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What You Should Know About Peer Screening and Rating Sessions
By Kay Sprinkel Grace
Few things we do in fund raising are more sensitive or require more discretion than peer screening and rating sessions. However the process is conducted, ethical issues and confidentiality are primary concerns.
Silent prospecting – in which discussion (and gossip) is avoided and comments are written by the screeners – is the most comfortable format for many participants. People will often take hours to review a long list, checking the interest areas of potential prospects and providing information on as many as 200 names at a time. When silent prospecting is the choice, the “rating” part of the process is conducted in a follow up meeting, after the comments and rating suggestions of the screeners have been collated, analyzed and summarized.
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However, the most common approach used is the “screening and rating” session, where board, staff, and volunteers meet to review, discuss, and rate a prepared list of potential prospects. In these sessions, lists of names are distributed and discussed, name by name, one aim being to identify the top prospects. These meetings frequently bog down as conversations drift to speculation and can become too personal. Sessions such as these are both fascinating and uncomfortable: curiosity and aversion mingle, and people both hate and love the process.
Screening and rating is an indispensable part of good prospect research. But it can be poorly handled by those doing the screening and misunderstood by those being screened. Here are ten things you should know to help ensure that your peer screenings stay within the boundaries of tasten ethics, and productivity.
Prepare the lists carefully.
Establish a “pipeline” program that keeps names rolling into the development office on a regular basis. Don’t quash enthusiasm for turning in names by requiring full addresses or too many details – often the name of the town or the street is enough and you can research the rest.
Many are reluctant to submit names because they're not sure what the process is for reviewing them: they fear their name will be used without permission or those they recommend will be solicited prematurely.
Let people know there is integrity to the process, and practice confidentiality from the outset. The more confident people are about the process – from name gathering to actual solicitation – the more apt they are to keep the pipeline filled with potential prospects.
Choose the screeners well.
When setting up peer screening and rating meetings, invite people who will respect the process, do the job, and have something to offer regarding the list of names to be reviewed.
Affinity groupings work well: in one church-related capital campaign, excellent results in screening were obtained by gathering groups of parishioners, members of Diocesan councils, people from the wider community, and those representing a retirement home connected with the organization. They each reviewed lists connected with their affiliation with the church.
The number of names screened in that process was much higher than if all people connected with the church had been given the same list.
This process works well for capital campaign screening.
Keep the discussion to what is important, not what is interesting.
The head of prospect research at a major U.S. university once told me that the hardest part of supervising his researchers was to convince them to focus on what was important, not on what was interesting.
When coaching the screeners, let them know what you're looking for. Structure the forms around connection (who do they know), concern (what are the interests of these people they know) and capacity (what do they know about the prospect's overall giving in the community).
Don't waste the time of those agreeing to screen.
Few things are more irritating to busy people than attending a poorly organized or ineptly run meeting. Be sure that each person has the appropriate list, and that forms are neatly prepared with the name and address of the prospect.
Begin promptly when people arrive, and let them leave when they're finished unless the session is part of an education program or a board or staff meeting. See that the instructions are clear, and that latecomers can read what they're supposed to do without feeling as though they are disrupting.
Keep the meeting moving and don't let the conversation drift into gossip or speculation.
Consider doing silent prospecting before conducting a rating session.
It's a good idea to separate prospecting and rating.
Engage as many people as you can in silent prospecting sessions. Then take the results of these reviews and analyze them. See where there's consensus. Identify the most highly or frequently rated prospects.
Then prepare a shorter list, with information taken from the screening session, and rate it with a smaller Prospect Review Committee (making sure this committee is representative of your constituencies).
In my experience, this process is more effective by far.
Be sure people understand the purpose of the session.
Electronic screening of your data base may yield top prospects according to zip code or various sorts, but the importance of hearing from people who actually know the potential prospects is critical.
Be sure people understand the entire process: identification, qualification, development of strategy, cultivation, assignment, and then and only then solicitation. These sessions can be a very effective way of educating people about a dignified and sensitive development process.
Let participants know the value of their input by sharing successful solicitation results with them.
If you combine a well-handled process with good results (money in the door), you will have willing participants in your future screening and rating sessions.
Letting participants know when a gift is received, even if that person wasn't involved in the solicitation, is very important. If these individuals are known to the screener through church or some other affiliation, it is a wonderful gesture to be able to personally thank the donor for his gift.
Conduct sessions quarterly, whether in campaign mode or not, so that no one session has too many names to review.
It is easy to think “screening and rating” when a capital or major gifts campaign is looming. Ah, but how smart the organizations are that do screening and rating on a regular basis. They are the ones whose prospect lists are ready to go when they are.
Build these sessions into your ongoing development program. By keeping the pipeline full), it's possible to have 50 to 100 names to screen every quarter. Staff and key development volunteers can then work with these names and begin formulating the key prospect lists well ahead of the campaign.
Offer participants something to eat and drink, a convenient time and location – and perhaps something to stimulate their minds.
Several organizations I've worked with – ranging from environmental to social service to educational – have combined prospecting sessions with a meeting or lecture. Whether or not you choose this approach, be sure and offer people something to eat or drink. One organization, wishing to maximize the number of people who could participate in their prospecting program, arranged to have four sessions: one over a breakfast, one over a lunch, and two at the end of the day. People were able to choose which time was best for them.
Emphasize the confidentiality and discretion you expect from them, and model it yourself.
Remember, participants will be looking to you for their cues. It is important to model the kind of confidentiality you want them to maintain. Never make inappropriate jokes, asides, or comments. Before you say or write anything, ask yourself: “Is this something that I'd be embarrassed to have the prospect see or hear?”
Make sure the follow up to the session is conducted with similar discretion and confidentiality, and that any further inquiries you might make about a prospect are consistent with tone of the initial discussion.
The refinement of prospect research is significantly advanced by good peer screening and rating sessions. For maximum effectiveness, be mindful of the integrity of the process, the need for discretion and confidentiality, and the importance of letting participants know how their participation advanced your ability to raise money.
While peer screening and rating sessions are the way we prioritize lists of prospects and gain meaningful insights into their interests, values, capacity, and linkages, remember there is another step that follows: get to know the prospect! Only then will you have true validation for these inferences.
Kay Sprinkel Grace is the author of The Ultimate Board Member's Book, Fundraising Mistakes that Bedevil All Boards, and Over Goal, all by Emerson & Church, Publishers. A core faculty member of the Fund Raising School since 1980, Grace is a San Francisco-based organizational consultant who works with a wide range of local, national and international nonprofit organizations in the development of their human and financial resources.
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