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Interview with Researchers in Fundraising: How AI helps minimise risk in prospect research


27 July 2022

Xapien is an easy-to-use AI research platform that delivers fully-automated, referenced and shareable background reports on any individual or organisation in minutes. Simply enter the name of your subject, add some context, and press Go.


Xapien is used by prospect researchers in both the philanthropic and for-profit sectors to uncover opportunities and mitigate risk. The depth and nuance of its reports, and the speed it delivers them, make it a powerful, game changing tool for prospect researchers.

Today, Jess Denny, head of comms and partnerships at Xapien, will be talking to us about mitigating reputational risk through effective prospect research.

Jess, why is it important prospect researchers know about the actions, activities and associations of their prospect pools?

When researchers know as much as possible about prospects, they are better able to manage risk, and maximise opportunities.

I’ll talk about risk management first.

In today’s online world, conscientious consumers have the power, understanding and motivation to hold institutions and businesses accountable for every aspect of their values, ethics and conduct.

Not only is the conduct of organisations under the microscope, but so too is the company they keep. This is nowhere more the case than in the philanthropic sector. In an industry built on trust and ethics, upholding a strong reputation for values-led decision making is critical. Major donations, therefore, have to be carefully managed. Accepting the philanthropy of the Sackler family and Jeffrey Epstein, for example, has been very damaging to institutions’ and charities’ reputations.

Secondly, on a more positive note, knowing about the actions, activities and associations of their prospects sets fundraisers up for successful relationship-building.

Building relationships of trust has become even more challenging in the post-pandemic era. Now that virtual meetings have become the norm, trust has to be established in new ways. Starting those meetings with a thorough understanding of the prospect is the best way to build that trust. The more you know about a prospect, the more likely you are to be able to form a productive, knowledge-based relationship.

But conducting in depth research into every prospect is an increasingly challenging and time consuming task. In some cases deep due diligence reports are overlooked or come as an afterthought. But by that stage it’s too late - you’ve already spent valuable time engaging with a prospect that could pose a risk to you or your organisation. Xapien solves the problem by producing full, contextual reports on any subject in minutes.You don’t have to pick between deep reports on a select few people and shallow reports on them all. You can have deep reports on everyone.

Can you give an overview of the array of support Xapien is able to provide?

Xapien's automated background reports provide a full picture of any person or organisation, from anywhere in the world, in five to 10 minutes.

The intelligent, fully automated platform reads and analyses data from across the internet to deliver consolidated, insightful reports that include flagged risks, wealth estimates, assets, and associates.

It removes the huge burden of research philanthropic fundraising requires. Previously, organisations had to choose between rapid, tick-box due diligence checks that left them exposed to risks, or spending days conducting research. Now, with Xapien, due diligence and prospect research reports are completed all in one go, and in minutes. Researchers can enter every funding conversation prepared and assured.

Organisations can proceed with major gift and philanthropic fundraising on a foundation of transparency and mutual understanding, confident that the prospect’s past won’t negatively affect the organisation’s future.


How does Xapien provide certainty to prospect researchers?

Traditional research tools are based on databases, and are unable to “read” free formtext or “unstructured data”. But more than 80% of data on the internet is unstructured, according to Gartner, i.e.not in a table or database form, but in text, speech or video. This means that 80% of the internet is being missed by traditional tools. Instead prospect researchers spend hours searching for and reading articles online and this is before they even begin to analyse them and summarise relevant findings for fundraisers.

And every researcher will go through a different process. They may even set limits - “go to page 10 of Google” - so as not to get lost down the rabbit hole of endless search engine results.

Unlike other background checking services, Xapien isn’t restricted to data sets. It provides automated background research reports on any organisation or person using information from the entire indexed internet.

It does this by using Natural Language Processing to read the web, media, blogs, and more, and then extract information. We’ve taught it to read, understand and analyse just like a human would, but at incredible speed and scale.

This means it can find content from across the globe, published in over 130 languages. All content is translated into English and scanned for risk. You get all the facts about your subject. It goes down all the rabbit holes so that you don’t have to.

Xapien doesn't just present articles for you to read. Our system reads them for you, identifying and extracting assets, associates, wealth, business roles, descriptions, quotes and affiliations.

Xapien's neural risk profiler identifies tangible risks about your subject. Articles about other people with the same name are rejected, so you can focus on the real risks. Take two “Chris Smiths,” for example. One was a defendant in a criminal trial. The other Chris Smith was running a software trial. Xapien is not only able to distinguish between the two Chris Smiths, but also tell you that one is involved in a potentially risky “trial”,while the other is not.

These summaries and categorisation saves hours of reading time - although the articles are all there if you do want to read them.

As Data and Technological Skills Partner of the RiF Handbook, what changes have you seen over the years in there being a need for prospect researchers to be proficient with data?

There are many developments that have made data proficiency a vital skill for those working in the prospect research and development fields.

Firstly, it helps them as they navigate through the vast sea of information that the internet holds. All this information is undeniably a fantastic boon for researchers and analysts. It is now far easier to uncover risks and enter conversations prepared. It also provides a wealth of information that can be used to boost fundraising efforts or break the ice with prospects.

However, the volume of information can be overwhelming and delay fundraising processes, setting up a negative experience for the donor. Or, significant information can be missed, with grave reputational consequences. Data proficiency helps sift through that data to find what’s relevant and discard what isn’t.

The questions that due diligence checks answer have also changed. Organisations are no longer asking the compliance-focused question ‘can we legally do business?’. They’re asking the value-based, reputational question ‘should we do business?’.

These are complex, nuanced questions that take into account a number of factors. Existing compliance tools are ill-equipped to help answer them. PEPs and sanctions look-up tools only provide yes/no answers. But what should be done with all the wider information out there online? Data proficiency can help researchers draw informed and confident conclusions.

And finally, as globalisation rises, more and more international prospecting takes place. It’s fantastic that the prospect pool is larger, but this brings more unknowns and potentially more risks.

Prospect researchers need to gather and understand international data in order to understand and manage these risks, as well as reach out and build relationships with prospects more effectively.


Leading on from this, what is the future of risk analysis, for both non-profits and corporates?

As the amount of available information out there grows exponentially, tech is becoming ever more necessary for streamlining research. This is a field of constantly evolving capabilities that are setting up prospect researchers with ever more powerful tools. It’s an exciting place to be at the moment.

To start with, here at Xapien we’ll be working in even more languages. We currently auto-translate 130 different languages and scripts into English and run our NLP profiles over them to extract insights. But we want to do them all!

We’re making ESG reporting even better. We’re currently working with experts in environmental, social, and governance risks and standards, who are helping us teach our machine learning and NLP technology to recognise, understand and categorise any manner of ESG risks. This is a continually evolving space, however. We want to empower our customers with an unprecedented level of nuanced understanding of their ESG risk exposure.

Finally, going forward as a Learning Partner of this domain, what innovative ways are you looking to engage with the Prospect Research community further, either with RiF, the Handbook, or otherwise?

I’m really looking forward to our live workshop demos. They are an opportunity for prospect researchers to tell us about their needs. We’ll discuss how we might be able to help solve them, either using our existing technology, or by building something new. For example, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, we wanted to do more for the organisations scrambling to comply with the largest ever package of sanctions, who also needed to know about the people who were about to be sanctioned. So, we made it possible to discover a textured understanding of the research subject, which enabled users to see if someone was likely to be sanctioned – due to a known association with Putin, or a particular government, for example. These kinds of enhancements come out of workshops with people in the prospect research community.

If this sounds like something you’d benefit from, my colleague Nikki would be delighted to hear from you. Contact her at nikki.bossieux@xapien.com.

If webinars are your thing, we have several great ones lined up. We recently hosted an excellent discussion with the Executive Director of Research and Prospect Management of Dartmouth College, Michael Foote, who told us how they are using artificial intelligence to fundraise more effectively. You can watch it on our website here, and stay tuned for more over the coming months.

And finally, we’re doing a RiF live event on 20th October – stay tuned!