In the summer of 1999, Michigan State University launched the Campaign for MSU with the aim of raising $1.12 billion, the most audacious fundraising campaign in its history. A few months in, I was recruited to lead fundraising efforts for the university's Libraries, Computing, and Technology department.
I had been working in Los Angeles for several years in various development roles at the California State University system and saw the position at MSU as a logical next step, one that afforded a number of career development opportunities. As I began to get comfortable in my new role, it became clear that the traditional fundraising playbook was no longer as relevant as it had once been. The department needed an approach that combined equal parts creativity, entrepreneurial risk-taking, and a willingness to experiment. After all, we were competing with other departments and professional schools at the university, each commanding a unique loyalty and importance in the eyes of their alumni. So during football season, we capitalized on our prime location within earshot of Spartan Stadium by inviting alumni and established donors and prospects to a tailgate party. Librarians from the university would be on hand to answer questions, marketing materials and campaign flyers would be distributed, and relationships with new and sustaining donors would be forged and strengthened.
And then September 11 happened. Until then I had never been in a position to lead others during a crisis. It's one thing to come up with a creative campaign and see it through from start to finish, accepting the risks and owning the results. But what had been a competition of sorts with other university departments for scarce dollars changed abruptly after the attacks.
As I worked alongside colleagues in other departments in the days that followed, my mindset shifted from competition to collaboration. Regardless of the task at hand, the question I kept asking myself was: How can I fulfill my duties and help my colleagues be successful?
One of the keys to success in higher education development work is traveling around the country to meet donors in person and earn their trust. But in the weeks and months after 9/11 some at the university were understandably reluctant to get on a plane.
Our solution to the problem was to pursue an approach that emphasized fundraising for the university as a whole, as opposed to fundraising for individual departments. And what quickly became apparent in my in-person visits and phone calls with high-net-worth alumni was their deep, unabashed appreciation for the fact that departments that sometimes competed with each other for precious resources were now collaborating. We were a single team with a single mission: strengthen the university we worked for and loved.
Learning to collaborate during a crisis was a key building block in my leadership development. And taking collective action to achieve a unifying goal while keeping the best interests of one's colleagues in mind has never been more important than it is today.
At the Gary Sinise Foundation, where I serve as chief operating officer, the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to adapt our business model to ensure continuity in our mission — serving the nation's military, veterans, first-responders, and their families. In coordination with the marketing and communications department, we launched a dedicated campaign called Emergency COVID-19 Combat Service. Donations made to the campaign have bolstered our First Responders Outreach program and enabled us to increase the number of grants we award to underfunded fire and police departments. Since we launched the campaign on April 1, we've raised and distributed more than $1.43 million, enabling sixty-one first-responder departments to purchase 5,650 pieces of personal protective equipment and gear. Financial assistance, grocery gift cards, and other forms of support have reached countless individuals and families struggling to make ends meet.
We've also expanded our Serving Heroes initiative, delivering thousands of additional free meals to healthcare workers at hospitals across the country as well as service members and their families at military bases in the U.S. and overseas.
The ongoing success of the campaign is largely attributable to our employees making a seamless transition to working remotely. We decided at the outset of the pandemic to shift staff and resources to departments in need; for example, our events team was called on to support the outreach department, which fields dozens of calls a day and supports an untold number of veterans, Gold Star families, and others seeking various forms of assistance.
In the months since COVID-19 upended our routines, many of our employees, empowered by leadership, their peers, and their own initiative, have developed new skills, revealing unknown talents and interests that benefit not only the organization but their future careers.
As the public health emergency continues to impact communities across the United States, nonprofit organizations are dealing with multiple crises affecting not only their day-to-day operations but their internal and external stakeholders as well.
Although the economy is slowly recovering, millions of Americans remain unemployed and Americans' mental health and well-being remains precarious. And with recent protests reawakening the nation's conscience, some kind of tipping point seems to be near.
Working to address these crises at both the individual and organizational levels has forced me to evolve as a leader — one who grounds her actions in empathy — and has reinforced for me the values of collaboration and personal empowerment. As was the case some twenty years ago, the question I continue to ask myself is: How can I fulfill my duties and help my colleagues be successful?
Elizabeth Fields is COO and Brandon Black is senior communications writer at the Gary Sinise Foundation.