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A Q&A With Emerging Leader Jonathan Meagher-Zayas, MSW, MPA

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Jonathan Meagher-Zayas

AFP is interviewing a series of emerging leaders to showcase the work and ideas of young professionals in fundraising. In this Q&A, Jonathan Meagher-Zayas, MSW, MPA, director of agency advancement at Villa of Hope and member of the AFP Global Emerging Leaders Task Force, discusses his start in fundraising, current challenges that young professionals face, the importance of justice, equity and inclusion, and much more.

How did you start your career in the fundraising profession and what lead you there?

Jonathan Meagher-ZayasLike many fundraisers, I fell into the profession. When I was 20, I interned for a local LGBTQ advocacy organization where I supported community organizing efforts to advance LGBTQ social justice issues. I loved the work and instantly knew working in nonprofits was the career for me. Unfortunately, the agency lost significant financial support and ending up laying off staff, including my supervisor. My internship ended abruptly, and I realized I should expand my skill set, especially generating resources. The next summer, I saw a posting for an internship with the AFP Genesee Valley Chapter and was introduced to the world of fundraising. I loved the profession so much that the following semester I got an internship with Easter Seals New York grant writing for our programs serving people with disabilities. I wrote a few grants that were awarded, and then they hired me as development associate. Now ten years later, I’m still in the profession.

What is a current challenge you or your peers are facing in regards to your professional fundraising career?

I call myself a racial justice and equity warrior. The main challenge I am working on is incorporating equity into fundraising practices and committing to anti-racism efforts. Wealth and philanthropy have been built off systems of economic oppression, and many fundraising practices perpetuate those systems. We need to, as a sector, dismantle those barriers and focus on an equitable approach to raise resources. I applaud many of my current organization—AFP and other national groups—in advancing these issues. It is hard work, and I am learning a lot to grow my skills to advance these issues. However, many other emerging fundraisers and I face resistance and, frankly, less than friendly encounters with fundraisers who are afraid to change and not motivated to grow. Advancing equity work is pretty hard, and it is exhausting when dealing with people who are slowing down progress. We must learn not just to be effective fundraisers and knowledgeable in IDEA but also to be influential change makers.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Honestly, I cannot pick one, so I’m going to pick three accomplishments that instantly come to mind because they encompass different passions and skills of mine. 

First is receiving the AFP Global Outstanding Young Professional Awards in 2019. I won at a time I was feeling burnt out about fundraising due to a toxic work environment. However, the award reinvigorated my passion for the work, connected me to more amazing people, and fueled my love for moving forward.

The second is supporting my local COVID-19 response fund. In my last role, I supported the creation of the Capital Region Community COVID-19 Response Fund and its fundraising and grantmaking efforts. I was honored to be a part of a unified regional philanthropic response at the start of the pandemic. I was proud to support raising over $1 million for the fund, organizing the application process, listening to organizations about community needs, and incorporating equity into our fund distribution.

Lastly, I am proud to have launched a leaders program focused on growing local nonprofit leaders in my community. In 2018, I founded the Emerging Nonprofit Leader Accelerator, a program focused on cultivating a robust talent and leadership pipeline for the local nonprofit sector, in partnership with one of my nonprofit professors. Emerging Leaders in the sector face huge barriers like unclear clear career paths, limited professional development opportunities, and systemic oppression including racism, adultism, ableism, and heteronormativity. By creating this program based on my experiences with all these issues, I am proud that over 60 local nonprofit leaders have been provided with the tools, knowledge, and connections to thrive in nonprofit leadership. I have managed all aspects of the program, including recruiting, curriculum development, career coaching, generating funds, overseeing budgets, and engaging with alumni. Leadership development programming is another passion of mine, and I plan to continue implementing programs like this in the future.

Talk a little bit about a mentor/coach/boss you have had that has helped you in your career.

I am so grateful for the many mentors, coaches, and bosses I’ve had that have been influential in my career. It’s hard to pick just one. One that comes to mind is Curran Streett. Curran was my supervisor at Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood and the executive director at the Pride Center of the Capital Region. She was a superstar fundraiser leader that taught me how to be an effective fundraiser, supervisor, community leader, and social justice advocate. I can vividly point out things in my career that I do today because of Curran. Her commitment to her family and work-life balance inspired me to prioritize self-care habits. I am grateful for her leadership.

Also, I wouldn’t be here where I am today without my AFPGV and AFP Hudson-Mohawk mentors!

How has AFP and the community (AFP Global and/or your chapter) helped you with your success?

As I mentioned earlier, AFP is the reason for the majority of my successes, and there are three main ways AFP has had a tremendous impact on me. First, the network of people is incredibly supportive. I have been involved with many organizations, and AFP has some of the most talented, dedicated, and passionate people I’ve ever met. AFP is the organization where I’ve had the longest professional relationship in my career. Second, the educational opportunities and content helped me embrace and implement effective fundraising strategies. I have learned so much, and I can tell when a fundraiser is engaged with AFP. Third and finally, the leadership opportunities have provided me experience and connections that benefit my fundraising roles. I have had the privilege of serving in many leadership roles with AFP, including serving as a chapter president—and during a global pandemic as well. I am more confident in my leadership abilities due to managing multiple volunteers, projects, programs, and communications. I am grateful for everything that AFP has provided me, and I look forward to seeing how I grow with my continued involvement.

What is your dream job?

This is a hard question to answer because I wear so many hats, and the world is constantly changing. It is unclear what opportunities will be provided to me in the future. The main things I care about are being myself, making a positive impact, and advancing equity. Honestly, a few years ago, I was convinced that I needed to be the CEO or executive director as soon as I can to accomplish these things. Even though I will consider that role one day, I realized that the best leadership positions for myself embrace my strengths and allow me to be my authentic self. The job could be the chief development officer of a human services nonprofit, a CEO of a local philanthropic foundation, or a consultant working with a handful of organizations building capacity. I also wear many hats besides fundraiser, including leadership trainer, career coach, capacity building specialist, social worker, policy analyst, community advocate, and racial justice and equity warrior. I would love a position where I can embrace most of these hats, either full-time, volunteering, or on the side. Also, my husband and I constantly talk about getting more involved with advocacy and politics. I could see us being a queer political power couple, advocating for social justice, systemic reform, equitable policies, and championing support for the nonprofit sector. In the end, any opportunity that embraces who I am and allows me to join a movement that makes tangible and equitable change is the dream job for me.

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