A Data Management Tool Kit for the One-Person Research Shop

As the only prospect researcher in my office, I wear a lot of hats.

While I spend the majority of my time providing research support for the three departments in our advancement office, that isn’t the only thing I do. I’ve been bestowed the great honor of “Assignment Czar,” functioning as the final authority on assignments of prospects to development staff. I also serve as liaison and integration lead for two software products used in our office.

If you’re in a position similar to mine, you know that being a research team of one isn’t easy. Dealing effectively with data sources (both internal and external) is crucial to staying on top of projects.

In this post I’ll share the key components of the “data management tool kit” I’ve developed to help me work efficiently and achieve better results as the only researcher in my office.

But first, I’d like to share the story of how I wound up in prospect research—one that enables me to geek out on a daily basis, to walk into work every morning with a renewed sense of curiosity, and to always be searching for the next great prospect.

From Planned Giving, to Sales, to Prospect Research

My journey toward research started just over three years ago, and I had no idea at the time. (To be honest, I had no idea what I wanted to do in my career, period.)

In 2014, I left my original position in planned giving at Concordia University, St. Paul to pursue a sales position at a small, private company. Although the job didn’t end up being a fit, I was able to develop skills like portfolio management and prospecting that would ease my eventual transition to research.

A year later I rejoined the advancement staff at Concordia in as an advancement associate. Part of the job required using research tools, writing prospect bios for executive level briefings, and thinking critically as I reported my findings. I had the opportunity to attend training sessions and workshops, which further fostered my interest in prospect research.

Then, in 2016, I decided to commit myself to prospect research full time. I accepted an offer to become Concordia’s prospect development analyst.

My Data Management Tool Kit

When I stepped in to fill Concordia’s vacant research position, the greatest opportunity in my new role was—and still is—questioning the status quo.

That’s not to say I’m in favor of changing for the sake of change. Breaking the institutional inertia of “this is how we’ve always done it” is incredibly challenging, and it’s important to consider the benefits and costs of any change.

Fortunately, our leadership team has been flexible if there is demonstrated value in making a change. In order to be effective as a research team of one, I made some small but important alterations to our processes and tools to form my data management tool kit.

1. An Online Request Form

When I first started my role, I was receiving in-person, handwritten, and email requests—all of which included different levels of information. I quickly learned that I needed to create a system to control how requests came to me.

After finding and updating an online form that our office had used years ago, I sent an email to the appropriate staff with a link and asked them to start using the form. It asks for the requestor’s name in addition to the prospect’s name, address, connection, and capacity rating (if known). These fields best communicate what the development officers already know and help me jumpstart my research.

Now, each time I receive a request for contact information or a detailed prospect bio, I get an email that automatically filters into my “requests” inbox queue. This keeps my inbox clean and ensures that I don’t accidentally overlook a request.

2. Research Software

A small staff equals a small budget. I needed to find cost-effective tools that would give me broad access to information and provide the most utility to our office. So, I discarded our subscription to ResearchPoint and began to evaluate other platforms that would better fill our needs.

Because our wealth information was woefully out of date and we lacked philanthropic data, I subscribed to iWave PRO. It’s a robust prospect “search engine” that allows me to access several databases at one time and perform wealth screenings on a portion of our database.

We also wanted a way to measure engagement beyond event attendance and to increase prospect identification. We subscribed to EverTrue, which merges our existing database with social media insights, up-to-date career information, and a host of other data points onto one platform—saving me time and enriching my research.

Click here to learn how I use EverTrue to find prospects and help plan trips for gift officers.

3. Gift Reporting

As a new researcher, daily gift reports became a staple of my morning inbox. I made it a habit to review those reports and try to identify patterns in donor behavior that merited further investigation.

While this approach did help me uncover some quality prospects, I suspected there had to be a more efficient way to do it. With the help of a skilled coworker, we built an automated report that does the pattern recognition for me. The day after any gift entry, I receive a report that highlights the following subsets of donors: those who have increased their fiscal year giving, increased their gift counts in the current fiscal year over last year, given consecutively over the last five fiscal years, or are new donors.

These reports are easy to scan and help me assess whether a prospect warrants further inquiry.

4. My Coworkers

The final component in my tool kit is coworkers. They’re already here with me, each with a special skill set to complement my own. Using them as a resource has helped me answer tough questions and innovate on our processes because they think differently than I do.

Case in point: I recently worked with our advancement systems and reporting coordinator to test the validity of the codes we use to categorize our constituents.

While I was focused on capturing as much information as possible in our database, she was focused on simplifying data entry. We challenged each other’s assumptions and logic to ensure the system would accommodate all of our needs.

Over a three-month period, we worked together to design and propose a new system that reduced our codes from 35 to 13. Now, documenting engagement is simpler for staff and we can see a more complete picture of our constituency over time.

These are just a few highlights from the past year of settling into my research role. Are you also a one-person research shop? What makes up your data management tool kit? Let me know in the comments below.

Ryan Marshall is the prospect development analyst at Concordia University, St. Paul, where he is responsible for prospect research and prospect management. He spends his free time working with his family on their small hobby farm. You can connect with Ryan via LinkedIn.

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