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“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” – Leroy “Satchel” Paige

I have been struck lately by a fact so distressing that I am reluctant to share it here.  I guess I should consider myself lucky that so few seem to be reading my blog!

The fact is that I am getting old.  Oh, I can hear you now.  “Of course you are getting old.  We all do.”  Or, “what was your first clue?”  Well, it isn’t only that I have lost distance on my driver.  It’s not just because I go to bed at 9 pm and wake up numerous times during the night.  No, what has hit me hard on this aging issue is noting that just about every development officer with whom our firm works is now considerably younger than me!  Ouch!

It seems like only yesterday that I was a fundraising “wunderkid” myself.  I remember being told at the University of Nevada that I might be qualified to be the head of the development office, but I was far too young.  In my next job at Lake Forest College, I became vice president for development at age 29—certainly the youngest chief development officer in the school’s history.  Seven years later, at 36, I was chief development officer of the largest science and technology museum in the US.  People with whom I worked were probably saying “who is that brash young guy?”  Well folks, that young guy has gotten old!

And, thankfully for our industry, others, undoubtedly well qualified and ready to take on new challenges have stepped up.

These days, I often speak with young people who are just starting out in development, or who are trying to get into the field.  “How do I break in?”  “What is the best way to get my first job?”  “In what area of development should I concentrate?”  There is no right answer to these questions, but here are a few suggestions that might be helpful as you plan your career in development:

  • Break in wherever you can.  I suppose it goes without saying, but it really doesn’t matter if your first job is as a gift processor or a prospect researcher.  Get into a development office and start working.
  • Observe.  Listening carefully, paying attention to subtle nuances—these are skills that are essential to effective major gift fundraising.  Cultivate those skills NOW.  Watch what is going on in your office.  Observe what those in more senior positions do, how they interact with donors and prospects.  Learn from your observations.  This will make you a more effective development officer as new opportunities arise.
  • Don’t ever stop learning.  Some of our clients have the budgets to send staff members to conferences and seminars.  Take advantage of that.  Go to local AFP meetings.  Ask if you can attend a CASE conference on a particular topic.  If your office does not have a budget for such activities, they certainly still receive copies of the AFP journal and the “Chronicle of Philanthropy.”  Read those.  Get on the routing list for professional publications.  Keep learning.
  • Offer to help whenever the opportunity arises.  In every development office, there are numerous opportunities to assist with special events, board meetings, and cultivation activities.  Always volunteer.  These are excellent opportunities to mingle with your organization’s key prospects and to show that you are comfortable in important social settings.  And let’s face it, those that volunteer to help-out are always appreciated.

Our firm has taken a leadership role in the development of up-and-coming fundraisers through our establishment and sponsorship of the Development Leadership Consortium.  If you are a young development officer in the Chicago-area, I would encourage you to explore the opportunities available through the DLC.  You can find more information at their website, www.chicagodlc.org

Yes, development officers are getting younger, but this is definitely a good thing.  Young ideas, new ways of doing things, lots of energy.  This is what our non-profit sector needs for its future.  And let’s face it, it’s what we brought to the table in our day, along with the intent to listen to those with experience.  I sure hope that listening part does not go out of style!

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