Tag Archives: research

Why Art and “Looking” Matter, A Bit About New York City, and Some Census History

Art and Looking Matter

After having obtained my Bachelor’s Degree With Honors from The University of Texas at Austin, I took a few years off. Frankly, discord in the Middle East – my chosen field of study – had increased and I was nervous about traveling and working there as a single woman. Should I continue following that path, or not? I chose to work a few temporary office jobs to get me through financially, to take a few university courses including in art history, and I spent a life changing six months living and working in New York City.

While in New York City, I walked through every single neighborhood, the somewhat seedy ones and the luxurious ones. And I visited every museum from The Met Cloisters to The Kitchen. I fell in love with the city. My mind and my eyes were enthralled. Its cultural wealth remains unparalleled today.

When I returned to Austin, Texas later that summer, I decided to take more art history courses. Once I had taken enough to have an official “minor” in art history, I applied to graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin in the College of Fine Arts. The faculty of the department where I worked during this interim time graciously supplied letters of recommendation, and I was accepted.

People sometimes think art history is a “fluffy” subject. But in order to understand works of art – how they were made and why – requires multifaceted thinking and research. It is a tough subject in my opinion. One must be both a visual person and oriented toward research and writing. You use all parts of your brain in art history and a good graduate program gives your brain a workout.

One thing our program required was quite simply memorizing images of works of art from the prehistoric to the modern eras. The idea was, the more you saw and “stored” in your mind, the better equipped you would be to study, compare and understand all works of art. And I found that to be somewhat annoying, but absolutely true.

During graduate school, I also decided to tackle an unloved, non-European subject matter, American western art. We had a fine collection of “western art” at UT, the C. R. Smith Collection, but it was largely ignored back then. Italian, French and Spanish art – even Mayan art – were preferred by the faculty at the time.

The 1890 Census

When one studies American western art of the 19th and early 20th centuries, a key document is the 1890 Census. Through the census process, experts and special agents – including artists – were hired to “make special enumerations of manufactures, Indians living within the jurisdiction of the United States, and a separate enumeration of Alaska.” The artists traveled across the U.S. with the military. They sketched what they saw and photographs were also taken, making the 1890 Census a very modern and comprehensive operation for its time. The final document was huge: 683 pages. A copy is found in the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin in the collections of famed Texas writer, folklorist and Texas character, J. Frank Dobie. For weeks, I trekked across campus to go through Dobie’s copy of the 1890 Census, page by page. It took me a long time, my eyes and my mind grew tired, but I was determined to look at every single page and each “pull-out” sheet. To see a full description of the 1890 Census illustrating a few of its pages, follow this link to Dorothy Sloan – Rare Books Inc.

Sadly, most of the original 1890 Census material was destroyed by fire in Washington, D.C. in 1921. Hence, any relic of the original Census today is rare. And this is one reason why “looking” at everything carefully is so important.

During this time, a talented fellow graduate student and I traveled to Oklahoma to visit the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa to better understand American western art and to see even more art in person, rather than just in photo “slides.” We arrived early during the week at the Gilcrease, and almost no other visitors were present (my favorite time to visit museums). The curator knew of our quest, and recognizing we were serious students, she allowed us to visit the art storage in the basement, where we gleefully pulled out rack after rack of art works that regular museum guests could not see.

And there, I found two lost “sketches” from the 1890 Census project by artist Walter Shirlaw and other Census inspired works by Gilbert Gaul, two seasoned artists and western explorers employed by the U.S. government. The Gilcrease staff did not know what the two “sketches” by Shirlaw were, and the curator lamented this was one reason why the works were not exhibited. But months of pouring through J. Frank Dobie’s copy of the 1890 Census helped me recognize them immediately. The illustrations above are simple black and white scans from a copy of the Gilcrease Magazine of American History and Art, Vol. 7 No. 1 (January, 1985). They kindly asked me to publish my discoveries the same year I obtained my Master’s Degree. You can see what the sketch at center looks like in color as a “pull-out” from the 1890 Census by following this link to the Carleton website.

Today’s Census

The Census is a critically important document for our nation. “The 2020 Census will determine congressional representation, inform hundreds of billions in federal funding every year, and provide data that will impact communities for the next decade.” (2020Census.gov).

As of October 13, 2020, “well over 99.9% of housing units have been accounted for in the 2020 Census. Self-response and field data collection operations for the 2020 Census will conclude on October 15, 2020.”

Reconsidering my early research on the Census process back in 1890, it seems to me the U.S. government might consider compiling a “visual” census in addition to the data. In fact, enterprising artists might take on the project to visually document the vast expanse that is the United States of America today. The old 1890 Census is considered the defining document marking the end of the American “frontier.” Every corner of the nation was exhaustively catalogued back in 1890, and the American Indians were constrained to reservations. Our nation today is still healing from the growing pains we experienced back then, and admittedly, we still have some work to do. But also, we might also enhance interest in the process with a visual aspect in future years.

Back to Nonprofit Fundraising

Returning to my original theme and blog focus, a visual approach to nonprofit work today is exceedingly helpful. How many pundits including myself have urged fundraising staff to learn how to use social media and “visual” platforms to illustrate the good work of nonprofits, and to complement and enhance traditional grant writing and research skills. We all need more training in this regard, but you don’t have to obtain a university degree. Become an avid museum and art gallery visitor and see for yourself how artists compose their paintings and sculptures, and how they tell stories visually. Study how artists organize their presentations, how they use light and shadow, and what objects they choose to include, for instance. Don’t just give a casual glance at an interesting story depicted in art. Hone your visual skills.

Visual imagery can have a tremendous impact on your nonprofit’s overall credibility, and on your goal of enticing philanthropists to contribute. My art history training continues to help me compose better photographs today, and I use them in my fundraising work often (newsletters, case statements, invitations, social media and more).

Here is another question we might ask ourselves. Is studying the visual arts important to other ways of thinking? You might enjoy, “How Learning to Paint Heightened Winston Churchill’s Legendary Powers of Persuasion,” by Duncan Sandys, Churchill’s great-grandson (2018). I rest my case.


During COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions, I became more familiar with YouTube and its was there I discovered the series, “Aerial America” by the Smithsonian. Wonderful program! I have learned so much about other states. Follow the link for more information.

Research and Writing | Ideal Tasks While Working from Home

I have worked from my home office since 2014. Austin has been for many years a fast growing metropolis. Its heavy road traffic made commuting to and from my nonprofit project’s office back then a lengthy and stressful burden. And because that project focused on K-12 sustainability education, the concept of working from home was appreciated and readily adopted.

Read a Little Every Day!
This image was used in my PowerPoint for Qgiv on prospect research. See the YouTube recording below.

It was then that I began working collaboratively in the “cloud,” researching prospective partners and writing grant proposals, uploading them to the cloud for review by our Executive Director. Fine tuning continued until the time was right to hit, “submit.” Social media writing, posting and management was easily and better done from a quiet, distraction-free work space. One weekly meeting in person in our office was part of the regimen, but that is all.

Hence, with the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 and “stay-at-home” restrictions, nothing has changed for me. I have continued to work smoothly and efficiently from home where it is relatively “germ-free,” quiet, and my “desk” is located not far from the coffee pot and refrigerator. For me, this is the perfect work environment. Don’t tell: I get more work done, I work longer hours than required, and I am healthier and happier overall. 

The chagrin expressed by corporate and nonprofit leaders accustomed to working in traditional environments where office employees are housed in the same physical space falls on deaf ears here. I believe it is time to adapt and move to a remote working model for almost everyone, except of course those needing staff to greet and serve visitors in person, to conduct occasional group meetings, and to actually manufacture/produce specific items. But to get comfortable allowing more employees to work from home, society will have to let go of the basic human trait, “seeing is believing.” Our times require greater trust and faith to succeed in a remote working world.

Carolyn's Prospect Research Talks
See the links in this post to watch and learn more.

One of the ideal activities I conduct while working from home is research online and grant writing. In April and May 2020, I spoke online to two organizations about research specifically, and you might enjoy watching the recordings. The first was for Qgiv (below).

The second talk had more of a Texas slant and was designed for NTEN & NetSquared Nonprofit Tech Club Austin. It can be found by following this link. The recording and the slide deck are both downloadable from that page.

You may also have read my blog post from last March, “Habits of Mind in Challenging Times … And Remote Locations,” where I discuss my work in South Texas during the 2000s with the ranching community. In hindsight, much of what we accomplished seems quite glamorous. Certainly, the donors with whom I worked are still among the leading philanthropists of Texas. But the truth is, the majority of my work was done in a quiet office with few visitors, thinking, researching, organizing, writing and the like.

Rolls Royce
Rolls Royce is known as one of the finest automobile brands in the world. The high standards for which it is known remind me of those also expected of major gift fundraising professionals.

Major gift fundraising is often wrongly perceived by outsiders. Regardless of the quiet, methodical and hard work involved in successful major gift fundraising, people sometimes think of it as a field where one “hobnobs” with wealthy donors, attends luncheons and galas, and other superficial activities. This false impression can also give rise to jealousy. If they only knew how much “unglamorous” time is actually spent working tirelessly alone on a computer. I would say 95% of my job is actually done in this fashion.

If you are working from home now during COVID-19, this is an excellent time to fine-tune your research and writing skills. As I mentioned during my spring presentations, if you take the time to do this thoughtfully and well, it might turn your organization’s entire fundraising focus upside down, and in a very good and productive way.

I would also suggest that you take the time to learn new skills, including setting up and better managing your social media platforms. Our favorite platforms continue to evolve: learn how they may have changed (be sure to check, “the back end”). If you are already active on social media, now is also an excellent time to clean up (and clean out) old information. Request that your Facebook profile be formally verified by Facebook. Claim and update your GuideStar profile to the gold or platinum seal level. Ask volunteers, clients and board members for testimonials you can share online. Set up an online gift processing platform that provides a variety of options for making charitable donations. Make it easy to give!

Looking sharp online continues to be essential to inspiring trust and to engaging the interest of donors and potential donors in the good work of your nonprofit. And as always, make sure the messages you convey in those carefully-crafted grant proposals are mirrored on your website and on social media. In other words, this stay-at-home time is the perfect time to do some nonprofit “housecleaning.” Dare I say it: the nonprofit sector might actually become smarter and stronger if it deals successfully with the stay-at-home restrictions resulting from COVID-19.

Best wishes for your fundraising success!

Notes

For women working in the field of nonprofit development with family care giving responsibilities, I want to acknowledge working from home might be tougher for you. I fully support care giving incentives and entrepreneurial approaches as outlined by Melinda Gates in her article for The Washington Post, “How Rethinking Caregiving Could Play a Crucial Role in Restarting the Economy” (May 7, 2020). We can do this!

Having trouble trusting remote workers? Turns out, remote workers sometimes have trouble trusting their Executive Directors. You might enjoy reading Adam Hickman, Ph.D. and Tonya Fredstrom for Gallup, “How to Build Trust With Remote Employees” (February 7, 2018). “Gallup asked a random sample of more than 10,000 individuals, ‘What leader has the most positive influence in your daily life?’ With that leader in mind, Gallup had the respondents list three words that best describe what the leader they named contributes to their life. The responses sorted into four categories: trust, compassion, stability and hope.”

Habits of Mind in Challenging Times … and Remote Locations

In 1999, I was recruited to South Texas by a headhunter. My task was to manage a multi-million dollar major gift campaign for three years. By myself.

While there are many affluent landowners and ranch visitors in South Texas, at the time there were relatively few people with major gift experience to work with them. Many of the office support available back then included well meaning but inexperienced staff when it comes to working with major gift donors.

Horses

I set up shop with the help of the local Walmart. A spacious rug, floor lamps and an artificial plant gave my office a quiet, comfortable and professional look. Culligan Water installed a hot-and-cold water dispenser. I brought homemade food to work for lunch and kept my office well stocked with coffee, tea and dry soup packets (and a candy jar for visitors). There were mostly fast food outlets in the area back then. However, I would like to put in a good word for the delicious potato-and-egg soft tacos with green salsa that I would sometimes pick up on my way in to the office at a local taco stand. Those were the best, and I still miss them.

With the Internet readily available, I was “good to go.” I came to call my office, “the air traffic control tower.” 

The institute for which I was working was mostly privately funded by a foundation, and minimally funded by the local university. I kept wondering – given the stellar board and advisory board members involved with this little institute – why outside consultants said it had no chance of raising major gifts. The institute had paid upwards of $80,000 for a feasibility study and case statement by a consulting firm, all of which were tossed out as being unhelpful. I had my job cut out for me.

On my own for three years, I literally lived on the Internet. I searched online and read from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every work day. My findings yielded not only major gifts for capital and endowment purposes, but also for research projects. I developed habits of mind that involved disciplined, factual research online. Many new donors were brought to the aid of the institute’s work, and many detailed grant proposals were formulated.

Cabin

I find outsiders to the field of nonprofit development mistakenly perceive people like me are focused on organizing luncheons and “schmoozing” with donors. But the fact is, organizing and managing meetings and events comprises perhaps 5% of my job. Most of my work involves thoughtful research, the development of inspiring case statements, writing and designing communications pieces, developing mailing and emailing lists, grant writing, stewardship and the like. This requires “quiet time” and a focused, detail-oriented mind. For those contemplating development as a career, this paragraph is one of the most important I have ever written for you.

The fine art of nonprofit development – honed in remote locations like South Texas – helped prepare me for other major gift projects involving little or no staffing, and for challenging “work at home” times like the COVID 19 pandemic we are currently experiencing. What I discovered is the Internet is an invaluable nonprofit development resource. I remain glued to it today. There is no such thing as being “bored” when you have the Internet at your fingertips.

Working mostly without additional staff support in prior positions means I have also experimented with technological solutions to accomplish more done with less. When told something is “impossible,” I always believe there is a solution. And I have always found one! I occasionally find traditional fundraisers who still shun technology and social media. But I have found them invaluable components of my major gift activities today.

Tech Clubs Can Help

For the past several years I have been one of the lead volunteers for NTEN & NetSquared Nonprofit Tech Club Austin. My involvement with NTEN began ten years ago when two nonprofit organizations asked me to help identify constituent management software to manage their donor databases. I admit, I was stumped. But I contacted NTEN and was directed to a donor management system review co-sponsored with Idealware. I was so elated by this helpful resource that I became an NTEN fan and volunteer.

A few years later when I relocated to Austin, I agreed to volunteer for #NPTechClubATX. Being involved with the club means today, I have the privilege of meeting similar problem solvers focused on social good, and learning about their innovative solutions. I am hooked.

For me, being “home bound” with a computer is a heavenly predicament. I recently sent out an email to our club members with information about club programming and helpful partner links to COVID 19 support resources. I wanted to share it with you, too (follow the link).

As I state at the outset of the email:

“The mission of NTEN & NetSquared Nonprofit Tech Club Austin is to help nonprofits find cost-effective tech solutions and techniques to make their work easier, more secure and efficient. That means for the past several years, we have offered educational programs that involve digital solutions to daunting challenges like being unable to hire extra staff (but needing to get the work done anyway), raising donations easily and creatively online, better managing board meetings, volunteers, accounting functions and more. We are #ready.”

Join your local club – or start one yourself. Some clubs benefit from online broadcasting and recording services that enable programs to reach a much larger, global audience. Locally, we thank startup hub Capital Factory for its support in this regard. But Zoom and similar video conferencing services can also help. You can learn more about nonprofit discounts at TechSoup.

Here’s wishing you good health, a trustworthy laptop, and a strong Internet connection!

Check out these directories:

NetSquared | TechSoup | Global Network of #Tech4Good Meetups

NTEN: Nonprofit Technology Network | Nonprofit Tech Clubs

Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog includes many stories about doing more with less and technological solutions for the “remote” worker. If you have questions at any time, please let me know

Photographs illustrating this post are courtesy of Adobe Spark.

GuideStar: Invaluable Nonprofit Resource

Click to reach GuideStar.

Advanced research can help prevent mistakes when approaching a foundation. It is also true that many donors (and their professional advisors) use GuideStar to review nonprofits for potential funding. Click to reach GuideStar.

“If you care about nonprofits and the work they do, then you’re affected by what GuideStar does. Here at GuideStar we gather and disseminate information about every single IRS-registered nonprofit organization. We provide as much information as we can about each nonprofit’s mission, legitimacy, impact, reputation, finances, programs, transparency, governance, and so much more. We do that so you can take the information and make the best decisions possible.”

In 2013, I was asked by GuideStar to share my experiences using its database. Here are links to two case studies:

Today, the first resource I consult when researching a potential donor is GuideStar. Surprised?

Not only does GuideStar provide information about nonprofit organizations in the traditional sense, but you can also find information about donors like private foundations that are themselves nonprofit.

There is an ocean of data about nonprofit donors on GuideStar!

There is an ocean of data about nonprofit donors on GuideStar!

Among my favorite resources are the tax returns. Sometimes even the best online and printed foundation directories do not reveal the current state of a foundation. By reviewing their tax returns in GuideStar, you can discover who is currently serving on a foundation’s board of directors (and who is serving in what positions of leadership); you can find new contact information for the foundation (and sometimes, individual trustees); you can learn the latest projects funded (and sometimes foundations can change their funding focus areas without notice); you can discover the amounts of the grants awarded (thereby indicating the level of potential interest in your perhaps similar project);  and more.

Try the “advanced search” function on GuideStar, and you can discover such things as every museum in the state of Texas (and you can sort by budget size), or, every human services nonprofit in the state of Virginia, for instance.

GuideStar Data at a Glance

1.8 million IRS-recognized tax-exempt organizations
5.4 million Form 990 images
3.2 million digitized Form 990 records
6.6 million individuals in the nonprofit sector

For me, the printed and online foundation directories are excellent resources for honing-down generally on prospective donors I want to research. But the truth is, the tax returns tell a more exact story about their current circumstances.

There are other research resources that provide general assistance in this regard, among them The Foundation Center’s “Foundation Finder,” and the National Center for Charitable Statistics. I personally find GuideStar to be the most accessible, and I like the added benefits of its GuideStar Exchange Program, the GuideStar blogs, and the ability of individuals to review nonprofits via GreatNonprofits (your reviews are linked to the organization’s GuideStar profile). In fact, you can click on this link to find my “ongoing” GreatNonprofits reviews.

But these are just the tip of the iceberg! I urge you to explore GuideStar’s website to discover all the helpful information and resources it provides. And my hearty thanks goes to GuideStar for featuring my two case studies. I hope you will take the time to read and enjoy them!

Best wishes for your fundraising success,

Carolyn M. Appleton

Twitter notes ....

Twitter notes …