Monday, September 9, 2013

Leveraging Events for Prospecting

Going from a large non-profit organization to a smaller one is a complete culture shift for a prospect researcher.  I had recently left my position at a secondary education institution to work at the Calgary Zoo.  It was a switch from a matured development team with three prospect researchers to a growing seven-member team and a one-person research shop. 

While I enjoyed establishing the research practice for the first time for an organization and being close to the cause that I loved, I also discovered that you get pulled into all kinds of fundraising activities that can certainly be distracting but extremely useful (for prospecting) at the same time. Very quickly, I found myself organizing events for the opening of the zoo’s new $25 million penguin exhibit. 

Zoos are often viewed as attractions.  Modern zoos, however, have made conservation and species protection their number one mission.  One of our goals is to connect the urban population (especially children) with nature while managing the reproduction of endangered species either on the zoo grounds or through outreach programs in the wild.  Hence, one of the challenges of the Development department is to connect people with our real cause so they stop perceiving us as “Disney World”. 
I realized that although I might not be doing the regular prospect research work at my desk, I could still create prospecting opportunities with this unique occasion.  The team had segmented our constituent base and scheduled three or four preview private tours for each group.  I took ownership of couple events aimed at engaging community leaders who had not supported the zoo before.  The result was not only the successful opening of a new zoo exhibit, we were also able to bring a dozen philanthropists and industry leaders and their families to the zoo, engage them in a guided tour with our head of conservation and host them at a brunch where they were strategically seated with one or two members from the zoo’s leadership team.

Working the event gave me all sorts of information that I would have never been able to find from secondary sources i.e. family information (especially about children and grand children), personal contact information, personal interests etc.  By the end of the event, Board members are motivated by the success of connecting prospects they know with the zoo and Development Officers are busy with follow ups and new cultivation plans.

I remember the time when I was desperately trying to find linkage to a prospect or to propose engagement opportunities.  As far as events are concerned, researchers are often in the reactive role of preparing event and attendee profiles. I suggest that we should proactively be involved in doing prospecting events from the planning stage! Of course, this doesn’t mean that every prospect researcher needs to become an event organizer (a scary thought indeed!).  The research shop could, however, be more involved in some “prospecting” events where researchers can conduct first-hand research in stead of taking a back-seat. Here is a summary of things prospect researchers can do to leverage events for prospecting:

Dedicated Prospecting Event
Although not everyone has penguins or any other cute, exotic and endangered animals to attract people, you may have a high-profiled speaker or a celebrity attended event which you can leverage to bring in brand new prospects.  You need to make sure that the event is unique and speaks to the mission and vision of the organization.  It’s useful to segment the database and plan a whole year of events in advance and designated one event for prospecting. Prospect researchers should own the invitation lists and provide input and strategies on who to invite. 

Board & Leadership Involvement
Before our event, we had just completed a peer review session with our board (where a prospect list was screened by board members). So we asked the board to help us invite the prospects they had identified.  As the event was targeted at prospects we didn’t know, help from the board was crucial to make sure that a group of quality prospects attended and were hosted properly.  Prospect researchers should be involved in the seating arrangements and providing attendee profiles, preferably in a briefing meeting to the leadership team who will be seated strategically with prospects.  While small to medium sized non-profits can do this easily, I can see challenges with bigger institutions where prospect researchers rarely interact with board and leadership.  It certainly is a big time-saver and much more effective if prospect researchers can be face-to-face with the leadership team when presenting the seating chart and talking about prospects instead of filling out lengthy prospect briefings that are not guaranteed to be viewed.    

Meet & Greet Guests
I found it useful for the researcher to be at the reception table (or parking lot) checking off names as guests come in for any development related event.  If you are not the organizer of the event, you can volunteer for this role. Being a greeter enables the researcher to meet every guest while freeing up Development Officers to work the room. Meeting prospects in person can also provide a wealth of information from family composition to personal disposition which are all valuable when making strategic comments and suggestions in research reports. 

Event Follow Up
Last but not least, researchers should follow up with team members and leadership about conversations and interactions with guests and ensure that everything is recorded in the database.  A successful prospecting event can immediately affect the pipeline. Researchers need to follow up with account assignment/clearance and adjustment of solicitation strategies accordingly.

While many of us are adopting a more proactive approach to prospect research, we also need to recognize that being proactive means that we could do some “field work” along side of frontline fundraisers.  Researchers should be more integrated into all fundraising activities and be in the driver’s seat for prospecting initiatives. 

For those of us in smaller research shops, although we may have to pitch in from time to time on projects outside our research duties, we are more empowered and flexible to promote the researcher’s role as a partner in fundraising as well as creating and testing new prospecting practices.


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