Life Out On the Limb

“Success is a lot like a bright white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it.” – Conan O’Brien

Success is not always financial or having a particular job title. It can be finding a safe place in your profession where there is little risk of failure. When you are there, the idea of going out on a limb sounds like a very bad idea because you can clearly see the downside and can barely imagine any possible upside. This conundrum has kept a lot of knowledge bottled up inside of people, and they and our profession have suffered for it.

We thought sharing our experiences, good and bad, about life out on the limb, might encourage you to focus on the rewards rather than the risks and help you and our profession grow. What follows is a slightly edited version of our initial conversation regarding what this article might encompass. We hope you find what follows enjoyable and, hopefully, inspirational.

Presentations: You’ll mess up, but no one needs to know

David M. Lawson (DL): My first presentation was a disaster. It was a press conference at the Library of Congress to announce a new product, and I had written pages of notes. When it came time, I looked at my notes, and only then realized that between the quality of my handwriting and the small size, I could not read a word. I fumbled through the event. I haven’t used notes since. It took me some time before I was ready for my next presentation, but I committed to doing them on a regular basis once I started. There is something to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour concept. You need to practice, practice, practice. I also keep in mind something I heard many years ago: Half the room will not even notice when you stumble over a word or get something wrong; a quarter of the room will think you messed up, but will be unsure, leaving only 25 percent of the room actually realizing you messed up. But if you stop and comment on your mistake, then 100 percent of the room knows it happened, so don’t stop!

Lori Hood Lawson (LHL): Ha! I have to believe there are numerous people reading this right now who can sympathize with me, in terms of co-presenting with you, David. I remember the first time seeing you speak and truly marveling at how comfortable you were. Seriously. I’m not just saying that. As for myself, I have major stage fright and I agree with you, David. It does take presenting again and again and again to become more … flexible and comfortable with the process. I tend to look at presenting from this premise: Here I am, sharing with a few hundred of my colleagues what I happen to know about [insert subject here]. I look at presenting as more of a show-and-tell session. For me, this removes a lot of my own stage fright and helps me be more present while presenting.

Also, to your point, David, while no one will know you messed up unless you tell them, they also won’t know that you are not messing up, even if it appears you are.You’ll remember that time at [the Mid-Atlantic Researchers Conference] MARC when we had to use their equipment and I had the second part of our workshop to present when, voila, their equipment went to sleep, so I had zero presenter’s view and had to keep looking over my shoulder to see the slide that was showing on the screen. This is when I learned that sometimes you really do have to share with the audience when something has gone wrong. Also, perhaps, note to self: Don’t always let David go first! Those reviews could have made me stop presenting forever, but instead I continued. I do get something out of sharing my knowledge of a topic ― I get to connect with other like-minded individuals on a deeper level about a subject, as I presume it must be important to them as much as it is important to me. I love the continuing conversations of continuing education, for I learn more as well.

Articles: Write, even though your thesis could be wrong tomorrow

DL: Unless you allowed the event coordinators to record it, the only permanence of a presentation is the handout and the memories. An article, on the other hand, is there potentially forever, thanks to the internet. My propensity to speak about the future is especially challenging, because people can look back and see if I was on target or missed the mark. For that reason, I spend a lot of time on articles to make sure there is a solid basis to whatever opinion I may be giving. As long as I am comfortable with my facts at the time, I am OK with knowing that down the road I could be proven wrong. Or, more likely, things change, and what I wrote is no longer true.

A few years ago, I met a “near-futurist,” which I learned is a person who predicts how things that already exist will come together to create something new. I guess that is what I have been all these years, as my approach to the future is to look at what is available now and see how a new combination of those things can be transformational. I call it the Reese’s method. One day long ago, someone dipped their chocolate in peanut butter and the light bulb went off.

LHL: I love articles, and I love writing. This is putting yourself out there — you do this more than I do ― in terms of the future. For me, it’s a matter of, “Is the information or advice/how-to still valid?” If it’s not, I’ll often reach out to the organization or periodical and offer to write an update to the article. It really does bother me that much — that something I wrote years ago is now invalid. Articles are tiny research papers; they are bound to be correct at a moment in time, especially in our professional corner of our fundraising sector, but fundraising and fundraising intelligence are forever changing and being changed by external forces beyond our direct control. You can’t let that stop you from sharing, though.

Volunteering: There’s more than one way to serve

LHL: Volunteering has always been a part of my life; I believe I got that from my mother. This has to be the easiest way to put yourself out on a limb. Seriously — if you are in the fundraising sector, you have to give back. I feel very strongly about advocating for our part of the sector, and I am often asked by old friends to help them better understand how they can best help a nonprofit of their choice, and this is usually about volunteering for a nonprofit. I think it’s great that Apra has deeply involved volunteers and, admittedly, I can be quite passionate about all things Apra. I can’t help it — that’s just the way I’m made. My advice to people who have not yet become involved with Apra as a volunteer is to start with your own chapter. Getting involved at that local level. And, please, let me be clear: One does not have to be a board member to be involved — but involvement at the chapter level can not only expand your network of colleagues, but also help you build your own skill set.

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to write an article for Apra New York regarding volunteering at the chapter level. It was called, “Grow Your Own.” That’s one article I’m happy to say doesn’t need any updating! (Or does it?) And let me be clear about what I mean regarding the fact that one does not have to be a board member to be involved. True, I’ve been a board member of Apra Florida in the past, but, true story: I was never elected to any position. Instead, through being involved as a vocal member of Apra Florida, when board members would resign due to relocation, the remaining Apra Florida board members would ask if I could fill the remaining term for that vacant position. No joke! I’ve never been elected to serve on the board of a chapter nor chosen for the Apra International board. But that doesn’t stop me from stating my opinion, which has landed me on several committees. I’m happy to share my insight and even happier to learn from fellow committee members.

DL: You put me to shame when it comes to volunteering. A week does not go by without you on at least a couple of committee calls. My reluctance to volunteer professionally has two roots: First, the personality it takes to be a successful entrepreneur does not always serve one well on a committee; and secondly, I have always been concerned about the potential conflicts of interest between serving a profession while also offering services to it. Early on, when I was working with Apra during its formative years, I pushed to not allow people who were working for commercial ventures to serve on Apra’s board. I did this because I was concerned that a few people with the power of money could shape the industry to their liking rather than have it be shaped by its practitioners. As time passed, and more and more practitioners began to become consultants and employed by for-profits, this was no longer necessary. Today, we have a healthy mix of people inside and outside of nonprofit organizations. I have joined the professional volunteering world and now even chair a committee for another association, doing my best to keep my entrepreneurial instincts in check.

Career: Find where you fit and can serve best

LHL: As I approached graduating from FSU’s School of Library Science and Information Studies with my master’s degree, I was applying to jobs to be a corporate librarian for such firms as Arthur Andersen. Then this prospect research job advertisement was brought to my attention. This seemed like a lot of fun! It seemed like the perfect blend of my need to help others and my love of the information hunt and application of knowledge. I applied and was offered the job that very day. This would become the foundation of my favorite career. I have built upon that initial position ever since, and I’m happy to say I’m still growing in my career. I’ve stepped out on a few limbs, too, in terms of various paths from prospect research analyst.

DL: I came into the field through my father, Doug Lawson, who is one of the original major gift focused fundraisers. When I was a teenager, he put me to work on “The Foundation 500,” a book detailing the grants of the 500 largest private foundations. He really wanted me to be a consultant like him, but I fell in love with data and technology, and that led to a series of (ad)ventures which continue to this day with NewSci. When people ask me about working in our sector, I tell them there is no more rewarding experience if your goal is to help others, and there can be no more frustrating experience as you realize our sector has to constantly fight for financial resources and talent. The largest client of my first company was the private banking department of a major financial institution; while the money was good, the experience rang hollow, even though we were essentially doing the same work we were doing for schools, nonprofits and hospitals. You will likely face the same moments as you look at the for-profit world and see higher pay. It is OK if you make the move to greener pastures, but know you will feel a loss, so make sure you give back either with your time, treasure or both.

Books: Find a good editor

DL: When Apra was founded, there was only one book on prospect research, and it was written by Bobbie Strand. It was this fact that led to my first company creating the Apra Researcher of the Year Award, which required applicants to submit papers to be considered for the award. Some of the submitted papers, not just the winning submission, were subsequently published in a book called “American Prospector” by the Taft Group. This was the first time I considered writing a book. It was also the first time I shelved the idea because I was involved in a venture, something that would happen again and again, until finally I was inspired by the rise of Big Data and cognitive computing to write “Big Good” in 2017. I also knew I had a great editor who not so silently had been correcting my grammar for over a decade. A rich bibliography is essential for a profession, and I urge you to contribute. It may not be as an author (I have been a contributing author twice), or you could find a co-author. No matter what you do, find a good editor. Thank you, Lori, for helping me check one of the most rewarding professional items off my bucket-list.

LHL: I’ve only ever edited books — two, to be precise. (I do want to be an author of my own book, but in the fiction arena.) The first book I edited was Andrew Urban’s “The Nonprofit Buyer: Strategies for Success from a Nonprofit Technology Sales Veteran.” Andrew’s book provides wonderful insight to nonprofits regarding how to best work with your vendors to create a contract for services or products that will work best for your organization’s needs. The second book I edited was written by you, David. Now, this may not seem as risky as being the author of either of these books. But oddly enough, this has given me more heartburn than presenting — this is pretty permanent! Sure, revisions can be issued, but, David, your book was no piece of cake to edit. I’m not saying that because I’m the English major and you’re not. I’m saying that because I’m the English major.

My first job out of Emory, after my brief stint for Teach For America, was as a legal editor. I edited city and county ordinances for publication, and there was a set style guide and format we had to follow. I did that for about six years before going to grad school. Being a legal editor changes you. As you know, I’m a strong advocate of the Oxford comma! Editing a book is very different from editing laws, editing profiles, editing memos, etc. It was a challenge, it was an opportunity and it was amazingly risky, because it opened myself up to being wrong, in black and white, in print, forever, within my own industry. Seriously — for me, that was going out on a limb big time.

Come to think of it, this article about going out on a limb is kind of going out on a limb. And, wow, David, working together and editing your book and, I don’t know, being married to each other ― ah, we will always remember me saying to you, “Do you want me to edit your book or do you want us to stay married?” Ah, good times! I think that put our entire relationship out on a limb. {Laughing out loud}

DL: There are times when you need to pretend not to hear your significant other, and this was one of those times. Life on the limb was all too often a lonely existence where it was easy to create an echo chamber. Now with you, Lori, I never feel alone and know my words, written or spoken, will elicit smart, wise and witty (and at times snarky) responses. The book is just the latest in a series of adventures with you. I can’t wait for the next one!

To read a full Connections review of Lawson's book, click here. 

In conclusion: Just eat more fruit

LHL: This is my final thought on going out on a limb. I believe U.S. President Jimmy Carter is credited, among numerous others apparently, with saying the following about going out on a limb: That’s where the fruit is. Taking risks, then, is simply choosing to be fruity. Or to pick fruit. Or to like fruit. There you have it. Just eat more fruit.

DL: For me, life out on the limb is all I have known since starting my first company at 19. I can’t remember when it became my home, but I know that when the limb grows too far beyond where I am, I move with it. For those considering pushing beyond their comfort zone, I can tell you it is worth the risk. You will discover strengths you didn’t know you had, and one of them will be the ability to turn failures into stepping stones. For those of you reading this, if you decide to step out there, look us up. We limb-lovers have to stick together.

LHL: Yes, and you’ll make great, long-lasting friendships. Truly.


Lori Hood Lawson is the co-founder and CEO of WorkingPhilanthropy.com. She helps to keep the nonprofit sector current in the latest issues and trends. Previously, Lori served as Director of Strategic Solutions for Kintera P!N, where she managed a team of consultants, serving more than 300 nonprofit organizations in identification of prospective donors via wealth screening. She serves as a member and former chair for the Apra Ethics Committee; member and former co-chair of its Online Curriculum Committee; and member of its Body of Knowledge committee. She has served on the board of the Florida chapter of Apra, most recently as President and Director-at-Large. She holds a master’s degree from The Florida State University School of Information and a bachelor’s degree from Emory University. She served as editor for David M. Lawson’s book, “Big Good: Philanthropy in the Age of Big Data & Cognitive Computing.”

David M. Lawson brings more than 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur focused on providing actionable insights and technology to the philanthropic community. In 1997, he founded Prospect Information Network (P!N) which became the largest wealth screening company, and received the InfoCommerce Model of Excellence Award before being purchased in 2004. In 2013, he co-founded NewSci, LLC to bring Big Data and cognitive computing to the philanthropic community. NewSci was one of the first companies to develop a commercial application using IBM Watson. David is a recipient of the CASE Crystal Apple for Teaching Excellence and Apra Distinguished Service Awards. David is the author of “Big Good: Philanthropy in the Age of Big Data & Cognitive Computing.” He is also the co-founder of WorkingPhilanthropy.com and is chair of Domi Education, a business incubator in Tallahassee, Florida.

1 Comment
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Life out on a limb

April 20, 2018 10:25 AM by Suzanne Roberson, M.L.S.

Great article, Lori and David! You continue to inspire.

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