Two Chapter Presidents, Across the Years: Reflections on Volunteer Leadership

An interview by Jeffrey (Jeff) Walker, PhD, featuring Sarah Bernstein  

Sarah Bernstein and I met 15 years ago at an Apra Wisconsin spring conference. We didn’t know it at the time, but she and I were kindred spirits: classic introverts, avid learners and both sort of uncomfortable within that very talkative, high-energy gathering. 

As the event wound down, I spotted Sarah heading out. I stopped her in an effort to delay what I recognized as The Introvert’s Mad Dash to Escape. At the time, she was a database specialist at a highly respected, local, youth-oriented not-for-profit. I was a researcher at the city’s only dedicated pediatric health care system, as well as the Apra Wisconsin chapter president. 

I recall gently encouraging Sarah to consider applying her many strengths to a broader professional role — and to become more active in Apra Wisconsin. I also remember her friendly but unmistakably skeptical response to every word I said. 

Flash forward to today: the summer of 2019. Sarah and I both now have a long record of chapter service spread over and divided by many years, including terms as vice president and president. We were recently reflecting on our accumulated experience as volunteer leaders — which, ultimately, led to the following online Q&A.  

Jeff: So, the key question: What are the rewards of chapter leadership?

Sarah: While the most obvious rewards are the additional bullet points for your résumé and LinkedIn profile, being a chapter leader is an investment in our profession and colleagues — and a way of giving back to an organization that has given us so much. An additional value to prospect researchers is what we learn about how boards work, giving us valuable insight into the prospects and organizations we research.

J: What has been the most fun for you?

S: A born introvert, I often struggle to muster the energy to speak with people I don’t really know, and conferences can be truly exhausting. 

J: I know just what you mean. I remember having to be “on” all day for a chapter event – and then needing at least a full day to recover and recharge. 

S: Exactly. However, being a chapter leader gives me a mask to wear, and I swear when I am in leader mode, I smile more, stand up a bit straighter and my posture is even a bit more welcoming. Being a chapter leader has given me “permission” to talk to people I don’t know, including fabulous speakers and vendors, to invite them to upcoming Apra Wisconsin conferences. Being a chapter leader has also increased my personal network, both “in real life” and on social media. I’ve met tons of people at the summits and conferences, and a few of them have become true friends — perhaps the best bonus of all.

J: What has been the most surprising?

S: As someone who has spent much of her career, especially in the last five years, working more or less alone, I am constantly surprised by how much more a team can accomplish. At our best, the Apra Wisconsin board is so much more than the sum of our parts. In addition, as someone often plagued with self-doubt, sometimes what surprises me the most is simply: I can do this!

J: What are the frustrations?

S: This answer won’t win me any friends, but my biggest frustrations come from dealing with people. There are so many different personalities and skills to work with, and, since so much of what we do is via email, there are many opportunities to be misunderstood.

I also get frustrated when I don’t ask for help or don’t delegate effectively. Sometimes, I am frustrated that I can’t do something, or I can’t do more of something, or I can’t do things quickly or efficiently enough, or I can’t please everyone — and maybe I won’t please anyone.

Recently, some of my frustrations have come from being called back into chapter service, when I really should be pouring most of my professional energy into growing my business. However, like many chapters, we struggle to identify and recruit leaders. 

J: What have you learned as a chapter leader? 

S: I have learned that there are times to accept praise and times to fall on my sword. More importantly, I have learned that there is always more to learn — something that shouldn’t surprise any prospect researcher!

J: How has volunteering and serving helped you to grow professionally? 

S: I’m better at trusting in my own abilities, and I have a clearer sense of the people I can learn the most from. It has introduced me to mentors, employees, employers and clients. 

J: When did you first join Apra Wisconsin and Apra International? 

S: I first learned about prospect research and Apra in June 2000 and joined International a month later, when I went to my first conference in Anaheim. There, it wasn’t long before I met several Apra Wisconsin leaders, who were incredibly friendly and welcoming. I joined the chapter in 2001, hosted my first Apra Wisconsin conference in 2002, and joined the board in 2006. 

J: What are the most resonant changes you've seen (or been a part of)? 

S: For me, perhaps the most resonant change began with the first Chapter Leaders Summit in 2012. That was the year of the “battle” over how membership could and should be structured, which began at the Summit in the spring and was resolved during the summer. The membership conversation led to a greater understanding of the lengths some members went to become and remain chapter and International members, and the struggles some chapters faced in sustainability and defining the value they provide. Ultimately, we saw a renewed effort from Apra HQ to reach out to chapters, with the formation of the Apra Chapter Committee and the institution of annual Chapter Leaders Summits. For me personally, that first summit in 2012 was when I discovered a voice I didn’t know I had. 

J: If you could go back and give yourself advice when you first became a chapter leader, what would it be? 

S: “Don’t worry, you’ve got this!” Seriously, I would give myself the same advice I’d give others now. I would say that perhaps nothing else, at least professionally, will be as rewarding as chapter service. Other things may offer more fun, more surprises and certainly more frustration, but they won’t bring the same overall level of gratification. 

J: How would you like Apra Wisconsin to evolve in the next three to five years? And in the next 10?

S: We really need to work on advocacy. Locally, this can be done by working with our Association of Fundraising Professionals colleagues. We need to develop a view of prospect development as more than just an add-on to the lowest-paid employee’s job. We need to elevate prospect development as a career — not just a task — in the eyes of vice presidents, vice chancellors and executive directors, so they approve budgets for membership, professional development and more realistic living wages. 

J: Nuts and bolts: How would you describe the time commitment – especially for a board role vs. serving as president? 

S: Most weeks, I put in one or two hours of dedicated time — often more in the weeks leading up to conferences and board meetings. As president of a small-to mid-sized chapter, even if I don’t draft every single chapter-wide email, I send most of them, including job announcements. I also spend a lot of time securing and stewarding speakers and sponsors, which is something I could get better at delegating. We restructured our by-laws several years ago to place most volunteer management in the vice president’s purview, and that has helped a lot.

J: For peers considering tiptoeing into a chapter leadership role: What would you say to encourage them? 

S: The most important advice I would give is to not succumb to self-doubt or impostor syndrome. We all have valuable opinions and ideas to offer. However, while self-doubt shouldn’t hold you back, you should seriously consider whether you have the time to give. To keep serving our members and our profession, we need both fresh points of view and people willing to work. Perhaps the best encouragement, though, is something I heard at the most recent Chapter Leaders Summit: “Even if you work alone, Apra is your team.” 

J: From your chapter leadership perspective: How has the relationship between Apra Wisconsin and Apra International changed?

S: As I mentioned earlier, my years as a chapter leader have coincided with Apra’s evolving relationship with the chapters. In other words, I have been an eyewitness to the growing importance chapters have within the greater organization. Every year, Apra has become more committed to providing training and networking for chapter leaders. A couple of years ago, Apra asked me to lead a Twitter chat, and I decided the topic would be chapter leadership, which they endorsed and encouraged. Twitter notwithstanding, I am not sure that’s something that would have happened back when I first joined the Apra Wisconsin board. 

S: What changes have you witnessed? 

J: When I was chapter vice president and president, we had a sharp divide between three stubborn veteran researchers and the rest of our membership. Because of that, any discussion of change was vexing, and implementing anything new took extraordinary effort. Nonetheless, during my two terms as president, we managed to accomplish several things I was — and still am — proud of:

  • Attracted guest speakers with national standing and established and expanded a “potential speakers” database
  • Adopted a long-range strategic planning approach for chapter events
  • Grew our members-and-friends e-list and our treasury
  • Led a special mini-fundraising campaign and used the goal-exceeding proceeds to create our first annual professional development scholarship
  • Launched our website
  • Converted our newsletter from (gulp!) snail-mailed paper, to email, to online posting
  • Promoted informal mentoring for new researchers and future chapter officers
  • Updated the by-laws to divide leadership responsibilities more equitably

It was a busy time for Apra Wisconsin, and, while I have some mixed feelings about that era, I enjoyed having a hand in our various evolutionary steps.   

S: Growth is usually painful. If we hadn’t gone through that period, the chapter would look very different today.

J: You’re right. But I’d like to circle back to the other growth we were talking about. What opportunities do you see in the relationship between our chapter and Apra HQ? 

S: The opportunities are there for the taking. If we remain involved and vocal, I believe Apra Wisconsin has the power to grow and nurture that relationship. I see a bright future all around, for our chapter and for our international network of chapters. 

J: Thank you, Sarah. I’ve really enjoyed this. 

S: Me, too! I hope we’ll inspire at least a few readers to think about stepping up and getting more involved, locally and beyond. Even on those occasional long, frustrating days as a leader, you are always learning something new. It’s an incredible experience.


 

 

Sarah Bernstein has been enjoying her day job as a prospect research consultant since 2014. She joined Apra Wisconsin in 2001 and served as vice president (2008-2010) and president (2010-2012, 2012-2014 and 2017-present). In 2008, Sarah was recognized with the Apra Wisconsin Presidents Award. For work-life balance, she tries to find time to garden and to knit as many gifts as her family will tolerate. She has been on a bit of a social media hiatus, but can sometimes be found at www.linkedin.com/in/bernsteinsarah/, https://twitter.com/srbernstein, and sarah@philanthrodata.com.

 

Jeff Walker has been the director of research in UWM’s Development and Alumni Relations Office since January 2011 and is also a longtime member of the Editorial Advisory Committee for Connections. Jeff’s involvement with Apra Wisconsin began in 1999, when he joined the chapter and wrote an article on office politics for its newsletter. Subsequent roles included vice president (2001-2002) and president (2002-2004 and 2004-2006). In 2006, he received the first Apra Wisconsin Presidents Award. Jeff is available via walker34@uwm.edu, www.linkedin.com/in/jeffwalkerphd, and www.facebook.com/jeffwalkerphd.

 

1 Comment
1 Like

BRAVA!

August 5, 2019 09:18 PM by Preeti Gill

An honest and enlightening read about chapter leadership. I've seen firsthand how Sarah has led Apra's Wisconsin chapter to the stable, successful entity it is today. She is among my favourite Apra people as well as a good friend. Cheers!

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