Monthly career interview with professionals in the not-for-profit sector
1. What is your current role and how long have you been working in it?
I serve as Director of U.S. Development for CMRF Crumlin. Headquartered in Dublin, CMRF is the principal fundraising body for Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital and The National Children’s Research Centre. This is my third year in this role based between Ireland and the United States although I have been with CMRF for over 10 years.
2. How did you get to where you are today and what influenced your decision to work in your chosen field?
I’m actually a qualified software engineer. I loved computers, I thought it could change the world! Seriously. I worked with one of Ireland’s largest insurance companies in their IT department and was unhappy so I ended up going back to school for a post-graduate degree in journalism and public relations. The insurance company chose CMRF to be their beneficiary of the year and as part of my graduate project, I interviewed the organisation’s leadership.
Some friends and I fundraised for them but we weren’t interested in doing something small so we decided to put on three events. The first was a Gala, the second was the world’s largest plastic duck race and for the third fundraising event we rode motorcycles from Los Angeles to New York. I quit my job that summer and the Head of Fundraising at that time was Eamonn Coghlan who I had recently met through the duck event. He ended up coming along on the ride and eventually offered me a contract position with the organisation. I joined officially in the autumn of 2006 in the belief that anything was possible!
3. What do you love/enjoy most about your job?
The variety of the role is both a positive and a negative. In any one week or month there are so many competing priorities that it can be overwhelming. Once you stand back from this though you see the impact of the work you do. I hugely appreciate the opportunity I have had with CMRF Crumlin since 2006. I have been involved with fundraising campaigns that have transformed over 60% of the bed base at Crumlin Hospital and impacted the lives of thousands of families across our country. Fast-forward 12 years and in 2017 CMRF Crumlin launched a Research & Innovation campaign in New York that aims to transform the lives of millions of families around the world through focusing on paediatric research. The challenge and the conversations have changed but we are ultimately still telling ultimately the story of a need.
4. And what are the most challenging parts of your job?
Over the 10 years I’ve been in the sector I think we have moved away from face-to-face relationships. It used to be a case that we were amazed when we got an email. Now we are amazed when we get a personal letter or a face-to-face meeting. People don’t prioritise spending time with people. It takes time. Relationships take time. Impact reports take time but are necessary and worth it. Know the donor, record what you can. But you can’t do everything! This has been a big learning curve and a huge challenge personally. Focus your energy. It has to come back to relationships. Until people know and trust you, you are never going to move a $500 gift to $5,000. Also, it’s all relative. A major gift is major to your organisation. If you’re going to move them to give more the principles are all the same.
5. How do you relax?
That’s easy! Playing golf and managing the craziness of owning two Bichon Frise dogs! I started playing golf last year as it was a key part of our events programme on both sides of the Atlantic. I had to take it up – where else do you get an opportunity to spend a couple of hours with a donor? The dogs (named Buffy and Willow) are slightly different though as they get you outside every day and can be a great distraction from the daily schedule.
6. What skills and personality traits do you think are essential for a job like yours?
The range of skills and personality traits you need for this career are very similar whether you’re joining out of college or becoming a CEO. The difference is that those skills and personalities evolve. Many fundraisers throw themselves passionately into their career and forget to come up for air to assess the path they’ve chosen. The key is to remain professional, be authentic and present the real you to your team, colleagues and donors. That mixed with a real dose of resilience and a sense of humour will see you go far!
7. What’s your advice to anyone who wants to pursue a career in the same field?
Get to know the sector, the people in it and the different types of fundraising jobs available. There are a whole host of people willing to help others in the sector and there is huge value to creating a network of fundraising peers outside of your own organisation. I am working with a number of peers in the United States this year through the AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) on this very area and it is amazing that so many people who are new to the sector don’t know where to start. I recently read a book by Colin Harmon What I Know About Running Coffee Shops that tells the story of 3fe and how it grew from a one-man coffee cart in a nightclub lobby to the business that it is today. The lessons, stories and guidelines he provides are useful to anyone getting into a new career in any sector.
8. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
There are so many nuggets of advice that I have received from the wide variety of people I have met. One piece of advice that I now live by is that if you love what you do and are still learning then you should stay in the role you have. If either of those two questions are a negative answer then it is time to look elsewhere.
9. What has been the best moment of your career so far?
Achieving financial goals is always satisfying but seeing collective efforts succeed eclipses everything. Working with a great corporate fundraising team in 2013 was superb and everything we tried that year seemed to come off. We were ambitious, innovative and authentic. The best versions of ourselves. I can see a lot of those same qualities at CMRF Crumlin today so maybe the best is still to come!
10. What are your career aspirations?
I think it’s ok not to know exactly where you are going to be in 3 or 5 years’ time but that you are on the right path. Ultimately, I’m more content as a person. Now in my third year of a U.S. cycle, it feels like this is the start of a year where a lot of hard work will reap results. Now I’m just looking for that big gift like everyone else!
If you’re a professional who works in the not-for-profit sector and you’re interested in taking part in the ‘My Charity Career’ interview series, please get in touch by emailing Laura at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you!