Recipient: Jessica Balsam, Associate Director of Prospect Management, University of Washington
Enterprising, skeptical and communicative: These are three words that Jessica Balsam, associate director of prospect management at the University of Washington, uses to describe herself. Balsam is the recipient of the 2016 Distinguished Service Award, which was established to honor individuals who have enhanced both the field of prospect development and Apra through exceptional contributions beyond their daily paid work.
Adopting an enterprise-wide lens has helped Balsam and her team better evaluate how their work interacts with other parts of the organization. “In prospect development,” Balsam said, “we’re working as part of a larger system.” That big-picture perspective is strengthened by her skepticism — or, as she described it, “not taking things at face value.” Balsam is always eager to dive in to background research and data analysis to investigate trends. Especially in a large university setting, it is vital to understand the context of the questions her team is trying to answer. But Balsam believes discovering those answers is only part of her work.
“Sharing the information we find with broader audiences is critical to our field,” she said. She feels strongly about making sure information gets shared in a way that encourages people to actually consume it.
Balsam’s approach has been honed not only by her work at the University of Washington, but also through her many years of service to both Apra and her local chapter. She served for six years on the board of Apra-Northwest, including a four-year term as president, and has volunteered in many other roles with the group.
“I had some previous experience on nonprofit boards, but those roles were more traditional board positions focused on overall leadership and strategic direction,” she said. “In an Apra chapter, it is like you are taking on both those board duties and the staff duties.” Balsam has taken part in nearly every facet of chapter operations.
She credits Betsy Cooper, director of college relations information systems at Reed College, and president of the Apra-Northwest chapter when Balsam first joined, with shaping her professionally.
“Betsy had a remarkable leadership style that was simultaneously laid back and proactive. She knew just what kind of support the group needed from her at exactly the right time,” Balsam said.
Balsam’s volunteer efforts extend beyond Apra. Her nominator, Susan Hayes-McQueen, the University of Washington’s senior director of prospect management, research and analytics, noted that “smaller nonprofit organizations in the Seattle area call upon Jessica to help them understand and grow their ability to work in prospect development.” She has also been asked to present at CASE and NDOA/AFP conferences.
Prior to her work at the university, Jessica was active in the arts community both professionally and personally. Through her full-time work with arts organizations like the Tacoma Art Museum and serving as president of visual arts nonprofit Tacoma Contemporary, she has been a tireless advocate for the arts. She also has received several project grants in support of her own work as a visual artist. Says Hayes-McQueen, “Jessica has many personal and professional ties to philanthropy. It is clearly a major driver in her life.”
Most recently, Balsam has been collaborating with a fundraiser colleague to study the habits of higher-performing major gifts officers. She and her colleague presented their findings in an extremely well-received Apra webinar in May 2016. Additional presentations are being planned for the Engineering Development Forum and the CASE International Talent Management Conference.
Balsam is excited about the possibilities of unstructured data. She can see a future where sentiment analysis or new data mining techniques may eliminate the need for over-structured contact report forms. She looks forward to moving away from printed reports as portable screens and interactive reports become more ubiquitous.
Balsam loves that her work in prospect management focuses on this sort of forward-thinking, but also allows her to build personal relationships with fundraisers. And outside of the University of Washington, the relationships she has built through her work with Apra have clearly helped shape her career. “Other niche professions envy what we have,” she said of the close-knit community and focus on professional development that Apra fosters. “I feel like I should be giving Apra an award!”
Becky Fullmer is associate director of prospect management in university development at The Ohio State University and is a member of the Apra editorial advisory committee.