by Rhode Warrior Blogger, Mark Noll
Consultants serve a vital function in the world of fundraising. They are seasoned professionals with a wide expanse of knowledge that serve to direct non-profits to the proper course of how best to raise the most funds. From a development perspective, they are an essential piece of a successful campaign. From a Prospect Research perspective, they sometimes offer recommendations that are less than effective.
Now I should preface this by saying I have nothing but the utmost respect for the consultants I have worked with over my 18 years in fundraising. What I do find a bit disconcerting is that there have been occasions where consultants who have never worked in Prospect Research feel they are better positioned on how to a conduct operations than many of us who have been in the field for many years. Fact is most consultants come from the development side of the ledger and as a result their strengths lie in organizing campaigns and raising money.
There are times when a consulting firm will bring along an additional consultant experienced in Prospect Research to perform an analysis of the research department. As a result of their experience and expertise, these consultants can make recommendations that will improve a prospect research operation. Unfortunately, the typical assessment is often solely performed by a development heavy consultant.
All too often during the consultant’s interview process, he or she focuses heavily on development professionals, deans and the like without ever speaking to a member of the Prospect Research staff. This tends to lead to a one-sided view where statements are made that research/data could be better. I would agree to a point since we can always find room for improvement in what we do, but in some cases research/data make for an easy scapegoat for the lack of success in development. Since nobody took the time speak to anyone from research, this becomes a one-sided view of the facts.
Imagine an assessment whereby a consultant evaluates things from a back-office perspective on how well the Development area was performing. I’m sure were that to happen, the results would be flipped on their head.
In such a scenario, the research team would tell the consultant about how Prospect Management is lacking support of the top Development professional or how one DO’s portfolio is cluttered by “tire kickers” rather than prospects. I am sure that there would also be a chorus of how senseless profile requests are bogging down the operation.
The consultant may also find a lack of biographical updates being fed into the database after a DO’s visit or that the contact reports are submitted in a less than timely manner. But this is never the case. Instead, researchers are left out of the conversation and as a result come away with a sense that what we have to offer is irrelevant to the conversation.
Meanwhile, back in the real world…
Eventually, the consultant’s findings and recommendations are delivered. Here is where I often tend to go on the defensive. Prospect Research receives the standard 50,000 foot fly-over assessment delivered on your standard template (Form 186R-3) on how to improve Prospect Research and Management. The Development savvy consultant has borrowed from the best possible models and has expectations that it can easily be implemented at your institution.
The recommendations presented are often the same; you need someone to do Prospect Management and someone to do Data Analytics; you need to go visit, Insert name of most prestigious nearby institution and so on and so forth. There is often that erroneous analogy between a small institution and their lack of a “robust” research office vs. some well-funded, well-staffed institution.
Suggesting we all hop in the car and drive to Harvard to see what they are doing may be about as effective as telling a homeless person to go up to Goldman Sachs and see how they made their way into those jobs.
Fact is, smaller institutions have little in common with the well-established institutions in terms of capabilities. The larger, established institutions are very successful at what they do for reasons that do not necessarily exist in the smaller institution. The smaller institution rarely has the history, bandwidth, funding, staffing, prestige, loyalty or other characteristics to even consider this approach. It’s not that we are unaware of how these larger institutions operate, though many consultants think we are oblivious to such; we simply don’t have the means.
Here’s how it could work better…
A true assessment of a research office needs first to be evaluated by someone with extensive experience in the field. That consultant will take into consideration various factors before making any type of recommendations. These factors include the type of nonprofit involved (Health, Education, Community…) Public vs Private, age of nonprofit, budgets, staffing, annual giving levels, constituency, economic conditions and an entire checklist of factors.
Furthermore, a consultant who is seasoned in the art and science of Prospect Research can determine where the office is in the evolutionary process and where their next steps should be. In this situation, the Prospect Research office comes away with a tangible plan that can be implemented for improvement.
About the Author
Mark Noll is an Advisory Board Member of The Prospect Research Institute and Associate Vice President of Research and Development Services at the University of Rhode island Foundation. A member of AASP as well as APRA, he spends his free time at Starbucks and excels in the art of mediocrity.