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AFP Emerging Leaders: A Q&A With Gianna Vanata

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Gianna Vanata

In this Q&A, AFP chats with emerging leader Gianna Vanata, director of development at the Montana State University Alumni Foundation, about what led her to the fundraising profession, her journey as a first-generation college student and her experience with AFP.



1. How did you start your career in the fundraising profession?

It would be nice to say I intentionally pursued a career in fundraising. However, the truth is, the profession found me.

As a senior in college with law school on my mind, I was unexpectedly recruited by the Montana State University Alumni Foundation to serve as a student ambassador. As ambassadors we worked to engage alumni by sharing the student perspective, testify on the impact of donations, and encourage them to engage with their alma mater. We had the opportunity to travel to numerous cities where we met with high-profile donors and spoke alongside the president of the university at events. I was a first-generation college student and the recipient of donor-funded scholarships, so having the opportunity to thank donors and explain how important their generosity was to students like myself was personally very meaningful.

That internship was an incredible experience, and it is where I got my first taste of the fundraising profession. Fast forward eight years—I’ve had the great pleasure of working for the MSU Alumni Foundation where I secured major gifts in support of my alma mater, and now I work for Profitable Ideas Exchange as the associate director.

2. What is a current challenge you or your peers are facing in your professional fundraising career?

As my career has progressed, I have witnessed a few young professionals leave to start careers in a new profession. For a few of them, salaries and lack of upward mobility were factors in that decision. Although wages are not the sole reason someone chooses a career, it is certainly something to be considered.

A scenario I’ve observed—an organization might recruit an ambitious young fundraiser with a passion for their mission. However, after one to two promotions and a few cost-of-living raises that fundraiser might notice constraints of a nonprofit budget and lack of opportunities for promotion, particularly in comparison to some for-profit professions. I’ve seen young fundraisers with great potential leave the profession for careers that offer greater opportunities for income and promotion. I, admittedly, don’t have a solution, but feel it’ll be important for organizations, their boards, and the profession as a whole to pay attention to how we can best retain and invest in fundraisers.

3. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Both of my parents chose career paths that led them to serve our country in the U.S. Marine Corps. I am incredibly proud of their accomplishments and am grateful for the sacrifices they made to protect our country. As a first-generation college student, it was a goal of my parents and mine that I receive a college degree. My parents have a framed copy in their home. To collectively share that pride with them brings me great joy.

As it relates to fundraising, two come to mind. In my second year as a major gift fundraiser, I secured my first seven-figure gift. To avoid describing all the details, let’s just say the gift was very complex! My then colleague Melissa Dulin and I worked collaboratively for many months to strategize, negotiate and ultimately find a path to accomplish the donor’s wishes.

4. Talk a little bit about a mentor/coach/boss you’ve had that has helped you in your career.

If you want to meet two incredibly talented development professionals, look no further than Melissa Dulin and Traci Weller. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to witness them both achieve great success in fundraising. As senior development professionals, both of them have been generous in their willingness to provide mentorship to me and others. Both have inspired me to be resilient when things get tough, thoughtful in building donor relationships, and confident in my fundraising abilities. I hope to someday pay it forward by providing similar mentorship to future young fundraising professionals. Thank you to Traci, Melissa, and anyone who makes time to mentor young professionals.

5. How has AFP and the community (AFP Global and/or your chapter) helped you with your success?

My first introduction to AFP was attending the 2018 ICON in New Orleans. In addition to the great educational opportunities, that conference opened my eyes to the breadth and opportunities that exist in fundraising. After meeting other fundraising professionals and learning about their organization’s missions, I returned home to Bozeman, Montana, with an elevated sense of community and pride for my profession. It was fantastic to learn about the resources provided by AFP Global. I look forward to continuing to discover additional opportunities to be involved. I recently learned of AFP Global’s efforts to support young professionals. I’m excited to become more involved.

Being a member of the AFP Montana Chapter has provided me with a local fundraising community. Having joined the board a few years ago, I am assisting the group in scaling our communications and membership recruitment. It has been a joy to serve on the board as we work to support fundraisers in Montana. I am grateful the chapter has provided me with an avenue to network and connect with other fundraising professionals.

6. What is your dream job?

Tough question! If I were to design my dream job, it would combine the heart of the nonprofit sector and the hustle of the for-profit sector. This would involve working alongside social entrepreneurs or starting my own venture. To me, the process of strategizing, designing and creating a business sounds challenging in the best way. The social entrepreneurship component would help focus a business’s mission toward solving a social problem, doing good things for a community, or include a philanthropic component.

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