I was visiting with a friend a few years ago, when I returned to Austin in mid-2013. 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!
My experience may be unusual, but I felt it might be helpful to new fundraising professionals with an interest in pursuing careers in major gift fundraising. Those of us who are more experienced sometimes forget, not everyone is comfortable with major gifts: managing major gift campaigns, handling significant monetary transactions, working closely with affluent donors and the like. We should be mindful to share our experiences for the benefit of up-and-coming fundraising executives to help them achieve success.
After securing my Bachelor’s Degree at The University of Texas at Austin in Middle Eastern Studies (alongside fellow-classmate and football star Earl Campbell), I moved to New York City for six months. My fiance at the time was a young, well-connected university professor who had secured an interim, 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 time!
Luckily for our personal finances, I managed to secure a full-time secretarial position with a bank on Wall Street, in its Middle Eastern division. There, the staff helped investors “move” their money as desired – and on a moment’s notice – to other banks or investment vehicles in locations globally.
I was humbled by the daily telephone conversations that occurred in our office.
“Yes, I understand. You want me to transfer $1,486,633.57 from your account in (bank) to (another entity). I’ll do that right now and we will send you the confirmation immediately. Thank you.”
I knew if I tried to handle that kind of transaction, if I was “off” by one penny I would be fired. It took me a couple of months before I got used to, “lots of zeros.” But eventually, 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; by the conclusion of six months, I had crossed the psychological hurdle and it became 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, if you want to work eventually in a fundraising department? Working on Wall Street was one of the best experiences I could have had at that point in my life, during my early 20s.
When I returned to Austin, I decided to pursue a new focus of study in art history (rather than banking, smiles). It was while securing my Master’s Degree that I began volunteering for a local art museum.
Two things affected my future career in nonprofit fundraising at this point in my life:
- The study of art history is also the study of patronage, and how great works of art and architecture come to life through the financial and political backing of wealthy benefactors. For a personal tale about my experience with the noted late Western Art collector and founder of American Airlines, C. R. Smith, read my Tumblr.
- Another tale of patronage you might enjoy is found in, “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.
- Another key factor was that a local art museum noticed my interest in the arts, they appreciated my talent for research and writing, and after volunteering for several months, they hired me as a half-time, then full-time employee. The museum also sent me straight away to The Grantsmanship Center for a week-long grant writing “bootcamp.” The staff of the Center and I have discussed my early experiences in a lively fashion on social media recently. I recommend taking a course with them highly.
I encountered “lots of zeros” again in the context of my work with the museum during graduate school. I was in charge of writing grant proposals. I happened to be the only staff member in the development office one lunch hour, and opened an overnight package only to come face-to-face with a $1,000,000 check. It quite literally took my breath away. Being unable to speak while holding the letter, I was lucky the executive director happened to stop by my desk to retrieve it. After a few minutes, I calmed down.
After many years of developing and implementing major gift campaigns since those early days, Big Numbers do not phase me. I have since been invited to speak to my professional colleagues about how to write grants and how to work with major gift donors. 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).
You might also enjoy an article posted in Forbes by Vivek Ranadive, “A Liberal Arts Degree Is More Valuable Than Learning Any Trade” (November 13, 2012). In brief,
“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 liberal and fine arts, 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 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 major gift fundraising. I have been at it for more than 25 years now.
I hope to more people will consider careers in the nonprofit sector. If you are interested in nonprofit fundraising, a variety of professional development resources can be found in my section called, Fundraising Resources.
Best wishes for success in all your endeavors!