By Melissa Collins, Associate Director of Advancement at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Prospect Research. Wait. What?
For the past 13 years, I have worked in the development offices of two impressive regional theaters in Chicago. Despite a devastating recession, the theater community has sustained a hugely devoted pool of patrons, donors and board members many of them are involved at other cultural institutions all over the city. And the pool grows every year. As the theaters’ development departments grow to meet the need of the growing patron pool our solicitation processes need to grow and evolve.
We face a few challenges in prospect research in theaters. Like many smaller shops, we simply cannot hire a dedicated researcher and must rely on our volunteers, theater leadership, gift officers and support staff to do the leg work. Can you feel the burn out? To make matters more challenging, many important and interesting tid-bits about prospects tend to live in one person’s head. We are forced to be an army of one in research and everyone is in it for themselves.
Lucky for me, Chicago Shakespeare Theater has an incredibly talented advancement team. We are surrounded by supportive leadership who encourage ingenuity and collaboration amongst staff, peers and our networks. We are also fortunate to be on the Tessitura CRM database with a relatively new development function called “Plans” which has proved helpful for prospect management. As our theater watches the number of donors and prospects grow at high volume in a short amount of time, we had to take a pause to dig deeper and make sure we were finding the right information about the right people.
Hey there, APRA-IL BSW.
So, I took stock of our human resources. Our solicitation team simply did not have the time to do meaningful prospect research and analytics. That meant I needed to take on a bigger role in research, managing their prospects and the overall analytics. After a recommendation from Campbell & Company, I attended the annual APRA-IL conference which is where I learned more about the organization as a whole and, as if the skies had opened up above me, all the resources which were available to me came pouring down! If it weren’t for APRA-IL, now lead by Kate Ingrao, who by the way recruited me to volunteer for the programming committee (thank you, Kate) I would never have learned about the Basic Skills Workshop (BSW).
Last month at the BSW, Lindsey Humphrey and Karla Davis successfully guided 30-ish new and not-so-new researchers through the basics in profile searches and how to build our own event brief using the workbook written by Jennifer Filla, “Introduction to Prospect Profiles.” We walked away with invaluable lessons and techniques from Humphrey and Davis such as streamlining profile templates. Chicago Shakespeare Theater now has three templates we all use: Solicitation Profiles, Event Briefs and Briefings/Call Sheets all of which I eagerly implemented the Monday following the BSW.
I have with a whole new library of resources and tips and strategies for the “deep research,” too. By the way, have you signed up for PRSPCT_L listserve yet? No? Do it. Now. While not everything pertains to the work I am doing in the moment, the questions are almost as helpful as the answers.
Part of the BSW revolved around ethics with the help of panelist discussions from Heather Ruggio, Kirstin Leiby and Grace Vigilante. I am only beginning to understand the complexity and sensitivity of ethics surrounding prospect research. Currently, the Advancement team at Chicago Shakespeare Theater takes great care in who is seeing our event profiles and how we disseminate the information to our volunteers and leadership.
Prospect Research, Theater…and Hockey.
Given the timing here in Chicago as the Blackhawks play for the Stanley Cup, it only seemed appropriate to look at the future of prospect research in the theater community through a hockey lens. A quote from Wayne Gretzy sums it up pretty succinctly, “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” As one of the leading cultural institutions in the city of Chicago, it is in our best interest to take into consideration the value and need for prospect research and for that matter, the management of prospects and data analytics. We are growing at a rapid rate. Being thoughtful about who we approach, when, and how will only grow and enhance our institution in a strategic way. I’m excited to continue to implement all that I learned at the BSW into the daily routine at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and I look forward to learning more at the October APRA-IL Fall conference.
Photo credit: Brian