Why our Definition of “Donor Research” Must Change

When your major gift colleague says, “I need more research on this prospect to have a better sense of his capacity,” what do you think she means?  My strong suspicion is that you believe she is talking about quantifiable, database-driven, wealth-indicating research.    Research that is done principally online and answers such questions as:  How much property the prospect owns.  What business interests are present.  Whether or not they are a top officer at a publicly-traded company.  And you, most certainly, would be correct.  That is exactly the kind of “donor research” your colleague would be seeking.

A Google search for the phrase “donor research” returned 49,800,000 results.  And while I didn’t go through all 49 million, all of the results found on the first and second pages (save 1 which was an entry I made to this blog back in March of 2011) speak to the quantitative, electronic, wealth screening process.  This is how we think and talk about “donor research.”  It is a process that we conduct like electronic super-sleuths.  Under cover of darkness (or at least without the prospect’s knowledge).  And without any real sense of how accurate our results are.

We sit in our offices, sign on to one of the myriad of database options, follow links across the internet, and, generally, act as if we are on an electronic treasure hunt.  The problem with this treasure search however is that it is both inefficient and, in many instances, completely wrong or woefully incomplete.

As readers of this blog know, I firmly believe that our work as advancement professionals is a deeply human experience.  It is about meaning.  It is about values.  It is about taking the time to understand and care for people.  It is about philanthropy – or love of people.  My experience has provided clear evidence that the deeper we engage our donor prospects, the more generous their actions.  We ask for advice, instead of money.  We seek feedback, instead of telling our story.  We authentically express an interest in others.  In the parlance of today, we “build relationships.”  Perhaps not an exceptionally useful term due to overuse.  But one which drives home the point that we need to be doing more to get to know our donors and prospects better.

Why then, have we allowed “donor research” to be defined as an arms-length, transactional calculation that is conducted by anyone with an internet connection?  Why do we consider “donor research” to be the work we do completely without feedback from the prospect herself?

Here’s a thought:  In a calling that asks us to “build relationships” and better understand each of our donors and prospects, we need to recapture the true definition of “donor research.”  Only when we learn to conduct donor research by becoming gifted qualitative researchers – skilled in the art of inquiry, interested in asking insightful questions, and listening actively – will we learn all that we really need to know about our donors and prospects.

A gifted major gift officer can spend one lunch conducting a peer screen with the right volunteer and find out more about a prospect’s capacity and philanthropic priorities than will be gleaned subscribing to the most sophisticated online database.  And in the process, that major gift officer will increase the likelihood that the peer screener will give more as well.

Our work with our donors and prospects is qualitative in nature.  The very best “donor research” is also a qualitative activity.

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