The Real World

The Real World

In June, 2008, I graduated from the M.S. program in Fundraising at New York University. I had spent a full 18 months steeped in development: courses in non-profit management, financial management, annual and capital campaigns, planned giving, internships in event-based fundraising, and work in a community arts program funded completely by individual donations. Text books and study groups were my way of existence. When one’s life becomes enmeshed in development, and especially when one’s education focuses specifically on fundraising in all its aspects, the world can become pretty small.

While eating, breathing, and sleeping gift tables, staff assessments, feasibility studies, board development, professors, papers, and finals, fundraising and what it really means to an organization can seem to be a very intangible concept. Development is far more than opening one’s hand and expecting donations to come rolling in. Development is about long term planning, relationship building, the stability and strength of one’s organization, and creating a wide cast of supporters. My program at NYU prepared me to deal with the basics. However, becoming a successful fundraiser in the big, bad world is a different story. In addition to academic preparation, a good fundraiser needs to be flexible.

After the arduous journey through resumes, cover letters, and interviews, I find myself the Director of Development for a branch of the YMCA. I am tasked with making sure that our mission, “to build strong kids, strong families and strong communities through programs that are designed to enrich the lives of all people in spirit, mind and body” is supported in all areas of communications, marketing, development, and strategic planning. This branch is part of the larger YMCA of San Francisco, which is an independent locally governed non-profit organization providing services to tens of thousands of San Francisco Bay Area citizens. In the 150 years since San Francisco’s first YMCA opened in a few small rooms above a post office in Chinatown, the organization has played a pivotal role in improving the quality of life of millions of Bay Area residents. We have served the Tenderloin community in this building since 1910 with a full service gym, pool, athletic track, and basketball and racquetball courts. We also offer numerous programs focusing on both youth and elderly.

The challenges of this job are not solely based on the current economic situation in which we find ourselves, but the community in which we are seeking support. Nothing I learned in a classroom could have paved the way for my successful transition into this position. Our specific branch of the YMCA is located in the heart of the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s poorest neighborhood. Low incomes and high instances of drug abuse, assault, rape, and homicide impact an area roughly the size of 50 square blocks. In 2007 alone, 14 of the city’s 98 homicides were committed within this territory. No amount of class time or paper writing can show what it means to be a development director in a neighborhood where the main goal is survival.

An alarmingly small percentage of Tenderloin residents graduate from high school. Outside of the after school programs we offer, there are few affordable tutoring programs or other educational support opportunities available to our youth. The Tenderloin was never meant to house families or children. Originally designed as transitional housing for newly arrived immigrants, studio and rental space in Single Room Occupancies (SRO) were initially available for longshoremen working on the wharves. Over the last century, property values in the city of San Francisco have turned single room rental properties into permanent family housing. Today, the tenderloin is home to 50,000 residents, with the highest concentration of children age 0-18 in the city limits.

YMCA programs promote our core values of caring, respect, honesty, and responsibility. We work against large odds and funding is incredibly crucial to our work. Without our donors, these children would not have a safe place to do their homework, receive tutoring and supervision, or receive even a warm freshly cooked evening meal. We house and feed over 300 seniors a day, who need to have human interaction over a card game or listen to Bach on the radio.

When I come to work every day, I walk by homeless people that line the city streets. I see single mothers loitering on street corners with bundled babies in well-used strollers. I witness drugs and money switching hands in plain sight. I have a great job in a hard neighborhood and if I cannot understand that development is about more than money, I will not succeed here. Money in and of itself will not change this situation. We all know that foundation endowments are down and banking institutions are limiting lending, but the true nature of philanthropy still stands strong. Those that give will continue to give. Those with generous hearts will still have generous hearts. We may see a spike in donor advised giving, as uncertainty over the economy makes everyone more aware of where and what there money is going. The overall spirit in our organization is still high. Programs like ours, in one of the most overlooked neighborhood in the United States, still need funding.

This all means I need to implement a formal development strategy and to be creative. I need to use what NYU taught me in a way that can efficiently affect this specific situation. Even when circumstances seem deplorable, the better equipped we are to think the better we can be as fundraisers.

Editor's Note: Since this article was written, Tthe YMCA branch where Lauren Weston works has moved to a new location.  However, the funding environment continues to be difficult in San Francisco, as in most of the country.

Lauren Weston works at the Shih Yu-Lang Central branch of the YMCA in San Francsico California. She is a graduate of the International Relations program at the University of California, Davis and the Fundraising program at New York University. She volunteers at the Bike Kitchen, repairing bikes and helping others reduce their carbon footprint. 

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