What makes prospect development a great career?
Apra-IL is asking local and national industry leaders what the field means to them and why and how they have pursued success in prospect development. Through this blog series, we will explore what drives industry leaders to propel their careers and prospect development forward.
For this month's piece, Joan Ogwumike, Apra-IL member and volunteer, interviews Kevin MacDonell, Acting Executive Director, Advancement Operations for the Advancement Department of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Kevin MacDonell is Acting Executive Director, Advancement Operations for the Advancement Department of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Formerly a journalist and editor, he entered higher education advancement in 2003 as a communications writer and later moved on to prospect research, annual giving (phonathon), and business intelligence. Along the way, he pursued an interest in data analysis, data mining and predictive modeling and applies these techniques to support all areas of university advancement. He launched the CoolData blog (cooldata.org) in 2009, focused on promoting the learning of predictive modeling techniques for professionals working in advancement and other nonprofit organizations. He has given many conference presentations on these topics, and in 2014 he was co-author (with consultant Peter Wylie) of a book published by CASE called “Score!: Data-Driven Success for Your Advancement Team.” Most recently, he published a how-to guide for predictive modelling as a free download from CoolData.org.
Apra-IL: Describe your motivations to build your career in Prospect Development, and what keeps you engaged?
MacDonell: My career has not been focused solely on Prospect Development, but it is fair to say that it has always revolved around it. I was a prospect researcher for seven years with responsibility for what, at the time, I didn’t know to call prospect management. Later, I worked in Annual Fund, data analysis, and managing teams in Operations (a.k.a. Advancement Services). None of those roles was really separate from Prospect Development, in the big picture: Annual Fund is part of a process that should identify key donors early and engage them appropriately; my data analysis work was in support of the same process, and Advancement Services professionals should be focused on supporting the smooth working of the “pipeline,” in its broadest sense.
My path through Advancement hasn’t been an outcome of a career built according to plan. I have moved from opportunity to opportunity. But the common thread is the satisfaction I receive from mobilizing data and information to enable leadership and frontline staff make decisions and support strategy. I’ve enjoyed learning new things, working on interesting problems with other people, and being useful in general. That has spilled over into my blog, the book I co-wrote with Peter Wylie, and the new (free) book I’ve just self-published.
Of course, those traits are true of anyone who enjoys coming to work each day, but the best people have those in spades. They are all intrinsic rewards of work. Nowadays, part of my role is to hire for that orientation toward intrinsic rewards, among other traits (including being smarter than I am).
Apra-IL: In your career, what has been your biggest challenge or lesson?
MacDonell: My biggest challenge was negotiating the transition to managing a team when all my previous experience related to hands-on work. This is a common problem - I’ve seen other new managers struggle with it - and I think it’s especially true for knowledge workers who may be managing a team but still have all the tools of the trade right there on their desktop. It took a while to feel right about letting go of things I once enjoyed, such as doing data analysis. It is possible to retain some elements of hands-on work, but I found that I couldn’t work on a priority project without becoming a bottleneck to progress. In roles I’ve had in recent years, holding on to any of that would drain energy from where it’s really needed: ensuring I understand where the frontline part of the organization is going, and being out ahead of it to support it, and proactively plan.
Apra-IL: In three words, describe the role of a Prospect Development Professional.
MacDonell: Collaborative. Empowered. Engaged.
Apra-IL: Please share a piece of advice with our readers you gained through a professional development opportunity.
MacDonell: I’ve attended many Apra conferences and sessions as an attendee and speaker, so professional development from Apra has shaped my view of Advancement in important ways. However, having seen prospect development from various angles, my advice to experienced people in the field is not to limit your view to what’s going on in Prospect Development to the exclusion of awareness of the strategic direction your department or organization is taking. I think of Apra as being forward-facing and in the vanguard of developments in the field, but we have to acknowledge that as much as we crave appreciation and respect from Advancement leaders, Prospect Development professionals are in service to their organization’s strategy. We may have had a hand in developing that strategy, but ultimately, strategy is developed by the organization’s leadership.
It’s analogous to something I like to say about an area I feel affinity with: data analysis and business intelligence. I have stopped using the term “data-driven decision making” in favour of “data-informed” or “evidence-based” decision making. Data doesn’t “drive” decisions, it “informs” them. Advancement leaders need to, well, lead – that is, chart a course. Analysts supply some of the tools, information, and advice to keep the ship on course. So it is with Prospect Development. A high profile for the people doing the work is important, but it is equally important for those folks to understand and support the strategy, and plug into it in proactive, effective ways – rather than seek to bend the organization to their concept of best practice. Prospect Development can show leadership where strategy is lacking, but otherwise it’s best to be in tune with the overall plan.