Member Spotlight: Emilio Alonso-Mendoza
October 10, 2017
Q: What’s your professional position now?
A: I’m the CEO of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Our mission is to help people with hearing loss learn to hear and speak, and live a life without limits. We have a staff of 30, spread through our offices here in Washington, D.C., and our new international headquarters in Spain.
A lot of people don’t realize that Alexander Graham Bell’s mother and his wife were both deaf, or that his father invented a system to teach speech. Today we would call him a speech pathologist. Bell was naturally curious about all kinds of scientific knowledge, and he explored hearing and speech because of his personal experiences with his family. His first occupation, and the one he enjoyed the most, was as a teacher of the deaf. His knowledge of speech and hearing led to the invention of the telephone, but his passion for helping and teaching the deaf never wavered. He gathered books from all over the world about deafness and established a resource library in 1893 at the Volta Bureau in Washington, DC, which has always been the organization’s headquarters.
AG Bell provides a continuum of support to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing and their families including research, counseling, financial aid, and training, as well as professional development and certification for professionals in our field. The advancements we’ve made are just extraordinary. Babies who are identified early as being deaf can be ready to receive a cochlear implant between nine months and a year, or receive hearing aids within a month of being diagnosed as hard of hearing, and can be taught to listen to talk. As I said earlier, it’s about providing individuals with a life without limits.
Q: How many of that staff of 30 are fundraisers?
A: We have eight fundraisers, covering the basic functions: major gifts, grant development, planned gift development, corporate support, membership and donor relations. We have a chief development officer, and I’m involved in many aspects of the fundraising. I am responsible in many cases for closing the deal when it comes to individual gifts and corporate and foundation partnerships, and that’s a role I really enjoy.
Q: How do you view your CEO job in the context of fundraising? What’s your role in the fundraising process?
A: Fundraising entails so many things now, including public relations and web communications. I’m not involved in everything, but I spend probably a minimum of 25 percent of my time per day on fundraising and guiding the fundraising staff.
We’ve undergone a big shift at AG Bell. Previously we focused more on professionals in the field and membership work. Since I’ve been here, we’ve looked to solicit donations more publicly and to help families, empower our local chapters and provide support to communities within those areas. We’ve increased funding substantially, and I’m really pleased at how it’s worked out.
Q: You just opened an office in Spain. How did that come about?
A: We collaborated with an organization that was already operating in Madrid that shared many of our same values and principles. For the Spanish-speaking world, including Spain, South America, the Caribbean and even the Hispanic community in the U.S., this office will serve as our headquarters, the gateway to all of our services. Translation, referral services—everything will be done through our office there.
Q: We hear a lot of talk about organizations merging together, but often it never seems to come to fruition. What made it work in this case?
A: It took about a year for everything to come together, and there was certainly a little luck and serendipity involved. But the key factor was having shared values. When you find a group of people who share the same values and culture, you can do so much together.
You might think the language and distance were significant challenges, but technology has made integration much easier, and nearly all the staff in Spain speak English while several US staff speak Spanish. The staff here in DC met all the staff in Spain through Zoom and video, and we all had a chance to talk together and see how this collaboration would work. It’s been an amazing process, and again, I would tell you: values and culture are so much more important than language and distance. They are what made this process possible.
Q: What do you love about working at the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing?
A: We take the sounds we hear for granted. But to give someone the gift of sound, especially if they have never heard rain, or a dog barking, their parents talking to them—it’s a miracle that we can make such a difference in the life of someone born deaf. It’s a great mission, and now to be able to spread it around the world—that excites me!
When I think of my work as a fundraiser and CEO, I always come back to this idea of creating change—of being a change agent. That’s what I love doing—making positive change—and I want to serve in organizations that do that. If I don’t feel passion, or I don’t believe I can make a significant change, I don’t want to take the job or the mission.
Q: You have served as president and/or CEO of several different organizations. What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the step from serving as a senior fundraiser to becoming a CEO?
A: I think there are ideas and goals that are universal to any sort of job or goal that you want to attain. First, be sure you really want it, because you’re going to have to work hard, be focused and prepare more than you ever have. No matter how much you’ve learned as a fundraiser, there’s so much extra to learn as a CEO. There’s the financial side, management and leadership skills—especially learning how to delegate well.
Perhaps most importantly, you need to know what you don’t know, make sure you have the right people who DO know—and empower them to make decisions in that area. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and delegating to the right staff, are some of the toughest things to do as a CEO.
You also need to find a great mentor and ask a lot of questions. I have had several outstanding mentors, as well as wonderful board members and other individuals who were so generous with their time and helped me. Several CEO colleagues have assisted me as well, and that sort of sharing and back and forth has been instrumental.
I take a special interest in mentoring people with potential. I feel like I had great mentors, and mentoring others is now how I help give back.
Q: As a Cuban-American, what do you see the role of Cuban Americans, and the larger Hispanic community, in fundraising and philanthropy heading into the future?
A: Like with many groups in the U.S., the Cuban and Hispanic communities are full of generous donors and volunteers, and the idea of philanthropy is very much ingrained in our cultures. My family came to the U.S. from Cuba in the 1960s. Within five or six years after being exiled from Cuba and establishing themselves, my family—and many others—were already supporting local charities and nonprofit groups. Organizations like Centro Mater and La Liga Contra el Cancer (League Against Cancer) were started in the 1970s primarily through the support of Cubans in Miami.
And you’ll find similar stories with Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic groups. As we progress, become more established and have more wealth, we are as eager as anyone to participate in the U.S. system of philanthropy. Often, our money tends to go to family first, but our voice as philanthropists is rising quickly.
As for seeing more Hispanics in fundraising, I think it’s an evolution. The stories about people “falling” into fundraising careers, or trying to describe to your family and friends what you do as a fundraiser—that happens in the Hispanic community just as it does anywhere else. For the longest time, when I said development, my friends thought I was in industry or real estate.
Fortunately, that is changing! People thought of fundraising as simply holding out your hand, and now most know better. People know it’s a career now, and I think we’ll be seeing far more Hispanic fundraisers in the near future.
Q: What could, if anything in your opinion, AFP do better in attracting and supporting Hispanic fundraisers, or fundraisers of any particular group?
A: I was involved with AFP at the beginning of its international expansion and related diversity work in the 1980s. In my experience, AFP has always made a great effort to be inclusive, and while you’re never going to be perfect, AFP has always made room at the table for minorities.
AFP needs to continue to serve as a conduit for those diverse voices. I would say that creating more mentorship opportunities should be a top priority. I think we’ll have more success if people interested in the profession see people like themselves engaged in the profession and have opportunities to learn from them.
Q: You’ve mentored a number of Hispanic fundraisers. What has been your key lesson for them?
A: It’s so gratifying to see fundraisers discover their identity and how it fits into their fundraising role. For example, when I started out, I was told that certain aspects of my identity—in my case, that meant my accent, having a louder voice, and being more lively and energetic, for example—were not always a positive and didn’t present well professionally!
So, to be able to talk with someone and use my experiences to help them embrace their cultural identity within the fundraising context—it’s a great feeling. You shouldn’t feel like you need to lose your accent. In fact, I find that people tend to perk up hearing my accent, and donors respond to my energy. My culture and my unique attributes are NOT handicaps but benefits.
New fundraisers need to know that they don’t have to change their voice or delivery or anything else. All they have to do is speak with knowledge, and their passion will help their argument.
Q: How do you stay engaged with AFP?
A: I stay engaged with AFP through my staff, making sure that they are members, attending conferences, and being engaged. I try to attend conferences and other events if I can.
But my perspective on this might be a little different than others’. As a senior professional, I’m not so much interested in what AFP can do for me anymore. My career, with my long-time engagement with the association, is a testament to the value of AFP and how it can help fundraisers.
For me, it’s what I and other senior professionals can and should do for AFP and the next generation of fundraisers. I don’t expect to have things done for me. I enjoy talking with my peers, but I can do that on my own. We could have sessions with a little more in-depth content, but mostly I want to take what I’ve learned—and what others have learned—and reflect on how we can translate that knowledge for younger generations and spread it to new fundraisers. Lessons of history, what went right, what went wrong—that’s the sort of experiences and perspectives we should be passing along. And given how much our profession preaches about giving back, it’s something we all need to do.
Q: What are you most proud of in your career at this point?
A: I’m very proud that I went into a career where there were very few Hispanics in the profession at the time and have been able to create great change at every organization I’ve been with. The Alexander Graham Bell Association is especially satisfying because it’s an organization that is 125 years old, and I’ve been able to play a part in seeing it blossom and renew itself. I’m also very proud of the colleagues and friends that I’ve been able to mentor and see grow into amazing professionals. Those are some of my best professional relationships, and I owe AFP in some cases for putting us all together.
Q: What’s the most challenging issue the profession faces right now?
A: There are a couple of issues for me. One is that, despite my love of technology, you can’t rely on it too much. I think we are beginning to lose the face-to-face factor in fundraising—just a little bit at this point—and I am very much committed to ensuring that our Association and the profession keeps its emphasis on cultivating personal connections and relationships.
I’m also increasingly concerned about finding new opportunities for volunteers to contribute in meaningful ways to our organization. For example, years ago, we’d get a group of people to come into the office and stuff envelopes. That group of volunteers would often turn into our greatest advocates.
But we don’t always have the same sort of engagement opportunities like that anymore—easy, straight-forward activities that bring people right into the charity’s office. Technology and online accessibility can make for more varied volunteer opportunities but the connection still has to be made and kept strong. Plus, we’re seeing younger generations, whom I believe have the potential to be significant philanthropists, want to have a stronger say in the charities they support. That puts new pressures on the volunteer-charity relationship.
While AG Bell has some great volunteer opportunities at the chapter level, I’m not sure we, and the sector overall, have figured out the best way to engage new volunteers most effectively yet.
Q: How do you manage to balance your personal and professional life?
A: To start, I am very blessed with a wife and children who are also professionals and understand what it takes to be successful. If it sounds like we work a lot, we do, but it also means that we have a lot of fun in what we’re doing in our professional lives. That’s very important to me.
Flexibility is also critical. So maybe sometimes we can’t celebrate a birthday on the exact day, but celebrating on a different day can be fun too. I want my family and friends to be successful, so being flexible and being cognizant of their lives means we can all be together when we can.
Personally, I’ve always exercised and take time for meditation. I try to go to Mass daily. Those 30 minutes center me and help me plan the day, or if at the end of the day, the time helps me to reflect.
Q: Any fundraising books that you’d recommend (or speakers who inspire you or make you think?
A: I read a lot and make a point of learning new things, because the more you know when talking to a donor, or can share an experience, the better chance you have a creating a strong bond. I’ve always enjoyed Doug Lawson’s Give to Live. It was a book that spoke to me, and I really enjoyed its lessons and ideas.