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Meet AFP Maryland Member, Jennifer Pelton, CFRE

Meet Jennifer K. Pelton, CFRE, Director of Development for the Public Justice Center

PeltonJennifer K. Pelton, CFRE is a 25-year veteran fundraiser and nonprofit manager. She is the Director of Development for the Public Justice Center in Maryland. Ms. Pelton earned the CFRE in 2006 and became an AFP Master Trainer in 2010. She is an officer of the AFP-Maryland Board. Ms. Pelton also focuses a consulting practice on supporting small shops and effective boards. Ms. Pelton has published in Grassroots Fundraising Journal and Management Information Exchange Journal.  

Jennifer will be leading a seminar entitled "Increasing Board Engagement" on Thursday, October 12th at the United Way of Central Maryland. Open to both members and non-members; register online today!

We asked Jennifer:

What is the most rewarding thing about being a professional fundraiser? 

 I often say that fundraisers are bridges between the gritty front line work and the donors who want to be involved but, for whatever reason, haven’t chosen a life where they are working on the front line. As a fundraiser for social change, I especially love this role of “bridge” and the chance to create opportunities for all sorts of people to be involved in making our society more just.

Also, I never get bored.

How did you first become involved in development?  

Like many people, I fell backwards into nonprofit management work. One college internship at a nonprofit led to a full-time job at a seasonal opera company in Cooperstown, NY. When that season ended, I needed a job. I applied for and received a position as a program coordinator in rural upstate NY, supporting victims of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. In that position, I kept finding ways to attract resources – volunteers, in-kind donations and such – to our programs. Eventually I decided I “should” go to law school and moved to Baltimore to do so. I never got there because I joined the fundraising team with House of Ruth. 25 years later… I still love fundraising.

What keeps you in development?  

I have always had positions in small shops, with teams of less than 3 or 4. These jobs require flexibility and understanding of fundraising, communications, morale-building, volunteer engagement and sometimes dish washing. Jobs like this demand a certain creativity. I might wear multiple hats or draw on multiple “best practices” in any one given day.  I am challenged to know enough to do my job and also to stretch my expertise. Plus, I’ve been lucky to work for organizations that invest in my professional development, encourage me to be a member of AFP, afford me opportunities to teach and write and, best of all, recognize the value that a professional fundraiser can bring to a nonprofit.

How is fundraising different compared to when you started in the profession? 

Our tools are much more plentiful today and we have the potential to interact with donors through so many more channels. I started fundraising before email, google and cell phones were ubiquitous. I learned the value of being in conversation with a donor and of writing stories that could capture attention. It’s been gratifying to “grow” with the sector and yet know that the basics of human interaction and storytelling still apply.

What advice would you give anyone starting out in the profession?  

Never stop learning. You are never an expert. This is a field with so many opportunities. And, it’s a field that requires humility. I’d encourage newer fundraising professionals to learn as many different aspects of fundraising as possible. As a self-identified “generalist,” I think I benefited from flexibility and can fit into jobs with greater ease than if I had specialized early on. Understand that there are foundational aspects of our profession; if you can become adept at these things, you will have solid roots for a long and satisfying career. Specifically, learn all you can about data management and analysis so when you rise to a position where you rely on keeping good donor notes and identifying growth potential, you understand how data works and what is possible. Learn how to write well for different audiences. And above all, learn from people around you and get a mentor. Finally, work only for organizations you would donate to – and be a donor.

What was the best training you attended as a fundraiser and why? 

This is a hard question because the longer I stay in this profession, the more my needs change. Early on, it was AFP’s Fundamentals courses and trainings by Tricia Rubacky and Kim Klein, given through Maryland Nonprofits. As my expertise has deepened though, I have found that I often learn the most – or keep inspiration for my work alive – through roundtable discussions or interactive workshops that draw on the experience of my peers. I like to know what people are trying and how its working (or not). That said, one of the more transformational trainings I’ve been to as a seasoned (cough, “old”) fundraiser was “Fundraising from the Heart” with Lynne Twist.

Why is professional development important to fundraisers?   

We are never experts; there is always something to be learned. Also, it is very good to get out of your own head (and outside “the way it’s always been done”) and challenge yourself to think from different angles. When I was studying for my CFRE, my boss suggested that I use work time to read some of the books on the recommended book list, because every time I read something, I came up with an improvement to our methods or confirmed that indeed, we were doing something right according to the “experts.”

What is the best piece of advice you received?  

Never stop learning and always reach back to help those coming along after you.

Why are you a member of AFP?   

Why wouldn’t I be? This professional association is, at its most basic level, a community of professional fundraisers trying to build a better world. Early on, the Maryland chapter gave me so much through networking, educational programs and professional support.  Now, I have the opportunity to return the favor as a board member, mentor, teacher and student.

What do you think is unique to professional fundraising in Maryland?  

There are a lot of us concentrated in the central region of this state – especially from DC to Baltimore. There is also a concentration of philanthropically minded donors here. Since I have grown up as a fundraiser here, I can’t make comparisons to the fundraising climates elsewhere. But I was fascinated by the workshops and conversations at this year’s AFP International Conference, which drew in experiences from rural areas, Canada, Mexico, US, Australia, Brazil and Africa.

Where do you see the future of fundraising?  

I think fundraising is basically about meaningful connection. If I am doing good work on an issue that matters to you, I might be able inspire you to connect with that through your financial support. And since I probably want to sustain your support, I have to find ways to balance our interaction in a way that acknowledges you as a human, appreciates what you can bring to the table and doesn’t intrude. As our attention spans shorten and our society diversifies, I think our challenge as professionals is to figure out how to apply traditional fundraising theory to a changing world and also how to create new fundraising theory that works better. Speaking broadly, I am curious about how professionals like me can expand philanthropy beyond its charity “handout” model, which relies on a more inclusive model that welcomes the expertise and resources of the communities our organizations aim to serve.