Publications & Products
Career Path: Acting Your Age

The road for a young fundraiser can be bumpy

By Amanda Dymacek

When I graduated in 2004 from the University of Tennessee with a degree in public relations, I was quite confident that the corporate world was not for me. Unable to pursue a job in the nonprofit world thanks to my student debt, I sought a job in higher education. I already knew I felt comfortable in advancement because I had enjoyed two university relations internships during college and identified with the cause of higher education.

I was in the tough spot many new graduates face: I was overqualified for development assistant jobs that were within my reach, but I lacked experience to compete at the next level. Alumni relations and development, however, were two areas in which I wanted to pursue a career. After I had interviewed for a position as a development associate, one of the interviewers advised me to apply for an assistant director position, even though I felt inexperienced.

As many people in higher education know, the interview process for academic and administrative jobs can be long and arduous. After months of waiting and one particularly bold phone call on my part, in which I told my potential employers I had another offer, I landed my "dream job" at the ripe old age of ... 23. I started the position of assistant director of development at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine armed with the lessons of growing up on a dairy farm, my grandmother's hand-me-down suits, and a surprising knack for engaging chitchat.

Along the road, I've learned some important lessons. The past two years may not always have been the smoothest ride, but I've thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

Bringing work home

When I started this position, the thought of traveling three out of four weeks every month was very exciting, and the commitment it required was no hindrance. I was young, single, and ready to grab life by the horns. Within my first year of working, however, I suddenly found myself happily engaged, nesting, wedding planning, and staying up all hours of the night talking with my beloved. All of a sudden, my dream job was getting in the way of my happily-ever-after life with Prince Charming.

Looking back a year after the wedding, however, I think working in development before getting married was the best possible way to incorporate the two sides of my life-my time-consuming professional duties and my personal desire for a cozy home life. My husband knew exactly what he was getting into when we married, which helped us adjust as a couple to my demanding schedule.

You do what?

Despite easing into a new life at home, my professional adjustment proved more difficult. I soon learned that the general public does not respond positively to development officers. How can something that works for so much good be thought of as bad?

My degree in public relations prepared me well for the field of development: Both require strategic planning and critical thinking. The work of a public relations practitioner is also often seen in a negative light. Some people seem to think that public relations practitioners, development officers, and used car salesmen are synonymous.

Nevertheless, in my training as a PR professional I had learned to explain and embrace my role as someone who turns concepts into vision by communicating and building relationships. The same holds true in development, with the added task of finding the money to build the vision. This concept helps me explain to people why I think the profession I have become dedicated to at such a young age is a laudable one.

Self-imposed handicap

Ready to face the world with my ideas of the noble profession of development, I also had to contend with my own university, which is steeped in more than 100 years of history. That kind of institutional tradition can be daunting for a young professional. My boss has neckties that are older than I am. We have alumni who graduated before my parents were born.

Nevertheless, within the college of veterinary medicine, I am fortunate to have colleagues that consider me a peer, even though I am at least 20 years their junior. Development staff members at VMRCVM were confident that I was fertile ground for all the seeds of advancement knowledge they would plant, and they were willing to plant those seeds from day one. Two years later I finally have my heels in deep: my own projects, my own portfolio. My success did not, however, happen quickly.

I could say that becoming established as a professional here was slow going because of my age, because people did not trust me with the "big stuff," or because I started at the bottom of the ladder. Upon reflection, however, I think that my lack of confidence during that early period had more to do with my own perception of my abilities and less to do with my age.

I regret my early assumption that I did not have as much to offer, that I could not take the place by storm, that I should follow along in the shadow of my elders simply because they had been there longer. I was never talked down to by my leadership; I was included at the board table and in the dean's office from day one. It was only my lack of confidence that handicapped me. I wish I could go back to the beginning with a fearless perspective and tell myself, "They hired me because they think I can do this."

The perks

Although we may sometimes doubt our own talent, those of us who are young also have some advantages. Youth is a good excuse for not knowing everything, and people tend to be far more patient with my mistakes than they would be with someone who has more experience. I would rather someone respond to an error by thinking "She's just young" than "She should know better!"

Another advantage of my age is that my older colleagues seek my counsel when dealing with or appealing to our students, who are closer to my age than theirs. Young people can be a tremendous asset to an advancement office because they provide fresh eyes-a new perspective to the workings of "the system."

To top it all off, development officers at VMRCVM hold the status of "professional faculty." I have to admit that it is a pretty good deal to be 23 years old with a professional faculty benefits package. It is a very solid stone on which to lay one's career foundations.

Lessons learned

I am the assistant director; I am not the assistant to the director. No matter how many people mistake me for a student, a secretary, or a veterinarian, I am a young development professional.

My advice for young fundraisers is to take every opportunity to learn about the profession and ask questions. Your institution would not have hired someone without great potential, and your supervisor doesn't expect you to have all the answers.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned is to let no one (not even yourself) look down on your youth. Just go out there and show them that no matter what may happen on the road to professional fulfillment, you are ready to enjoy the ride.

About the Author Amanda Dymacek

Amanda Dymacek is the assistant director of development at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, operated by Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland, College Park.




Add a Comment

You must be logged in to comment . Your name and institution will show with your comment.