There’s a desire in fundraising and prospect development for innovation, but when our heads are down in the trenches, it’s hard to take time out to plan, strategize, or just daydream about what’s possible.
But last week I attended a fundraising gathering that was truly remarkable. The event itself was innovative, and the activities and presentations were designed to spark and broadcast creative ideas. It created collaborative opportunities and built community. It’s been a week and I’m still thinking about it.
The Great Lakes Prospect Development FORUM began on Wednesday morning in lovely Ann Arbor, Michigan, with three-hour pre-FORUM sessions on analytics, health care, prospect research, and prospect management. FORUM participants are primarily from mid-to-large universities and health care institutions in the Great Lakes area, but as word gets out, attendees are increasingly arriving from beyond that region.
After lunch, the FORUM kicked off in earnest with this video-taped Capstone Challenge message from Michigan’s Associate Vice President for Development, Dondi Cupp. Everyone was given a group number, and team mates quickly gathered at tables and along walls to pick a group name, leaders, and make plans to meet over the next two days. Their charge was to come up with a solution to the challenge, create a strictly-timed five-minute presentation, and convince the judges (of which I was thrilled to be one, with Dondi and Vikki Jablonski, Senior Director of Development Services and Strategic Resource Management at The University of Michigan) that their approach was the best on Friday morning.
Cleverly, the FORUM program directors created an infrastructure to foster teamwork and build trust within these newly-created units, with exercises like the Marshmallow Challenge: Build the tallest structure with a prep bag containing only dry spaghetti noodles, some tape, and some string. The marshmallow is required to sit at the very top. And no leaning, holding, or affixing to surfaces allowed. (Nightmare!)
Thursday morning was a lightning round of innovative breakout sessions. It’s not just that the topics took a fresh look at our work, but also that the sessions very purposefully were not presentations. (We filled out the PowerPoint as a group at one session I attended).
Each breakout was a guided discussion – input from everyone in the room was a conscious expectation. Very few sat silently through an entire session, and most people were actively engaged in sharing, learning, respectfully debating, and discussing.
In fact, that’s the deal with the FORUM – it’s not a passive sit-in-your-chair-texting-or-reading-your-email kind of conference. Everyone is encouraged to put away their phone and be truly present and participate, and the announcement to that effect early on in the FORUM came as no surprise to anyone who had been to FORUM before. Not surprisingly, you won’t find many photos or live-tweeting from the gathering on social media.
Thursday afternoon was for Show and Tell stations – “Here’s What We’re Doing in Our Shop That’s Cool and Different. Feel Free To Copy And Steal Anything!” Pretty much every organization brought stand-up posters, spreadsheets, video demos, and/or short-form presentations to show off to the wandering assembly.
Friday morning was final group work time on the Capstone Challenge, and the judging began at 11:00. Each team had 5 minutes to present, and had 2 minutes of questions from the judges. We saw 8 well-delivered, creative presentations, but it was Team Four, The Marshmallow Brigade, that wowed us with their bold proposal! They were the proud founding winners of the extremely dubious trophy, The BaconGator, which you can see displayed on the desk behind Dondi Cupp in the video.
About the FORUM
The FORUM was the brainchild of the prospect development team at the University of Michigan, who wanted to create a different kind of gathering that fostered idea sharing, networking, and collaboration. Oh, and which would also be low-cost.
It kicked off in 2016 with 42 participants from 11 institutions. As word got out, registrations nearly doubled in 2017 to 75 participants from 17 institutions, and this year 90 people from 17 institutions showed up. It also became an international FORUM this year, with a participant from Toronto making the trek. Due to space constraints, but also a desire to keep the event fully participatory, organizers had to turn people away this year. Their goal (and challenge) is to increase the number of organizations represented for diversity of experience, while keeping the FORUM participant numbers low.
The FORUM has a format that would translate well to any geography and could be replicated elsewhere by Apra chapters, multi-chapter collaboratives, similar-type orgs in a geographical area, or as a bridge between membership organizations (think AASP and Apra).
If you’re in prospect development at a mid-to-large organization, or are an Apra chapter leader looking for fresh new ideas for your region, I encourage you to learn more about and/or plan to participate in the FORUM next year, June 19-21. The 22 planning committee members led by chair extraordinaire Rachel Brandell Mayers are working on the program already.
I’m confident that innovation will be at its core.