We’re lucky to have quite a few members of our team who are former librarians (or MLIS degree holders who opted to use their degree in prospect research). I’m always interested to hear how they come at a tricky research conundrum and think about where the best information might be found. Everyone on our team is helpful with each other, but in particular the library science degree-holders seem to be especially interested in helping their teammates find the right answer. Today’s article is written by one of our valued MLIS-holders, Christine Bariahtaris. Christine shares five great tips that will help researchers provide exactly what each requestor needs, and will help requestors think about how to communicate those needs. ~Helen
Imagine you are your local librarian sitting at a reference desk. A patron comes up to you and says, “I want information about birds.”
You spend the next hour and a half pulling everything you can possibly find on birds. You’ve got it covered from Big Bird to the endangered Bahama nuthatch. Beaming, you deliver your hoard to your patron and invite them to enjoy.
Fifteen minutes later, the patron walks past you on their way out, empty-handed. “Thanks,” they say, “but I didn’t find what I needed.”
This scenario is too real for many prospect researchers – just swap out the birds for donors and the patron for a gift officer. I’ve had many personal experiences of delivering thorough research only to be told it lacked the insights the gift officer was hoping to see. At best, it’s frustrating, and at worst, it’s downright disheartening for everyone. However, I’ve noticed that those experiences have become fewer and fewer, and recently asked myself why.
At some point, I let my library science training resurface. Librarians have a way of making sure the bird scenario doesn’t happen: the reference interview.
What is a reference interview?
When someone asks for information, they are usually asking for what they think they want, which is not the same as what they need. This isn’t a criticism – if they could articulate what they needed well, they wouldn’t be asking for help!
The reference interview is a conversation technique that encourages people to talk more about what they need, which gives the researcher better guidance. It translates seamlessly into prospect research. The result should be that everyone walks away happy: the researcher finds the most relevant information in the least amount of time and the requestor gets exactly what they need.
How does it work?
There are five core steps to follow:
- Be Approachable
It can be intimidating to ask for assistance, no matter what kind. You don’t need to become the office party planner – even small efforts to connect build trust. When your colleagues trust you, they will feel more comfortable speaking openly about what they need. Some easy ways to do this are:
- Be visible: either in the office or via remote chats
- Be available: make sure your colleagues know they can contact you when needed
- Keep it casual: avoid technical jargon and rabbit-holes
- Be Interested
It would be great if every research question was a stimulating mystery, but that’s not reality. Nothing will stifle a conversation faster than signaling you are bored, so your workspace is a judgement-free zone when it comes to research requests. Use active-listening behaviors such as re-establishing eye-contact and nodding to show you are engaged. For remote workers, make sure you are sending written prompts demonstrating you are interested in the question (some guidelines suggest keeping a prepared list to make this easier) and that you are responding to colleagues in a timely manner.
- Listen & Inquire
Once your colleague is comfortable, you can get to the meat of the reference interview.
- Let them fully state their question in their own words before you respond.
- Rephrase their question back to them and ask them to confirm that you’ve understood.
- If needed, identify the goal they are hoping the research will help achieve.
- Ask open-ended questions that encourage your colleague to give you more information, such as:
- Can you tell me more about this prospect?
- Can you tell me more about this prospect’s relationship with our organization?
- How much information do you need (i.e., full profile, wealth report)?
- Ask clarifying questions to narrow down which sources to consult, such as:
- What have you already found that has been helpful to you?
- What type of information do you most need (bio/capacity/giving)?
Avoid interrupting or correcting their answers. Remember: the interview is a conversation, not an interrogation.
At this point, you should have a good idea of what your colleague needs and where to find it. This is where prospect researchers diverge from a typical reference interview. Librarians “show their work” so that the process is also a learning experience for the patron. In our case, that usually isn’t necessary for our colleagues.
What is helpful is to give a final restatement of their need, a quick overview of what you plan to do, and a time estimate if you are able: “You need a giving summary on Joe Smith focused on the last 10 years. I’m going to check x, y, and z to get started. I can get this to you by Wednesday. Does that work for you?” This gives your colleague a chance to clarify one last time and make sure you share the same expectations on the deliverable.
After this, you do your research thing! Keep your colleague in the loop if you find something unexpected or concerning in the process. Since they know the general plan, they should be able to give feedback more easily.
- Follow Up
When you send your results, make sure you add a line in your message that invites your colleague to come to you if they have questions or cannot find what they were looking for. If you have regular meetings with frontline staff, it is also good to set aside a few minutes for them to ask questions about any research you have recently provided. This closes the loop on the interview process, circling you back to step one.
Effective reference interviews take practice. Librarians take whole courses on them so that the process starts to feel natural, but it is worth the effort for any prospect researcher. I’m positive it has made me not just a better researcher, but a better coworker as well.
A shout out to Professor Marie Radford, who taught Reference Sources & Services in my first semester at Rutgers. Thank you.