Interview by Jeffrey A. (Jeff) Walker, PhD, director of research, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM)
Jeffrey A. (Jeff) Walker, PhD, director of research, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) Development and Alumni Relations Office and Apra Editorial Advisory Committee member, sat down with Laura Worcester, a recently retired, longtime philanthropy professional. Together, they discuss Worcester’s extensive development journey.
Jeff (JW): I recall first meeting you by phone, while I was at Children's Wisconsin Foundation, perhaps around 2005. Is that your recollection, too?
Laura (LW): I think so! Children’s was considering Blackbaud/Target Analytics (BB/TA) for a screening project.
JW: That seems like centuries ago, and this next question will (gulp!) take us back even further. How did majoring in English and secondary education, in college, prepare you for your career? If you could go back and give Undergraduate You some advice and perspective, what might you say?
LW: Majoring in English was the best decision I made as a student. I learned to read critically and write well. I didn’t realize at the time that those skills were not universal. Being an effective communicator has been essential throughout my career. Interestingly, while my time in the classroom was minimal, the teacher education preparation has proven to be invaluable as well, especially during my tenure with BB/TA. Knowing how to teach — and how people learn — enhanced my ability to share implementation strategies with clients.
Like many of our professional peers, philanthropy was not my original career plan. It was actually a complete accident, but it’s been a good fit, skill-wise. Unless a student is preparing for a specific, technical-based career, such as engineering or medicine, majoring in English or communications will serve them well. Had I known then what I know now, I would have taken a class or two in statistics and economics. I avoided those like the plague, only to have to pick them up later. In our analytics-driven culture, both are crucial.
JW: What originally drew you to philanthropic work? And what kept you in the field?
LW: Initially? Rent money! I had moved to Madison, Wisconsin, for grad school and needed a job. Lawrence Henze had been a colleague at Carroll University and he was their director of development. The University of Wisconsin (UW) Foundation hired him to be the director of annual giving, and he in turn hired me to help coordinate the student calling program. Soon, I had opportunities to work in research and event planning, too.
Although my tenure at UW was relatively short, it stoked my interest in the field. Even more importantly, it allowed me to cultivate professional relationships with the individuals who became my most important mentors: Lawrence, who went on to start what is now Target Analytics; and Martha Taylor, a former vice president at UW, who was a true pioneer and became an internationally recognized voice on women and philanthropy.
Fortunately, the work itself proved to be overwhelmingly fulfilling. I vividly recall the day I held a check for $1 million from a donor I had once researched. It was exhilarating. I was hooked.
JW: After starting in higher education admissions work, you moved into education fundraising, retirement community fundraising, analytics consulting and statewide philanthropic advocacy and consulting. Most recently, as perhaps your capstone roles, you've been back in higher education fundraising, as well as animal welfare fundraising. What were the passion points along the way? Is there a common thread that runs throughout?
LW: Early on, it was position advancement and pay. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, salaries were often frozen, or increases were minimal, so job change was a necessary constant. The thread, though, was generally impact and a passion for the mission. I couldn’t raise money for a mission I didn’t care about.
BB/TA was initially a bit of a departure from that. It was more about the schedule flexibility and the opportunity to work from home. But serving as a consultant for hundreds of organizations across the country ultimately fulfilled the same need: believing in the work and seeing genuine impact.
JW: And that analytics gig turned out to be the longest part of your career. What was the attraction? What were the challenges?
LW: In 1999, with two toddlers at home, I needed a position that generally wouldn’t conflict with parenting. I was doing some freelance grant writing when I got a call from Lawrence. He had recently started his own predictive modeling company and needed someone who understood all aspects of philanthropy to work with potential clients.
I was intrigued. At the time, this was on the leading edge of prospect research. However, the minute he mentioned statistics, I nearly bolted. It was Greek to me, and I certainly couldn’t imagine explaining it to anyone else.
But Lawrence persevered, and his enthusiasm was inspiring. He won me over and, before long, I was on the road for what was then called Core Data Services. It’s such an amazing field. I was helping clients across the Midwest as they grew their annual giving and major giving programs. While in some ways it felt like stepping into corporate America, helping not-for-profits fulfill their mission was immensely satisfying.
If you could go back in time and give advice to your younger self upon entering the prospect development field, what would you say? Hear what the Apra Fundamentals staff would tell themselves in "Apra Fundamentals: Advice to My Former Self."
And then Blackbaud expressed an interest in purchasing the company. As part of the acquisition, I had the opportunity to join their new analytics team. It was a scary leap, but I soon hit my stride, partnering with clients of all sizes, with diverse missions. I had truly found my niche, unleashing the salesperson my dad always told me was inside me, while also teaching some of the nation’s top philanthropy professionals about the power of data and analytics.
But I wasn’t the typical Blackbaud employee, and that presented some challenges. I was a middle-aged mom, primarily concerned with my young daughters’ growth and development. Fortunately, I had the flexibility of working from home, but it was good that I was meeting my sales goals or I may not have lasted long.
JW: That does sound challenging. I’m glad you stuck with it.
LW: Well, I was enjoying what I was doing and I’m definitely committed to philanthropy, so I wasn’t going anywhere.
JW: Which leads perfectly to another question. How have you seen our profession change through the years?
LW: Not only has the field grown, but the marriage of the “art and science” of philanthropy has matured as well. Obviously, with electronic screening tools, research has evolved. What newbie researcher in 2020 could imagine poring through microfiche?
And today’s donors, both individual and institutional, are often more invested in their philanthropy. Thirty years ago, I typically heard, “Put this gift wherever it will do the greatest good” — without a lot of discussion. Now, interactive gift planning negotiations focus on impact for the organization and for the community it serves. Corporate and foundation funders have added specificity to their guidelines, focusing more on efforts with solidly measurable results.
In addition, communication between funders and organizations is greater than it used to be. Collaboration is far more common, with the emergence of national and regional philanthropy-serving organizations (PSOs) — such as my former employer, Wisconsin Philanthropy Network (WPN). They provide educational opportunities and serve as a key resource for our entire philanthropic community, statewide.
JW: Okay. Gaze into your crystal ball. What looks exciting in philanthropy's future? What are some potential areas of concern?
LW: It is so exciting to see this growing collaboration between funders and donors. The community wins, whether it is with a more diverse and better educated workforce, programs dedicated to a specific neighborhood need or challenge, outstanding arts and cultural programs or exciting research in an incredible academic discipline.
At the same time, we face the age-old problem: securing unrestricted funding. Not-for-profit organizations must remain nimble and creative in articulating their needs. It isn’t enough to request all-purpose support for day-to-day operations. Staffing, training and programming must have objectives clearly rooted in persuasive data. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does require careful planning and a compelling, effective case for support. Just one more reason that an English degree has come in handy!
JW: Let’s wind down by shifting from the big picture to the personal. As you reflect on the arc of your career, what are you proudest of? Any regrets?
LW: In my 35-year career, two things particularly stand out, each involving one of my daughters. Several years ago, my oldest and I were in La Crosse, touring Viterbo University, where I had worked in development early on. I hadn’t been to the campus in a long time. As I looked around, I saw a number of things I had actually had a hand in implementing. When my daughter decided to go there, I felt a real sense of pride. Her education would be enriched because of my prior efforts.
More recently, my other daughter accepted a position as a development coordinator at a local organization. Over the past several years, she had completed an internship with one of my previous organizations and pursued other valuable experience based on insights I had offered. Being a mentor is always a fulfilling endeavor. When it’s for one’s own child, the sense of gratification is almost overwhelming.
JW: Thanks, Laura. We’ve had a fascinating and fun conversation.
LW: Agreed! Thank you — and thanks to everyone who took the time to read this. I hope you found a few nuggets along the way.
Learn more about Jeff and Laura on the Connections Thought Leadership Page.