25 Years in Research: Looking Back, Ahead, and All Around Our Campfire With Cecilia Hogan – Part 1

The ground shook a little on July 24, when I learned that Cecilia Hogan would be retiring from the research profession on September 7. She had invested 25 years of talent, vision, grit, imagination and insight at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington. During that time, she also emerged as a pioneering leader, unique voice and much-beloved role model in a wide range of professional development and networking venues, for Apra and other organizations.

To mark her milestone occasion and help launch her next big adventure, Cecilia and I stepped back to reflect on her research career. While the following online chat is, sadly, our last writing project for Connections, I’ll dare to hope it’s not necessarily our final-final collaboration.

Jeff Walker: Let’s start by tiptoeing into your own private Wayback Machine. How — if at all — did your BA in Psychology help to prepare you for the philanthropy research field?

Cecilia Hogan: Maybe social sciences should be a special line of study at research conferences. Unbeknownst to me, when I began as a researcher, I had joined a group of fundraisers and data managers who were at odds. What’s new under the sun, right? But I hadn't been in that sort of work culture before. They were operating from distrust. Some of them would ask me to pass information on to the others because — gulp — they weren't on speaking terms. A couple of them, even if their lives depended on it, could not tell a simple, straightforward story that efficiently got to the point. They were losing credibility with one another, like a pricked balloon losing air.

I thought: Square yourself, Cecilia. How are you going to deal with this? Ever the researcher, I went to the library and checked out books about dysfunctional relationships. Back to Psych 101 and, particularly, one class about processes and outcomes.

Like the spouse in a fractured relationship, I began to set clear limits and voice my own expectations. Me, the new kid, with expectations. With so many on rocky ground, I walked forward projecting strength, even though I often I didn't feel it. The situation did call for either stupidity or fearlessness. I'm not sure which I had in greater supply. It might have been stupidity, because one of my not-so-secret weapons was that I operated as if I had little to lose.

With so many on rocky ground, I walked forward projecting strength, even though I often I didn't feel it.

And it worked. Things inevitably change every few years anyway. Some things you just have to wait out. And, while I was waiting, I created a culture and image I wanted to be known for and live up to. When new people arrived, that's what they needed to meet. Back to Psych class, right?

JW: You finished your degree in 1974 and started at Puget Sound in 1993. What filled that almost-20-year gap? What path did you follow into research?

CH: It’s sort of a boring story, actually. I was a therapist for teenagers right after college, and it was very hard, very sad. You were always meeting those kids about 10 years too late.

But the next job is the one that helped me get into research. I went to work for a commercial real estate appraiser as his right hand. We'd visit jobs together, measure, interview the developer or owner, and then dig into the appraisal. I'd research comparable sales and rents, and he'd do the analysis. The reports were long, narrative pieces, and he'd have me write all the descriptive parts about the properties and the locations. He was wonderful, a fantastic boss and man, a true gem. But the work became boring, and — to be frank — it didn't feel like it had any socially redeeming quality.

I decided that I had to go somewhere where 1) the work would be interesting; 2) the work would have social value; 3) the location would be beautiful; and 4) I could have a pension. You are going to think I'm exaggerating the next part. Maybe I am a little, but it feels like this happened. I opened the newspaper — in those days, that's where you found jobs — and there was the ad for a prospect research position at Puget Sound.

JW: Oh, I hear you. The ad for my first research gig — posted online in The Chronicle of Higher Education, back in 1998 — said “insatiable curiosity” was required. It was a job at my undergrad alma mater. I was surprised and intrigued — and immediately hooked. Who wouldn’t be, right?

OK. I’d like to play a little more with your Wayback Machine. What might Cecilia-2018 want to tell her 1993 self?

Cecilia-2018 says to Cecilia-1993, "Lift your eyes up out of that book. Look away from that computer screen. See the horizon? You're getting it now: some perspective. That's the greatest gift you'll give your team. As a researcher, you have a chance to see things from lots of angles. Practice how to tell them that. Practice ways that they will be able to hear. When you get that figured out, you won't believe what the team will accomplish."

Cecilia-2018 says to Cecilia-1993, "Lift your eyes up out of that book. Look away from that computer screen. See the horizon? You're getting it now: some perspective. That's the greatest gift you'll give your team."

Cecilia-2018 stretches and sighs. "Oh, and one more thing, Cecilia-1993. Don't quit. Listen to me about this. The people will come and go. Senior management will change. And the strategic plan — and your work — will change. Every piece of the job will keep changing around you, sometimes at a dizzying pace. But it will stay incredibly interesting, if you can be patient, pay attention and wait. You won't even have to take your posters down, or drive a new route to work. Sounds good, doesn't it?"

JW: What would your newbie, 1993-self want to leap ahead and say to the current you?

CH: “You old researcher, you. Look at you! Hey, congratulations on finishing well. Here's my wish for you. I hope you never forgot to be starry-eyed about the wealth you found and the philanthropy that happened because of it. Remember in 1993, when you weren't even able to see what wealth really was? Remember how delighted you were when a student staff member who knew what you were doing for a living told you, ‘My roommate's mother invited me to Thanksgiving. She's sending her jet to pick us up. I thought you might like to know that.’ I mean … what??? It was so much fun to think about that potential to give. I hope you wake up today, just days before your last day, and still feel that excitement.

"And one more thing. I bet you're missing the upper body strength lifting those Who's Who and Dun & Bradstreet tomes gave you. Now you're as weak as a kitten. So sad!"

JW: These different iterations of “you” — and so much time travel, as it were — naturally makes me think of All Things Star Trek — a passion we share. Do you see a connection to research?

“The Lessons of Star Trek.” Where do we begin? Here's my list of lessons learned — primarily from The Original Series, of course … 

JW: Yes, yes! Of course.

CH: Here goes:

  • Team building is essential to success.
  • Unparalleled leadership that is collaborative, utilizing the best skills of each team member, must be in place, with final choices resting with the captain and everyone supporting and expecting that.
  • There is great value in conflict, for its auxiliary benefits of building relationships and helping to solve problems well.
  • Always operate from a position of high, high integrity.
  • Employ compassion over everything.
  • Attract and nurture intelligence in everyone.
  • Leave no crewmember behind. Ever!
  • Meet all other life forms with an intention to welcome them.
  • Follow the Prime Directive: Do not influence other cultures unduly.
  • Use logic to solve problems, always salting it well with compassion.
  • Above all, save the ship. It is the future.
  • Always … go boldly.

JW: We also share a passion for good storytelling. What's the fit with our work?

CH: I know we are in a data-driven era for prospect research, but I will still claim this: The best researchers are good storytellers. Even data must tell a good story.

First, a good researcher has strong instincts for what ingredients must be present to make a true — actual or potential — major gift story. That researcher can stay on track and get to the most valuable information. Next, a good researcher knows what to share, making sure not to drown the reader or listener in all those myriad facts and details that, while they might sparkle and pull like tiny magnetic pebbles, really don’t address the moment.

The best researchers are good storytellers. Even data must tell a good story.

Assigning a new prospect? Evaluating information to suggest a solicitation? There are very different story needs for those points in time. Every story has a beginning, middle and end. Every story has an arc, a point where the story can turn. The best storytellers are Hemingways: succinct, direct and only filling the space with the things that matter.

Click here for part two of this conversation, in which Jeff and Cecilia will discuss industry trends, writing and publishing, and much more.

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Cecilia Hogan is officially off the grid, refashioning her life, and occasionally befriending random Klingons. She retired as the director of university relations research at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington, on September 7. Her “hailing frequencies are open” at ceciliaisnot@gmail.com.

Jeff Walker has been the director of research in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Development and Alumni Relations Office since January 2011 and is also a longtime member of the Editorial Advisory Committee for Connections. He is available for Vulcan-style mind melds via walker34@uwm.edu, www.linkedin.com/in/jeffwalkerphd, and www.facebook.com/jeffwalkerphd.

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