When I graduated from the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) at San Jose State University in December of 2010, I was not working in the field. If you’re reading this you probably know how bleak the job prospects are for new librarians. After months of searching I finally landed a position at the California Institute of Technology doing prospect research aka development research aka advancement research. Nowhere on my business card does the word “librarian” appear, even though my office is in one of the library buildings (which totally brings me joy). When hiring time comes around, managers look for applicants who have their MLIS because we can approach the research in a productive and knowledgeable way.
So what the heck IS prospect research anyway? Well, as a prospect researcher, I’m a part of the development office i.e., fundraising. Here is the longer definition of prospect research from the American Prospect Research Association (APRA). That definition is a little fancy, so let me put it in simpler terms. I research prospects, that is, persons, corporations, and foundations who are prospective donors to my institution. I happen to work for a major research university (sorry Harvard) but most nonprofit organizations including, but not limited to, hospitals, museums, and schools make use of some kind of prospect research.
Before continuing, I want to make it clear that all the research I’m doing is legal and that I’m going through public records and information. Why am I researching people and what do I look for? I’m basically trying to calculate what a person is worth so I can then calculate their capacity to give. I also try to get a sense of what their interests are. Some people don’t want to donate to science and prefer other things such as more immediate humanitarian efforts or the arts. Even if I find that a person has the capacity, that is, can afford to give $10 million, it doesn’t mean a thing if they’re not interested in science and research.
What I do is really sensitive and I can obviously talk about it in general but we have professional ethical guidelines (via APRA) that we follow. Sometimes I may find very sensitive things, like maybe a mention that a prospect is very ill and therefore most of their capital is going toward medical bills. Or maybe I find that one spouse has “sold” a lot of their real estate to the other spouse which often signifies a divorce.
Once I gather information, I then enter it into our internal database, create something like a dossier, and email it to the prospect managers. These are the people in the development office who actually talk to the prospects and ask for gifts i.e., donations.
My job is fun. Every new request is a mystery to solve and each person is different from the next. It also has made me insanely curious about people I meet though of course, I don’t research them. THAT would be creepy.
From my boss: “And may I add how incredibly valuable this work is to your employing institution. Can translate into $millions … it is how us poor, yet intelligent folk can support the mission of the organization we support … in our case, the cure for AIDS, advancements in renewable energy, the study of earthquakes, etc. Sophisticated fundraising shops cannot live without us. We are the CIA of fundraising.”