Kristine answers your most frequently asked questions about careers in nonprofit fundraising, communications and management.
How did you get your start?
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. Well, actually, I originally wanted to be a singer, like Crystal Gayle or Olivia Newton-John. In college I wrote a lot of term papers and was editor-in-chief of the college newspaper. After graduation I secured a job as a reporter in Washington, D.C. during Bill Clinton’s time in the White House. What memorable years!
Sounds exciting. Did you work for the Washington Post?
I wish. My employers were newsletter publishers. Back in the late 1990s, before the Internet became widespread, hundreds of newsletters were printed in the capital and many in Congress read them to keep up on technical issues or to see what people were saying about their bills. I covered environmental legislation like Superfund, the nation’s toxic waste law, and electricity deregulation. I even had the privilege of covering a Supreme Court Case! I wrote about five or six stories per week and though I improved and learned a lot about writing good leads and asking the right questions to elicit the answers my editor wanted to print, I was miserable. I was not aligned internally. My personal mission and what I did everyday were at odds. One day I asked a colleague, who was in her second career after having left the law profession, and who was as happy as can be, what I ought to do about my unhappiness.
My wise colleague asked me what I liked to do on the weekends, what did I do in my spare time. I immediately answered “visit animal shelters!” Most people find that depressing. But that’s exactly why I liked doing it, as I knew I brought a measure of calm and affection for the animals, softly talking to nervous dogs or anxious cats. I just knew that about myself, that I had that connection and passion for animals. So she asked, “Have you thought about grantwriting for a nonprofit animal rescue group?”
“But don’t you need a lot of training?” I asked.
“You already know how to write,” she said. So I set off to apply myself to landing a job at a nonprofit animal welfare organization and obtained an interview at the San Francisco SPCA. At the time it was the nation’s leading organization in the no-kill movement and in my eyes they were nirvana for homeless animals.
How did you get the job without nonprofit experience?
I demonstrated my commitment to good writing and to the cause. I emphasized my experience writing on deadlines every week. But since I had no experience working in a nonprofit, I had to show that I was absolutely passionate about animals. So I wrote a poem about my childhood dog, Blossom. I worked on it after my interview, read it aloud on my new cell phone to my mom from a sandwich café on Market Street, then faxed it in the next day. The hiring manager called me about a week later to say that I did not get the job.
So the poetry didn’t work?
Not at first. The job went to an experienced grant writer. I was disappointed, but I was hooked on this idea that I could write grant proposals and get money to help dogs and cats. About a week later the hiring manager called me back to offer me the position – they had enough money to create two positions! I was elated.
You manage a big team now. How did you get to where you are today?
I always assumed that I would learn how to do this work and become a manager of a huge team one day. I just never would have imagined it would happen this soon! I thought “someday” was like when I was in my 50s! One thing I have learned is that there are always going to be people who leave or are fired; in addition any organization experiences shifting priorities or strategies. And those are opportunities. When I worked at the San Francisco Zoo I had the chance to oversee corporate sponsorships, writing a major gift proposal to name a giraffe barn, bench and tile programs, a car donation program, a planned giving program and special annual appeals. And all because people left and there was a gap that needed filled. I was exposed to new areas of the fundraising business by virtue of being there. It happened over and over again – there I was, doing my job to the best of my abilities, and I’m offered the chance to do something new because of staff turnover or because a new program needs launching. Bottom line is do a good job, a very good job, right where you are today. People will notice your excellence, even if you feel like you’re too low on the totem pole, so to speak.
What’s the best thing a candidate without any nonprofit experience can do to make themselves compelling in your eyes?
I have hired people who did not have experience in the nonprofit sector, so it’s not totally unusual. What I ask is that the candidate have an authentic connection to the mission and have demonstrated interest and engagement in their own community. Even if you have never written a grant proposal or planned a special event, there are ways to volunteer to do that at your local Boys & Girls Club or your humane society. Volunteer at a fundraising event or see what kind of services charities in your area need that you can offer as in-kind contributions. Become a board member of an organization that you really care about. Above all, become a donor. Every gift of every size helps. If you are not a philanthropist, become one.
Should candidates get degrees in nonprofit management and fundraising?
Not unless they want them! There are great programs at Indiana University and University of San Francisco in fundraising and nonprofit management. I learned by doing and many have done the same. There are amazing books and periodicals on the topic as well as well-run professional associations like the Association for Fundraising Professionals. I highly recommend CASE (Council for the Advancement and Support of Education) courses and conferences. They convene the best fundraisers and leaders in the country; even though I am not a university or schools fundraiser, I learn a lot by attending and meeting the brightest minds in the field. I love my friendships with fundraising colleagues, many of whom are special mentors to me and have been sounding boards for my questions and ideas. There’s no one right way to educate yourself. Do what feels best.