November 2018: Happy birthday and giving thanks…

My birthday is on November 22,  which means it falls on Thanksgiving about every six or seven years, including this year.  I had mixed feelings about this birthday–it’s been a rough few months for my physical and mental health so I wasn’t feeling particularly celebratory.  But the funny thing about birthdays is that they come and go no matter how you feel about them and your life is politely waiting for you on the other side, like a dog that needs to be walked.

I hosted Thanksgiving and tried to be the hostess that I want to see in the world, so there was a lot of starchy food and cheese and alcohol and I didn’t make anyone say what they were thankful for this year.  I am thankful for quite a few things though, even if I didn’t say it aloud.

I’m so grateful for stories and for the people who tell them.  I’ve had difficulty accessing joy during the past few months and consuming stories has been one of the few consistent ways I can feel a sense of joy and hope.  I finally got into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (I tried a few times before and made the mistake of starting at the beginning) and his books have been the perfect combination of escape and grounding.  In addition to Sir Terry, I found a few television shows, podcasts, and other media that have been deeply comforting and meaningful.

I’m also grateful for people who tell stories with me.  Telling stories is one of the ways I connect with others, whether it’s a formal writing workshop or a long rambling conversation with my husband about how we’d fix a movie we almost liked.  Good collective storytelling is such a vulnerable act–if you are going to be really creative, you have to let people into your weird mind at least a little bit.  My favorite part of this Thanksgiving was sitting around my living room with friends and riffing off a set of jokes until we had a full-blown ridiculous narrative that we created just for ourselves.

Things are been slowly improving (she says cautiously) but this experience reminds me why it is so important to tell your stories, whatever form that takes.  Someone might really need them.

 

October 2018: Happy Halloween! Here is a treat!

Halloween is my favorite holiday.  Costumes!  Spooky stuff!  Leaves crunching under your feet!  Syncretism!  Candy!

In honor of Halloween, the Illinois association of fundraising researchers asked for fundraising themed spooky short stories to run in their newsletter.   My co-worker and I co-wrote a piece that is an homage to a certain classic vampire novel…you can read our story here.

While writing the story, I re-read said vampire novel and I’ve decided that one of the under-appreciated messages of  Dracula is that it sucks to be the new guy at work.  Why is Jonathan Harker traveling to handle a real estate deal with a reclusive aristocrat in the Carpathian mountains?  Because no one else wanted to do it.    I feel like poor Jonathan Harker often gets the short shrift in film versions–he’s portrayed as naive and stupid, but really, he’s just a brand new graduate at his first law job who gets sent on a crappy assignment and is completely in over his head.  Quincey Morris would have tried to shoot his way out of Dracula’s castle, Dr. Seward would try to science his way out (yes, we are going to pretend that science is also a verb, just move along), Van Helsing knows what’s up and would just stake Dracula on the first night, and Arthur Holmwood wouldn’t be in the situation at all because he’s rich and doesn’t need to work.  Jonathan Harker just wants to do a good job and winds up on the worst business trip ever.

Oh Jonathan, you never stood a chance…
[Image Description: Jonathan Harker looks fearful as Count Dracula, wearing a flowing red robe, menaces him from behind]

If you want to revisit some classic horror this Halloween, I recommend Extraordinary Tales.  It is an animated anthology of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, each animated by a different artist and read by a different narrator.  The narrators are fantastic and the animation is wonderfully macabre in different ways.  It is currently available on Netflix.

Happy October everyone!

September 2018: Spooky Tours and How I Get Ideas

Happy fall to all those in the Northern Hemisphere!  This week I pulled out my scarves and boots, started dousing myself (more) in spicy scents, and am trying desperately to resist buying every  Halloween item in the stores.

I recently went on a lecture and tour titled “Grave Robbing 101,” led by author, podcaster, and Atlas Obscura field agent, Adam Selzer.  Adam’s work focuses on weird and eerie history; for “Grave Robbing 101” he led us on a tour of Lincoln Park, a former cemetery, and discussed the history of graverobbing in Chicago during the 19th century.  The tour was fascinating and I spent a lot of it scribbling down story seeds in my notebook.

Writers get asked a lot where they get their ideas–for me, the two richest veins for ideas are real history and live performances (including theatre, music, and live lit).  History provides such great examples of human relationships, desires, and interactions that it’s hard for me to walk away from a history book or documentary without inklings of stories.  History feels like DNA strands for characters–not just for historical fiction, but any story about people.

I’m less certain why live performances inspire me.  My theory is that it stimulates the “flow” state in me.  Flow state is defined as the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task and has been linked to creativity.  In fact, Teresa Amabile, a research psychologist at Harvard University, found evidence that not only are people more creative in flow, they also report being more creative the day after a flow state.  When I watch a performance, I’m completely immersed the experience and I find myself having story ideas connected to the performance for days afterwards.

And with that, I am going write some more about human shenanigans and gaze longingly at black glitter candelabras.  Here’s to a fabulous fall, full of spooky fun and lots of ideas!

August 2018: The Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference

This month I attended the Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference which ran August 9-11 at the downtown Chicago campus.   The conference is a mix of sessions and panels on writing craft and the writing business, primarily geared towards fiction and creative non-fiction writers as well as poets.  Here are some of my takeaways from the conference and my tips for getting the most out of professional conferences and maximizing your comfort.

Writing Business: Residencies, Resumes, and Contests

  • If you are interested in applying to a writers’ residency, this website was recommended by several attendees has an excellent guide to applications.
  • Writers’ organizations and residency hosts are starting to acknowledge that many people experience significant barriers to attending a residency–especially writers with disabilities, writers who have children and are primary caregivers, and writers who have limited or no paid vacation time.  The Chicago Artists Resource lists several artist-in-residence programs that prioritize accessibility, including the MacDowell artists’ community.
  • Residency applications, as well as many other professional writing opportunities (such as querying an agent) will often require an artist’s resume.  If you have never compiled an artist’s resume before, these are the items you should generally include: your education; conferences or workshops you’ve attended; awards you’ve won; selected publications; press (i.e. if you’ve been interviewed or had articles written about you); related professional experience (i.e. day job stuff that’s germane to your writing).  It’s not hard and fast, so pick the categories that reflect your experience and omit the others.
  • Here is an example of an artist’s resume.  She is a visual artist, but the principles are the same.
  • Some advice on assessing contests fees–there isn’t a clear cut off point on when a contest fee is excessive, it is all about context.  Most contests have fees between $5 to $45, but you need to consider what you are sending.  If you are submitting a novel for a publication deal (and you’ve vetted the publication details of course!), then $20 is not unreasonable, but if you are submitting a flash fiction piece, then $20 would be excessive.
  • For marginalized writers, contests can be a possible avenue to reducing the role of bias by an editor, since editors usually don’t see the names and personal details of the writer.  It doesn’t eliminate it, but one of the panelists, who is a woman of color, said that this was a reason she enters writing contests.

Writing Craft:

  • I really enjoyed the session on writing the body, taught by Kathleen Rooney  I thought that the first session would be about describing physical experiences–and we did discuss that–but Kathleen pushed us to focus on how we approached writing the body.  What cultural lenses and filters do we automatically use when we begin to write about bodies?  The session pushed me to reconsider how I approach writing physicality.
  • I also enjoyed the session on organizing long-term projects, taught by Amin Ahmad.  Amin was an architect before he began writing novels and he walked us through how he used to approach designing a building and the way he uses that blueprint (no pun intended!) for designing a long-form writing project.  I found it to be a very useful way of thinking about the writing process.

Tips on Maximizing Your Comfort at Conferences:

  • You do not have to attend all days or all sessions to get a lot out of a conference.  I used to try to go to every session, panel, keynote address luncheon, networking happy hour, regional chapter meetup dinner, and late-night vendor-sponsored karaoke party before collapsing in my hotel room and then doing all again for another three days.  Now I pace myself more and even though FOMO is particularly persistent at conferences, I remind myself that it is better to be present and healthy at fewer events than exhausted and half-listening to everything.
  • Bring writing materials to sessions–I know, I know, this seems like a no-brainer, but here is my secret:  I don’t just write notes about the session, I also write down story ideas, blog posts, projects, and other lists.  I find listening to conference lectures and panels and performances to be very mentally stimulating and I’ve started embracing the flow of ideas that happen.  I still pay attention to the event but I let myself free associate as well and paradoxically this helps me stay more focused on the topic.
  • Bring layers, a water bottle, and snacks.  Conference rooms vary wildly in temperature and having a cardigan or shawl (or best, a big soft wrap I can roll up and stash in my bag) makes the experience a lot more pleasant.  Even if the conference provides water and snacks, it is nice to have a refillable bottle and you never know when a session will run over or if there won’t be enough food.
  • When meeting new people at writing conferences, I enjoy asking what they like to write or if they have any current projects they are excited about.  It is a very accessible question that can be answered by anyone at any point in their writing career and avoids the “What do you do?” or “What have you published?” questions, which can be very anxiety-producing for a lot of people (which makes people less likely to talk to you) and frankly, aren’t very interesting questions.  I’m much more interested in what people are interested in (which may be their jobs or their publications, but I’ll let them tell me that).  It is also subtly different than “What do you write?” which you get asked a lot at writing conferences, so it stands out a bit more and is a nice change of pace.

Last but not least–if you are going to a conference, it is worth it to print out business cards (Vistaprint has good deals).  I forgot mine two days in a row and I hate scribbling out details on scraps of paper that get lost and crumpled.  Do as I say, not as I did!

 

July 2018: Goats, Flamenco, and Remembering How to Play in My Writing Practice

As I mentioned May’s blog post, I’ve been learning to adjust my writing work style from what I  call “Angry Goat Headbutts Rock In Between It and Lovely Grass” to “Slightly Wiser Goat Looks Around Curiously to See if There is An Alternate Way to Get to Grass.”  The goat is me and the grass is the story,  by the way, if that metaphor wasn’t clear.

[Image description: a small baby goat with a brown and white body pushes its head into a person’s hand]

When writing (or anything else) starts to feel hard, my method up to date has been to keep showing up at the page and push through–effectively punch my way to the other side through willpower and gritted teeth.  Sometimes this works…but sometimes it doesn’t.  More and more research shows that willpower is a finite resource and can be fatigued by overuse and this has been true in my experience.   There is a romantic notion that  “real artists” devote all their willpower to their art–but that is not realistic or reflective of artists’ lives.  Certainly not my life, as much as I might want that to be true.  And even if my willpower was boundless as the galaxy and someone else could take care of all my physical, emotional, and social needs, there are some problems in writing that can’t be solved by sheer force.

When I complained to several friends about not being able to work my way through a story and having more and more difficulty gathering enough willpower to write, they asked about my writing practice and gently suggested that I prioritize fun and play in my writing.

“You’re using willpower for everything.  Maybe trying playing as a different tool.  Write stuff for fun, focus on the joy of it.  Follow what feels good sometimes.”

I immediately made this face.  And I kept headbutting away.

Stubborn Baby Goat is a candidate for my Patronus [Image description: a white baby goat looks up with a stubborn expression]

Back in January, I started taking flamenco dance classes–I wanted to learn flamenco since I was 13 and saw a performance at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in my hometown but shortly afterward, I started experiencing severe foot pain and was diagnosed with a type of irritation of the nerve due to a quirk of my foot anatomy.  There’s not really a cure since I can’t change the shape of my feet and my podiatrist told me to avoid high impact dancing and high heels, which is a perfect description of flamenco.  But I continued to watch videos of flamenco performers and imagined myself stomping to the guitar.

Finally, bored with my exercise routine, I decided to give it a try and see if I could make flamenco work for me.  I found that I could be in flamenco shoes and dance for one hour tops, and I could practice heelwork for 30 minutes at most.  This means that even if I want to keep headbutting my way through some challenging choreography, I just can’t.   I’ve found to my surprise that I can still keep up with the class even if I can’t practice for hours at a time and that some movements just take time to learn.

One day our instructor asked us to practice our expression.  “Stop being so dainty!  You are not ladies sipping tea!  You are tigresses showing that you will not be trifled with!” she said.  We stopped drilling footwork and instead tried making fierce faces at each other as we walked across the room.  “I know this might seem silly or trivial–but you have to practice confidence and a range of expressions.  If you don’t practice having a fierce attitude, it will be harder to perform with it.  It’s important to play around with this.”

As I was practicing my tigress face at home, it hit me–I wasn’t playing in my writing because it felt too important.  I love writing and stories and I want to write well so I was drilling but I wasn’t practicing a range of expressions.  I was afraid that playing with feeling and expression would come at the cost of good writing but not playing was going to come with a cost too.  If I didn’t start to play, I’d keep losing the joy of writing and watch it become brittle from drilling—and that was going to hurt like hell.  It was already hurting like hell, which was why I was so fiercely opposed to playing because I thought I could work and drill my way out of this problem.

It’s scary to do something new and uncomfortable, but we do scary stuff for the things we love.  So, I’m learning to play–I’d say learning to play again, but it’s been long enough that it doesn’t feel like “again” so much as learning for the first time.  We’ll see where this takes me.

My flamenco shoes, ready for practice. [Image Description: a black and white photo of a pair of worn black flamenco shoes on a wooden floor]

June 2018: Language Challenges in Historical Fiction Writing

Happy summer everyone!  I’ve been writing a lot of historical fiction recently and there are certain language issues that are unique to the genre. Here are three problems I’ve wrestled with over the past few years and some of the ways I approach them.

Language that is Period-Appropriate, but Sounds Anachronistic:

[Image description: 19th century black and white Ever Ready flash light advertisement]

Last year I wrote a short story set in a wealthy household in the United States between World War I and the stock market crash of 1929.  In one scene, a child wants more illumination in her room in order to read in bed and because she is frightened of a ghost who is haunting the house. During that period, flashlights were growing very popular and rapidly replacing candles and hurricane lamps as hand-held lighting devices.  My protagonist is scientifically-minded and safety-minded, so it is unlikely that she would purposefully fall asleep with a burning candle or lamp in her room and it is reasonable to assume that a person of her class would have access to a flashlight.  However, the word “flashlight” felt jarringly contemporary to my beta readers.

I researched terms for flashlight, hoping there would be an antiquated term I could use to reduce the anachronistic feeling–but flashlights have been called flashlights since they were developed in the late 1890s.  In fact, the name comes from the fact that early versions weren’t very strong or steady and could only produce a brief flash of light.  The term “electric torch” feels old-fashioned, but that term is common to the UK, not the US where the story was set.  One reader suggested using a brand name that sounded sufficiently old-timey–but to my frustration, the most popular brand of flashlights during that period was EverReady, which is still one of the most well-known brands today.  Apparently, EverReady has been manufacturing flashlights under that brand name since 1905, without any regard for the needs of hard-working historical fiction writers.

In the end, I decided to go the opposite direction; rather than trying to make the item blend into the period, I highlighted the novelty of the item, even though flashlights wouldn’t have been that novel by 1924 for an upper-class child.   The final version read, “Her room was dark even when she opened the curtains to let the moonlight in and turned on her new electric flashlight.”  Calling the item “new” and specifying that it was “electric” made the item seem special and unusual, so while the term “flashlight” still felt modern, there was an explanation for its modernity in the text –she has a new-fangled toy!–and readers felt less jarred by the term.

Oppressive Language Commonly Used in the Past

I use the term “oppressive language” to cover both language used to actively oppress people, such as racial slurs, and language that was considered respectful in the past, but is now considered hurtful and demeaning by the people to which it refers.

I have heard the argument in favor of using oppressive language in historical fiction because it is realistic, but this is an over-simplified approach.    And as artists, we choose how to interpret, highlight, and display reality; stating “I do it because it is real” denies the artist’s agency.  It is more likely that “I do it because it is real” is followed by another value and desire such as “…and I want to show the brutality of the past so we don’t forget it” or “…and I want to express myself at all costs” or  “…and I want to get attention because I value attention” or “…and I share those viewpoints and I want to express them through my characters” and so on.   Whenever I find myself making the argument (about anything, not just oppressive language) that I am writing something in a particular way “because it is real” I ask myself what the second part of that sentence is.  What value and desires are driving the car right now?  What values do I want to be driving the car? And what are the clearest ways to express those values in my writing?

For example, in a story I wrote a few years ago, the protagonist is a young Black journalist

Old newspapers are some of my favorite resources for historical fiction research. [Image Description: A black and white illustration of a 19th century printing press]

working for the Conservator (the newspaper owned by Ida B. Wells and her husband Ferdinand Barnett) in the early 1890s.   I struggled a lot with whether or not to use the term “colored” in the story–it was the term used by the Conservator to describe its readership and used in its reporting so the term is certainly “realistic” but using it now would be racist and demeaning.   I reflected on my values in writing this particular story and came up with these guiding principles:

  • I wanted to show my characters to be complex, rounded, and exert agency.
  • I wanted to be truthful to the racism of the past, because I believe that covering up our country’s racist past perpetuates current racism.
  • I wanted to show my characters as affected by racism, but not solely defined by their oppression
  • I wanted to minimize trauma to people most affected by racism today.  I don’t believe there is a way to write about oppression that doesn’t run the risk of traumatizing readers because the nature of oppression is that it is traumatic and the nature of trauma is that triggers are individual–but there is a spectrum of likelihood of pain and I wanted this story to fall on the “far less likely” end of the spectrum.

With these principles in mind, I did a lot of research on how the most common terms for Black folks in 1890 ( including “colored” and “Black” and “Afro-American”) were used by Black people themselves in that era and what the political and social context was for each (good article on that here).  I asked several other writers, including Black writers, to workshop the piece and weigh in on language.  I read a lot of writing by Black writers and social scientists of the 1890s-1930s and contemporary Black writers who have published fiction set in that era.  I thought about how that character would feel about the term and how he would want to talk about himself.  And I tried to be very, very mindful of blind spots I have as a white writer living in 2018.

In addition to the oversimplified “realism” argument, I have also heard writers and readers frame decisions about oppressive language as if either you must either use it frequently and graphically or not at all.  Oppressive language is a form of violence and there are many, many ways to tell stories that engage with violence.  You can describe violence in graphic detail, you can refer to it abstractly; you can focus on the experience of the person enacting the violence, you can focus on the experience of the one who is being hurt, you can focus on the experience of an observer, you can focus on all three experiences; you can describe the consequences, but the not the actions, you can describe the actions but not the consequences etc. etc.  The choice isn’t between describing violence in graphic detail or not engaging with it at all –and it’s the same for oppressive language.

For example, I could write a character in 1700 who hears the word, “bitch” hurled at her on every page.  I could have it happen once.  I could write, “The shopkeeper was staring at Nancy and Rosie and as he passed he hissed an ugly word at them. Nancy felt a jolt of anger and fear.”   I could use an antiquated term that would have a similar impact on the character as “bitch” in 1700 but doesn’t have the same impact on a reader today, such as “trollop” or “slattern.” All of these examples engage with oppressive language but do so in very different ways.

Common Terms of the Past that are Now Anachronistic

This is the opposite of the flashlight problem.  Sometimes a term used for a common item, say a household appliance, has completely fallen out of use and your readers won’t be familiar with the term.

Like the problem of oppressive language, it’s important to review your goals as a writer.  I love learning new terms, especially obscure historical words.  But as a writer, I also want my work being intelligible and I want to be judicious about demands on my reader.  I’d rather my readers follow a plot or wrestle with a new take on history than look up a word in a specialized dictionary.  If the obscure term is really important to the story (for example, a mathematical instrument being used to solve a problem that is key to the plotline), then I try to reduce the work that a reader has to do by using context clues, or I find a reason for the character define the term for another character (does the mathematician explain to their doctor friend what the item is?).

[Image Description: a close up photo of a black zipper halfway closed on a blue garment]

Sometimes, I replace an archaic word with the modern equivalent for the same reason a costumer might put a hidden zipper an elaborate opera costume.  It lets the costume fulfill its purpose without being a gigantic logistical pain in my ass.  If an obscure but formerly common term is going require energy from my reader (either by looking it up or guessing from context clues I had to spend time writing) but doesn’t add to the narrative, I use a modern word.

And on that note, I’m going to put down my keyboard, typewriter, quillstylus writing implement and enjoy some sunshine in the park.

 

 

 

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 www.ameliaaldred.com and the posts will focus on storytelling, upcoming appearances, and publications.  My prospect research website will be www.thephilanthropologist.com 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 ameliaaldred.com has been migrated (and updated!) to thephilanthropologist.com.  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:

Questions:

  •  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?

    Demos

  • 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!