Thursday, June 13, 2013

Donor Health Checks for the Small Office

Today, we are thrilled to host our very first guest blogger, Jen Filla, from Aspire Research Group, LLC!  We’ve been big fans of Jen for some time, and are just delighted she would spend a little time and share a little wisdom over here on the APRA MidSouth blog.  Today, she’s bringing some great advice for our smaller shops, though larger shops will definitely gain a little insight too.  Enjoy!

How healthy is your donor database? Especially if you are a prospect researcher in a small fundraising office, this critical question could be going unasked!

I’ve seen various products over the past few years offering different approaches to providing a health check on the donor database, but when I am faced with the small fundraising office the one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t fit well. Small offices can operate with wildly different approaches to fundraising and data, which might be shaped by staff turnover, fundraiser skill levels, and leadership interest.

The good news for the small office prospect researcher is that you have the opportunity to be methodical and use your research skills, and have the potential to provide some meaningful fundraising leadership.

Recently I worked with a client that had three fundraising staff. The fundraising VP had a strong background in planned giving, the gift officer had a strong background in corporate and foundation fundraising and they had a database manager - a lot of great skill sets jumping in to awaken what had been a dormant fundraising program. They were keen to acquire new donors and had the opportunity to piggyback on their marketing department and rent lists. The first acquisition mailing had a response rate of 2%. Above average!

When we first met I was sure I would be helping them source new major and planned gift prospects. But I suggested that they let me start by taking a look at who was in the donor database and once we knew what the donors looked like we could decide on a specific course of action. I asked the data a lot of questions. Many of the answers provided information they already knew anecdotally. But one question provided a shocking answer. Where were those donors from the first acquisition mailing - now? It turned out that in year three only 14% were still giving. Ouch.

How does something like that happen? These were skilled, very experienced fundraisers and yet they were counting their hard-won new donors without measuring for retention. It happens because in a small office there is SO MUCH to record, count, measure and DO. And that is also the challenge for the small office prospect researcher. You have to manage your time well, choose rewarding lines of inquiry, and pay as much attention to general fundraising education as you do to prospect research skills.

Although the opportunity to sit at the leadership table is real for prospect researchers, to be successful we have to be prepared. What are the priorities for fundraising? Are there specific goals? Start your donor health check by asking questions about what’s important to your leadership. Be sure to document your questions, what you think the answers will be, and the process you took to answer the questions. Because when you present your findings, you will be asked many more questions and may have to go back and re-work your process to eliminate things like bequests or other outliers that distort your results.

Keep in mind that I’m not talking about analytics here. Not really. I’m talking about asking intelligent questions you can answer through database reporting or an export to Excel for manipulation. There’s no shame in doing simple analysis. The shame is in not doing anything.

For example, my client put envelopes in almost all their mailings and donors gave in different envelopes across the year. This made it pointless to measure how each of their two appeals did year after year - those donors might decide to give in a different envelope any given year. Trying to apply some of the best practices from larger institutions to a small fundraising office can be frustrating and ineffective. Many of our organizations are not operating like big fundraising offices and that’s perfectly alright. We can still be great prospect researchers and create method out of mayhem, sending gift amounts ever higher!

Once you have results from your line of questioning that leadership is ready to act upon, more than likely you will get to participate in the discussion about how to tweak or change the fundraising messaging to drive more giving. After all, you have all those donor and fundraising studies read and carefully labeled in a binder on your bookshelf, right? Of course you do.

And you want to be there at the end of that conversation so you can help shape what will be tracked and measured. Knowing that we can control our behaviors, but we can’t control whether someone will make a gift, encourage tracking your team’s behaviors alongside the gifts.

If you want to start asking your data questions, but aren’t sure where to begin, I created a worksheet to get you started. Click here for the PDF.

But I know many of you already have GREAT stories about asking smart questions and translating the data into answers that can be acted upon by fundraising leadership (like you, 5/29/13 blogger Amanda Madonia!). Please SHARE your story by commenting. Thank you!

Jennifer Filla, president of Aspire Research Group LLC. Jen combines her research and fundraising experience to assist organizations across the country that are concerned about finding the right prospects, worried about what size gift to ask for, or struggling to meet major gift goals. She is co-author with Helen Brown of the book, Prospect Research for Fundraisers: The Essential Guide.

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