This is an interview with Nicole Fonsh, Director of Prospect Development at Harvard Law School, done by Naomi House of INALJ. This is part of INALJ’s 2020 series on non-library jobs for library workers.
On Prospect Development & Prospect Research Work :
an Interview with Nicole Fonsh
Q1: Thanks so much for taking the time to help us better understand what Prospect Development / Prospect Research work is and how LIS folk can get into this field. First could you tell us a little bit about what you do?
The core objective of my role and my department is to support Harvard Law School in its development efforts.
Our work is accomplished through:
o Prospect identification and research
o Relationship management
o Data analytics and control
We seek to identify new potential donors, find indicators of prospects’ interests, willingness and capacity to give, and provide information to development employees that can be strategically applied throughout the development cycle.
Q2: Now can you tell us how You personally got into doing this type of work?
From age 15 I wanted to work in the finance field (to this day I have no idea why, I grew up with a teacher and a social worker as parents!).
I ended up at Northeastern University, which has a cooperative education program. It’s a 5 year program and every year after your freshman year, you work for 6 months and go to school for 6 months. By the time I graduated I had worked at State Street Bank, Fidelity, and Goldman Sachs. I was offered a full-time job at Goldman Sachs shortly after graduation as a securities lending trader. I worked for Goldman for 3 years in Boston and then transferred to the London office for another 3 years.
It was probably about 2 years into my time in London that I realized I was feeling a bit complacent in my role and that I was ready for a new challenge. So after much discussion with my family and advice from many wonderful librarians, I applied to Simmons for my MLIS. Simmons was the only school I applied to because part of this transition was to also get back to the States and to Boston.
The funny thing is, though, I thought I had left the corporate world behind. I spent the summer before starting Simmons volunteering at my town’s public library. I absolutely loved working in a small town library as I was able to take part in so many different tasks and responsibilities. However, when I got back to Boston and started my program I realized that not only was it going to be a bit more difficult to find a volunteer position with a public library than I had anticipated, but also that I would need something that was paid.
I spent my first semester in two volunteer positions – at a school library and at the Massachusetts State Library doing a variety of things. While I learned from them both, I wasn’t entirely excited about either location. And then in December 2009, I found what seemed to be a “perfect” position for me – an internship at a local investment firm working in the Research Library. All of a sudden I realized that my resume and past work experience might not be as irrelevant as I was starting to think after being rejected by so many more “typical” pre-professional library jobs.
Working in that library provided an incredible opportunity to combine skills from my past career along with what I had been learning throughout my MLIS program. And after 6 months in my internship role, when a full-time researcher position opened in the library, I was offered it. While I felt very fortunate to have a librarian role before I was even done with my graduate program, after a few months I discovered it really wasn’t what I hoped to do with my degree. I wasn’t sure if a traditional path was for me but I knew for sure that I did not want to work in a corporate setting anymore.
A colleague from Simmons had mentioned prospect research to me and it sounded like something I’d be interested in. So I started networking as much as I could. I reached out to other librarians I knew who were doing the same type of work. However, I also tried to be creative about it and reached out to basically anyone who worked in the development world. My resume ended up in the hands of a 3rd degree connection and he brought it to a NEDRA board meeting where my to-be boss snatched it from him when she saw my finance background. I applied to the job through the regular channels but it definitely helped to speed along the process.
Q3: What makes this a great field for LIS workers and likewise, what do you think makes LIS workers strong candidates for hiring managers in this field?
I know I am a very curious person by nature. And I have found that is something I have in common with many others who pursue MLIS degrees and LIS work. It is curiosity that really fuels this type of work. That interest in finding information and really digging beyond what is on the surface. That has served me well in this work.
Additionally, it is not just the ability to find information but the very important ability to verify, qualify and synthesize it.
That is often one of the main things I look for when hiring. If you are just interested in the result, it may not be the role for you. It is for people who like the journey (if I may be so cheesy). We live in the grey and we live with a lot of unanswered questions. But the continued interest in wanting to answer those questions and to find the best pathway towards those answers is what really drives us.
Q4: What is the best way to get your foot in the door or your first prospect development / prospect research job?
I am always so happy when I see the MLIS degree listed on prospect development job descriptions. I can talk for ages about the actual “necessity” of graduate degrees but that’s another conversation. But when I see the degree in a job description that tells me that the hiring manager really understands what a MLIS graduate can really bring to the role.
Q5: Finally what are some of the most important skills / certifications / etc that LIS folk can do to prepare them? Any last tips?
Talk to anyone you can about what they do and how they got into it. Although the whole idea of networking doesn’t mean a lot when you do not have access to people who work in these worlds/fields, so I want to make sure I state that.
Also, if you are in a role where you’re able, SHARE YOUR FINANCIAL STORY WITH PEOPLE. Career conversations often don’t mean a lot if we aren’t honest about our privilege (both race and class) and how we got somewhere. When I applied to college my parents told me they could pay X. I took the rest out in loans and also received a decent merit scholarship (that I also knew I could ask about when applying, not everyone knows that is a possibility). I graduated college in 2003 and paid off those loans in 2014. I started Simmons in Fall 2009 and I paid off those loans just this past January after having really escalated the payments about two years ago. While at Simmons I was very lucky to only have to take out loans for tuition and not for any other expenses. I had made a small amount from a real estate transaction and that is what I lived on during the two years I was in graduate school.
Career conversations without talking about the money aspect are not full conversations so that’s my last tip! If you would like to talk to me about my salary history I am happy to share this with people (contact Naomi at naomi dot house at inalj dot com and she will pass your email and questions along to Nicole). I think the only way women and people of color make strides when it comes to earnings is by talking about it.
Nicole Fonsh (she/her/hers) recently returned to Massachusetts to join Harvard Law School as the director of prospect development.
Previously, she spent five years as the director of prospect development at The New School where she was responsible for providing strategic vision, leadership, and planning for the university’s prospect development program with an emphasis on major gift development and solicitation.
She began her prospect research career at Harvard University where she found a seamless use to combine her knowledge of wealth and curiosity for information while working in an environment best described as a master class in educational fundraising. Previously, she worked at Bain Capital in their Research Library providing global staff with industry-specific research and due diligence.
Before receiving her master’s degree in library and information science from Simmons University, Fonsh spent seven years working on the Agency Lending Desk at Goldman Sachs. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern University.
Views expressed are those of the interviewee and not INALJ or their employer. Photo provided by the interviewee and permission granted to use it for this interview.
Updated 6/16/2020 : changed the “and” in the title to “&” for consistency across the interview series