Fundraising with Joy Interview – Jeff Walker

Jeffrey A. Walker, PhD | Director of Research, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (UWM) Development & Alumni Relations

Jeff headshotTo me Jeff is a storyteller with an imagination and sense of humour that is out of this world. We first connected through APRA International. He was (and now continues to be) part of the Editorial Advisory Committee for APRA’s journal Connections. He also wrote a futurist column called “One Foot in the Future.” I can’t think of a better person for that job (and not only because of his love of Star Trek). It seems fitting that Connections is what brought us together because I always think of Jeff as writer / fundraiser.

In fact, it was after nearly a decade of college English teaching that Jeff started his career as a philanthropy researcher / writer in 1998. He has been Director of Research at UWM since January 2011 and had previously been an Assistant Director of Research there (1999-2002). He held similar positions at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Foundation (2003-2011) and Lawrence University (1998-1999).

When I began this series of interviews I hoped to have his voice included. I knew he would be delightfully provocative. His definition of philanthropy as “concentric circles of stories” resonates because I love how prospect research is the chance to tell someone’s life story. Enjoy reading and pondering Jeff’s words. I bet it will leave you in anticipation for the future stories he will tell.

Connect with Jeff at Linkedin or on Facebook.

Janice: What made you choose a career in the social profit sector?

I wish I could describe how this fit into some grand, super-strategic career plan, but – in fact – I just stumbled in. Toward the end of my undergraduate years and throughout grad school, I envisioned becoming a professor. But the job market for newly minted humanities PhDs was abysmal when I finished my doctorate in English/Modern Studies. I lingered in the academy for about three years, as an adjunct instructor, mainly teaching required sections of Introductory Composition. In some ways, it was a wonderful experience: I loved working with students who were eager to learn, and who responded to intellectual challenge. But the course load and compensation were awful; gradually, I realized that path offered no long-term future and, in the near term, little genuine professional growth. With something akin to grief, I started to accept the idea that that particular job market wasn’t likely to loosen up at all. (And it still hasn’t.)

This was in the mid- to late 1990s. Through what then passed as online searching, I tiptoed into exploring opportunities in higher education administration, where I imagined my reader/analyst/writer skill-set might be put to good use. That led to a few fascinating interviews (as far away as southern California), and it also showed me that I really enjoyed online work. In those days, I knew absolutely nothing about the field of advancement/philanthropy research or the APRA universe. One day, though, I discovered my undergraduate alma mater was looking for a “Development Research Officer.” The ad said they wanted someone with “insatiable curiosity.” That certainly got my attention – and I was rather quickly hooked.

My philanthropy research/writing adventure has now spanned both my undergrad and grad school alma maters, as well as a highly respected local health care system. Nearly every day, I’ve had the privilege of learning new things – often, about professional/personal life-stories, industries, or technology innovations I wouldn’t otherwise have been drawn to studying.

And speaking of “industries”: Your use of the phrase “social profit sector” is striking. Typically, we see “non-profit sector,” or “not-for-profit.” In that framework, with the “for-profit” corporate world juxtaposed with the “not-for-profit” Everything Else, the work we do is de-valued: not designed to generate – not motivated by – profit; implicitly, not producing value. Your more affirming and, I think, more accurate framework says that all work has value, adds value, produces profit. The question isn’t profit vs. no profit; rather, it’s where the profit goes, and who tends to benefit the most.

Janice: What does philanthropy mean to you? Has your definition changed over time?

For me, philanthropy has always – in part – been about story-telling: research information that helps to build or strengthen relationships, or words in a specially crafted proposal or letter that inspire some sort of action. It would probably be more precise to describe concentric circles of stories. In the case of research, for example, this would involve a story about a constituent that prompts a colleague to connect, or re-connect; the colleague shares with the constituent a focused, tailored story – perhaps a proposal – about the organization; and the constituent, ideally, feels inspired to create a story of her or his own: a story about how the organization fits with a personal passion and warrants a strategic investment of time or money that will benefit all involved, that will change the status quo in some significant way. Stories are always about the drama of change: people changing, and people struggling to change the world. That’s philanthropy – and that’s the energy I’ve always seen in it, at least at its best.

Janice: How does your organization’s mission connect to your personal values?

The University of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee campus – known as “UWM” – serves a high percentage of students for whom an undergraduate education would traditionally be out of reach. These are young people from very under-resourced families, who really couldn’t pursue a college degree without a great deal of scholarship support, or other forms of financial aid. For them, that degree is a kind of personal and professional lifeline – a ticket into an otherwise inaccessible network of opportunities and possibilities. That part of UWM’s mission is personally resonant for me because I was basically a first-generation college student. My uncle finished college, but neither my mom nor my dad did.

The broader mission connection for me is the obvious organizational focus on higher education, on learning. All through school (grade school, high school, college, and grad school), I loved the personal challenge of learning and the ways I felt stretched by reading, thinking, and writing. My undergraduate experience – at a small, well-regarded liberal arts college in northeastern Wisconsin – taught me a fair amount of “what,” of content, but, far more importantly, more enduringly, a great deal of “how” and “why.” It accelerated my curiosity and helped me develop some practical (and a few idiosyncratic!) habits for lifelong learning. Working for an organization where a love of learning and a drive for personal growth and achievement are valued deeply is true gold. Helping the organization build relationships with philanthropic investors who are passionate about those values is priceless.

Janice: What brings you the most joy in your work?

I enjoy the challenge, the variety, the constant learning, and the frequent immersion in “gee-whiz,” almost Star Trek-style data analysis and technology. I especially enjoy serving as a kind of strategic filter for our Development and Alumni Relations team, diving into the daily tsunami of constituent information, cultural and industry and philanthropic trends, and national and global news, and re-surfacing with a few practical nuggets that could actually help colleagues in their work. Without a doubt, though, I find the most joy in preparing major gift prospect referrals. They often feel like complex puzzles: finding the “right” constituent from somewhere in the vast not-on-our-radar pool; piecing together just the “right” parts – the most compelling, most action-motivating parts – of that constituent’s professional, personal, and philanthropic story; and then presenting the findings in just the “right” way, to the “right” front-line colleague. Maybe the word “puzzles” doesn’t fully capture the tingly thrill I often feel with referrals; puzzles can be pretty darn frustrating. Some forest imagery might be more apt. A referral is a tiptoe-ish exploration beyond the edge of the team’s familiar, well-mapped forest. You go out ahead, into some untraveled, totally new territory; it’s a little dark and mysterious, and there could be stuff that doesn’t make much sense at all; but you look around, poke here and there, and find what you can; and then you come back with – yes – the most interesting, evidence-grounded story possible. You say: “Hey, folks – come along and look at this. There’s no clear path, but the trip will be well worth it.”

Janice: Your job focuses on cultivating relationships and supporting others, what do you do to recharge your batteries?

Travel is great, because it lifts you out of the usual routines, brings you in touch with new places and people and ideas, and forces you to think on your feet and learn fast; it’s fun, and usually pretty eye-opening. But it can also be expensive and time-consuming – so reading is a wonderful alternative. If I don’t have sufficient “imaginary travel” time with my Kindle every Sunday afternoon or evening, I feel that lack throughout the following week. The two elderly collies we share our home with also help me to recharge. Communicating and romping around and just living day-to-day with them can involve a very different kind of thinking – not the ways of perceiving the world or using language that office culture is built on. Nearly every day, those two madcap, smart, highly “vocal,” irresistibly sweet dogs teach me quite a lot. And their fierce curiosity about every aspect of their environment is a source of real inspiration.

Janice: Research shows that philanthropy and volunteerism are proven ways to increase happiness. How have you experienced this in your work and life?

For several years in the early to mid-2000s, I had the opportunity to help lead the Wisconsin chapter of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA). It was a time of considerable change and growth for the chapter, and having a hand in some of that was – and remains – one of the most rewarding volunteer activities I’ve had the privilege of participating in. I’ve also been involved in various ways with APRA International’s quarterly professional journal, Connections. I guest-edited an issue on the varied paths people have followed into philanthropy research; from 2006 to 2009, I wrote a futurist column called “One Foot in the Future”; and I’ve served on – and recently rejoined – the Editorial Advisory Committee. Because I love writing, these Connections experiences have been richly rewarding.

Janice: Our work in the social profit sector allows us to make a contribution. What is the lasting impact you want to make during your career?

Following about a decade of college teaching, philanthropy research/writing has been my second career. So far, a couple of experiences stand out. While working previously at the aforementioned health care system, I was the lead writer for a multimillion dollar proposal in support of a cancer and blood disorders center. It was fully funded, and I’m delighted to know that some words on a page helped advance a relationship enough that lives could be transformed – in some cases, even saved. To be a part of something like that is pretty humbling – and puts an awful lot of other stuff in perspective.

Before working in Health Care Land, I had been at UWM – not as Director of Research (my current role), but as an Assistant Director. During that earlier stretch here (1999-2002), in a prospect referral, I identified a graduate who was, back then, a rising star in Hollywood. In the intervening years, UWM was able to develop a good relationship with this now-celebrity-status individual, one that is continuing to grow today. There are some fascinating possibilities with the person, and I appreciate being able to step back, take the long view, and trace the whole arc of the story.

But your question was really about “lasting impact.” If I have that at all, I’m imagining it might come from what I’m planning will be my next (third!) career: full-time fiction writing. We’ll see how that goes. I can’t wait.

© 2013, Janice Cunning. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this posting if you include my contact information. Please contact me if you wish to reprint any portion of it in any periodical or on a website

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About Janice Cunning

As a certified coach and fundraiser, I am passionate about partnering with people and teams to increase their personal and professional Joy Quota.

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