Member Story

AFP Member Spotlight: Lilly C. Lew, Ph.D.

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Lilly Lew

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

In this member spotlight, Lilly C. Lew, Ph.D. shares with us how her current position at the Marine Science Institute is a combination of all of her past experiences and passions. She also talks about being part of the AFP Leadership Institute, which has provided her with a network of peers that she continues to connect with. Applications for the fourth cohort of the Leadership Institute, taking place in Atlanta in September 2024, are open until May 31. Apply today!

Q: Can you start off by introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

A: Sure, of course. So, I'm going to share a little bit about Marine Science Institute first. Marine Science Institute was established in 1970. It is the only ship-based environmental education program in San Francisco Bay. We partner with schools from nine counties surrounding the Bay and host field trips. In my role, I spend most of my week prospecting funding opportunities, preparing grant proposals for government agencies, corporate sponsorships, and private foundations. So that's really my day to day. 

Q: How did you get into fundraising? What led you into the profession?

A: I recently joined fundraising about eight months ago, with MSI. I've been super fortunate. I pivoted several times in my career. I began my early career years as a classroom teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District and my first assignment was eighth grade social studies. While I was completing my Master of Arts in education, curriculum, and instruction, that's when I got involved with the Los Angeles Writing Project and I assisted with grant allocations at the university. I always found grant projects really challenging and meaningful as an emerging professional, so I actually went back to school to pursue literacy education research at University of California, Santa Barbara through their Gevirtz Graduate School of Education. 

While I was there, I really loved working alongside children and families through the local community partners. It was really through my field work at the local Boys and Girls Club that I got really passionate about humanitarian and nonprofit work. While I was at UCSB, I also had a chance to meet colleagues through their Bren Environmental School, and so that's when I fell in love with sustainability and environmental ed. When I finished my Ph.D. in Santa Barbara, I actually relocated to San Francisco Bay as a program manager at City Year San José/Silicon Valley. I knew I wanted to help students get acclimated to in-person instruction. I also trained Americorps volunteers on campus. And so, I mean, that was really a turning point in my career nonprofit work. I also had a chance to do literacy education through Reading Partners Silicon Valley, which is another national nonprofit with a regional office. Program delivery really provided me with a fundamental understanding of complex systems, how multiple stakeholders come together to lift up children and families at an incredible scale. And these day-to-day operations really revealed to me valuable insights for community program structures and motivated me to craft intricate narratives about the work that we're doing and the importance of our mission. And so as much as I enjoyed delivering programs, I also actively sought opportunities to learn about development work and how the mission community programs could be financially sustainable.

When I came across my role at Marine Science Institute on LinkedIn, I just knew it was an opportunity for me to integrate my previous experiences with large government grants with the university nonprofit program delivery in the region, research design, program evaluation, and my passion for environmental ed. So, it was just a perfect match.

Q: When did you decide to become an AFP member?

A: I joined AFP earlier this year. I wanted to get involved with the local Silicon Valley chapter and my manager is a long time AFP member, so, she recommended that I get involved as part of my onboarding experience for professional development. As I met other nonprofit professionals in the area, I experienced a sense of belonging and a network of support. I'm currently engaging in two different affinity groups. One of them is the Asian American Pacific Islander and the other group is the grant writer circle. And I'm also in the mentorship program with the local chapter. So that's been really fun.

Q: You also are involved with AFP’s Leadership Institute as part of the third cohort that just met in California. Why was that something that you were interested in applying for?

A: I've always been a huge believer in development, especially since as a school teacher I was involved with professional development in the K12 context and I was doing consulting in my previous position. So, I've always been really excited about learning more through either a summer reading list or attending webinars and in-person talks when available. As I learned more about the Leadership Institute, I became more curious about the theoretical perspective that the facilitators would draw from and I got excited about participating in workshops and being able to apply those theories into different situations in different contexts. When I read the program overview, I loved the idea of being part of a cohort and moving through curriculum sets and leadership exercises together.

Q: So do you think you came away with skills that you can apply to your career?

A: Oh, definitely. The AFP Leadership Institute included training modules that really built on the four primary pillars of self awareness, culture building, communication, and learning agility. And so we were able to develop our tool kits through whole group discussions, pair share, group sharing, and team building, role playing, and deep reflecting. And the networking is amazing.

Q: The Leadership Institute cohorts do become close and keep in touch after the week-long event. Can you share more about your networking experience?

A: It was absolutely amazing. My cohort consists of some of the most talented empathetic, innovative people I've ever met and I'm so grateful we forged a bond over our work and play. Whenever I encounter a rough patch or a tough season, I know these are people who would be willing to serve as sounding boards and support me in any way they can. I'm so grateful to have colleagues from all over the country and Canada, since these are people who I want to have Zoom calls with, brainstorm ideas, troubleshoot, and travel with in the future.

Q: Applications are open for the fourth cohort right now. Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about applying?

A: I think people should totally go for it. I know whenever there's a call for something that sounds really exclusive, people tend to shy away from it and get kind of scared about whether they are eligible or whether it's something that they could be a part of. And I'm just so glad that I had a chance to reach out to a couple colleagues within the area and they were super encouraging and cheered me on when I was preparing the application. So I would definitely want to echo those sentiments and say, you never know, and it's an awesome opportunity.

Q: What would you say is your favorite word if you had to pick one word and how has that influenced or inspired your career?

A: My favorite word is adaptability and this would really describe my disposition as I tie my professional experiences together and it highlights my learning journey. Though I have many colleagues who wanted to stay within the same sector or narrow their specialties, I'm so grateful for all the opportunities I had to pursue my intellectual curiosity as a researcher and also refine my skills as a program manager and doing fundraising work. I think the word adaptability also describes my willingness to embrace change with every role offered to me since.

Q: Are you doing anything innovative at your organization or a past organization that you think other fundraisers could benefit from?

A: Well, I feel fortunate I could adapt my skills with curriculum development and program delivery, especially when I'm creating cross functional teams with colleagues in the program department at MSI. Over the years, I've also had several administrative positions in which I was able to support teammates with event planning, preparing materials and deliverables for special events, company stationery, letters for in-kind donations, as well as curriculum materials. Most of my previous research projects at the university were funded by large agencies such as the US Department of Education, the National Writing Project, and the University of California Office of the President. So, I've been fortunate that I could repurpose a lot of transferable skills with grant narratives and grant reporting with these groups in my current role.

Q: In your opinion, what would you say is the biggest challenge facing the nonprofit fundraising profession today?

A: So, the biggest challenge facing the nonprofit fundraising profession is twofold. The first obstacle is talent acquisition. This includes the need to create multiple career pipelines for emerging nonprofit professionals from all different backgrounds and walks of life. The second challenge I believe is talent retention, especially amongst professionals who represent non-dominant groups. The fundraising profession is such a dynamic sector with gradually shifting demographics. So, I'm excited about taking on more leadership opportunities through AFP and opening up more opportunities for colleagues, not only in Silicon Valley, but all over.

Q: What advice do you have for other fundraising professionals or people interested in getting into the field?

A: I would advise other fundraising professionals and aspiring nonprofit professionals to consider volunteering in internships, especially in the beginning to gain more familiarity with an organization’s mission, culture, and structure. When I used to be a teaching assistant at the university, I was working with the college freshman. So, it would be freshman summer start, and I had students who would ask me like, oh, which major should I pick? Which career path should I pursue? And over the years, I realized there were really no formulas or logic to capture one's road to success. And everybody's aspirations and motivations also vary. So, I could say personally, I deeply benefited from having multiple mentors in my career who served as role models during every season. And so, I would strongly encourage folks to reflect deeply on their passions and pursue those through work at every turn.

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