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Attending Apra's Advancing Leaders Symposium

Tue, February 28, 2017 12:56 PM | Laura Parshall

Sara White, managing director of advancement services at Bennington College, received a scholarship from NEDRA to attend Apra's Advancing Leaders Symposium this past fall. In this article, she shares the highlights of her experience there, and what takeaways she brought back to her office.


Attending Apra's Advancing Leaders Symposium

by Sara White


I’ve had some time to reflect on my experience at Apra's Advancing Leaders Symposium held in Alexandria, VA this past November and I’d love to share my findings with you all. First, I’d like to thank both NEDRA, for offering the scholarship, and Apra for partnering with NEDRA, for making this excellent opportunity available to their members. I was able to immerse myself in the discussions, network with fellow leaders, and bring back lots of ideas that I could begin implementing right away.


Right out of the gate I knew I was learning how to be a better leader -- beginning with entrepreneur and philanthropist Melanie Sabelhaus’s session about your approach to leadership. “Being a leader is not something you are, but something you do.” It’s about integrity and saying what you mean and meaning what you say. It’s about being a mentor, being passionate about your work and your team and achieving the collective goal together. I was fortunate enough to come to Bennington College eight years ago and find a mentor. It has shaped the way I work with my staff. I am always trying to help guide them to get to the next level, to accomplish their objectives. But, in the end, it’s not just about being a mentor to others but finding your own mentor. Seek out someone you respect and ask if they will help mentor you because you, as a leader, need to continue to grow as well. Wow, what a way to kick off a symposium!


Shelby Radcliffe, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Willamette University, continued to talk about relationship building and how you as a leader are sometimes the bridge between your team and other stakeholders. A key takeaway for me was thinking outside the box a bit and adapting the major gift fundraising cycle to help manage the relationships with my team -- who can we steward for their partnership, and how? As the Managing Director of Advancement Services, I certainly have a lot of interaction with the College’s business and IT offices. I started to think about how my team might be perceived by others and how we contribute to the whole. I began having conversations with my peers, taking the time to find out what their goals and obstacles were and what commonalities we share. I must say it has gone a long way.


A hot topic in recruitment and talent management today is the Millennial generation. How do we address them? They don’t want to be called philanthropists, but change-makers. They aren’t “joiners” like baby boomers, they like to spread out, sometimes to several different organizations. How do we cultivate them? How do we incorporate them into frontline portfolios? As I was listening to the panel (consisting of Jennifer MacCormack, immediate Past President, Apra; Jason Lee, Interim President & CEO, Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP); Steven Churchill, President & CEO, Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP); and Sue Cunningham, President, CASE International) I thought about the ways in which we are beginning to engage with this cohort. At Bennington, we have recently established an Alumni Cooperative, a revitalized alumni structure that will deepen the ways that alumni be substantially involved in the life of the College. The intent is to activate and engage a community united by Bennington’s educational ethos of individuality, creative intelligence, and strong ethical sensibility in order to enrich and enhance one another and the College. It involves a volunteer structure with fluid lines allowing community members the ability to fit into more than one category at once and not pigeon-holing members to fit one silo. Millennials have responded well and it has significantly helped to build our prospect pipeline and lead our fundraising program into the future.


Lastly, Vice President of Data Analytics at Blackbaud Steve MacLaughlin’s session about the Secrets of Data Driven Nonprofits was eye opening. Everyone knows about big data, right? How can I incorporate this in my small shop with limited resources? After all, Bennington is headed into a campaign soon and I’ve got to fill that major gift pipeline. Steve talked about data integrity and health, which I feel my team has a handle on as most of our scores for unmailable records or missing emails are above average. But what I didn’t expect was learning how to effectively use new technology to tell our next move or to find out which prospect to assign as a priority. Upon returning, I got together with my team and explored new ways to tell stories with our data. I reached out to a couple of attendees to gain insight on some new emerging platforms, and after collaborating, my staff and I were able to create robust portfolios for development and build reporting dashboards for management and staff. 


I loved that the symposium was centered around emerging leaders and was kept to a small number of attendees, which led to more fruitful one-on-one discussions about real struggles that folks are experiencing. It was an ideal platform, and I left with takeaways that I could begin implementing immediately. It was intensive, but allowed for more in-depth conversations with colleagues and industry leaders in an intimate environment.


Again, I want to thank NEDRA for offering me this opportunity, which might not have been possible without the scholarship, and Apra for providing a great program. I highly recommend maintaining this format in the future to continue bringing leaders and fundraising programs to the next level.

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