Three Reasons Why Research Request Forms Are a Terrible Idea

Okay, so first let me issue a caveat and say that my title is intentionally provocative: I don’t necessarily think research request forms are always a bad idea. There are contexts in which they make sense. But let me give a few reasons why I prefer not to use them in my shop.

They strip away the personal interaction

In previous posts I have made it pretty clear that it’s important to maintain a good relationship between the researcher and the gift officer. Personal interaction goes a long way in helping to develop and maintain that relationship. When personal interaction decreases, the relationship suffers, and while the work might still get done, I question whether it will be as effective as it could be. When you make a gift officer fill out a form to make a request, they don’t get the benefit of a face to face (or telephone) conversation with you. (And why would you deprive them of that? You know how charming and wonderful you are.)

They strip away the context and background of the request

When someone asks for something, if I understand the context and background of their request I am best positioned to be able to meet their needs. When I know why they’re asking for what they’re requesting, I will have a much better sense of what I really need to do to help them.

For example, there may be a couple of different reasons why a gift officer might need a rating assigned to a prospect: they might be trying to advise a volunteer on how to steer the gift conversation with that prospect; or they might be trying to prioritize some leads referred to them. In the latter case, I would likely take a very quick, “chainsaw cut” approach to estimating capacity. We’re just trying to pit some prospects against one another to see whom we should call first. In the former case, I might spend more time understanding the complete financial picture of the prospect (What visible assets are there? What other obligations and liabilities could this person have? Is it likely that market conditions are impacting this person’s self-perception of their wealth?) The context and motivation behind a request makes a big difference in how I approach the task at hand.

They strip away viable solutions

One of the benefits of a request form is that it helps simplify the process of asking for something: the requester can select option A, B, or C. This is great when three options will suffice. But the reality of fundraising is that the kinds of information we need at any given time vary widely. Our needs often do not fit into neat little boxes. So when people have just a few options to choose from, they select the one that seems like it will get them what they need (and cross their fingers and hope they are right!)

Here’s an example: imagine you have three levels of “profiles” that people can request. Only one of these – the “full biographical profile,” which includes everything AND the kitchen sink – contains information about the boards a prospect serves on. So if a gift officer is trying to get a visit with Joe Potentialdonor, and they want to figure out who might know Mr. Potentialdonor, they will request the “full biographical profile” so they can get information about what boards he is on. The researcher spends eight hours putting together the profile, when the gift officer really only needed some information that could have been compiled in 45 minutes.

If the gift officer has no form to fill out, she’s free to ask for exactly what she needs: people who might help her reach Mr. Potentialdonor. The gift officer has the great idea to start by looking at people who are on the same boards as Mr. Potentialdonor, and the researcher might have other ideas of who to look for (classmates, co-workers, etc.). In this scenario, the gift officer gets even more of what she really needs, and the researcher spends far less time procuring it for her.

If you’re thinking about using a research request form, be sure you consider the trade-offs. They can help streamline the process of asking for standard products, but they strip away some valuable things in the process! Is it worth it?


7 responses to “Three Reasons Why Research Request Forms Are a Terrible Idea

  1. I think a lot of this depends on the size of the organization and the design of the request form. If the organization is large enough that support staff are submitting requests on behalf of a gift officer, then I think a form works relatively well. I’ve also worked at places that had various components of the profile listed on the form (board service, family background, career information, other philanthropy, etc). Then the gift officer or their staff could just check the components they wanted.

    The personal interaction is key, but if you’re not going to get that, a simple re-design of a request form can make a big difference.

  2. Thanks, Mark. Great observations. And, the same trade-offs apply for many report/list request forms. These may be a necessary resource in some shops, but an in-person “interview” approach will likely produce a better product and, perhaps more importantly, a better internal relationship.

  3. I completely agree with you, Mark. Research request forms perpetuate a transactional relationship rather than fostering working partnerships. Why would any shop want to put up barriers to that?

  4. Good post, Mark. Typically I use the research request form as a starting point to follow-up with my fundraiser. At my org, I have the luxury of walking over to discuss any further Qs, clues or comments that will enhance my search. I find the form helps fundraisers focus their own thoughts about what they need to know about their prospect, so a free form text box helps!

  5. Janna: Good point about design — when it’s done well it can make a WORLD of difference.

    Chris: Absolutely! Different kinds of requests, but SAME principle.

    Helen: Amen, sister!

    Preeti: Using the form as a _starting point_ for the conversation is an approach I wholeheartedly agree with!

  6. Completely agree with Preeti about using forms as a starting point. It helps them focus on what they want because often they don’t really *know* – (a bit like the data request forms my other colleagues in Advancement Services use) or they fail to consider other relevant factors. At its most basic the forms stop me having to go back and say ‘do you actually need this by any date in particular!?’ to ‘have you also considered getting x’ like the organisations Janna has worked with to.

    To avoid the situation where a full profile is requested because it includes the one piece the requestor is looking for, I have what is basically ‘info additional to the above’ that aims to help customise their requests.

    Full in favour of picking up the phone or visiting them at the same time – it’s definitely a balancing act.

  7. Pingback: 3 Good Reasons for a Research Request Process | Jennifer Filla

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