Fundraising with Joy Interview Series – Helen Brown

Helen Brown, The Helen Brown Group LLC and ShareTraining

The Helen Brown Group, Brian Phillips Photography, Boston Corporate PhotographyHelen is the founder of The Helen Brown Group, a prospect research consulting company with an international focus. She has been a researcher, leader and educator for over 20 years. Helen recently co-authored, with Jennifer Filla, the book Prospect Research for Fundraisers: The Essential Handbook. So yes, she wrote the book on fundraising research. I see Helen as a thought leader and innovator. She writes a regular blog, The Intelligent Edge and is a sought after presenter. I was fortunate to serve with Helen as a board member of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA). She co-authored the curriculum for the APRA New Researchers Symposium and received the Ann Castle Award for service to the prospect research community in 2006. She is also past president of the New England Development Research Association (NEDRA).

To learn more about Helen visit: or connect on Twitter @AskHelenBrown

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

I was doomed from the start! (laughing) My parents were always involved as volunteers at church or in the community when I was growing up, and as soon as I could walk they had me helping, too. My mom strongly encouraged me to donate the earnings from my first popsicle stand to the Red Cross – my first forays in both entrepreneurship and philanthropy!

In school and college I loved the research part of my schoolwork, but didn’t know how I’d be able to translate that into a career. My first (and last!) temp job was working in the development office for my alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill. That first Monday morning the director of research asked if I wanted to help her team with a project, and all the pieces fell into place in that moment for me. Prospect research marries my love of philanthropy with my love of finding and sharing useful information.

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

Hmmm, that’s a great question. I used to think that philanthropy meant “charity” – giving money at the point of need. But true philanthropy, I think, means using resources like money, information, intellect, and collaboration to resolve problems upstream, so that the point of need is eliminated. In the case of a school or university, it’s providing education in a way that doesn’t just meet the needs of society now, but prepares people for lifelong learning and contribution. Philanthropy isn’t just about donating money.

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

Well, since I own a prospect research company with my name on it, that means that every report and every interaction we have with our clients de facto reflects my personal values. Our job is to do our best to help clients achieve their goals and fulfill their mission while serving them with skill and courtesy. We really do take it that seriously. Great prospect research still requires an intelligent, fairly-paid person to research, distill, analyze and communicate – which isn’t cheap – so everything we do has to help clients move exponentially farther forward than they would have without us. Each member of my team has direct contact with our clients, so the fact that we consistently earn high marks for our customer service means that they understand and embrace HBG core values.

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

Two things, really: hearing from a client how our work helped really makes my day. And, surprisingly for me because I wouldn’t have expected this 15 years ago, managing a team and running two successful businesses (I also own a web-based training company called ShareTraining). That gives me a great deal of joy. I’m incredibly lucky to have assembled the team that works with me at HBG – they are smart, funny, collaborative …and just a really nice group of people. Most of my team work virtually, so I’m proud of the fact that we manage to be a cohesive group that work hard, enjoy what we do and like working with each other.

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

I love to travel anywhere new and visit the major sites and the off-the-beaten-path places that locals point us to. We walk and walk and then eat and eat! I enjoy gardening, too, and last year we got a plot in a community garden which opened up a whole new world of vegetable gardening. It’s a lot of fun sharing seeds and tips and stories with other “crazy organic gardeners” as our niece likes to call us. And what kind of researcher would I be if I didn’t say I love to read?

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

I never really had much occasion to mingle with major donors until I became involved with the board of the North American Foundation for the University of Manchester (NAFUM) 12 years ago. Then I watched how grateful these dedicated board members were to be given the opportunity to provide student scholarships and support special projects; how much intense joy it gave them to be able to do this. It inspired me to fund a small project at Manchester dear to my heart, and I can now speak from first-hand experience to counsel fundraisers never to be afraid to ask for a gift that is truly tailored for the donor. If the fundraising staff is on top of their game, the alchemy can be magic for everyone.

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?

Our field is self-taught, and training prospect researchers how to do this work with pride, discernment, diligence and creativity is really important to me. I’d like to know that the writing and training work I do creates a ripple effect that impacts the success of as many organizations as possible.

© 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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