I’m thinking about thinking about retiring
Not sure when that will be
I know I need to make a change
I’ll do it soon, you’ll see
I’m thinking about thinking about moving
To a warm place by the sea
Guess I’ll do that another day
It’s dinnertime for me
I’m thinking about thinking about everything
That I have to do
I suppose that I could start right now
But…I’m off to the zoo.
Copyright © Mike Gentile
The poem “Procrastination” beautifully describes the place between full-time employment and the kind of leisurely part-time, piece-at-a time work I'm doing now.
For more than 25 years, I have primarily worked as a prospect researcher, interlaced with short-term stints as a grant proposal writer, grants researcher, annual appeal letter writer and event planner.
My journey as a prospect researcher began in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1993. My family had lived in Cheyenne, WY, and I was an Air Force spouse. After graduating from Chapman University (through an F. E. Warren Air Force Base location) in 1991, I moved to New Mexico and chose not to look for a job for one year. It took a little while to find a position, but in 1993 I was hired at the New Mexico State University (NMSU) library ― this turned out to be the right place at the right time.
About a year later, while checking in magazines and other publications, an issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy came across the reference desk. The front-page headline grabbed my attention: It referred to the hottest job in institutional advancement. I was curious, and read a compelling article about prospect research and the particulars of working as a prospect researcher. At that moment, I knew this was the job for me. The knowledge and skills I gained from working in a research library for two and a half years would be the most important stepping stones in my future path.
Knowing you want to pursue a certain career path and being hired are certainly two very different things. I began the pursuit of “the job.” Through luck and speaking to the right people, I soon learned that NMSU had never had a prospect researcher, but the vice president of institutional advancement had been trying to get that position approved for quite some time. I was able to meet with her to talk about my interests, and she conveyed her interest in having that role filled. In an almost magical few months, in 1996 I was hired as the first prospect researcher at NMSU. My earliest months as a prospect researcher were well nurtured at NMSU. In 1999, I moved to Arizona, where I still live today.
Knowing you want to pursue a certain career path and being hired are certainly two very different things.
I became a member of Apra in 1996 and attended my first Apra conference that year. In my first year, I was one of the first users in the United States to have an account with iWave and was mentioned in their newsletter. I was also one of the first users, at that time, of the new Foundation Directory online and was mentioned in their newsletter. I remained a member of Apra until 2016. As an Apra member, I wrote a couple of articles for Connections, one article for the AFP Magazine, served as Apra Arizona's president for two and a half years, served on the nominations and awards committees for Apra, and was, most recently, a conference speaker for two consecutive conferences. Apra was instrumental in not only helping me learn about new products and vendors and moving prospect research forward, but also in giving me access to excellent speakers over the years.
In 2016, I ended my long run with Apra for two main reasons: 1) There was no longer an Apra Arizona, so involvement locally wasn't likely, and 2) the available funds required in order to attend conferences and other Apra events had lessened significantly. As a small business owner, my efforts needed to be targeted in my community.
The economic downturn in 2009-10 was a challenging time, and jobs were being eliminated and/or combined, which resulted, for the first time since 1983, in no employment. These times are frustrating and worrisome, but are also the test tube for new ideas and finding a way to be relevant.
In 2012, I started a research business called Research*By*Design, which provided me opportunities for contract work, less than full-time, and allowed me to set my own schedule. Much like my early days as a prospect researcher, I was starting over, but now was armed with significant skills and experience. My two strengths as a prospect research have been, and continue to be, proactiveness and analyses of multiple types of donor data. These skills have provided me greater satisfaction in my work because my efforts have been greatly appreciated.
The hardest part about starting a business is finding clients. I decided to join a few different groups with people who shared interests the same as mine. These groups brought me my first paying clients: The first was a retired NASA scientist who wanted to find potential funders for a lecture series he wanted to do, and landing a three-year contract for a capital campaign. This was a boost to my ego, as I forged a wonderful working relationship with these clients and was encouraged to continue with my business. In the past six years, I have had three significant clients, and have also served on various boards to assist non-profit arts organizations with their prospect research and fundraising needs. Prospect researchers often have experience with every aspect of fundraising, except as a development officer, so we are assets to teams we support.
In retrospect, this was an excellent way to begin the “thinking about thinking about” chapter of my work life.
Now, six years later, I have been able to stay current in the field of prospect research, and I provide good information for several types of organizations. You see, staying current and active mattered to me. I still have the fire to keep working, but I desired, and deserved, a less stressful environment. Since starting my business, I have increased my work in grants research and proposal writing. Grants research is what the organizations with which I've been engaged want right now.
But, the most important aspect of my journey is the knowledge that I could stay connected in my chosen field until the day comes that I am truly tired of working. That day hasn't happened yet, and may not for a few more months or years. Right now, this is of no consequence.
There is one nagging question for me: Will all that I've learned in my career be valuable to others in the future? Will the day come when I no longer care to engage others in what I've learned? I hope not. I'm not certain one way or the other at this moment. The way people communicate has changed, the things our society values has changed, and the world of prospect research has changed. The fact I have thought about this has created a place for me as an historian, of sorts.
The most important aspect of my journey is the knowledge that I could stay connected in my chosen field until the day comes that I am truly tired of working.
Organizations that were likely employers of prospect researchers are scaling back and expecting more from their development officers and grant proposal writers. Prospect research, from my perspective, isn't seen as an important role, and, although happy to have a prospect researcher volunteer their talents and time, the opportunities for income have fallen rather drastically. I am continuously looking for opportunities and in that quest have met some good people, and for a while longer I will seek new clients.
Is there a book I would like to write? Perhaps. Would it be about prospect research? Perhaps. Those decisions haven't been made yet, and, when it's time, I'll give it all the discernment I can muster. Not everyone with a story should write a book — if there's no greater take-away than just telling my story, I likely won't consider it further.
If you have the opportunity to continue working at a less stressful pace when you know it's time to scale back your work life, I would encourage you to seek out a niche for yourself. This may mean a small business; it may mean volunteer work that adds value to your life, or some other not-yet imagined opportunity. Make a list of the skills you've honed, the experience you have and the interests you want to pursue. You have skills and knowledge that, at this point, are valued and needed.
Here's to “thinking about thinking about!”
Laurie Porter has been a prospect researcher since 1996. Her first position was at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, followed by Mayo Scottsdale, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, the Institute of Human Origins at ASU, and Arizona State University Foundation. She has been a prospect researcher, a development research manager and a grants research manager. She is also the owner of Research*By*Design, a full-service research business providing donor, demographic, trends and real-estate research. The business was formed in 2012, and is currently active.