Defending Prospect Research: A Response to the WSJ

May 22, 2010 § 1 Comment

This week, the Wall Street Journal published a blog post about prospect research, asking the question “is your favorite charity spying on you?” A very unflattering and biased way to introduce the topic and the debate. I cut my professional teeth in non-profit fundraising as a prospect researcher, and it is a job that I came to love, and I was proud to work for organizations that make the world a better place. Every once in a while, an article like this appears in the press, and I feel the need to speak up and defend not only a noble profession, but one that is vital to successful philanthropic fundraising.

Many colleagues have already spoken up about this article, pointing out that we have a well-established code of ethics and a Donor Bill of Rights. Also, the same resources we use in our day-to-day work are employed by the for-profit industry for the same purposes, and, as someone aptly pointed out, by journalists as they research their stories. Why is the Wall Street Journal picking on charitable organizations, and not private industry who are less likely to adhere to any ethical standards?

Information is an asset, and any charitable organization would be wise to make investments to enhance, manage, and protect that asset. Organizations who have a long-term goal of creating institutional memory in order to foster good relationships with their donors will be more likely to thrive. I have worked for organizations whose investment in their information assets have maintained successful philanthropic relationships with families and corporate donors for generations. Prospect research ensures better fundraising success and better donor stewardship.

Part of the job of a prospect researcher is to identify new potential donors. Time and again we hear that one of the main reasons people don’t give philanthropically is because they aren’t asked. We identify opportunities, encouraging philanthropy by matching interests to the programs we support.

When I started out in this business, I remember a major gifts officer telling me that savvy philanthropists expect us to do our homework. They expect us to keep good records and know something about their interests. They don’t want to be solicited beyond their capacity and be embarrassed, and for less than their capacity and be insulted. Nor do they want to have us waste their time with solicitations for causes that don’t interest them.

I am proud to be a prospect researcher. I have never met a researcher who didn’t love his/her job. It’s interesting work; we’re always learning new methods of research, analysis, and information management, not to mention the fact that we learn about fascinating and inspiring philanthropists. I was saddened to see the Wall Street Journal and Anne Kadet being so quick to judge without even talking to someone in the profession.

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