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Motivations of Leaders: Jami Hougen Johnson

Mon, February 12, 2018 8:44 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

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 Jami Hougen Johnson, Director of Prospect Management at the University of Chicago.


Jami is the Director of Prospect Management at the University of Chicago. Previously, she was the program director of a workplace giving coalition that supported social change, environmental, and cultural causes in Iowa. At the University of Chicago, she leads a team of analysts that work with colleagues across Alumni Relations and Development (ARD) to develop prospect pools, improve portfolio management, build pipeline strength, analyze gift officer productivity, create prospect management policy, and implement fundraising strategies. The prospect management team is part of a larger decision support team that includes financial analysis and forecasting, and information engagement and education specialists.

She has presented at APRA International and APRA Illinois, and is hoping to present in the future on building out strong prospect lifecycle programs in higher education organizations. She received her BS in neuropsychology and certificate in nonprofit management from the University of Iowa and received a certificate in project management and is in the process of getting a MLA from the University of Chicago Graham School.

If hearing about any of the work at UChicago is interesting to you, contact Jami (jhougen@uchicago.edu) to learn more! The Prospect Management team is hiring and will be posting an analyst position in the next few weeks.

Apra-IL: Can you tell us what motivates you in your current field? Have your motivations have ever changed?

Hougen Johnson: I wanted to make a positive impact in the world through my career and nonprofits are like world-improving powerhouses. The people in these organizations are so dedicated to the cause, and in turn they help donors and prospective donors make an impact through their time and giving.

Higher education is something that is important to me, so my motivation there has never really changed – although I loved working with smaller social change organizations years ago. I’d say my motivations have changed when it comes to the different areas within a nonprofit. I’ve done frontline fundraising, database administration, some program development, and now prospect development. Challenge itself is motivating, so when I see a big gap in my knowledge I’m interested to move more in that direction.  

Apra-IL: Describe your journey into your current position.

Hougen Johnson: I’ve heard people talk about how they “fell” into prospect development (and what a great career to fall into), but my journey was a little more direct. When I was an undergraduate, I wanted to work in the medical field and worked as part of a cancer research team and then in the heart transplant department. Both of these departments had wonderful nonprofits they worked closely with, and I got more involved. I was able to bring more analysis and data to these fundraising programs and was surprised at how much this insight impacted dollars raised.  I focused on for-profit strategy for some time, but ultimately came back to nonprofits.

My first full-time nonprofit job was one of those where you get to where all the hats, and I mean all the hats.  I learned a lot, but wanted an opportunity to become more specialized in my work. To get more specialization it helps to work in a larger nonprofit, so I saved up and moved to Chicago. When my friends asked what I wanted to do, I’d tell them I wanted to work on Michigan Avenue (it was the most opposite location from where I worked previously that I could think of) and have a chance to study what made people give some of the biggest gifts charity receive (again, opposite of the mostly annual fund program I ran previously). Believe it or not, I ended up working on Michigan Avenue working as a prospect management analyst focused on principal gifts.

Apra-IL: What advice would you give a new professional in the field of Prospect Development?

Hougen Johnson: Great question. I’ve been lucky to work with amazing people, and have gotten some excellent advice over the years.   

1. Ask big picture questions. 

Don’t limit your knowledge to just your role – even when you’re first starting out. What are the biggest challenges your organization faces? What is your organization trying to accomplish in the next 5, 10 years? How will fundraising impact the ability to achieve these goals? What are your organization’s key metrics? How does your work fit into these metrics? What are the biggest pain points your gift officers experience in their work? Tie what you learn about the greater organizational needs to your own work.

It can be easy to be a silo when working in prospect development. Understanding the big picture (and not just thinking short-term) will help you ask good questions and make your work more effective. Getting involved in professional organizations (like APRA IL!) is also a great way to understand the bigger picture, and learn about what other organizations are doing.

2. Study your impact.

UChicago’s prospect research, analytics, and prospect management teams recently did some cross-team interviews to better understand pain points and opportunities in our prospect development work. One common trend throughout these conversations was the desire to have a better understanding of prospect development’s impact on the organization.  This wasn’t a surprising finding necessarily, but it did underscore the importance of taking the time to study your own work.

You can get feedback and reports from other people (and this should be part of reflecting on your work), but it is also important to track and understand your work yourself.  Where are you adding value? One place to start is understanding how you might help increase funds and reduce cost. You might reduce costs by helping staff prioritize large groups of donors and prospective donors.

If you have some ideas for how you’re adding value, what actually is happening with your work? Keep a spreadsheet of prospects that scored highly on a model, you’ve identified, or you’ve assigned. Put it on your calendar to run a report on these names. Which prospects are giving? Which are being engaged? If nothing seems to be happening with some of these people, look at the data and think about what this is, and then reach out to your colleagues for feedback.  Understanding your impact is an important motivator for work in general, but studying your work will also help you regularly improve.

3. Focus on your strengths.

Think back to mentors or people that you thought were excellent at what they did. They were probably good generally, but there was likely a handful of things they were particularly great at, right? When you’re first starting out you want to make sure you’re checking all the boxes, but pay attention to the work that draws you in. Take note and focus on that work whenever you can. Of course, you don’t want to ignore your weaknesses, but you can be “good enough” in some areas of your work, and then be great at a few.

I’m particularly fond of radar or spider charts for this (ask UChicago’s PM team, they are probably sick of these). Talk to your manager and colleagues about the skills that are most important to your job. Work with your manager to rate yourself on these skills so you can see any major areas to improve, and then work on the areas you want to get “pointy”. I’m not a fan of personality tests because I think they often put people in a box… but Strengthsfinders is a good tool if you’re looking for a place to start.

Apra-IL: #researchpride is a fun and meaningful hashtag that allows professionals in Prospect Development to reflect and share why they feel proud to be in the field. Can you share a moment in which you have felt proud to be in Prospect Development? 

Hougen Johnson: First, can we get a #pmpride hashtag going too? Really though, I work with a brilliant team. They ask beautiful questions and are dedicated to finding answers. I’m regularly impressed, excited, and proud of the impact their questions (and answers!) have on our fundraising program. And when I think we’ve looked at all the data and there isn’t much more to review, we meet with gift officers and other teams and they ask questions that never crossed our minds. There is certainly an art to fundraising, but there is also a science and as a field we’ve seen a lot of changes to the different voices that are heard in organizational strategy conversations.

These conversations help us all think outside of the box about prospect development processes, portfolio management, how we engage donors and prospective donors … these improvements increase UChicago’s impact on people, our community, and the world. How can you not be proud of that?



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