How Prospect Development is Changing—and Why It Matters More Than Ever

Prospect development professionals occupy a unique position in advancement, says Carrick Davis, director of research and prospect management at the University of Northern Colorado.

Since they understand fundraising and are comfortable with data, he says, they’re key problem-solvers.

“This means that we’re suited to provide high-level strategy within our organizations, but… to effectively raise our profile within our organizations, we must advocate for ourselves and demonstrate the value we add,” he says.


Carrick Davis


Lindsey Nadeau

Here, CASE chatted with Davis and Lindsey Nadeau, director of research and relationship management at The George Washington University, co-chairs of the Annual Conference for Development Researchers in Los Angeles, California.

Get to know Davis and Nadeau and learn more about what’s happening in the prospect development field.

How did you get into prospect development?

Lindsey Nadeau: I began conducting prospect research without even knowing it; first as a student caller at my alma mater, American University. I was interested in picking up extra hours and I was offered the opportunity to research contact information for lost alumni. Then, for my first full time job in fundraising right out of college, event bios and assessing capacity ratings were part of my job responsibilities, but I had never heard the term prospect research. I learned the fundraising ropes, from membership programs and direct mail to major and planned gift work, but my favorite part of my work was the thrill of finding the missing detail of a prospect’s story to help advance my organization’s mission.

Carrick Davis: Eight years ago I got my first job in prospect development after graduate school, when I returned to my undergraduate alma mater to work in the external affairs office. At that time, my only exposure to the field had been what I’d seen in the job description. My prospect researcher role demanded technical literacy (finding, confirming, synthesizing and storing information), communicating that knowledge in a way that development officers can use and a commitment to using that data in new ways to further the organization’s mission.  I was drawn to finding ways to quantify largely abstract qualitative concepts like “engagement” or “affinity.”

What are the biggest challenges facing development researchers?

CD: The field is rapidly changing, both in organizational sophistication and technological improvement. Many veteran researchers will remember visiting their campus library to dive deep into the stacks to find reference information to create profiles for prospects. In a couple short decades, the work of the researcher has widened dramatically. This is partially due to the digitization of many resources, but also the speed and accuracy in which we can confirm information about a prospect. Nonprofits operate much more like for-profit businesses now, which means that nonprofits are using the information and data they create to do their work better, faster and smarter. We’re now asked questions like, “How do we shorten the cultivation cycle?” and, “What are the characteristics of high performing fundraisers?” In short, we’re now asked to address much more strategic and business-focused questions.

LN: There are three main challenges that I see.

  1. Being reactive versus proactive. Prospect development shops are capable of focusing on high-impact proactive research methods, but we’re rarely given the space to do that. Many shops have made the transition to being proactive, but most are still advocating daily for the need to pivot fundraising leadership and gift officers away from reactive research and toward proactive, business intelligence-driven methods and more robust relationship management operations. Often leadership will say they want us to focus on the latter, but their requests for reactive research are the very reason we can’t get there given our limited resources. This begets management expectation issues of why prospect development can’t do everything all at once, including why the pipeline isn’t growing and moving.
  2. Inducing action. Finding the right approach to induce gift officer outreach after prospect development identifies and assigns new prospects is an artful tango. I’m often asked by gift officers, “How has this prospect not been visited? This is a terrific lead!” I can see in the assignments table that they’ve been assigned and dropped various times without recorded contact. The personal connections and trusted relationships that we can foster with our gift officers is key. That ensures that when we let them know there is a great new prospect in their portfolio, they’ll be quick to contact the prospect and stick with it sufficiently through qualification or disqualification. Building client relationships founded in trust and respect is a never-ending investment and essential to the fundraising machine’s success.
  3. Gift officer metrics. Providing fundraisers—and most importantly, their managers—with easy-to-interpret, meaningful gift officer metrics is a delicate balancing act. It’s important to develop dashboards, reports and training to help fundraising managers hold their fundraisers accountable to agreed-upon performance. It’s challenging, since prospect development is not always seen as qualified experts in frontline fundraising and lack managerial authority.


How can prospect development pros overcome these challenges?

LN: First, demonstrate the ROI of data science and proactive work. Measure the impact in an annual team report that breaks out the impact of your reactive versus proactive work. Streamline your reactive research operation to become leaner and smarter wherever possible.

Second, build a compelling case for each prospect. What is it that caught your eye about this prospect? Why is it the right prospect for a fundraiser’s portfolio at this time?

Also, build connections with your gift officers to ensure you know what will get them excited about a prospect. Have you interviewed your gift officers to understand what they think makes a good prospect?

For managing to metrics, find neutral training facilitators and have clear, simply defined reporting. See how you may be able to instill confidence with data-based metrics that are right for your organization. Spend time learning what managers need to feel comfortable. Start with their portfolio, get them comfortable with their metrics and performance reports so they feel confident in guiding and enforcing the same polices with their gift officers. And, provide a gentle reminder that metrics are the start of a conversation, not the only conversation!

What business problems keep your leadership up at night? How can prospect development work to ameliorate these worries?

CD: In short, we need to improve our confidence and our willingness to be forward-facing in our roles, advocating for the value we provide. Understand how your leadership likes to digest information and gauge their appetite for collaboration. Know what business problems keep your leadership up at night. How can prospect development work to ameliorate these worries? If your organization is large and you don’t directly work with development leadership, ask those questions of your supervisor.

What advice do you have for development researchers working within an advancement team?

LN: First, find your “prospect development power tone.” Speak up and often especially when it comes to prospect strategy, standard business processes, or stating the case for a prospecting lead. Come to meetings prepared with something to contribute.

Second, find the influencers. Who has the pulse of the frontline staff? Who can go to bat for you or who can advocate with their peers? These colleagues have been huge keys to advancing the fundraising operations in which I’ve worked.


CD: Develop and leverage your peer network. Many prospect development professionals are in small organizations where they are one of a precious few. In many organizations, you might be the only researcher, asked to manage multiple roles. This creates challenges because often ideas and solutions come after discussion and brainstorming with others in similar roles. By seeking out similarly minded professionals, you’re able to have these discussions, even with those outside of your organization. The prospect development world is small; that creates tight bonds and colleagues who are incredibly giving of their time.

LN: Find your tribe. I’m so lucky to have formed supportive connections with my peers in the field and more seasoned mentors. I’ve been blown away at how giving prospect development professionals are to one another. I am grateful for the numerous colleagues who have let me bend their ear about new ideas, how their shops operate, and my career.

Very few among us love networking, and I get that. Talking to strangers is often beyond our personal preference, but it’s an investment in your future and enhances the value you bring to your organization. It can go a long way to making you indispensable to your leadership.


acdr_sidebar_imagesConnect with Davis, Nadeau and fellow prospect researchers from around the globe at our Annual Conference for Development Researchers, Jan. 16-18, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. Explore how to tie prospect development to fundraising success, practical uses for metrics and much more.

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