IT and Research Partnerships: Enhancing Our Data Culture – Part 1

A conversation with Ike Pahm, IT systems manager, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) Foundation, and Jeffrey A. (Jeff) Walker, PhD, director of research, UWM Development and Alumni Relations Office 

In September 2019, Made in Milwaukee, Shaping the World: The Campaign for UWM surpassed its $200 million goal, raising more than a quarter of a billion dollars for its three pillars of student success, research excellence and community engagement. Despite the many pandemic-related challenges, UWM’s fiscal 2020 also ended recently on a very high note, with a final gift total of approximately $35.2 million; that was the second-best philanthropic year in the university’s history.

In part one of the IT and Research Partnerships series, UWM colleagues Ike Pahm and Jeff Walker reflect on the teams’ partnerships over the years, their collaboration on the recent campaign and the future of their work together. 

JW: I’ve worked in UWM’s fundraising area twice: originally, from 1999 to 2002. Until now, I didn’t realize we were both “UWM newbies” at the same time.

IP: Yes, it was 1999 when I joined the UWM Foundation, as part of its IT team. I was also doing graduate work on campus, in management information systems.

JW: So much has changed!

IP: Some background for our readers: In those days, Development, the Alumni Association, and the Foundation were all housed together in one castle-like building: the Alumni House. Foundation IT directly provided all technology-related support, including networking, hardware, software and applications support. Ten years ago, the Foundation moved off campus to an office in the Cambridge Commons student residence complex. The Development and Alumni Relations Office remains on campus and is supported directly by UWM’s own IT team, for most computing and network needs.

Our in-house technology landscape has changed significantly since the Foundation moved to Cambridge Commons. First, it allowed Foundation IT to set up an entirely separate, independent network from the UWM campus. UWM, like any other public institution, is subject to open records laws; with the Foundation's private network, donor records and confidentiality are better protected.

Second, having off-loaded desktop and hardware support, we can instead provide Development and Alumni Relations with more technical and application support. Foundation IT has more time to administer the database, assist users with fundraising applications and streamline business processes.

A third change has been mobility and flexibility. Despite the physical separation between Foundation IT and Development and Alumni Relations, staff have myriad options to connect to the Foundation network and to its supported applications, using their laptops and smart devices. For instance, SharePoint is our main communication portal across the board — for Development and Alumni Relations, for other campus users and for the Foundation. It gives us security and accessibility for all donor-related data and information. Also, with the advent of cloud computing, applications like Microsoft's Power BI (PBI) can be accessed through SharePoint from anywhere and at any time.

JW: How do your working relationships with the Research team tend to differ from those you have with our frontline/public-facing colleagues? 

IP: Compared to frontline fundraisers, the Research team is more focused on prospect identification. IT and Research have worked closely on what data should be tracked and analyzed to identify potential prospects. IT support to frontline fundraisers encompasses all stages of the donor cultivation cycle, including preparation and implementation of their prospect management portfolios. IT and Research are always finding ways to organize existing data sets and bring in new ones so they are easily accessible and actionable by gift officers.

One example of this is adding wealth screening and demographic data into the donor constituent relationship management (CRM) system and incorporating integral data points in gift officers' standard reports and business intelligence (BI) dashboards. Another is pushing out data metrics related to prospect identification. A specific report comes to mind: our weekly prospecting report. Generated automatically and delivered to the Research team, it helps identify "off the radar" constituents who warrant qualification as potential major gift prospects. This report lists constituents who gave for the first time or who suddenly increased their giving, compared to the last five years or so. It also shows whether they are currently assigned to a prospect manager.

The IT and Research teams have also worked closely on corporate and Foundation relations data. We have developed comprehensive quality assurance reports so any changes made in organization records can be quickly verified ― are they accurate, and are they complete? With this regular data monitoring and consistency checking, Research is able to provide high-quality data to gift officers in their day-to-day corporate and Foundation relations work.

JW: What specific IT and Research collaborations contributed to our recent campaign's success?

IP: One area that stands out is our work on BI, specifically the development of reports in our PBI platform. The use of BI applies not only to the Research team, but also to frontline fundraisers, managers and other campaign decision makers. With PBI, self-service reporting has vastly improved. In the past, Foundation IT had to deal with several gift officers requesting their own individual, unique reports, which affected quality and delivery. With PBI, staff are empowered to run reports quickly on their own and to get more accurate information. They are able to analyze data in a timely fashion and draw actionable insights more easily. As a result, fundraising decisions are increasingly made based on data, rather than on intuition. For the Research team, PBI reports provide a more efficient way to track research referrals and other key productivity metrics.

JW: Where are these collaborations strong, and where do you see opportunities for growth?

IP: The IT and the Research teams’ collaborations have effectively leveraged the use of existing data. While our comprehensive campaign was very successful, we can already see that the next, even larger campaign will require identifying new fundraising opportunities, streamlining current operations and exploring entirely new strategies.

Our Database Management Committee (DMC), which includes IT and Research, will continue to drive a broader use of BI along with more advanced tools, such as data analytics. Making analytics central in the organizational toolbox will be critical in finding new prospects and maximizing the ROI of our fundraising efforts. If our budget allows, even greater opportunities may be attainable by adopting other digital technologies, such as predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. For many organizations, these technologies are becoming more common and are more readily available for both IT and Research.

View part two of the IT and Research Partnerships Q&A here.

Learn more about the authors featured in this article on the Connections Thought Leadership Page .


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