May 2018: Listening to the story

I often refer to writing as my asshole best friend.  It never leaves me (it may be dormant, but it never actually leaves) and it will always tell me the truth, even when–especially when–I don’t want to hear it.  Am I overscheduled?  Overanxious? Overcontrolling?  Not getting enough sleep or food?  Those conditions show up as blocks in my writing process which forces me to address them or at the very least, acknowledge what’s going on.  Natalie Goldberg* said, “To write is to ultimately deal with your whole life,” which I find to be infuriatingly true.

Today I finished a story that pushed me to confront one of my beloved myths: the cure for every problem in my life is to work harder.  God, how I love that myth.  It means that everything a) can be fixed and b) if it isn’t fixed, it’s because  I’m just not working hard enough.  If a friend told me that they were struggling I wouldn’t reflexively say, “Just work harder!”  but I tell myself that a lot.

[Image description: Kermit the Frog typing desperately]

I’ve been bumping up hard against this myth in my life and in my writing during the past few years.  In the case of this story, I found it more and more difficult to work on the piece and I didn’t know why.  I was excited about the first draft and my beta readers got what I was trying to express and gave productive feedback for improving the story.  But as I edited the piece I started to feel worse and worse until I was dreading working on it. I told myself that this was just a case of losing new story energy and reminded myself that new story energy, like new relationship energy, is lovely but not very reliable for a long-haul journey.

I tried doubling down and working through the dread.  I set writing dates up with friends, set weekly goals for editing, and showed up at the page.   But working harder didn’t work.  I tried taking a break then attacking it again, but that didn’t work either, the dread just got worse. I felt so frustrated and afraid–if working harder wasn’t helping, what could help?

On the recommendation of a friend,  I started reading the book Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.  A line from Chapter 3 stuck to me.

The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work.  To see them, you need only look at the work clearly-without judgement, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes.  Without emotional expectations.  Ask your work what it needs, not what you need.  Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.

After another frustrating and painful session with the piece, I tried something entirely new.  I asked myself, without judgment, without emotional expectations, What feels so bad about this?  The answer came immediately: I feel like I’m losing the soul of the story.  This doesn’t feel like my story anymore.  And that hurts.

Inquiring after the pain and listening rather than trying to muscle through the pain opened up a new path for my work.  I started a another draft with the goal trying to recapture the feeling of my original draft.   I didn’t throw out the workshop comments but I tried to lean into what made my story unique and excited when I first wrote it.

I’m not sure if I hit the mark, but the dread dissipated and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that dissipating dread is probably a good thing.  Once again, my asshole best friend was willing to tell me the truth but I had to ask and actually listen like the good friend I want to be.

*I’m pretty sure it was Natalie Goldberg.  I searched for the origin of this quote and I haven’t found it yet.  If anyone knows the origin, please tell me!


I’m back! New site update and announcements…

Hello dear readers,

As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been absent from social media and this website since summer 2017. There are two primary reasons for this:

  1. Refocused time:  My organization is in the last phase of our fundraising campaign, which has meant that our prospect research shop is really cooking with gas, as old-timey jazz musicians used to say.  In addition, I got a promotion (hooray!) and have been taking on more responsibilities in internal communications and research ethics–including working on GDPR compliance.   We’ve also been short-staffed until recently when we brought on three fantastic researchers to our team.  These are all exciting things, but it has meant that I’ve needed to focus my energy on my job at the University of Chicago and my daily work (such as internal policymaking/ethics/communication issues) has involved internal confidential information that would not be appropriate for me to discuss publicly (but I hope to present some case studies in the future!).
  2. Widened audience:  I’ve had several new publications and public speaking opportunities in 2017, which is also exciting–but it means that having both my creative writing life and my prospect research life on the same web and social media platform is starting to not make sense anymore.  It’s been difficult to balance the two, so I took some time to think about next steps.

Which brings me to…next steps!

Hooray splits!

I’ve decided to split off my prospect research content into a new website.  Going forward, my author’s website will be and the posts will focus on storytelling, upcoming appearances, and publications.  My prospect research website will be and the monthly posts will focus especially on culture and philanthropy and include guest contributors. On the same note, on Twitter @ameliaaldred will be devoted to creative writing content (and other media shouting) while my new account  @AnthroPhil will be devoted to prospect research content. The list of prospect research resources on has been migrated (and updated!) to  Fellow nonprofit professionals can check out the first blog post now!

I’ve enjoyed interacting with all of you at readings, conferences, and online and I’m excited about these new ways of connecting with folks.

Best wishes, Amelia




Great Lakes Forum! The questions I’m still pondering and the demos that made me drool…

Are campaigns passé?

How do nonprofits compete with giant tech companies and startups for data analytics professionals?

How do prospect researchers plan for the General Data Protection Regulation?

I spent the past week discussing these questions and many, many more at the Great Lakes Prospect Development Forum in Ann Arbor, MI.  The Great Lakes Forum is a conference for professionals in prospect research, prospect management, and analytics and focuses on large nonprofits.  The conference was hosted by the University of Michigan and supported by the CASE District V Venture Fund (thankyouthankyouthankyou).

If the conference location has famous brined food, that’s a bonus!

For me, a good conference includes hearing some provocative questions, listening to demos of other organizations’ solutions and experiments, and having at least one in-depth conversation with a colleague (or set of colleagues) from another nonprofit.  I got all three at the Great Lakes Conference–here are my key takeaways in the first two categories:


  •  Are campaigns still the most effective ways to garner support for nonprofits?  If we move away from the campaign model, what could replace it?  Fundraising campaigns are growing larger and more frequent, but several of our organizations’ internal surveys indicate that donors, especially younger donors, are more interested in solving specific problems rather than generally supporting a particular institution.  In addition, a lot of fundraisers are worried that donors are getting fatigued and overwhelmed by the volume and intensity of fundraising campaigns.  This question was posed by our keynote speaker on the first day of the conference and I’ve been chewing it over since then.
  •  How can nonprofits attract strong analytics professionals?  In addition to advocating for more competitive pay packages, are there other benefits we can offer (more flex time, ability to work from home, more vacation, part time work with health benefits…)?  Data analytics has become a key tool in fundraising, but data analytics is a high demand skill and nonprofits offer smaller pay packages than startups and tech giants.  This is connected to a larger question of how we recruit and retain employees in the nonprofit sector and prevent burnout.
  •  How can prospect researchers initiate and take a leading role in the GDPR compliance

    Sample of our GDPR compliance brainstorming…

    discussion at our organizations?  What compliance strategies are appropriate for our donor bases?  How can our organizations continue to communicate our values and mission through our approach to data privacy?  The General Data Protection Regulation will be enforced starting May 2018, but many nonprofits, even major research universities, are unaware of the full scope and penalties of the law.  I facilitated this discussion at a break-out session and we came up with some creative approaches to messaging and compliance.  For example, what if universities viewed educating alumni about data privacy and fundraising methods as part of our role in educating future philanthropists?  Fundraisers are already in the business of educating alumni about philanthropy (promoting class gifts, explaining different planned giving options, introducing philanthropy to the newly wealthy, etc.), what if we also explained the role and importance of personal data to effectively supporting our organizations and missions?


  • Self-Service bios:  At my shops, we’ve been playing around with new formats and ideas for briefing documents.  Kari Stokosa of the University of Wisconsin talked us through a new “self-service” bio for gift officers that was inspired by the customized online ordering systems at Jimmy John’s , Chipotle, Roti, etc.  I really like the idea behind this and my shop is considering how we could create a similar system.

    And now you know my Chipotle order

  • Portfolio Optimization Scoring:  Suzanne Dunne and the team at the University of Notre Dame presented a scoring system for assessing the strength of a portfolio.  I liked the measurements that went into the score and that the scoring system redirected conversations with gift officers from “I don’t feel my portfolio is strong” to “let’s look at more objective measures of the strength of the portfolio in addition to your gut feelings about individual prospects.”  Gut feelings about prospects are an important aspect of fundraising, but it’s useful to have some checks and balances.
  • Communication Styles and Strategy:  Kari Stokosa also presented on communication styles and strategies; the latter is what made it a useful presentation for me.  A lot of “what is my communication/leadership/relationship style” self-assessments stop at identification and don’t focus on how to adjust your style to others, based on your tendencies and theirs.  Kari’s presentation included some concrete suggestions.  In addition, I appreciated that the communication styles were descriptive, not prescriptive and it was acknowledged that most of us are a mix (says the ambivert).

This week, I’m back at my desk, comparing notes with my colleagues and figuring out how to adapt some of the ideas we heard at the conference to our own set of challenges.  I’m looking forward to what we’ll all bring to the Great Lakes Forum next year!



Field research for prospect researchers (and other nonprofiteers)

I recently wrote “The Art of the Interview“,  a guide to doing one-on-one interviews with industry insiders as a prospect researcher.  The article is live  on Connections and is accessible to APRA members.

I decided to write the article as a methodology guide, rather than a case study, based on conversations I’ve had with other prospect researchers about the direction of our field.  Many researchers are curious about the direction our field will take in the age of dating mining, data aggregation, and artificial intelligence and are concerned that these tools will replace human prospect researchers at nonprofits.  These concerns are valid; I don’t think that human researchers will be be made irrelevant, but I do think our role will shift.  In fact,  the requests and tasks being fulfilled by researchers right now (per my conversations with colleagues) demonstrate that our role is already shifting.

Prospect researchers are moving from being  primarily data collectors, to data curators as more and more information is available through sophisticated data-mining and aggregation tools.  In addition, the focus of prospect researchers’ data collection is shifting from straightforward biographical and financial information (addresses, recent donations, estimated compensation etc.) to contextual data; for example, the giving culture of particular industries, the ways social identities influence philanthropic decision-making, and how our supporters view the connection between their donation and our impact.

The shift in prospect research is similar to the shift that occurred in library and information science over the past three decades.  My husband is a librarian and when people find out what he does for a living they frequently comment, “Now that we have Google, aren’t librarians irrelevant?”  My husband explains (with the infinite patience that good librarians and teachers possess and I do not) that he loves search engines and they are incredible tools, but a search engine can’t teach students data literacy, it can’t build a collection based on changing needs of a community, it can’t help you develop a research question, and it definitely won’t connect you to other search engines who are better experts on a specific topic.

Similarly, while data aggregators are fantastic tools, they can’t conduct focus groups with donors, they can’t use qualitative data to construct a good text-mining project, they can’t translate data into fundraising strategy that fits the mission and culture of an organization, and they certainly won’t consider the ethics of how information is shared and stored.

So now that we have Google are prospect researchers irrelevant?  That depends on the kind

Hopefully, the future of prospect research also includes more exciting hats…

of research we are doing and services we provide to our nonprofit colleagues.  It also depends on whether or not our fundraising partners see the benefits of contextual research and information curation; in my experience, most nonprofit professionals are hungry for both of those services. The most frequent questions I get from front line fundraisers about data are, “What does this mean?” and “How can I use this to make decisions?” Like modern librarians, these are questions researchers are ideally positioned to answer and they are the kind of questions that drew us to prospect research in the first place.

I’d love to continue this conversation with other researchers, feel free to tweet your thoughts, or reach out via email!








New Year, new story, and exciting news…

Happy New Year everyone!

I’m back at my desk after a week of family visits and back at my blog after a busy November/December.  Some exciting things happened this past month…

My gothic Midwestern flash fiction piece “Women’s Work” is up at Flash Fiction Online.  I love the art the editorial team picked to be featured with the story so much!  I’d also like to give a shout out to Tanya DePass for consulting on this story.  If you are looking for professional manuscript consultation regarding diversity issues (i.e.  you’re writing characters backgrounds and identities than you and you really don’t want to fall into tired tropes), I highly recommending working with Tanya.

My article “Interviewing Venture Capital and Private Equity Professionals” made the top five most popular article list on the Helen Brown Group’s The Intelligent Edge.  I started reading The Intelligent Edge when I started my first job in prospect research four years ago; reading it helped me dive right into important conversations in the field–so I’m very excited to be included on such a great resource!

On a political note, while I’m frustrated and angry and scared for what the recent U.S. presidential election means for my community, I’ve been impressed by the outpouring of activism and engagement from my professional and social circles.  Some highlights (including resources to bookmark!):

  1.  This call script for contacting public officials, including how to tailor your call based on your official’s voting history.
  2. This action list  by the Southern Poverty Law Center on how to combat everyday bias in ourselves and our communities and the creative activism by Showing Up for Racial Justice during Thanksgiving.
  3. The outpouring of donations to nonprofits that serve and advocate for people likely to be targeted by the Trump administration.
  4. This call to action and responsibility by Helen Brown  for those of us in the information gathering and disseminating profession and a similar call by Barbara Kingsolver.
  5. The insistence that we remember our history and act accordingly, by  Kameron Hurley and Danielle Tanimura.
  6. Seeing my friends, family members, and colleagues take the opportunity to have tough discussions, fundraise, and do difficult self-reflection during the holiday season.  Witnessing my community’s commitment to doing the work needed to build a safer and more just world helps me do the same.

Looking towards the future, I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions this year, but  two phrases have been rolling around in my head during the past month:

Follow the joy.

Do the the work.

I think that sums up my intention for 2017.

Let’s do this.




The Trump presidency and what I do not accept

A man who has openly campaigned for persecution on the basis of religion, for building a wall between the United States and Mexico, and who both claimed that he didn’t know what the Klu Klux Klan was and refused to reject their endorsement, who has bragged in interviews about sexually assaulting women is going to be president of the United States.  A man who signed into law the ability for businesses to discriminate against LGBTQI people, a man who advocated against same-sex marriage and advocated for electroshock therapy to “convert” gay people, is going to be our vice president.

Like most of the country, I didn’t expect this to happen.  I read Nate Silver’s analysis of the polls, saw that there was a greater probability of Donald Trump losing then winning.  But there was a possibility of him winning and he did.

There are a lot of analyses being published about how Donald Trump won the presidency and I expect there will be many more in the future and that we will probably learn a lot from them.  But regardless, this is true:  we are going to have a president and vice president who have campaigned on a platform of discrimination and suppression of human rights.

Those who voted for them knew that.  They decided that the reason they had for voting for Trump, including the promise of economic stability and attention after decades of neglect, the attraction of a Washington outsider, distrust of Hillary Clinton, or any other reason was more important than rejecting a man who publicly condoned discrimination as a public policy.  This is true even if the voter does not consider themselves discriminatory, rejects racism and other discrimination personally, believes that they would never discriminate against another person, or even believes that Donald Trump is lying and he won’t actually follow through on those campaign promises.  They still decided that they were willing to risk having a president who promised to force all Muslims in America to register with the government and when asked how this policy would be different  than when Germany required all Jews to register, responded, “You tell me.”

It is difficult for me to acknowledge and own when I have chosen my own (perceived) safety, my fear, or my well-being above the safety and well-being of others.  If you voted for Trump, I imagine that what I have said will make you angry and defensive.  If you are a fellow Hoosier, I imagine you might want to remind me of the economic shambles of our state, the way the Democratic party and the entire federal government has not created a real plan for Midwest, remind me of the meth epidemic, the long hours working three part time jobs to almost make ends meet, the high cost of mandated private insurance, and the shitty, condescending way Hollywood and the rest of the country  talks about us–like our whole state and our lives are a punchline.  And you’ll probably tell me of a  lot of other things I don’t know because I haven’t walked in your shoes.  These things are all true.  I accept that truth.

And it is also true that Donald Trump has promised to force all Muslims to register with the government, his vice president co-sponsored a bill that would deny citizenship to the children born in the United States, if their parents were undocumented immigrants and if you voted for Trump and Pence, you decided to that it was okay for those things to happen, or least, you were willing to risk it.

And that is what terrifies me, and terrifies the people who are targeted by Trump’s proposed policies.  Even if he doesn’t go through with his promises, the willingness of white people (because white people overwhelmingly voted for Trump, including the majority of white women) to risk the safety of people of color, LGBTQI people, and religious minorities means that we have normalized and condoned violence and discrimination.  Again.

And I do not accept that.

This didn’t happen over night, and white people aren’t suddenly more biased, but Trump’s presidency makes it more likely for oppressive acts to be accepted. There has already been a spike in hate crimes against Black people, against Muslims, against LGBTQI people.  In south Philly, people are painting swastikas on walls, and I’ve already had one friend be harassed for speaking out against white supremacist posters that are appearing on the Ohio State University campus.

I have heard close friends and family (all white and straight, and mostly middle-class) say, “We got through Reagan, we got through both Bushes, we’ll get through Trump.”  But not everyone got through Reagan, and the Bushes.  There are thousands of dead Nicaraguans, thousands of Black and Hispanic people sitting in prison, thousands of dead American soldiers, thousands of dead victims of the AIDS epidemic, who did not “get through” those administrations.  There are people my age who grew up without a parent because their mother or father died in Iraq or Afghanistan, or at the hands of CIA-trained Central American death squads.  I do not accept that we will all inevitably “get through” Trump’s administration.

Why am I writing so much about what I accept and do not accept?  Because if Donald Trump, or Mike Pence, or any of his administration, or even regular private citizens, want to oppress others, they first have to make it normal and palatable to the public.  We have seen this again, and again in our history.  We don’t start off by sending people to internment camps, we start with a database.  And before we start with a database, we start talking about registration.  So the time to push back is not when they string up the barbed wire, the time is when you first hear about registration.  Or denying citizenship.  Or taking away voting rights.  Or building a wall.

I know a lot people are already working to make the world and ourselves less cruel and dangerous.  But as my dear friend Faith, theologian, pastor, teacher and supreme bad-ass said immediately after the election,

I pray every single one of us demands no less of the new president than the best we could imagine. Hold the President accountable, hold those in the Senate and the House and the Cabinet and the block next door and hold yourself accountable. In the aftermath of this election, we all have to be better, more loving, more imaginative, more committed to protecting the outcast, the stranger, we must be more generous of spirit, than we have yet imagined we can possibly be. Now more than ever, lives surely depend on it.

I’m going to be writing more on this blog about ways to push back, care for our community, and hold ourselves accountable, but my overwhelming plan is: Don’t accept discrimination or neglect as normal.  Don’t let it become acceptable.  There is nothing natural about letting people live in poverty, there is nothing natural about discriminating against someone because of their religion, or race, or ethnicity, or sexual orientation, or gender or any other glorious expression of humanity.

I’m holding myself accountable to my community and I’m entrusting myself to you too.



New Short Story Out at Metaphorosis Magazine…

metaphorosis_2016-10-313x500Metaphorosis Magazine just published my short story “Shine” today.  It’s about moonshine runners, Appalachian folklore,  finding your creative spark again….and a lot more.

One of the most fun parts of writing this piece was researching Appalachian ballads and writing one myself.  Also, interviewing a professional distiller to get my facts about whiskey-making right!

You can read the story here and my interview with Metaphorosis Magazine here.


Guest Post on the Intelligent Edge!

Helen Brown, founder of the Helen Brown Group and publisher of The Intelligent Edge blog, is a great advocate for prospect research in nonprofits; I’ve read her blog for several years and am always inspired by her push for due diligence, self-reflection, and innovative techniques in research.  So I was pleased and honored when she asked me to write guest post!  Check out the post to read about my team’s interview project with venture capital and private equity professionals…

APRA Prospect Development 2016 Recap!

Whew!  It’s been quite a fortnight.* I attended the APRA International Prospect Development 2016 conference in Nashvegas Nashville, TN and presented on the venture capital industry and on creating a team newsletter (slides from both presentations are available on the APRA website for members), then had a case of Exploding Inbox when I got back into the office.  Here are my highlights and thoughts from the conference:

Value-driven life:  The keynote speaker Risa Mish talked about living and working in line with

Highlights include an entire store wall of embroidered guitar purses.

Highlights include an entire store wall of embroidered guitar purses.

your values and asked us to do an exercise in which we listed our values, then shortened our list to get at what we value the very most.  It’s an exercise I’ve did earlier this year, and I have found it very useful for prioritizing my activities and reflecting on whether or not an activity or behavior is working against or towards my values.  It reminded me of a Parker Palmer quote about vocation.

“Vocation is when your heart’s gladness meets the world’s great need.”

As nonprofit professionals, we are acutely aware of the many, many needs of the world and it is easy to focus purely on those needs and ignore what we value as well, including what we actually enjoy doing.  But if we are to avoid burnout and live a satisfying professional and personal life, we need to find a way to knit the two together.  I’m going to try Risa Mish’s Sunday night journal exercise and write down my values and commit to two actions that embody those values.

Philanthropy and Culture:  Several sessions and conversations addressed the idea of culture  and philanthropy. This topic could be (and probably will be) a whole post in itself, but a question that kept coming up for me was,

“What would it look like to approach international philanthropy as an exchange, rather than as instruction?”

A lot of discussion at APRA 2016 about different cultural views of philanthropy assumed that the goal was to help non-US donors behave more like US donors.  I think that the United States’ philanthropic culture has a lot of useful concepts and tools, but if we exclusively focus on teaching it to the rest of the world, we close our minds to the idea that there may be other methods of doing philanthropy that are equally useful.  Many of the key features of contemporary U.S. philanthropy (naming gifts, class gifts, etc.) are very recent and rooted in Gilded Age giving culture.   If we assume that this style of philanthropy is the “right” one, we lose out on the opportunity to grow and change.   I’m not sure what that an exchange-driven approach would look like, but it’s an interesting idea to mull over.

Also baby glitter cowboy boots.

Also baby glitter cowboy boots.

New Approach = Better Conference: In the past I have tried to do far too much at APRA Prospect Development.  My logic was that since my employer was paying for my hotel and attendance fees and the conference is a once a year opportunity, I should work 24-7.  This is a great recipe for burning yourself out and getting sick halfway through a conference or the moment your return home.  This year, I tried to conference smarter, not harder (Yes, I’m using conference as a verb.  Moving on.)  I planned some networking sessions ahead of time and spaced out those sessions and my learning sessions so I had enough time to  take a break in between.  I  focused on having in-depth conversations with a few colleagues, rather than trying to talk to the entire APRA community.   Overall, this approach facilitated a far better conference experience; I felt more present in my conversations,  I learned and gave more in return, and while I came back tired, I wasn’t sick and exhausted and was able to chug through my overstuffed inbox at a reasonable pace.  If you feel overwhelmed by conferences or have a tendency to overwork at them, I highly recommend focusing on doing less better, rather than trying to do everything.

*I have been waiting all my life for a day in which I could legitimately use the word “fortnight.”  Today is that day. *weeps nerd tears*





New writing group site! And other writing news…

This week, my writing group, Just Write Chicago, launched our website.  In the past six years, we’ve grown from a small  group to a city-wide group of over two thousand members.  This March, Michael Mills and I will celebrate three years of running the south side chapter.

My favorite part about having a regular writing group is the support and consistency it brings to my life.  There have been many nights when I’ve arrived at a meet up feeling frustrated and stuck and the act of sitting down and writing, then talking with other writers made me leave feeling uplifted.  If you are interested in  starting your own writing group, check out my post on the subject.

In other writing news…

This past January, I took Mary Robinette Kowal’s Short Story Intensive workshop.  It  was one of the most useful writing courses I’ve taken to date.  I particularly enjoyed her approach to critique, which she details in this video.  Since taking her class, I’ve been using her exercises around the MICE quotient to outline a plot for my short stories.  For me, fiction ideas start as images or concepts, rather than as plot points.  I struggle with transferring the image into a plot structure, and using the idea of MICE and is helping me think through plot and structure.


My friend Joy and I finally started the Quaker fashion blog we’ve been talking about for three years. As far as I know, it is the only Quaker fashion blog on the web–or in existence, ever.  Come for the William Penn jokes, stay for the queries about red lipstick, grandpa ties, and showing up for racial justice.