A Fundraiser’s Tale: The Unlikely Career Of Making a Difference

By Felicia Campbell

Many bristle at the idea of asking for money, but some of the most life-changing technological advancements and meaningful social actions are instigated by private, philanthropic dollars. And in most cases, someone had to ask.

“Fundraising is an interesting career because there are not a lot of natural paths into it,” said Zachary K. Smith,  Vice President of University Development and Alumni Engagement and CEO of the Cal Poly Foundation and a fundraising instructor at UC San Diego Extended Studies. “Since there isn’t a traditional pathway, like an undergraduate major, most people are exposed later on.”

Zachary actually earned his undergraduate degree in criminology. 

“It was my personal experience being a scholarship recipient that changed my career goals and perspective,” he explained. “At Portland State, I had the opportunity to be part of a telethon and call alumni to try to raise funds. It was exciting. I’ve always been interested in making a positive impact, and I found that dedicating my career to advancing higher education is what I’m most passionate about.”

After his initial introduction to fundraising at Portland State, he went on to earn an MBA at the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego. “The degree did not have a focus in fundraising, but rather innovation and entrepreneurship,” he said. “I dedicated most of my electives to management and leadership courses and, personally, I think that the nonprofit sector could apply more business school teachings for greater success and efficiency.” 

Zachary now oversees an entire team of fundraisers who focus on everything from raising money for scholarships and research grants to major projects. He said that the idea of a “hard sell” isn’t accurate. He sees his role as that of an advisor to his donors rather than a salesman. 

“It is all about building relationships. I work with donors to figure out the right gift to meet their impact goals and what is right for them and their families at that time,” he said. “Fundraising differs from other business interactions because the return on investment is different. The investment is philanthropic, and the return on that investment impacts on society.” 

When it comes to building new relationships, there are many strategies he employs. 

“I love speaking with my current donors, asking if they, for example, know anyone who would be interested in helping former vets who want to study engineering,” he said. “When speaking to a potential donor, I sometimes share my own experiences and the way a scholarship enabled me to do what so many people who don’t have a lot of advantages and opportunities can’t.”

Though the pandemic has caused many industries to cut back on spending, philanthropy has increased. 

“Those who are philanthropic remain philanthropic during times of financial distress. They see there are still chances for impact. They can achieve even more. So, we’ve actually seen an influx of funds for students facing hardship due to Covid, which is incredible and heartwarming,” he said.

The issue facing the philanthropic world now is the challenge of filling roles in fundraising. 

“The turnover is so high. The average time in a position like mine is only 18 months. That doesn’t work when everything is relationship-based. It is a fact that you will be more effective the longer you are in a role because you need time to get to know the institution and the donors who you want to partner with,” he explained. “My hope is to show others that there is meaningful, important work to be done in this field.”

Zachary is helping to do just that through his courses in fundraising and donor relationships at UC San Diego Extended Studies, where most of his students are transitioning into the development realm from the nonprofit world or a totally different industry. 

A career in fundraising is not always easy, but there are substantial rewards.

“What is most important is having genuine relationships. Many people are looking to make a difference, to make an impact. Be thoughtful. Be genuine. Be empathetic. Understand that everyone is facing different challenges,” he said. 

Zachary could have pursued a different career and given back as a donor himself, but he felt that dedicating his life to providing opportunities for others was the best way he could make an impact. 

“I work with transformational philanthropists who give over a million dollars,” he explained. “I have raised more money through my career than I ever could have earned and given away.”

Inspired by Zachary Smith's story of making a difference by becoming a fundraising professional? Learn more about the Division's Fundraising certificate program.


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