Nonprofit Periscope

Keeping an eye on news of the sector

Archive for November 2009

Calling nonprofit nerds: your dream job?

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Nonprofit nerds, gather round. If you’re looking for a job—whether you currently have one or not—you may not have heard of one that could be perfect for you.

When I say nonprofit nerds, I mean people who work in the nonprofit sector, or want to, and, separately from that, happen to be nerds. Or introverts, if you will. It’s not an insult; I am one. And not all jobs are made for us.

Fortunately, I stumbled across a job that feels like it was made for me. I didn’t even know it existed before I applied. And fortunately, I was hired for that job and can tell fellow nonprofit introverts about it, because it might be perfect for you too.

What is prospect research?

Recent news coverage of prospect research is here and here. It’s relatively young as a career track, but most fundraisers have done some version. In general it involves researching potential donors—individuals, corporations, or foundations—to determine whether they’re worth cultivating. A one-person development shop might incorporate this as step one of its fundraising process.

But large organizations can take it to a new nerdtastic level. At these organizations, prospect researchers can find and analyze information on potential donors, write up a profile, and give it to frontline fundraisers to better cultivate said donors. (This is partly what makes it a lesser-known job: donors may not enjoy the thought of being researched. However, prospect research relies on public information—stuff anyone could find if they invested time and money in the same sources.)

A good prospect researcher can calculate a donor’s assets and assess her connection to the organization’s mission. That helps frontline fundraisers—who make the phone calls and lunch dates and big asks—figure out a) what program would be a good fit for a prospect, and b) how much a prospect can give.

Is prospect research right for me?

The more of the following you agree with, the more likely you are to be a good candidate for a prospect research position.

  1. You want to work in the nonprofit sector.
  2. You want to help raise money for nonprofits.
  3. You’re introverted.
  4. You’re comfortable filtering large quantities of information, patching together facts into a coherent story, and using your judgment to assess whether information is both reliable and relevant.
  5. You can put yourself in someone else’s shoes to select and communicate information that’s most useful to them.
  6. You work well on deadlines.
  7. You don’t mind sitting at a computer all day.

The sweet spot

So what makes prospect research ideal for introverted, millennial nonprofiteers?

  • It focuses on information most of the time, rather than people.
  • The resources are mostly online, taking advantage of our natural comfort with technology and social networking sites (which often yield information that can’t be found anywhere else).
  • The expectations for quality are high, calling on our ability to filter information based on its authority and reliability.
  • The deadlines are often urgent, tapping our ability to filter information quickly.

For those of us who want to work in the nonprofit sector and are hooked on fundraising, yet prefer tinkering with information to schmoozing with donors, prospect research is an option that takes advantage of our natural talents without taxing our social tolerance. I can’t think of a demographic better suited to this work.

Where should I look?

Many prospect research positions are at large nonprofits: colleges and universities, hospitals, and research centers. But because large organizations often fill positions with internal hires, you may not see prospect research openings on their web sites. Try an online search for “prospect research” at or any search engine.

What makes me a competitive candidate?

I’ve heard from colleagues that the following qualities will help make you an attractive candidate if you’ve never been in the field:

  • Research experience, whether academic or work-related (be prepared to describe your methodologies)
  • Familiarity with tools of the field (which may include LexisNexis databases, ProQuest Direct, Foundation Directory Online, WealthEngine, NOZA, and campaign finance watchdogs like NewsMeat or FollowTheMoney)
  • Familiarity with recent news about the organization’s cause
  • Integrity and sensitivity for confidential information
  • Appreciation for the role donors/supporters play in the work of a nonprofit
  • Basic understanding of business and finance (difference between public and private companies, etc.)
  • Willingness to learn new resources and procedures

Can I support myself as a prospect researcher?

It depends on the organization. Check out Glassdoor, which has several listings for prospect researcher salaries (most in higher education).

Where can I find more info?

The Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement has helpful materials. Or email me: elizabeth dot clawson at gmail dot com. I don’t bite. And I adore my job, so I may just talk your ear off about it.


Written by eclawson

November 30, 2009 at 10:02 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

What is social impact?

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When the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance chose our next blogging topic, “What is social impact and how can we measure it?” I felt a little sheepish. I had no idea what the prompt even meant. It sounded like such an activist question, and I’m no activist–or at least I don’t feel like one. I warned the group that my answer might be a little skewed. “But that’s the point,” a fellow Nonprofit Millennial Blogger said. “Our answers should be different.”

And I felt like saying, “No really, I don’t get it.”

Luckily, my communications brain kicked into gear and revealed “social impact” for what it is: jargon. And I know where I stand on jargon. I loathe it. Every grant application I peppered with “collaboration” and “optimized results” made me feel like a drone. Those words mean nothing. They’re polite currency of the philanthropic and nonprofit worlds that we use to mask an inability to describe our value…or sometimes an absence of value.

Google “social impact.” You’ll get 77,000 wildly different results. Yet we throw it around as if it means the same thing to all of us.

So, with apologies to my fellow Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers who actually have definitions for the phrase as is, allow me to present my non-activist, communications-wonk analysis of “social impact.”

“Social impact” is so overused that it means nothing. There must be a more precise term for what it should mean.

From its uses within the nonprofit sector, I gather it’s meant to mean something along these lines: improvement in the lives of people, both as individuals and groups, particularly the underserved. We can rule out environmental causes and animal welfare, since “social” suggests a focus on the common lives of human beings. Yes, animals are “social,” but my best guess is that “social impact” means “societal impact,” ruling out animals that do not share the society of our species. (Animal activists, spare me; I’m an animal welfare advocate myself and I’m just trying to be precise, not speciesist.)

So what improves the lives of people in society? Here are some examples:

  • Physical security
  • Housing security
  • Food security
  • Civil rights
  • Freedom of religion
  • Artistic expression

Not coincidentally, these are all needs nonprofits function to meet.

And we’re not talking about feeding one person or encouraging the expression of one artist. Butterfly effect aside, that’s not social impact; that’s personal impact. So in order to reach a group of people, “social impact” must be elevated from a one-off, case-by-case  approach: it must be systematic. That way it can be applied efficiently and effectively to many people. Certainly the results are personal, as testimonials from clients often show. But they are also social; that is, system-wide.

So what we have is the overused jargon “social impact” that really means three things: systematic social improvement.

And that may well be a more meaningful way to say what we’re trying to say.

That said, if we work in reverse, how can we tell if “social impact”–that is, systematic social improvement–has been achieved?

One takeaway from my graduate degree in conflict resolution is that conflict, like so many other aspects of human life, is never actually about the visible or superficial. In the same way a biologist is trained to focus a microscope on a cell or a physicist is trained to magnify a particle, I was trained to dig below the surface of a conflict and dissect its roots and inner layers. Many of these layers are insecurities, both physical and emotional. So my perspective on measuring systematic social improvement is heavily influenced by this fixation with underlying problems.

For example, can a food bank perform systematic social improvement? No. Food banks  provide food to hungry people, sometimes temporarily, sometimes for prolonged periods of time, and in doing so they reduce or eliminate the physical hunger of their clients. But physical hunger is not the underlying problem. It’s merely a symptom of that problem, which is food insecurity. Yet most food banks exist not to eliminate food insecurity. That’s not a jab at them; it just points to differences in mission.

For strong examples of systematic social improvement, look no further than FareStart and DC Central Kitchen. Both nonprofits share the mission not just of feeding people, but of training them for employment in culinary arts. It’s systematic: both organizations use a consistent approach to training and services. It’s social: it serves a group of people, usually low- or no-income individuals suffering from food insecurity, housing insecurity, and other underlying problems. And it’s improvement: graduates of the training curricula go on to support themselves with culinary employment.

Nonprofits working in public policy are another example: they go to the root of the problem instead of treating symptoms.

Does this establish a hierarchy of nonprofits, with systematic social improvement organizations above all others? Again, no. If, say, food banks didn’t exist, there would be no lifeline to keep hungry people alive while they seek services that will address their food insecurity. If systematic social improvement is like a hospital, then immediate-needs-fulfilling organizations are like ambulances. They reinforce each other. Without systematic social improvement, there would be an endless string of crises–fires to be doused without removing the flammable material. And without stopgap services, many people would not be sustained long enough to find systematic social improvement centers, which are still relatively rare.

So if I actually use the phrase “social impact” (which, granted, does roll off the tongue more easily) this is what I mean: the pursuit or achievement of consistent improvements in the lives of groups of people.

How do you use “social impact?” Can you suggest a better turn of phrase to phase out this jargon?

Written by eclawson

November 16, 2009 at 10:08 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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