Many (most? all?) of us fell into prospect research, and it’s always interesting to talk with people and find out how they got here. This week my colleague Kelly shares her own journey as well as others’ to prospect research and provides great advice for anyone considering this very best of careers. ~Helen
One of the things I love most about attending annual conferences, is meeting fellow researchers and learning about how they came to the profession. Prospect research is not exactly one of those careers you study for in college or aspire to as a child.
Imagine, if you will, this conversation at the family dinner table:
Mom: “What do you kids want to be when you grow up?”
Kid #1: “I wanna be an astronaut!”
Dad: “Wonderful, honey, you’ll need to study lots of math and science in school.”
Kid #2: “I’m gonna be a teacher!”
Mom: “You’ll need lots of patience and learn to be a good communicator.”
Kid #3: “I want to write reports about rich people and figure out ways to encourage them give away their money!”
Dad (turning to Mom): “We may have to Google that one.”
I’m always astonished by the myriad of backgrounds we come from – journalism, the arts, mathematics, natural science, library science, and the list goes on. In my opinion, it’s what makes prospect research unique from other professions. There really is no cut and dry path to walk. You have to pave it yourself!
A little about me
As a kid, my career aspirations were pretty typical. They changed annually and were sometimes based on the movies I watched or books I read. It really wasn’t until I went to college that I set my sights on psychology. In particular, I wanted to be a clinical neuropsychologist and study the intersection of brain and behavior. I wavered a bit between studying people and animals, but it was always psychology.
After graduating from a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire, I went right into the working world as a research assistant in neuropsychology at a Boston-area medical school. I spent five years there and had the most amazing experiences that I still draw on today; however, it turned out neuropsychology wasn’t the career for me after all.
Eventually, I got married and started my family. I focused on getting jobs that I knew I could do well and and would give me a good work-life balance. I worked as a veterinary technician, an animal behavior research assistant, and a financial administrator. It wasn’t until I became an administrative assistant at a local liberal arts college in 2008, that I started moving towards what would be my career for the next 14 years!
The job was perfect a young mom. It was 15-minute drive, no drama, 9-5. I worked in the college’s development office in major gifts. I had no idea what either of those terms meant. After my first year on the job, my boss (and now very dear friend) introduced me to prospect research. She thought it would be a natural fit, given my lab research background, and encouraged me to start talking with the in-house research team. Once I did, I was hooked! I soon joined NEDRA, took the two-day research basics bootcamp, and never looked back.
I got my first “real” research job at a Boston-area hospital in 2010; however, a difficult pregnancy with my second child left me in need of a remote position. Luckily, my strong relationships within the research community led me to a chance encounter with our very own Maureen Kilcommins at a NEDRA conference. I joined the Helen Brown Group (HBG) in May 2013 as a subcontractor and two months later was hired full time. The rest is history.
Researching the researcher
In preparation for this blog post, I surveyed a number of my colleagues in prospect research. I aimed to find out what path brought them to the profession and what traits they possessed that made them successful in this field.
I guess it was no surprise that the majority of us did not prepare for this job or even know what it was back when we were starting out. In fact, most of us had grand plans to do something entirely different.
My colleague Joan Ogwumike and creator of the blog, A Researcher’s Diary, planned to be a political journalist and had a background in journalism and political science. She wanted, “to write for a newspaper, interview people, and travel the world.”
Former HBG consultant Rachel Dakarian wanted to be a spy or an illustrator as a kid. Didn’t we all want to be spies? Or at least work as a crime scene investigator? I know I did!
HBG senior consultants Rick Snyder and Heather Willis also diverged from their original career paths. Rick studied Russian in college and wanted to work in fine art restoration or be a museum curator. Heather studied biology and hoped to pursue a career as a wildlife biologist or game warden. They are now two of the most senior members of our team.
Other researchers surveyed reported the desire to be an artist, doctor, teacher, and even a film director. So how on Earth did they come to prospect research? For most of us, it was all about timing and good old-fashioned luck.
HBG senior consultant Mandi Matz fell into research completely by accident after obtaining her master’s in library science (MLIS): “[I] totally fell into it. By the time I got into research, I already had my MLIS and had worked in public libraries for a few years. I saw a posting for a prospect researcher, and it seemed like it would be a good combination of research and writing (my skill set), so I took a chance and applied. And then my future boss took a chance and hired me.” Mandi went on to say, “Like a lot of us, I’ve done many different things, and they’re all kind of interconnected.”
Researcher Marianne Iauco, who began her career as an education specialist for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, came to prospect research after obtaining her MLIS. A layoff from a corporate library job sent her into IT sales and marketing. Marianne says, “After another round of layoffs, I decided to go back to my library science roots, volunteered at NEDRA, began networking with prospect researchers, and refined my career story eventually getting work as a prospect researcher.”
HBG senior consultant Angie Herrington was a real estate paralegal before a move from Tennessee to Virginia left her looking for new employment. While her husband was working on his master’s degree at Virginia Tech, she took an entry-level position in the university’s corporations and foundation relations office. Angie said, “I didn’t even know ‘development’ meant fundraising when I took the job. There were only two prospect researchers on staff, so they weren’t able to help with corporate and foundation research. Tamara Overcash, who later became director of research at Duke University until she passed in 2011, gave me a few pointers and the link for Prspct-L. I was hooked!”
Curiouser and curiouser
Although our paths to a career in prospect research may differ, we all share similar skill sets and natural abilities. According to the survey, participants considered the following traits to be essential in a good prospect researcher:
- Natural curiosity
- Critical thinking
- Attention to detail
- Ability to express ideas effectively in writing
- Desire to learn new things
- Sense of humor
Overwhelmingly, respondents considered natural curiosity and critical thinking to be the most important traits in a good researcher. I couldn’t agree more. Anyone can learn how to look up information in a database and copy and paste it into a document. But a good researcher takes that information and converts it into actionable intelligence by providing detailed, thoughtful insight.
“If you are not curious, I think you just end up ‘information waitressing,’ serving up the same information about potential prospects and not honing in on the one or two things that will help the officer/client move the prospect into the cultivation stage and beyond.” – Marianne Iauco
“You can teach people databases and websites to find information, but you can’t teach them the curiosity and critical thinking to pull it all together.” – Angie Herrington
“I love finding out someone’s story – what made them who they are or why they do what they do.” – Jayme Klein
Finding your path
If you are interested in pursuing prospect research as a career and think you have the skill set discussed above, there are a number of resources you can tap.
First and foremost, check out the Apra website, as well as, your regional Apra chapter. These two resources will provide you with information on upcoming conferences, training sessions, and roundtable discussions. I highly advise all new researchers to attend a research basics bootcamp at the annual Apra conference or one offered by your local chapter. It’s well worth the investment and you’ll meet some of the brightest minds in the field. Also, with a membership to Apra and/or your Apra regional chapter, you’ll have access to online knowledge bases, workshops, and courses to further develop your career.
Second, seek out a mentor. This can be done via LinkedIn, Apra, networking at conferences, or contacting your favorite research blogger by email. Reaching out to an experienced researcher is a great way to gain insight into how you can break into the profession.
Third, do some reading! There are so many books on the topic. Here are three that I consider to be mandatory reading for the new researcher:
- Prospect Research: A Primer for Growing Nonprofits, Cecilia Hogan, 2004
- Getting Started in Prospect Research: What You Need to Know to Find Who You Need to Find, Meredith Hancks, 2011
- Prospect Research for Fundraisers: The Essential Handbook, Jennifer J. Filla and Helen E. Brown, 2013
And lastly, check out the blogs of other researchers. If you are reading this, then you already know about The Intelligent Edge and as mentioned above, Joan Ogwumike has a great blog called A Researcher’s Diary. Others you might want to subscribe to include (just to name a few):
- DAFinitively Speaking – Helen Brown Group
- Fundraising and Non-Profit Blog – iWave
- Driven by Data Blog – Staupell Analytics Group
- Jennifer Filla’s Blog
A big thanks to my siblings in research, who were gracious and eager to contribute their stories to this post. I couldn’t have done it with your help and encouragement.
If you want to know more about a career in prospect research or are new to the field, I’ll be cross-posting this blog on LinkedIn, where we can carry on the conversation.