Small Steps: Considerations When Creating a Data and Research Function in Your Development Office

Guest post by Vidya Kagan, Menlo School

Data and research: the two things that development professionals know they need but have little time to do. We know the importance of data and how it can help our development teams be more effective and efficient. With the myriad of resources available, the expectation is that the development team should do exhaustive research on all donors, mine all available data, and present the findings to key stakeholders in a logical and insightful manner with actionable steps. This sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s easier said than done, unfortunately. In most development offices, especially small shops, data and research tasks fall to the bottom of the to-do list or are often overlooked because there are more pressing priorities and deadlines. How can you work towards creating a simple and straightforward data and research function in your development office that can yield insights for you and your team? The key is to take small steps.

Step 1: Your team.

As John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Your team comes first. Define the role of the data and research function within your team and determine your team’s priorities. Learn what each member of your team needs; each person and each program is different, so ask questions and obsess over the details. For example, in my organization, my annual fund director needs basic, top-level data on all of the families in our community in order to determine annual fund ask amounts. On the other hand, my major gifts and campaign director wants in-depth research on only a handful of families because she knows that only a small number of our people in our community are able to make major gifts (defined in our community as 6-figure gifts and larger). If you work with volunteers, ask them what they wish to see that will assist them in their work for your organization.

Step 2: You.

Think about what you bring to this role. In addition to actually doing the data and research work, you have to have certain qualities and internal motivation, and be willing to learn. Let’s break this down into two areas:

  • What qualities do you need to have to be successful? Embark on an introspective exercise. What can you bring to this role to ensure that you will bring the most value to your organization?  Being a self-starter, a risk-taker, and a lifelong learner are key attributes that will help you succeed, thrive, and have fun in this role. For me, I was ready for a new challenge and wanted to bring my interest, skills, and experience in data and research to bear to bring a new dimension to our team’s work. I also wanted to learn new skills and meet new people. Believe in yourself. You can do this!
  • What do you need to do to be successful? The first step is to develop your network. Connect with others in the data and research world by joining industry organizations and online communities. They will be your “go to” people that you will rely on to teach and mentor you, plus they will be instrumental as you grow your network. Second, soak up as much knowledge as possible by reading articles and participating in webinars, workshops, and conferences. For example, when I started in my data and research role, one of the first people I met with was a researcher at Stanford University. He shared best practices with me and also connected me with others at Stanford. I also researched industry organizations like APRA and registered for a CASE donor research conference. Lately, I have been attending donor research webinars hosted by iWave and others in this space, and data-related webinars presented by Salesforce (we use Salesforce as our donor database).

Your team is counting on you to be the resident expert in all things related to data and research.  Show them that you have the interest and enthusiasm for this work, that you are ready and willing to take on new challenges and learn, and that you sincerely want to help the team.  If you start small by adopting some of the suggestions in this post, then you will be on your way to creating a valuable data and research component for your team. Good luck!

Do you have other ideas to be successful in this role? Do you have the first-hand experience in this area?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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About the author: Vidya Kagan is the Director of Data Management and Research at Menlo School, an independent day school in Atherton, CA.  She has been in development for more than 16 years, specifically in higher education and independent schools. During her 6 years in Harvard Law School’s development office, she was responsible for the annual fund, reunion fundraising, volunteer management, donor relations, and events.  At Noble & Greenough School, she served as the Director of Annual Giving and as the Director of Major Gifts & Campaigns. Her responsibilities included leadership solicitations, campaign planning, and volunteer management. She joined Menlo School’s development team in 2013.

Vidya has been a presenter for Salesforce webinars in 2018; CASE-NAIS conferences in 2010, 2013 and 2018; and AFP and WID (Women in Development) programs in Boston in 2010 and 2011.

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