Prospect Research · Prospecting · Major Giving · Gift Officers · Wealth Screening · Article · I · Small/Medium · Large · Health Care
Abductive Reasoning in Prospect Research: Critical Thinking and the Logic of the Best Guess in Research and Consultation
By Cayden Ferrin | January 26, 2023
Data is invaluable to us as prospect research professionals — but ultimately, it is the interpretation of data that truly matters to frontline fundraisers. An informative and dynamic analysis can help advocate for the value of our research and work. Of all the skills necessary to the individual researcher’s success, it is my opinion that critical thinking and the use of logic are among the most important.
Before jumping into definitions, I wanted to express what I hope is gained from this article. All too often we come across professional development advice with unattainable prerequisites, best practices or techniques — all of which sound great in theory, but require fundamental organizational change in personnel, expertise, budget or all of the above to successfully execute. In contrast, the concepts and ideas covered here can be applied by everyone at every level of non-profit work.
Many of the topics covered here may seem simple or even obvious. But I’ve found that by revisiting even our most instinctual work practices, one may be able to gain a new perspective and bring a renewed energy to everyday work.
Definitions and Theory
So what is abductive reasoning? It is also known as the “logic of the maybe.” I love this definition. Logic is typically understood to be very black and white. If something is logical, it is directly opposed to what is illogical or irrational. So, what does it mean to say logic of the maybe?
At its core, abductive logic involves forming a conclusion for the information that is known. This is something we do all the time. Distinct from other forms of logic, it begins with a set of observations and seeks the simplest and most likely conclusion based on those observations.
Another form of logic is the more popular deductive logic. Popularized through mystery and detective-based media, deductive logic eliminates possibilities until, in theory, only one viable conclusion remains. However, abductive logic is more flexible; it allows space for the creation of new ideas and combines observed data into a new, vibrant and dynamic conclusion. It is called the logic of the maybe because, unlike deductive logic where your conclusion should always be theoretically true, conclusions derived from using abductive reasoning are simply a best guess — your best guess based on what you know.
Note: One singular piece of information can be enough to alter any hypothesized conclusion, depending on that piece’s subjective level of importance. Therefore, a second look can often prove crucial.
How Does This Apply to Prospect Research?
Let’s analyze a prospect, John Doe. You received a request to report on his major giving propensity:
- A longtime annual donor, with a high affinity and a rising giving velocity.
- Resides in Joplin, Missouri.
- Aged early 40s.
- CPA at Mercy Hospital for 20 years. Estimated annual income is $45,000-$55,000.
- Owns a singular residential property. Estimated value of $160,000-$185,000.
- Single, with no identified children/grandchildren.
- No identified generational wealth or other income.
Given these observations, the simplest and most likely conclusion is that John Doe is not a major gift prospect. This is only our best guest, as the bullet points above fall far short of capturing every element that may factor into John’s potential, but I would be confident in this conclusion nonetheless.
We have already used abductive logic, expanding on limited information to form a conclusion. However, consider how you may be able to form more complex conclusions and, ultimately, more valuable insights by diving deeper.
By thinking critically about these same bullet points, you can sometimes offer more insight. Often times a prospect’s true value lies just beyond the questions asked and the researcher’s initial conclusions.
Based on the information known, I have already concluded that John Doe is not a major gift prospect. So, is that it? Maybe. There are many times when there is no hidden wealth, no secrets, just a straightforward truth.
However, let’s take a second look. With high affinity, being a longtime donor and no known immediate family, John Doe may lack the outright wealth to be considered a major gift prospect — but I would continue to investigate and consider his potential elsewhere. He may be a lower level annual giving prospect or a planned giving prospect. All too often we don’t consider a prospect potential outside of a narrow area of focus. (Be it capacity range, unit or area of interest, giving methods, etc.)
I recommend considering two things in your daily research practices:
- Attempt to find a more complete image before forming a conclusion. The more bullet points we have, the more informed our analysis will be.
- Consider the value of interpretation, and go beyond what is immediately obvious.
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Interim Director of Prospect Development and Constituent Data Management, University of Wyoming Foundation
Cayden currently serves as the Interim Director of Prospect Development and Constituent Data Management at the University of Wyoming Foundation, in Laramie, Wyoming. In this role, he leads the prospect research, management and analytics teams. Cayden earned a bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Montana (UM) in 2016, and a master of arts in political science from UM, focusing on political theory and public administration, in 2018. In his free time, he enjoys hosting his book club, cooking and kayaking.