I’m not going to say what you think I’m going to say today about this.
A few weeks ago I was talking with a potential client. We were discussing their current need for prospect research, their upcoming campaign, and the fundraising goals and priorities that they were gearing up for.
And as we were getting deeper into the topic they said to me, “we’ve never really had prospect research before so we’re just building this program…” and then for a moment the rest of what they said went fuzzy because I knew what they were saying wasn’t true. And it dawned on me that they didn’t know that it wasn’t true.
A few years ago, they did have a prospect researcher. A really good one. But that researcher is gone and so, too, are most of the fundraisers at that organization who would remember her.
This isn’t the first time that sentence has ever been said to me. Over the course of my 15+ years as a consultant, I’ve heard it multiple times. In one case, I was the prospect researcher whose systems were forgotten. “When I got here,” my 3-time successor said, “there were no templates, no prospect management, no nothing.” What did I spend those 5+ years of my life doing?
Well, obviously not writing down processes and procedures, for one thing. Not thinking about the fact that the average life-span of a fundraising team might be one campaign length, or average about 18 months tenure per fundraiser. When that team or group leaves, there’s more than just donor relationship information that goes out the door.
We say that one of the killers of innovation at any work-place is the phrase “we’ve always done it this way.” And that’s not wrong, but it’s also not all right.
Can you imagine if all of the knowledge from one department of Microsoft or McDonald’s or Mike’s Pastry simply disappeared because one person left?
Think about that for a second.
I know, there are lots of things that aren’t apples to apples with a research department at a major corporation and one in a fundraising office. Research departments at corporations are many many people strong, so when one person leaves there’s still continuity. But even so you can bet that they have policies and procedures documents that have been amended and updated many times over the years. Sketches and diagrams, schematics and manufacturing processes. Bugs and issues and how they were fixed. What worked, and what didn’t, and why.
We can say in the beginning of a campaign or the middle of a campaign or the end of a campaign that we don’t have time to write down our processes and policies and procedures. But how are we more busy than an engineer at Apple? How is what we do (and how we do it) for our nonprofit any less important to its future success?
Stagnation is bad but completely reinventing the wheel every few years isn’t any better. “We’ve always done it this way” isn’t always a bad place to start.