Member Story

AFP Member Spotlight: Jessica Pham

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Jessica Pham

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 afpmarcom@afpglobal.org.

In this member spotlight we interviewed Jessica Pham, who transitioned from a career in for-profit marketing, to a nonprofit fundraising role in 2021. She shares how she reinvented her organization’s annual gala to be more inclusive of the community and how connecting with others in the profession has made the career change into fundraising feel a little bit less like the overwhelming “drinking from a firehose”.

Q: How did you start your career in the fundraising profession, and what led you there?
A: I was working in marketing and social media for about 8 years when I began feeling burnt out and disillusioned with capitalism. I was emailed a fundraising position at Acts Housing, a nonprofit in Milwaukee that I had never heard of, that helps individuals with barriers to homeownership purchase their first home. I realized many of the work skills I had acquired while working in marketing translated to fundraising. Also, Acts Housing was doing work in the city where I lived, which deeply resonated with me as a second-generation immigrant who watched her parents start their lives over in a new country.

Q: When and why did you decide to become an AFP member?
A: I started my fundraising role in early 2021 when the pandemic was still in full swing. I was starting a new job and navigating a career change, switching from for-profit to nonprofit, and learning all of this while working primarily remotely. It was recommended that I join AFP to meet other fundraisers in similar roles and learn more about fundraising.

Q: Are you doing anything innovative at your organization (or a past organization) that you think other fundraisers could benefit from? 
A: Before I started at my nonprofit, the annual fundraiser was a formal gala. After a couple of years of online fundraisers, it was time to bring back an in-person event, and we decided that a gala felt different from who we were as an organization. I pivoted the event from a sit-down, formal gala to a family-friendly, community event. I helped move the event from a ballroom to a beer garden in the middle of the city, lowered the ticket price to make it more inclusive, encouraged people to bring their whole family, and swapped out the plated dinner with food trucks. With the same event budget, the event grew from 450 attendees to over 700, and we raised double the money at the fundraiser. It was a considerable risk to so dramatically change our event, but the response from the community has been great!

Q: What is your favorite word? (only one word) How has this word influenced or inspired your career? 
A: Fine. Really, it would be the phrase, "It's fine." When I first started fundraising, I often felt like that meme of the dog sitting in the burning room. I doubted myself and wondered if I had made the right career change. Through every hurdle I've faced, whether professional or personal, I've told myself it will be fine. It's an interesting word that can express so many things depending on how you say it.

Q: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? 
A: That I made the switch to fundraising and nonprofit work! I was unsure for my first couple of years if I had made the correct career change. I came into a young fundraising department and didn't have a lot of guidance. I felt like I was drinking from the firehose and wasn't sure if I was cut out for it. After joining AFP and talking to more members, I realized that I was, in fact, not drinking from the firehose, but I was standing directly in front of it. Meeting more people in the fundraising community helped me figure out how to navigate my new role better.

Q: How has being an AFP member and participating in the AFP affinity groups benefited you in your career?
A: I was actually sort of kidnapped into the AFP Asian Affinity Group at the NOLA conference in 2023. I was walking past the Asian Affinity Group meeting room at the end of the hall with nowhere to go; I was coaxed into the room. Before that, I did not realize I was missing out on something in my life. I attended a high school of 2,000 students with only 6 Asian students, and in almost every job I've had as an adult, I have often been the only Asian employee on staff. To me, it was customary to be the outlier. Still, since being (lovingly) kidnapped into the affinity group, I realized that other professionals out there look like me, have had similar life experiences, and have a lot of valuable advice on navigating this profession. This was a community that I needed behind and beside me.

Q: In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing the nonprofit fundraising profession today?
A: Money. This is a big challenge for both the profession as a whole and personally. Many organizations, humanitarian causes, and political campaigns, need funding, and they are all seeking those same dollars. With so many ways to donate, donors ask more questions and are more strategic with their dollars. Also, about everyone is short-staffed in some way, which I think has to do with salary challenges. Fundraising is a challenging and rewarding career, but other high-paying career paths exist. You must believe in your organization's mission and your contribution to changing others' lives.

Q: What advice do you have for other fundraising professionals or people interested in getting into the field?
A: It takes time. The pace of fundraising work has been different from other positions I have previously held. Things and projects sometimes go through a different timeline than you're used to, and depending on the age of your organization, it could feel like a start-up company. Also, talk to many people and figure out your "why." Learning about why you're fundraising and why a donor should support this cause takes time. If you can't connect yourself personally to why you're fundraising, it can feel disingenuous and make people skeptical of you and your credibility.

It's essential to have a fundraising support system outside of your organization. Meeting others in the profession helps it feel like you're not standing in front of the fire hose. They can help you navigate those nuances of the fundraising world.

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