August 24, 2017

“Everyone works in fundraising”: Expecting the unexpected

Posted by AGU Career Center

While there’s something to be said about proactively creating your own career opportunities, perhaps more important is being prepared for opportunities when they do arrive.  At a fundraising gala for a previous employer, one of the guests began asking me about specific details related to a project’s fundraising plan.  I apologized and embarrassingly explained that I didn’t work in the development department* and therefore didn’t know the particulars.  The gentleman put his arm around me and said, “Let me tell you a secret.  Everyone works in fundraising.”

Whenever you interact with those around you, whether it be at a networking event, a public lecture, or email, you are creating opportunities for yourself, but a garden won’t grow just by pouring water on the ground.  You have to plant your seeds first.

You have undoubtedly heard of the importance of the “elevator speech.”  The term comes from the idea that you have found yourself in a metaphorical elevator with your CEO or potential funder.  You will only have a short time to seize the moment and pitch your hundred-million-dollar idea to the person before one of you has to get off.  It’s a great metaphor for explaining the concept that you should always have a short, direct statement to respond to the “Tell us about yourself” question.

The reality is that these conversations are not going to occur in an elevator though.  I had often thought of the concept purely in the temporal sense, but the metaphor extends beyond the duration of the conversation.  The elevator also serves as a symbol for the serendipity of these moments.

So, how can you better prepare yourself for these chance encounters? 

It may sound cliché but it really starts at shifting your perspective. Don’t allow yourself to be boxed in by self-prescribed labels.  There was a rather silly but thoughtful New York Times article a few weeks ago titled “What Is Your Opposite Job?” that explores our occupational preconceptions that I’d encourage you to read.  Spoiler alert: according to the article, the opposite job of a geoscientist is a lumberjack, and the opposite job of a mining and geological engineer is a model.  I’ll spare you the modeling puns.

The point is that your research is the sum of all its parts: while being able to effectively communicate your science is great and being able to effectively communicate it to non-scientists is even better, understanding how your science fits into the bigger picture is the best. 

When you begin to understand the relationship between your work responsibilities and other organizational functions, it will become easier to both understand your work and frame the importance of that work to decision makers and stakeholders, both internally and externally.

Though my day-to-day activities may have had very little to do with the day-to-day fundraising operations, the reality was that the two were intrinsically related.  After my initial embarrassment with the gentleman and the fundraising event, I was able to recover and talked about some of the specific projects that his donations were enabling, however, had I been prepared for his (in hindsight, obvious) questions about a major fundraising campaign, I could have been a real “development” hero.

Nathaniel Janick is the Career Services Coordinator at the American Geophysical Union.

*For those unfamiliar with this use of the term, development (as opposed to research and development) refers here to the group of people that coordinate efforts to seek financial support for their institution’s programs.  Though fundraising is part of their bailiwick, the scope is generally much broader than that.  If your place of work has a development department, you should make fast friends with someone there. It could prove useful down the road.