In which your local nonprofiteer gets very excited about Latin America and ruminates on ethics

I recently gave a webinar on prospect research in Latin America for APRA Education Week (which was really APRA Education Fortnight).  Check out the blog post here.  If you are a member of APRA, you can access the webinar here.

In February, Helen Brown of the Helen Brown Group  linked to an article written by Matt Goldsmith and published in the Harvard Business Review called, “You May Not Be In Charge, But You Can Influence the People Who Are.”  The article is geared more for a business audience than a nonprofit audience, but it spoke to me nonetheless.  In the past few months, I’ve been struggling with some of the actions of my employer–I work for a large university and it’s inevitable that there will be times when the university makes decisions with which I disagree.  Unfortunately, almost all conventional advice regarding how to influence the actions of higher education institutions assumes that you are either a student, faculty, an administrator, or unionized staff. As a prospect researcher, I don’t fit any of those categories.

However, Goldsmith’s article lists broad principles that can enacted by a diversity of positions, no faculty senate or board membership required.  Here is how I am trying to use three of Goldsmith’s principles to influence my organization as a researcher:

1) Accept the Facts:  Goldsmith encourages employees to accept the fact that the person making decision will be made by the person who has the power to make that decision, not the “right” person or the “smartest” person or the “best” person.   I accept the current structure of governance at the university and acknowledge that I will need to appeal to the appropriate decision makers (board of trustees, student government, alderman etc.).  As a researcher, I spend a lot of time learning about corporate and nonprofit hierarchies so that gift officers can appeal to the correct person. When I’m figuring out who to talk to about an issue at the university (or any organization I’m part of), I need to do the same research to make sure I’m not wasting my time appealing to someone who isn’t a decision maker.

2) Realize You Must Sell Your Ideas:  As a prospect researcher, a great deal of my work is devoted to investigating the philanthropic priorities of individuals so that I can pinpoint matches between the university’s projects and a philanthropist’s passion.  Likewise, when advocating for an issue at my workplace, it’s important to find a match between an institutional value and the issue.  For example, my undergraduate alma mater is a Quaker school that values non-violence; when advocating for divestment from weapons manufacturers, students and alumni appealed to the tradition of non-violence.  In another example, the University of Chicago is a secular institution and prides itself on academic integrity and access to information, when advocating for more data transparency for the university’s private police force, students and staff appealed to the university’s sense of integrity regarding data and information.  It will always be a struggle to figure out how to live our mission, but one of the reasons I choose to work at a mission driven organization is because I want to engage in that conversation.

3) “Challenge up” on issues involving ethics or integrity—never remain silent on ethics violations: There is a lot of information about ethics in prospect research regarding personal data, but there is less information regarding how a prospect researcher can be a partner in maintaining an organization’s ethics and values.  Many organizations have guidelines, implicit or explicit, for the types of donations they will accept and prospect researchers are in a prime position to find out whether or not a donor matches those standards.  Unfortunately, fundraising staff and administrators may not always communicate those standards clearly, or may have very different ideas regarding this issue.  Prospect researchers can push for clarity and dialogue regarding donations and an organization’s values.

For me, one of the most difficult issues is to grapple with is my impartiality as a researcher vs. my engagement as a member of the university community.  I work very hard to present information regarding fundraising as accurately and objectively as I can, but I also try hard to not let my habit of impartiality translate into inaction when it comes to organizational decisions and direction.  Being an objective researcher does not mean that we cannot be active members of our respective nonprofits, in fact, our positions as researchers gives us a unique perspective and skills to bring to the table.