Advancing Philanthropy

Finding the Right Fit: Developing a Career in Development

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woman standing with a painting in a classroom

Photos © Ronald Weaver II, Pixel Weave Media.

After submitting nearly 30 job applications and going on nine different interviews, I was ready to throw in the towel and give up on my pursuit of a career in development. I constantly wondered why I wasn’t getting hired. Did I forget to answer a question on the application? Does my resume have a grammatical error? Isn’t my cover letter compelling enough? Are they hesitant because I don’t have any experience in development? Questions like these ran through my mind every day.

Most of my nonprofit experience so far has been in the planning and implementation of community outreach programs. I love to interact with the various stakeholders, especially members of the community and beneficiaries of the programs. However, after I started working on my master’s degree in nonprofit management, I began to wonder about the other side of the nonprofit sector: development. I became intrigued by development when I took a fundraising fundamentals and grant writing course. I also realized that my ultimate career goal—becoming the president or CEO of a nonprofit—would require a lot of experience in management, fundraising, development, and donor relations.

Why Won’t They Hire Me?

I have always been open to new experiences, so I decided to start searching for an entry-level development position. I was very optimistic at the beginning, thinking I would be the perfect candidate because I was working on my master’s degree in a related field.

I applied to a variety of nonprofits, from large, complex foundations to smaller organizations with only a few people on staff, but with no luck. I couldn’t understand why no one wanted to hire me. I assumed at least one organization would give me the opportunity to work in development.

woman standing in a classroom with a gigi's playhouse shirt onIt’s not that I felt entitled to a job. I looked at it from the perspective that I met the minimum requirements for most development jobs, had transferable skillsets from my previous positions, and working on a graduate degree showed that I had promise and dedication.

However, one thing I failed to consider was how the power of networking could open doors for me. I had been using job search engines like Indeed, LinkedIn, and Google for Jobs, but I wasn’t using my connections in the nonprofit sector to seek out opportunities. Looking back, if I could do it over again I would have dedicated more time to meeting with professors, colleagues, past co-workers, and other students to find job opportunities.

Welcome to GiGi’s

I finally got my big break in April 2019 when I was hired as a development associate by GiGi’s Playhouse NYC, a Down syndrome achievement center based in Harlem, New York. Gigi’s offers free educational, therapeutic, and career development programs for individuals with Down syndrome, their families, and the community. In my role I direct all aspects of fundraising, including individual giving, corporate and foundation giving, grant writing, and fundraising events. I also serve as the development committee chair for the board of directors.

Working at GiGi’s has been an incredibly rewarding experience because I am able to help a special population in a unique way. When I am writing grants to launch new programs or expand existing ones, I feel like an advocate for individuals with Down syndrome. Although I am not on the frontline leading these programs, I am doing important work behind the scenes to ensure the organization has the proper funding to thrive and properly serve our community.

Don’t be afraid to try new things. Change is supposed to be uncomfortable. You never know what opportunities await behind a door until you open it.

My role is also unique because I am the first and only person on staff to ever work on development for GiGi’s. While it has been a learning experience for both me and the organization, I have received tremendous support from the board and staff. In addition, since it is a new position, the organization is open to trying new development strategies.

GiGi’s has also proven to be a great environment for my professional growth. I get to wear many different hats and I am encouraged to explore the various aspects of development. In the nine months I’ve been there, just a few of the opportunities I have been given include securing auction items for the annual gala, submitting grant proposals, helping to plan fundraising events, implementing new donor stewardship activities, and securing funding to launch a speech and language program with New York University.

My Advice for Others

As someone who is just getting started in the field, I would like to share a few lessons I have learned along the way with others who are considering a career in development or fundraising in general.

My first piece of advice is to seek jobs at smaller nonprofits. Working at an organization with a development team of 2–3 people gives you the opportunity to get involved in different development strategies while gaining general experience in the field. It gives you a chance to decide what you like and don’t like about development, and you have more options if you decide to move to another organization. In contrast, at a larger nonprofit you might be limited to just a few tasks, making a transition to a different role more difficult because you lack experience in multiple areas.

Second, invest in yourself. In addition to gaining work experience, you should be seeking professional development opportunities. Joining organizations like AFP, attending conferences, and participating in webinars are just a few things you can do to help further develop your career. You will be able to meet people in your field who are at different stages and who can offer insight on next steps. Determine what your interests in development are and find people in those positions. Reach out and ask to meet with them over coffee to learn more about their experiences in the field.

Finally, I would say don’t be afraid to try new things. Change is supposed to be uncomfortable. You never know what opportunities await behind a door until you open it.

Although breaking into the development space was somewhat challenging, the payoff was well worth the effort. I love my job at GiGi’s, and in just a short amount of time I have grown both professionally and personally. I am looking forward to my future in development and the nonprofit sector.

leisha casonTwenty-three-year-old Leisha Cason is from Long Island, New York. She received her master’s degree in nonprofit management from Columbia University in December 2019 and her bachelor’s degree in public health from Delaware State University in May 2018. Leisha is particularly interested in nonprofits that focus on social issues, including the social determinates of health, justice system reform, and educational programs in marginalized communities. She plans to use her knowledge and experience in the nonprofit sector to help create and sustain opportunities. Ultimately, Leisha aspires to direct a nonprofit organization that helps communities in need through the collective social impact of services.

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