and written this post I’ve thought about some of the more challenging searches I’ve had:
- What does an author earn?
- What does a Hollywood screenwriter earn?
- What does a Broadway producer earn?
- What does a well-known artist earn?
- What does an art gallery owner earn?
Rather heavily weighted toward the arts, eh? I guess for me, prospect research is the art of decoding art.
But here’s another pro tip that has helped me: When you’ve researched something tough, make note of it. Keep a document with what you’ve found so it will be easier the next time. If you have colleagues, maintain a shared archive of salary information and resources that all of you can access and add to. Pose questions on PRSPCT-L and look to the combined experience of other researchers.
We all love useful resources, and so I thought I’d share some of our HBG favorites for finding compensation information. While it’s not an exhaustive list, these should help point you in the right direction. If there are sites you love to use, share them with all of us by clicking on Comments and add them to the list, too.
Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2016: https://goo.gl/HxJY3c
ABA Journal – What America’s Lawyers Earn: https://goo.gl/2MF9wy
Real Estate Compensation Survey 2016 (pdf): https://goo.gl/Ike5Cw
Family Office Compensation: https://goo.gl/n6EzlW
Airline pilots (bonus points for the great domain name): https://goo.gl/YLl8km
Federal Employees: https://goo.gl/CELs8w
Public Employees: https://goo.gl/iO3NUr
California state salaries and pensions: https://goo.gl/V4UJak
AFL-CIO Executive Paywatch: https://goo.gl/DhRbkz
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Has wage data searchable by occupation or industry: https://goo.gl/ez3KXR
US News & World Report career lists: https://goo.gl/InHlkD
Forbes’s list of America’s most surprising six-figure jobs (2012): https://goo.gl/81hNdw