Lots of Zeros

I was visiting with a friend when I moved back to Austin in the summer of 2013 after being away for some 20 years. We discussed how I came to be involved in nonprofit fundraising, in particular major gift work. Our conversation turned to how someone who wants to work in the field of major gifts learns how to become accustomed to, “lots of zeros.” My friend could not imagine it.

My personal story might be helpful to new fundraising professionals who have an interest in pursuing careers in major gift fundraising. Those of us who are more experienced sometimes forget that not everyone is comfortable with major gifts, which involves handling significant monetary transactions and working closely with affluent donors. We must be mindful to share our knowledge for the benefit of up-and-coming fundraising professionals, and to help them achieve success.

After securing my Bachelor’s Degree With Honors at The University of Texas at Austin in Middle Eastern Studies, I moved to New York City for six months. My fiance was a young, well-connected economics professor who had secured a semester-long appointment at Columbia University. Rather than be without him for six months, I tagged along. Some of my greatest work and life experiences occurred during that brief time, and I admit, it was hard to leave New York to return home to Texas after those intense but rewarding six months.

Luckily for our personal finances, while in New York I managed to secure a full-time secretarial position with a bank on Wall Street in its Middle Eastern division. Part-time office jobs on the UT Austin campus had helped pay for my college education, and they gave me additional skills than those acquired via, “book learning.” Those very office skills helped open doors to my first jobs, like this one!

At the bank, the staff helped investors manage and occasionally “move” their money on a moment’s notice to other banks and/or investment houses across the world, for more favorable interest rates and the like. I was humbled by the daily telephone conversations occurring in our office, along these lines:

“Yes, I understand. You want me to transfer $1,486,633.57 from your account in [one country to another]. I will do that right now. No problem. We will send you a confirmation shortly. Thank you!”

I knew if I tried to handle that kind of transaction myself and I was “off” by one penny, I would be fired. The thought of handling those transactions terrified me. It took me a few months, but then I got used to, “lots of zeros.” I could stand-in for the primary point person on our floor and handle those calls.

The responsibility of handling seven-figure transfers made me literally shake at the start. But by the conclusion of six months, I had crossed the psychological hurdle and it became easier and more routine.

What does this suggest about serving as an intern (or a low level employee) in a bank or investment house early in your nonprofit fundraising career? Looking back on it today, working on Wall Street was one of the best experiences I could have had in my early 20s.

When I returned to Austin, I decided to pursue a new focus of study in art history (rather than banking). The bank executive I had worked for in New York ushered me off kindly, suggesting I secure an MBA. But I was hesitant and decided to change focus. After all, while living and working in New York, I had visited each and every one of the many art museums the city had to offer. I loved them.

Photo by Charles Parker on Pexels.com

It was while securing my Master’s Degree in art history in the mid-1980s that I also began volunteering for a local art museum. What I learned was the study of art history is also the study of patronage. Great works of art and architecture have come to life through the financial and political backing of wealthy benefactors for centuries and would not have been possible without them.

For a personal tale about my experience with the noted late Western Art collector and founder of American Airlines, C. R. Smith while I was a “work study student” in graduate school, follow this link.

A tale of patronage I enjoyed reading about is, “Larry Ellison’s Art at Asian Art Museum” by Robert Taylor for The Mercury News (2013 and updated 2016). “It’s a fact of life that well-heeled collectors make museums possible, from the Rockefellers to a Wal-Mart heiress. Among the welcome exhibits in San Francisco recently have been William Paley’s vast collection of paintings at the de Young Museum and a sampling of Jerry Yang’s Chinese calligraphy at the Asian Art Museum.” If you have studied art and art history seriously, this will be obvious. Coincidentally, the chief curator at the Asian Art Museum was one of my former graduate school supervisors and mentors (another reason I wanted to mention this specific article).

I encountered “lots of zeros” again in the context of my work with the local art museum. One day, I happened to be the only staff member in the development department one lunch hour, and I received and opened an overnight package, only to come face-to-face with a $1,000,000 check. Although my experience on Wall Street had made me more accustomed to large figures, holding the actual check in my hands quite literally took my breath away. Luckily the executive director happened to stop by to calm me down and retrieve the check, smiles.

After many years of developing and implementing major gift campaigns since those early days, large numbers no longer phase me (although I respect them greatly). I have since been invited to speak about how to write grants and how to work with donors, including asking for major gifts. A few of my experiences may be seen in a PowerPoint created a few years ago for the Texas Historical Commission, “Writing Winning Grants” (you won’t want to miss the “Memorable Conversations” section). This slide deck is now on ISSUU.

You might also enjoy an article posted in Forbes by Vivek Ranadive, “A Liberal Arts Degree Is More Valuable Than Learning Any Trade” (2012). “If you teach students one trade, that skill might be obsolete in a few years. But if you teach people how to think and look at lots of information and connect dots – all skills that a classic liberal education gives you – you will thrive.”

While securing my two university degrees in the colleges of liberal and fine arts at UT Austin, I knew those areas of study were my passion. But I also suspected they would land me in jobs valued less by society, perhaps in academia teaching the same “101” freshman course over-and-over again. But happily, my experience working with the museum led me to something very fulfilling: the nonprofit sector and a career in professional major gift fundraising. And, I have been at it for more than 30 years.

Best wishes for success in all your endeavors.

This article is dedicated to my best friend on Wall Street, Tina.

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