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!



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*