My Charity Career – Mary O’Kennedy

Charity Chats Border centred

Monthly career interview with professionals in the not-for-profit sector

Mary edited

1. What is your current role and how long have you been working in it?

I split my time between O’Kennedy Consulting, which I established 15 years ago to provide effective fundraising solutions to the not-for-profit sector, and Charity Careers Ireland, which I established with Bruce Tait in 2014. Bruce and I also recently launched Creative Careers, which focuses on recruiting staff for the creative, arts and cultural sectors.

2. How did you get to where you are today and what influenced this decision?

As is the case for many in the sector, I ‘fell into fundraising’. When I finished my primary degree in Spanish and English in UCD, I spent a year working with Trocaire in Central America and on my return to Ireland, they offered me a position in their newly formed ‘major donor’ department.  During this time, I started studying law at the King’s Inns and had intentions of following a career in Human Rights Law. However, 18 months later whilst still studying, I was offered a role as a Donor Development Manager in DCU’s Educational Trust, the fundraising wing of the University. I loved the job and particularly the opportunity to engage with the extraordinary donors to the University. It was at this stage that I realised I had been badly bitten by the philanthropy bug, so I had to make a decision about where I really wanted my career to go. I graduated from the King’s Inns in 2001 but instead of continuing down the legal route, I decided to forge a career in the world of fundraising.

After leaving DCU I briefly worked for a US consultancy firm who specialised in managing capital campaigns in the not-for-profit sector and then in March 2002, through a series of fortunate coincidences and encouragement from a few wonderful mentors, I made the decision to establish O’Kennedy Consulting.  The rest, as they say, is history! Over the last 15 years we have worked with hundreds of organisations across the arts, heritage, education, overseas development, social justice, health & welfare and community development sectors and it’s been a wonderful journey!

3. What do you love/enjoy most about your job?

I can honestly say I love 99% of everything about my job! I get to work with extraordinary people in fantastic organisations and see the huge impact that that raising philanthropic funds can have on our society. Every day is different and there’s never a dull moment. I also really enjoy getting to know the wonderful philanthropists who are making such a massive difference across our world and understanding what makes them tick! Since launching Charity Careers it’s been great to see the big difference having great staff can make to an organisation’s success – we hope our recruitment service plays a part in making this happen.

4. And what are the most challenging parts of your job?

Things move slowly in lots of charities and sometimes really amazing opportunities are missed due to an organisation’s inability to make a decision

5. How do you relax?

I really believe that in order to be great at your job, you need to be happy in your life, so, having recently got married I hope our clients will reap the rewards of my happiness for a while! Honestly, I love spending time with family and friends, enjoying good food and wine, walking my two elderly dogs Yeats and Maud Gonne (both in their doggie mid-80’s now), travelling and generally feeling lucky to be alive and healthy!

6. What skills and personality traits do you think are essential for a job like yours?

Liking people is a MUST! Honesty, openness and an ear for the individual needs of clients is really important too. And patience too – as things do take time.

7. What’s your advice to anyone who wants to pursue a career in the same field?

It depends on the particular role but I would say along with any career experience or qualification that someone has, there are now a number of organisations such as Charities Institute Ireland, The Wheel, The Law Society and others offering specialised certificates, diplomas and tailored Continued Professional Development courses on leadership, fundraising, marketing, governance, finance and charity law – all which are really important areas for the sector’s continued growth and development in this new era of regulation  – and also to build public trust in what we do.

8. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

1. Be kind to people and they will be kind to you. 2. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! 3. My own advice to myself is to live life to the full and always remember what’s really important – whilst I love my career, the love and friendship of my family and friends will always come first.

9. What has been the best moment of your career so far?

There are a few – setting up OKC in 2002 and seeing organisations transform their approach to donor engagement. In more recent years, identifying the need for a specialised not-for-profit sector recruitment service and establishing Charity Careers Ireland, and subsequently Creative Careers. But probably my proudest achievement is, along with a small group of dynamic fundraisers, establishing Fundraising Ireland in 2007 (now merged with ICTR as Charities Institute Ireland) and watching how it transformed how fundraisers from different organisations interact with each other. I am a firm believer that knowledge-sharing and information is vitally important to our sector, and to success in fundraising.   I was also delighted to be awarded with an Outstanding Contribution to Fundraising in 2013, it’s always nice to be recognised by your peers.

10. What are your career aspirations?

I am really passionate about creating an embedded culture of philanthropy in Ireland, and this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes knowledge and understanding from the management and boards of charities. Donors too need to hear more from established philanthropists, who have seen and experienced the amazing return on their social investments, in order to understand the huge impact philanthropy can have on society. I want to be part of making this happen! I also want to see choosing a career in the not-for-profit sector being as highly regarded and respected as choosing a career in the public or commercial sectors, and hopefully Charity Careers can play a part in making this happen.