By Tanya Pietrkowski, TP Strategies
As I began this new era of my career last January as a fundraising consultant, I didn’t know where it would lead, how much I would make or what would exactly feed my passion—but I was lucky enough to be able to keep my options open. I’m probably busier now than when I was working a regular office job, but I’m more satisfied by picking and choosing what projects I get to work on both personally and professionally.
First, by leaving my doors open to new possibilities, I became reacquainted with what is most important to me. I got to hop off the standard organizational fundraising calendar for a minute and really just listen to the moment. Of course, once I take on a project-there is typically a frenetic pace to what I’m doing.
This was the Year of the Gala for me. As we speak, I’m working on my fifth Gala within 18 months. I have learned to take a step back and look at the strengths of an organization and build out from there. While, I bring an understanding of how to make a dinner work from every angle—there is an art to really showcasing the authentic heart and soul of an organization and not over prescribing how they wish to share their story. I like to keep programs simple and streamlined, so that the leadership and organizational audiences can really connect and bring the mission alive as a result. More money is donated, as well. And, the more meaningful the program, the more memorable and impactful it is. And, that really is an art.
In the Year of the Gala, I was thrilled to work with up-and-coming Development and Communications professionals. I tried to set an example through my work, provide space for their expertise and contributions and was excited to see their efforts result in promotions and greater outcomes for the organizations. It’s very meaningful to see the pipeline in the nonprofit space grow and I love watching from the wings in real time. I also witnessed outstanding moments by board members who understood that I was brought in to bring steadiness to the ship, but not necessarily change the course. The board members I engaged with were ready to meet the challenges ahead. These moments brought a lot of humanity to the event fundraising cycle.
And, then there were the projects that I got to do on a voluntary basis—like attending the National NAACP Conference in Atlantic City this summer as a delegate for the Bulloch County NAACP Chapter. I got my car checked out at the mechanic and then I drove across the country by myself for the first time to attend the conference. I ended up showing up early and so they graciously put me to work and I loved it. The conference continues to provide me motivation to fight the good fight for equal rights.
I also took the time to go home to Georgia (where I am from originally) a few times this year to support voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, with a particular focus on rural areas. There is nothing quite like being on a dirt road and knocking on doors (once you make sure you won’t get bit by a watch dog) to register voters. In one instance, I helped register a returning citizen who was registering for the first time in their 60s after returning from jail in the 80s. My trip home was worth it for that moment alone. When I go home, I also have an opportunity to see folks from my childhood who have now become lifelong friends and sometimes be recognized by folks who knew me as a child—it is the most wonderful feeling. My work in GA gave me a deeper understanding of what it means to be engaged in my community and to witness leadership at its greatest level on the ground.
After the December GA runoff, I came home to my Chicago neighborhood and immersed myself in volunteering for an Aldermanic election. One of the important principles I learned from watching the challenge of politics from the local to national level is that investment in local institutions is more important than ever. It’s a lesson I am taking to heart.
I truly believe that our nonprofit institutions (in addition to schools and hospitals) have had to bear too much of the responsibility in serving communities without enough support and are greatly struggling (a compelling reason why we are seeing such a gap in leadership positions being filled in fundraising). By extending my soft and leadership skills from fundraising to both nonprofits and more deeply investing in community volunteer efforts—I hope to make a more impactful difference, by starting in my neighborhood.
In looking at my long fundraising career, I have really begun to see the gift of galas and dinners in how they allow us to bring people together. They require a lot of energy and staff time, but in principle it’s a great moment of getting people from different communities around a table for a higher purpose. I can see why I keep coming back to galas and using those skills in other important community endeavors. In the fundraising community, dinners are typically considered the step child of fundraising and don’t necessarily receive the same respect as major gifts, capital campaigns or grants. I’ve always felt that is a shame.
Here is to my next year of unknowns and possibilities, but always with the faith that we can bring people and communities together to improve lives in multifaceted ways. I look forward to continuing to contribute to this effort. It’s been a year well spent.