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How to Get a Nonprofit Job at a Larger Organization

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Today we’re welcoming back guest author Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising for her ongoing series featuring helpful insights and advice from top nonprofit professionals.

In today’s post, Mazarine sits down with John Urschel to discuss how nonprofit professionals can move up from a smaller organization to a larger one. 

John-UrschelHey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and today I am so excited to be chatting with Mr. John Urschel who is an educator and a consultant in the area of fundraising, and he’s going to be teaching a couple different sessions at our Fundraising Career Conference and our Next Level Fundraising Conference in April 2016. So I’m really, really excited to talk with him today. The two sessions he’s going to be teaching are moving from a small to large organization in your fundraising career, and growing your major gifts program. So I’ll just say that when I was working full time in small nonprofits, I was wondering, you know, how do I actually get to go and be in a larger organization? Because that’s often the key to getting a lot more money than working in a small nonprofit and getting a lot less. So John actually has cracked that nut. So John, thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it.

JU: Happy to be here.

MT: Right on. So, Mr. John Urschel, who are you and what do you do?

JU: That’s a great question. I’m still trying to answer that question for myself. Professionally speaking, I would say I’m a senior executive with a little more than two decades of experience developing nonprofit fundraising offices and actually for-profit businesses as well. But my focus has been for about 21 years building nonprofit fundraising offices. So everything from annual funds to major gifts to special events to capital campaigns. I’m the whole bit, and I’ve done that through a variety of sectors. So healthcare, early literacy, higher education and human services.

MT: Right, and you actually used to live where I live now, which is in Portland, Oregon, and you worked at a domestic violence shelter. I used to work at a domestic violence shelter too out here. So we have that in common.

JU: It’s a small world. It’s a small world.

MT: It is.

JU: Raphael House of Portland was my first director of development position. I had a great experience with that organization doing good work.

MT: And then you went to the east coast and you worked at a larger college, right? Was it Mount Holyoke, is that correct?

JU: When I moved to the east coast in 1998, I worked in healthcare for a couple of years before going back to graduate school to get my Masters in Public Policy and Public Administration. Then I found myself eventually back in nonprofit fundraising at Amherst College which dukes it out with Williams College as the one or two top private liberal arts college in the United States. I was there for about three years and learned a lot about higher ed fundraising. Then I was recruited to Mount Holyoke, where I worked at Mount Holyoke where I worked as the director of leadership, yes. I ran their gift planning arm, major gifts and constituent research. Right about 14 people in my division, and was there for about three years as well. Then I just recently just took some time for myself to get some writing done, to focus on teaching and do a little consulting.

MT: Wow, that is just so exciting. I love that. So because of your background, I’m curious. So tell people what you’re teaching at the Fundraising Career Conference.

JU: I’m conducting two sessions on subjects that have a lot of meaning to me. The first is how to start your major gifts program and how to succeed professionally in major gifts fundraising, right? The first is designed to give practical advice to those in small and mid-sized organizations who want to, I guess, kick start a major gift program but either don’t know how, don’t know the questions to ask, or think that they may just not have the major donor prospects period. The second one is around how to succeed professionally in major gifts fundraising. That one really deals with sort of this issue of sector bias in hiring and recruiting, and how to avoid getting trapped in a particular role within a fundraising office, or within a particular subsector within the industry. So those are the two areas I’m going to be teaching on.

MT: That’s interesting. So you’re going to talk about how people avoid getting trapped in a role. Can you say a little bit more about that? Like what does it mean when you get trapped in a role?

JU: Sure. So in my experience, there’s different kinds of biases in hiring, right? That’s really around role and sector. So you can have a bias around role. So for instance, and I’ll speak in a moment about higher ed. But this really pertains to any sort of sub-industry within the nonprofit sector, which is if you are a junior annual funds officer in an organization large enough to be able to differentiate those kinds of roles – which is a lot of them – if you’re an annual funds officer and you want to apply for a major gifts role in another college or research university, it is very unlikely you will ever be considered. So that is sort of getting trapped in a particular role, right? If you are a donor researcher and you want to move into front line fundraising, then it’s extraordinarily difficult to make that move unless you know how to position yourself, unless you know how to leverage the language and the culture of the organizations you’re looking at.

MT: Fascinating. Wow. So I know that for a lot of the small nonprofit fundraisers, we just maybe have our development associate position or development officer position and we’re looking ahead at our careers and we’re thinking, well, how do we get into the university roles which are way more lucrative, but also what do they want to see? How do we get to that step? So maybe they’ve been struggling to get to a role at a university. Why do you think it’s such a struggle for people?

JU: I think a lot of it is ignorance or assumptions, right? So I guess assumptions and ignorance can be considered two sides of the same coin, right? When I say ignorance, I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I just simply mean that people who work in nonprofits – so if you work in an early literacy organization, you’re a development associate. You’ve had a few years of experience and you’ve written a few grants. You’ve done some annual fund stuff. Maybe you’ve had a couple of successful major gifts, and we’ll just define major gifts. Or we won’t define major gifts. Let’s just say you’ve raised some major gifts, and you’re really interested in exploring different kinds of fundraising. So you want to get into private liberal arts colleges, for example. Now, a private liberal arts college hiring manager, so director of major gifts or director of planned gifts is going to look at that resume. It’s like, well, how does this person kind of a jack of all trades going to come in as someone who can really specialize, right? In major gifts fundraising and go out there and talk to people who are working for Fortune 500 companies, or talk with people that are entrepreneurs and who have a high, high level of sophistication not only around money but also around philanthropy, right? So then it becomes a question of does the individual know how to present themselves in a sophisticated manner, right? But mostly what we’re really talking about is how does that individual present themselves in a way that can relate, that the hiring manager can understand? Because the language one is going to use for someone for an early literacy organization is going to be very different than the language they’re going to use in higher ed. So the best way to learn that language is to get out there and to meet people in that field. So I can tell you in the last six years, I’ve maybe had seven people call me for informational interviews.

MT: Wow. So they’ve called you for informational interviews just to find out how you present yourself and what you are. . .

JU: Well, they’re curious about the sector. They’re curious about the field. They’ve got some kind of fundraising experience. But they don’t even know the questions to ask, and that’s the ignorance piece, right? So the wonderful thing about this work and why we do this work is we’re sort of all caring, passionate people. I think that’s generally the case. We need to be smarter about taking advantage of the resources that we have in this funny business of nonprofit fundraising. One of those big resources are friendly people who have gone through this already. So picking up the phone, sending an email, knocking on someone’s door metaphorically and asking for a coffee or half an hour on the phone and trying to understand a little bit more about how to get their foot in the door. Hiring in the nonprofit sector is huge. It’s constant. The turnover is amazing, and the search for talent is ongoing. So even if you do an informational interview, right, and someone doesn’t have a position for you, they might keep that resume and they might forward it onto somebody else and not tell you. That’s a pretty common thing. So not only does one learn the language and the culture of the sectors that they’re interested in trying to get into, but they’re also building really, really important networks. So I guess that’s what I mean when I’m talking about ignorance, is really like we don’t know what we don’t know. We have to do the work to learn.

We need to be smarter about taking advantage of the resources we have in this funny business of #fundraising. Click To Tweet

MT: So it sounds like language and presentation are important to know when you’re looking at these jobs, like to see even what they’re starting to look at. So that’s what you’re going to be teaching at the conference.

JU: Right, exactly.

MT: You’re teaching how people have successfully made that transition.

JU: Right. So I’ll be breaking down the industry types and then the sub-industry types within the sector. The nonprofit sector is incredibly diverse, and it’s the fastest growing area in the United States. It’s only going to continue to grow. The need for fundraisers is at an all time high and will only continue to grow. So the opportunities are enormous. But people have to be smart about them, and in my experience as a hiring manager who’s had to hire lots of fundraisers, and as someone who has had many different types of fundraising jobs, I’ve made mistakes early in my career and I’ve seen people make lots of mistakes over the course of my career. So I can talk about those mistakes. My mistakes, my personal mistakes, and the mistakes I see other people make, and how to avoid those mistakes and how not to take a job or the warning signs for a job that will be a trap. That will not be that next step in the ladder.

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MT: Yeah, I actually talk a lot about this in my book and on my blog about, hey, these are the questions you need to ask in the interview. Also looking at the 990 and the job description and cross comparing what exactly is going on. But I mean, with university and hospital fundraising, I think you could look at the 990 and say, okay, are they in trouble or not? You know, you could probably have some idea. If you’re in Canada, obviously you’d look at the corresponding Canadian Revenue Agency. But I guess the one question I had for you is the one mistake you see people make over and over when trying to get hired at a larger institution. Just one of them from the many that you’ve brought up, what’s one of the most egregious ones?

JU: There’s a lot of them. I think the thing when I was actively doing hiring, fundraisers need to be sort of a balanced combination of thinkers, feelers, and doers. They need to be sort of critically minded, thoughtful and intelligent, right? Because they’re dealing with lots of different kinds of people. They need to be feelers, so they need to be empathetic. But without having so much empathy that they lose their own ego, because we hire people based on their personality, based on their presentation skills and their ability to communicate and to share. If you have too much empathy, right, you sort of lose yourself along the way. Then finally, we need people that are doers, who actually get out of the office, talk to people, stir the pot, make presentations, write proposals and close gifts. Action oriented individuals. So when people can’t demonstrate that they sort of have those elements is when they tend to struggle and fail within the interview process, and certainly within the early, early conversation around informational interviews. So those are the things that are sort of the most important piece for me. Then there’s sort of the obvious one that people just don’t ever – I wish it were rarer, but this is what I see all the time, or too often, rather, which is people will come in and I will say – so when I was working at Amherst College, the question would have been, “Why Amherst College?” Right? Because we know the salary is good. We know the salary is competitive. We know that there’s a lot of jobs out there. We know that those people that are looking to work for a particular organization probably have resumes out to others as well. So if they’re not able to say beyond just this is the kind of title I want and this is the kind of money I want, then you know, we’re really not interested. Because at the end of the day it’s really what do you know about us, and what is it about us that’s compelling?

MT: Yeah, this is what I often tell people to do in their cover letters is really bang in your connection to what they’re doing and your understanding of their problems. Make it be about them and your connection to them, so yes.

JU: There’s an emotional component to this. We have to have an understanding that they believe in the mission of the organization. At the same time, hiring managers especially in a larger organization – I mean, some research one institutions have literally hundreds of major gift officers. So UMass Amherst up the street from me is an R1 institution. They’ve got just on this one campus, 85 or 90 major gift officers. So they recognize the fact that the mission is important, and a commitment to the mission is important. But they also recognize the fact that these people are hired guns. So are they going to provide value, and how? So this is one of the critical differences when you get out of the sort of grassroots fundraising into the sort of industry fundraising, which is can you demonstrate that you are going to provide value? Are you a good return on investment? Because you’re likely not going to be there for more than five years given recruiters and headhunters. So all of these things are a big mix. You have to be able to demonstrate value. You have to be able to demonstrate that you’re a thinker, feeler, and doer, and you really have to be able to demonstrate that you can talk the talk about a particular organization.

MT: Is that sort of what you wish people realized about getting hired at a university?

JU: A university or college or healthcare or wherever, they all have a very specific culture. So as people start hiring up and start having a fairly substantial resume, they’re going to look on paper very similar to other people, right? So a development associate for an early literacy organization looks somewhat similar than a development associate at a grassroots human service organization. So really then the question is are they the best fit? Are they going to work in the team? Because fundraising is not an individual activity, right? It is about a culture of philanthropy. It is about teamwork. Are they going to get along with leadership? Are they going to get along? So ultimately it’s about do they have a real feel for what it is that we do beyond just an emotional commitment to the mission?

MT: Right. So what will people learn if they come to your session? All that, right?

JU: They’ll learn all that and more, and they’ll learn how to position themselves with their resume and with a cover letter in the best possible way to avoid getting trapped in a particular kind of role, and to really think about really what is their career trajectory, and what opportunities really exist? I remember when I was young in the field, the biggest problem I had was really not knowing what the opportunities were. Not understanding. Like oh, I could do this. I could do that within fundraising. I’m not just stuck in this particular track.

fundraising career conference

MT: I love that. So everybody, please sign up for John’s session. It’s going to be so good. It’s going to be so exciting and I can’t wait to learn from his as well. This is stuff that I really have been puzzling over in my life as well. So John, how can we get in touch with you if people have more questions or they want to have your services?

JU: Oh, sure, no problem. So best way is either through LinkedIn, John Urschel, and then also my email which is just john.urschel@gmail.com. I’m always happy to touch base with people and talk more about what they’re doing. A rising tide lifts all boats is an expression that I really like to use a lot. The more we can do to improve the sector, the better off we’ll all be.

MT: I love that. Thank you so much.

JU: Oh, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me and I look forward to it.

Hear more from John at the Next Level Fundraising Conference on April 4-5, 2016. He will be presenting along with Molly Ola Pinney, Linda Lysakowski, Hamlin Grange, and many other nonprofit experts. Learn more about the conference and register here

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