The Shift from Prospect Research to Prospect Development

Over the last few years, my primary professional organization, APRA, has changed the name of its annual conference to reflect changes in the nature of the profession.  APRA is the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement, and the association’s international conference is held every year in July or August.  Starting in 2013, though, APRA rebranded the conference with the name Prospect Development, and this was part of a general rebranding of the profession that took place elsewhere on the APRA website, as well.

As explained on the association’s website:

Prospect Development is the strategic arm of an organization’s fundraising operation, focusing on prospect pools and pipelines. Prospect Development professionals collaborate with gift officers and development leaders to ensure fundraising efforts are focused on working with the right donors for the right gifts at the right time (and in many cases, with the right initiatives).

The use of the term prospect development recognizes the evolution of the field to encompass more than just prospect research; it also includes prospect identification, relationship management, and data analytics.  As explained on the APRA site: “This evolution has been driven in part by advances in information management technology, data storage, trends in information availability, and increased need for data-driven decision making.”

I would maintain that more than just recognizing the different roles that prospect development professionals play in their organizations, the change in the name of the field is also an effort to reposition the centrality of research and strategy to emphasize its role in the effectiveness of successful development operations.  When APRA was founded in 1987, most researchers in the field were viewed more as support staff than as knowledgeable and skilled professionals.  By the time I entered the field in 2000, this attitude had changed at most organizations, but even with the evolving attitudes, less-than-optimal practices remained in place at many organizations.

The old view of research was that research was mostly reactive; according to this view, the main role of researchers in an organization was to write profiles in response to requests and to assign capacity ratings.  The most successful researchers managed to find opportunities to be proactive and to help guide the prospect identification and cultivation process, but many researchers complained that there was hardly enough time for proactive work, or that the profiles which took hours (or sometimes days) to prepare were often read once and then they mostly sat unused in files or in donor databases (at least until a few years later, when researchers were asked to write an update to the profile, which would then suffer a similar fate).

The increasingly robust screening tools available to researchers began to change attitudes towards the profession, as did the introduction of analytics and predictive modeling, both as a method of identifying potential donors, and as a way of evaluating the success of ongoing cultivation and solicitation efforts.  Over time it has dawned on the leadership of more and more nonprofits that if their development operations are to be consistently successful, they need a strategic and data-driven process for seeing to it that prospects are regularly identified, and that the prospect pool is assigned and managed throughout the cultivation and solicitation process.

Such a view of the field is much more widely held now than it was when I entered the profession 15 years ago, but old attitudes towards research still persist in many organizations.  So what does all of this mean in practice?  Organizations which have come to embrace this new view of prospect development appreciate a structure much more in line with business best practices because it focuses on maximizing revenues by seeking to maximize returns on staff resources.  By contrast, organizations which remain focused on the old view of research tend to spend a lot of time and energy being fixated on a few prospects or potential prospects who have high capacity ratings, even as many excellent prospects go unassigned and uncultivated.

For most organizations, the reality isn’t quite as starkly differentiated as I’ve made it seem above, but there is definitely a continuum that runs from the old idea of prospect research on the one end to a fully-integrated prospect development operation on the other.  Nevertheless, the degree to which one attitude or the other prevails in an organization is a good indicator of the centrality of the role the prospect development function plays (or doesn’t play).

Have you worked at an organization that was firmly on one side of the continuum or the other?  Perhaps you work or have worked at an organization that changed from the older view of research to the more fully-integrated view of prospect development. What prompted the change?  I’d welcome any comments below.

Also, please be sure to look for me and to follow me on Twitter.  You can find me there @dfdietrich.



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