Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An Integrated Communication Approach to Prospect Research Management

An Integrated Communication Approach to Prospect Research Management – One Researcher’s Perspective
By Melody Song, Prospect Research Specialist at SAIT Polytechnic, Calgary

(Published in the Fall 2010 issue of APRA Canada Newsletter SCOOP)

I joined the Prospect Research team at SAIT Polytechnic in early 2009 after being a front-line fundraiser with Alberta Ballet for two years.  I was surprised to see that most people found my career move a “backward” step. The trend it seems is for prospect researchers to “advance” and become front-line fundraisers. Prior to my entry to the non-profit world, I worked in the private sector as a marketing professional and event planner. In university I studied marketing and completed a B.Comm degree. I then worked on and completed my Master’s degree in Communication Studies.  I fell in love with Prospect Research, mostly because I have always thought myself as an introvert and the “behind-the-scene environment” suited me more.  However, I found that my atypical background and my first-hand experience on the front-line tremendously complimented my work as a prospect researcher.  Together with SAIT’s Research Coordinator Sandra Gomez whose background is fundraising (another one making the move “the other way”) and journalism, we have developed an internal communication strategy that advanced our research team in the driver seat of SAIT’s development team through a combination of business processes and an integrated communication perspective. In this article, I would like to share our success with you.

The Theory
The Scoop has published many valuable articles on experiences with tips to help researchers shift the focus of research from reactive to proactive. Finding the team approach can be done successfully in smaller organizations. There are different problems associated with bigger institutions where sometimes we are not even in the same physical space as development officers.  Another consideration as well was the reality of a more vertical hierarchy which impacts communication with leadership and volunteers.  We soon realized that we needed to develop a set of strategies that were facilitated by business processes along with “buy-in” from leadership.

We recognized that a fundamental shift of perspective was needed.  For me, Prospect Research is not about information, it is about communication. There is a wealth of literature and practices on finding, dissecting, storing, and managing information but not a lot about communicating.  I would like to suggest that we stop looking at information but take a look at who we are first. 

For example, let’s look at Development Officers - who are they? Colleagues? Clients? Partners? There are lots of “US” and “THEM” going on in the industry and surely “THEY” are a major problem. 

What about Prospects?  We find them, assign them, and move them around in the pipeline, but maybe they are more than “subjects”.  I would like to think of all of them as Audiences and ourselves - researchers - as Communicators.

I have created a communication model for prospect management based on these thoughts illustrated as follows:
Everything we do (as researchers) is about communication. Many communication models have been created to theorize this process from a simple one-way communication, to gatekeeper style, to an interactive model.  Most of these models would consist of basic components of source, message, receiver, noise, and channels etc.  I created one for internal communication with development officers (see figure one).  You can also adapt this model for all stakeholder groups in and outside of your organization including volunteers and prospects. The idea of “separate strategy depending on target audience” is a part of the stakeholder analysis practice in the for-profit business world, but it can be also borrowed for non-profit as well. 
The key to achieve successful interactive communication process is:
 1) Understand each other and elements that interfere with our communication
2) Create channels to communicate
3) Allow feedback and build on them. 

So how does that apply in practice?

Fields of Experience
In our APRA Canada conference plenary session with David Palmer VP Advancement at University of Toronto, David mentioned that all researchers should be making donor calls and that what he really needs from researchers is their point of view.  We might not be able to all make donor calls, but learning about front-line fundraising and looking at our research from the development officer’s perspective is greatly helpful to provide that point of view.  I found my experience in fundraising has given me insights and confidence to make suggestions and recommendations to our development officers.  Our researchers (3 full-time and 1 part-time) take every opportunity to learn about fundraising and go to AFP and other fundraising seminars. We also schedule sessions with our internal experts to learn about estate planning, gift structure and other facets of fundraising.  Most importantly, the whole research team meets with our prospect management council (PMC) and drives the fundraising tactical meetings. Since we are the owners of all information internal or external and are aware of the whole picture, when a request comes up, we can sometimes decide what deliverables are needed. For example, someone may request a profile while we may decide that a qualification one-pager would do the trick. 

Development officers in turn need to learn about research, not through conferences or special presentations, but every day at work.  At SAIT, we take every opportunity to educate and promote our own field of experience.  We give presentations regularly at team meetings on our new research approach or methodology.  At every PMC meeting (which research owns and chairs), a standing item on the agenda is a database quiz to help them learn tips and create habits of logging history into the database.

Communication Channels
In bigger institutions, just modifying one’s perspective and what one does is not enough.  We have created a series of business processes to help us facilitate effective communication with other stakeholders - in this case development officers. 

We do not ask development officers to define their deadlines and priorities as we are the ones who actually create a report of upcoming asks based on activities logged in the database.  For prospects being asked in the next three months, research has created top priorities to ensure all necessary information is there. One important document we use is the “Strategic Summary” – a one-page document that summarizes recent moves, affinities, and most importantly our recommendation in ask amount, gift structure, approaches and supporting rationales (and yes they can be all squeezed into one page).  The Strategic Summaries are prepared before the Development Officers even make a request as we know exactly what stage their prospects are in the pipeline. 

We have implemented flash meetings where our research coordinator will meet with each development officer every week to get their feedback and to update our ask reports and knowledge base.  We also implemented an annual survey to find out what development officers think about our research services and where they think we could improve.

One of our new initiatives is the “Portfolio Assessment “process which is the equivalent of a spring cleaning of each development officer’s portfolio to ensure maximized efficiency in their use of time.  Without wasting a whole lot of time for anyone, we were able to address some of the inactive accounts and help development officers to get more research and their portfolio in shape. 
We now provide a list of inactive accounts to development officers and ask them to update the status from a list of drop downs including such choices as:
Return to suspect pool
Reassign to others
Require research
 Keep for Cultivation (the list go more detailed in each option). 

This approach was non-imposing and generally welcomed by everyone.

Prospect researchers sometimes over- research information which can result in an inefficient use of time.  As a marketer in my previous career, I developed the habit of identifying what the audience needs or wants to hear and filtering information accordingly.  It helps me to stay focused. If the development officer didn’t make a specific request, I often read past contact reports and history as well as fundraiser or volunteer notes to determine what is required. In this way I avoid  spending 6 hours on a profile when all that is needed is a qualification of a simple answer on capacity or affinity. Researchers sometimes can make a better judgment call on what to highlight in a briefing or summary instead of providing all and sometimes irrelevant information.

Management Buy-In
We weren’t able to implement the above mentioned processes without support from our development and advancement director and associate directors at SAIT.  If you are having problem driving the process in your institution (because research is often viewed only in a “supporting role”) I highly recommend that you create a communication plan stating goals, processes, and deliverables and present it formally to your directors. We had created a Strategic Prospect Research Plan and presentation which proved to be a big success with our directors. They now recognize things from a researchers’ perspective and understand the importance and power of information. 

Areas to Improve
For our research shop at SAIT Polytechnic, the change came once we began to realize that a lot of the problems are not research specific but are about organizational communication process.  As the experiences and examples I present here mainly concerns internal communication, similar models can be applied to external communication and other stakeholder groups of the organization as well.  For example, how can we look at our volunteers as an audience group (with common problems, characteristics and fields of knowledge) so that we can communicate better with them? In our case, research does not get face time with volunteers and hence lost opportunities to get vital information that weren’t recorded.  What about our donors and our prospects? What are our communication strategies for these groups which are essentially our research recommendations?  I also see value in continuing to apply principles and theories from other discipline to this field, as it is still an evolving and dynamic profession. 

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