From French Professor to Fund-raising and Development

by Martha M. Houle

Did you know what you wanted to be while you were growing up? I didn’t. I just knew that I liked school, that I liked new experiences, and that I’m curious about everything. So I stayed in school until I’d gotten the terminal degree in literature, where stories are infinite, and found a tenure-track position. But I was unsatisfied with many aspects of university work—for example, the isolation and competitiveness—and eventually discovered I’d exhausted the possibilities at my disposal or realized that what I was looking for or enjoyed doing was not there. I decided to bring my love of learning, along with my drive for accomplishment and success, to the world beyond the university.

My first postacademic job was as a grant writer at an international not-for-profit organization. Since then I’ve asked the person who hired me what prompted her to interview and hire someone like me, a complete stranger and a former university professor. Her answer: “I figured you could write.” She was correct: I could write. I had also taught writing and even chosen to focus on writing as my core transferable skill. But while getting the job offer (at much lower pay than I was used to) was good news and very gratifying, it also meant that I was restarting my work life as a beginner in an unfamiliar world. For those of us who pride ourselves on being specialists and who are used to being in charge (of something) with a respected identity and degree (in the academic world at least), the new conditions are not necessarily easy to accept—even if the change represents a choice, as it did for me.

Leaving academia is not for the fainthearted!

At regular intervals since then, I have thought about what motivates me in the workplace. You’ve probably done the same. Like me, do you like the problem-solving challenge of expressing complex ideas simply and persuasively in writing? Are you attracted to the management and process side of things? Do you enjoy teamwork—that is, collaborating with others to develop a project and sharing the pleasure of its completion? Are you interested in a field that keeps you on your toes and where you are continually learning—new skills, new knowledge, new challenges?

If so, the field of fund-raising and development may be worth considering. You’re probably aware that without fund-raising professionals, we would have no new museums, very few operas and plays on stage, no clowns at children’s hospitals, no charities helping children in Nicaragua, no aid other than military and government when the next great earthquake or hurricane strikes, and no orphanages for chimpanzees in Africa.

I learned quickly that the field of development is extremely broad, with something for most everyone. Positions include major gift officers, partnership managers, writers, data managers, event planners, direct marketers, finance managers, and prospect researchers. Ideally these individuals work very closely with a communications office, which handles the broader field of messaging and public presence. Communications also includes writers along with graphic designers, photographers, press liaisons, webmasters, and social media experts.

The field of development is a good choice for literature majors. To fund-raise you need to be able to tell and sell a story. As literature majors, we are skilled at knowing how a story should or could be told to be persuasive. As a writer, I consider everything I do as a work of art and take special pleasure in meeting the challenge of writing two-page proposals for $1 million or more from private donors. But in fund-raising we need to be able to tell a story using many different genres and media. This skill holds true whether we are writing a proposal about the need for more cardiology research for children, developing a Web site for emergency medical care for Syrian refugees in Europe, or creating a PowerPoint presentation on current efforts to save elephants in Africa. Development work offers many opportunities for creative work and both personal and organization-level achievements.

Organizations with development offices range from small nonprofits to large institutions such as international NGOs, hospitals, and universities. They can consist of one person working alone or of seventy. I found that I personally am most comfortable in large, complex organizations, with a diverse staff—probably because that diversity helps satisfy the curiosity and need for change that have pushed me all my life. The writing opportunities in such contexts can also seem endless. But most important in development work is finding or choosing a mission that you are enthusiastic about. Your commitment—even if it’s behind the scenes, like mine—will inspire philanthropists to give to your organization, whether it’s $50, $5,000, or $5 million.

I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, perhaps because new paths keep opening up in my postacademic life. Development work may be just as fruitful for you, if you stay open to its many possibilities.

martha houleAfter twenty-two years at the College of William and Mary, Martha M. Houle left a full professorship in 2005 to begin her transition to the work world outside academia (which has its own set of challenges!). Since then she has worked in development and administrative positions and feels very privileged to be employed in the institutional giving area of the institutional advancement department of International Medical Corps in Washington, DC. Her previous experience includes positions at Women for Women International and Children’s National Medical System. A lifetime member of the MLA, her degrees in French literature are from the University of California, San Diego.

1 Comment

  • Gene says:

    Ms. Houle,
    I admire your adventurousness in professional and personal endeavors.

    The world is a far better place for having people, such as you, willing to invest and serve our noble interests.

    Gene Spencer

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