Each year, hundreds of philanthropy professionals and community leaders gather to celebrate the power of philanthropy and make connections with others who represent the generous spirit of the sector. The event? The Association of Fundraising Professionals National Philanthropy Day. Among the attendees at this year’s event, held at the JW Marriott, were a bustling group of young nonprofit professionals, here to engage in conversation with an established fundraising rockstar.
It didn’t take long for attendees of November’s YNPN Leadership Breakfast to settle in and listen intently to Noel McCormick, the director of advancement at Rise, an organization which supports people who have disabilities and other barriers to employment and housing. Rise offers creative solutions and customized support to open the door to success for people with disabilities. At this month’s gathering, many of the questions would be directed towards development, but rooted in lessons applicable to each area of a young nonprofit professional’s career.
A Less-Than-Straightforward Road to a Nonprofit Career
By looking at Noel’s resume, no one would ever guess where she originally had her sights set: therapy. Noel graduated from Carleton College with a degree in psychology and, after taking a year to travel the world, got her master’s degree in counseling psychology. Her original goal? To become a therapist. When the need to pay rent united with a connection at the Animal Humane Society, her career path took an unexpected turn. Her work as assistant to the CEO provided, for her, an unofficial education: “It was like getting my masters in nonprofit management,” she said. She learned the ins and outs and all of the in-betweens of being part of a nonprofit organization, and it was then that she realized her actual passion was rooted in service.
Like many who were job hunting during the recession, she had the dismal experience of being unemployed, applying to over 100 jobs with no luck, until a connection got her a part-time gig with Cantus. Spending 12 hours a week there, she did “anything and everything.” She experienced her first Give to the Max Day, taught herself how to use Constant Contact, and reconnected with the professional networks she had while at the Animal Humane Society. Soon she soared to a full-time development position at Opportunity Partners. For two and a half years, she grew as a fundraiser and connector, building the skills that led her to a similar position at Emerge and her current position at Rise.
Development is So Much More than Bringing In Dollars
For those in the nonprofit sector, it’s easy to talk money-making for hours on end, and it was clear that Noel was no exception. The first part of the morning’s conversation centered around tangible tactics attendees could bring back to their organizations. As the morning went on, what emerged were lessons that were applicable to every sector, every department, and every person in the room.
Noel’s first lesson: tell your mission and story in a real and authentic way. These are the types of stories that will bring people to your organization. This is also the time to look at who you already know – your current champions, donors, and personal cheerleaders. Bring them in even further with those real stories about how their support impacts who or what your organization serves. Her second lesson: think about your organization as a person. This is where being real and authentic comes into play again. It’s traits like those that connect people to your organization. She challenged each attendee to figure out who their organization would be if they were a person. If they needed inspiration, she offered Rise’s own persona: Sandra Bullock.
Regardless of Focus Area, Relationships are Crucial
What spanned across each of her points was a cohesive theme: people. Noel stressed how important it is to build relationships for each aspect of your career, whether it’s to bring in donors or to expand your networks. When answering the question about what part of building connections in order to raise money resonated with people, Noel’s answer was simple: “Frequent, meaningful communication that wasn’t an ask.”
An attendee asked Noel that among all of the technical resources she utilized, if there was a non-technical one she valued. Her answer fit with what became the theme of the event. “The most important resource is connections to other people who do this work,” she said. She instructed the group to find those cohorts of people and connect and build with them.
Before everyone broke to go back into the bustle of National Philanthropy Day or trek to their offices, an attendee asked Noel what was next for her. Noel made it clear that she loved where she was. “I’m helping people live their philanthropic dream,” she said.
As for those who are still looking to find that in their work? For Noel, like so much of what she does, it’s much deeper than base facts. Deeper than asking someone to donate to meet a bottom line and deeper than hiring someone who has “x” number of years of experience. “I look for fearlessness. I look for curiosity…someone who has a passion for something.”