Friday, November 15, 2013

Puzzle Masters

Forgive me if all this is a bit too basic for the uber-researchers among us—but remember that all information is being heard by someone for the first time (after that, it’s all reruns, déjà vu).
Admittedly, it’s rare that I get this question in response to a profile:  “How do you do what you do?”  Usually, gift officers don’t want to know how the sausage was made; they just want to savor the deliciousness of the information fitting into their preconceived notion biscuit sandwich.  So it took me a moment to come up with a response:
“This profile?  Think of it as a jigsaw puzzle, all put together.  Then break all the pieces apart, shake them around, and fling ‘em up into the air.  The results?  A piece here, one under the chair, another in the vent, one in your pocket.  I pinpoint all those pieces, wipe them off if needed, put them together—eureka!  Piece of cake.  Any trained monkey . . . .”
Then they nod, back out of the room and slip away down the hall.  So that’s “what I do”—but how about the “how I do it”?
Begin with the basics of the search engine. I’m sure there are many satisfied Google users out there, but I always gravitated toward the metasearch engines—why just search one engine when you can get results from multiple ones all at once, and often with categorized results?  Prevents you from having to slog through the hits about, say, French hotels when you’re trying to find out about Paris Hilton.  I used Carnegie Mellon’s Vivisimo for years until it was commercialized to an unrecognizable state, then I switched over to DuckDuckGo and continue to be happy with it.  Remember to place phrases and compound names in quotation marks for best results.
What does the person do, and how long have they been doing it?  Career and education information is sometimes best found on LinkedIn, but recognize that results may not have been updated.  Peruse any news results from your search engine to see if the person has taken a new job, retired, gotten married.  There are good proprietary sources for such info, sure—but often you can get superb access to news articles through services paid for by your college or public library (Newsbank, for instance).
For information on stock holdings, and EDGAR are reliable resources.  Real estate?  Sure, there’s Zillow and Trulia, but I’ve either gone through vendors (e.g., Lexis Nexis—and Dataquick has impressed me) or directly to the assessors for timely ownership details and market values (either via the fine compilation at UVa’s Portico site [] or at the links on
Find out if the prospect owns or flies a plane in the databases at  Political donor?  Plenty of sites, including (a plus—often the entries include the donor’s occupation and title).  Information on foundations?  Guidestar or the Foundation Center (free access on both).
To uncover current or past college connections, I frequently consult the compilation of U.S. university and community college web pages at  And there’s always the situation that calls for extraordinary means, such as going to the Wayback Machine ( to resurrect web pages that have passed into cyber history, or to Google Translate for comprehending pages or phrases from another language.  And never overlook what rich data you have in your own files and database.
That’s basically it—the puzzle is as complete as it ever can be.  Pat yourself on the back (somebody has to), decompress, rinse, repeat ad infinitum.
Tim Dempsey, Director-at-Large, APRA MidSouth


  1. Hathi Trust ( is a source I use often. It's a repository of digital content from research libraries including content digitized via the Google Books project, Internet Archive digitization initiatives, and content digitized locally by libraries. I've used it to locate biographical information, alumni newsletters, college yearbooks, family histories, and the like. It's a real gold mine.

  2. uber-researchers and the rest of us need refreshers too!