Alumni Turned Advancement Staff Share Their Stories

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Your advancement office. Hundreds of graduating seniors (i.e., your new alumni).

Seems like a match made in heaven.

When it comes to growing your advancement team, does your institution hire from within?

It’s not always easy to find the right candidates for those hard-to-fill positions. A dream applicant is one who is intelligent, has the right skills, and who knows a bit about your organization. Where on earth can colleges and universities find that?

Hint: Take a walk around campus.

Do you see highly educated, capable candidates walking across the quad? These people are already head-over-heels in love with your institution. They’re even wearing your logo on sweatshirts, caps, and t-shirts every day.

If your advancement office is hiring, you may want to cast a net into your alumni pool. I interviewed a few advancement professionals—all of whom jumped from alum to employee at their respective institutions—to hear about their careers, the benefits of hiring from within, and why they love working in advancement.

They are:

Meggie Patterson, Strategic Customer Success Manager at EverTrue; former Major Gifts Officer and Director of the Annual Fund; Middlesex School ’01

 

Mike Linnemann, Senior Project Manager, Annual Fund; University of Minnesota ’07, MA’12

 

Josh Kohnert, Office of Development and Alumni Relations; Western Michigan University ’11, MA’13

 

Ben Kennedy, Editorial Manager, Office of University Advancement; College of William & Mary ‘05

 

Matt Gullatta, Director of Annual Giving; The College of Wooster ‘03

 

 

Kim Brown, Director of Strategic Communications & Digital Engagement; Syracuse University ‘06

 


Jennifer Doak-Mathewson
, Director of Digital Engagement, UConn Foundation, Inc.; University of Connecticut ’06*

 

*Doak-Mathewson also included answers from fellow alumni in her office: Colby Plaskowitz ‘14, Assistant Director of Stewardship; Liz Krueger ‘02, Director of Alumni Relations, UConn Health; Josh Proulx ‘05, Director of Alumni Engagement, Chapters and Networks

Read what these amazing advancement professionals had to say below.

 

What are the advantages of hiring alumni to work in your advancement office?

The average person spends roughly 90,000 hours working in their lifetime. Those hours will be far more enjoyable if you’re passionate about the mission of your organization—and alumni who work for their alma maters often have built-in passion to bring to the table.

For Ben Kennedy of the College of William & Mary, working for his alma mater adds an extra degree of motivation and brings authenticity to his work: “I want to see my school succeed and improve, so almost every project has additional meaning for me. Having alumni on staff means advancement can have an authentic voice—and we can sometimes see opportunities that non-alumni may not notice.”

Western Michigan University’s Josh Kohnert agreed, emphasizing that alumni who work in advancement are some of the greatest champions of their institutions. Kohnert believes that “there is no better area to work in if you:

  1. Have a lot of pride in the institution.
  2. Feel somewhat in debt to your institution for the amazing opportunities it provided you as a student.
  3. Have a desire to make your institution the best it can be.
  4. All of the above.”

 

Jen Doak-Mathewson’s passion for her work at UConn also stems from her experience as a student at the school. “Working at the campus from which you graduated means you have a deep understanding of how what you do impacts the classes you took, the lab work you may have done, the buildings you inhabited, and the athletics games you attended,” she said. “If you valued your time at UConn, you see how that experience was enhanced by the generosity of people you probably don’t know, but who wanted to make sure you got the most out of your education.”

[bctt tweet=”“Alumni who work in advancement are some of the greatest champions of their institutions.”” username=”evertrue”]

 

What skills should advancement employers look for in a potential hire?

However, just because a candidate is an alum doesn’t mean he or she is the right person for the job. Besides passion, candidates should possess a number of other qualities and skills if they want to succeed in the advancement field.

Nearly every professional I interviewed stressed the importance of relationship building. According to Syracuse University’s Kim Brown, “We meet so many people in this career. You have to love people and love building relationships.” EverTrue and Middlesex School’s Meggie Patterson agreed: “People give to people, and you need to invest time in getting to know the donors.”

Here are some other skills they found important:

  • Listening
  • Authenticity
  • Outgoing/extroversion
  • Curiosity
  • Grit
  • Organization and prioritization
  • Ability to learn from failure
  • Ability to self-assess and be critical of your work
  • Up-to-date on trends
  • Strong communication skills, both written and oral
  • Self-management
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Creativity
  • Audience-focused
  • Team player

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UConn’s Josh Proulx added that being a good storyteller is a must. “It’s easy to talk, but it’s another skill to communicate the story of the university, and to be effective in painting a picture of how a contribution (time or money) to the university can make an impact,” he said.

[bctt tweet=”“We meet so many people in this career. You have to love people and love building relationships.”” username=”evertrue”]

When all else fails, the College of Wooster’s Matt Gullatta said the best advancement professionals leave hesitation at the door: “Be willing to talk to everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re in major gifts or advancement services. Everyone is a potential volunteer or donor. You never know which conversation will lead to big possibilities for the institution.”

What are the best parts about working in advancement as an alumnus/a?

When you work in advancement and fundraising, you’ll appreciate the importance of fundraising. You’ll understand that yes, every gift—no matter how small—will impact students for years to come. You’ll gain an appreciation for philanthropy—and you can expect to fall in love with your alma mater a bit more.

“My love for Syracuse has absolutely grown since coming back as an employee,” Brown said. “And I have definitely come to understand the importance of philanthropy, especially as it pertains to alumni participation and why participation is so crucial.”

UConn’s Colby Plaskowitz, the youngest interviewee, echoed Brown’s thoughts. “Working in advancement has given me a truer sense of how philanthropy impacts those who need it most and how it impacts those who have given,” she said.

Another perk? As Kohnert explained, a career in advancement means having a front row seat to all of the good work fellow alumni are doing.

“Through working in advancement, I continue to be in awe of the amazing work our alumni do all over the world and how often they thank the institution for giving them the skills necessary to succeed,” he said. “I didn’t originally see myself working in this area, but now I can’t imagine myself leaving.”

What about the challenges?

As with any job, there are challenges to working in advancement—and this can be especially true if you’re an alum of the institution.

For instance, many of us know what it feels like to have conversations with friends and hear a plethora of reasons “why they aren’t giving this year.”

Loans? Yep.

Upset about a lack of funding towards a certain department? Sure.

Angry about the football team’s loss to an opponent (“I’ll give when we get a new coach”)? Fine.

To avoid unnecessary arguments, it’s important to tread lightly when talking to friends and fellow alumni about giving. As the University of Minnesota’s Mike Linnemann pointed out, you will to learn to differentiate signal from noise.

“When someone mentions, ‘If you just did…then I would donate,’ the likelihood of their gift is low and their commitment is even lower,” he said. “You need to find the people who want to be involved no matter what, and then multiply them in terms of volunteers, mentors, and donors.”

On a similar note, UConn’s Liz Krueger warned of the assumed bank of money that comes with working at a state school. “Sometimes people don’t understand how much it takes to run UConn, and how you can be specific in how you want to help—from scholarships, to buying a piece of equipment, to naming a room. It’s especially hard for a state school, because everyone thinks ‘they get the money from our taxes’ when state support is actually dwindling.”

Despite these challenges, don’t forget why you entered advancement in the first place. “Never lose your passion for your institution,” Proulx said. “Oftentimes you can get so caught up in the job, that you may feel frustrated with it—as with every employment opportunity. Those stressors should never detract from your passion to your institution.”

[bctt tweet=”“No matter the challenges, never lose your passion for your institution.”” username=”evertrue”]

So, what does all of this mean for your advancement team? Most importantly, be sure to make connections with students and graduating seniors. Offer an internship in your office, recruit them as class agents or student callers—maybe even start a fellowship so that a talented senior has the opportunity to join your office after graduation. Get students involved and encourage them to learn more about fundraising while they’re on campus.

Who knows? Perhaps you’ll spark their interest in advancement as a career path. There’s nothing like a student/graduate’s passion for their institution. If you can capture that passion, your advancement team and organization will be stronger as a result.

Special thanks to Jon Ruzek and Tiffany B. Beker for connecting me to several of the advancement professionals who helped with this article.


Stephanie St. Martin is the brand awareness manager at The Ariel Group. Prior to this, she was the social media manager for Boston College University Advancement, i.e. the person behind @BCAlumni on social media. When she’s not in the digital marketing trenches, Steph can be found writing, playing/hosting trivia, and driving around the USA in hopes of seeing all 50 state capitol buildings. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter if you dare.

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