The Evolution of Prospect Research

In 2017, Apra will celebrate its 30th anniversary as a professional organization for prospect researchers. To mark the occasion, Connections is providing a look back (and a look forward) at the evolution of the profession. Kathleen Graff spent 30 years in prospect development research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Here, she recalls the early days of pre-spreadsheet research.

When I joined the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) Department of Development in 1980, it was a very different place than it is today. I was one of only four full-time employees, and the Department didn’t yet have a development research area. The UWM Foundation, which had been established in 1974, only had two full-time employees, and UWM and the UWM Foundation had recently hired its first “full-time” Director of Development, who established its first annual fund.

In 1980, the Development Office didn’t even have one filing cabinet drawer with prospect files in it. Research back then consisted of reading the local newspaper and keeping hard copies of clippings that contained biographical information on prominent alumni and individuals who had connections to the University. To get additional information I had to take trips to the County Court House, the Milwaukee Central Library and UWM’s Library. These resources gave me access to birth, marriage, real estate, employment and probate information. There were also various news publications on microfilm. Connecting with some of these same resources in other parts of the state was done by phone. And, in some instances, researchers helped each other.

In these early years, prospecting for major gift prospects depended a lot on connections that our Foundation Board members had in the community. Our faculty also had connections to and information about former students. Our Chancellor, development staff, alumni association staff and events also became sources of information and links to individuals in the community. And, of course, I too was adding to this pool of prospects through the biographical resources that I read on a daily basis.

We did everything manually. We did not have a computer in our office until about 1984. Our foundation had kept hard-copy records of any donations that were made in neatly written ledgers, and gifts were tracked by individual, company or organization on 3 X 5 cards.

During the 1990s I was responsible for moving prospect tracking and management from our word processing system to our computer database. I also participated in two database conversions and was responsible for ensuring that the data from research and prospect management areas in the database transferred accurately. Our research staff also grew modestly during this time by one full-time researcher position and by continuing to utilize part-time UWM students.

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Left to right: Jeffrey Walker, director of research, UWM Development & Alumni Relations; Barbara Rake, retired UWM Foundation employee; and Kathleen Graff

I increased my knowledge of research by meeting with other prospect researchers in Wisconsin (primarily from higher education) and we created an informal group called the Wisconsin Development Researchers. We met several times a year, compared notes, brought in professionals with expertise in areas of interest and shared our own growing knowledge and skills with each other. This group eventually evolved into the Wisconsin chapter of Apra.

Prospect research was a wonderful field for me to have been a part of, since it took advantage of the skills and knowledge I had to offer and helped me to develop and build on them, and at the same time make a contribution to something I value. Without a professional organization such as Apra, I would not have been as well prepared to tackle the 30 years that were ahead of me.

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