How Researchers Can Avoid Miscommunication With Development Officers

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Shortly after I started my position as prospect development analyst, I received an email from a development officer with a list of names and IDs. The body of the email was short and to the point: “Please research to see what you can find on the names below. I will be traveling next week.” I was excited to start the project and told my colleague that I would get right on it.

The next afternoon, there was a knock on my cube wall. “How’s that list of names coming along?” I had about half of the list left and replied, “I should have all the profiles to you by lunch tomorrow.”

The response surprised me: “Profiles? Oh, no. I just need updated contact information so I can finish making calls.”

How could I have made such a mistake? The request seemed simple to both of us at the time, but it turns out we had very different understandings of what was being asked.

If you’re a researcher, chances are you’ve experienced a situation similar to this one. Communication between research and development teams can be challenging—but with appropriate processes in place, you can avoid the frustration of missed expectations.

Below I’ll explore the method I use to classify research tasks, which has improved my ability to field requests from colleagues who don’t “think like a researcher.” Then I’ll share how I disseminate my research to the right colleagues at the right time.

My Framework for Handling Research Requests

As a researcher, you know that a “simple” request is neither quick nor simple. There is always a process involved. Initially, I made the false assumption that people understood the nuances behind the idea of “doing research”—which could lead to miscommunication, like in the anecdote I shared above.

This is why I now evaluate research requests in terms of ladder rungs. I categorize different research tasks into three rungs, which helps me gauge the time and effort required for each request. (The higher the task falls on the rung, the longer it takes me to complete.) The method also helps me clarify and explore what my development officers are requesting.

Rung #1: Contact Information
Searching for contact information requires using a few online tools, typically iWave PRO and AlumniFinder. I like to complete these requests when I have a small queue built up, and my standard turnaround time is within one week. The requests don’t take much time individually, but the constant disruption of a small task can compound quickly. Still, I’ve expressed my flexibility to the team and they know I will expedite a search when necessary.

Rung #2: Background Research
Background research can also be valuable for reaching a prospect, so I often conduct this type of research in tandem with finding contact info. At this stage, I’m looking for a prospect’s career information, other affiliations, spouse’s career, known community connections, and possible criminal history. These pieces of data are the foundation of a prospect profile and can help us decide whether or not to pursue a prospect.

Rung #3: Wealth and Capacity Research
Synthesizing wealth and capacity information—and using it to make an informed decision about a prospect—requires critical thinking. Assets and wealth data are not always straightforward to find. Sometimes, the absence of a discernible trail to follow can be your best indication that a prospect is worth pursuing.

Either way, I set aside ample time to search for this type of information and to consider how it affects my assessment of a prospect.

Communicating the Research to Development Officers

Once I’ve completed a research task, my efforts are best realized when I get information into the hands of the development team. How and when I share the data depends on the type of request and the needs of the officer.

For example, development officers submit contact info and background requests to me through an email form. The fastest and most useful way for me to share results is to reply to that initial email with the requested data.

While it’s possible that I find information from rungs #2/3 at the start of my research (usually with alumni who hold executive positions), sharing that knowledge is not the best use of time if the officer has not yet engaged with the prospect. In these cases, I’ll simply convey that a person is a great prospect worth pursuing. That way they can focus on securing a visit—a process that can take months or years.

Only once they’ve connected with a prospect will I communicate those details to help guide their discovery visit. I share information via email or on the constituent’s profile in EverTrue as a comment. EverTrue gives the development officer a more complete view of a prospect without my needing to write a detailed bio.

Typically, I reserve prospect bios for the presentation of high-level prospects to executive audiences. I create the bios by pulling standard information (such as name, giving history, and relationship to our university) into a document, and then I augment this information with my detailed finds on a prospect.

How do you organize your approach to research? Do you have any stories about miscommunication that led to changes in your process? Let me know in the comments below.

Learn how EverTrue can help your research team improve communication with development officers.


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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