AFP Member Spotlight: Spandan Chakrabarti
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this Member Spotlight, we interviewed Spandan Chakrabarti, a community resources director who leads fund development and communications at Sonrisas Dental Health. He shared with us his passion for storytelling and how he uses that passion to transform donors into true community partners.
How did you start your career in the fundraising profession and what led you there?
To answer that, it’s important to first answer who I am as a fundraiser: I am a storyteller, an advocate, and a connector. My passion in community-oriented fundraising is rooted in the power of stories to capture hearts, fire imagination, and spur action. There’s no one more instrumental for my love of stories than my mother. She’d tell me ordinary stories in extraordinary ways, and I remember, as a child, imagining how characters from those stories could make the real world more just. Through osmosis and through some coaching from my mom, I even learned to be a decent storyteller as a young boy.
As I began my career in nonprofits — first in administrative and program support — in my early 20s, I quickly realized that my drive to advocate, my love for empowering individuals, and my passion for social justice, culminated in my ability to tell stories and connect people with their own capacity to affect change in their community. That, to me, is the fundraising profession. That’s why I’m a fundraiser.
When and why did you decide to become an AFP member?
I became an AFP member in July of 2022, after deciding to invest more intentionally in my professional development. Joining AFP has given me the chance to see a broader representation of AAPI and LGBTQ+ fundraisers.
Are you doing anything innovative at your organization (or a past organization) that you think other fundraisers could benefit from?
At the time of responding to this questionnaire, I have only just begun my time at Sonrisas Dental Health, leading its development and communications functions as community resources director. But one thing I have pursued for some time in fundraising that I think merits emulating is allowing donors to see themselves not as saviors but as partners in investing in their own communities. I encourage donors to see nonprofit partners as the experts they are, much the same way one would see a teacher as the expert in the classroom and a lawyer in a court. I empower donors by showing them that disinvestment and disempowerment for some communities hurts us all, and therefore their gift is an agent for social change, not “charity.”
What is your favorite word? (only one word) How has this word influenced or inspired your career?
I think it’s clear by now that my favorite word is ‘story.’ I love stories — whether that of an individual, an organization, or a system. The stories we tell ourselves about why a need exists, how it can be fulfilled, and who can help us do so, form the basis of our work as fundraisers and messengers. Stories we believe about what is and isn’t possible and who is and isn’t reachable determine the choices we make. A story weaves together a collection of spreadsheets, a range of services, and a litany of needs into a simple, cogent narrative, that the only way to solve a seemingly intractable problem is one seemingly insignificant act of compassion at a time.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
Prior to beginning my role at Sonrisas, I served as the associate director of development for two years at Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco. In February of 2023, we held the grand opening event for what is now San Francisco’s largest supportive housing development for individuals exiting homelessness. The event was high profile — attended by Mayor London Breed, representatives from local, state, and federal governments, community members, and donors.
My team planned and executed this event in collaboration with ECS’ partners at Mercy Housing. From helping a willing resident tell the story about their journey in the homelessness system, to working with program and property management staff to ensure smooth operations, it was an honor to lead this effort from “behind the scenes.” Throughout it, my goal was to highlight the work of frontline staff in the community and to showcase that with the right support, people can empower themselves to escape extreme poverty and homelessness. Judging by positive news coverage and outpouring of interest in the specific model at use in that development, I believe it is safe to say we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.
How has being an AFP member and participating in the AFP affinity groups benefited you in your career?
The most important thing I learned from being a member of AFP and participating in AFP affinity groups is that fundraisers come from all backgrounds, have different strengths, and the most successful fundraisers lean into their strengths rather than focusing on perceived shortcomings. Being part of the AAPI affinity group and pursuing sessions on DEI that were given at AFP ICON in New Orleans, drove me to think about how I could use my perspective to lead and inspire others. That helped me guide and nurture newcomers of nontraditional backgrounds to fundraising, which I have found to be deeply rewarding.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing the nonprofit fundraising profession today?
This will seem anticlimactic, but to me, the answer is obvious: burnout and staff turnover. In my experience, this stems from nonprofits spreading themselves too thin trying to fit into everyone’s funding criteria, which in turn flows from too many funders setting priorities without partnering with communities and nonprofits first. We need funders to step up with unrestricted funding and partner with nonprofits serving the community year-round to understand impact, rather than through lengthy, onerous, once-a-funding-period reporting forms.
What advice do you have for other fundraising professionals, or people interested in getting into the field?
First, know that fundraisers are effective problem solvers, fierce advocates, and highly collaborative. Know that this is a noble cause and that your role is essential. You connect resources to community and community to mission, and you help catalyze the rising tide that lifts all boats.
Next, take an authentic interest in the work of your program colleagues. Make connections with people on the front lines delivering services or doing program work, ask them about their challenges, and try to reflect their feedback about their and the community’s needs in your work. Programs and fundraising are often siloed, but you have the power to change that.
Spandan Chakrabarti is the Community Resources Director and leads fund development and communications at Sonrisas Dental Health, an organization focusing on health equity and providing under-resourced communities - many of them migrants and farmworkers - a dental home in San Mateo County, California.