Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, August 29, 2011

Data systems help Meyer reach out, create networks

Debby Anderson Meyer


In 2014, Debby Anderson Meyer became development director at Community Shares of Wisconsin.

Debby Anderson Meyer does not like inefficiencies — particularly ones that keep her from building relationships with people.

"Poorly organized systems impede making connections with people," says Meyer, fund development director at the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired and 1999 alum of the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

A consummate networker who relies on information about people to build membership, advocacy and fund-raising bases, Meyer knows sophisticated data systems are essential. "An improved system frees up time so I can get outside the office and talk with people," Meyer says. "An efficient system should coordinate data about people so we can use it to improve networking and the services the agency provides to constituents."

When Meyer joined the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired in January 2011, she found it had a separate data system for each of the groups of people it coordinated – donors, clients who receive direct services or attend support groups, advocacy groups around Wisconsin and customers at the Sharper Vision Store, which sells adaptive products, including talking alarm clocks, magnifiers, cooking products, and board games. After investigating staff needs, Meyer proposed one database to house all constituent data and shape a more complete picture of people and their interests and needs. "We looked for a system that would allow us to operate even more professionally and use coordinated information to reach out to people all over the state," Meyer says. The new system should be up and running this fall.

Meyer's broad approach to systems and how to improve them evolved from her experience in graduate school. "At La Follette, I honed my ability to problem solve, evaluate the options and make timely decisions," Meyer says. "The classroom emphasis on quality administration helps me understand the public policy landscape of my organizations and the networking I do. My La Follette training helps me explain budget implications and public policy to stakeholders."

For example, in the wake of the adoption of Wisconsin's two-year budget, the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired is informing people and organizations around the state about how the budget undercuts aid to public libraries and transportation, which threatens critical services to people with limited vision. "It is the people most affected by changes at the state level and by budget priorities who need to let their legislators know how these policies affect them," says Meyer. "It is also why nonprofits are needed now more than ever in these tough economic times. Helping coordinate that voice to elected officials is very satisfying and essential."

While attending La Follette, Meyer interned for the state Department of Administration's educational technology training and technical assistance grants program that former DOA secretary Doris Hanson headed. Meyer joined DOA as a budget and policy analyst after graduating in 1999.She joined the state Department of Justice in 2001 as a grant administrator. "At DOJ, I tried to make sure the process for agencies applying for our grants was transparent and usable," she says. "Most front-line agencies are inundated with the day-to-day aspects of their work, and I wanted to make sure the grant application process was thorough but streamlined."

Meyer always knew she would end up in the nonprofit sector. "At heart, I am an advocate, so working for state government was great but limiting for me," she says. "I knew I wanted to work outside the public system where I could advocate unabashedly. When an outreach and development position with the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign opened up, I applied right away."

As a consummate connector of people, the role of outreach and fund development director at the Democracy Campaign was a perfect fit. She and her husband were members of the organization already, so working to further their agenda as staff seemed a logical progression. Here she got to do all the things she loves — talk with people about important community needs and help further the reach of the organization by doing community presentations and workshops at conferences, coordinate constituent communications and raise needed funds for the work. Memberships, donations and coalition partnerships grew during her eight years with the Democracy Campaign.

Meyer's La Follette degree and the emphasis on a broad, administrative perspective provided her the skills she needed for work in the private, nonprofit sector. "You can serve the public as a public employee or by working in the nonprofit world doing the work that the public sector cannot engage in," she says. "I see my nonprofit work as public service."

Alum, student collaborate on fund-raiser

An inquiry by La Follette School student Pete Braden led to him and alum Debby Anderson Meyer collaborating on a fund-raiser for the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired.

"When I received his email, I only knew he was a graduate student interested in nonprofits," Meyer says. "Not until we met for coffee did I learn Pete was at La Follette. His idea was to hold a Bloomsday event as a fund-raiser for us. I thought, 'Why wouldn't we be interested in this?!'"

Bloomsday commemorates June 16, the day on which all events in James Joyce's novel Ulysses take place in Dublin in 1904. Joyce and Homer, the poet of the original Odyssey (on which Ulysses is based), overcame serious visual impairments, so collaborating seemed natural to Braden and Meyer.

The Mad City Bloomsday featured readings from Ulysses, hors d'oeuvres and Irish music, and drew about 80 people. "The Bloomsday event was a lovely melting pot of people who love literature and those who have overcome vision challenges," Meyer says. "Readers spanned the scope of the Madison community — from UW folks, to local politicians, two Braille readers from Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired, local literary folks, plus Pete.

"One outcome of the evening was a greater awareness by sighted people of how very important it is to provide access to literature for people with limited vision," Meyer adds. "We raised new funds and awareness – our two goals. Mad City Bloomsday was so successful, another is already being planned for 2012."

Student organizes Bloomsday fund-raiser, June 13, 2011, La Follette School News

— updated October 27, 2014