International prospect research is commonly considered high risk in the sense that it often fails to bring satisfying results and takes considerably more resources. Therefore, there is extra emphasis for research managers to plan international prospecting carefully to mitigate these risks. It was in this spirit that the Research Team at The University of Sheffield embarked on creating our Philanthropy For Us Insight Report, which went on to win an Insight in Fundraising Award 2016.
Since then we have had some good results from our international research and I have been asked a number of times about how we do our research. Therefore, I took some time to write what I think are ten key steps that capture our approach towards international research and, in many ways, our research practices in general. Of course, these may not work for everyone, but I hope only to offer some useful thoughts.
Step 1: Decide for yourself
At Sheffield, our international research was very ad hoc, moving from one vast country to another, usually directed by the changing winds of senior intuition. This experience was very unfulfilling, because it is like hoping to unearth water by digging lots of shallow holes. International research is often like this because senior management have not yet decided which countries are a priority. This is not a criticism, as the subject is so vast it’s hard to know where to start or have the time to investigate.
What researchers need however, is a decision to be made which will allow them to ‘dig’ in one place long enough to hit the reservoirs. Traditionally prospect research has been seen as ‘back office’ and ‘lower down’ in the decision-making food-chain – a passive compiler of information. Because of this, we are often habituated in waiting for direction from senior management.
However, I would argue that it is actually our job to facilitate that direction. We generally have access to resources and analytical methods that senior management do not, and are thus well placed to make decisions on research priority, which in this case translates to fundraising priority. As the profession has proven itself over the years, we can feel self-confidence to step forward, take the initiative, and put together proper insight reports recommending international priorities ourselves.
Step 2: Be thorough
The process leading to prioritisation has to be thorough. If yours is a department where international fundraising has been historically ad hoc, then there’s no use in contrasting intuition with intuition. Real data has to be sought, external and internal. It has to be a good enough examination to facilitate team decisions that are near final, or risk reallocation yet again. People have to trust the findings and therefore the decisions made from it.
Step 3: Seek permission but be inclusive
To continue the analogy, you need permission to dig. If newly decided priorities created from Step 1 are pursued without senior backing, then there’s clearly the risk that senior management will say, ‘you’re not allowed to dig there’, or ‘we want you to dig over here instead.’ We would then be back where we started, digging lots of shallow unfulfilling holes.
Therefore, with your new prioritisations, seek agreement (and budget if needed) by your senior management team, but don’t stop there! We’ve all been in a situation where decisions are made ‘behind closed doors’ and trickle down to your work without consultation. It doesn’t feel nice. So also seek agreement from fundraisers who will actually be flying out doing the work. If this step is not done, someone down the line may fairly say, ‘well, I never agreed to fundraise here anyway’. Then there’s a morale issue, and all the research could be in vain.
Therefore, facilitate a period of genuine inclusive debate about the prioritisations you’re recommending. We presented our findings to our Senior Management Team and were clear that these were only suggestions and that we were open to change – and we did make changes! This step was so important because now there is a true sense of ownership over the prioritisations, reducing the risk of reallocation dramatically. This step cannot be underestimated, so it’s wise to seek it, even if it takes time.
Step 4: Don’t try to be omniscient
The main trouble any research team faces with international research is trying to understand information in another language and culture. For me, this never felt worth trying. Sure, for countries similar to your own you can have success but for other countries where there is a complete linguistic and cultural gulf, like say China or the UAE, what use is there in really trying? It takes long enough to become proficient in home country research, so it will take far longer to become proficient in alien lands – if ever! For me, this is precisely why international prospecting is high risk because we attempt to comprehend a place we simply know nothing about.
But who can fill this knowledge gap? Lovely international students! For just over £3,000 a year (the same cost as most resource subscriptions) you can recruit a student to work one day a week, who knows the language and culture you’re trying to infiltrate. For example, at Sheffield we concluded that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was a priority country for us, and swiftly recruited a PhD student who could speak Arabic and has experience of the UAE. It is incredible to see the difference in research results when someone knows the language and culture.
Step 5: Establish consistency
When researching lots of diverse cultures it is worth trying to minimise the way this diversity manifests in top level reporting. For example, most research teams use a formula to calculate a prospect’s giving capacity. Some may argue that different formulas are required for each country to reflect different philanthropic attitudes. We feel this approach will cause confusion, as it does not consider how research will be practically used by senior management. We cannot guarantee that everyone will remember each formula for each country and why this differs, thus incorrect comparisons could be made. With that in mind, we keep our giving capacity formula the same for international prospects. Likelihood is factored in later in gift tables or analytics projects.
Other steps we take to keep consistency are as follows:
- Agree to translate key information into our home language, i.e. don’t just upload articles in another language, translate key paragraphs;
- Agree a system to translate names that have differing rules like in Chinese or Arabic; and
- Convert all gift capacities into our home currency.
Step 6: Aim for volume and set Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
Good research to me is about data-led volume. To dig for reservoirs you need to remove an awful lot of soil. In the same way, to get to real major prospects you’ve got to research a lot of minor ones. As such, we use two methods to keep up volume. Firstly, we will have 2-3 researchers working a percentage of their time on an international project, and secondly, we set informed KPIs.
At Sheffield, we record all our research, which allows us to accurately estimate how long it takes to research an average gift capacity. For international prospects it’s about 30-35 minutes per name. This means one international researcher can get through about 14 names in one day. Understanding this, we set achievable KPIs for our international researchers to qualify 12 names each working day.
Setting KPIs like this helps a research project to keep pace and achieve volume. KPIs can also provide a level of psychological satisfaction for the researcher when they are achieved. Equally, it allows the identification of training needs if KPIs are considerably under-achieved. Either way, it instils healthy expectations on an otherwise ethereal profession.
Step 7: Record everything!
This point cannot be overstated. Record everything! For every prospect researched, we record which researcher researched the prospect and for which project. For example, for our UAE prospects we note, ‘Research Source = [Project/Query Name]’.
This simple step is probably one of the most powerful things we do. It allows us to inform KPIs as above, predict project end dates, and assess how successful each international project is. If one project/query is not working well, we can divert time to focus on those that show promise, getting better research results overall. In the long term we can also demonstrate how many philanthropic funds were donated as a result of those found in each project.
This obsessive recording is why we have been successful in securing healthy funding for our team – especially for additional resources like international students – because we can estimate accurately how long each project will take and demonstrate our impact. Departmental budgets seem more forthcoming when you can prove that you won’t need that budget indefinitely.
Step 8: Always set a review date
In a similar vein, if there is not a finite list to research, setting a review date can be a healthy thing to do. It creates better budget planning, and it avoids research going on needlessly and interest dropping. This may be particularly true of international research. Let’s say you have identified 10 countries that show promise for your cause, you can’t research each one indefinitely. It may therefore make sense to give each country a similar length of research time in order to create a fair sample for each, and look at the results at an agreed date. Those that show promise may therefore get more focus.
Step 9: Illuminate
We have experimented with building ‘insight reports’ on our priority countries. This includes an assessment of the economy, culture, philanthropy, local issues, health issues, political landscape and so on. These insight reports are complementary but help senior management and fundraisers place our international prospects into context and allow them to develop informed cases for support. This makes our international research more impactful overall.
Step 10: Brand your products
Branding is something we see in desk research very rarely. Having completed analytics products in the past I’ve never named them. If say, I created a tool that can prioritise prospects easily in Excel I may refer to it as, ‘the prospect prioritisation spread-sheet’. However, over the past year I’ve experimented with branding our products. For example, our international analytics report is now called the ‘Philanthropy For Us Report’, and our ‘prospect prioritisation spread-sheet’ is now called ‘Heat Map’. Taking this bold step with a bit of tongue-in-cheek to brand these products has brought about some interesting results.
Psychologically I feel it captures the attention of more staff at all levels and that the products themselves are taken more seriously. They are also sought after with more enthusiasm. Since branding our Heat Map for example, I’ve noticed an increase of staff asking to use it. Perhaps branding something like this makes it more of ‘a thing’, something more consumable, familiar and a more memorable reference point for the mind. Perhaps too we’ve been trained over our lives to respond to branding positively, for better or worse.
Whatever the reason, experiment in branding your research, especially your analytical products. You might find that as a result they have more impact in your department – a great thing to try if starting a new international project!
You may already be implementing many of the ideas I have presented here, but hopefully you have found at least one new approach or a new perspective on a current practice. For those newly tasked with international research or struggling to get control of the demands of such wide-ranging research, I hope this helps you put together a plan of action.