AFP Young Professional Spotlight: Leah Heister
AFP was honored to recognize Leah Heister last year as one of our Outstanding Young Professionals. AFP talked with Leah about how she got involved in fundraising, what it’s like to work in the consulting field, and the importance of networking and mentoring.
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: I definitely didn’t grow up knowing I wanted to be a fundraiser. I was passionate about becoming a lawyer. Both of my parents worked in academia, and through academia and religion, I grew up in a very philanthropic household. One of my first memories was hosting a booth at the Alternative Gift Market and buying a goat for someone.
Q: You have a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a Minor in International Business. Were those of interest to you, and did that study play any role in how you view the world or your interest in philanthropy?
A: I was very much focused on pursuing law school post-grad, but my parents were adamant that I take a “gap year” and do something different before I went to law school. So, I took a job with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and that experience completely changed my vision of what I wanted to do with my life and career. I knew from that point forward that I wanted to pursue a career in fundraising.
Q: You also have a Masters in Fundraising Management and Nonprofit Administration from Columbia University in the City of New York? What was that like? How has that helped you?
A: Having two parents in academia, I am very interested in mixing academic practice with real life scenarios. I was very lucky in that St. Jude was very supportive of me getting my Master’s part-time after work and on weekends. The curriculum gave me a very solid understanding of the fundamentals of fundraising.
Now I serve as an adjunct professor for the program, which is very exciting. It’s important for my career growth too in that teaching forces me to stay updated on trends and innovations in the profession.
Q: What was that first job at St Jude’s like? What excited you the most?
A: All throughout college, I had volunteered and raised money for St. Jude through my sorority, Delta Delta Delta. That experience helped open the door for the entry-level role at St. Jude during my “gap year.” I was involved in events and corporate partnership fundraising in the five boroughs of New York City and throughout New Jersey. Through that position I had the opportunity to learn about donor cultivation and different types of fundraising.
Q: Did anything surprise you?
A: When I started, I understood philanthropy but did not have a concept of the professional world of fundraising. I didn’t realize you could make a career out of fundraising because no one had ever talked to me about the possibility. That job taught me about the different opportunities in fundraising.
I also learned at St. Jude how important it is to be professional even if you’re not in the “business” world. Yes, we’re in the nonprofit sector but that doesn’t mean our organizations can’t be as strategic or innovative as any firm or corporation. If we’re going to do something, we need to do it in a strategic, efficient way.
Q: It didn’t take you long to move up through the ranks at St. Jude’s.
A: I had some very good opportunities at St. Jude, but the organization is based in Memphis, so long-term possibilities were ultimately limited unless I wanted to move. But my life was here in New York, and I was—and am—very passionate about nonprofit organizations headquartered and conducting work in the city. So, I knew if I wanted to progress, I needed to move to a different organization.
But I have to say, I learned SO much at St. Jude. The passion for mission at St. Jude is second to none. I had the chance to lead and manage a team. I learned a lot about myself and what I wanted to do next in my career. I realized that what I liked the most about fundraising was the strategic aspect of it. That’s why I was looking at consulting as the next step in my career.
Q: What is it about strategy that interests you?
A: My management experience led me to focus on strategy—looking at return on investment and how one juggles priorities. I think that kind of give and take, and what an organization should focus on big picture in order to have the greatest impact, is what makes fundraising so interesting for me.
Personally, I think managing a team is one of the hardest jobs anyone can have. Let’s be honest, fundraising is a hard job already, and then add in managing a team? It’s a tough job and a constant balance. On the other hand, the payoff can be tremendous. It is very rewarding to see your team find success.
Q: You’ve talked about managing a team. What is your leadership style like?
A: I guess it wouldn’t surprise you if said strategic! (laughs). I tend to be hands-off and solution-oriented. If there’s a problem, I want my staff to come to me with the problem—AND their idea for a solution. Sharing expectations is also one of my mantras. That’s so important.
Q: Tell me a little about CCS. Why were you excited to start there?
A: CCS is the largest international consulting firm in the world, and its breadth and diversity of clients is astonishing. Pediatric healthcare is a passion of mine, but I wanted to challenge myself beyond the healthcare sector. CCS has given me the chance to work with clients in different sectors, seeing differences and learning specializations.
Every day is different. When I first started, I was immediately introduced to several short-term projects, like working on a feasibility study and staffing for a healthcare client on an interim basis. For the last two years, I’ve enjoyed a unique role focusing entirely on a large-scale campaign for an arts and culture organization. Many of my colleagues work with many different clients, and at CCS you have so many different opportunities to grow.
Another great aspect about CCS is that the firm equips you with outstanding educational programs and tools, and your team of partners here is so knowledgeable. I always feel so prepared, and I know that different perspectives and guidance are just a phone call or email away. That element is one of the reasons that drew me to CCS and keeps me here.
Q: It sounds like you are up close and personal with many of your clients.
A: CCS works in an embedded model, so you effectively become an ancillary member of an organization. I’ve spent a great deal of time onsite, working with clients and their teams. The relationship is different for every organization, of course, but CCS emphasizes that embedded model and that we learn as much as we can about our clients, their culture and how we can best serve them. I have the unique opportunity to be both a team member at CCS, as well as for my clients.
Q: What are some of the challenges or trade-offs in being a consultant?
A: I think a key part of being a good consultant is how much you relish change and the unknown. You never know exactly what sort of organization might be just around the corner or what your role will be. For some fundraisers, that sounds exciting—for others, not so much. Some people want steady, and some want change.
It’s also a very different role than being an in-house fundraiser. Consultants are not donor-facing and focus on building different types of relationship internally.
I do occasionally talk with someone who looks at consulting like it is some sort of golden ticket. I’ve never found that to be the case! We arrive early and work late. It’s fun but there’s always a lot to do, and it is high-stakes work.
Q: You mention in your LinkedIn profile: “I believe in creating a culture of understanding as it relates to the power of development initiatives and operations.” What does that mean?
A: It’s all about creating a culture of philanthropy internally for each organization. So often in nonprofits, there are silos with fundraising shunted off to the side. If there was a general understanding of development activities, and not just the fundraising department solely leading the charge, philanthropy would be so much more effective. We need to see greater team efforts, especially because so much more competition exists today for philanthropic support, and we have limited time to then devote to cultivating important relationships. All staff need to be involved in fundraising, as much as is practically possible.
Q: What are you most proud of at this point in your career?
A: I’m so proud that I have seen first-hand great organizational success for my client. When clients have come in, didn’t think they could reach a goal, but then ultimately surpassed their wildest dreams—that’s the best accomplishment. I really love helping empower charities and seeing tremendous transformation and change in their operations and culture.
I am also proud of the work I’ve done with AFP. I helped start the Young Professionals Chapter we have in New York City, and I was just appointed to the overall chapter board. Without AFP, I would not have had the opportunities I have enjoyed in my career.
Q: What would you say to young professionals looking for their first job in fundraising?
A: I benefitted immensely from working in a big organization like St. Jude and seeing how the fundraising department works together. It may not be possible for everyone, but I would strongly encourage people to have that opportunity. Larger organizations may have many more resources to help one learn and allow someone to see many different perspectives.
Q: Has it been easy to find and network with other young professionals?
Developing a strong network of young professionals and engaging them with the AFP network has been a focus of the New York City Chapter, so that’s been very helpful. My network has come mostly from AFP, along with some other young professional’s groups, Columbia, and CCS. What I’ve always found interesting about New York is that despite its size and the number of nonprofits, the sector always feels quite small to me. I’m always running into people, and there are not that many degrees of separation.
Q: What has your experience with AFP been like?
I am so excited to have just joined the board of the NYC Chapter. I’m really passionate about education, both from my upbringing and my experience at Columbia, and have and continue to serve on our Professional Advancement Committee. I am now serving as a co-chair of the major gifts track for Fundraising Day in New York, which has been exciting. I have learned so much from so many different people—AFP members always seem to want to help out each other.
Q: Have you had mentors throughout your career who have influenced you?
A: I’ve been lucky to have a very supportive network throughout my career—many of whom I met through AFP.
My first and most prominent mentor probably is Jan Mittan, Capstone professor at Columbia. She hired me when I worked at St. Mary’s Healthcare System for Children and has been so supportive of me with my career and personal life. She’s now with the Nature Conservancy, and we’re still very close and connected. Having a mentor like that—someone in a leadership or executive position—is so important, especially if you’re a woman.
Another person who has helped me tremendously is Caroline Chick, who was recently named a Partner at CCS. She’s been at CCS for over a decade, has overseen some work that I’ve been doing, and is just incredible! She does it all—brilliant partner with the firm, mother of three, and has worked with some of the top philanthropists in the world. I’ve learned so much from her. I look to mentors like these two women as I build my career in the industry.
Q: What is the biggest challenge, in your mind, that the profession faces right now?
A: From my perspective, it’s the rapidly changing landscape and the importance of fundraising professionals being able to adapt and think quickly on their feet. Think about the last ten years and what we’ve seen in terms of the philanthropic landscape, multiple political changes and social upheaval. There are many challenges, yes, but so many opportunities too. I’m especially interested in international philanthropy in China and the Middle East now, among other places. It’s not the typical Western philanthropy that we’re accustomed to—so how do we all work together? Fundraisers and organizations that can adapt to these changes and can be flexible—they will find far more success than those that can’t.
Q: How do you balance work and your personal life?
A: It’s all about scheduling, and you need to find a system that works for you. It’s critical for me to have personal time each day, so I intentionally block out time. Whether that’s an early morning workout or seeing friends or family, I really try to do a good job of scheduling personal time. If it’s not on my calendar, I’m not going to do it. Does it take away sometimes from last-minute events that might be fun? Maybe, but it’s all about work-life balance, and I’m glad that CCS supports that kind of balance for its staff.
Q: So, it sounds like you do get some spare time. What do you like to with it?
I love to travel and see and experience new places. I went to Iceland a few weeks ago and got to see the Northern Lights, which were amazing. I was a college athlete and I like to remain active. Currently I’m training for a triathlon in June. It keeps me focused.
Q: Three of your favorite songs now, or all-time?
A: Landslide, by Fleetwood Mac. Lullaby, by composer William Hofeldt. I grew up playing the cello and love this piece. And any song by Bear’s Den. They are a band from the UK who are just brilliant. My sister and I text about them all the time, so their songs always remind me of her.
Q: Current book you’re reading (or show you’re watching, binging or otherwise!)?
A: I don’t normally watch a lot of television, but I got the flu recently and ended up watching all of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I absolutely loved it. But typically, I’m much more of a reader. Currently, I’m reading Commonwealth by Anne Patchett and Democracy in Chains by Nancy McLean.
Q: You have a long night of working ahead. What do you order out for dinner (or make)?
A: Usually it’s ordering out. I Love fast casual salad places. Sweetgreen has a great Kale Caesar Salad. I also have a weakness for Vegetarian Pad Thai.
Q: You’re one of our first Outstanding Young Professionals. What do you think when you first got the news?
A: I was absolutely honored. I am so grateful that the New York City Chapter even thought to vet my name. It’s been a great experience, and I’ve gotten to know the other honorees as well. I’m thankful to Hank Goldstein for nominating me, and to International Headquarters and the New York City Chapter for their support. Susan Shattuck, our previous chapter president, has been amazing, and everyone at CCS, especially Carolyn Chick and Tom Kissane, have been so supportive of my involvement with AFP.