Thursday, August 16, 2012

2012 APRA International Conference Review

It’s a steaming early August evening in Minneapolis.  I deposited my rented bike into the NiceRide bike sharing system at the intersection of Franklin & Hennepin, two major thorough fairs that run through the trendy neighborhood of Uptown Minneapolis.  I was happy that I stumbled upon NiceRide which allowed me to escape the empty shell of downtown and explored this livelier part of the city.  I read somewhere that “discovering a favourite street in any city is always the tipping point from being just a visitor to feeling at home”. So when I looked up and saw the Sabastian Joe’s ice cream shop siting on the corner of the street, I had a feeling that this is it, the sweet spot. 

Going to an international conference as the sole representative of your organization can be as unsettling as visiting a brand new city.  As a first-time goer of APRA International Conference, I was first stunned by the sheer volume of researchers there. The feeling of being somewhat “special” as one of the twenty or so prospect researchers in Calgary (or even amongst the very special 200 or so members of APRA Canada) quickly vanishes.  I felt a little lost and overwhelmed for the first couple of days.  Then I found the “favourite street”, my “ice cream shop” at Elizabeth Crabtree’s session on “Substance, Matter, Function & Form: High-Impact Research Analysis and Report Writing”.  This jam-packed and much-tweeted session further confirmed my belief that Prospect Research is just as much about communication as it is about information.  It was eye opening to see the level of sophistication, originality, and seeds of proactive prospecting in the original profiles from decades ago that was kept on file at Brown University (great record keeping!).  It was also such a privilege to listen to a true veteran like Elizabeth Crabtree, the recipients of the first APRA Visionary Award, to speak about our profession with such confidence and honesty.  Her presentation style was as concise and sharp as the kind of research analysis she advocated.  I loved her comments like “my own ratings are always better than the ratings from vendors, seriously” or “we (prospect researchers) are not in the university’s secretarial pool”. Yes, seriously!  Although most of us can probably say that we are already able to implement the one-pager format, to report inferred value (especially in Canada when information is scarcer), and to make strategic advices as they had done at Brown,  it is still a great feeling to be validated and cheered on by a voice of authority in the field.  She really brought it home for me when she presented the success story by showing us the original document of a prospect researcher’s advice on cultivating Warren Alpert for a major gift back in 1992 that had resulted 15 years later in a $100 million naming gift to the now Warren Alpert School of Medicine.  At the end of the session, I realized although sharing and learning tools are perhaps the main functions of a conference, I was also looking to be inspired.

Another impressive session that hit the sweet spot for me was the penal discussion on the future of Data Modeling by Josh Birkholz, Peter Wylie, and Marianne Pelletier.  It’s filled with enlightening stories and ideas that I tried to jot down at furious speed. When you are able to speak to a subject without any preparation and powerpoint presentation and still entertain a roomful of researchers, you are definitely reaching that inspiring level of expertise like these three.  When talking about talents in the field of data analytics, Josh Birholz characterized three main traits: sense of curiosity, a belief that you can do it, and fundraising knowledge base (he emphasized that knowledge base and experience can be taught and earned but the first two traits are harder to come by).  On the future of data modeling, the experts had many good questions and thought-provoking ideas to be developed (perhaps by us) including: more and more automate process (is it good or bad?), process modeling (a switch from who to how; i.e. how do we close more gifts instead of who should we ask), how do we deal with more and more data that’s going to be available through the internet and how do we gather all the social media information into the database, process, retrieve and analyze them.  One of Canada’s own, Kevin MacDonell of Dalhousie University, got mentioned for upcoming books and projects.  What a great representation of Canada in the forefront of data analytics!

I finally found my Canadian colleagues thanks to Sarah Anderson and Liz Rejman for their diligent organization of our Canadian dinner.  I would like to suggest to the organizers to bring a small Canadian flag next time as we do all look very alike the Americans (who don’t look alike these days with the diversity we are enjoying in every part of the world)!  Some of us even ended up on the patio of Brit Pub, a roof top patio a block away from the hotel that’s perhaps the only visibly crowded spot in downtown Minneapolis after 10pm.  There was a huge TV screen playing the Olympic coverage at the back of a lawn bowling court in the centre of the patio (all on the roof of a parking garage out in the open).  There, I was feeling it again, the warm and fuzzy feeling of familiarity and contentment, surrounded by colleagues who share my work and passion, in awe by the inspiring events happening on the big screen. I realized that this is maybe why we go to conferences, to be validated, inspired or simply to enjoy the accompaniment of those who also work in this exciting field we call Prospect Research. 

A Senior Prospect Researcher at the Calgary Zoo, Melody Song is APRA Canada’s scholarship recipient for the APRA 25th International Conference 2012.  Melody will also be presenting on Relationship Mapping for Major Gift at the APRA Canada Conference 2012.

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