Q&A with 2018 AFP Chicago Chapter President Melissa Berliner

Melissa BerlinerMelissa Berliner is AFP Chicago's 2018 Chapter President and Vice President at Campbell & Company. We invited Melissa to share her insights with us, including how she entered the development profession, turning points in her career, and why she is looking forward to the year ahead for AFP Chicago. 

AFP CHICAGO: Melissa, how did you enter the development profession? 

MB: When I graduated from college, I found myself naturally gravitating towards a career in the arts because of my love of dance, theater and music. So when I saw an open position in development with a ballet company, I was interested in applying. Professionally, it was challenging, interesting, and inspiring. It was essentially a crash course in fundraising. I worked with such a lean team. I had to roll up my sleeves and learn at all levels. The pace, work ethic and mission orientation were a fit for me.

AFP CHICAGO: Can you describe a real turning point in your career?

MB: I had just hit 30 when I was hired as a development director for an art museum. It was a pretty big title jump for me, and I had to focus on winning the respect, trust and partnership from colleagues and board members who were 10, 20, 30 years my senior. It was a vulnerable time in my career and definitely a turning point. I learned to trust in my ability and that authenticity and substance wins the day.

AFP CHICAGO: How has the profession changed since you started in your first development position? 

MB: The notion of giving has become a more pronounced building block in society, and it is changing the way we work as nonprofits. We are laser-focused on demonstrating clear and compelling impact because donors are more discerning with their choices. I imagine that this phenomenon will continue to grow and donors will become more entrepreneurial with how they engage within the nonprofit sector.

AFP CHICAGO: What do you see as key challenges for development professionals today? 

MB: There are several ambiguous external forces keeping many of us up at night – tax reform, shifting political winds, budget cuts, etc. Some days it feels easy to go down a rabbit hole of the “what if?”.  And then I cut to my favorite motto (Spoiler alert! See below.) and I can press on!

AFP CHICAGO: As AFP Chicago’s new president, what can we look forward to in 2018? 

MB: I’ve been privileged to serve the chapter for several years and have seen us evolve in interesting ways to meet the needs of our larger fundraising community in Chicago. This year we are going to focus on the individual member experience to make sure we continue to stay relevant and at the forefront of our sector for the people who are the lifeblood of the organization. And, we have a few new ideas up our sleeves so be on the lookout!

AFP CHICAGO: What’s your favorite quote or motto?

I find myself saying “I can only make choices with the information available to me” with some regularity in my work AND home life. I don’t think these words are attributable to anyone in particular but they are very grounding and freeing for me.

AFP CHICAGO: Any words of wisdom for your colleagues?

MB: Listen, listen, and listen. Listening is everything. One of the best compliments I have received to date is, “It feels like you really heard me.” Also, keep moving forward. Often times, fundraising can feel like an uphill climb. Meet that challenge head on and stand ready with the new idea, approach, or strategy that supports positive momentum. 

Q&A with 2017 AFP Chicago Chapter President John Huebler, CFRE

John Huebler, CFRE is AFP Chicago's 2017 Chapter President and Senior Major Gift Officer, Institutional Advancement at the Illinois Institute of Technology. 

We invited John to share his insights with us, includng how he entered the development profession, turning points in his career, and why he is looking forward to the year ahead for AFP Chicago. 

John, how did you enter the development profession?

I had an earlier career in the IT industry that relied on relationship building to be successful. At that same time, I was a volunteer fundraiser for LGBT organizations in Michigan. When I considered a career change, it was natural to look at professions that focused on building positive relationships between people and organizations for the benefit of both the organization and the donor.

Can you describe a real turning point in your career?

There are two equally important points. The first was attending the 1999 NSFRE (now AFP) International Fundraising Conference in Miami Beach. I attended workshops that enabled success in my first fundraising job, and met great colleagues who mentored me to be successful. The second is when I passed the CFRE exam in 2013. At that moment I realized that my second, chosen, career was one in which I had attained significant knowledge and experience that I was using to advance the non-for-profit sector. I could not have known in 1999 what was ahead of me. I’m grateful to AFP and its members for providing these turning points.

How has the profession changed since you started in your first development position?

Donors are more sophisticated. They understand the relationship between their philanthropy and the outcomes they intend for us to accomplish; they ask good questions and they expect measurable results. They still understand, however, that our sector is not measured on quarterly goals but that our work is often very long term. Organizations are more sophisticated as well, in terms of how advancement programs are structured and executed. Those are all positive developments, and AFP has played a significant role in the evolution of both fundraising and of organizational performance.

What do you see as key challenges for development professionals today?

We need to respond to donors’ expectations for measurable results, while reminding them – and ourselves – that philanthropy is always a voluntary choice that occurs when solid relationships have been established and cultivated. Development officers need to continue to become more knowledgeable about things such as the laws governing our sector, the emergence of donor advised funds, and entrepreneur-driven giving. Development professionals can no longer afford to be ignorant of public policy at the state and federal level, either. Check out the work of the AFP-PAC and be part of positive change for our sector.

As AFP Chicago’s new president, what can members look forward to in 2017?

Educational programming that is more tightly focused on CFRE preparation. Regardless of an individual’s interest in becoming certified, this focus will improve our programming to the benefit of everyone. New opportunities to become involved by doing meaningful work for the chapter, with a pathway to committee and board service if that’s of interest. These are a few of the items that are identified in our new strategic plan, which was adopted at the end of last year. Members can also look forward to social and networking events, mentorship, and personal relationships that enhance the social value of membership in AFP Chicago.

Any words of wisdom for your colleagues?

Andy Warhol said “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” I encourage us all to keep that in mind, and apply it to our personal goals, our organizations, the not-for-profit sector, and to AFP.

Thank you to the chapter members for having the confidence in me to lead the chapter this year.

Q&A with 2016 AFP Chicago Chapter President Eric Johnson

How did you enter the development profession? 

My pathway into the development profession is not uncommon, in that I entered it “by accident” in a time when fewer professional opportunities, such as university programs, existed to hone development careers.  I had moved to Boston in 2002 to join a large national AmeriCorps program, with the intention of continuing my experience on the program side.  The day I was to interview for a program position, the organization initiated a hiring “freeze” as a means of ensuring that it completed the 

fiscal year in the black.  However, the executive team approved one additional hire – Development Coordinator for the organization’s major annual gala – which eventually raised approximately $750,000 (it now raises much more).  The rest, as they say, is history.  Through the gala, I had my first exposure to the processes of engaging and asking for financial support from donors.  I also dramatically expanded upon my experience in event planning.  The experience laid the foundation for many things I have gone on to do during the past 14 years.

Can you describe a real turning point in your career?

The fact that when I moved from New England to Chicago in 2004 that someone was willing to bet on me – a 27-year-old newcomer to a major city that I did not know – to serve in my first Development Director position, I would say, was a tremendous turning point.  The organization was the Inner-City Teaching Corps (now known as the Accelerate Institute) and the man who hired me was the organization’s Executive Director, Jim Alexander, who is now with Action for Children.  Due to Jim’s faith in me, or a serious bout of poor judgment that he suffered at the time (joke), I suddenly had all of the responsibility for raising ICTC’s budget with little of the knowledge about my new home to fulfill it.  The learning curve was steep, but it forced me to become familiar quickly with Chicago’s rich philanthropic community.

How has the profession changed since you started in your first development position?  What do you see as key challenges for development professionals today? 

I am not sure that the basic mechanics of the profession have changed much since 2002, but nearly a decade and a half in, I have now had the opportunity to see generational differences in how people like to be involved, how they like to give and what their expectations are for impact.  In that sense, the demand for data-driven results have become more pronounced; you cannot simply be “charitable” and rest on those laurels, so development professionals must be much more versed in data speaks and in the quantitative impact of their organization’s work.  The biggest challenge that I see on the horizon is the continued blurring of line between for-profit and nonprofit efforts to create social impact.  This has real implications for fundraisers on both sides.  For nonprofit fundraisers, the case for philanthropy may become that much tougher if a donor can realize impact through a different vehicle, especially one that benefits her/him personally.

As AFP Chicago’s new president, what can members look forward to in 2016?  Any words of wisdom for your colleagues?

AFP Chicago is at an exciting point in its history.  The Chicago community has changed during the past 10 years and there are many avenues that fundraisers can take to “own” their professional development.  That said, we are entering into a new round of strategic planning this year which will point us in the “right” direction on behalf of Chicago-area fundraisers for the next three years.  We are experimenting with program formatting to address preferred learning styles.  We are “pressing pause” this year on institutions, like our Midwest Conference, to ensure that they are still fresh and meet the needs of our members.  Come this fall, I am confident that we will be equipped to serve our members and the profession more effectively than ever.  To crib from a Chicago-based beer-brewing icon, AFP Chicago does want to be the only network you join, we just want to be the best network you join.  We are well on our way in 2016.  My only word of wisdom, jump in to help us build new things!



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