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Jennifer Phelps

About Jennifer

Self-Empowerment in the Grants Office

When Lynn Santiago*, a development professional, took a job with a private university in her community she was excited about the opportunities that working for a larger nonprofit organization would afford her. Lynn's nearly ten years of development experience up until that point had been spent in various "small shops," where she'd worn more than one hat, often serving simultaneously as the manager of major gifts, corporate gifts, and grants. While her experiences had certainly served to expand her resume, she felt as though none of them had allowed her to take real ownership of one area in particular; to hone her skills; and, more importantly to her, to serve under the guidance of a true mentor.

Lynn was hired as the university's director of corporate and foundation relations by a dynamic individual who seemed to posses enough energy for the entire development staff. The executive director of development was a woman in her mid-forties who had worked her way to the top in a male-dominated field and while she stood her ground in the board room, she also stayed true to herself, maintaining quite the sense of humor. This was just the kind of person that Lynn had always dreamed she'd work for.

About two months into the job, just as Lynn was starting to get her hands around her new role, the executive director announced that she was leaving. Due to a major conflict of sorts with the senior administration, the executive director felt as though she and the university's leadership were headed down two very separate paths. Rather than find herself in a consistent defensive position, she chose to show herself to the door. This was just the first in a series of disappointing events that Lynn would be a part of.

The departing executive director was eventually replaced with another university staff member -- one with managerial experience but no real fundraising experience to speak of, and certainly no experience in the corporate and foundation relations field. Personality-wise, the individual that was hired to oversee Lynn and her colleagues couldn't have been more different than that of the former director. Lynn was devastated. She had taken over the management of a stable development program and really felt as though she needed the guidance of someone experienced to help her take things to the next level. What was she going to do?

Unfortunately, Lynn's situation is all too familiar. Turnover is a very real issue in the fundraising industry, and because it's not yet a field with a strict, charted course for professional development (the way that a teacher's, doctor's or a lawyer's may be) it is not uncommon for under-qualified individuals to accept positions that apply some of their current strengths and require that they merely learn the rest as they go along. The question is, what do you do if you find yourself in a position like Lynn's? How do you handle a lack of leadership/mentorship in your area? And what can you do to ensure continued professional growth and success in your program area(s)?

  1. Look for Leadership/Mentorship Outside of Your Area -- If you find yourself in a position where your immediate supervisor cannot (or will not) provide you with the kind of support you crave, look for it in other places. Oftentimes another individual can fill this void and provide you with the sense of inspiration that you crave. Lynn discovered that the university's newly hired director of planned giving had experience that went beyond his appointed area of expertise and that he had followed a career path similar to the one she hoped to take. She sat with him during a staff luncheon one day and as they began to talk, she realized how much he had to offer. Not only that, but he was willing to share his ideas and was equally interested in hers. Now, whenever Lynn feels she needs the advice of someone more knowledgeable, she invites her colleague for a cup of coffee and a chat. The planned giving director has quickly become one of Lynn's greatest allies, and a source of inspiration.
  2. Take Some Time to Revisit Your Area's Goals -- Lynn had originally looked to her executive director to help her shape new goals for her area. When the director departed and the newly appointed one took over, she felt lost. In an act of desperation, Lynn took out the area's goals for the last two years and compared them to the actual results that had been accomplished. At first, she thought she had learned all there was to be learned from this exercise. But, upon closer examination, she noticed that she had missed a few trends. Because she had originally been able to count on her director to fill in the gaps for her, she had not paid quite as much attention to these reports as she could have the first time around. Lynn took the newly gleaned information and began talking with colleagues about ways to improve upon past performance in these areas. The end result was a new set of goals with achievable results, and, ultimately, highest praise during her forthcoming performance review.
  3. Use the Opportunity as an Educational Experience -- Though Lynn had originally believed that the turnover in her organization was a new trend, she later discovered that it was part of a long-standing tradition of sorts: the result of a much deeper issue that the administration seemed content to ignore. Once she got beyond making the problem a personal one and realized that it was actually institutional in scope and size she was able to see things from a macro perspective. This allowed her not only to see things for what they really were, but also to think about how she might make things better if she were given the opportunity to do so. This encouraged Lynn to attend a seminar offered in her area and to brush up on the latest books and articles pertaining to nonprofit management. Ultimately, Lynn decided to pursue her masters degree in this area and is now working toward the ultimate goal of becoming an inspirational supervisor herself. "If nothing else," she says, "I won't make the mistakes that I've witnessed during my time here. I'm learning how to make the best of a not-so-favorable situation and in the end I'll be a better manager because of it."

The opportunity to work in a nurturing environment that encourages professional growth is a dream for many. Few, however, are actually fortunate enough to find themselves living out this dream. The reality is that many seemingly "bad" situations can be made much better through positive thought and a proactive course of action. So, the next time you feel like your supervisor has let you down, take a minute to step back and think about how you might improve your plight. Some creative thinking and a change in attitude might be all you need to succeed. And, when you do, the glory will be all yours.

* Not her real name


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