Celebrating Research Pride Month
The Information Age - a time when we all have access to the Internet and we can enjoy all kinds of possibilities, like posting silly pet videos or watching TV on our phones. As prospect researchers, we are early leaders in the Information Age, and we are still leading in acquiring, assembling, and interpreting information.
Prospect Research as a profession came out of the competitive intelligence industry about three decades into the Information Age. The advent of the Internet, social media, online news, and online databases all made our jobs easier and our work more effective. During the course of my career, I went from searching library basements for a single piece of information to drowning in content that posed as (and was mixed in with) information.
In our profession, we are hearing that wealth screening and analytics can replace research analysts. We are also hearing that Artificial Intelligence will replace a whole host of workers, and that thought has a lot of us salary-dependent workers feeling uneasy. Let me tell you why, though, I believe that prospect researchers cannot be replaced by machine learning.
We prospect researchers stand between the oceans of information that we cull and our gift officers who need good intelligence on their prospects. Imagine your gift officers not having a research team -- having to sift through all that data themselves while walking up to a prospect’s office for a solicitation visit. The division of labor between Research and Major Gifts is both efficient and much more effective than gift officers having to spend their time processing screening data themselves. They don’t have the training to discern the best information. We researchers know how to confirm information rather than fan the flames of rumor, and therefore serve our organizations by informing our front line. That noble position keeps us in an indispensable place.
As board president of my local Habitat for Humanity chapter, I recently asked a local business for support. When I joined this board, I immediately empathized with gift officers: I cultivate and ask for charitable gifts outright, trembling in my shoes. We don’t have the resources to research everyone we try to visit. But we do know our prospects because longtime locals are on the board. So, when I asked a business owner to give us $500, I was nervous but not out of my depth. That is the value of being briefed by another person who knows how to bring the focus to the most important information.
In the workforce, we have replaced a lot of people with machines (there are actually vending machines selling cars now). And we analytics professionals like to talk about automating information processing, called Artificial Intelligence. But Artificial Intelligence is best used for situations like retail websites directing us to more interesting products, not for life-sized decisions like leaving one’s estate to one’s favorite charity. AI cannot replace the person that I would need help from while I’m deciding on, say, a new car. And machines cannot replace a well-trained research analyst who has the instinct to put two disparate pieces of information together to build the picture of a prospect’s capacity and willingness to give.
In other words, you are not replaceable by analytics, screening, or any other automated data process. If you read far enough into this article by David Alane Grier of the IEEE, you’ll see that a group of humans is still needed to interpret complex information. A machine cannot do what we do every day: Put together decades old stock sales data with information on the creation of a foundation around the time the prospect retired, followed by the prospect’s recent pattern of increased giving.
So, congratulations for being the noblest practitioner in the Information Age, because you do what you do to make things better, not make people buy more stuff. And know that you are necessary, now more than ever before.