Tag Archives: Gift Officers

Better Researcher-Fundraiser Relationships: A Response to “Prospecting Problems” and “Fundraisingly Frustrated”

About a week ago Chris Cannon wrote a great blog post outlining some prevalent problems plaguing the fundraiser-researcher dynamic. I had to retweet the link with the comment that it was “dead on,” because it is. Based on what I’ve frequently heard from other researchers at APRA conferences, in many shops the relationship between researchers and frontline fundraisers can be tenuous: e.g., researchers often don’t hear much feedback, if any, from the gift officers they help; fundraisers don’t easily engage with the prospect management system. (Just to name a couple things Chris outlined in his post.)

Chris replied to my tweet and asked what I’ve seen work in addressing these issues. The answer to that question deserves more than just 140 characters! (Plus it’s a pretty darn good topic for a blog post.) So I thought I’d touch on it here.

I’ve found that there are two key components that go a long way in tackling the researcher-fundraiser disconnect: getting the right people in place, and getting them to do the right things.

The Right Things

What are the “things” people need to do? Helen Brown, in her own response to Chris’s post, suggests that communication and relationship building are two of the things that are most critical. She’s absolutely right! But what exactly do we do to make that happen? At my institution, Research staff get face time with gift officers. We have both formal and informal meetings where we talk about the work and we just maintain a positive relationship.

  • Every month, we have a formal “research partner meeting” where the researcher and fundraiser get together to review prospect management reports in preparation for the monthly prospect meeting. They go over outstanding and upcoming solicitations; they review prospect lists; they talk about recent visits; they talk about how they can best help one another.
  • As much as possible, we try to have informal interactions with one another. I encourage my research staff to stop by the fundraisers’ offices from time to time or go have coffee with them. Frankly, I don’t care a whole lot about what happens in these encounters, as long as it’s positive. If the researcher and gift officer spend an hour talking about March Madness, great! They’re building that relationship and increasing the good rapport that helps keep open the lines of productive communication.

The Right People

Of course these “things” that we try to do to foster good relationships between researchers and fundraisers are practically worthless if we don’t have the right people in place to do them. If I’ve got a researcher who is too shy to drop in on gift officers, they can’t have successful informal interactions. If my researcher is generally surly and cantankerous, they’re going to have a hard time building a good relationship with the gift officers.

So any time I’m hiring a new researcher, I pay a lot of attention to their personality and general disposition.  Are they generally outgoing? Do they seem relatable and easy to get along with? This is probably more important to me than a person’s research experience or capabilities, because I can train most people to do good research. It is far more difficult (maybe even impossible??) to train someone to be pleasant to be around, or not to be shy.  If they are internally motivated to reach out to the people they work with and they enjoy doing it, that will be one critical piece I won’t have to worry so much about needing to continually push.

Do I feel like I’ve completely solved the problems Chris describes in his post? Nope. (I’ve got one fundraiser, for example, who has said more than once, “I can find plenty of stuff myself on google, but you guys have access to special databases that we don’t.” Sure, it’s true, but it indicates that we haven’t done a good enough job of educating about our capabilities as in-depth information seekers AND as specialized analysts.) But having the right people in place, doing the right things, sure does go a long way in making for a stronger, more productive relationship between Research and frontline fundraisers.

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On Good Partnerships Between Researchers and Fundraisers

I’m not usually one to brag, but if I’m being completely honest, I have to say I work at a pretty awesome place.

Recently, I’ve been giving more thought to the things that have the greatest impact on this general awesomeness. And one of those is the highly collaborative relationship that we strive to maintain between the research staff and the frontline fundraisers. Overall, we’re successful in keeping this good thing going, and I’m continually trying to put my finger on what exactly we have here that provides the foundation of that success.

Clearly our frontline fundraisers play a leading role in this success. First and foremost, they’re all just great people, but also they are invested in the services we provide, and they appreciate the work that we do. They also are always more than willing to engage in lively conversations about their prospects and what they’re currently working on with those prospects. It’s not unusual for a researcher to have an impromptu meeting with a gift officer to learn more about how their most recent donor visit went, and it’s common for a fundraiser to stop by and say “Guess what I just learned in a visit with so and so…”

In my time here, this great partner-relationship has always struck me as something very special. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to conferences and heard other prospect researchers complaining about how inaccessible their major gift officers are, or how “they just don’t get it.” After hearing this sort of thing, I’m always happy to come away thinking about how lucky I am to not have that problem where I work.

Our fundraisers deserve a huge share of the credit for this!

But the researchers play a role as well. We continually strive to be key partners with the frontline fundraisers – supporting them, yes, but also collaborating and strategizing with them where opportunities allow.

What exactly does that involve on the part of the researcher? It includes a lot of the following activities:

  • Thinking creatively about strategies around engaging prospects
  • Helping translate the fundraiser’s activities into the appropriate coding in the system
  • Proactively seeking new prospects
  • Providing timely updates about the fundraiser’s current prospects
  • Explaining, in clear un-jargoned terms, the nuances of the work we do (including our wealth & capacity ratings and our predictive modeling)
  • Not just gathering information in the course of our work, but also interpreting and analyzing it to formulate suggestions and ideas for next steps

By continuing to do all of these things (and more), we do our part to keep good working relationships on the right track.

And now I need to find someone to join our research staff and help keep this good thing going. We’re looking for a researcher who can jump in and be a valuable partner to our fundraisers – one who’s got great research chops, but who can also effortlessly interface with the folks on the front lines.

When models and intuition collide…

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

This is a quote (from George E.P. Box, I believe) that I use pretty much any time I’m talking about our statistical models that I create for our major and planned gift fundraising programs. It’s nice in that it covers my rear and makes clear the fact that, while our models are helpful and do point us in the right direction, they are not foolproof, and we’re going to get some false positives and false negatives from time to time.

I found myself reiterating the quote again today as I defended my models to one of our frontline fundraisers.

We had found a couple of prospects who had scored well in the modeling process, and they came to our attention on a wealth screening. From a numerical perspective, these folks looked great! They were predicted to be major donors, and we confirmed that they likely had the assets to be able to make big gifts.

But the problem was the fact that, while they looked great on paper, each of them had none of the hallmark intuitive indicators of a good prospect. In fact, many of their attributes raised red flags for this particular gift officer:

  • poor (if any) giving history;
  • non-grads;
  • had attended few (if any) college events; and
  • one of them had even let the College know  back in ’97 that he wasn’t too fond of us.

This gift officer had a pretty hard time wrapping his head around the idea that he should even try to see this person.

I did my best to sell the model: “It takes a lot of non-intuitive things into consideration, so it catches things we’d never think of!” and “We do have some major donors who match some of these criteria, so it’s not entirely out of the question that he could be a major donor!” But ultimately, I know he wasn’t convinced.

So I was left in an unresolved quandary this afternoon: what do we do about people who score very high on predictive models, but who look terrible according to all the traditional “good prospect” attributes? We can’t just write them off, because then we’re essentially throwing out the model because it doesn’t match our fundraising paradigm. (And this is precisely one of the key benefits of statistical modeling: it brings to our attention those people we wouldn’t think to find on our own.)

On the other hand, don’t instinct and experience play a role in the prospecting process? I truly think there is a place for both science and art in prospect research, so shouldn’t we embrace this notion and let this prospect get vetoed, so we avoid wasting staff time and energy on someone who probably won’t pan out? (And for the record, if it wasn’t for the models, I’d discount these prospect entirely – they had few redeeming qualities as potential donors. This gift officer had a pretty good point.)

I’m not sure what my conclusion is about it yet, but I feel that I lean towards at least giving these ugly duckling prospects a shot. Sure, I’m not the guy who has to make the cold call or sit in these folks’ living rooms, but it seems like we should at least make a respectable effort to give it a shot.

Now if I can just convince this gift officer…