Prospect Development: Training in 2020 and Beyond

By Marisa Spittal, MSEd TESOL, JD, assistant director, prospect research, Yale University

Two questions that popped up in my prospect development group chat recently are:

  • Is prospect research teachable to anyone, and do you need specific qualities to be able to master it?
  • How can we manage a fundraiser who is asking a lot of the research staff’s time and expertise?

It doesn’t matter where we work as prospect development professionals — we all have these questions.  We need more research staff, but we feel wary of training others who might not meet our standards.  Do we have time, the buy-in from leadership and the authority to train other members of our team? What if that investment does not pay off? 

At Yale University’s Office of Development, we are tackling these challenges head-on by training junior researchers using a methodology based in metacognition, or “thinking about thinking.”

As the lead trainer for this project, I will capture my thoughts on the critical need for training advancement staff in research, as shared in this article. I’ll also address what this training has looked like in 2020, and where I see it going in the future. 

Can You Train Curiosity?

Prospect researchers are questioners and problem solvers. We love information and know where to get it. Once you get used to being in prospect development, it can be hard to go back to the real world where very few people seem to ask “Why?” 

When it comes to learning how to hone that tenacious mindset, we think of prospect research as an iterative skill best done by a certain few. Having worked with many non-researchers, my belief is that anyone can conduct prospect research on a basic level; however, consistently creating strong products and getting to that skill level quickly requires a different approach. 

Metacognition is like mindfulness meditation, but instead of acknowledging your thought and dismissing it, you leverage it to engage curiosity and build a better research product. Metacognition helps junior researchers think about their work and context as they research (“Who does this remind of me of? How can I find this missing piece of information? What should I do next?”). Metacognition builds a researcher’s curious mindset, helping them put on their research hat and produce quality work more consistently. 

The Metacognitive Cycle

The “metacognitive cycle” is a teaching practice that you can embed into your lesson plans. I used a similar approach as a middle school English as a second language (ESL) teacher as I do now as a trainer of adults. The basic premise of my training model, which is divided into three, one-hour sessions, is “I do, we do, you do.” I focus on letting trainees into my mind — how I think as a researcher, how I read a database for critical information and how I create a factual narrative about a prospect. I show them how I approach a certain case, and I encourage them to think out loud with me. I prompt them to question my logic and to bring their lived experiences to the table as we go. 

Research Template

I also provide the beginner researchers with a template, referred to as a fact sheet, to help them navigate the research. The goal of the template is to ensure they don’t miss key elements (personal and professional biography, real estate, compensation, etc.), and it is also set up to have the junior researcher “show their work” and their references. However, it is worthwhile to note that we do not ask these individuals to conduct research into more complex assets and family wealth, and our template is set up in a way where the researcher can indicate that they see possible alternative assets for a full-time prospect researcher to thoroughly review.

Case Studies

For training case studies, we look at a principal gifts level prospect and a more typical annual fund level giver. This helps give trainees a sense of the complexity of public and private information and how to use our ratings chart. Between the second and third session, I assign them “homework” where they need to research someone using the template and the approach that I’ve outlined. Often, junior researchers have a queue of people ready to research, but, if not, I have them research themselves or me. 

When we regroup for the third session, we dive into the theory of metacognition and the metacognitive cycle. Participants present their work to each other, provide feedback, ask questions and identify areas where they excel and need more support. I also ask that post-training, these new researchers send their first research projects to me to review, so I can correct any issues and provide additional, tailored support. I find that people are ready to “graduate" after their first two to three fact sheets.

Research Training as Workforce Training

It can be tough to know if someone will be successful as a prospect researcher. Often we rely on our own preferences when hiring (anyone else out there looking for a true crime fan?), but that can backfire. 

In our office, we have program coordinators (PCs) on hand to answer basic research questions and produce draft qualifications. You may have a similar role in your own shop, as they are incredibly valuable players in our ecosystems. By training them in research, we are building a strong pipeline of future, full-time prospect development staff members and we are expanding their professional purpose beyond their other tasks of writing letters and proposals and preparing fundraisers for donor visits.

If I could offer one piece of advice to any group thinking about prioritizing training, it’s take time to make time. This lesson is particularly true with training and hiring. Based on anecdotal feedback from PCs and leadership in our office, I feel confident that taking time with research training has had a significant impact on the quality of research that our major gifts PCs and students have produced, as well as their comfort level with conducting research. Many have proven themselves to be adept at this work.

Research to the Rescue in 2020

As you can imagine, demand for prospect development work at Yale did not change in 2020; in fact, it continued to grow even as we set up our home offices. 

Meanwhile, for PCs and other colleagues, daily work demands decreased as business as usual shifted. By training PCs to research, we helped them have a professional purpose. We helped them to maintain jobs and we helped our institution, which has been incredibly supportive of staff throughout the pandemic, to operate in a fiscally sound way. By having more research capacity, we are also fundamentally advancing the fundraising goals of our institution.

This naturally leads to the question: If all these other people are trained to do research, what will researchers in prospect development do? The quick answer is that we will always have more than enough work to do, even with all this help. However, training others to do qualifications, for example, allows us to expedite and focus on other areas of impact. We are uniquely situated to see high-level patterns, areas of philanthropic interest and relationships that can aid a fundraiser to get a gift in the door. When we’re burdened with baseline research tasks, it’s harder for us to make these connections.

Or to rephrase: by training more people in research tasks we can “get research out of research.” We then have capacity to become true prospect development professionals where we can focus on high value work and enable fundraisers to do their best work in turn. Certainly, in 2020, Yale prospect researchers have solidified their role as high-value strategic partners to fundraisers, informing the approach our institution takes with its highest-level donors.

What’s Next?

Let’s return to the question: How can we manage a fundraiser who is asking a lot of research staff? What this question makes clear is that fundraisers are a critical population to train in prospect research. They need to be empowered to answer basic research questions on their own. They also need to understand the full breadth of what prospect development is capable of, so that they can ask the right questions of our team. This training will require a bit more finesse, but I’m looking forward to the challenge and to measuring the impact.


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This article relates to the Prospect Research domain in the Apra Body of Knowledge.





Learn more about the author featured in this article on the Connections Thought Leaders Page.

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