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Celebrating Diversity in Development: Q&A with Shawn Wills

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To celebrate Black History Month, AFP is interviewing several Black leaders of AFP.

Today we spotlight Shawn Wills, vice president of operations and strategy for the Women’s Business Council Southwest and the first African American president of the AFP Greater Dallas Chapter.

AFP: Why don't you start by telling us how you got started in fundraising?

Shawn WillsShawn Wills: I was a journalism major at University of Missouri and actually wanted to be a sports broadcaster on ESPN—so the next Robin Roberts before her move over to Good Morning America. My first job out of the college was actually with the San Antonio Spurs, and I thought I was well on my way.

But I quickly realized that there was a ceiling for women in the sports industry. So, I decided to look elsewhere, and the PBS station in Dallas, KERA, hired me to work in its development department and run the volunteer program for its membership pledge drives and other station events. That was my first step into development, though I’m not sure that I knew what it was at the time. I knew we were asking for money, but it was more about calling in for a coffee mug or at-shirt and supporting public television.

What that position helped me realize was that I enjoyed meeting people and connecting them with their passion. From KERA, I went to work for the Dallas Symphony, and that was my real introduction into fundraising. The Symphony gave me a look at everything development is—from direct mail to major gifts. Since then I’ve been fortunate to work for some great organizations in Dallas, from social services and a women's foundation, to now where I am with the Women's Business Council - Southwest.

AFP: How long have you been in this profession?

Shawn: Hey now, that will tell my age [laughs]. I came to Dallas nearly, probably going on 20 years ago.

AFP: You mentioned where you work now, the Women’s Business Council - Southwest. What does the Council do and what are your responsibilities?

Shawn: Our Council is one of 14 regional partners of the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, or WBENC. We certify that a business is women owned—51 percent owned, managed, and operated, by a woman, and we provide lots of resources and opportunities to help women grow their business – everything from procurement events with our corporate members, to training programs, industry specific networking & business mixers, educational resources, mentorship programs, monthly lunch programs on a variety of topics, and even an annual scholarship which is only available to certified women business owners. We cover north and central Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico and report up to WBENC.  It’s pretty similar to AFP Global and how we have chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada.

My position is vice president of operations and strategy, and I oversee the programs, events, marketing, and communications. One of my key goals and areas of focus is to expand and diversify our fundraising, because historically most of our funds have been heavily dependent on our major events (i.e. event sponsorship), and membership dues . Since joining the Council, I’ve started an annual giving program and we sent our first-ever direct mail piece last summer. I’ve also applied for a few grants for some of the outreach and educational programs that we offer. I’ve only been with the Council for 10 months, so I realize it’s going to take time to get some momentum going; but that’s the exciting part – building and creating new programs and revenue streams. Plus, I love working with the women and learning all about their businesses, and how we can support their growth.  This year is our 25th anniversary, so it’s pretty amazing seeing how far we’ve come and all that we’ve accomplished - while also planning for and shaping our next 25 years.

AFP: Is there something about women owned businesses that we don't know that we should know? What are some of the Council’s key messages?

Shawn: I would say that women-owned businesses are very underestimated. Some people might think that a woman-owned business is small or run from home. But we have over 1200 certified women business owners in our region along, and roughly 30 percent of them have revenue over $20 million.

AFP: Wow. And, we probably shouldn't be surprised, and yet, we probably are still to a certain extent, right? And that gets me thinking about something you said when you were talking about your career path, and the ceiling you found in the sports industry. Have you found a similar ceiling for women in fundraising, or women of color?

Shawn: So, okay, women? Not so much. Women of color? Yes. That's the short answer. Most of my fundraising colleagues are women. But you find very few women of color in fundraising, and in leadership positions within the nonprofit sector in general, especially when you compare the numbers to our white counterparts, and I often wonder why. Is there not the same level of trust, or are donors not comfortable with us? Why don’t we get the same opportunities, or even the benefit of the doubt? Many times we feel like there's a ceiling for us, and so what happens is many of my friends and colleagues have exited the profession. I definitely see a ceiling for women of color.

I think we're getting better, and I have obviously benefited personally as I’ve been able to work as the top fundraiser at several organizations. But there’s much more work to do, and I know that I have an obligation to  reach back and bring in more women of color into development; to mentor and to try to always provide opportunities to show that there doesn’t have to be just one of us, and we can do this too.

AFP: That's great. It sounds like you try to mentor other professionals. Is that through a formal program, or is it more informal?

Shawn: I was going to say, it's not formal.  But I definitely try to make myself available whenever I can, especially if anyone has questions or wants to pick my brain. I try to be very cognizant in hiring, looking for those up-and-coming and trying to bring in more diversity into the field. It’s not more formal only because my life is kind of crazy with two school-aged daughters.  But this is something that I am passionate about and always willing to help, listen, refer and recommend. Our tagline at the Council is “Lift as you Climb”.  I try to embody that wherever I am. 

AFP: We talked a little about your experience in fundraising as a woman of color. What kind of identities and perspectives do you bring to your work?

Shawn: I'm African American. Woman. Mom. Wife. Leader. As I’ve said, there aren’t a lot of African American women in the field, so it's very important that I am grounded in who I am and firm in what I believe in without coming across as aggressive or being pushy.

AFP: You say, “without being pushy.” Do you feel exhausted sometimes representing who you are and accepting others “without being pushy”?

Shawn: Absolutely. We had our AFP Greater Dallas Chapter board retreat here just a couple of weeks ago. We had a whole session on the IDEA [Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access] initiative from AFP Global. My message for the year is that instead of being color blind, we’re going to be color brave. I was explaining my truth and asking if people could imagine what it might be like to always be the only one everywhere you go—and feeling like you have to put your best foot forward every time, without any room for error.

I even joke that as the first African American president of the chapter, I can’t mess this up because I don’t want to have to wait another 35 years for the next African American chapter president. So just the weight of being the first (and sometimes only) can also be very exhausting.

AFP: As you mentioned, you are the first person of color to lead the Greater Dallas Chapter, and that carries some weight. Do you also get a feeling of accomplishment about that as well?

Shawn: There’s a mix of emotions actually. First of all, you tend to think, really? I’m the first? But then it’s also humbling to be voted into that position. But I have to give all due respect to Barbara James, who was the chapter’s first African American member in the 1980s, the first to receive her CFRE credentials and remains the only fundraiser of color to be named the chapter’s Fundraiser of the Year. She’s deceased, but I had the opportunity to meet her daughter. It was very emotional, and we cried and talked how important the chapter was to her mom. I told her that I’m doing this for her mom, and there’s no way I’m letting her down.

In taking her legacy just a step further, it’s humbling and exciting. I feel like I have a board that is very supportive of me in this role and the initiatives that I want to tackle this year. I believe that if we can just talk about these issues, and how we might address them, then we’re doing great work.

AFP: How do you view yourself as a leader? What is good leadership in this day and age?

Shawn: I think good leadership is defined by a number of things, but for me, it’s definitely a balance between values and being open to change. You need to have strong values but also flexibility in your leadership as times change. I've always tried to be a leader who was realistic about where everyone is in life, working to understand that not everyone needs the same thing at the same point in time. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another, so leaders need to show that sort of flexibility. There are many ways to get your point across, but for me, the main way I try to lead is by example.

AFP: Along those lines, what advice do you have for someone who wants to be a leader in AFP, and in particular a chapter president?

Shawn: For me, what was critical was simply joining the board and learning different positions. I’d advise anyone just to get involved and learn the ins and outs, and what has worked and not worked in the past. Also, don't be afraid to have the hard conversations. It took a while for some to hear my message, but I was consistent and persistent. I’d also urge all leaders to look at bringing in not just diverse people, but people with diverse thoughts – that’s a huge difference.

AFP: As you look out at the future of fundraising, what do you see as a key challenge that the profession and AFP need to be addressing?

Shawn: I wish we would collaborate more. I wouldn’t say that charities are fighting over donors, but we all tend to try to cultivate the same donors, just like many of us have similar goals. Wouldn’t it be great if we worked together more, integrated our programs when we can and encourage more partnerships?

I also think that sometimes we're our own worst enemies because we'll say that we’re nonprofit and we can’t afford to do this or that. We need to get out of that mindset and stereotype. When I hear about a nonprofit turning to corporate America to choose a CEO, I think that type of thinking hurts our brand. It feels like it sends a message that we don’t know what we are doing so let’s go get the ‘expert’. Everyone should understand and celebrate that fundraising and nonprofit management and leadership and running a nonprofit organization or foundation are all real professions that takes skills, knowledge, practice and education. That’s a message I think the profession and the sector need to be deliver more.

AFP: How do we start to change that mindset?

Shawn: I’m glad that universities are offering studies and classes in fundraising and nonprofit management. Those options were not available when I was in college. I teach part time at Paul Quinn College, which is a historically black liberal arts college here in Dallas. They recently added a philanthropy and fundraising department a few years ago, and now offer this as a major.   I was honored to be one of the first to teach these classes.  to

I actually saw my first graduating class last spring. I was with those students for four years, and I can recall that on the first day of class, most didn’t even know that fundraising was a profession. They didn’t believe that you could get paid raise money! Obviously, there’s a lot more to it that, but just the premise of asking for money and having that as a career was new to them.  So seeing the students adopt a new mindset and understanding, and giving them someone they can look up to and imagine a future—that was so exciting.

AFP: Did you give them any particular advice?

Shawn: One of the great things is just explaining what we do and why we do it, and then just seeing the light bulbs go off in their heads at some point. This one student, he was a junior, and you could see that moment when he realized he was in college because of a foundation back in Compton, California, that awarded him a scholarship—and that there were people raising funds for scholarships for people just like him. It all came around full circle for him because he wanted to raise money for scholarships for lower-income students to attend college. Honestly, in those moments, I think I probably got more out of the classes than my students did!

AFP: Thinking back on our conversation so far and what we’ve talked about, what does Black History Month mean to you?

Shawn: I wish we were in a time where we didn't need to have it, right—where we just celebrate our history; and that our history is American History? But then, every time we take a step forward, if seems like you read or hear about something, and you say to yourself, we still need to remind the world of some of the accomplishments that we’ve made and how African Americans have played a tremendous role in building this country.

I’m always proud of who I am anyway, but the month of February is a special reminder of all the sacrifices that our ancestors have made. When I think about black history, I think about all of the people that came before me to pave the way, all the obstacles they had to face and how can I continue to carry on that legacy. I guess, being the first African American president of the chapter, I am black history now. So, I'm a part of it. Which is kind of scary, but also an important reminder of everything that we're still accomplishing.

AFP: Final question: what do you do when you’re not doing all of this amazing stuff? How do you relax?

Shawn: My passion is supporting women and girls, both professionally given my organizations, but also personally as a mom to two great daughters. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to having their lives revolve around the schedules of their kids! My husband is very supportive, and together, we tackle life, our girls, family, school, homework, volleyball, basketball, soccer and the organizations that we are involved in, like Jack and Jill for instance. I am a member of the Greater Frisco Chapter of Jack and Jill, which is membership organization of mothers with children ages 2-19, dedicated to nurturing future African American leaders by strengthening children through leadership development, volunteer service, philanthropic giving and civic duty. Each month we focus on different activity for the children. It’s a great organization but takes up a lot of time.

AFP: Thank you for your time, Shawn, and we so much appreciate everything you are doing for AFP and the fundraising community!

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