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Become a Detective for Good

By Sarah Richards

In 2012, I graduated from college with a degree in Economics and planned for a job in the insurance industry. While in college, I had worked in our university’s development office. I had a strong allegiance to the school, but four years in fundraising had worn me out. Upon graduation, I told my father I wanted no part of development in my future career.

So after graduation, I began working at Safelite Windshield Repair. During my time there, I heard a motivational speaker, Matthew Kelly, talk about the great work of Dynamic Catholic. The organization’s mission is to re-energize the Catholic Church in America by developing world-class resources that inspire people to rediscover the genius of Catholicism. 

I was immediately taken with Dynamic Catholic’s mission and envisioned working with the ministry. I applied to work there and was contacted by the organization who had known I had experience in development. Despite my earlier misgivings about a career in development, I took the job offer and soon became passionate about the field of fundraising.

I began working with annual donors in a stewardship capacity. One of Dynamic Catholic’s stewardship efforts was to gift each donor with a life-changing Catholic book. This year we were releasing a new title, and my boss wished to expand this gift to prospective supporters. He approached me with a list of names and asked if I could find addresses to send the new book to each of these individuals. This request was a first and outside my normal set of responsibilities, but I saw it as an opportunity—an opportunity to learn something new and to serve the ministry and these people in a profound way.

After that project, I began applying different research techniques I had learned to research the interests and passions of the donors I stewarded. It was an enlightening experience to learn more about those we were serving to serve them better. When an organization seeks to find out what their donors are passionate about, then the organization can find ways to better pair a donor with projects, students, and programs the donor cares about.

As time went on, I became known in the ministry as someone who had deeply personal relationships with my donors. Eventually, I was approached and asked if I would be willing to do prospect research for the ministry full time. What better way to serve your donors than to have someone who understands their desires, passions, and priorities and may connect them to the projects they most care about?

Prospect research has been around for decades, but the way prospect research is conducted has changed. Before, people would look through yearbooks and phonebooks. Today, prospect researchers look through social media and conduct searches on the internet. As a result of this shift in practices, who better to enter the career than someone from the millennial generation?

I believe Millennials are well suited to become prospect researchers because, in general, we’re very comfortable with technology, which is where the industry is today. We’re also passionate, and like any other type of development, it’s critical that you’re passionate about the cause you are representing.

There are other good skills and interests to have if you are considering a career in prospect research. Attention to detail is an absolute must. I often liken the process to solving a mystery or finishing a puzzle. If you like problem solving, you may be suited for this career path. Additionally, I myself being an introvert, have found that quality to be fitting as you are often spending a lot of time alone at the computer.

Sometimes people don’t understand or misinterpret what a prospect researcher does. We only look into public information and data that is publically available, through social media, in newspapers, etc. Prospect researchers are held to ethical standards about what can be gathered, how it is used and who can access it. I feel very good about upholding those standards as a professional prospect researcher. I like to think of myself as a detective for good. If you don’t understand your donors, then you can’t make philanthropy happen, and I’m very proud to be part of that process.

So maybe you’re interested in getting into the field of prospect research. How does one begin?

First, learn more about the profession through Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement, or APRA. The website has numerous different resources. Look into joining the Prspct-L Listserv for updates in the field. Take a free online course, like “Power Searching with Google”. Consider becoming a member of APRA or one of its local chapters—for example, OPRN (Ohio Prospect Research Network) is Ohio’s local chapter of prospect researchers. Send an email to the group and ask questions like, “What resources would you recommend to someone interested in a career as a prospect researcher?”

Second, get involved in the Prospect Research Community. There is no better way to learn more about job openings, learning opportunities and additional resources, then to get involved in a community. AFP is a great place to start to connect with other individuals in the nonprofit field. The more connections you have, the more people you know who can connect you with other people and resources. 

Third, consider volunteering. Either offer to help do prospect research within your own organization or seek out other organizations you can help with research. Many organizations are on a tight budget. Someone who will volunteer to help them get to know their donors better is a win-win. 

Finally, find a mentor. Finding someone who is in the field of prospect research is a great resource to network, ask research questions, and guide you towards a new career. Both AFP and OPRN offer mentor programs. You can also do a LinkedIn search for prospect researchers in your area, share you are interested in the field and ask if they would be willing to mentor you.

The field of prospect research is a very helpful and welcoming community. Like others who work in the field of fundraising, prospect researchers want to make a difference.

In closing, almost five years later, I am twenty-eight and pursuing a career I am deeply passionate about. I will remain forever grateful to my boss for giving me the opportunity to learn something new, and to myself for seizing an opportunity to pursue something so inspiring and close to my heart. 

Sarah Richards is coordinator of prospect research for The Dynamic Catholic Institute. She has previously worked in prospect research for higher education at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., and Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. She is a board member of OPRN, a member of AFP, and has spoken at the NEDRA Prospect Research conference in New Hampshire. 

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