Apra Canada would not be what it is without its members, and want to introduce you to your colleagues across the country. Today we speak with Alexandra Basen, the new Director of Operations, Advancement at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.
How would you describe your advancement into a management role?
Leadership was always something I wanted and I charted a course to get there. I got lucky and had some great mentors and supervisors along the way. I think my jump to the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) was pivotal in my career. It was a growing organization at the time I joined and there was a lot of opportunity for someone who wanted to work hard. I also have a fantastic network of people who I am lucky to be able to call on when I need to talk something through. This was instrumental in helping me get my footing in a manager role and really lead a department.
What inspired you to move into a role as a director of operations?
The parts of my jobs I always really liked were finding efficiencies in processes, communicating change management and using technology to support these two goals. Operations is about supporting everyone and greasing the wheels. I like talking to people and knowing what they are up to so I can help.
How does your role as a director of operations fit within your organization?
Well, I am new in the role, and the role is new at the Faculty, but basically it's my job to make sure I can support growth with effective processes and business support. All the things that get done off people's desks become my job to make sure they are accomplished. I do a lot of translating from one department to another; for example, translating finance to fundraising and vice versa. I also ensure the services side is running smoothly.
You have worked in organizations in higher education, the arts, and the environment; what are some key differences or similarities you have observed working with these diverse areas?
I think fundraising remains the same at all places but the goals are different. That makes it interesting for setting up coding in the database. One thing that was interesting about NCC is that most of the people in our database were donors or volunteers. At universities and arts organizations you have patrons or alumni to prospect from and to engage into donors.
Are there any expectations you had for your career that had differed from your experience?
When I went to library school I thought I would be a registrar in an art gallery, and I had a development internship at a foundation and also worked at a commercial art gallery. I liked both but when I came home to Toronto I was able to get a job at a non-profit. In 2015, I set a goal for myself to make director by 2020 and I think I missed the timing of that achievement by about 3 months so I count it as a win.
I think it's important to recognize what is presented to you as an opportunity and when those moments arrive you have to recognize them and take advantage of them. They may take you away from the path you thought you would go down but sometimes they lead you to better places.
What are some of the biggest challenges or opportunities for prospect researchers developing a career in the philanthropic sector?
I think technology is both the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge. I heard something on a podcast about workforce 3.0 where humans collaborate with robots. I think about the role AI and machine learning will play in prospect research and identification and I believe learning to work with those tools to create efficiencies in your work is what will set you apart from other researchers.
What are the most valuable skills for prospect researchers to develop? What are the critical skills prospect development professionals need to have?
If you look at the future of work and we think about the role of AI and machine learning will play, humans will need to fulfill different roles. Those roles will be in areas like customer service and interpreting the data the machines spit out at us. I would say you need to be collegial and provide excellent customer service. I would also say data literacy. Can you read a report and understand what it's telling you? If the answer is no, that's a skill I would focus on. You should be able to read a prospect management or metrics report and understand who needs your help and who could use your services. Than provide them with excellent customer service by proactively reaching out with some suggestions.
What professional development activities or education have been the most valuable to you in your career development?
Coaching and taking an accounting class.
I did some personal coaching and some leadership coaching through work. Coaching is like work therapy. All the baggage you may have or things you may have faced in your career can be overcome with some perspective. Leadership coaching also really helps you understand what motivates people around you and how to work with different personalities.
I took an accounting class when I worked at Humber. I have to credit my roommate from university with this brilliant idea. I asked her how to get better at reading financial disclosures because I was doing so much corporate research. This made my corporate research much faster but also really helped me when I had to manage a budget and reconcile it.
You have been an Apra Canada member, board director, and volunteer. How has your involvement supported you in your career so far? What do you think the association can do to support members going forward?
There is no doubt my board position taught me a lot. As the director of professional development I walked a mile in an event planner's shoes which was useful in relating to those colleagues. It taught me also how a board is run, little things like what the laws are and what responsibilities we had, were useful in understanding how a board works. I think there was a leadership piece as well that was great. We made real decisions that affected change for our members. I would say that I don't think our members really know how much work goes into the board that goes on behind the scenes. I would like to say that the members can do a better job of stepping and supporting the organization. The board does a lot off the side of their desks and it would be great to have more volunteers that help execute board mandates.
What unique skills do you think prospect researchers have that make them suitable for roles in management or operations? What's your advice for anyone wishing to further develop these skills or demonstrate these skills?
I think we understand donors on a different level because there are often things that aren't suitable for a profile but may form a wholesome picture of a donor or prospect. I think we spend time thinking about how the information we find can play a strategic role in helping secure a gift. I also think there is no team more equipped to tell you what you will actually raise than your prospect research department. We are also often process-oriented thinkers. For all of these reasons operations, strategy, and even donor solicitation can be achievable for us.
What is your advice for prospect development professionals seeking to advance their careers and move into management or another area of fundraising, such as operations?
Take accounting and leadership coaching. I also suggest you put up your hand and have a conversation with your supervisor about what other muscles you may be able to flex at your organization. Sometimes we literally forget to simply tell someone who can do something about this that this is what we want.
Do you have any recommendations for books or podcasts that our members might enjoy?
I am addicted to HBR podcasts. They are the best resource for being a manager and workplaces in general. Dear HBR has given me some great tips for dealing with sticky situations, and the tips really work. I would also recommend entrepreneur ones like How I Built This (with Guy Raz) and Crazy/Genius. Sometimes they inspire me to think outside of the box. KCI has a good podcast, as does Jennifer Filla and Apra International. For prospecting, I would suggest Down to Business by Postmedia and I'll Go Now (by The Globe and Mail). I also actually recommend listening to interview podcasts about people’s lives. Sometimes you hear things that really resonate with you about resilience or perseverance that can be rather inspiring and pick you up after a rough day. Whatever inspires you to be your best self is what you should be listening to. In the words of RuPaul, “If you can't love yourself how in the hell are you supposed to love someone else?”
Alexandra (Alex) Basen has recently joined the University of Toronto as the Director of Operations, Advancement at the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.
Alex comes to the University of Toronto most recently from the Nature Conservancy of Canada where she served as Director, Operations and Business Intelligence. Prior to this she was a Prospect Research Officer at Humber College, as well as with Massey Hall / Roy Thomson Hall. Alex has a Master of Science in Library and Information Science, and served on the Board of APRA Canada, representing Prospect Researchers across Canada.