September 2016: The times, they were a-changing! Mother Teresa was canonized as a saint, Angelina Jolie filed for divorce from Brad Pitt, and the Research and Relationship Management (RRM) team at The George Washington University (GW) began the process of transitioning their relationship management system to a hybrid structure.
At that time, GW’s division of Development and Alumni Relations (DAR) operated in a completely open relationship management system that required gift officers to enter and maintain prospect- and proposal-level data. This structure caused dual challenges:
- Gift officers were obliged to spend a significant percentage of their time completing data entry, while concurrently striving to raise more funds than ever during GW’s Making History campaign.
- Prospect and proposal data in Advance, DAR’s database of record, was inconsistent and unreliable, making it a challenge to produce accurate forecasting and reporting.
The need for change was clear. RRM determined the best option would be a hybrid system featuring restricted access for gift officers to select relationship management system components. By shifting the responsibility for prospect and proposal data entry and maintenance from gift officers to the RRM team, DAR hoped not only to improve data quality, but also to free up time for gift officers to spend with their donors and prospects.
Before settling on a course of action, RRM worked through the VP of Advancement Services to secure leadership buy-in from the top brass. This was not a one-time endeavor; leadership was leveraged throughout the project in various capacities to reinforce key talking points, shape gift officer trainings, and recommend messaging and language that would resonate strongly with the frontline fundraisers for maximum project success.
As the saying goes, a goal without a plan is just a wish. So the RRM team developed a comprehensive project plan, identifying:
- Why and What: Project definition, goals and scope
- Who: Key players; roles and responsibilities
- How, When and Where: Schedule for deliverables/tasks; communications plan, including training and documentation
Mustering the Troops
The team’s first challenge was establishing a technical process to change the relationship management system, encompassing both the restructuring of database permissions and the development of new procedures for updating prospect management data in Advance. To that end, RRM consulted other organizations on best practices and partnered with DAR’s technical services and training and support teams to develop technical processes and trainings. At this time, it was also determined that gift officers would continue to be directly responsible for entering and maintaining contact reports and gift officer ratings (i.e., the gift officer’s assessment of a prospect’s philanthropic capacity and inclination to make a gift to GW, which is separate from RRM’s capacity-only rating).
To provide a mechanism for data update requests, RRM selected Formstack, an online form builder and data management solution. The prospect management data request form, built to intake new and updated proposal- and prospect-level data, was both developed as a standalone webpage and integrated into Advance for ease of use. RRM also developed a bulk update spreadsheet to handle five or updates of the same type, as the request form could only be used to submit one update at a time. It was determined that requests could also submitted by RRM liaisons after portfolio reviews or other client meetings, or via one-off emails from gift officers. For maximum efficiency and efficacy, all requests were directed to one inbox for triaging and fulfilment.
Naturally, shifting the prospect management data responsibilities of the entire division to the RRM team required an additional staffing investment in RRM. The Prospect Management Data Analyst (PMDA) position was created to serve as the full-time manager and executor of these responsibilities, overseen by the Associate Director of Relationship Management. The PMDA was the lynchpin of the hybrid system’s success, monitoring multiple request channels, fulfilling each request, sending confirmation of completion, and assisting in data auditing.
Procedures and policies for utilizing the new system were documented and rolled into a training series for all staff, including gift officers, support staff and RRM team members. With the necessary processes established, a communications plan was created in collaboration with DAR’s communications and marketing team to facilitate the rollout, and the project was branded as the Advancement Relationship Management System (ARMS).
Prior to full implementation, it was necessary to test ARMS with the boots on the ground: gift officers. In the fall of 2017, 10 users were selected to pilot the program and provide feedback. At the same time, communication about the pending transition took off with:
- RRM-led “road show” in-person meetings for each school and unit to talk about ARMS
- Frequent updates posted to DAR’s intranet
- All-fundraiser and all-staff meetings where RRM, aided by DAR leadership, presented information about the program
- Mandatory in-person and webinar-based trainings
These communication efforts not only explained the technical aspects of how the new system would work, but also served as opportunities to reinforce cultural change toward valuing complete and accurate data. The mantra “If it’s not in Advance, it didn’t happen” was repeated early and often by RRM and DAR leadership alike.
Feedback was gathered, tweaks were made and the stage was set: ARMS was ready for full deployment. The new system was formally implemented in January 2018.
Right off the bat, complications arose. The volume of requests quickly overwhelmed the system and updates were not being completed within the timeframes promised during the communication offensive. This presented a major challenge; trust in the system hinged on timely completion of requests. Over time, RRM made additional investments in staff bandwidth by training administrative staff, student workers, and hiring part-time RRM staff for extra support. Consequently, the processing operation became increasingly efficient, allowing a return to the guaranteed timeframes.
At the six month and one year marks, RRM rang its bell via news posts on DAR’s intranet. Announcements detailed approximately how many updates had been executed under ARMS and the percentage decrease in data errors. By January 2019, one year after launch, it was estimated that the system had processed 18,000 updates and produced a 70 percent decrease in prospect management data errors.
Along with the eventual success of ARMS, the teams learned critical lessons along the way on:
- Navigating staff turnover during a major project
- Negotiating unrealistic deadlines with leadership
- Keeping projects to scope for maximum success
- Understanding ownership of parallel projects and ensuring leadership was on the same page
- Anticipating the requirements of senior fundraising staff preparation and enlisting leadership to help manage this prior to announcing a massive cultural shift
- Training implications related to major process change
The battle of ARMS may be over, but the war is not yet won! Now that the system has become “business as usual,” the team is moving forward with retiring the ARMS branding. In addition, RRM will continue to envision and execute improvements in the coming months and years. Specific future enhancements to the system include:
- Comprehensive auditing schedule and improvements to related reports
- Formstack enhancements for user ease
- Staffing up and splitting apart research and relationship management responsibilities/functions
- Continued RRM staff training to minimize errors (and consequent back-and-forth emails) and shorten request fulfilment timelines even further
Onward and upward!
Catherine Flaaten is the Associate Director, Relationship Management at The George Washington University. Previously, she served as the Manager of Prospect Research at Share Our Strength, a national organization working to end childhood hunger in the United States. Prior to that, she was the Development Research Associate at BrightFocus Foundation, which supports medical research, and served as an independent prospect research contractor for the National Psoriasis Foundation. Catherine holds a BA in International Affairs and an MPH in Maternal and Child Health, both from The George Washington University. She resides in Northern Virginia with her partner and their cat.
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