Monday, October 21, 2013

Out of the Comfort Zone - A Recap of the 2013 APRA International Conference

A year after I first attended APRA International Conference, I had already forgotten the feeling of seeing 1000 researchers in one room: definitely thrilled, a bit scary perhaps. I am so used to being in the minority and all of sudden, voila, you see researchers everywhere! What’s even scarier to see is all 1000 researchers standing up on their feet and doing a happy dance together!  What was going on?! 
Ok, let’s back up.
August 7, 2013, first day of conference.  
We all woke up as our up-tight researcher type selves in Baltimore, the World Capital of Blue Crabs, to attend the 25th APRA International Conference.   What we or at least some of us didn’t know was that Jon Duschinsky was such an energetic opening keynote speaker that we might just end up dancing in the end… 
Jon is the author of “Philanthropy in a Flat World” (2008) and “(me)volution” (2012).  His delivery of the keynote on “Access People Power” is nothing but exuberant and passionate (with a cute British accent too).  “People power” for researchers is the knowledge research brings to help us cope with a fast-changing world.  Non-profit organizations need to adapt to the pace or as Jon put it “people will change the world (through social ventures and social media) and bypass organizations like ours as we are too slow and cumbersome”.  Jon proposed that we kill “SWAT” analysis (“stone dead!” as Jon said) and replace strategic sessions with a 15 min brief from researchers. People like us shouldn’t be in the shadows, he insisted, researchers should “drive agendas” for our organizations.  But he also posed a valid question, are researchers in the shadows because we like to be there?  Are we uncomfortable getting out of our comfort zone?
Fast forward to the afternoon of that day: I attended a session called “From Researcher to Vice President: You Can Get There,” which was presented to a jam packed audience.  The presenters of the session were Shelby Radcliffe and David Shanton, both had rose above their “humble” researcher origin to “glamorous” Vice President-hood. I loved that most of the session was a direct conversation with the audience. One most interesting discussion was when Shelby said that, as the Vice President of Advancement, she was more concerned about hiring and retaining a frontline development officer than a researcher, since the market for someone who could close big gifts had been very competitive.  “The harsh reality for researchers is that they stay and not moving much,” she explained and as a result “dollars will never go to a researcher’s job unless he or she is doing something exceptional”.  She also added “the bottom line of an organization is directly and immediately affected by frontline fundraisers but never by researchers”.  These comments provoked outrage from the audience, as expected.  “Sounded like we were being punished by our loyalty.  Is it true that the only way to move up is to threaten our bosses and start looking around?” asked one audience member.  The answer was yes.  Both presenters had stepped out of their comfort zones and took risks to advance their careers.  For example, Shelby had volunteered to do donor visits and annual donor events. Because of her front-line experience, she was able to make changes and run the research division completely different and this made her stand out.  Incidentally, both presenters didn’t have formal frontline fundraising in their career track at all.  David thought that what gave a researcher an edge, when it came to moving up to the leadership role, was the understanding of the advancement operation as a whole, thus making it easier for a researcher to design and operationalize strategy.  “Researchers are in perfect position to be leaders in campaign planning,” added Shelby. 
Both presenters agreed that there was definitely a trend for advancement services to move towards more accountability and information based decision making as well as towards the science of fundraising. Having a research background provides us with a great foundation if one aspires to move into an advancement management role. 
One other important tip that they mentioned is that researchers need to improve their presentation skills. Even if a Major Gift career is not required for someone to move up the track, it’s nice to have the ability to present your case and talk about the organization at a higher level.  The ability to network beyond the research world (such as attending  AFP or CASE conferences) also helps to create opportunities to move either vertically or horizontally.
Maybe some researchers are asking: what if some of us just don’t want to move into a leadership role. We enjoy what we do. Does this mean that we can stay in our comfort zone? What change would come if we stay in the researcher role? Well, read on then as many other suggestions follow.
August 8, second day of conference. 
The Canadians ended the first day of the conference by going  wild that night ().  We went to Captain James Crab House and experienced a Baltimore style crab shack experience where we sat around a brown-papered picnic table on a floating dock and had all-you-can-eat blue crabs and round of drinks courtesy of iwave).  I can tell you that the researchers present at the feast certainly went out of their comfort zones and went down and dirty with the crabs!  Guess what’s for breakfast the next day? Crab cake cheese quiche (yes I’m mentioning “crab” for the 5th time). Crabs also accompanied the first “APRA Talk” – a series of mock Ted talks on innovative ideas in prospect research. 
At one of these APRA Talk sessions, Valerie Anastasio from Boston Children’s Hospital Trust reviewed how prospect research had changed over the years (from micro-fiche to internet), and predicted that a lot of the quantitative and data-intensive part of the job would be replaced by vendors or computer generated information (woo, we are being replaced by machines!).  She wanted us to think “in the face of an information delivery landscape that is evolving rapidly, how will prospect researchers need to respond to ensure that our work continues to be integrated, strategic, and actionable?” 
As she left the discussion open ended, my answer  is that researchers need to become more like fundraisers.  We should not be viewed or operate as a service department in another building but more as team members in the Major Gift team as we deliver more qualitative and strategic recommendations in an advisory capacity.  As such, we need to learn more about frontline fundraising and equip ourselves with skills that complement our knowledge about donors (such as presentation and communication skills, and knowledge about relationship building).  Another possibility is for the research department  to become a central intelligent office, in terms of donor and market research, which would be as essential and valuable to non-profit organizations as the market research department is for the  for-profit organizations. 
As Jon mentioned on the first day, we as researchers should elevate ourselves from being “nice to have” to the “core business” of the organization.  This will require us not just to do research on our prospects and write profiles, but also to research and provide insights to understanding the world around us and what are customers and donors really want and care for.
I think it’s really timely that the theme of this issue of SCOOP is career related as it is obviously a hot issue in the whole prospect research community now.  Whether we are being replaced by machines or not, one sure thing is that our job is changing and we need to change with it.  I sometimes get the feeling that we became very removed from the excitement of the frontline.  We get consumed with processes and information so much that we forget why we are doing what we do. Just like frontline development officers, we are fundraisers.  We are facilitators of philanthropy. We connect philanthropists with causes.  We are making a difference.  And that’s a really good reason for us to get on our feet to do a happy dance!. 
To advance the profession of prospect research, we need to immerse ourselves in the culture of philanthropy and the causes we are serving and ask ourselves, what is my value in making this happen?  It may require us to learn more about the art of fundraising (in addition to what we know about information management) and to be closer to the causes.  If you think you can make a bigger difference by making changes to your job (i.e. become a leader, a consultant, a manager where you have more said) then you should go ahead and do it.  I agree that there is a comfort zone for researchers.  The comfort zone is data and information.  We need to move beyond processing data and information and look into ways of delivering data and information that can be valuable  to our causes.  As Jon Duschinsky put it: “This is a time of profound opportunity. For the work we do as prospect researchers will not just transform the organization we work for but also help us to take some real steps to change the world and to challenge ourselves”.

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