The End of a Decade of Prospect Research and Fundraising

As we near 2020, there’s going to be a lot of think pieces about the top moments of the past decade. There’s a meme out there where people are posting photos of themselves from 2009 compared to 2019.

So, we decided to turn the lens to prospect research and fundraising in general over the past ten years. What has changed in the field? What has stayed the same? This is list is no means definitive, but a contemplation of some of the big changes in the last ten years.

Data, Data, Everywhere

It’s probably hackneyed to say we live in the age of Big Data but it’s true. In 2018, Forbes reported that we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day and that it would likely accelerate. A 2015 Atlantic article makes it even clearer, people upload 1.8 billion images every day (that’s in 2015): “Another way to think about it: Every two minutes, humans take more photos than ever existed in total 150 years ago.”

Handling that data is part of the challenge that companies and nonprofits have had to deal with. Wealth screenings have become part of the norm as a way to take advantage of the incredible amount of data. Data scientists are eagerly sought for in many fields including the nonprofit world. Organizations are either hiring third parties to help analyze their data or they are developing talent in-house.

Now as we close out the decade, we are starting to see the rise of artificial intelligence in fundraising that might help facilitate different parts of fundraising. Cleveland Clinic developed an automated system to assign potential donors to fundraisers; previously two people did this full-time. Commercial products are available at many stages of the fundraising process such as helping gift officers write first contact emails to developing a gratitude score. While there’s definitely many concerns about how AI will impact prospect research, prospect management and other roles, the use of technology to move fundraising along is not itself new.

These new technologies and availability of data means that prospect research has been taking a more proactive role in our organizations and the field. We have to communicate our value to gift officers and advancement staff to show that we do more than “google.” While I’m not sure when prospect management became a larger force in the field, but I imagine it became even more prevalent in this age of Big Data.

Rise of the Privacy Laws

But as we see the rise of Big data, governments are beginning to worry about how that data is used and how informed the public is about it. In 2016, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) fined nonprofits for wealth screening because the charities did not inform or receive the consent of their donors. To say the least, this incident had repercussions for prospect research throughout the UK and elsewhere. Moreover, this occurred before the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation became law on May 25, 2018 that made the EU’s data regulations even stronger.

While the US has a different attitude towards privacy, California’s newest privacy law will go into effect at the beginning of 2020. How governments regulate company’s use of data will certainly have an impact on how people think about their data being used by third parties.

These changes require prospect research to think about how we conduct our work and how to ensure we are complying with these laws and communicating the importance of our work to our organizations and their stakeholders.

New Gift Vehicles

We’ve also seen the rise of new giving vehicles in the past decade. While Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) are not new in fundraising, their popularity has accelerated especially in the last few years. In 2018, contributions to DAFs totaled $37.1 billion, a 20.1% increase from 2017. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that Eileen Heisman, president and CEO of National Philanthropic Trust, speculated it was because of the new tax law and the strong economy in 2018. Donor advised funds present new challenges for prospect researchers since there is less information available compared to a foundation.

Social media fundraising, specifically Facebook Fundraisers, have exploded. In September 2019, Forbes reported that Facebook Fundraisers had raised $2B, including $1B in the last year. Social media has made fundraising more personal; people can ask their friends and family to contribute to their favorite cause for their birthday (or another event). However, how the data is used and maintained is a significant question. Figuring out how to deal with social media is another challenge for the industry. Should we use social media in the first place? Is it reliable enough or is it just another data point?

While it’s not a giving vehicle per se, it would be remiss not to mention Giving Tuesday. Now in its eighth year, Giving Tuesday was created as a balm against Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It has been so popular that the organization behind it has now become an independent organization. Last year efforts raised $380M, but Giving Tuesday has done more than raise funds, people are encouraged to get involved in different ways with their community.

Last but not least, cryptocurrencies are also becoming a part of the fundraising scene. While they constitute a small percentage of overall fundraising, some nonprofits accept multiple cryptocurrencies. Fidelity reported that it has received $100 million in cryptocurrencies since 2015! Cryptocurrency millionaires appear to be a different kind of donor and it will be interesting to see how the fundraising industry pivots for this new class of donors.

What Hasn’t Changed?

While we have discussed a few ways that fundraising and the prospect research field have changed in the past decade, there is one critical thing that has not changed. Despite all the fancy tools and bytes of data, fundraising is still about relationships. Development officers still have to get to know donors and prospects, learn what makes them tick, and figure out how to engage them for their organization.

At Aspire Research Group, we work with quite a few organizations that have been raising millions for years with talented teams of gift officers. Why do they reach out to us? Because they want to break through to the next level of fundraising, raising even more money to fulfill their missions.

At some point it’s not enough for an organization to be great at relationship-building. When prospect researchers and development officers work together, miracles can happen! Prospect researchers uncover hidden gems, qualify possible prospects, and become part of the prospect strategy process and discussion. When researchers and development officers work as a team, communicating needs and information, so much more begins to happen.

Effective relationships are critical throughout the organization. Researchers especially should have great relationships with the Information Technology Services department that can help facilitate data uploads and downloads for wealth screenings, data analytics projects and more. Development officers need to work well with stewardship officers to ensure donors stay connected while they move on to other prospects. And so forth.

How will fundraising change in the next decade? While the next decade will bring new and unexpected advances, we know that relationships–internally and externally-will remain the key constant in the industry.

Top Aspire Blog Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.