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Are fundraising researchers our next sector leaders?

by Jason Briggs | Jul 2, 2019 | Fundraising

Prospect Research is now one of the fastest growing professions in fundraising. It grew from traditional desk based research, such as profiling potential donors and their gift potential, to prospect management, the process of monitoring a fundraising pipeline, and now sophisticated data analytics and due diligence.

The profession came under public scrutiny in 2016 when the ICO fined a number of big named charities for conducting ‘wealth screenings’ without being transparent enough. This tackle was played out under the shadow of GDPR’s arrival, which served to harden the ICOs stance – appearing at one point that prospect research might be snuffed out of existence forever!

This forced the sector as a whole to reflect deeply on the value that prospect research brings. In 2017 we saw a flurry of reactionary studies commissioned by the Institute of Fundraising that aimed to rescue prospect research from the ICOs unwittingly lethal misconceptions. Thankfully the mission was successful, and the necessity and legality of research practices was publically confirmed.

A welcome by-product of this exchange was that it served to highlight anew the value research professionals themselves bring to charities. Amanda Bringans, Director of Fundraising at The British Heart Foundation, during a Plenary at the Researchers in Fundraising Conference 2017, shared how GDPR and the ICOs dealings brought to her attention the researchers in her organisation like never before as, ‘unsung heroes’.

Yet despite the recent attention, it is demonstrably true that researchers do not share the limelight that other fundraising professionals do. Research based talks rarely if ever appear at the top fundraising conferences such as CASE Europe or IOF’s Fundraising Convention. Indeed, at IOF’s Fundraising Convention 2018, a three-day conference positioned to cover all aspects of fundraising, only 1 session related to the research sector, out of 90! Further, the National Fundraising Awards have no award related to the research profession but there are for Individual Giving, Events, Digital, Legacy, Donor Experience and more. Of course, there are specialist conferences that research professionals can frequent, yet there are for all of the above too.

Not only do researchers miss out on the limelight in this way but more intriguingly research is historically not a career path that leads to becoming a Head of or Director of Fundraising. Why? Is it because the profession is seen as young and has not yet asserted itself fully? Is it because researchers do not like to be ‘front and centre’? Or is it because researchers are not actually considered fundraisers? If you were to ask a researcher why, the latter is the likely answer they will give – a frequent rejoinder they incredulously recount.

The idea of researchers becoming Directors of Fundraising may raise all kinds of interesting questions about fundraising leadership. Should you have made any kind of funding ask to be a Head or Director of Fundraising? Can one lead a ‘face-to-face’ fundraising team if their predominant background is desk based? Can one know fundraising simply through monitoring it? Put simply, can researchers make good fundraising leaders and are we missing a trick by not readily considering them?

To answer this question we might first allow ourselves to agree on three basic qualities of a fundraising leader ought, at the very least, to embody; 1), sound interpersonal skills, 2), good decision-making and 3), a comprehensive understanding of fundraising.

When considering the first, Chris Carnie, one of the original prospect researchers in the UK who founded Researchers in Fundraising SIG over 25 years ago, and Founding Director of Factary, shared, ‘With permission to generalise, there is this stereotype of the researcher being a recluse, with thick glasses and a sharpened pencil.’ The notion here was that researchers are not traditionally considered to represent the interpersonal skills required for leadership, and this can hold back their professional growth. Chris goes on, ‘However, there is no evidence for this. In fact researchers have to be incredibly socially adept. Part of their role is to monitor pipelines and ‘sell’ prospects to fundraising teams, they have to do an awful lot of negotiating and pitching.’

In terms of the second, good decision-making, researchers are trained in data-led decision making – to prioritise information over intuition. Presumably, this can’t be a bad thing. When one looks at specific examples of how data-led strategies have benefited fundraising performance one repeatedly encounters some impressive stats. For example, The University of Bristol’s regular giving program jumped from £96,000 to £380,000 in one year when a data analytics program began for the first time. The income went on to go up steadily year after year through repeated data analysis until it now brings in circa £1m annually (University of Bristol, Presentation on Analytics, CASE Europe, Brussels, 2016). One would assume therefore that a researcher in a leadership position is able to utilize their training in this area, seeking and making sound decisions upon the information available.

Lastly, a comprehensive understanding of fundraising, may unexpectedly be the researchers strongest USP. Under inspection, the researchers role is to build, feed and closely monitor fundraising pipelines – from Trust & Foundations, regular giving, major giving, legacy and more. Within this, they report on & design KPI’s whilst researching individual & organisational philanthropic inclinations in depth. They even monitor individual fundraiser portfolios and encounter again and again which ask strategies are working and which are not. They put together sophisticated analytics that predict who will give, and map professional networks across vast seas of prospects. They also know where to find critical information, from the spooky to the most technical. The researcher role therefore, affords a unique and in-depth overview of fundraising like no other role in the sector! Contrast this experience with a fundraiser who may have worked their way up to Director level via one or two channels of fundraising alone, such as corporate or major giving. Who might be better prepared to now guide and manage all the other different channels newly reporting into them?

The burning criticism, which may be levied against the ‘researcher-leader’, is obvious but potent – that one cannot learn nor replace the intuition learned over years of actual face-to-face fundraising. For example, it is easy to understand how a successful major gift fundraiser may build an intuitive knowledge of who is ready to give and who is not. They may be able to read the subtle cues of a social occasion or the odd turn of phrase in an email that only their years of on-the-ground experience can provide. If that intuition were lost to senior management, it may mean that frontline fundraisers will not receive the one on one guidance they need from their leader to excel.

Whatever we think about the power of intuition in fundraising leadership, the point here is that the leader ought to be able to give sound one-to-one advice and support. Interestingly, Josh Birkholz, a world leading fundraising analyst at BWF may have something to add here. He recently studied masses of data on successful fundraisers to see what common features they shared. He found that,

‘The top 20% of producers [frontline fundraisers] worked with prospect development [researchers] twice as often as all other officers.’ – ‘Redefining Fundraising Metrics’, Researchers in Fundraising Conference 2017

Whatever council or support these researchers were providing it was clearly benefiting the fundraisers.

To summarise, this exploration was not to do down the traditional routes to leadership positions but to provoke the idea that researchers ought to be more readily considered as viable candidates too. Perhaps it’s time to look past the need of leadership candidates to have ‘direct experience’ of bringing in substantial funds themselves but to look at their overall ‘handle’ on the ‘fundraising machine’. Given the incredible increase in fundraising success provided by researchers so far, the sector could be missing a trick by not doing so. Whatever our true feeling about this, a gentle shift is occurring as there exists a very small minority of institutions ready to embrace researchers as their next leaders. The real test will be seeing how this new breed of leaders perform!

Jason Briggs is Consulting Fellow for Halpin – management consultants for higher education fundraising, governance, strategy and marketing.

This article was first published in Civil Society in a magazine circulated to all Institute of Fundraising members.