Building Relationships to Navigate New Career Opportunities

By Andrea Heitz, Featuring Michelle Franke, Sr. Director of Prospect Development, Texas Christian University

From working as a frontline development officer to overseeing the prospect management and research areas in an integrated development office, Texas Christian University’s Senior Director of Prospect Development, Michelle Franke, has seen all sides of the fundraising process.

The overarching theme of her career, and the thing that propelled her from position to position, has been relationships.

“I am good at relationships, and I made relationships across department lines at all the organizations where I worked,” Franke said. “Those relationships often helped me to my next role or to try something new.”

Her first job out of college was as a caseworker in a social service agency. When she realized that wasn’t her preferred path, the same organization allowed her to step into marketing, which led to grant writing.

“The leadership [of that organization] saw value in me, and they were open to me trying new roles in other areas of the organization,” Franke said.

From grant writing, and with the confidence of having successfully grown into two new areas of expertise, she became a development director for a small nonprofit. Then, with the skills gained from having been essentially a one-person shop, she moved into corporate sponsorship for a large museum.

When a cross-country move forced her to look for other options, she was asked to consider managing the prospect research team at a large research university. She’d done her own research in her earlier job, which allowed her to step into the role as both a leader and liaison.

“They wanted someone who could manage a team and who could help a mostly technical group communicate and understand [frontline] fundraisers in order to increase collaboration and improve fundraising success,” she said. “And there my love of prospect research and prospect management was born! I can’t imagine working anywhere else. I love the position of collaborating with fundraisers and analysts to help identify and cultivate prospects to making a transformational gift.”

Her job at Texas Christian University allows her to play both roles, as she oversees the research team and manages the overall relationship flow with major gift prospects through prospect development.

Relationships with mentors gave her some of her most important points of career advice for anyone:

  • Try and be positive. No matter the problem or issue, having some positivity will help the situation.
  • Smile, breathe and don’t quit.
  • Always be curious, try new things and don’t be afraid of things you don’t know.
  • Have balance and boundaries with co-workers.

Specifically, regarding the relationship of frontline staff to prospect development and research, Franke suggested relationships and teamwork as keys, saying, “Frontline staff can be a great asset in prospect research, and prospect development staff can be helpful in strategy development.”

Having been both, she wishes frontline and research professionals understood certain things about the other. 

Researchers should know that not all frontline fundraisers are extroverts, and asking for money is not easy. Field staff manage many relationships at the same time; they do need help with the details sometimes so they can focus on soliciting and closing gifts.

Frontline staff can learn research cannot calculate a person’s net worth. Net worth involves significant private information that’s not available for analysis. Wealth screenings and data analysis are not perfect.  Prospect research can only find other gifts disclosed by either the donor or recipient, and many gifts are not publicized.

Both groups, Franke said, should understand that fundraising is about the ability to tell a story, and both sides bring specific types of information to let the institution tell the right story to the right prospect.

Asked what advice she’d give her younger self if she had the option, she offered three wise points that anyone in any career might apply. 

“Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “Without mistakes and failure, you would never learn. So don’t dwell on the failures.”

Additionally, she’d tell herself, “Take a leap of faith! Trust yourself! You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. If you fail, you’ll become smarter; if you succeed, you’ll gain even more self-confidence. You’ll never know the limit of how much you can achieve until you take a leap of faith.”

Finally, she’d tell herself, and everyone else, “You are awesome just as you are. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on your rough edges and other areas of inexperience.”

This article relates to the Professional Development domain in the Apra Body of Knowledge.

Are you seeking career growth or change? Lisa Howley can help you plan your path in this session recording from Prospect Development 2017.

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