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Less is More: Three Steps to Make Research More Strategic

Mon, November 24, 2014 4:11 PM | Laura Parshall

Continuing on last month's theme of cutting down and cutting out, Ian T. Wells of Ian T. Wells & Associates has some tips for making prospect research more efficient, and more useful to your organization.


Less is More: Three Steps to Make Research More Strategic


The development industry is becoming increasingly competitive and fast-paced. Annual objectives are being pushed to higher levels, and campaign goals are being set at figures that were unthinkable just a decade ago. While research professionals have found greater and greater demands placed upon them, they have not always been provided with extra resources to help them achieve those goals. In such demanding scenarios, increasing the efficiency of prospect research and management processes is often a necessary strategy.

Implementing such a strategy is easier said than done. Often, there are many obstacles to negotiate: frontline fundraisers requesting great volumes of research; limited funds to invest in research tools; and/or unrealistic expectations create pressures that derail attempts to implement streamlined processes. But there are some basic steps that can be taken at development offices of all sizes to help researchers improve the impact of their work.

Step #1: Stop Over-Researching Prospects

At first glance, this advice may be misinterpreted to suggest prospect research isn’t valuable. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is because research is so valuable that it should never be wasted. Yet, whenever someone invests an excessive amount of time in researching a prospect, that is precisely what happens.

At many shops, research is evaluated by how thorough it is. This is not a bad thing in the abstract; thoroughness is a virtue. But any virtue, taken to excess, degenerates into vice. If research is excessively detailed – that is, it records matters that are superfluous or irrelevant to advancing a prospect through the solicitation cycle – then some time has been wasted that could have otherwise gone towards another priority.

The motivation for being exceptionally detailed is understandable. In many cases, it is due to researchers anticipating that they will face demanding expectations to find every piece of publically available data. In such environments, researchers are incentivized to be excessively thorough, lest a gift officer complain about the research being “incomplete”. The last thing a researcher wants to deal with is an inquiry about why a research document failed to note that a prospect’s roommate’s second cousin played intramural rugby.

The level of research provided on a prospect should be proportionate to the prospect’s proximity to making a major gift. If a prospect is about to be solicited for an 8-figure gift, it is perfectly reasonable to expect a researcher to thoroughly analyze every SEC Form recently filed on the prospect. But if a constituent has only been newly identified, it’s unnecessary to create a multi-page document detailing the prospect’s life story. Instead, design templates to address the key needs at each stage. Newly identified prospects just need a few sentences to facilitate the assignment process. (E.g. what is the prospect’s connection to the organization? What is the source of the prospect’s wealth?) Prospects in the Cultivation stage may require more research regarding family information, personal interests, or affiliations. Full Profiles should be reserved for top prospects and actual solicitations. More targeted research will allow you to provide more helpful support on greater numbers of prospects, and as a result, you’ll make greater contributions to your organization’s bottom line.

Step #2: Ensure Metrics Align with Priorities

Despite the importance of providing more targeted research, Step 1 should not be taken in a vacuum. Indeed, a sudden change to research protocols may be unlikely to get approval from executive leadership without being justified as part of a broader effort to provide more strategic support to the organization. And a good way to spearhead such an effort is to evaluate how well research metrics align with organizational priorities.

As the maxim goes, metrics lead behavior, so it’s important to ensure that metrics are incentivizing researchers to contribute to the priorities of your organization. There may be additional metrics, however, that were already established for researchers. And these metrics may suddenly compete for your limited time. Even if the original metrics were adopted for good reasons, and may still be good practices in the abstract, it may be for the best to stop using such metrics until the organizational priorities have been achieved. Rather than try to juggle a multitude of priorities poorly, it’s better to focus on supporting the top priorities of executive leadership very well.

The instinct to take on new priorities without re-evaluating how well they dovetail with prior objectives is a noble one, albeit misguided. Many researchers have a drive to serve their organizations as best as they can, and will take on additional responsibilities without a complaint. This “mission creep” can hurt productivity, however, by making too many demands of too few people. Even if it requires meeting with your supervisor to discuss the possibility of reframing your objectives for the year, it is important to have an honest assessment of how to best achieve organizational goals. It is better to triage metrics in hopes of focusing on only the most essential objectives than promise do achieve the impossible and subsequently fail to meet those goals.

Step #3: Find More Prospects

There is one objective that should always make its way into research metrics, and that is to identify new prospects. Devoting less time to cumbersome research and less time to complete unnecessary metrics will yield more time to discovering new prospects. This is a worthwhile goal, for an organization can never have too many prospects. At most, it can only have too few fundraisers to properly cultivate them.

Increased prospecting provides a number of benefits. By having a larger pool of newly identified prospects to recommend for assignment, researchers can be more selective and add higher caliber constituents to their gift officers’ portfolios. With proper tracking of identified prospects, researchers can tally the cumulative total of gifts coming from donors they discovered. Furthermore, the continuous flow of new prospects into the pipeline provides some political cover for researchers seeking to revise their prospect development processes. Frontline fundraisers who feel assured that they have the prospects needed to reach their goals are less likely to find faults with researchers than those who don’t feel so supported. And in turn, researchers who are less concerned with protecting themselves from criticism will be more empowered to help their organizations reach their latest goals.

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