Rick Snyder was the first full-time employee (besides myself) to join The Helen Brown Group in 2005. Quite honestly I got incredibly lucky. A great researcher who loves and takes pride in his work, Rick was also unflappable and a solid sounding board when there was busy chaos around us in those early years. It’s hard to believe that in October Rick and I will have worked together for 18 years! It’s fitting, and I’m honored to feature Rick’s blog post this week as he shares valuable insight from his career to close out Research Pride month. ~Helen
When Helen kicked off this year’s Research Pride Month, she said that one of the things she wanted to highlight in the blog is “…what keeps it interesting and fresh for folks who’ve been in the field for a long time.” Well, I believe I’m one of those folks. I started my first job in research 27 years ago – and I have a lot of pride in the work that we do and still find it interesting.
I’ve been feeling particularly introspective lately as I look back over my career in research. What triggered this wave of nostalgia is the dawning realization that I’m nearing the end of my run. While I won’t be retiring tomorrow (sigh), it’s close enough that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter. I’ve thought a lot about how I got here and, more importantly, how my enjoyment of the job caused me to stick around.
How did I get here?
It’s not hyperbole to say that I was ecstatic when I landed my first research job. I mean, c’mon, they were going to pay me for doing something every day that I would gladly do for free. How many people get to say that? And somehow after all this time I still feel the same way. Okay, maybe not ecstatic, but still darned happy.
Telling you how long I’ve been around certainly dates me already, but how about this – I found my first job in research when I saw it listed in the classified ads in the local newspaper (the dead tree version, not online). When I read that ad it looked as if the position had been created specifically for me. The wording of it has long since left my memory, but I know it mentioned the same skill set required by the MLS degree I was still hoping was in my future. I dashed off my resume (printed on a dot matrix printer, no doubt) and I dropped it in the mail. After what seemed an interminable wait, I got an interview and landed the job.
Sometimes your imagination of a job doesn’t end up matching the reality of it, but in this case I think the reality was even better. Not only was I spending my time tracking down and sharing information, but it was for a good cause (my alma mater) and I was surrounded by really smart people who were excited by the same thing I was. I was learning something new every day – and that’s still the case after all these years – and my innate sense of curiosity was being constantly satisfied.
Why did I stick around?
I was fortunate to work with a great team in my first research position (and each subsequent one, come to think of it). I had a fantastic mentor who was very talented, very smart, and very happy to teach other people. My enthusiasm for the work was fostered and additional responsibilities were added over time to keep it interesting.
I need to keep learning in order to be satisfied and prospect research delivers learning opportunities in spades. One day you might be digging into the details of valuing stock options and the next you find yourself learning about how executive producers earn money in the film industry. You may also spend mind-numbing hours doing address and email lookups, but those mundane tasks should be outweighed by the more interesting parts of the job.
I also get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing the research I produce get turned into something actionable and, hopefully, result in a gift. I feel as proud today as I did 20+ years ago when I think about a gift officer telling me that she was going to ask a prospect for $50,000 but ended up asking for and receiving a 7-figure gift because my research showed it was possible. I stick around for moments like that.
What can you do to remain content over a long career?
It honestly blows my mind at times when I realize I’m still satisfied doing what I’m doing. I ought to be bored to tears by now, yet I find that I rarely am. I don’t have a secret recipe to share but I’ve certainly given some thought to what works for me. Here are some of the things that have kept me content. Your mileage may vary.
Think about the aspects of the job that excite you the most. Can you find a way to do more of them? If you’re happiest churning out profiles, let your boss know that’s your jam. Conversely, if there’s a task you can’t stand, speak up. You might not be able to avoid it altogether, but your supervisor will know to dole it out in smaller portions whenever possible.
Become a specialist in something – private equity, mineral rights, private business valuation, etc. Become the go-to person in your office for that thing. Give a presentation on it at a conference. Once you’ve got some experience under your belt, mentor someone new. There’s no better way to reinforce knowledge than to teach it to someone else. Helen wrote last week about volunteering and board service. To quote myself from her post, “If you love research, you should love volunteering or being a board member. You’ll help the profession and make some great friends. If you attend an event, look at the number of people who work behind the scenes to make it happen. What’s cooler than being one of those people?”
Take some pleasure from the little things. Researching someone with a unique name gives me an inordinate amount of joy. Discovering there’s only one person in the U.S. with that name is like a free pass or a Get Out of Jail Free card.
If you’ve learned something new that makes you smile, pass it along. We’re all largely a bunch of nerds, so your colleagues aren’t apt to mind if you geek out over something that most other people wouldn’t get. Recently, I came across a couple of situations I’d never encountered before. I posted about them in our group chat partly to see if anyone else had experience with them, but mostly because I was genuinely happy to share something weird. Don’t keep it to yourself – pass it on. It’s those little things that accumulate over time into a body of knowledge.
Find your voice and use it. Conferences used to be full of sessions with titles like “Finding Your Voice as a Researcher” and “Getting a Seat at the Table.” I see far less of them now, so I guess that most of us are being heard and our opinions respected, which wasn’t always the case. Don’t be afraid to editorialize and insert your opinion in your research. We aren’t just looking up facts, we’re being paid to analyze what we’re seeing. Add value to your research. Don’t expect your gift officer to draw the same conclusions you do. If you see something, say something. I guarantee that you’ll find more satisfaction in your job if you develop true partnerships with the frontline staff and they start to ask you what you think.
As an adjunct to voicing your opinion, do what you can to train the end users of your research on making appropriate use of your time. Many researchers are supporting a large number of frontline staff and you can do yourself a big favor by helping them understand what level of research they need. I can’t tell you how many times I wrote a profile only to find out later that all the requestor really needed was an email address or phone number. Also, I did a brief, lackluster stint in major gifts and discovered that I didn’t want or need as much information prior to a visit than I expected I would. It radically changed what I began asking of my researcher and it has informed my work ever since. How much info does your fundraiser really need? You know if you look long and hard enough you might be able to find the prospect’s eye color and the name of her dog, but is that necessary? When you find yourself going down a rabbit hole, stop for a moment and reassess. Find your off switch. That’s a tough one, I know. It sort of runs counter to being satisfied – finding things is what we do, after all – but I like to use my time well.
I have yet to meet a researcher who wasn’t seriously smart (the ones who aren’t probably don’t last long). Get to know your fellow researchers’ interests and areas of expertise. If you work in a one-person or small shop, reach out virtually. None of us know it all. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you’ve been around for a long time. As I read somewhere recently, if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.
Roll with the punches. When I first started in research it was a very different job. Definitely harder. I say this not to impress you with how difficult it used to be, but to point out just how much things can change in a relatively short amount of time. Think about any single one of the numerous research resources you have at your disposal, then consider that almost none of them existed 25 years ago. I started just before online resources became available. Google was still 3 years from being founded (seriously) and Yahoo – at that time the best directory of websites, but now an unrecognizable shadow of itself – was barely a year old. As Helen noted in her post on 3/16, there are “…things that are still evolving or that we can’t even yet imagine.” Virtually all of the things we take for granted now – the ubiquity and ease of access to online resources, data intelligence, screening services – were barely imaginable not all that long ago. It stands to reason that in another decade or two the things you’re doing today in your job are going to seem quaint. What’s going to be the next disruptor? Probably AI. Learn and adapt.
Last, but not least, I’ve always loved that the work I do supports great organizations. Don’t wait for Research Pride Month to roll around each year – take pride in what you do as often as you can and pass it on. I felt like the luckiest person in the world when I got my first job in research and it’s pretty special that I still feel lucky today.