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Don’t Sit Under the Alumni Files

North Hall at Lake Forest College is an old residence hall. My guess is that it was all men or all women–these were the days before co-ed living facilities on college campuses. The building was renovated in the fifties or sixties to house the College administration. Business office on the first floor, President’s Office on the second, and the alumni and development office on the third. On the fourth floor, which was never really renovated, the old dorm rooms house file cabinets–one after the other, full of alumni records. Every bit of information is in those files, from the student’s original application to the College to any note or letter that was ever sent to him/her as an alum of the College. The files fill a number of the rooms on the fourth floor of North Hall, and I can tell you that it is a bit disconcerting to be sitting in an office on the third floor, thinking of all that weight one floor up. Hey, it’s an old building! I often sat there wondering when that file cabinet with Richard Widmark’s file (he was a graduate of the College and a former acting teacher) would end up in my lap! Trust me, it is hard to concentrate with thoughts like that running through your mind.

Now, I haven’t been on the 4th floor of North Hall in many years, and I am guessing that by now all of the files have been digitized and the file cabinets are gone. Beside the safety factor, there was simply a problem that at one point (in the not too distant future) the College would run out of room up on the 4th floor. So I am guessing that the College has solved the storage problem in North Hall and utilized a much more appropriate storage system for alumni records. However those files were stored, I can assure you that they are still darn important to the gift officers at Lake Forest College. Those files contained the material that we used to do the first prospect research in the College’s history.

These were in the days before electronic wealth screening, before Nexus Lexus, before you could get just about any public record on your desktop (or your phone for that matter). When an appointment with an alum was set, someone would trudge up to the 4th floor and pull the file, so that we could learn as much as possible about the individual with whom we would be visiting. We would manage our prospects on 3×5 cards, keeping tidbits of information on those cards and putting the larger reports (memos on visits, copies of letters) back in their file on the 4th floor.

Imagine! These days, we are blessed with all kinds of electronic methods to identify and manage prospects. If we don’t know much about our database, wealth screening can help identify those with the capacity to give. More elaborate systems, like the one we offer at TW&B, can also predict inclination by studying an individual’s philanthropic activities. Once you have identified a major prospect, you can research that individual yourself, or use one of the on-line services to pull a research report together. There are prospect research departments in larger advancement offices, but even one or two person shops can take advantage of on-line resources or free-lance prospect research services.

Of course, those alumni files still have enormous value from a research perspective. I can remember sitting for hours in my office, reviewing files, notes, letters, proposals sent to top College prospects. What a great way to get to know your prospects.

Technology may have replaced the alumni files on the 4th floor of North Hall, but it has not replaced the need to learn all that you can about your prospects before you make that important solicitation. Researching your prospects is an essential part of the solicitation process for major gifts. Whether you are climbing up to the top floor of your office building to sift through dusty files, or sitting in front of your desktop “Googling” your  upcoming prospects, don’t forget to do your research before you make the call.

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