On this episode of the RAISE podcast, Brent learns the difference between a “best practice” and a “next practice” from Maria Watson, Vice President for Advancement at Pomona College. Maria is a classical musician who got her first experience in fundraising as a work-study student at the University of Michigan planning their annual “Band-o-Rama” fundraiser concert. Since then, she has worked for large symphonies, small regional orchestras, a classical music radio station at Fordham, and then made the “specialist to generalist” jump to higher education where she’s been changing the game ever since. Maria reflects on her music days and shares important lessons that higher ed can learn from the arts fundraising world, as well as vice-versa insights. She also teaches us about music, motorcycles, MBAs, global supply chains, fundraising, the real estate footprint that’s required to establish a sense of community for an organization, how Pomona will reverse its donor participation trends, and many things in between. This is a good one – tune in!
Here are some highlights from the episode…
Maria trained at Interlochen Arts Camp in middle and high school. She was a classical clarinet player, and chose to attend the University of Michigan so that she could have the big-school environment combined with the feel of a music conservatory. (Side note: one of Brent’s earliest EverTrue pitches was to a few advancement folks at Interlochen. Full circle on this episode!)
Maria is a self-proclaimed Ducatista. That is, she loves to ride Ducati motorcycles. In her own words, “Everyone has different places where they find an escape.” For Maria, riding her Ducati is a quiet, meditative, relaxing place where all the white noise disappears and she just has fun. She has promised to send us a picture when she finally decides to put a donor on the back of her Ducati.
A lesson Maria has carried with her from her telethon days is that you have to move gracefully through the “nos” (and not be diminished by them) to get to the “yesses.” Because the “yesses” are out there, and they are worth it.
When Maria worked in marketing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the organization was searching for a Head of Fundraising and was having trouble identifying a candidate. Maria flippantly said to the president of BAM, “Why don’t I do it?” …And she did.
In an industry where many processes are old and slow-moving, Maria has been a true entrepreneur. She opened a satellite office for USC in New York City (remote work before it was cool!), built out the team, established a USC culture in the middle of Manhattan, and grew USC’s formal presence in New York from the ground up. How? By taking risks, trying out new approaches, and not being afraid to pivot after admitting that something wasn’t working.
Maria reminds us that even though most of our institutions have national and global reach, all fundraising is local. As she learned from her experience building our USC’s satellite office in New York, there is a big difference between flying to a city three times a year and building relationships with key players while living and breathing in the same city day-to-day.
Maria pursued a career at Pomona because of its academic excellence, its unique “New England” feel in SoCal, and, perhaps most importantly, because of its demonstrated commitment to diversity. Each year, about 50% of the students on Pomona’s campus are students of color. Maria is enlivened by Pomona’s recent efforts towards making every one of its community members feel not just accepted but included. She commits herself and her team to figuring out the authentic message and mission that will resonate with such a diverse alumni base and inspire Pomona alums to invest in its future.