Lisa Avra’s presentation was fantastic. She presented at our Nonprofit Career Club and told us what it was like being a Chief Development Officer at the University of Texas at Austin, what she learned before coming on in that role, and how we could get there.

We had 15 fabulous people attend our presentation, everyone from people who were looking for a place to volunteer to people who had a career in fundraising to former nonprofit executives to people who wanted to start nonprofits, to people who wanted to get INTO nonprofit work but didn’t know how.

At first Ms. Avra talked about her background, how she got from a BA in Radio and TV and English Literature to the CDO of the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She was really good at relating what she talked about back to the people she was talking with. She said that she got a BA in English Lit and a minor in Art History, so she decided to become a teacher.

Job #1: She got an Master’s in Education, and began to teach art at an inner city school. After a year of that, she realized that elementary school politics were NOT going to work for her, so she moved into museum education,

Job #2: As the Director of Education for the Dallas Historical Society. Unfortunately her position was only for 9 months, as a contract, so then

Job #3: She found another temporary position at the Dallas Museum of Art. But she realized then if she wanted to move up in the world of museum education she needed an advanced degree in Art history. So as she thought about that, her husband got promoted into a position in Mississippi.

Job #4: Since there weren’t a lot of people with advanced degrees in Mississippi back then, she ended up being the Director of Education at the Mississippi Museum of Art. And this is where she first got a taste of development. She said, you’ve got to do grantwriting if you want your programs to succeed. At the same time, she was volunteering with a nonprofit that helped mentally challenged adults. She created a program for them to sell their ceramics and they took them to market and made lots of money.

Job #5: They offered her the position of Executive Director, and she took it.

Job #6: Then another nonprofit for developmentally disabled people asked her to come on as Executive Director, and she did this for two years, and then it was time to come home to Texas.

Job #7: She realized that when they moved back, although she’d been the head of two nonprofits, what she liked best about her jobs there was development.

She said, “Money makes the world go around. If you can raise the money, you can do the good works.”

And she wanted to go somewhere where she could do it well, in a big development office. She looked at the University of Texas when she got back to Austin, and applied cold for a Development Director position, and got the position.

Job #8: After a few years, the Children’s Museum in Austin needed a development director. She knew someone who said, “You’d be perfect for this job!” They wanted to start a major donor program, and her children were the age that she thought, This could be fun for them. So she went to visit the management there, and they wanted her, so she worked there for a few years.

Job #9: Then she was talking with a friend who was getting promoted from the Chief Development Officer and Assistant Development Director position at the Ransom Center at University of Texas, and he said, “You should really have this job” and she realized it was a perfect position for her, and she’s been there ever since.

So how she got her executive position was at first through just volunteering, and she said, “You would not believe how many people become executives through volunteering first” and it’s definitely true in my experience as well. And she got her first full time development position at UT through a cold application, but all of her subsequent positions were through personal recommendations by people that she knows.

For people who want to move up in their careers, here’s what she said.

#1. Join AFP if you’re wise. They have monthly luncheons, workshops and a jobline in Austin. For $250, they will hook you up. This is the place to network and find a fundraising job.

#2. Check out Greenlights.org for Texas based people.

#3. Check out TANO.org, ditto, and the RGK Center for Philanthropy Certificate program if you want to get certified. There may be a nonprofit certification program in your city. Google this.

Ms. Avra’s presentation was particularly useful to me because she broke down the definitions between fundraising and development very succinctly. She said,

Fundraising is creating a product or activity you can sell and have the proceeds go to your organization.

Development is building relationships with people who have the same intent and capacity to give. You give them the opportunity to give. Someone who has the capacity will give it to you or give it to another nonprofit or the government, and they already give the government enough money, so you might as well ask! And provide an opportunity for them to feel good about giving.

If you’d like even more resources on nonprofit leadership, check out my comprehensive page here!