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!








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*





Amelia’s 2015 Best of Prospect Research List!


Now is the time when we are flooded with listicles from all major media outlets about the past year .  I rather enjoy those, particularly the weird data round-ups.  So, I propose we share our own prospect research highlights of 2015!

Here are some of the items that rocked my research cubicle in 2015:

  1. New data resource (US): Donor Search!  My office just started to use it for proactive prospecting and it has been very useful so far.  Stay tuned!
  2. New data resource (international):  London City Data Store  Free data about London!
  3. Professional development event: APRA in NOLA
  4. Professional development presentation:  Tie between Preeti Gill and Jen Filla‘s presentation on female philanthropists and Kenny Tavares and Elizabeth Roma’s (Helen Brown Group)  podcast on family offices.
  5. Major news article: The Financial Timesseries on London housing prices.  This series led me to reexamine how my team rates London prospects.
  6. Academic article: Mesch, Debra, Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, Una Osili, Xiao Han, Andrea Pactor, “Women Give 2015,” Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthopy. November, 11, 2015. IUPUIScholarWorks Repository.
  7. Tweets: I agree with the adage that a good tweet does one of the three e’s i.e. engage, entertain, or educate.  Here are my 2015 favorites in each category:
    1. Educate: Sabine Schuller’s tweet about the international $1M gift report.
    2. Entertain: Catherine Cefalu’s thoughts on her pending thesis (good luck!)
    3. Engage: Helen Brown’s conversation about prospect researchers’ wild-eyed dreams.
  8. Prospect Research Humor:  This post by Fundraiser Grrl.
  9. Book: Preeti Gill’s What About Women? Prospect Development from a Female Perspective
  10. Office Technology:  Slack.  My office switched from Gchat to Slack this year, and I’ve liked all of the ways we’ve been able to customize it.



Latin American Philanthropy Study!

At the end of June 2015,  the Hauser Institute at Harvard University released a new study on Latin American philanthropy in partnership with UBS:  From Prosperity to Purpose: Perspectives on Philanthropy and Social Investment among Wealthy Individuals in Latin America.  Given that there is a dearth of data on Latin American philanthropy, this is pretty huge.

Minon excited

This is some Grade A professional squealing.

This was my extremely professional reaction when my colleague emailed me the news:

The study explores private giving and social investment among high net worth individuals and families in six Latin American countries, and includes an overview and individual reports on Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. Each report analyzes donors’ motivations and aspirations; philanthropic practices and operations; challenges and obstacles to giving; and the types of support, resources, and policy reforms that might increase giving and strengthen its impact.  It is available in both English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

It’s important to note, this study surveyed wealthy people already engaged in philanthropy, so it may not be indicative of wealthy people who are not yet philanthropists nor of broader social attitudes towards giving.  Nevertheless, it is a useful snapshot of how current philanthropists are thinking about their giving.

Here are some key takeaways from the interview project, there will be a follow up post featuring highlights from the Chile, Mexico, and Brazil reports.

  • Education is the top philanthropic priority across the region. Education at all levels is viewed by the interviewees as the key to regional economic development and reducing social inequality.
  • Future funding priorities are different to the current areas being funded. When asked to think about the most important future roles for philanthropy in society, primary and secondary education a remain top priority—but social entrepreneurship was cited as the second highest priority, despite not being making it to the current top five priorities among interviewees.
  • View of philanthropy is expanding. Historically, many Latin American philanthropists believed that education and healthcare sector was the responsibility of the government, but interviewees stated that they were interested in how individual philanthropy could supplement and drive change in those sectors.
  • Outcome-based approach to social invest and agnostic approach to methodology:  The philanthropists overwhelmingly stated that they were driven by a desire for tangible, measurable outcomes but they were not bent on particular method for achieving those outcomes.
  • Lack of regulation breeds both creativity and distrust:    Many philanthropists stated that they were frustrated by the lack of data transparency and professionalism in the non-profit sector in their home countries, and for that reason, they often preferred to run programs themselves, rather than give grants.  However, interviewees also stated that the lack of regulation meant they were free to try out new methods and partnerships.
  • Family philanthropy is tied to individual giving:  Many individuals described philanthropy as a means of reinforcing familial bonds, especially in cases where a family business was sold or the younger generations were no longer involved in its operation.
  • Impact investing is growing rapidly:  Capital committed by impact investment funds in Latin American increased from $160M USD in 2008 to roughly $2B USD in 2013, representing  12-fold increase in just five years.  Brazil has the largest regional share, followed by Mexico and Colombia.

Next, I’m digging into the individual country reports, so stay tuned!

My #1 advice to new prospect researchers (and writers): read the newspaper

One of my favorite professors in college was Dr. Rajaram Krishnan, who taught economics and used haircuts and candy bars as his go-to examples when demonstrating economic theories. He was funny, he was informative, he pushed us to consider different perspectives,and he said things that have stayed with me for the rest of my life.  I wish I had taken more classes with him–I didn’t take more because I was afraid of getting anything less than an A- and I knew that with my shaky math skills, I would probably get a B.  I would choose learning over grades now, but at 19 I hadn’t made that leap.  So it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut says.

One of the many things Dr. Krishnan  shouted told us was “read the damn newspaper, for God’s sake!”  His point was this:  even if you don’t agree with the conclusions of economists and policy-makers, even if you don’t agree with the way major newspapers present news stories, those conclusions and decisions will affect your life, so it’s good to be familiar with the conversation.


“I find your knowledge of the Argentinian debt crisis even more attractive then your amazing tango skills, Amelia. We should definitely go out again.”

Despite my professor’s very good advice, reading the newspaper occupied the same space in my brain as flossing my teeth–yes, yes, I KNOW it is good for me, it is part of being a responsible adult human, will give me powerful bone-crushing incisors when I’m old and need to nibble my way out of the ropes my nemesis’s ninjas have bound me in (I plan on being an awesome old person) but after college and grad school I managed to put reading the newspaper off in favor instant and fleeting gratification, like Netflix.  So I flossed and read the newspaper haphazardly, usually before I wanted to impress someone during a job interview or a date.

Then I got a job as a prospect researcher, and was assigned to read the Financial Times, every day.  Not the New York Times, with its sexy font, not the Economist with its glossy pictures of world leaders–the Financial Times.  Every day.  And I needed to understand the articles enough to actually decide what was important enough to forward to the rest of the department.

The first few months were hard.  I never read business and economics news regularly before and it felt like walking into the middle of a conversation.  There were a lot of terms that I used but realized quickly that I only half-understood, like hedge fund and commodities, and many terms I didn’t understand at all, like quantitative easing and currency swaps.   In addition, reading about global economics felt like walking into someone’s beloved soap opera, or a book series, everyone else knew the cast of characters and had decades of experience with them and I kept asking questions like, “Wait, is he the central bank governor or the head of the World Bank?  I thought she was the prime minister, not the president–no, wait, she used the be the prime minister and now she’s running for president.  Okay. Who is the CEO of JP Morgan Chase again?”

Honestly, if I was doing it on my own, I probably would have given up and ran away to the New York Times.  But it was my job, so I stuck with it.

Learning to read the Financial Times reminded me of learning Spanish, I couldn’t look up every word I didn’t know in every article, but I gave myself the task of looking up a couple words every day and really digging into at least one sub-industry per week.  One week I read lots of articles on hedge funds, another week I learned about currency markets.  And like learning to read in a foreign language, the daily work started to add up and I began to understand more and more of the text.

As a prospect researcher, simply sitting down and reading the Financial Times every damn day was the best crash course in economics and industry intelligence I could have gotten. It served two purposes: it provided a never-ending stream of information about the global economy that I could use as a my own personal lesson plan, and it allowed me to listen in on a conversation happening among my organization’s prospects…which in turn helped me write and research about them more efficiently and with more insight.

Moreover, reading the FT regularly began to serve as a touchstone for other interests–I paid attention to how issues I cared about, such as income inequality, or racial discrimination in the workplace, were portrayed in a publication geared towards business professionals and policy-makers.  I noted how the Financial Times, a UK-based paper, covered US politics and events, and I compared the coverage of particular world events in FT versus US-based news sources.  As Professor Krishnan had said, knowing the way the conversation is being framed is important data in and of itself.

One of the joys and challenges of being a prospect researcher and  a writer is that you must be able to see the world from multiple vantage points and that requires the willingness and ability to leave your intellectual comfort zone.  It is not comfortable to read unfamiliar vocabulary and concepts every day; it is not comfortable to admit that you don’t know something yet–but it is such a joy to realize that you can learn and write about so much more than you think you are capable of.

Dear Lucy, I disagree with much of your career advice, but that's okay, because your over the glasses glare is on point.

Dear Lucy, I disagree with much of your career advice, but that’s okay, because your over the glasses glare is on point.

The Financial Times has now, to my great surprise, become one of my favorite things to read.  I love their breadth and depth of coverage on the emerging economies, I love their special reports on particular industries, I love their cranky job advice columnist, I even love their ridiculous nerdy puns in the headlines.  And I love the feeling of listening in on one thread of the global conversation.

So here is my #1 piece of advice to all brand-new prospect researchers:  read a business periodical every day, even if it is hard at first.  A subscription is relatively cheap and it’s the best daily professional development  you can get.  If you can read more than one newspaper, even better.  But just read.  It’s worth it.










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.