I’d really love to have been a fly on the wall at the Apra board meeting when it was decided that putting prspct-l behind a paywall was a good idea.
For readers who don’t know what prspct-l is, it’s a 30-year-old listserv that’s been available in a variety of formats, for absolutely free, to anyone interested in prospect research. Recently Apra announced that prspct-l would be moved behind Apra’s membership paywall.
A little history
Prspct-l was created by its patron saint and founder, Joe Boeke, in 1992. It was hosted by UC-Irvine and Bucknell University in its earliest days, and then moved to become a Yahoo! Group. In 2003, Joe asked APRA to assume ownership of “the L” which happened in April of that year, with Mark DeFilippis as its new caretaker moderator.
In 2005, Apra found a new e-home for prspct-l at Charity Channel, which was a popular platform at that time hosting all kinds of listservs for fundraising professionals, as well as webinars, book series, and other content. They already had the setup, and it upped the professional look of the L.
Unfortunately, that platform’s owner decided in 2008 that prspct-l, along with all of its other listservs, would go behind a $37-per-year paywall. Which now seems pretty quaint pricing, but at the time everybody in the prospect research community was up in arms.
Especially the Apra board. There was a sense of outrage around the board table that our agreement that the L would remain a free resource to our community could so easily be broken. We. Were. Getting. Prspct-l. Back.
How do I know? Because I was on the board when it happened.
Major negotiations took place to claw back prspct-l to our community. It was honestly touch and go for a while. For a while it seemed like the archives were going to be held hostage and that Charity Channel were going to create an alt-prspct-l listserv, complete with those archives.
It was a legal (and potentially financial) mess. But finally the Apra board, with the help of association management company SmithBucklin were able to successfully negotiate to move the L over to Apra’s platform.
In then-Apra president Elizabeth Crabtree’s open letter to the community, she shared the board’s joint message of relief and joy at the outcome.
In that letter, she also shared Joe Boeke’s comment:
Nearly two decades ago, I founded PRSPCT-L with a very simple premise…to provide the entire research community with a forum to discuss research methods and our profession. I am very pleased that APRA has acquired and committed the technology resources to continuing PRSPCT-L’s mission and the tradition of making the “L” a free resource for the entire development community.”
A free resource for the entire development community
Prspct-l has been every prospect researcher’s built-in mentorship and training program since 1992. The L is the place we all have gone to since then, to ask each other “How on earth do I find this?”
One of the reasons – maybe the reason – that we think of prospect research as such a giving, learning, nurturing, teaching, kind community, is because of prspct-l. For prospect development pros working in nonprofits large and small that do not support continuing education or association membership for their researcher(s) at any level, prspct-l is their only option for guidance.
And for many folks, prspct-l is the gateway to Apra or one of its chapters. It doesn’t take too long being on the L to learn about webinars, conferences, or other events coming up that allow you to network and learn. The L actually brings people closer to Apra.
But it’s going behind a paywall
Recent messaging from Apra about their decision to move prspct-l behind a paywall has been confusing/frustrating/maddening to many of us. Apra president Carrick Davis and SmithBucklin’s Robin Rone held an open forum on Zoom yesterday to discuss this change, and I applaud their willingness to be available to the community.
They reminded attendees (or in my case, informed us – many like me were unaware) that Apra has recently(?) made certain educational assets, including Connections, the association’s quarterly newsletter; podcasts; and Apra Bytes training videos freely available to all comers. These resources take staff and volunteers thousands of hours over a year to research, prepare, and present/write, and they are significantly valuable learning tools. Now free to anyone.
Meanwhile, except for moderation (and I by no means want to downplay the work entailed by the wonderful volunteers on the Online Content Committee whose job is to moderate the L), prspct-l generates its own content by questioners and volunteer responders. All day, every day. Yet soon going behind a paywall.
Now, I’m just a small business owner, but if I had a choice of what to ask clients to pay for – a quarterly edited professional newsletter, podcasts, and training videos, or a listserv that I can get a volunteer to moderate and would be part of a platform I already have to pay for to host other things anyway and which will bring me increased business for very little effort on my part? The financial decision seems pretty clear to me.
Davis and Rone explained that the expense of Apra’s new online platform to host the L and other resources is ~$10,000/year but indicated that moving prspct-l behind a membership paywall was not a financial decision. Then what can be the logical reason?
Davis and Rone indicated that the board were following the recommendations of volunteer committee members to put the L behind a paywall. The only committee I’m aware of that might make such a recommendation is the Online Content Committee, which oversees all of Apra’s online assets including moderating prspct-l. I have heard that, when they were informed of the possibility that the L might move behind a paywall, the OCC were passionately vocal with their concerns about the change. Later, they were distressed that they were not made aware that a final decision was made before it was public. The OCC committee members heard about the new policy at the same time as all of the rest of us. So who recommended the decision?
In the Zoom forum, Davis and Rone announced pricing for a new Apra associate membership level at $99 which will have fewer benefits than full membership, currently priced at $250 per year. (I would like to go on the record here and say that I’m totally for an associate membership – it’s a great idea that’s long overdue). They indicated that associate membership would include access to prspct-l.
But as Deborah Drucker insightfully noted in the forum’s chat:
Has APRA thought through the effect on PRSPCT-L’s content to members if it is put behind a paywall? It will decrease participation, and therefore the breadth of content, which will decrease, not increase, its value as a membership benefit.”
Jay Frost replied soon after:
Restricting the benefit to the wider community does not enhance membership value. It merely limits access.”
And later he wrote:
If the ‘L goes behind the paywall, what is to stop Apra from deciding to make it a premium benefit unavailable to “Associate Members” in the future?”
As Joe Boeke said, prspct-l was founded with a tradition to be free and I realize times do change. We reconsider many traditions with a modern eye and look to create change for the better. For example:
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Apra members will remember that the association recently underwent a great deal of organizational soul searching and action, announcing a commitment to greater diversity, equity, and inclusion on behalf of the association. Conversations happened. White papers were written. Policies were drafted. The efforts led by Apra’s then-president Misa Lobato were intensive and intent-ful. It took months of work.
So what’s up, then, with restricting access to the L now? This decision could make some wonder if that effort was performative. A decision to put prspct-l behind a paywall seems to be one of the greatest contradictions to inclusion that I can think of. Keeping it free is a tradition that supports DEI work.
Making access to prspct-l part of a cheaper membership structure is not supporting inclusion. It makes no business sense. And, as a nonprofit, it flies in the face of duty of care to your constituency.
My recommendation to the Apra board is to reverse this decision. Put Connections, the podcasts, the videos, and whatever else that takes hours of work to produce behind the paywall at whatever level the board chooses if you need assets that attract dues-paying members. Keep the thing that has been volunteer led and fed, and which has brought Apra members – for thirty years – free.