Tomorrow is a Very Big Day. It’s the 10th anniversary of my cry into the void that, to my surprise and delight bounced away in concentric circles to others in the Apra community and chapter members everywhere and then echoed back to me just as strongly in return. Wow. It was really amazing. And still is, every year.
I wrote the article back then because I had just come back from a meeting of Apra chapter leaders and I was equal parts fired up and dispirited. Our profession has always had so very much to be proud of, and it felt to me like our light was hiding under a basket of our own weaving.
We needed then, as we continue to need now, to consistently consider all of the internal, external, one-off and persistent reasons why the work we do is important. And we need to use our skills of communication to share our impact with the wider fundraising community.
Advocacy will never not be important for us, especially as technology continues to edge into the margins of our core work.
Yeah, I’m talking about you, AI. Artificial Intelligence is the Wonder Child right now, out there to ease the burden for everyone, specifically for our frontline colleagues to help write communications to donors that have been machine-picked, also by AI. I’m not here to trash that at all – seriously (read on). But we’re already seeing the lure of push-button donor profiles as the end-goal and I can tell you now the discussion about that is not going to be pretty. There is a place for reliable AI, and we need to understand this tool.
We need to be educated – in own minds, in our nonprofits, and as a profession what the benefits, opportunities, and limitations are of this technology that is increasingly available to the fundraising sector. We need to pay attention to what each product can do (really – not just the hype) and how it differs from (or enhances, or replaces) what we professionals offer. And we need to set up rules around their usage within our departments and across our nonprofits.
I’d like to offer up a huge shout out to Apra Metro DC for their excellent recent conversation with Beth Kanter on “Responsible AI Adoption: Balancing Innovation with Integrity in Fundraising.” This is a session that’s definitely worth watching. Beth had great insights and examples on how AI is being used in our industry and shared specific tools for us to use when evaluating how and when to use AI and the responsibilities we need to keep in mind when we do.
Safe infrastructure around new tech is important, and so is taking a step back to consider its practical usefulness.
For example, my friend Mark Schaefer has written a series of bestselling books about marketing. In a recent blog post, Mark said that he thought he might try to write some of his next book using “all the AI tools available” to him. After several tries with limited success, here’s what he realized:
[T]the bottom line is this: AI works by searching everything that has happened in the past to come up with an “average” answer to serve your query best. Creating a new work from the “best average answer based on what happened in the past” is a lousy premise for a book…
To me, a book must contain insights and stories and quirky ideas that come from the unique perspective of the writer. ChatGPT failed miserably when it came to unique insights needed to create something unique and bold.”
It’s the exact. same. thing. with us and our work. It’s hard to get people to read all 8 pages of a full profile now. Can you imagine the dullness of endlessly iterative work with no donor story and no insight? Creating a new work from the “best average answer” might actually enhance our work (if it’s reliable). It would definitely save us time as long as the algorithm doesn’t randomly hallucinate, make up stuff, or create word salads that we have to fix. My favorite Kanter quote from the Apra Metro DC session is going to keep me grounded for a while I think: “AI is hot sauce, not ketchup. You might not want to use it in everything, right?”
But AI could be a big help amassing information. And taking masses of information to create unique (and maybe even bold) insights is our profession’s secret sauce.
Truly strategic prospect development work has to have that added insight, or there’s no reason for us to be here.
Our knowledge of the prospect or group we’re providing information about, blended with our unique understanding of the mission of our nonprofit and its current and future goals is the value we bring to help convert information into action.
It’s not just AI, though: it’s important for us to understand where any new technology or product or legislation or privacy law can enhance or impact our work. That’s always been kind of a fun (and kind of an expected) extension of our jobs – the learning part.
Converting on learning
If you’ve spent more than 5 minutes with me professionally, you’ll know that continuing professional education has always been a mantra for me.
Just like ten years ago, we still need to grab onto the unbelievably deliriously wonderful panoply of professional educational opportunities that are available to us. If you’re on the education committee of your Apra chapter or Apra International, please know that you are an absolute hero to me. If you have spoken at a conference or done a webinar, or written for your chapter newsletter or Connections, or done a Career Fair, or led a Boot Camp for newbies, I need sunglasses to look at you because you shine so brightly in my eyes.
These people are doing all this for you, so you need to show up for them
If you’re still in the need-to-learn years, go to a conference. If they say there’s no money, advocate for yourself about how important continuing education is. If you still meet with resistance to attend, then apply for a scholarship to get there. Having served on numerous scholarship committees, I’m always dishearteningly surprised by how many repeated calls we have to put out to get people to apply. You should seriously apply.
Lots of things remain the same in frontline positions, but change comes at us fast in our profession. We have to keep up.
And if your days of foundational learning are in the rear-view mirror and you can afford to lift up your colleagues, please consider volunteering and/or donating to your regional or (inter)national association’s scholarship fund to pay it forward in honor of all of those (other?) volunteers who helped you.
As you learn new tools and techniques, absorb it like a sponge and reflect that education back in the work that you do to springboard your nonprofit’s fundraising ability beyond what was possible without you and without all that education.
Advocating for ourselves
We’re better than we were ten years ago at advocating for the value of our work, but that doesn’t mean that we’re 100% there. It’s wonderful to have their support, but there is no vendor partner and no frontline colleague who can advocate for the value and impact of prospect development practices and practitioners like we can.
Individually and at the chapter and international professional association level, it falls to us on a daily basis to serve as examples of what great prospect development work is; to track and report on our specific impact within our nonprofits; and speak up collectively to build on our visibility and shine a spotlight on our distinct value in our sector.
If you do that, and look around at the next conference you attend, you just can’t help but be proud.
So a decade after the first #ResearchPride month, let me say that I am still so proud of our profession, the work that we do, and the unique and wonderful collegiality of our community.
Our work actually makes a difference in this world. Seriously.
Isn’t that worth shouting about?
Happy Research Pride month, y’all. Let’s keep shouting it out together.