Guest Post by Mary Richter (Part 1)
In this three-part series, I am going to highlight the ways in which prospect research informs and guides the work of development fundraising officers. My 20-year career in fundraising began at the entry-level in a small organization with only four staff. This was just a few years after the Internet was born. I began to research current and prospective donors before search engines existed and before I knew the practice was called “prospect research.”
My inherent curiosity led me to the pages of annual reports. Here I found out what gifts our donors made to similar organizations, helping to make integral decisions about board invitations, donor cultivation and solicitations. Since then, it’s become a necessary tool in this fundraiser’s arsenal. I’ve relied on my research skills to support my work as an annual fund director, campaign director, and advancement director, and currently as an independent consultant. Within these roles, I implemented research most often in a few tasks which I will focus on – managing a board nominating committee, creating and managing a campaign prospect pipeline and segmenting annual fund solicitations.
The ideal situation, as any professional organization will agree with, such as BoardSource or Cathy Trower of Trower & Trower, is to have a board comprised of people whose professional and personal skills match the needs of the organization or institution. Good research will lead you to those people. Estimations of skills, philanthropy, or volunteerism by board members and others do not provide enough background to assess a person’s candidacy.
Once when I was serving as the staff liaison to a nominating committee, a well-intentioned board member told a fellow member of the non-profit community that he’d like to nominate him to the board of an organization where they were both involved. This person was – on a volunteer basis – coaching his child’s sports team and had grown up being involved with this organization.
The board member did not know anything else about his professional and personal background, and the person already felt invited to the board because of their brief conversation. My research showed this candidate paled in comparison to other candidates with relevant and needed expertise, and there was no evidence of philanthropy. It made for an wkward conversation between the two men later on. But if I had not provided the background research, the board would have added a board member with zero relevant skills and low giving capacity because the decision would have come down to anecdotal evidence about his strength as a candidate.
Good research also prevents awkward situations regarding giving after a board member has been invited to serve. Assumptions about capacity and philanthropy can be embarrassing to both the newly elected board member and the member assigned to solicit them. I will add, a thoughtful and authentic conversation with prospective members in which expectations of giving are openly discussed is another element that will prevent awkward solicitations, as well, however all of us know of well-intentioned and enthusiastic board members who make invitations without a truly open discussion of the need for all members to give to their maximum capacity.
My reliable process as a staff liaison to this important board committee, learned from a previous supervisor, is to create in-depth profiles for each candidate several months prior to elections. These profiles feature:
iWave is a wonderful resource to find this information, and my supplemental tools always include wedding announcements and obituaries of family members, and the search engine of your choice using multiple search phrases.
After the initial review of candidate profiles by the committee, the board candidate pipeline can be segmented into priority candidates, ones to watch and ones that have been removed from consideration. It is best to keep track of the candidates that have been nominated, and removed from consideration, in your database so that you or your colleagues will know the history if the same names surface in the coming years.
The crucial step after this is to assign board members with the task of learning more about candidates in ways that matter to your organization (e.g. do their values and philanthropy match your mission?) and whether candidates are interested in board service at your organization. At each subsequent meeting, members deliver feedback and discussion ensues. Discuss skills and backgrounds that are especially needed this year and create your final short list of candidates to be nominated.
If you’re in need of further advice on board nominations and selection process, I recommend this article by Cathy Trower.