Last month’s “What I Wish I’d Known” blog post, by my fellow Apra Greater Houston board member Ashley Estes, had me reflecting on my own time as a researcher over the last eight years. Unlike most in our profession I started out my professional career in research. During this time I have grown not only as a researcher, but also made the transition from student to “real adult”. These are the things I wish I knew – or wish I had taken to heart – earlier in my career:
“Be the holder of institutional knowledge” – I would have never guessed this would be so important to my day-to-day job. We all know that researchers tend to stick around longer than fundraisers, so oftentimes researchers become the de-facto keeper of general knowledge about the institution or the development department. What I didn’t realize is how important this knowledge truly is. I have found diving into institutional archives helpful not only for donor information, but also so that I can provide context for decisions that were made in the past.
“Learn how to say no” – Oftentimes we are asked to research things that we know are hopeless rabbit trails seeking tidbits of information that just aren’t publicly available. Early on, I felt that I knew when I was or was not going to be able to find what was asked for, but my approach informing the requester about the impossibility of their request could have been delivered in a more productive way. Now, I try to figure out why a fundraiser is asking for that specific piece of information. Sometimes it is worth additional research to find the data point or a slightly different piece of information that can be used instead. However, oftentimes more research is being requested because the fundraiser isn’t feeling confident about the ask, and asking more questions about the reason for the research request can lead to a productive discussion about a shift in strategy for the prospect or even just a pep talk for the fundraiser.
“Confidence is king” – I have a firm belief, which some made call jaded, that the research we gather is fundamentally to build the fundraiser’s confidence in picking up the phone to call a donor. I don’t believe that as a single-person prospect research/prospect management/duties-as-assigned shop it is worth my time to put together a bio more than a few sentences long for my fundraisers. For larger campaign asks I would never want to leave anything unturned, but for our day-to-day fundraising prospects, I try to focus research and conversations on a prospect’s giving potential, where we think their interests lie, and where their best fit is at our institution. After these strategy conversations I find my fundraisers to be more confident when soliciting someone, more interested in picking up the phone, and that they make asks more quickly after establishing a relationship. I’m not saying research isn’t important. Data analytics, wealth screenings, and predictive modeling live and die by the information we have procured on our donors; however, for one-off research requests, 99% of the time a fundraiser will learn more about a prospect over their first coffee than they ever will from a bio that took days to put together. I will take a 15-minute strategy conversation over a minimum four-hour research dive any day.
“People think differently, and that’s a good thing” – I should have probably figured this out earlier in life, but working at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston was a big eye-opener for me in this realm. I work with a lot of development colleagues that come from an arts background, and I’ve realized that people with that sort of background think in a completely different way than I do. I have learned that communicating via story format works better for some people than using data points, numbers, and Excel. What I wish I had realized earlier was how my colleagues excel at their jobs because they think differently than I do. Sure, they are almost universally more outgoing, like most fundraisers, but also their creativity enables them to produce stewardship reports so beautiful they could be in any mainstream magazine. They can pull off beautiful programs and bring truly creative solutions to the team strategizing, largely because they do not think in Excel rows and columns or database records. While their non-linear thinking often means they struggle with databases, I wish I had seen how valuable their creativity was to the institution quicker than I did, as it could have saved me some frustration. For those of you also struggling with staff who aren’t comfortable with the database, I highly recommend creating database quizzes and providing practice data entry circumstances (example contact reports, proposals, etc.) after each training session! Doing this has allowed me to gauge whether the training is sticking before I move on to the next training segment. We separate our development-specific training into 3‒4 segments, depending on how comfortable the employee is with databases.
I hope that these thoughts will be helpful for anyone else out there early on in their career!
— Amanda Whiteside, Apra Greater Houston Board Treasurer