Get to Know 2023 Apra Distinguished Service Award Recipient Tracey Robertson
Since 1990, the Apra Distinguished Service Award has honored an individual who has enhanced both the prospect development profession and Apra community through exceptional contributions beyond their regular scope of work. Tracey Robertson, associate director of prospect research at Emory University, was recognized as this year’s awardee at Apra’s Prospect Development 2023 (PD2023) conference.
An active board member and membership director of Apra’s Georgia chapter, Roberston spoke with Anthony Parrish, past member of the Apra Editorial Advisory Committee, about her career in prospect development and what this award means to her.
Congratulations on being Apra’s Distinguished Service awardee this year! What drives you to support prospect development as a profession?
First of all, I was shocked — truly shocked — to receive this award! Even as they were reading out excerpts from the nomination it wasn’t sinking in. I didn’t set out to win this award, but to give back the same way Apra and its members have given so much to me over the years.
When I first started my job, I knew what I wanted to do — I loved research! Emory was just going into its first modern campaign and I was fresh to the field. Luckily, I had incredible support from team members (two of whom are still there with me); they were always there to help and share institutional knowledge. Having to learn everything fresh, I got involved with Apra Georgia and found some peers who turned into unofficial mentors. After growing into my role, our chapter announced a formal mentorship program, and I raised my hand to join. I love helping people in the field because it is so interesting, constantly changing and you always learn something. I like to help people tackle their tough problems, and that moment when the idea light goes on is fantastic.
You mentioned having mentors early in your career; how have mentors affected your professional life?
The woman who onboarded me at Emory had grown up around the university, and had even worked for the Center for Disease Control — which is right next door — when she was in high school. She knew so much and really inspired me when sharing her knowledge of Atlanta, its history, families and philanthropic landscape. That relationship helped me be the researcher I am today, because it taught me not to just rate someone from the numbers. A rating must also look at the contextual clues, like what boards they serve on and how active they are in local philanthropy. As a mentor she taught me the psychology of giving and how to find not only prospects with capacity, but with philanthropic propensity and affinity for our institution.
What relationships outside of your own team at Emory have you treasured building?
Emory is very large — larger than you’d think. From the healthcare components to the university proper and professional schools, there are many programs. One of the most impactful relationships I’ve been blessed with started when I was assigned to the foundation and corporate relationships team. Finding prospects who are not just tied to the university with a single strand, but instead tied across the university let me grow exponentially in my own institutional knowledge. I still have an understanding of the school of public health, what funding they are looking for and what programs they have because of the relationship I developed with the foundation and corporate relations team. They truly reach everywhere on (and off) campus to all corners of Emory, and I treasure that relationship.
Since joining Emory in 2006, what changes have you seen in prospect development?
When I started at the university, most of what we did was reactive — research was requested when needed (or remembered). Now, we are much more strategic partners. We’ve recently even switched over to a research consultant model with specific assignments, and are more closely tied to the fundraisers by helping fill out portfolios with vetted prospects and donors or offering suggestions if they are having trouble finding programmatic funding. When a fundraiser is striking out with a prospect we can step in and say, “You’ve gone through the cadence, you’ve made the effort, let the prospect go from your portfolio.” As a team, we still respond to research requests, but we’re also focused on proactive work; once a week we have a prospecting day as a team where everyone is focused on their prospecting projects. It is a big shift to move from a service to a partner, but we’re seeing many benefits. As we gain buy-in from fundraisers, deans and other leaders, our role continues to grow.
For those just starting out in prospect development, what advice or suggestions do you have for them?
Honestly — and I believe this — join your local Apra chapter. If there is a mentorship program, ask to be assigned. This is the biggest thing you can do to start your career off right! Secondly, start developing your industry knowledge through self-education; learn about SEC forms, understand different company structures, and get a better feeling for business-focused terminology. Finally, take advantage of everything Apra has to offer; get involved, attend conferences and reach out to other prospect development professionals and ask questions. One thing I’ve loved about our industry is how everyone is very open and welcoming. If you have a question, ask it, because we are happy to share the knowledge we’ve gleaned in our experiences.
The Apra Distinguished Service Award is funded by the Apra Foundation. View the full 2023 Awards Video on the Apra website.