Reading about Writing

Books - 2

These are some references to accompany the July 27, 2016, workshop on writing which Preeti Gill and I developed for APRA’s Prospect Development 2016. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some safe places to think about writing. Whether your work is primarily in prospect research, or in another area of fundraising, clear communications and effective writing can go a long way. These texts have your back.

Amis, Kingsley. The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Print.

In this book, Amis often gives not only the reason for a rule, but also its history and social context. It is organized alphabetically, with paragraphs and sometimes pages about commonly misused or misunderstood words, phrases, and concepts. The blurb on this book jacket describes Kingsley Amis as “one of the most important figures in postwar British fiction.” I will admit, however, that I have many more books on my shelves by Amis’ son Martin than I do of his.

Cameron, Julia. The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998. Print.

Julia Cameron is a novelist, playwright, poet, and writing teacher. The Right to Write follows a simple model over 42 chapters. First, Cameron issues an “invitation” by discussing a common barrier to writing. She follows that with an “initiation” which consists of concrete writing exercises and tools to give the writer practice in overcoming specific obstacles. While her examples may seem very specific, she always returns to her broader purpose of getting people to integrate writing into their daily lives.

Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Rev. Sir Ernest Gowers. 2nd ed. 1965. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.

I inherited this book from my parents; the original edition was published in 1926. Like the Amis book, for which it served as a model, it is organized dictionary-style. However, there are more pages and the print is tinier, the content is more extensive and exhaustive, the entries often briefer, and the emphasis is much more on the usage of individual words. Fowler, a translator, writer, and former teacher, was a proponent of proper English, and his rules and explanations reveal that bias. Sir Ernest Gowers, a civil servant, hated the jargon he encountered in government. As part of his advocacy for clear language, Gowers undertook the first major revision of Fowler’s book, updating it for the 1960s.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Doubleday, 1994. Print.

Of all the resources on this list, this may be the most fun to read. Anne Lamott is a novelist and columnist. You may already know that she got the title for this book from some advice her father gave her brother as he was working on a last minute paper about birds. Her brother was facing down the writers’ block which procrastination often brings, and their father told him, “bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” This is what Lamott does here with the writing process, giving us as a result both a memoir and honest advice for aspiring writers. Sometimes it is brutally honest advice, ranging from committing to producing “shitty first drafts” to coping with the 27 bad reviews she received for one of her novels.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” 1946. Resources for Graduate Students. University of Texas-Dallas, Sept. 2000. Web. June 30, 2016. <>

I only just discovered this essay on Twitter in the last few weeks. Written just after World War II, this often tongue-in-cheek examination of political writing resonates just as much today. The lessons here could benefit any persuasive writer, politician or not.

Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. 1959. 50th anniversary ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. Print.

Without question, a classic. This brief but comprehensive guide to English language grammar, usage, and style is organized by topic. To help you find what you are looking for, it offers a detailed table of contents, and includes both a glossary and index. I especially appreciate their advocacy for the serial, or Oxford, comma, which comes on page two of my edition.

Swift, Jonathan. “On Poetry: A Rhapsody.” 1733. The Literature Network. 2000-2016.  Web. June 30, 2016. <>

Jonathan Swift was one of the English language’s greatest satirists, and this very long poem skewers pretensions about both poetry and political writing. It was written several years after the more well-known essay “A Modest Proposal” and Gulliver’s Travels.

Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit. 1938. 2nd ed. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1987. Print.

For many years, Brenda Ueland taught a writing class at the Minneapolis YMCA. She was the daughter of a lawyer and a suffragette, and worked as a writer and editor. Much of the book consists of stories about famous artists, the aspiring writers from her classes, and her own experiences, and it is a pleasure to read. She compares the writing process to stringing beads on a necklace, and eschews writing for money or fame. Family friend, Carl Sandberg, called this book “the best book ever written about how to write.”

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 1976. 30th anniversary ed. New York, HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

William Zinsser advocates for simple, clear, and honest prose. He offers advice for removing clutter from writing through reducing adjectives and adverbs, and using (not utilizing) the simplest word choices. He abhors clichés, jargon, and corporate speech. If you need to write a long piece of technical writing, this book will be your ally. Zinsser has written 17 books and countless newspaper and magazine articles, and has taught at Yale, Columbia School of Journalism, and the New School.

#APRAPD2015 and My Daily Affirmations

Loading Dock - New Orleans Marriott - July 25, 2015

Loading Dock – New Orleans Marriott – July 25, 2015

Another APRA conference has come and gone, and for the first time I am starting to realize what I possibly gain the most from these conferences, and it’s not what you might think.

Most of us attend – or wish we could attend – conferences like APRA for what we broadly label “professional development.” But what do we mean by that term? Certainly, we are referring to the new approaches, philosophies, and skills we are introduced to by the leading innovators in prospect development. In addition, as Helen Brown recently wrote, we might also be looking for a little “gravity assist” to our careers, networks, and personal relationships which conferences give us the chance to nurture face-to-face.

This is not a post about how to use the energy the conference provides to put new ideas to work; that’s been done, and better than I might have. I want to talk about something else entirely. Something that I didn’t know how much I valued until after the conference concluded.

This year, I thought I was being pretty darn witty during the conference when people asked me how things were going, and I described many of the sessions I attended as “affirming.” Yes, that was a snarky reference to Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley and his daily affirmations. But does it mean I have become one of the mean girls?

And yet. On my return home, I started thinking about what I learned. You know what? That’s when I realized that some of the most important lessons I learned actually came from those “affirming” sessions: that the tools I use, the methods I follow, and the ethics I adhere to, are the right ones.

I started in prospect research as a solo practitioner; in fact, when I started, research was just one of the hats I wore. I devoted a small percentage of my working day to it and I had no dedicated budget. Fifteen years ago I went to my first APRA conference, and began my first prospect research assignment upon my return from Anaheim. In the years to follow, APRA conferences, at the state and international level, would continue to provide most of my training. I also gained a network of mentors to turn to, but they weren’t in my office. Much of what I did, I did alone. Many of the challenges I faced, I faced alone. And many of the techniques I learned, I refined on my own.

Most of us experience imposter syndrome to a varying degree, at one point or another in our careers. Five years ago, Judith Beck, Ph.D., president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy, described imposter syndrome in the Huffington Post:

There’s not really a recognized condition called “the imposter syndrome.” But it’s a handy label to describe the self-doubt that many people, particularly high achievers, experience. It’s that sense that you don’t fully know what you’re doing and that you have fooled other people into believing that you’re more competent and talented than you really are.

It doesn’t matter if you work alone or in a large shop; self-doubt can always sneak in: that worry that someone is going to find out that you are just faking it. There’s nothing quite like hearing someone with impressive credentials describing to a rapt audience a practice which you also do, to help shrink that feeling.

So yes, indeed. It truly is affirming to find that in this career – which I’ve mostly been making up as I go along – I am actually doing things pretty much the right way. This affirmation is probably just as important to me, working solo once again, as any of the new skills and knowledge I learned.

Don’t get me wrong – I value highly the new things I learn at APRA, and I plan to use some of them to my clients’ benefit very soon. Like Helen Brown, and many others on social media, I treasure the gravity assist conference attendance gives me. The opportunity to have a real conversation, about work and life, and to build relationships that extend beyond 140 characters, cannot be compared.

After 15 years in prospect research, and after my sixth APRA conference, discoveries continue. A professional development conference big enough to have two new anthems celebrating prospect research – thank you, Dave Robertson, for Prospect Gold and Research and Philanthropy – is also big enough for us to celebrate affirmation. And the lesson from those small virtual pats on the back, from those sessions that if I trust myself enough, I might perhaps deliver someday? Maybe simply that I am good enough and smart enough.


Down the Rabbit-Hole

(original illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1865)

This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That alone is worthy of celebration, but there is something even more special about Alice for prospect research – or loathed, depending on your point of view. The title of Chapter One gives us one of prospect research’s most used metaphors: “Down the Rabbit-Hole.” Indeed we don’t need to read very far before we run into a paragraph which describes what will sound like a very familiar experience to many of us, on page 3:

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

Of course, this being a metaphor, the prospect research rabbit-hole is a virtual one. The entry point often begins with our favorite search engine on our favorite internet browser, but it can also be provided by a screening service, a property assessment or SEC filing, a subscription website, a contact report or relationship in the database, or just about anywhere data can be found. And while the nuggets of data we start with are our rabbit-hole gateway drugs, anything we find along the way can feed the habit, leading us to more search terms, more results, more tangents, and, ultimately, more to sift through. Once in the rabbit-hole, our curiosity unabated, we eagerly pursue any thread of evidence, any tiny breadcrumb of data. Are those enough mixed metaphors for you?

Many of us would agree that an essential trait for a successful prospect researcher is curiosity. It is curiosity which helps us chase down those tangents which often provide important clues. It is curiosity which leads us to read the footnotes in a proxy statement, and curiosity which leads us to leads us to research all the names on a real estate deed. But curiosity is also behind those hours we might spend on irrelevant details. For, as Anke Bernau, a medieval literature scholar at the University of Manchester, wrote recently on the New Chaucer Society blog: “Curiosity is ‘approach’ rather than ‘goal’ oriented.” In other words, curiosity is not a strategy, it is a tactic.

Instead, prospect research needs to channel curiosity, and use it within a broader strategy, as Meg Kinney recently pointed out in her blog post “Things I Have Left Out of Profiles:”

[Prospect Researchers] have a code of ethics, and a goal in mind–we’re not just poking around out of curiosity, but because we have specific, reasonable questions about charitable interests, assets, etc. We’re not in the business of idle gossip.

The rabbit-hole can be both the bliss and the bane of prospect research, its excess of data alternatively enticing and frustrating. Deep in the rabbit-hole, we find ourselves, like Alice, with “not a moment to think about stopping.” Faced with the allure of continuing down the rabbit-hole, we can be oblivious to the emerging spring weather, and perhaps even to our too-soon busted NCAA basketball brackets. But properly leveraged and filtered, curiosity can help us find the very things which will help nurture a closer relationship between our prospects and our missions.

And, while curiosity may have led me to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the New Chaucer Society blog, it took a bit of strategy to bring them into this post.

Data In – Profile Out

It should come as no secret that I am a proponent of automating the prospect research profile as much as possible. In fact, in my final presidential column for the APRA Wisconsin newsletter, just about a year ago, that was just one of the paths down which I suggested so-called reactive research would need to head. I won’t rehash what I wrote then; you can read it here.

Of course, it was easy then for me to extol automation. For one thing, it had been over a decade since I had actually typed a profile in a Word template. For another, I was a member of one of Wisconsin’s largest prospect research teams, and had easy access to our database, and several profile report formats, from work or from home.

Now that I am consulting, things are very different. I am still not typing profiles in Word templates, but it is something I consider a possibility, now that more of my work is done remotely and without direct database access. But when I am asked for recommendations, I always try first to find a database solution.

One of my current clients, an independent school, uses The Raiser’s Edge, and had already created a Word merge to pull some individual prospect data – gift summaries, children, contact information, etc. – into a Word document. They didn’t call this a profile, and the task they wanted my help with was in gathering biographic and professional information on each prospect into a brief paragraph which they could type into their Word document. I immediately thought we should put this background information into a Note in The Raiser’s Edge and to add that Note type to their merge template. Creating this new Note type accomplished two things. One, the information was easily retrieved into their prospect document. Two, it was captured in the database to refer to in the future. Best of all, it was easy to add the new Note into the merge file, and even easier to create the new note type.

Fast forward a month or two, and this client now wanted a way to codify foundation interests and to identify potential donors to new capital and programming initiatives. Using the Philanthropic Interests table on the Prospect tab in The Raiser’s Edge was the easy part. It didn’t even take us that long to come up with a list of about 20 different interest areas we’d like to track and be able to query.

But how to capture nonprofit board service, volunteer roles, and gifts to other organizations? Well the Prospect tab of The Raiser’s Edge has a Gifts to Other Organizations table, and my client had already populated it with information from past screenings and data appends. One look at how that table structures data, though, and we could see it would not be our answer this time. For one thing, there isn’t an easy way to enter the dollar ranges found most often on nonprofit annual reports. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Gifts to Other Organizations table does not have a way to visually and strategically connect giving patterns to things like board service or a spouse’s volunteering. A simple Note can do all of that, and can be formatted to export easily into a Word merge or a Crystal Report.

Our solution this time was to create two more Note types. A Philanthropic Note was used to document board and volunteer service, and significant gifts (generally gifts above $1,000). And a Foundation Note was used to capture basic Form 990 information including assets, gifts received and grants paid, a list of directors and officers, and a brief list of the largest grants made. Both of these notes were added to their existing Word merge template, along with the background information note, to form a simple and easily editable, profile.

Each note in The Raiser’s Edge has a Description field, and with our Background, Philanthropic, and Foundation Notes we used this Description field to track the date when the information was last updated. Now, before running a profile report, anyone can quickly see how stale the information might be, and what they might need to refresh.

Once upon a time, a profile may have been a catalog of everything we knew about the prospect. More often today, a profile is strategically designed for a specific purpose and context. Often a profile may not be the only way to answer a question, or it may not be the best way. Each of these philosophies and situations could be satisfied with either a typed document or a database report. Some might even be happy with an email. But I bet they would all agree that if something is in the profile it should also be in the database. Indeed, the profile template should serve to remind us of the categories of information we need to capture and verify, just as a research checklist reminds us to leave no stone unturned. And when profile information is in the database, it can also be used to create prospect pools, or to do data mining or modeling, or simply to help those who follow you understand your prospects as well as you do.


“Membership has its Privileges”

This isn’t a how-to, but a why.

When I first joined APRA it was for the same reason as a lot of people: I was attending the International Conference. It was 2000, and I was adding prospect research to my other responsibilities as database manager. The conference was my seminar series and the people I met became my alumni network. Fourteen years later, I have just completed two consecutive terms as the president of my state APRA chapter.

For my first nine years as an APRA member, prospect research continued to occupy just a small part of my day; it ebbed and flowed with the other, more predictable aspects of my job. Research may not have always been a priority back then, although it would become so later, but even as my career focus changed, my APRA membership retained consistent value.

Learning – most of what I know about prospect research I have either learned in some way via APRA, or from the people I have met through APRA. At that first conference, titled – appropriately, for me – California Gold Rush 2000: A New Generation of Prospectors, I attended sessions on SEC documents, IPOs, integrating strategy into research and ratings, and researching corporations, foundations and individuals. Yes – I still have the program, but I don’t have any of the PowerPoints or my notes. I also learned about APRA International, and about two other important resource networks – PRSPCT-L and the Wisconsin Chapter. All three continue my education in prospect research to this day, which is further enhanced these days by blogs and Twitter.

Networking – on the first full day of my first conference, there was a “Lunch by State.” At the Wisconsin table I met people who would become my mentors, colleagues and friends, and who introduced me to the APRA Wisconsin Chapter. In earlier careers, I had belonged to user groups and unions, but I never made the kind of long-lasting relationships I have been able to make via APRA. Being an APRA member brought me in contact with people who valued the work I did, and who understood and could help me with the obstacles I encountered. When my own organization’s internet connection couldn’t download a particularly large Form 990 (remember the early 2000s?), a friend at another organization with a more robust broadband connection opened the document and found what I needed. Indeed, whenever research, or technology, stumped me, I had people to turn to, and, in my own turn, I eventually became a mentor myself. Over the years, we have been there for each other as jobs were found and lost, as children were born and as parents passed on.

Serving and Leading – APRA and my chapter have offered me countless opportunities to volunteer, and to explore leadership through board service. I volunteered at my second APRA conference, and, a year after joining the chapter, I hosted my first chapter meeting (which, in those days, also involved securing a speaker). Many years later, I became both leader and steward, as a chapter president in a time when APRA itself was pondering the nature of the relationships between members, chapters and the organization as a whole. Being a leader within my chapter has given me a platform to speak, write, teach and mentor; to become a philanthropist with prospect research as I called it in one of my chapter newsletter columns.

So, what has my APRA membership given me? If not certification, then validation, knowledge, commiseration and, most of all, community.