Agency or Organization? Tips From Someone Who Made the Move
When I was child I had two dreams of what my future would look like. I was fully committed and convinced I'd grow up to be either Dr. Dolittle or Carol Burnett. I would divide my time between standing in front of a mirror reciting her monologues and perfecting my "Eunice," and standing at the edge of my backyard willing all the forest creatures to come to me.
One of my most vivid memories is finding out that "The Carol Burnett Show" was going off the air and running through the house crying uncontrollably because I wasn't yet old enough to take her place.
But, as kids are wont to do, I bounced back. I focused my life on becoming one with the animals. Stalking squirrels, chasing ducks around my grandparents' farm, staring into my dog's eyes for hours at a time willing him to understand me. You can imagine my shock the day my mom sat me down and said, "Jo, you're being weird. Your cousins are uncomfortable around you, and Mary from church thinks maybe I should take you to a psychiatrist. Now stop it."
That was enough for me. Nobody wants to be weird, so I channeled my animal obsession and carefully focused my energy on things I knew I could help. I began supervised volunteer trips to the local shelter and fostered animals while they were waiting for adoption. That experience shaped completely who I am, and when life brought me to New York City, I knew fate had given me the chance to make childhood dreams real and work for the ASPCA.
I sent my résumé for more than a year. I stalked, watched, interviewed, begged and even cried. Until once again my mom told me I was being weird. So I tried a different angle, and before long, I found myself on a journey that would shape my adulthood. Every single day, I came to work knowing I was saving puppies and kitties. How does it get any better? How much closer could I get to the backyard calling to animals that I'm here to help?
Without rehashing all the details, suffice to say ASPCA had a good run for the 10 years I was there. We took a sleepy fundraising program and effected a 500 percent growth, and added functions and programs like monthly giving. The coolest moment in my life was when "Saturday Night Live" did a spoof of our Sarah McLachlan spot. I felt I'd made it to that place where you're ingrained in American culture. But as is life, all good things come to an end.
One of the things I am most proud of is that I hired myself out of a job. I targeted and grew a team of people who knew way more than I did about whatever their specialties were. They were and are one of the best marketing and communications teams around, and I couldn't have let "my heart" go to anything less.
In looking to my next move, the opportunity that CDR Fundraising Group presented to me was a perfect fit. It's a big move for an organization person to go to the consulting side. The perceptions of both sides are joked about and ingrained in how we talk to ourselves as an industry, but I never let myself feel I was going to "the dark side." I saw the opportunity with our clients like Toys for Tots, MADD and Wounded Warrior Project to be a chance to partner with some fantastic organizations and blue-chip brands, and offer whatever I could from my learnings (and failings) at ASPCA to make a difference. I'm happy to say that is exactly what's happened.
I don't know what our clients think (and if any of you are reading this — don't tell me if it's bad news), but I hope they feel that connection and couldn't be prouder to be part of something bigger.
As with anything, there were surprises along the way. So for any of you considering making a move from one side to the other, here are some words of learning from somebody who did:
- Boards are the same. Both sides of the table. But as a consultant, you can help your clients by presenting and validating what they have been telling their boards all along. I'm not sure what it is, but the reality is that sometimes an outsider can get through something staff has banged its head against for months.
- If you move from the client side: People who have been your friends for years look warily at you the first day of the next conference wondering if you're going to try to bribe them with those pictures from last year's conference to get a consulting gig. By the end of the conference though, you both have enough on each other to demand a kidney.
- As a consultant: You learn that no matter how much you love and how passionate you are about the cause, it's not your program. The best clients make you feel like it is, though.
- On the nonprofit side: You learn that there are people out there who really just want to do good, amazing work to further your mission. And if you stop for a moment, you may find they are just as passionate, committed and dedicated to your cause as you are.
- On the agency side: Conferences don't like you to speak alone. ☹
- On the client side: You can't get approval to attend the conferences because you're a nonprofit. We're not made of money for heaven's sake!
- On both sides: There are smart and sometimes less-than-smart people. And it's really about the right fit, right knowledge base, right experience (or finding somebody just as gutsy as you to have a new experience!) and right results.
There is so much you can learn and add to your toolkit of fundraising/marketing knowledge on either side of the table. The bigger point is to have resources your organization needs to put yourself out of business one of these days. No matter what side of the table we're on — we all share the vision of making the world a better place and changing "something." And when you have the honor and opportunity to do that, it's hard to want to do anything else.
So, I'm a fundraiser having a mid-life crisis. And that's perfectly fine with me.
I am taking time to look around, lift my head and find REAL people who really want to change the world. And people smart enough to do it. Join me in this fun journey. I have no idea where we will end up - and that is the beauty of it. I'm nonprofit passionate, a hopeful world changer, and always ready to share what I know, learn what I don't, admit when I can't, and ask the hard questions.
While you're looking around for other areas of inspiration, check out The Moth Project at themoth.org (the podcasts are AMAZING), TED talks (doesn't matter which ones - find topics that interest you) and Volunteer Voices (again - love the podcast) written by volunteers from the Peace Corps. Don't see the immediate connection to being a better fundraiser? Just listen, you'll hear the message ...