Howdy, Partner: Diversifying Your Approach With Frontline Colleagues

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By Eric Rezsnyak, Director of Prospect Management and Research, Northwell Health

Six years ago I was fortunate to segue into the world of prospect research, having previously worked in journalism for…entirely too long. I immediately found development to be engaging, challenging and rewarding, especially prospect research. But in fairly short order I also discovered an interesting dynamic: most of the prospect researchers I encountered had a complicated relationship with many of the frontline gift officers they supported.

The relationships weren’t adversarial, necessarily. But I would often see my prospect research colleagues exasperated, frustrated, dismissive, and even angry at their frontline partners. (Confession: I also experienced those emotions, and not infrequently.) That’s understandable. Anyone who works in this industry knows how hard prospect research and prospect management teams work, with precious little fanfare. And when that work goes seemingly unused? When good prospects and suspects sit there, seemingly without any interaction? When well-considered strategies go nowhere? It can be infuriating.

One thing kept occurring to me: We are all on the same team. We need to remember that. Our work is meaningless without frontline staff who put it to use, and the gift officers would be inefficient without the data and expertise we provide. I genuinely cannot think of a situation in which a gift officer was not following up on my work due to deliberate negligence. What I see more often than not with our frontline colleagues is people who are overwhelmed, trying to please many masters, and frequently feeling like it’s never, ever enough.

So how can prospect research make sure our efforts are being used effectively, and ideally even appreciated? I have found that it helps to keep the frontline staff’s challenges top of mind, and also to figure out what each individual gift officer I support needs from me in terms of our working relationship.

As much as our gift officers need to identify a specific approach for each of their donors and prospects, we need to determine the best strategy for working with our frontline partners. In my experience, I’ve found those strategies tend to fall into four broad categories:

The Cheerleader: I fill this role for gift officers who are hardworking, but harder on themselves. Maybe they have a rough beat, are new to the role or lack confidence. When I’m the cheerleader, I focus on celebrating their successes when they rarely do themselves. I make a point to check in more often than I might with other gift officers, either formally or informally, and focus on the positive. Even a smaller gift is cause for a high five when no gifts came in before. I’ve found these colleagues appreciate knowing they have someone in their corner.

The Therapist: I find myself filling this role for gift officers who have been in an institution or a position for a while, and may be feeling burnout or beaten down by the grind. I give them the space and freedom to vent about the stresses of working with donors, faculty and managers, and I make sure not to feed into the negativity by adding to it. (If you do this, it is important to not weaponize what they tell you – they are confiding in you, and you should respect that trust.) Sometimes it helps people to know they’re being heard. Instead of trying to fix their problems — which is not my job, responsibility or privilege — I try to offer opportunities to succeed from a prospect research/management perspective. We can’t take away the stresses of their lives or jobs, but we can try to point out paths for success.

The Buddy: This is my default mode with most gift officers. The work is always kept professional, but I like my gift officers to know they can come by my office, grab a piece of candy (I cannot stress enough the importance of a well-stocked candy bowl for forging good relationships), and briefly shoot the breeze on the pop culture topic of the day.

"Mean Mommy": This one is tricky, but arguably the most important. The gift officers who require this approach tend to know they need this kind of approach. They are well meaning but disorganized, or overwhelmed. They know they need someone to keep on top of them and make sure they enter content into the database, reach out to their suspects and pick up their room (I’m joking on that last part, but you get the drift). I have found this approach is more effective coming from a colleague than a supervisor. I give them clear expectations of how to succeed from the prospect research team’s perspective (typically by meeting clearly defined metrics or other activity goals) and hold them accountable in a firm, but not authoritative manner. Ultimately these people don’t report to us. However, I have found on numerous occasions that frontline staff appreciate having some form of accountability. If you can provide that in a way that’s measured but supportive, they tend to be grateful.

In my experience, the overall outcome of these approaches has resulted in greater buy-in from the frontline staff in whatever prospect research initiatives we are focusing on. The gift officers look at their researcher as part of their team and have a greater sense of responsibility to follow up on prospects that have been identified. They also tend to more seriously consider strategic input, and sometimes even seek it out.

Most prospect researchers tend to be introverts, so this kind of interpersonal outreach might seem out of character. Others might think it’s not their job to tailor their approach in such a way — the frontline staff should do their jobs and use prospect research’s work regardless. But this industry is about relationships. It’s about building bonds in order to achieve mutually beneficial goals. For the gift officers and prospects, that’s ideally a major gift to support institutional goals. For researchers and gift officers, that can be a more efficient and fulfilling working relationship. It might sound transactional, but I sincerely believe in this approach.

Ultimately, it never hurts to have a better understanding of the challenges that our frontline partners are experiencing. We are all in this together.

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