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Parent Research 101

Fri, January 20, 2012 1:30 PM | Tara McMullen-King (Administrator)

Parent Research 101
By Marlisa H. Simonson

Director of Development Research, Wesleyan University


NOTE: This article was originally featured in the Summer 2011 edition of APRA Connections (Vol. 22, No. 2). It is being cross-featured here with APRA’s permission.

Parent research, like many aspects of the development research field, has increased both in its sophistication as well as in the length of its lifecycle in recent years. Today, research shops are involved in evaluating prospective parents prior to the child even applying to your institution, and if the family is well-engaged, the relationship could continue for many years after the child’s graduation. In November 2010, The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that colleges are adjusting their fundraising strategies to focus more on the “middle of the pyramid,” donors who can make significant gifts but not huge ones. Non-alumni parents can be a key renewable resource for potential gifts at this level. Below are some considerations for how to start or improve a parent research program at your institution.


It is easy to point to this phase of the process as evidence of the increased sophistication of parent research. The competition among colleges and universities for the top students means that Research is increasingly called upon to supply information – on families of students who have not yet even applied – for VIP admission tours, gift officer conversations, referrals from alumni or existing parents, and other occasions where ambassadors can generate interest in your institution. These can be some of the most difficult requests to field because the information provided to you can be incomplete, or sometimes erroneous. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions: The information you provide in response may determine next steps with that family.


Most institutions at both the independent school and higher education levels are doing some type of legacy family ratings. But are you extending your legacy rating framework to non-legacy families? In the absence of a financial support metric, data points such as philanthropy to other educational institutions, and connections to members of your community, can be utilized to establish a rating benchmark. Creating a framework allows you to be consistent in your evaluation of these families, and will be well-received by your colleagues who are responsible for advising Admission on families of interest.

Get organized! You will likely be receiving names of legacy and non-legacy families at the same time that you are already researching matriculated families. Assign a point person within Research to keep a spreadsheet of requests and information delivery timeframes.


Once students have committed to attend your school, you have a few short months to procure the information Research will need to perform any kind of assessment. You can’t do it alone: Good relationships lead to good data! Policies and procedures vary widely among institutions, so learn what you can have, when and from whom. Ask questions about who provides or receives which data points, and keep a calendar of when data will be available, through which systems (electronic or hard copy) it moves, and at what times of year. This may also be a good time to utilize a screening vendor to help identify potential prospect families.

Use the programmatic calendar to prioritize. Many institutions host events the summer prior to students’ arrival on campus, and your gift officers may be eager to begin relationships with top prospects. Schedule your review of new families in advance of these events and meetings as a way to sift through what otherwise may seem to be a mountain of data.

Arrival Day

Each campus has its own traditions for how it welcomes its new students. Learn yours, and Research will become an indispensable resource for key moments and opportunities that may not come again. Does your events staff need a parent speaker to welcome new parents? Does your president or dean meet individually with a few key families? Do your gift officers like to strategically “show up” in certain dorms during move-in time? Regardless of your school’s practices, Research can be a hero by offering informational tidbits on families you have already identified. 

Sophomore Year – Ongoing Discovery

That’s right: parent research doesn’t end once the students are on your campus! Even research shops with the most comprehensive programs will miss a few people. Keep your eyes and ears open for new information your colleagues – and not just your gift officers, but also deans, faculty members, coaches, student life professionals and others – are learning about the students and families with whom they are interacting. Feed those tidbits back through your internal system to ensure that profiles are developed or updated accordingly.

TIP: Minimize the number of people involved in the nitty-gritty. Conducting research on parents involves a high level of detail and sensitivity. Having just a few people knowledgeable about everything is a more efficient way for others to be involved in ways that make sense for their roles.

Junior Year – Status Check

Junior year is often the critical year for your gift officers: They have cultivated and deepened their relationship with the prospect during freshman and sophomore years, and if the family has not yet made a significant gift, a solicitation is likely imminent. You may be called upon to refresh the research you did in the student’s first year, and by now there is probably more anecdotal information available such as connections and other philanthropy. Junior year is also a good time to do some internal housekeeping in anticipation of senior-year gifts. At Wesleyan, we review junior parents each fall for engagement and giving. Families who have not reached their potential, and are unlikely to, are reassessed to help focus the gift officers on the families most likely to either continue their giving or to make a new significant gift.

Senior Year

Despite the finality of senior year, your efforts are not quite complete. Obviously, senior year is the penultimate moment for securing a large gift if one has not yet been made. Graduation is also a great opportunity to maximize family and other connections for legacy or in-honor-of gifts.

1-2 Years Out

Some families capable of sizable gifts choose to make such gifts after the child’s graduation to avoid influencing the child’s campus experience. It goes without saying that your institution’s ability to continue to engage these families is critical to closing the intended gift. Unfortunately, with so many families at various stages of the process – and, oh yes, your undergraduate alumni and other constituents too! – it is easy to lose track of those who prefer to make a delayed donation. Regularly monitoring your prospect lists, and proactively working with your gift officers, can help keep these families in the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Don’t assume that a past parent is automatically a past prospect. In reviewing some prospect data recently, we were surprised to learn that nearly one-quarter of our rated non-alumni parents were past parents. Further examination showed that some of our relationships with past parents – who are still giving – have stretched decades beyond the child’s graduation. 

5 Years Out

Five years after graduation is a timeframe many institutions use to cleanse their databases and make changes to communication and solicitation preferences. Know your policies and be proactive about using those guidelines to evaluate any remaining parent prospects.

The success of a parent research program at your institution will largely be determined by the relationships your area has with other key stakeholders in the process. If possible, identifying one person to be the liaison between Development and Admission could make a world of difference. This person can assist you by prioritizing the research requests and providing advance notice of key deadlines. The best Development-Admission liaisons are constantly feeding you bits and pieces of information they pick up through their interactions with other areas of your campus and with the families themselves. It is also easier for Admission and other campus areas to get to know, and trust, one person, and they will appreciate having just one point of contact. At Wesleyan, we have taken this liaison relationship one step further by identifying one member of the Research team who is responsible for coordinating Research’s efforts in the identification and review of parents. While all of the researchers do conduct parent research, they follow guidelines and timelines established by a single member of the team who is keeping track of all the details.


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