Article written by Sarah Tedesco, Executive Vice President at DonorSearch.
Heraclitus said it best when he stated, “Change is the only constant.” Although it is not always welcome, the sooner we accept and embrace change, the better our lives are. That platitude, though easier to take in theory than practice, certainly applies to the way that organizations handle staff transitions.
Nonprofits and educational institutions, just like any other type of employer, have to deal with important staff members leaving and the ramifications of those exits.
Putting plans in place to handle and account for the transition of employees, especially senior staffers and leaders, is critical to the ongoing success of an organization. Staff turnover is inevitable. Transitional success is a matter of preparing for and adjusting to the change.
For a nonprofit, one of the most valuable roles within the organization is that of the prospect researcher. When it is time to transition to a new researcher, you’ll want to be ready to make the process as smooth as possible.
The best approach to handling a prospect researcher staff transition follows three steps.
These steps cover the entire cycle of the transition. Step one should occur before the prospect researcher leaves the position, step two will happen as the transition is occurring, and step three is to be performed once the turnover is complete.
Step 1: Implement Standards and Systems
This is a preemptive step. It is helpful in general and especially useful when your organization is experiencing change.
Standards and systems make a position transferable.
On any given day, your current prospect researcher could be:
- Putting together prospect profiles.
- Ranking prospects according to giving affinity and capacity.
- Determining the right ask amount for a certain donor.
- Assisting the fundraisers with solicitation strategies.
- And much more.
Prospect research is a comprehensive and multi-faceted job. The best thing your organization can preemptively do is actually track and record best practices and guides for the position. Have your current researcher(s) follow a specific methodology. If there is a universal system in place, you’ll be able to fit a new staff member into the mix more easily.
With well-documented procedures, new employee onboarding is going to be a breeze. These procedures will encompass how those in the position go about researching, documenting, and presenting their data.
Additionally, as a fail-safe, your nonprofit should consider establishing an “emergency transition plan.” Your organization can follow this plan in the case of sudden staff departure.
Step 2: Steer into the Transitional Skid
In driver’s education you learn about the confounding idea of “steering into the skid.” When your car starts sliding out of control, you are taught to steer towards the direction your tires are skidding. It can go against instinct, but it is the best move to get your vehicle back under control.
The process can work outside of a careening car catastrophe, too. In fact, it is good advice for weathering a prospect researcher transition.
Address what’s happening, lean into it, and troubleshoot directly.
Your nonprofit is going to want to:
- Keep your board members and staff apprised of the situation. Your fundraisers, in particular, are going to need to know what’s happening. They work most closely with prospect researchers and, in turn, are going to be most affected by the changeover.
- Tell your staff what you need of them. Do your fundraisers need to pick up any prospect research slack during the process? Will they need to help with the vetting and hiring of a replacement? Let them know!
- Identify any foreseeable challenges and draft possible solutions.
- Create a timeline for the transition. Set checkpoints that you can follow to keep everything on track. Determine when you will need a new employee to fill the position.
- For example, do you have an upcoming major event attendee list that needs to be prospect screened? If so, can one of your current employees perform the screening? If one of your employees cannot, you’ll have to accelerate the hiring timeline.
- Tell your prospect screening company about the change your organization is experiencing.
- Have the prospect researcher who is vacating the position transfer his or her donor files. When a major gifts officer takes on a new job, that officer’s donors have to be introduced and passed on to other fundraisers within your organization. A prospect researcher’s donor files deserve that kind of care. Depending on the depth of your prospect research program, you can either pass the file along to another researcher or a fundraiser. These donors’ files are the future of your nonprofit. Handle them with care.
- Transfer passwords and contact information as needed. This transfer is less pressing if the researcher is moving to a new position within the organization. However, if the employee is leaving your nonprofit entirely, you want to make sure you have access to all that he or she had access to.
- Consider hiring consultants for the turnover period.
This process is quite the undertaking. Appoint a team member to take the wheel. Even if the researcher’s various tasks are divvied up among multiple people, make sure that one employee is in charge. A singular leader can limit confusion and signal crossing.
Step 3: Evaluate the Process
Once, you’ve brought a new employee into the fold, it is time to take stock of the situation.
Assess how the process went. What was successful? What was not successful? Get input from relevant staff.
Take what you’ve learned from the experience and create (or edit) a plan of action for transitions in the future.
Treat your evaluation like a combination of science and art. Analysis of employee reactions and the general tone and mood of the turnover will fall under the art category.
For your more scientific analysis, look at the numbers. If your nonprofit performed prospect research in the interim:
- How effective was it?
- How accurate were the asks?
- What was your return on investment?
Even if you did not screen anyone in the interim:
- How quickly was the new employee up and running?
The longer the process drags on unnecessarily, the more items are dropped, missed, or forgotten.
Some aspects of the transition will be out of your control, but don’t miss out on the opportunity to manage the parts of the situation that you can.
Simply by the nature of things, a nonprofit with a team of researchers is going to be better equipped to cover any gaps exposed by an exiting employee than an organization with a prospect team of one.
If you have an organization with a single prospect researcher, and the thought of a transition worries you in your current state, consider cross-training other development employees. Ensure that someone besides your prospect researcher at least understands the general practices of what the role entails on a daily basis.
This knowledge will work in your favor on two accounts. First, if your researcher leaves, you have a go-to employee to appoint as leader like step two advises. Second, it never hurts for an employee to understand what his or her co-worker’s job involves. If anything, it should increase empathy and understanding between the two.
Download the whitepaper below to introduce the backup employee to prospect research and your transition planning will be underway.