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The Busy Prospect Researcher – Part 1: Overview of Time Management

Are you a busy prospect researcher? Me, too. A few years ago, I got an email from a colleague who was new to the profession. In it, she asked me, “how do you get everything done and still leave the office by 6:30 at night?”  I don’t think I have ever stayed until 6:30 p.m. to get projects done. Occasionally I have worked through lunch or stayed a little bit late if there was a big project with an immediate deadline, but for the most part I continue on a project the next day.

In a Nutshell

This is Part 1 of a multiweek series, where Meredith Hancks kicks off the series with her brief, preliminary discussion of time management issues in prospect research and prospect management. Over the next several weeks, Dr. Hancks, the author of several books on prospect research published by CharityChannel Press, will go into more detail about actually building schedules to fit in all of the different parts that make up the to-do list when you’ve got duties in prospect research, prospect management, and analytics. We invite you to post your thoughts triggered by this article in the Comment box below.

Overview of Time Management for the Busy Prospect Researcher

Of course, every shop will be different and the organizational culture has a lot to do with when you need to get things finished and how late you work, or how early you arrive at work, but her question got me thinking about how we manage our time in prospect research or prospect management.

Time management will be especially important if you’re the sole person in your shop and you provide research support to several people, or if you have responsibilities for research, management, analytics, reporting, and whatnot. So over the next few weeks, I am going to address some of the ways we can structure our time to get done what needs to be accomplished, and still have time to be with our families and do things that are important to our personal lives.

If you’re a one-person shop like I am, you likely find yourself with a whole host of duties related to research, management, and analytics. Each of these activities could be a full time job (or several, depending on your constituent base) but sometimes you just don’t have resources for that. I spent some time brainstorming the various activities I do on a regular basis and I imagine that other small shops will face most of these as well, so I plan to come up with some ideas and suggestions for staying on top of them. In the following three parts of this article that will be posted over the next several weeks, I will spend some time focusing on balancing time between proactive and reactive research, predictive and summative analytics, quick projects and long-term projects, and all of your work duties with professional associations, committees and professional development opportunities.

Before we delve too deeply into the actual tasks, though, here are a few questions I came up with that relate to our ability to get things done when they need to be done.

  • Do I have a priority list for requests I get (for example: does the President/CEO get priority over any other project?
  • Are things that get turned in with a quick turnaround time moved up the list over things that have been waiting for a while?
  • When do I reach the point of “good enough” when following a trail of information? Is there a good point to stop and leave it, with the ability to come back later if more information is located?

In most cases, it’s probably a good idea to have a priority list for requests, and to make sure that your colleagues know what that list is. I don’t mean, of course, that Colleague A becomes more important than Colleague B. What I mean is that you make sure everyone knows to ask for enough lead-time in their requests so that if you have to bump something out a couple of hours, or days, or even weeks because the CEO or President has a request that requires your full attention and is time-sensitive, that they can still get the information they need in a good amount of time.

Sometimes, it makes sense to do projects that have a quick turnaround before working on projects that have already been waiting a while. How much sense this makes will depend on how your shop works and what the projects are, but it’s always good to remember that having tasks hanging over your head tends to weigh you down, whereas checking things off the list gives you a boost of energy. In those cases, you might be able to build up some adrenaline and positive energy by dropping a few quick projects into your day, or starting the day with them so you can get an energy boost to tackle the bigger things that have been weighing on your mind for a while.

Finally, setting a time whenever possible that will be a “good enough” time for a project is a good idea. In some cases, it’s hard or impossible to stop until you arrive at a complete, perfect, accurate solution. But in the situations where that’s not the case, you need to set some limits for yourself regarding a good enough outcome. I’ll talk more about this in a future part of this series, but wanted to mention it here because in the field of prospect research, there really is no end to the data you could find if you kept looking, so you simply must remember to set limits.

Factors Affecting Time Management

There are several factors that affect whether we get everything done when it needs to get done, or whether we consistently find ourselves struggling to keep up with the to-do list. Some of them are within our control, and others are not.

  • Data Quality
  • Number of other projects to do
  • Ease or difficulty of finding data

Let’s look first at data quality and how it can affect our management of time. If you think your data is “good” then you will probably schedule a reasonable amount of time for the project, whereas if you think your data isn’t very clean, you will schedule a larger amount of time. This is actually not where the challenges are -if you know you have clean data or know you have unclean data, you can work that into your schedule accordingly. The problem is when you think you have clean, usable data but it turns into a big mess. In these situations, I will look at the other projects I have going on that week and see what can be moved out a few days, or look more closely at the messy one and figure out whether it needs to be done immediately or can wait until we have more time to actually figure out the problems with the data.

When there are several projects on the list, it can become easy to get distracted and jump from one thing to another or try to multitask, which often makes each of the projects take longer than it would otherwise. Sometimes it’s good to get a little bit distracted -I’ll talk more about that in a later post-, but other times a distraction is just a distraction. So especially when there are a multitude of projects to do, it’s a good idea to make a list of them all, and then tackle them one at a time. A good way to organize the project list might be to have a few sections of the to-do list, one for really quick tasks, one for tasks that take a dedicated amount of time but can be done in parts, those that require full attention for a half-day or more, and those that are ongoing for a long period of time.

The ease or difficulty of finding data can really put a wrench into an otherwise streamlined time-management routine. When I’m doing some discovery research on a prospect about whom we know nothing, I typically spend about two hours on the task. My schedule will fit several of these two-hour time blocks in it so I can make good progress on these requests. However, if I’m not finding anything, I will want to keep looking to see if we can find anything about the prospects before I move on -especially if the person requesting the research gave us some information to go on. On the opposite end of the spectrum, for some people there is so much data that even preliminary discovery research could easily take much longer than two hours to work through. I still try to limit it to a few hours, though, for discovery. If it turns out that a prospect will take a lot longer to research, it might be worth it to give a quick preview to the person who requested it, and then add a second research task to your to-do list so you make sure to give it the amount of time it requires without something else getting pushed out.

Well, there you have my brief, preliminary discussion of time management issues in prospect research and prospect management. Over the next several weeks, I will go into more detail about actually building schedules to fit in all of the different parts that make up the to-do list when you’ve got duties in prospect research, prospect management, and analytics. There are ways to balance it all and get done what you need to get done. Ready for Part 2? I’ll talk more about how to organize your time for different types of research and analytics.

Meredith Hancks

About the Contributor: Meredith Hancks

Meredith Hancks, EdD is the director of Prospect Research and Management for Western Illinois University in Macomb, where she’s been employed since 2007. Prior to her research career, she worked in annual giving at private liberal arts colleges in Minneapolis and Chicago. The part of this profession she enjoys most is the search for information and the subsequent ability to help frontline fundraisers be more successful in their work.
As a member of CharityChannel, she has contributed several book reviews as a We Review panelist, authored the following books for the In The Trenches series:
Have you recently joined a new organization or found yourself with a new set of duties that include prospect research? Do you believe in the power of data to make informed decisions to help your organization raise more money? Do you want to participate as a valuable member of the fundraising team? In Getting Started in Prospect Research: What You Need to Know to Find Who You Need to Find, Meredith shows you how to:

Set up your own research shop.
Conduct capacity and interest research.
Uncover hidden gems in your database.
Identify great new prospects.
Create a list of your favorite sources for various types of data.
Build relationships with fundraisers.
Determine when to go it alone and when to bring in the experts.

Fundraising Research Made Easy: A Practical Guide for Fundraisers for those who do frontline fundraising but do not have dedicated researchers or other support staff to find information they need about prospective donors. Most often, the entire development staff is composed of just a handful of people or sometimes even one person who wears all the hats. Meredith, who coauthored this book with Cara Rosson, helps you find a way to make research a routine part of your fundraising process. You will experience greater success in your fundraising when you learn more about your prospects and how to be strategic in building relationships with them.
Prospect Research is a Verb: Fundraising is the Subject is a prospect research manual that’s down-to-earth, easy-to-follow, and even fun to read. Meredith and coauthor Cara Rosson divide the manual into four Parts, each dealing with a specific aspect of project research. They make innovative use of the old-fashioned gift pyramid to provide a surprisingly helpful visual aid for examining the levels of research required for different types of prospects. Throughout, the authors offer helpful and interesting sidebars, and take the time to give you specifics.
She has a fourth book coming soon, also to be published by CharityChannel Press: Diving Into Research: Populating Your Prospect Pool.
Meredith currently serves as chair of the Best Practices in Prospect Development Subcommittee for the Association of Advancement Services Professionals. This team of professionals is committed to identifying and articulating best practices in all areas of prospect research and prospect management, using many of the principles included in this book. Meredith recently completed her term as Vice President of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA)-Illinois Chapter.
Outside of work, Meredith just completed her EdD in higher education administration at the University of Minnesota. She and her husband have twin sons who keep them endlessly entertained and provide a wellspring of joy. They are expecting their third child this spring. Her favorite quote comes from Henry David Thoreau:

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. —Henry David Thoreau

Thus far, Meredith has experienced that to be true.

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