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Member Spotlight: Cherrelle Duncan

March 13, 2018

Cherrelle Duncan, MPSA was one of our first Outstanding Young Professionals honored last year in San Francisco. AFP sat down with Cherrelle and talk about her career, what she’s learned and how she thinks the profession needs to improve.

Q: Tell us a little about your upbringing? Did you want to be a fundraiser growing up, or be involved in the philanthropic sector?

A: I grew up in Lafayette, Louisana, where the population is about 125,000 and the culture is centered around religion and family. Philanthropy played a huge role in my upbringing and my parents and church community made sure that I understood the value of giving back. My mother was the comptroller for our church, so at an early age I learned the importance of money and how that affects the operations of an organization and its programs. It was around the age of 8 that my interest in raising money really became evident, and I began asking people to make gifts toward our church. From there I immersed myself in various philanthropic groups and primarily focused on running each organization and raising money. As I grew older, I knew that I wanted to work for a nonprofit and be involved in some aspect of finances and relationship building. Fundraising seemed like the best fit for me.

Q: You received your Master’s in Public Service and Administration with a focus in Nonprofit Management? Why did you want to get that degree? What was it like?

A: During my junior year in undergraduate school I attended the Clinton Global Initiative. It was then that I learned that there were graduate programs for people who loved nonprofits just as much as I do. From there I researched and visited schools named for various presidents and landed at the Bush School as a Diversity Fellow. It was the best fit for me for a variety of reasons. My desire to study Nonprofit Management never wavered, with the ultimate goal of one day becoming a Vice President of Development. My tenure at the school was filled with rigorous but fulfilling work, where I honed skills in budget management, fundraising, grant writing, and human resources. Beyond the coursework, the program was coupled with informal networking sessions which allowed me to learn directly from professionals in the nonprofit and public service sectors. Overall, The Bush School’s program not only offered courses to help me learn the skill set necessary to begin my career as a nonprofit professional, but also took me outside the classroom and deepened my passion for fundraising. 

Q: What excited you the most about working in fundraising?

A: One of my favorite parts of working in fundraising is building relationships with donors, volunteers, vendor and constituents. Seeing how donor dollars actually impact the lives of people in a tangible way is the most rewarding part of the job. In the cancer space, the most tangible direct impacts are watching new drugs created based on research funded by donor dollars, and rides to treatment that are given to patients from volunteers. I like to know that the work I am doing is making a difference, and it is the need for change that drives my daily efforts.

Q: You worked for a few years at the American Cancer Society as a community manager. What did that entail?

A: At ACS, I was a Senior Community Manager and focused on managing two fundraising events: Relay For Life and Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. Although my role may sound like it was only events-focused, there were many different layers embedded into my daily tasks including: sponsorship, individual solicitation, corporate giving, social media and website management, and volunteer recruitment and management.

Q: What is your dream job when it comes to fundraising and the nonprofit? Do you have a specialty or type of fundraising you most enjoy?

A: My dream job is to become a vice president of development. I understand that this will take a couple of decades to achieve, so in the meantime I am working on developing skills to move actively towards that goal. Prior to reaching the VP level, I would really love to be a major gift officer.

Q: You’re one of our first Outstanding Young Professionals. What did you think when you first got the news?

A: My mouth dropped! I was very honored and excited that I could represent for my local AFP Chapter of Houston and my family.

Q: You’ve done an amazing job already in your (relatively) young career. Any secrets to your success, or advice, ideas or principles you’ve taken to heart that helps you move forward?

A: The most important lesson I have to share is to strive to be the best in your current position. I always want to come to the table with all information and leave the table ensuring that my manager and colleagues are feeling secure in my progress and ideas. A second lesson is to be proactive and make opportunities for yourself. I accomplish this by speaking up when there are professional needs that I desire. If I want to one day be a major gift officer, I need to learn the skills to secure them, and would love to shadow someone or find a mentor in the major gifts area. And that’s the last lesson: I have learned to find mentors and remain a sponge for knowledge. I have worked to develop a skill of observation and practice curiosity. I ask questions, but first try to observe and collect information which could be utilized or incorporated into my work.

Q: What do you think are the one or two most important issues for the profession to address at this moment, from your perspective as a younger fundraiser? What are some key challenges you are facing in the workplace?

A: First and foremost, the lack of upward mobility. There is a lot of movement laterally between organizations, which you see in the high level of turnover in nonprofit organizations. Secondly, I believe that we should work actively to increase diversity within the field. I have at times been the only person of color amongst a room of 50 fundraising professionals. While I have never allowed this to intimidate or discourage me, I have wondered how the nonprofit field can improve its diversity and work to have voices represented from various walks of life and backgrounds. There are studies that expound on ideas about engaging diverse communities and the challenges those communities face, and I believe that better representation of those communities would help advance the field further. 

Q: Do you think the profession is doing a good job of reaching out to young people and encouraging them to get into fundraising and philanthropy? What could we do better?

A: I think that there is still a perception in the larger population that fundraisers beg for money. I don’t look at it that way at all. For those who have a business mind, fundraising is about closing deals. For those who are altruistic, fundraising is about saving lives or meeting a need. AFP is doing a great job engaging collegiate students and shaping the field as a profession. There was a time where you could not take a college course in fundraising or grant writing. Now you can, and it is because of the work of AFP.

Q: What would you say to young professionals looking for their first job in fundraising?

A: My advice would be to look at each role through the lens of what they may gain from that position. I have built my career by doing many different types of fundraising, but there is so much more to learn. I want to be a well-rounded fundraiser, and that is how and why I have chosen my path. I also believe that young professionals want to be in an environment that supports them in their goals and provide opportunities to help achieve them. Throughout my career, I have not been shy about voicing my career aspirations in the workplace, and working with managers to gain more skills and experience (beyond what my responsibilities may have been on paper).

Q: Has it been easy to find and network with other young professionals?

A: I have found a network within AFP and outside of the organization. In Houston, I am a member of AFP and the Houston Area Urban League Young Professionals. Through both groups I have met peers in the same industry and those who enjoy community service and professional development.  As an AFP Diversity Scholar and Outstanding Young Professional, I have a group of young fundraising peers across the country who are at, or above, my professional level. There have been many times I have called a Diversity Scholar from Seattle, Austin, or Chicago to pick their brain on an approach to fundraising or professional development. The Scholars and Outstanding Young Professionals have a “group chat” with the GroupMe app, which enables us to talk to each other as needed to bounce ideas and feel supported.  It’s a great platform to contact everyone at once, and there have been some great ideas that come out of our discussions.

Q: What has your experience with AFP been like?

My experience with AFP has been great. Since joining I have been fortunate enough to attend two conferences via the Diversity Scholarship and as an awardee. This year, I will be presenting with my colleague, Adrienne McDade, from Cincinnati.  It is easy to say that I have caught the AFP bug!

Q: How do you balance work and your personal life?

A: I am busy and that can sometimes get the best of me. To remain balanced, I make time for myself, including putting my phone on mute over the weekend, binge watching shows on Netflix, or playing with my dog.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

Sleep! When I am not working, I enjoy volunteering with the Junior League of Houston and serving as a board member of the Houston Area Urban League Young Professionals. I also have a podcast that I am continuing to develop with my co-host, and a pretty active social life that involves music, my book club, movies and dining. On occasion, I have the pleasure of officiating weddings for my close friends.

Q: Last three songs you’ve listened to?

Solange: Cranes in the Sky

Drake: God’s Plan

Erykah Badu: 20 Feet Tall

Q: Current book you’re reading (or show you’re watching, binging or otherwise)?

Currently, I am re-reading Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It, recently finished Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and now listening to Marty Linksy and Ronald A. Heifez’s audiobook, Leadership on the Line. I finally finished television series Game of Thrones since starting it during Hurricane Harvey.