AFP Young Professional Spotlight: Jessica Wroblewski, CFRE
Jessica Wroblewski has already earned her CFRE, writes occasionally, has worked as a consultant, and now is the manager of major gifts and planned giving for the YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo. Oh, and she’s also one of five fundraisers in AFP’s first class of Outstanding Young Professionals! AFP got a chance to talk with her about her background, how she got involved in fundraising and her busy career so far.
Q: Tell us a little about your upbringing? Did you want to be a fundraiser growing up, or be involved in the philanthropic sector?
A: Most people go through life unaware of their privilege. At a young age, I became very aware of the fact I had been given opportunities many others had not. My passion for social justice, however, was not ignited until I was about 12. That’s when my father introduced me to Tommy Douglas, Lester Bowles Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. All three were great Canadian politicians in the 20th century and were respectively responsible for shaping the socially progressive Canadian values we hold dear today.
In high school, I started to volunteer with school groups and several nonprofit organizations. I remember one year, I went classroom to classroom giving presentations to raise $2,000 for a small Canadian NGO to send rural, low-income children to school in Peru. I realized then how good giving back can make you feel. Soon after, my eldest sister’s friend, Sabrina, told me about her plans to study international development at university. I had never heard of international development before but the program sounded like a good fit for me based on my skills and interests. That was when I realized I could make a living by working in the nonprofit sector. I graduated university in 2009 and started working in the sector in 2011. Six years later, I am proud to call myself a professional fundraiser.
Q: You have a certificate in fundraising management from Ryerson, and a master’s in philanthropy and nonprofit leadership from Carleton? Why were those important for you to obtain? What was that experience like?
A: Until 20 or so years ago, there were no educational or professional programs for fundraisers in Canada, since the nonprofit sector wasn’t traditionally viewed as an employer nor its careers considered professions. All of that is changing now with programs like Humber College’s International Project Management post-graduate certificate program (now called International Development), Ryerson University’s Fundraising Management certificate program and Carleton University’s Master of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership degree program. I believe the onus is on us as nonprofit professionals to professionalize ourselves. Any piece of paper such as a master’s degree or credential such as the CFRE that you can get, you should get. It will not only help you in your career, but our sector as a whole as well.
I have nothing but good things to say about the Humber, Ryerson and Carleton programs. I would also highly recommend the CFRE designation. Obtaining each has taught me something that has helped me along my journey as a fundraiser and a nonprofit professional. None of them are interchangeable.
Q: What was your first job like? What did you learn? What was most surprising to you about working in the sector?
A: My first 100% fundraising job was as a development officer for the foundation of a nonprofit long-term care facility. I was the sole employee and I reported directly to a board of directors. I worked there for about a year and a half before leaving for a better career opportunity. It was a bittersweet experience because I cared a lot about the cause. However, reporting to a board of directors comprised of older, educated men with strictly for-profit experience who are used to being in charge can be very difficult—especially when you’re a young female employee. The experience helped me learn how to manage up and how to prove my worth to future employers. I’m lucky that I’ve reached a place in my career now where employers and potential employers respect my accomplishments and credentials, so being a young female fundraiser is not as much of an issue as it was in the past.
Q: You seem like you are very interested in major gifts, given your last couple of positions. What has drawn you to that area?
A: Major gifts is the ‘big show’ in fundraising. It either terrifies or excites you. In my case, it does both. I’ve enjoyed deepening my knowledge of major gifts over the past few years but that’s not to say I don’t have other interests in fundraising too. I love annual giving, and I have a growing interest in planned giving that I have been able to explore more in my current position, as well as through volunteering with my local Canadian Association of Gift Planners (CAGP) chapter.
Q: You were a consultant for a little while. How did that come about? What was your experience like?
Last summer, my contract at Plan International Canada ended when the fundraiser I replaced on maternity leave decided to come back 3 months early. With only a few weeks’ notice, I was suddenly out of a job. Although I was, and still am, a full-time master’s student, everyone who knows me knows that I like to keep myself busy. Through a chance encounter with another fundraiser at a networking event, I was introduced to a fundraising consultant who specializes in capital campaigns and feasibility studies. He offered to partner with me but I had to register my own business first. That’s what led me to establish Social Profit Partners, my fundraising consulting company. Although I started a full-time job in March, I am still doing a bit of consulting work on the side.
Q: Did you enjoy “being your own boss”? How did you find managing your time?
The best—and worst—part about starting Social Profit Partners was being my own boss. Only I could tell myself what to do, but I was also the only one who could find clients. Within a week of registering my business, I found a client who had a project that lasted about three months, which was fantastic and a great learning experience for me. Having worked only for other organizations before, it was a bit unnerving to know that my success or failure was entirely on me. However, the experience was also incredibly empowering. That’s why I decided to continue operating SPP even while I work full-time. I have had a few inquiries from potential clients over the past few months and am always looking for opportunities to partner with other consultants.
Q: You just started working at the YWCA. How has that been different from other organizations you’ve worked for? What do you like most about it?
A: Many people don’t know about the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Either that or they think we’re the YMCA. (We’re not.) The YWCA is a global movement working for the empowerment, leadership and rights of women, young women and girls in more than 120 countries. In terms of the YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo, where I work, we are a social services agency focusing primarily, but not exclusively, on women, children and families. We provide a variety of programs and services in the Kitchener-Waterloo community such as an emergency shelter, supportive housing, homelessness outreach, childcare, youth development programs, girls’ programs, summer camp and a community resource centre for nonprofit organizations.
I had never worked for a social services agency before so that has been a bit of an adjustment for me. The thing I like most about the YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo is that we’ve been providing essential services to women, child and families in our community since 1905 but we’re so low-key about it. We just put our heads down and do the work the community needs us to do. Unfortunately, that hasn’t always been great for fundraising, as we’re not always as well-known as the YMCA in the community, but that’s why they hired me.
Q: What do you think are the one or two most important issues for the profession to address at this moment?
A: To me, the most important issue for the fundraising profession to address at this moment is the disproportionate male representation at the senior and leadership level. As a young fundraiser working in management, it’s extremely disheartening to see look up and see that despite around 80% of fundraisers being female, most senior and leadership level positions, especially at large charities, are filled by men. Something’s intrinsically wrong with that.
Another important issue that is near and dear to my heart is compensation. Not only should all fundraisers be paid a living wage but they should be paid a good wage. We raise billions of dollars every year to make the world a better place and we deserve to be paid well. We’re professionals, not martyrs.
Q: What would you say to young professionals looking for their first job in fundraising?
A: Network. Find supportive mentors and colleagues. Never give up. You can be a very successful fundraiser if you work hard and build good relationships with others, but no one will do either for you.
Q: Has it been easy to find and network with other young professionals? What do you do (if anything)?
A: I’ve always been proud of all the networking I do. It’s not easy, and you have to be willing to invest the time and effort. However, for a long time, I tended to network only with older and more experienced fundraisers and nonprofit professionals. The best advice a boss gave me was to find people like me. It took some time to find other ambitious young fundraisers, but I now have several in my network that I like, respect and trust. Because we’re all busy with our careers, it’s tough to find time to get together, but it’s important to know there are other young fundraisers out there hustling like me who I can call on if I need advice, a shoulder to cry on or even just a drink.
Q: How do you balance work and your personal life?
A: I won’t sugarcoat the fact that it has been tough to balance work, school and my personal life for the past few years. I’m not so sure balance even exists. When it comes down to it, you have to prioritize what’s most important to you. I always find that when one area of my life is going well, the others usually suffer to some extent, but every choice comes with a cost. We all have to make our own choices about what’s most important to us. The key is to be honest with yourself and be courageous enough to live accordingly.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time for old hobbies like reading and soccer. Mostly, I spend my spare time with my boyfriend, my family and my dog. Now that things are slowing down a bit at work and school, I’m hoping to read more books and improve my golf game.
Q: Current book you’re reading or television show you’re watching?
A: I haven’t had the time to read for pleasure in months, if not years, but there’s nothing I enjoy more than binge-watching Law & Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, House of Cards, Suits, Ballers or some other guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, my TV is usually on in the background while I’m working on school projects or whatever else I have on the go.
Q: Long night of working ahead. What do you make or order out for dinner?
A: I’m a terrible cook so I’d probably order out. As a vegan, ethnic food is my go-to. Indian and Thai are always good choices, although I do love a good burrito.
Q: You’re one of our first Outstanding Young Professionals. What did you think when you first got the news?
A: I was thrilled to get the news that I was selected as one of the first AFP Outstanding Young Professionals. I was even more excited when a mentor and friend pointed out that I was the only Canadian to win. The whole experience has been very validating for me. Although receiving the award onstage at the AFP International Fundraising Conference in front of 3,000+ fundraisers was amazing, the best thing about winning by far has been hearing from so many supportive colleagues and former coworkers who know how hard I have worked and are happy for my success. That’s better than any award.