How to get a job as a major gifts officer-interview with David Rubin

This interview is part of a series to help you rise in your fundraising career. If you’d like to learn even more about rising in you fundraising career, join us at the Fundraising Career Conference in April 2017.

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

DR: Sure. My title is Senior Director of Major Gifts and I work for Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian aid and development organization. We characterize ourselves as being powered by the belief that a better world is possible. I’d say that’s a productive response to the current state of world affairs, wouldn’t you? I’m proud of the fact that Mercy Corps has helped millions of people in over 40 countries overcome disaster and crisis. But we don’t just swoop in with immediate aid; we also work with our beneficiaries to create sustainable change for their families and their communities.

MT: Wow. I love that. I know you have a history of working in other organizations like in healthcare and in university fundraising.

DR: Yes, I seem to have covered a number of the “H” sectors: Higher Ed, Healthcare and Humanitarian Aid! (I’ve also been a volunteer for Homeless Youth via a wonderful organization called Outside In.)

MT: How did you get started in fundraising?

DR: Good question! There are few development professionals who as children said, “I want to grow up to be a fundraiser.” That’s probably just because none of us knew what a great career it could be. But looking back on the past nearly 30 years, I can certainly testify to its rewards. As far as my own start in fundraising, it was entirely a fluke. I had grown up and been educated in New York, then after studying jazz at Berklee College of Music, went to work in my father’s direct mail agency. By age 30, I got to a point in life where I felt I needed to make a change. Maybe it was a mid-life crisis, who knows? But for whatever reason, I simply got on a plane and moved to the bay area of California.

On the plane, the passenger seated beside me—A bassoon player with the NY Philharmonic– started chatting me up. He suggested that as long as I was heading to a new place where I didn’t know anybody, I should meet a friend of his who was picking him up at the airport. He touted this friend as somebody who was very well-connected (Truth be told, I suspect he was trying to fix me up!) I had nothing to lose, so I met the friend and sure enough, he networked me into my first job in development at the University of San Francisco

MT: Wow. So you had like a background in direct mail and then you went in and he was like, okay, how about this?

DR: Direct mail expertise is one of several job skills that transfers nicely into fundraising. Particularly in regard to an annual fund. Keep in mind, this was 1990 and digital fundraising—email, web, social media—was practically unheard of.  Mass market fundraising was all about direct mail. So my background gave me a really good entre into the development world.

MT: So you did the annual fund at that university then?

DR: Yes. I started out in the annual fund, worked my way up to director of the annual fund, and then moved over into development services. Because of my past experience in direct mail advertising, I had also been involved in systems and computer organization of mailing lists. That also proved to be a valuable skill set for the development services component of fundraising.

MT: So that’s how you got your first university fundraising job, then. You just sat down next to someone on a plane.

DR: That’s what you call “serendipity,” right?

MT: Well, that’s kind of a dream job for some of us because you got to work at a nonprofit that offered you a career track. 

DR: Yea, I’m very grateful to the woman who hired me for my first development position at the University of San Francisco, Sally Dalton. I had a wonderful seven years there and only left because housing in the Bay Area was so unaffordable. It was just before the high tech bubble burst and my partner and I had no hopes of owning a home larger than our 700 sq. foot bungalow. So we headed for greener and more affordable climes. That’s how I wound up in Portland.

MT: And how did you get that first job in healthcare?

DR: I did what many people in our profession do when they start thinking about a move, whether geographic or career wise: I networked. In this case, I attended a conference and scanned the job boards. Among the postings was a position at OHSU Foundation: a Director of Development Services who would oversee the donor database, events, communications and prospect research functions. The only thing I didn’t have professional background in was communications. That was the growth opportunity for me, and as a lifelong writer and reader of literary fiction, I was willing to figure that part out. Finally, they were just looking for somebody who he felt would be personable and a good fit for the board members, in whom he needed to inspire confidence that his ambitious growth plans were backed-up by the right staff.

MT: Wow. So you had sort of like the trifecta of everything the hiring manager wanted.

DR: Well, like I said, there was some growth opportunity for me in the position. But the President of the foundation at that time, Dave Mitchell, was a wonderful mentor. 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. Dave has remained a great mentor over the years. I’m still in touch with him and still grateful to him for that opportunity. The seven years I spent at OHSU were hugely challenging, but the challenges were accompanied by real rewards, including having met and worked with some of the most talented development folks ever. I learned a lot and made some lifelong friends, including Kathleen Shelton, the VP of Development at Mercy Corps.

MT: Wow. So what was your title when you left there?

DR: VP of Development Services.

MT: So you probably had hiring and firing privileges?

DR: Well, it’s a privilege to hire, but it’s never a privilege to fire somebody, unless you have a sadistic streak. But yes, I’ve hired many times in my career and have also fired on a few occasions.

MT: Since you’ve hired people at OHSU and probably at USF as well, what would you suggest to a fundraising person maybe 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: study the organization, study the position description you’re applying for, and make sure you can speak with authority on why you are a great fit for both. That may sound obvious, but any good hiring manager is going to suss out whether you’ve done your homework. Be able to articulate the organization’s mission. Academic health centers like OHSU have big, important missions and you should go into an interview conveying and understanding and excitement and enthusiasm for it. You will impress the hiring manager when you show you did your homework.  It sounds basic, but you’d be surprised by the number of applicants I’ve interviewed over the past 27 years who simply have not done their homework.

MT: Wow, even to get that far through the interview and then being like, oh, I just kind of wanted to work here because I need a job.

DR: Well, they never state it that bluntly, but their lack of preparation becomes apparent pretty early on in the conversation. That said, I’ve also had the pleasure to interview people who walk through the door with great enthusiasm, very knowledgeable about the position and what I’m looking for. Those are the candidates 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 for the interview.

MT: Wow, that’s wonderful. So let’s say I’m applying for a job you’re recruiting for. Would you expect me to have read recent articles about your organization as well as kind of 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 your 990 and the website and then just kind of take it from there.

DR: All of those things. Certainly the 990, the website. I would also reach out to people you know who have had experience with the organization as clients. So if you’re applying for a development job at a hospital foundation, can you relate a positive patient experience you or a family member or friend had? If it’s a job at a college, do you have a close friend or family member who had a terrific student experience there? An anecdote or two will convey that you feel a personal connection to the organization.

Also, you always are better positioned for development jobs at organizations that you have previously donated to or volunteered for. So I would suggest you donate—even modestly—to the organizations that you may hope to work for someday.

MT: That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. Thank you. It’s really helpful advice. So you currently work in major gifts. Obviously that wasn’t your background originally. So for a lot of people, they 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 mass market or annual funds type fundraising. That’s a wonderful place to get started, because through those channels, you gain a working knowledge of the organization’s mission, the case for support. Then you can carry that knowledge forward to the major gift work. That said, there are people who are brilliant at mass marketing and have neither the inclination or interest in doing major gifts work. And you do need the “fire in the belly” for major gift work!

And there are other prerequisites: for instance, you need to be a good listener, a people person. You don’t necessarily need to be an extrovert, as long as you know how to turn on a certain level of social engagement skill while you work. And of course, gifts officers have to be persistent, willing to take “no” for an answer, and even be willing to try turning “no” into a “yes” over time. They have to be good salespeople for the cause that they’re trying to inspire others to donate to. Finally, they 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. They have to be able to turn on the old charisma.

MT: Right. When we met in person, I could definitely tell that you have that. I really liked that about you. It’s like yeah, hey, let’s talk about whatever. You have to be a well rounded person is what I’m hearing you say, or at least be able to fake that.

DR: Yeah. Well, I’d rather be authentic than fake. You don’t have to be knowledgeable on every topic. You just need to be genuinely interested in people. And when I talk about “charisma,” I’m not necessarily talking about being gregarious. A major gift officer can be quietly dignified, a person of bearing and gravitas. The common thread, regardless of personality type, is that they must be able to connect with the donor, and convey what it is that makes the donor’s gift so valuable to the organization.

MT: So on that note, okay. Someone listening to this may be thinking, hey, I don’t know. How could I find a mentor in major gifts? Like if I’m just kind of here in annual fund and I think I could probably do it, how do I do that?

DR: Typically, people find mentors within the organization that they’re working for, in the form of a friendly colleague. Given how demanding major gifts work is, I think it would be rare to find a major gifts officer who has the time to mentor somebody from outside their own organization. But it never hurts to ask! Of course, there are some good networking opportunities through professional organizations like the AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) or—if you’re Portland-based–WVDO (Willamette Valley Development Officers).

MT: Wonderful. So you currently work for a big nonprofit that does international development work, and 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 working in the healthcare sector. You have to start out with a commitment and a passion for the mission. In the case of Mercy Corps, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more compelling than the work of this organization, the idea of making our world a safer and more equitable place for people who don’t have the privileges that so many of us enjoy in our own lives. I think there’s a heightened global consciousness among people of the Pacific Northwest, and so Mercy Corps is seen—rightly so—as a highly desirable place to work. That means we get a high volume of applicants for almost all positions that get posted.

But I encourage anybody who has the aspiration to work at Mercy Corps some day to get involved: come to lectures at the Action Center. Meet employees—there are usually at least a handful of us at the Action Center lectures in the evening, which are fascinating. Become a donor. You’ll receive lots of information that will deepen your understanding of our work and its impact. Incredible stories of our beneficiaries, who overcome monumental difficulties and thrive because of our work.

MT: So you look up candidates for jobs in your database before you interview them?

DR: Well, not as a habit, but I will tell you I have a very good memory for the names of our local donors, and if the name of a job applicant rings a bell, I am inclined to confirm that they are a donor. Not because I disqualify a candidate who is not a donor; but because I want to be sure and thank those applicants who are!

MT: That is so, so good. I love that. Okay, so last question. When we met, we briefly referenced how in the highest paid fundraising roles at universities and hospitals, we often have more men than women at the top level of fundraising departments. What would you suggest to counteract this gender bias?

DR: I’m pleased to say that this is not the case at Mercy Corps, where Dara Royer, our Chief Development and Marketing Officer, oversees the entire team of 70 staff. Nor is it the case at Legacy Health, where the top fundraiser and VP is a Maureen Bradley, a former colleague and dear friend. But generally speaking, I do think women are still working to break through that glass ceiling, even in the non-profit world. To address it, I think we all—men and women—need to be advocates for women within our organizations, both in terms of pay and promotion. I remember when I worked at USF, the HR director was educating all hiring managers on how to create racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace. She said that if you have two suitable candidates, one belonging to a minority group and one not, you should lean toward the minority. Perhaps we should apply the same thought process to gender when hiring.

Frankly, I think our institutions would be in better shape if women were leading them.  I’d like to see a woman running this country, and I expect to see that happen in my lifetime.

If you’d like to learn more about how to get ahead in your fundraising career, come to our Fundraising Career Conference online in April!

Join us for the 3rd annual online Fundraising Career Conference April 17th, 19th and 21st 2017Since 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

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