AFP Member Spotlight: Erika Lee, MHA
AFP Member Spotlights are a recurring series of interviews with AFP members, highlighting the unique individuals and career paths that exist within the fundraising profession. If you know an inspiring fundraising professional who deserves to be featured, please email email@example.com.
In this Member Spotlight, we interviewed Erika Lee, MHA, advancement director at Cornerstone VNA. She shared how she transitioned from a career in healthcare management to a position as a development director at a small nonprofit. Since then, she has made networking and collaborating with other fundraisers a priority, even founding her own group for small-shop development professionals.
Q: How did you start your career in the fundraising profession and what led you there?
A: I’m sure like most fundraising professionals, I didn’t go to college with aspirations of becoming a professional fundraiser or focusing my career on nonprofit work. From what I’ve gathered from my fellow colleagues, the paths we’ve taken to the fundraising world are unique based on our personal and professional experiences.
For me, I earned my bachelor’s degree in health management and policy from the University of New Hampshire in ’98 and was eager to start my career in health care management. I was laid off 5 months later, and shortly after starting my next job, I returned to UNH to earn my master’s degree in health administration. Two job changes later, both planned and unplanned, I found my way to a development director position at a small nonprofit organization. This was a significant change from working in a large hospital setting where I had been working in the strategic planning department. When I interviewed for the development director position, I had zero fundraising experience, but I said, “I’m skilled at writing business plans for new programs and services at the hospital, so I imagine writing a grant would be a similar process.” They kindly took a chance on me. That was over 20 years ago!
Q: What are you doing in your current role?
A: May 2023 marked my 9-year anniversary at Cornerstone Visiting Nurse Association in Rochester, NH. I am currently the director of advancement, and my team includes a full-time assistant director of advancement and a part-time marketing and communications specialist. The advancement department is primarily responsible for fundraising, special events, donor relations, marketing and communications, community outreach, and volunteer management. It’s safe to say that I wear many hats, but I have a great team, and I am part of a dynamic and innovative management team. I also work closely with our board of directors, and more recently, I’ve been working regularly with our human resources department to focus on the recruitment of clinical staff. Since there is a national nursing shortage, the advancement department and HR are working together to strengthen our recruitment strategies and retention efforts.
Q: What do you enjoy most about the fundraising field?
A: I enjoy the variety in my job, the people I work with, and the folks I’ve met along the way. My role is so diverse that it offers me the opportunity to tap into my creativity, which I really love. I also enjoy hearing stories of the care we provide to patients and their families, and then sharing those stories with our donors to express the impact of their gift. Recently, we’ve moved away from planning our annual fundraising event so that we can really focus on stewarding our donors and fostering business partnerships. This has been a very rewarding experience because we’ve developed great relationships with our supporters, which has helped strengthen many areas of our work.
Q: When and why did you decide to become an AFP member?
A: Soon after starting out in my first development position, I participated in local fundraising seminars and workshops. I eventually connected with a local fundraising association and attended monthly coffee chats. I really enjoyed networking with other fundraising professionals, and in 2006 I became a board member of our local fundraising association. It was a wonderful group of passionate development folks, but my time on the board was brief due to the birth of my second child and adjusting to a part-time schedule. Several years later, our local fundraising association merged with AFP-NNE, and I began attending annual conferences where I met many wonderful people across Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
For years, our AFP-NNE leaders asked me to get more involved, but I wasn’t able to make a commitment due to my busy work and family life. In 2019, I was asked to consider becoming a conference co-chair, which seemed like a great opportunity to work alongside a good friend and to get more involved. Unfortunately, the timing of a capital campaign and COVID-19 delayed my commitment to conference committee work and becoming an official member. By January 2021 I was finally ready to become a member and begin volunteering as a conference committee co-chair. In November 2021, I joined the AFP-NNE board, which has been a great experience.
Q: How has AFP helped you in your career?
A: AFP has helped me in many ways. I have developed such a strong network of fundraising professionals across the northern New England region. It’s nice to know I can reach out to any of them at any time for guidance and support. It’s also nice to know that I’m not alone in some of my fundraising challenges. Since becoming a member and getting involved on a committee and joining the board, I have learned so much from my fellow colleagues. And I’ve enjoyed having access to educational opportunities and resources. It’s really helped me continue to grow in my profession and challenge myself to gain new skills.
Q: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
A: In 2016, my organization established a fund development committee to help improve the culture of philanthropy at Cornerstone VNA. In that first year, we established a legacy society in honor of our founder, as well as a special fund to support pediatric patients called the Kiddie Cornerstone Fund. This is something I’m proud of because of the support we’re able to provide to our smallest patients and their families. When we first launched the Kiddie Cornerstone Fund, my son was 10 years old, and he heard me talking about it at the dinner table. Unbeknownst to me, he started coming home from school with books and coloring books that he collected from his classmates to donate to the fund. I was so impressed by his efforts that we ended up coordinating a pajama day with his school and he raised nearly $250 for the Kiddie Cornerstone Fund. We wrote an article in the newspaper, which inspired a local gentleman to make a matching gift, which was incredibly thoughtful.
Today, the Kiddie Cornerstone Fund continues to be an important program at Cornerstone VNA. We use the funds to purchase small gifts for our pediatric nurses to deliver to their patients to build relationships, ease anxiety, and bring smiles during difficult times. We also use the money to purchase gas cards to help with transportation expenses for important medical appointments and special equipment to bring comfort and support. The fund may be small, but it has such a big impact on families. To me, it’s often the little things that keep me going and continue to fuel my passion for my work as a development professional.
Q: How has networking with peers in your vertical through the affinity groups benefited you?
A: I recently learned about the AFP affinity groups, and attended my first Health Care Affinity Group, which was great. I enjoyed connecting with other health care development professionals across the country and I’m excited to attend more in the future. Locally, I’ve really tried to take advantage of many networking opportunities, especially through our local Regional Connect meetings.
Networking has been one of the most important parts of my development career. Recently, I started my own networking group, specifically for small shop development professionals. Last year, I kicked off my “Small But Mighty” group, in collaboration with a consultant who was eager to help me with my vision. I started this group because at one time I was a one-person development shop, and I remember feeling very overwhelmed at times trying to juggle projects on my lengthy to-do list. Additionally, I remember coming back from conferences feeling both inspired and full of great ideas but frustrated that I didn’t have the capacity or the resources to implement something new.
My goal was to create a networking group of small-shop development professionals who could learn from one another and share best practices. I’ve also started developing a resource list so that members of the group can easily reach out to one another for advice or guidance, especially as it relates to special events, database management, or time management tools. In between our quarterly meetings, we’re using WhatsApp to stay connected, which has been great. Our group is informal, but I love the opportunity to learn from one another and be supportive in our fundraising roles.
Q: What advice do you have for other fundraising professionals, or people interested in getting into the field?
A: Get involved in your local AFP community. It’s such a nice mix of new and seasoned fundraising professionals from all nonprofit sectors. The conferences, networking opportunities, and available resources have really helped me throughout my fundraising career. When I first started out as the development director in a small nonprofit, I had no fundraising experience, but I had other skills that served me well in this new role. I was well organized, computer savvy, creative, and I loved to write. I never expected to find myself in a development position, but it has suited me well, and I’ve been able to grow personally and professionally. I stayed in my first fundraising position for 11 years because I was passionate about the mission, I learned a lot from my development peers, and I was given a lot of flexibility in my schedule to be with my family.
Fundraising is a challenging profession, but it’s worth it when you know that you are making a difference. At Cornerstone VNA, we experience “Mission Moments” every day through the stories we hear from our patients, staff, and community members. These stories keep me going and make my job very rewarding.