By Connie Swenson
Feeling like a little fish in a big pond? There’s safety in numbers, friends! In the Greater Toronto Area, a group of research and prospect management professionals in arts and culture organizations banded together to form an amicable school of fellow sector-mates to swim with. By building a go-to team of colleagues, we created a community-within-a-community of like researchers with like challenges. We gather regularly in cyberspace (and, in the Before Times, also in-person) to share extra-relevant tips and enjoy bite-sized networking in a supportive environment.
Once upon a time, I was relatively new to Toronto and Canada, quite new to my role at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and definitely new to research in the arts. My CEO at the ROM Governors (Foundation) encouraged me to reach out to peers at other museums, galleries and performing arts organizations, to get to know my counterparts. Thanks to some friendly meeting-and-greeting at an Apra Canada conference lunch where we all found each other at a “singles table” amidst a sea of big-fish organizations, a network was born!
Everyone was enthusiastic about joining a “spin-off” of Apra Canada for local arts and culture sector researchers. In 2013, we formed TAPRA, the Toronto Arts Professional Researchers for Advancement. With a membership of over two dozen researchers representing institutions including (but not limited to):
- Art Gallery of Ontario
- Canadian Opera Company
- Royal Conservatory of Music
- Toronto Symphony Orchestra
- National Ballet of Canada
- Canada’s National Ballet School
- Aga Khan Museum
- Gardiner Museum
- Toronto International Film Festival
- Massey Hall
- Roy Thomson Hall
- Stratford Shakespeare Festival
- Plus “alumni” members now in other sectors
Largely a virtual community for information gathering and resource sharing, TAPRA has become a positive forum for asking questions and bouncing ideas off of colleagues in similar settings. In the arts, where researchers come from a variety of backgrounds, knowing we all speak the same dialect of a common language gives us a ready shorthand on issues that are particular to our type of organization. As Uthara Pillai, assistant manager of prospect research and strategy at Art Gallery of Ontario, said:
“As a new member of TAPRA (joined in 2019), I’ve enjoyed meeting my research peers, connecting with them on key topics, and sharing ideas and knowledge to further enhance our collective prospecting efforts in the arts. Connie’s invitation to join came at the right time as I was very new to the arts scene, coming from the prospect research field in the UK, working for health charities.
“Being part of a special interest group is highly beneficial as it allows members to feel inclusive and part of a club of kindred spirits who (hopefully) share their enthusiasm for prospect research and create a sort of trade union (if you will). This is especially important for professionals who are the sole researcher at their organization, working amongst a sea of fundraisers!
It allows you to grow with confidence (if you are new to prospect research), lean on your counterparts when you need help and realize that most of what you encounter during your work has probably been experienced by another researcher at some point or another.”
Google Groups are quick to set up and keep everyone connected in an organic, low-maintenance way, making the conversation easy to jump in and out of at any time. Our Google Drive gives us a place to compile resources: presentations, articles, examples, templates and more. Over time we have built up a nice library of collected reference materials.
We meet up two or three times a year to network in person, whether to compare best practices on special topics or to exchange learnings from conferences, webinars and other professional development experiences. Sometimes members take turns with a show-and-tell topic timely and relevant to arts and culture; other times we gather the hive-mind on the latest cool research strategies. We’ve also had guests join from other sectors — even industries — to cross-pollinate with our own research specialties.
As an added bonus, we take turns going behind-the-scenes at our member organizations. Working in the arts affords wonderful opportunities to tour new art exhibitions with the curators who designed them, see amazing objects stored in the vaults of museum collections, view the National Ballet corps in rehearsal an so much more. These experiences enrich our professional lives and reinforce what makes working in arts and culture unique and genuinely oh-so-cool.
All around, TAPRA is a gratifying way for those of us specializing in the same sub-field to share knowledge specific to our sector, connecting and building camaraderie within the larger community of development researchers in Toronto and beyond. It’s also a fantastic get-your-feet-wet leadership training ground for anyone interested in volunteering with Apra at the national or international levels, offering members a forum in which to lead conversations and explore ideas, a receptive audience to develop content and test out presentations, and the flexibility to carve out a customized path of professional development experience.
Finding your fellow fish, or “prospecting” for the peers in your school, is easy. As Apra members, we all have a huge potential pool right at our fingertips. Just turn to the directory and dive in, flagging sector-mates. Ask members to recruit more members! It gives you a valuable appreciation for that cold-call feeling our frontline colleagues face, but the water’s fine and folks here are friendly. The results of taking the plunge, reaching out, making those connections and creating your own collegial cohort, are richly rewarding.
Connie Swenson was until recently Associate Vice President of Philanthropic Research at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In an exciting plot twist, she will soon be joining the Terry Fox Foundation and looks forward to taking her own advice as she gets to know another new sector.