Elisa Shoenberger, Benchmarking Analyst, Grenzebach Glier and Associates, and colleagues
I’m having some difficulty with some of the gift officers I’m supposed to support. Some of the gift officers are outsourcing their research to their administrative assistants and secretaries. If it’s a simple bio request, I’m okay with them reaching out to their admins. However if it’s more complicated, like a rating capacity or an analysis of their philanthropic giving, they should be talking to me. When I ask why they are doing this, I’m told that they needed it quickly and couldn’t wait for our research department turnaround time. What do I do? I have skills and tools cultivated for this purpose. It’s true that I do ask for some lead times. How do I explain to them that they should direct these requests to me?
That is a tricky issue. We want to strike a balance between simple searches and the intensive, specialized work we do as researchers. As noted in Dear Analyst 1, we have the challenge of explaining to people that our work is more than just Googling information. We have access to a series of specialized tools that help augment our research, often not available to the public. We can judge data to be reliable or more importantly, know when we don’t know if it is reliable. For instance, we have the judgment to know if we have the right Jane Smith in Omaha, Nebraska or know when our knowledge is going to be limited about her. We compare sources to ensure that our data is good, or as good as we can make it. These are not skills to be taken lightly.
When research is outsourced to other departments, the chances of mistakes or misunderstandings can rise. We have to be careful not to point fingers when mistakes are made (that’s not how you foster healthy and positive relationships with colleagues) but errors can have big consequences for an organization. The last thing we want is a gift officer to have bad information at a prospect meeting! But it’s also important that we as researchers have time to do our work. Many of us work with several gift officers; some of us are sole researchers. Lead times are important to help us with time management so we can produce timely and accurate work. It’s again a tricky balance. So how do we communicate all this to our gift officers?
There’s a couple of ways of handling the situation. It may be worthwhile to listen to gift officers to understand why they feel the need to obtain research help outside of the research department. Hear them out. You can then gently use the opportunity to explain that doing research outside of the research department has an impact on the organization as whole. In other words, there is a duplication of efforts, which ultimately is a waste of resources. Not to mention, that issue of quality control is paramount. Explain how they benefit from your work and the specialized tools and skills to help them obtain the best information about their prospects. This may be tricky and it’s important not to point fingers since that may sour relations between the department and the gift officers.
If timing is an issue, encourage them to reach out to you and explain that you may be able to negotiate when you can get them in their time frame. Do they really need a full profile? Compromise. Explain what you can get them in their time frame. Perhaps a short look at the prospect’s philanthropic giving is what they need to get going. Encourage them to follow up with you for more research after their visit. Of course, it may depend on the research request and situation. You may want to move research on capacity to the top of the queue if the gift officer is going to make an ask.
Another possibility is helping to train gift officers and/or their admins on very straightforward tasks. You can show people how to set up Google alerts on their prospects. Or talk about reliable research methods that aren’t too complicated. You could even review the research quickly for quality control. At one organization, the research and prospect management department had Research 101 to help with the easy asks. You can talk about how to judge data quality and sources and when it’s time to bring in the big guns (ahem... research). However, this will require follow up with individuals to ensure that best practices are maintained but may pay off in the long run in your working relationship with the gift officers and their staff.
Unfortunately, you may not be able to persuade your colleagues to stop asking for research outside of your department. In this case, you may want to document incidents and note any repercussions. Be clear in what steps you took to try to resolve issues that came out of extra-departmental research.
You may want to consider approaching the head of fundraising to explain the issue and how it impacts the organization as a whole. Explain your proposed solutions to ensure that there is buy-in from the top. Explain the possible strategies you’ve come up with to help resolve the issue.
Best of luck!