How to advance your fundraising career: An interview with David Rubin

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Editor's Note: This interview originally appeared on the Wild Woman Fundraising website and is excerpted with permission. You can read the full interview here.

Mazarine Treyz: Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz with Wild Woman Fundraising and today I have the distinct pleasure and privilege of interviewing David Rubin who iworks at Mercy Corps. David, can you tell us a little bit about what you do now and where you’re working?

David Rubin: Sure. Well, my title, to the extent that our title defines us, is the Senior Director of Major Gifts. As you mentioned, I work for Mercy Corps, which is a leading global organization that is powered by the belief that a better world is possible. We’re basically a humanitarian aid and developmental organization. We work in over 40 countries around the world and we partner with our beneficiaries to create change and put bold solutions into action.

We help people triumph over adversity. We help them build stronger communities from within and we take a long term approach. So we’re not just looking for a quick fix. We’re looking to help our beneficiaries now and in the future.

MT: How did you get started in fundraising?

DR: Well, it was entirely by a fluke. I think there are very few people who, as children, say, “I want to grow up to be a fundraiser.” I think that’s probably just because they don’t know what a great career it can be. But once you do know, and it certainly is a very rewarding career for me, I think there would be more children saying it if they knew about it.

So how I found out was...I had worked in my father’s direct mail agency in New York and got to a point in life where I felt I needed to make a change. I had grown up and been educated in New York. I really wanted to just shake my life up. I had just turned 30, so maybe it was an early mid-life crisis. But for whatever reason, I simply got on a plane and moved to the Bay Area of California

On the plane, the person I happened to be sitting next to started chatting me up and suggested that as long as I was heading to a new place where I didn’t know anybody, I should meet his friend who was picking him up at the airport because his friend worked at the University of San Francisco (USF), was very well connected in town, and could probably help me network. Sure enough, he networked me into my first job in development at University of San Francisco.

MT: So you had a background in direct mail and then you sat next to the right person on an airplane and he asked you, okay, how about working at USF?

DR: That’s it. Serendipity, right? But of course, when you think of direct mail, what’s the logical starting point in development? The annual fund. So at that point, that was 1990. So the internet was still fairly new. There wasn’t a social media form of fundraising or much digital fundraising. It was still very much reliant on direct mail. So that gave me a really good entry into the development world.

MT: Another question I had for you, because you also worked in healthcare is how do funddraisers get that first healthcare job?

DR: I did what many people in our profession do when they start thinking about a move, whether geographic or career wise - I went to a conference and I looked at the job boards. Among the postings I saw was a physician at OHSU Foundation, and it was they had a new president of the Foundation who was coming in and building and expanding the team. He was looking for somebody who had systems experience, development software experience, because he knew that it was likely they were going to need to take the Foundation through a software conversion to a more robust product. So I had that in my background from USF.

He also was looking for somebody to oversee the communications function. I have been a lifelong writer and reader and have also been involved in crafting communications at USF. Finally, he was just looking for somebody who he felt would be personable and a good fit for the board members, who he needed to inspire confidence in his plans to build up. He saw me as somebody who could hold my own among some of the very high profile board members that were and I believe still are involved with OHSU.

MT: So you had the trifecta of everything he wanted.

DR: He was a wonderful mentor to me and he had more faith and confidence in me than I think I had at the time. But you know, I was willing to take the leap of faith and trust in his instincts. He’s remained a great mentor over the years as both of us have moved on in our lives and careers. But I’m still in touch with him and still grateful to him for that opportunity. OHSU is just – it was a real point of pride in my career. I think I was there seven years as well, and they were a wonderful seven years.

I learned a lot and came in contact with amazing people, amazing board members and donors and colleagues and made some lifelong friends.

MT: Since you’ve hired people at OHSU and probably at USF as well, what would you suggest to a fundraising person with a more generalist background if they wanted to get a healthcare fundraising job, say at a place like OHSU?

DR: Well, I would say the same thing that I would say to anybody applying for any position at any organization, which is know the field. That may sound obvious, but any good interviewer is going to want to know, how well does this candidate know this organization? How much homework have they done? So go in prepared to talk. If it’s healthcare, go in really knowing what the organization’s mission is. OHSU has a big exciting mission and you should go in there conveying knowledge of it and excitement and enthusiasm for it. You will impress the interviewer when you show you did your homework. That applies for any position, any sector you’re applying for.

It sounds basic, but I’ve interviewed many people over the course of my 30 year career, and a surprisingly high number of people have not done their homework...Now, that said, I’ve also had the pleasure to interview people who walk through the door very enthusiastic, very knowledgeable. Those are the people who you bring back for a second interview because you know that they’re going to be as serious and committed to the work that you hired them to do as they were to getting their foot in the door and getting the interview.

MT: Let’s say I’m applying for a job at OHSU. Would you expect me to have read recent articles about the organization as well try to anticipate some of the challenges that you might be facing right now, and talk about those in the interview? Or would you prefer just going over the website and then just take it from there?

DR: Certainly the website. I would try to reach out to people who have experience with the organization, whether in the case of OHSU. If you’re not a patient, do you know patients? Have you had patients hopefully who have had great experiences there? Great cures or treatments. Showing a personal connection. Have you volunteered there?

In other positions I’ve held at other organizations, if you don’t have a background with the organization, have you donated to it? Have you volunteered there? Those things can all be tremendously valuable to show that you’re not just interested in the job. You have a preexisting interest and commitment to that organization.

MT: You currently work in major gifts. Obviously that wasn’t your background originally. A lot of people don’t know how to start out in major gifts. What would you suggest as a good start to a major gifts career?

DR: Well, I think many people work their way up to major gifts through doing more of the mass market or annual funds type fundraising. That’s a wonderful place to get started, because through those channels, you do gain a working knowledge of the organization’s mission, what the case for support is, and then you can carry that forward to the major gift work that you aspire to do. That said, there are people who are...geniuses at mass market and they have no inclination or interest in doing major gifts work.

So to each their own. Major gifts work has some prerequisites that you need to come to the table with. You need to be a people person. Surprisingly, you can actually be an introvert if you know how to turn it on when it comes to doing your job as a gifts officer. Because gifts officers have to be persistent. They have to be good salespeople for the cause that they’re trying to inspire people to donate to. You need to be able to engage and converse on a whole host of topics. Not just about the organization, but about whatever may be of interest to the donor. You have to have that ability to turn on the charisma.

MT: You have to be a well rounded person is what I’m hearing you say.

DR: Yeah. Well, more or less, I would say so. That’s not to say you need to come across as gregarious. Though more often than not, fundraisers tend to be more outgoing. But there are various ways to exude charisma. You could simply be very dignified and come across as just a person of bearing and gravitas who’s clearly poised and intelligent and able to articulate with great authority and intellect, what it is that makes a donor’s gift so valuable to the organization. So there are various ways that you can be engaging with the donor. It doesn’t require you to necessarily be a laughing, lighthearted, outgoing person.

But in one way, shape, or form, you do need to have that special ability to connect with people.

MT: How could I find a mentor in major gifts?

DR: Well, typically it happens within the organization that you’re working for because there are very few major gifts officers who have the time. I mean, the job itself is so demanding of your time that within the work day, if you have a colleague that you enjoy spending time with just as a break from your work, you can be a resource to them. But I think it would be rare to expect that a gifts officer is going to mentor somebody from the outside...unless it’s through some sort of professional organization.

I have colleagues here at Mercy Corps who have an interest in developing their own careers and are interested in knowing more about major gifts. I’m always willing to take the time to grab coffee or have lunch with them or give them some insight or some tips as to how they could position themselves for future opportunities in major gifts, whether at Mercy Corps or at some other organization.

MT: You currently work for a big nonprofit that does international development work. What would you suggest for people who want to follow in your footsteps to work in fundraising at an organization like Mercy Corps?

DR: Well, a lot of it is similar to what I said regarding OHSU. You have to have a commitment and a passion for the work, and with Mercy Corps, it’s a pretty compelling mission. People are aware of our work and the kind of work we do. It’s very inspiring to the people of the Pacific Northwest, I think in particular. There’s a real global awareness and a sense of wanting to be responsible members of the earth and do good for people, even in remote parts of the world. So I think there is an inclination here and there’s an appetite and an interest in our work.

So how you would position yourself for Mercy Corps is become familiar. Get aligned with the organization. Come to lectures at the Action Center. Meet people who work here. There are always staff at the Action Center lectures because they’re so interesting. So I think that’s one way to make connections. I would say – I mean, we have between 300 and 400 employees at headquarters. Get to know people who work here. Reach out and try to connect with people who know the organization. Connect with people who are donors. Become a said that...I would imagine that most people I’ve hired at the five organizations I’ve worked for have not been donors. So I’m not saying it’s a deal breaker that they aren’t. But it’s just that added little insight. That [sense of] oh, they actually had a connection to us before they thought of working here.

Join us for the 3rd annual Fundraising Career Conference April 17th, 19th and 21st 2017. Since 2015 over 900 people have attended this online conference, resulting in more successful job interviews, 42% salary increases, new jobs, better workplace environments, and more! This year we're going deep, with sessions on how to build trust with your boss (and not get fired), how to be a better mentor and manager, creativity and play at work, and more! Learn more.

Mazarine Treyz is the author of "Get the Job! Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide." Her popular blog has 50,000 monthly readers. Read more at Join her at the 2017 Fundraising Career Conference.

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