Analytics · Reporting · Prospect Research · Prospecting · Artifical Intelligence · I · Small/Medium · Large
5 Ways Prospect Research Can Evolve in the World of AI
Since I began my career as a prospect researcher over a decade ago, artificial intelligence (AI) has been a continuous background presence. AI — and related concepts such as machine learning — were a regular bullet point on ubiquitous presentations around the future of fundraising, and their potential to transform our work as researchers was regularly acknowledged. But no one quite knew when, or precisely how.
As the years passed, and other tech phenomena such as cryptocurrency struggled to live up to their promise, it felt like AI could perhaps be bracketed as another overhyped concept where the marketing was running far ahead of the reality. But much like bankruptcy in an Ernest Hemingway story, AI has finally arrived in the fundraising world, first gradually and then very suddenly.
The acceleration really began with the launch of ChatGPT in November 2022, the success of which has led the likes of Microsoft and Google to fast-track their own commercial AI applications to a mainstream audience.
ChatGPT employs a generative AI model, which not only understands and analyzes data but generates new text, images or sounds in response to user prompts. What has had a real impact is how easy ChatGPT is to employ, with no coding skills or advanced competencies required to use the tool for all sorts of data, research and administrative tasks.
Even LinkedIn is using generative AI to push collaborative articles that rely on AI to create content about skills in your professional field. You may have seen these on your LinkedIn feed. They’re simplistic but convincing, and unimaginable not so long ago. They could yet be useful for training and skills development — although it’s always worth remembering that their core function is to get you to spend more time on LinkedIn.
It’s too early to know what the full impact of this will be on fundraising teams and specifically on prospect research. Even the newest ChatGPT models still have many limitations, and, for better or worse, the non-profit world is often behind the curve in adopting new technologies. However, I still found it interesting to think about how the prospect research role might change in a world where AI is commonly used.
1. Prospect Researcher as Strategic Advisor
AI should accelerate the transition from prospect researchers as service providers to prospect researchers as strategic advisors — something that is happily already underway in many fundraising teams. As well as being experts at finding information and gathering data, prospect researchers are perfectly placed to convert this information into the type of actionable fundraising intelligence that can be of practical value to fundraisers, either to shape an approach to a particular prospect or to devise a broader fundraising strategy.
For prospect researchers, this could mean enhancing some of our softer skills around communication, relationship building and strategic thinking. Combine these with our understanding of data and our keen awareness of the broader socio-economic context, and we can be an indispensable consigliere to fundraising colleagues and to senior leadership.
In my view, this subtle shift in role should be welcomed. The value add provided by prospect researchers has always gone beyond prospect identification, list generation and profile writing. Tools such as ChatGPT may even eventually free us from the drudgery of the dreaded event bio.
2. Involvement Throughout the Fundraising Cycle
The prospect research role already goes way beyond prospect identification and research. Many researchers are also deeply involved in overseeing pipeline management systems, reporting on fundraising activity and pipeline development, and designing policies — for example, around due diligence and gift acceptance. It’s a more varied role than it once was, and the involvement of prospect research no longer stops once a prospect has been identified and allocated to a fundraiser.
It may not be a bad thing for AI to accelerate these shifts. Effective pipeline management, for example, continues to be a major challenge for many fundraising teams. Greater resource dedicated to this area would be highly beneficial.
3. The Slow Death of Google Search
The tools and techniques we use to conduct research will change. As prospect researchers, we’re already primed to be skeptical of our sources and to place a high premium on verification and cross-checking. But the growing use of AI will make this even more important. Indeed, it could mean the end of search engines such as Google as a useful tool for high-level research, as the search engine becomes polluted (in the words of tech journal The Verge) with factually dubious AI-generated content. Primary sources such as registries and regulators will become even more important.
You could argue we’re already some way down this path, thanks to Google’s increasingly sketchy and gameable search algorithms. But generative AI could completely change the game.
4. Mastery of New Tools and Techniques
By mastering the new tools that generative AI provides, prospect researchers could enhance their proficiency in all kinds of areas, including those with a previously high barrier to entry, such as data modelling and data visualization. ChatGPT, for example, can be used in conjunction with software such as PowerBI to write formulas in languages like DAX and SQL. In the future, it may be that a ChatGPT and PowerBI are fully integrated. A tool like ChatGPT can also be used for automating essential tasks in Excel, and we might expect more integration there too.
The level of time and resource that this could create for prospect researchers and fundraisers is potentially enormous, and might enable us to focus on some of the more strategic work outlined above. All this still relies on staff who can think effectively about how fundraising data can be used and communicated — so these skills will still be absolutely key.
5. Leaning Into Our Creative Side
At its current stage, ChatGPT and other generative AI tools are becoming more effective at completing tasks and providing solutions. But in terms of coming up with genuinely new ideas and ways of working, generative AI is perhaps (for now at least) more limited. A high premium may therefore be placed on the ability for prospect researchers to be innovative and creative in their work, and to think long-term about new approaches that their team can take to achieve their goals.
What Comes Next
Prospect research has been characterized as a delicate balance between art and science. Maintaining this balance will be key to ensuring the success and viability of prospect researchers in the age of AI.
Understanding the intangible factors that can influence the success of a fundraising operation — institutional and socioeconomic context, potential reputational risks and opportunities, behaviours and personalities of colleagues, etc. — can give prospect researchers the edge over today’s AI. So can our relationship building and strategic planning skills. And I still believe that experienced prospect researchers have an intuition and perception that AI just can’t replicate. For now, at least.
Coming Soon: More From Apra on AI
The conversation around AI and prospect development is just getting started. Stay tuned next month as Apra’s Ethics and Compliance Committee addresses this hot topic in their next edition of Ask the Ethicist. Then this summer, stay tuned for a webinar from Apra’s Online Content Committee to continue learning about this emerging technology.