Prospect Research

“What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”- Albert Pike

“So, you are interested to be a prospect researcher?”, asked the French head hunter.

If I had one confession to make in this blog, it is that the first job I got in France was one I didn’t know anything about… I replied to the ad because it seemed like an organization was looking for a researcher. But until I had the first interview with the recruiting agency, I didn’t exactly understand what I applied for.

It was embarrassing to be on the phone, sneaking from my former boss, and having to admit that as good a researcher as I am, it was the very first time I’ve heard of Prospect Researching. I do not recall how I saved face during the interview, but somehow I was able to convince her that I’m an ideal fit for the job.

Philanthropy, a sector in progress

I suppose it was through a strike of luck that the head hunter assigned to me was a kind, considerate one. She didn’t blame me for cluelessly applying for a job. And how could she? when the very foundation of Prospect Research is still taking baby steps in Europe: the Philanthropic sector.

In philanthropy, the main activity that moves resources is Fundraising. Surely, you’ve heard all types of fundraising campaigns for a wide range of causes from fighting hunger to combatting illnesses. It is mostly the non-profit organizations that use fundraising to, well, raise funds. As opposed to investment, the donor does not receive any monetary value in return. But a recognition in one form or another is always offered (naming facilities after a donor like “Ismid Family Library”, setting up a plaque of appreciation or a giving symbolic like a fountain pen or a trophy). Many non-profit organizations are resorting more and more to soliciting donations in order to sustain their activities; especially after the recent economic downturns, which have certainly reduced investments in their enterprise.

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Almost all of us have witnessed how different associations raise funds in the streets: they either ask for a one-time donation or request for a longer-term commitment. What prospect reasearch does is to streamline information so that fundraisers know exactly who to target and how to enlist the “prospects” for a more stable and continuous organization-donor relationship. 

Research on Prospects

Prospects are defined as probable donors, and they could mainly be a company or an individual. Given my personal experience, I choose to consider prospects as individuals in this post.

The best way to identify a prospect is to investigate how he is linked to the organization that needs the funds. Is he an alumnus/current member of the organization? Is he a parent of an alumnus? Is he a parent of a current student? Is he a board member? Is he in any way interested in the mission and vision of the said organization (interest)? Has he made or is he currently making donations to similar causes (willingness)? And most importantly, does he have the resources (capacity)?

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Fundraisers want to know almost anything there is to know about a prospect, but the most important information they need is the person’s capacity to give. All of us may agree that receiving a one-time donation of 1M Eur is much more efficient than asking for 2K Eur 500 times.

Research on this type of research

I found this job really interesting ever since the day I had to prepare for the second interview. I had to study the basic fundraising concepts and found out that fundraising is actually a cycle and prospect researching is the first step. The research done would make way for the rest of the steps such as:

  • a more target-based Cultivation (building relationships with identified prospects)
  • a realistic Solicitation (asking for an amount to be donated) and,
  • helping strategize Stewardship tasks (recognition and continuous engagement of donors). You may notice that the prospect turns into a donor once he has made a gift (another term for donation).

The cycle comes to full circle when the donors’ information is updated and they are once more identified as prospects for another round of solicitation/fundraising activities.

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The theory seems to be fairly understandable, logical and well-organized. However, as is everything in this colorful life, it is the reality that gives problems of execution. In prospect researching for example: for the world’s richest people, information is readily available at Forbes, Bloomberg and other periodic publications online (mostly this information is accessed for free) or in hard copy. There are even wealth search tools available that estimate a person’s assets and cash flow (not for free); and the principle would still be the same: the more famous the person, the more information you have.

The bigger problem is if the person you’re interested in is believed to have the capacity to donate but is either one of these:

  1. Not very famous, or not visible in media
  2. Somebody really old, hence very scarce information is available about him online
  3. Related to a rich/famous personality, so that the available information is more about his relatives than about him

… what are you to do?

As it turns out, this kind of dilemma is what made the job even more interesting than I expected- this is where prospect researchers would turn to other sources of information such as: Facebook (FB), LinkedIn, Instagram, news articles and- why not- gossip columns.

I used the word “intriguing” because the first time I had to resort to this technique, I wasn’t believing my luck that I was being paid to pry into people’s lives. Just like a gossip journalist. (Yep, you guessed it! gossip columns is my guilty pleasure…)

For example, after I reported about a prospect’s FB content he ended up being completely disregarded due to the conclusions drawn about him (too many inappropriate pictures and male chauvinist jokes). The organization didn’t want to be identified with someone like him.

And what about that time when I discovered that the heir of a vast family fortune in France is said to be addicted to poker? I had to look for more than 5 news articles/interviews just to assure the fundraisers that there might be some truth to it.

Or when I learned that a very famous former member of the organization was once married to an English aristocrat? This is important so that when the assigned fundraiser approaches her the topic could be treated with tact, or not treated at all.

Lastly, what about that week I spent digging up information about a prospect’s properties (a castle here, a manor there, several farms somewhere…), then it turns out he’s an octogenarian? I also found out that he’s being approached by fundraisers from various organizations to propose to him about leaving a legacy gift. I had to report this to the manager so they could adjust their expectations with regards to this prospect’s willingness to give.

How is this interesting career-wise?

The most obvious answer would be the fact that Philanthropy is slowly but surely rising in importance outside of the U.S. and U.K. (where it is of such high relevance). People who are interested to dedicate themselves in this kind of job would find that opportunities will gradually present themselves (perhaps sooner in some countries, later in others). But focusing on the research aspect of this sector, I found that I was able to develop and strengthen certain skills.

These, according to my limited exposure, are the skills needed to be able to successfully carry out a good prospect research work:

  1. Discretion: given the importance of the people involved in the research, fundraisers and campaign managers will greatly appreciate someone who could act as if they don’t know anything in front of non-concerned parties
  2. Strictly following instructions: this is the only way the fundraisers could get what they really want and the only way they can be truly effective in cultivating good relations with the prospect; and if the person is already a donor, strictly following their instructions would make it easier to continue engaging them
  3. Knowing what questions to ask: prospect researchers exist because in principle, fundraisers don’t have time to make the research work themselves. But they might have some ideas in mind which are useful to be known
  4. Fast reading: there is so much to read!
  5. Fast writing: there’s even more to write!
  6. Patience: sometimes people who ask for research materials change their minds. They might re-focus the research from another angle or change the subject altogether. It helps to think that all of it is for the best (which would be translated to $$$, literally!).
  7. Efficient time-management and multi-tasking: most of the times a researcher would be requested to submit various materials with the same deadline. These materials are not necessarily identical in length, content or effort needed to be produced.
  8. Network building: some important and “juicy” information would come from the people you meet outside the organization. Having said this, hearsay and rumors are not going to be taken seriously as research material, but fundraisers would appreciate knowing them (as long as they have been warned that those are in fact merely rumors).
  9. Believing in the cause: this quality would make any prospect researcher work hard and endure all types of difficulties when faced with a tough subject (or fundraiser, hehe!)
  10. Genuinely enjoying the job: I believe this is a pre-requisite for ANY type of job. Enjoying what you do, truly loving what puts the bread on your table will make the day-to-day travails easier to handle. Enjoying doesn’t mean not encountering any problems, though. Enjoying in this context means that no matter what problems you face, you are always ready and open-minded for the alternatives because you want to solve them.

Everything I learned and everything I have shared is the product of the handover process plus the 5 months I spent filling in for this job (it was a replacement for someone who went on maternity leave). It’s such a pity I wasn’t able to stay in that department to learn more from the original Prospect Researcher. But I am very grateful for that short period of discovery from such an insightful person. These were actually the qualities that fundraisers appreciate about her, and which I worked hard to develop to a higher level. I can proudly say that this job has helped me grow both professionally and personally.

So, are you interested to be a prospect researcher?



1. Fundraising Fundamentals, available at:

A researcher’s dilemma

Science Debate

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While reviewing my educational background, I chanced upon some notes about one of the subjects in my Masters’ course: Research Methodology. The introductory module explained the importance of qualitative research and discussion in Social Sciences because basically we can’t perform experiments on human beings (or any other social unit). While “tougher” sciences can verify (or reject) hypotheses with the results of an experiment, social scientists like economists and sociologists seem to operate in another action zone. I am specialized in qualitative research- does that make me a “lower-level” type of researcher?

I ask this because the few times I saw a Research job being offered somewhere, it’s usually a “hard-core” researcher they look for- even when the job description clearly states that the study revolves around a subjective concept. Logic would tell us the reason would be because the companies intend to carry out a quantitative analysis. But what about the non-measurable aspects of life? Will they even be glanced at under this type of study?

 A discipline

It’s interesting to note that just like any other Social Science, Economics places human beings at the heart of its studies. (In a nutshell: Economics is the science of resource allocation.) Economists throughout the history have been using methods of quantitative analysis as a tool to measure values and sometimes to make assumptions on future values. My teacher in Research Methodology made a sort-of caricaturized explanation about this stating that the discipline’s forefathers used a lot of Maths* because they wanted to appoint laws to different phenomena. That way Economics could be made into a legit, true-blue science (eg: Law of Supply and Demand). Having said this, we know not all values associated to humans are measurable expecially when referring to feelings, opinions, impressions… So I wonder: what exactly did the forefathers expect to achieve when they started to assign numerical values on things non-quantifiable?

I’m not saying numerical data is unimportant. I’m saying it’s not EVERYTHING. A funny but good example my professors would always use is: if your data says that for a given country, an increase in the number of storks in one year shows an increase in the number of babies born in the same year, does that mean that we have to act on the population of storks to control human population increase in that country? (It’s really not that simple; there are ways to test just how “sensible” data relationships are. But you see where I’m getting at, right?)

I cannot imagine having studied Economics without passing through Algebra, Calculus, Statistics, etc… But I don’t think it has to heavily rely on rigorous statistical computations to be considered a science.

Qualitative research methods

The everlasting question we asked back then was, “Why are we so stubborn in fitting certain aspects of human beings in a mathematical model, when those aspects are subject to as many criteria as there are human beings in this planet?”. I’m pretty sure an econometrist would find a sassy way to put me in “my place” (Ah, Ceteris Paribus**!). Don’t get me wrong, I might even be swayed by it! I’m not belittling anything, but it doesn’t seem to cover the complexity of humans.

This is one of the reasons why qualitative research methods have been developed. A qualitative research is more descriptive in nature; it does not generalize an outcome derived from a certain population. (A scientific law would do this- a statement based on repeated experimental observations. It always applies under the same conditions, and implies that there is a causal relationship involving its elements. But the data gathered from experimentation must be measurable!) One cannot simply put a universal value on how much teenagers love to watch TV or how much more one prefers spring to summer. Well I admit, one could if one wants. For one. But what if I want to make a study for a group of friends? Or what if I want to consider different groups from different countries? Each of them would have their own criteria for scoring so even the same scores would not mean exactly the same thing.

Besides, if I were to make a study based on human or a society’s behavior, why would  I want to generalize my conclusions to the rest of the world or across time? Our society has (in principle) accepted that diversity is enriching, so why not accept a diversity in solutions and conclusions all the same?

Debate as an alternative

One way to enhance a qualitative research is through debate or discussion*** (others include conducting of surveys, interviews, review of literature and more. See sources 2 and 3 below). The convenience lies behind the assumption that as the participants share their thoughts, results and experiences, knowledge is gradually accumulated. Meaning to say that through consensus, some ideas are rejected while others are accepted and continously developed. I’ve no doubt that Maths and especially Statistics are being used but results are enriched by experiences derived from observations from different people with sometimes contrasting perspectives. Remember the microcredit “boom”? First, it was supposed to solve poverty, then it appears not to have been able to do so. Presently, advocates say it’s supposed to work when integrated with other initiatives like improvement of education and health. Debate was an essential tool in getting us where we are now on that issue.

Flashback to Autumn of ’09: when “debate as an alternative” was brought up. Several people in my class did not agree. And why should they, since the very subjects of the study are the ones interchanging their educated opinion? For them, this just gives more room for prejudice based on the person’s background, education and beliefs. I see their point- it presents such a lack of structure. However, I begged to differ.

I was one of those who believe that although not a cure-all, a debate might be a very efficient way for a researcher to develop the matter at hand. First, because one cannot just access the data he wishes to in any given place at any given time. Second, there might already have been very good materials available about the subject and the cost of replicating those kinds of studies might be too much. And third, synergies could take place when you put opposing views face to face. Going back to our example: some policy-makers advocating for microcredits were open to debate and they were attentive enough to consider criticism about their work. This made them investigate the faults in their programs and are now coming up with more effective solutions.

In fact, I used a debate to present my hypothesis in my Master’s Thesis. I wanted to apply a method that would allow me to question something I firmly believed in- Microfinance****. I’m convinced it enriched not only the project, but also me, as an economist.For instance, it paved way for me to explore wider topics of conversation while I was conducting interviews within the community. As for the results, not only was I able to prove the existence of both positive and negative effects: I also found out that for the particular community in my study who were using specific microfinance products, the “negative” effects were a by-product of corporate governance with ample room for improvement. So to speak, it’s not the instrument that’s failing, it’s the way the instrument is being distributed that’s not very effective.

A few parting thoughts

Speaking from a limited experience, I noticed how a lot of people feel more at ease when statements are presented with mathematical models. I would ask myself if it isn’t just”psychological” in the sense that since Maths represent a very exact science, it makes humans feel more stable in the presence of something systematical and accurate. No gray areas there- either it’s black or white. The weakness in structure presented by qualitative research clearly shifts the balance for scientists and learners alike. And in my case, I can debate all I want but the result is what it is.

The day I started to recognize the use of the qualitative type of research was when I realized how everything around me has to do with economics- with resource allocation corresponding to an order of preferences. Everyday, I make decisions that affect how I distribute my time, effort and money among my responsibilities, interests, whims… It may be clear to me what value I give to hanging out with a friend, or how much I would pay to get a few more hours of sleep. But the truth is once I step out of myself, I have not the slightest idea how others think: what factors do they consider in putting a value on social life? is sleep even on top of their priorities? “Talking” about it helps get a better understanding of how the rest of the world arranges their preferences. In some cases, there might even be similarities for people from the same culture, religion, race, gender, etc… But we cannot generalize anything. This is why I believe qualitative research should not be set aside as a mere “support” for quantitative research. In many cases it should be the other way around, especially when human factor plays a key role.

Perhaps when the research to be undertaken has to support the construction of a building, the flight of an aircraft or the functioning of an artificial heart, precision should be expected. In this case, I wouldn’t be surprised if companies would prefer a physicist or a telecommunications engineer over a developmental economist. But sometimes a study would involve non-measurable concepts and ever-changing scenarios. Then, wouldn’t it make more sense to look for someone who could look at numerical data beyond the symbols and discover what stories they tell? someone who is trained to analyze and interpret events (versus numbers) to extract learnings from it?



*Just like Econometrics, which Wikipedia says is the application of mathematics, statistical methods and computer science to economic data to discover exact relationships among data.

**Latin for “with other things the same“. Economists live by this premise.

***Debate is also very widely used in pure sciences but its service to the social sciences is highly valued because of the limited possiblity to conduct experiments.

****Microfinance is an integrated source of financial services comprising microcredits. It could also include microsavings and microinsurance among others.

  1. Wikipedia
  2. Modalidades de investigación, available at:
  3. Metodología de la investigación:
  4. The Laws of Economics don’t exist, available at: