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Five Takeaways from the 2015 APRA International Conference

Mon, August 03, 2015 5:14 PM | Susan Grivno (Administrator)

NEDRA board member and NEDRA News editor Susan Grivno shares some thoughts from the recent APRA Conference. 


Five Takeaways from the 2015 APRA International Conference 

by Susan Grivno


I had the privilege of attending Prospect Development 2015, the 28th Annual APRA International Conference in New Orleans a couple weeks ago. It was my second APRA conference and I was jazzed (see what I did there?) to meet professionals from all over the world with similar interests, goals and challenges. I networked with researchers from the UK, Israel, Lebanon and from all over the United States and Canada. I attended 10+ inspiring educational workshops and sessions led by other development professionals and vendors. Here are a handful of my takeaways from this year’s APRA conference:


1. I could listen to Dan Pallotta speak at every conference I attend. 


Dan, who was the keynote presenter at the 2014 NEDRA Conference, is best known as the creator of the Break Cancer Walks and AIDS Rides. His most recent effort is to establish the Charity Defense Council which aims to “Fight for the People Who Fight for People.” 


In his keynote speech at APRA, Dan insists that “things can change if we have the courage to make them change” before revealing as proof a photo of the White House illuminated in rainbow-coloring lighting in celebration of the Supreme Court decision affirming same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. 


Such meaningful social change cannot take place by nonprofits, Dan explains, while society remains obsessed with overhead. Overhead is part of the cause. No charity can grow without it. By keeping overhead low, nonprofits can’t take risks and innovate; they will remain small. 


2. Even the most positive change can be uncomfortable and awkward before it can be thought of as transformative. 


The theme of this year’s APRA Talks – TED Talk-style presentations – was “Innovating Change.” Each talk was about the different facets of change. Greg Lambousy from the Louisiana State Museum represented Change Without Choice. He discussed the museum’s survival after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago and how it now thrives. 


Jennifer McCormack from the University of Washington focused on Being an Agent of Change. She told about the often-painful change that UW underwent when she and a few colleagues helped build Analytics at their organization. “Allies among your colleagues are like a "gravity assist” McCormack said, stressing that communication was more important than the actual analytic models built. Trust is required and teaching partners your language, your “language landscape,” is vital. 


David Robertson from Syracuse University rounded out this trio of discussions with 

Forecasting Change: A Road Trip to the Future. Where will we be in the future? Robertson says “we will not be where we are now” and predicts we will be out of the literal and figurative basement. For this to occur, he says we must be the drivers of this profession, not the driven. 


Robertson also performed two folk songs: “Prospect Gold” set to Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and an original “Research and Philanthropy.” I think this every APRA (and NEDRA!) conference should have musical performances by talented prospect development colleagues. I know you’re out there. 


3. If you want to be a more vital partner within your organization, make it happen. 


In “Guarding the High-Capacity Galaxy: Prospect Research & Management as Protectors of Institutional Capacity,” Erin Doyle Liss and Robin Schneider from DePaul University discussed their collaboration with tech savvy colleagues to utilize Tableau and other solutions to increase the chance for success with their highest capacity prospects. 


The crux of their presentation, though, was how they have created successful partnerships with gift officers and with leadership. They asked us “Who do you want to be? Respected, service-oriented professional . . . without being a doormat? [A] Respected resource for fundraisers and management? You decide! If you dream it, you can become it.” Throughout, I was inspired by the struggles their team went through, by the credibility they built within their larger organization, and the increased influence and authority they seem to enjoy as a result of their efforts.


4. If we can’t deliver insight because of the perception of prospect research in our shop, we can change it through accountability, reliability and trust.


In “Love at First Insight,” Lori Hood Lawson of WorkingPhilanthropy.com and Liz Rejman of Pathways to Education Canada discussed the importance of fundraising insight. Prospect researchers are the chief insight officers of our organizations, they stress, and must be proactive about communication with front-line fundraisers as well as leadership. They ask great questions: Are we as reliable at getting data into the database as we expect our front-line fundraising staff to be?  Do we know our resources and cite them appropriately? How do we handle something we’ve done wrong? 


5. Gift Officers WANT our recommendations, so ask questions. Then promote your findings and make them accessible. 


In the last session slot of the conference was “Industry Corner: Identifying and Cultivating Prospects from the Law, Pharmaceutical, and Startup Industries” with Lindsey Royer, Melissa Carpenter, and Namrata Padhi from The University of Chicago. Those who left for early flights missed this dynamic TED-talk formatted presentation. Their team completed in-depth research and interviewed gift officers as well as industry professionals to become experts on these three industries. They gave a concise overview of each and some great tips on identifying, researching and rating prospects in these industries. They also outlined the common personality traits of individuals in these fields and how those traits influence their attitudes toward philanthropy.


What was most impressive was the level of insight they provide to their fundraisers. They know their prospects and their industries thoroughly. They then make that information actionable by providing potential questions for their gift officers to ask at visits. Questions that will ultimately inform capacity ratings / asks and questions that can strengthen connections between donors and their institution. These researchers also anticipate common objections made by prospects in particular industries and provide suggested counters for fundraisers to use in their conversations. 


As with any conference I attend, I’m so excited after APRA 2015 to make positive change happen within my organization. And I’m feeling more inclined to do as David Robertson urged in his APRA Talk: “Have opinions. Get your ideas out there. Vocalize your worth.”

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