Nonprofit Periscope

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Calling nonprofit nerds: your dream job?

with 10 comments

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

10 Responses

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  1. cool. like this post a lot. am passing it on to folks. thanks!

    Amy Kincaid

    December 1, 2009 at 8:19 AM

  2. Speaking of introversion, and because I am fascinated by the phenomenon, I’ll point you to a pithy little article in case you haven’t stumbled upon it yet:

    Also, thanks for the entry. It’s something new to think about…


    December 2, 2009 at 3:38 PM

    • Thanks Chelsea- great article! I Facebooked it and got replies from friends who found it interesting, whether they were introverted or not. Who knew introversion was such a conversation starter?


      December 4, 2009 at 4:57 PM

  3. Not only prospect research, but policy research is a boon for nonprofits. As Grant Manager for a NYC multi-service education organization (for minority youth ages 3-21) I also keep up with studies in education, youth development, and philanthropic policy as well current statistical data concerning our community, New York State and the nation. Much of this information has improved my proposal writing, because I can directly link data to our needs assessment and research-based interventions to our program design. Staying familiar with shifts in philanthropic policy helps me to anticipate what foundations and individual donors will most want to know about our organization. I consolidate much of my research and share it with our organization’s teachers and administrators.

    Jane Lindberg

    December 4, 2009 at 11:12 AM

    • Jane, you’re absolutely right. Any kind of research is great for introverted millennials (or introverts, period), and your comment reminds me that I should have at least mentioned policy research positions alongside prospect research. And even fundraising positions do involve many different types of research, for sure. That said, I’m a particular fan of prospect research because I adore fundraising and I’m glad to have found a position that doesn’t require lots of schmoozing and social functions with donors. Thanks for the comment!


      December 4, 2009 at 5:01 PM

  4. This is a great post, Elizabeth! I think I must have gotten the link to the Atlantic article from you. I shared it on Twitter yesterday and had a huge response from other introverts who say that people misunderstand us. Lots of food for thought about how leadership is perceived among introverts since most people (and therefore leaders) are extroverts – 75%.

    Rosetta Thurman

    December 5, 2009 at 3:36 AM

    • Thanks Rosetta! Agreed- extroversion dominates many workplaces and introverts have an uphill climb to be seen as leaders (especially when some of us, like myself, don’t particularly want to lead in the way we see extroverts doing it). I wonder if there’s a way to retool leadership that makes it less dependent on extroverted skills…


      December 5, 2009 at 11:23 AM

  5. Thanks for the post. This sounds like a great job, and one many nonprofit nerds don’t think is an option!

    Tera Wozniak Qualls

    December 15, 2009 at 8:06 AM

  6. Wow, people who like prospect research and policy analysis, I don’t find this every day (must bookmark)! Good to know that professionals still value such roles in their organizations even in this tight economy. Also, great link to that Atlantic article.

    Michele C.

    January 8, 2010 at 1:09 PM

  7. […]  I’m borderline evangelical about it.  And I love my new job, too, even though it’s not really fundraising–same department, but just this side of, well, not interacting with donors at all.  And […]

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