AFP Member Spotlight: Maral Tersakian
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 Maral Tersakian, CFRE, president of Momentum Accompagnement en Philanthropie in Quebec. In this interview, she shares her experience coming to Canada as an immigrant, discovering her passion, and building a fundraising program from the ground up.
Can you start out by telling us a little bit about your background, and how you got to Canada?
My family is originally of Armenian descent, but I grew up in Lebanon. I came to Canada in 1986 as a refugee fleeing the Lebanese Civil War. Before leaving Lebanon, I had earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s in sociology and anthropology, but when I arrived in Toronto, I had trouble finding a job. I thought I would become a sociology professor, but I quickly discovered that my degrees meant very little here. I found that despite my education, and being fluent in four languages, I was missing that “Canadian experience”.
I started applying to a variety of jobs. Finally, I was offered a position as the assistant to the vice president of development at the Ontario March of Dimes. When I got the job, I didn’t even really know what development was, but I dove in head-first.
What was your first experience in fundraising like?
In Lebanon, I thought of philanthropy strictly as a volunteer position. I remember my mother, who was a homemaker, spending hours volunteering at the community center. Helping others was a huge part of our culture, but I didn’t know until I got to Canada that this could be a profession. That realization was a big “Aha!” moment for me. It changed the course of my life!
When I got the job at the March of Dimes, there was definitely a learning curve — not only did I need to learn a new profession, I needed to do it while learning how to adapt to a new country. Even though I had learned English as a fourth language in Lebanon, I was not used to speaking it every day for work. Learning how to make small talk in the hallways was itself a challenge. In those first few months, I figured out how to take the subway, experienced sub-zero temperatures for the first time, and… discovered a sport called “hockey”!
But it would only be a few months before I would need to adapt once again.
After Toronto, you moved to Quebec where you spent the majority of your career at the Montreal Cancer Institute. Can you tell us how you helped build their foundation?
Yes, for personal reasons, I had to move to Quebec where the dominant language is French. Much like when I came to Toronto, though I knew the language, I was completely unaware of the local culture and its references.
My experience at the March of Dimes had convinced me that my place was in the nonprofit sector and, even though I quickly got a job at an Armenian school as a substitute teacher, I kept applying for nonprofit positions. My determination finally paid off when I got an interview for an executive assistant position at the Montreal Cancer Institute.
During the initial interview, I was told that I was over-qualified and that they were reluctant to hire me because they thought I would leave. I told them that I was really eager to work at a nonprofit, and that I would be willing to commit to staying for three years, if I was given the opportunity. I was hired.
One of the first tasks I was assigned was decluttering our bulletin board. While looking at flyers for other organizations’ events, I noticed that they all had sponsors… why didn’t our events have sponsors? I asked my boss if I could write letters seeking sponsorships, and he agreed. Soon, money started coming in and our conferences were fully sponsored!
It wasn’t long until I was given other opportunities, including securing donated catering for events, and helping organize a race for cancer research. I started reading books and taking courses, learning more about philanthropy, to support my unofficial role as “the fundraiser”.
As the 50th anniversary of the research institute came around, the board decided that they would launch a major campaign. They hired a market research firm to see how much they thought could be raised, and the best way to do it. Among their suggestions, the firm’s plan included making me director of the campaign!
So, I had to organize a 2.5 million dollar, first-ever campaign for the Institute. We were lucky to have a good reputation, and soon a very high-profile and committed campaign committee was formed. We completed the campaign and attained our objective.
Up to this point, I had been working on these events while simultaneously doing my assigned job as an executive assistant, on an executive assistant’s salary. At the end of the campaign, the board decided to make me executive director of the foundation.
Today AFP puts together an annual compensation and benefits report to provide guidance for people making these types of transitions, but you probably didn’t have a resource like that at that time. What was that experience like?
The fundraising profession was not as structured then as it is now. There weren’t a lot of standards available. When I got the title of executive director, the board asked me to do some research on the salaries for similar positions at other foundations. I called a colleague looking for salary guidance and she told me to ask for the amount I thought I was worth. She told me to fight for myself and for those who will come after me. In other words, to fight for this profession. So, I asked for the amount I thought I should be paid. And I got it.
But personally, I really didn’t do the work for the salary. I did it because I got true fulfillment from it. Unlike most people I knew, I was genuinely happy going to work every day because I knew I was making a difference; I was building something important.
What was the next step in your career after officially getting the fundraising title?
I started out as a one-man band, doing the work of all departments in terms of prospecting, soliciting, stewardship, communications, etc. Eventually, as we did more and more events, we brought in more and more donations, expanded our donor base, and I was able to hire a capable staff.
Having promised three years, I stayed at the Cancer Institute for 30. But somewhere around year 26, I started to get imposter syndrome. Everyone was pleased with the work I was doing; the results were excellent by any measure…but there was a part of me that felt like the only reason I was succeeding was because I had built the program myself. I wondered if I could succeed somewhere else. It was then that I decided to earn my CFRE. I studied for about six months and passed the test on my first try. Getting that certification proved to myself that I knew what I was doing and that I could do it anywhere. The only remaining problem was, I was tired.
I had spent the last 30 years working long hours, and I loved it because it was all about the mission, but at the same time, I needed a break. I decided I was going to retire, and I set out on a two-month trip to Portugal. I came back rested, and ready to take on a new challenge!
Tell us about starting your consulting company.
Since I’d gone into retirement, my phone and LinkedIn had been blowing up with messages from people I’d met over the years who were incredulous that I would really be able to give it up. I think everyone knew how passionate I was about my job, and people often came to me for help or guidance. This is how I decided to establish my consulting company, Momentum Accompagnement en philanthropie. Today, my business is flourishing and I have the opportunity to work on so many interesting projects, collaborating with clients like Fondation Armand-Frappier and other nonprofits!
Finally, how has AFP factored into your career and your success in fundraising?
My involvement with AFP really started after I received a scholarship to attend an event. I came away feeling reinvigorated and inspired by being part of a community. I started to get involved at the local level, serving on the board for the Quebec chapter, and then on the board of AFP Canada. The further I get in my career, the more I am able to give back. At the moment, mentoring is what I am most interested in. I’ve mentored through AFP, as well as through local secondary schools, where I go to introduce kids to the fundraising profession. I also give courses through AFP and that is always incredibly rewarding.
And one last question to wrap things up, any advice for fellow fundraisers, or someone new to the profession?
This profession has been a godsend for me. Despite all the challenges I faced in my personal life, my work was always a positive force. For me, as an immigrant, succeeding in my profession meant succeeding in my life in Canada. I can now say that I feel like I did something important, and I helped to create a positive impact.
I would recommend for anyone new to the profession to put in the work. Do it with heart and because you believe in the mission. If you do the work, and you do it for the right reasons, that hard work will be rewarded.