Prospect research as an alternative career for archivists and librarians

This is the text of a presentation as written that I gave at the Fall meeting of MARAC in Roanoke, Va., on October 9, 2015. I adlibbed some, but it is pretty close.

My name is Ben Bromley and I am a development research analyst with Virginia Commonwealth University. While this may seem to be a left turn from traditional archival jobs, it is another job in the greater field of information management. The training that I received in library school and on the job as an archivist gave me the qualifications needed to get a job in prospect research and management.

Intro to University Development: We all know that universities and non-profits are reaching historic lows in funding from state and federal governments. Cutting public support has been the trend over the past decade, and there doesn’t seem to be much sign of it abating.

For these institutions to continue to provide the same level of services they have in the past (or, maybe some day, to start adding new positions and expanding services), private philanthropy is needed. Embedded in the world of private philanthropy is a job that often calls for applicants with library and information science degrees, and one that my archival training prepared me for very well: prospect research.

Prospect Research and Prospect management overview (history of?): The goal of prospect research is to identify new prospects who might be interested in donating to your organization and then finding the best match for their interests at your organization. In short, we try to find out the potential prospect’s affinity to our organization and then also need to estimate the capacity that they have to make a major gift.

The formalizing of prospect research as its own field is fairly recent, with APRA, the professional organization for prospect researchers, only being established less than 30 years ago.

There are many different places that a prospect researcher can work: many larger organizations, such as universities, will have prospect researchers on staff; some smaller organizations may rely on individual freelancers or consultants, and there are vendors who, in addition to other services, hire prospect researchers to work on their side.

The work is often collaborative, working not only with the other staff in your office but with the development officers and other University employees.

Research: The part of the job that will came most naturally to me and that will, I think come most naturally to most of you, was research. The most visible product of the prospect researcher is the research profile. Insteading of writing a biographical or historical note on a person or organization as part of a finding aid, we are writing a similar biography of a person or organization for the use of a development officer.

Just like archival description, the types of profiles that we write depend on the needs of the development officers. Some development officers will only want a brief profile, summarizing a person’s current job and how much we think they can give. Other development officers want as much information as we can possibly provide on a prospect so that they can be prepared for any eventuality. We also balance what a development officer thinks they need with the time we have available and the tasks we are doing for the rest of the institution.

The information that we typically provide is a summary of a person’s professional career, their personal relationships, and their non-profit giving and affiliations. And just like a bioghist note, not everything that we find is going to go into a profile. Even though we are doing research on people using publically available information, people still have a right to privacy; that right is compounded when we bring all of this information together from multiple sources into one document. We make sure to include what the development officer needs to know, and leave out other stuff.

One of the key differences between research and traditional archival description is right there in my job title: along with presenting the information, I also analyze the information and make conclusions based on my instinct and the available information. Factors such as the person’s relationship to the institution, previous history of acting philanthropically, interests and hobbies, and a myriad of other information is taken into consideration when evaluating a prospect. Just because they have plenty of money does not mean that they actually give money, or are actually willing to give money to your institution.

This analysis comes into play most when we are trying to estimate the giving capacity of a person. Obviously, we cannot see bank accounts, stock holdings, or anything like that. The resources that we use (and I will get to those in a minute) can only find publically available information. So, estimating someone’s giving capacity requires some investigation, some guesswork, and some analysis. We typically look at what the person’s current and previous jobs are, and how long they’ve been in the field to try and estimate what their current salary might be. We look at their real estate holdings, political and non-profit giving, and giving to our organization as well, and plug all of this information into a formula that is typically standard across the industry. And we take a look at their personal situation and family as well; even if two people look the same through the formula, someone with two young children is probably less likely to make a big gift than someone whose children are grown. That is the kind of analysis that we bring to the table.

Data integrity: Another one of our primary duties as researchers is making sure that the information found in our database of record is accurate and up-to-date. We are the custodians of the database, and the information in it is our responsibility.

We make sure that we have the most up-to-date contact information on entirety of people in our database so that we know that our communications are getting to them. Development officers have a limited amount of time, and can only spend one on one time with people likely to give larger gifts. However, universities still want to stay in touch with their entire alumni base, since any money given is sorely needed and people giving small amounts now may eventually give larger amounts in the future. While we are making sure we have their updated contact information, it is helping the university lay the groundwork for the next generation of donors.

On a more practical note, we also want to make sure that we know, for example, when people pass away so that their spouses do not continue to get mailings or emails.

Prospect management was the area that required the most learning for me as I made the transition from archival work to prospect research. Each development officer carries a portfolio of prospects with whom they are working to try and secure gifts to the institution. Some are proactive about adding and dropping prospects, but often they need our help in doing so. We want to make sure the development officers have the right prospects in their portfolio, so we help the identify new ones and help them make the decision to drop a prospect if they are not right for that department or for our institution as a whole.

Another part of prospect management is making sure that development officers document the contact that they have with donors. We want to make sure that we stay out of each other’s way and don’t bombard the prospect with conflicting information. Encouraging and reminding the development officers to document their interactions in the database of record helps prevent this from happening.

So what sources do we use to conduct prospect research? We use a mix of proprietary and freely available databases and sources of information to perform our job.

For biographical research I will use proprietary databases such as lexis/nexis, genealogical resources such as ancestry and familysearch, newspapers, court information, and social media accounts.

For all aspects of estimating someone’s giving capacity, I will use resources such as salary surveys, which are typically published by each industry; property assessment databases, zillow, SEC and FEC filings, and more.

The two hardest part of making the transition from archival work to prospect research are somewhat related: math, and the business and accounting terminology that typically surrounds it. Luckily, as archivists, we are naturally curious, so I now know things like what a charitable remainder unitrust is or how to read a 10-K filing submitted to the SEC.

Special Library Association specifically supports prospect researchers, and they have some good resources on their website. There are also local APRA chapters throughout the country, which have resources and conferences; APRA-Virginia, for example, typically has a one day conference twice a year that is affordable for people to go to. There are also blog posts and other resources online for other archivists and librarians going into prospect research work. I hope I have given you a good overview of how archivists are already qualified to be prospect researchers and feel free to ask me questions in the Q and A or come up afterwards and talk to me if you have any other questions.

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