alumni Spotlight

March Alumni Spotlight with Liz Fallon Culp, Executive MPA '12

mar 18 alumni spotlight

Why pursue a career in fundraising -- what are the challenges and rewards? In this month’s alumni spotlight Executive MPA alumna, Liz Fallon Culp offers valuable insight to aspiring fundraising professionals seeking to make an impact and enjoy the benefits of a meaningful career.

Can you remember the first time you found yourself intrigued by fundraising?
I was raised in a household where charitable work was very much a part of our lives, so I was familiar with fundraising before I considered it as a career choice. I started on this career path quite by accident—in fact I often say that The Indigo Girls (an Indie Folk band that was popular in the late-80s and early-90s) got me my first job in fundraising! After college, feeling a bit down after searching around for meaningful job opportunities, I bought myself their latest album to cheer myself up. On the back of the album, they had included a list of organizations, encouraging fans to make donations. I called one of the organizations—The Coalition for the Homeless—and asked if they were hiring. A few weeks later, in July 1989, I started on my first job in fundraising as a Development Assistant.

How has fundraising changed since you began? How do you think it’ll continue to change?
There are two essential elements of fundraising that have not and likely will not change; these elements, married together, create the science and the art of fundraising. The first is well-organized data on donors and prospects and on organizational programs and budgets. The second element is the art of building and maintaining relationships with both donors and also your larger community.

The tools for organizing, analyzing, and presenting data have changed exponentially. For example, the first few fundraising databases I worked with were DOS-based; most now are web-based. We can only anticipate the continued refinement and accessibility of analytical tools in this digital age.

The ways that relationships can be developed and nurtured are also changing. Certainly, active and personal attention to constituents’ interests and needs remains central to a fundraiser’s work, but the engagement tools we can use have vastly expanded. In-person interactions are still paramount, but many people like receiving information via emails, e-newsletters or social media posts that they can read and respond to on their own time. Constituents are also given many more opportunities to let organizations (and, therefore, fundraisers) know their thoughts, interests, and preferences—and to make their donations—through digital platforms.

What advice can you give to aspiring professional fundraisers?
Fundraising is incredibly rewarding and equally challenging. You are given opportunities to form meaningful connections with donors at all levels and guide their support toward issues and causes that are important to you. Throughout your career, there will be many midnight work sessions to meet proposal deadlines, disgruntled donors to appease, special event disasters to flawlessly clean-up behind the scenes, cash scrambles and expense reshuffles to meet budget projections, and a ton of rejection. Funders do actually say “no” sometimes. Lots of times, actually.

The challenge for all fundraisers – those new to the profession as well as the old timers – is to maintain energy and enthusiasm in this high pressure, fast paced environment. My advice is to utilize and build supportive bonds with the team that surrounds you. Whether you work in a tiny three-person office or a giant international nonprofit, your colleagues are (or should be) working toward the same goals. Ask people to review your strategies, proposals, meeting materials, and even emails. And get to know people in every programmatic and operational department. They are carrying out the activities that you are working so hard to fund and they can (and should be) invaluable resources to help you carry out your fundraising plans. Together, you can ease each other’s burdens and help to make the office a positive and productive space.

What changed in your career before and after your Executive MPA experience at the Marxe School?
My aim in pursuing an Executive MPA was not only to enhance my practical skills but also, and perhaps more importantly, to expand my understanding of the nonprofit and public sectors so that I could be a more effective leader as I advanced my career.

At the Marxe School, I learned how to be a more capable manager, acquired better tools for program planning and evaluation, gained valuable insights about public regulations surrounding nonprofits, and developed my budgeting, marketing, and communications skills. This had an immediate impact on my daily activities at work. An added bonus was the tremendously valuable network of colleagues I acquired—both the people in my own cohort, those in other cohorts, and the professors and practitioners, many of whom have become trusted resources and advisors, as well as good friends. On a professional level, many more doors were open to me after I received my Executive MPA and, within two years of graduation, I moved into a more senior leadership position, directing fundraising activities for a mid-size nonprofit.