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Melissa Leite: AFP’s Fellowship in Inclusion and Diversity

February 7, 2017

Melissa LeiteHow do you build a pipeline of fundraising leaders that reflects the diversity of our communities? By pro-actively reaching out to them, which is what AFP and the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy – Canada did through its Fellowship in Inclusion and Philanthropy program. With funding from the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration’s Partnership Project Office, the Fellowship offers inclusion-oriented education, training and networking opportunities and one-on-one mentorships for Ontario-based mid-level and emerging nonprofit professionals.

To date, 62 Fellows from diverse backgrounds have participated in the program. Melissa Leite is a member of the 2016-2017 cohort of Fellows and works as a senior development coordinator at Tides Canada, an innovative charity that supports people in building healthy, vibrant communities that have the social, economic, and natural capital to steward their environments for generations to come. Here’s Melissa’s view of the Fellowship program and what it has meant to her.

Q: Why did you decide to apply for the Fellowship in Inclusion and Philanthropy program? What drew you to it?

Honestly, when the callout for applicants went out for the very first cohort, I read the email, was interested, but didn’t have the confidence to apply. Almost a year later, I was at the AFP Toronto Chapter general meeting, trying to network in a room full of accomplished, experienced fundraising professionals that I barely knew, feeling a little shy and intimidated. Emma Lewzey, vice president for Inclusion & Equity at the chapter came up to me and introduced herself, and we chatted about the Fellowship. I was super excited, and my organization’s support, including my vice president Elissa Beckett, sealed the deal for me.

I wanted to apply but was fearful my application would not be accepted. I procrastinated but once I dived into the application, I couldn’t stop.  A few months later, I received a phone call from Sahar Vermezyari saying my application had been accepted. I broke down into tears of joy—I did it!

Q: What has your experience been like in the Fellowship? What have you gotten out of it?

Fulfilling and rewarding! The program staff and fellows are absolutely wonderful people. We come from diverse backgrounds and want to learn and make an impact in the world. I was surrounded by smart, beautiful people and I learned a lot from the experience. I felt like it challenged me to reflect on how I view the world and the role I can play in creating a diverse and inclusive society.

I relished taking the workshops, attending the conferences, blog writing and getting to know the community of fundraisers that were sharing this special experience with me. The Fellowship has given me a lot more confidence in fundraising and in my leadership skills. Not to mention, it helped me expand my network and build relationships with fundraisers in the sector—one of them being the relationship I have with my mentor, Susan Mullin, senior vice president for philanthropy at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation.

The mentorship component of the Fellowship is so valuable. I couldn’t believe my luck in getting paired with a woman who is so accomplished and works for a leading organization in the fundraising sector. We met bi-weekly during the course of the fellowship, and she never once cancelled a meeting on me, despite her busy schedule. I learned—and continue to learn—a lot from her, and I feel truly blessed to have gotten to know her.

Q: What is your background, and how did you get involved in fundraising?

When I graduated from high school, I didn’t know anything about fundraising, or that fundraising was even a career! I thought, hey, I’m going to be a lawyer. This made my family very happy, and I earned a B.A. in Public Policy and Administration from York University. But I also realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer, and that working for the government to help people was of interest.

So I went to Humber College for a post graduate program in public policy and administration. It was a transformative experience, very different from my undergraduate experience. But while attending Humber, I realized what I really wanted to do was work in the nonprofit sector.

I did a co-op placement at Madison Community Services and began applying for jobs in the charitable sector, when my placement was coming to an end. This is when I came across Tides Canada, a charity that is dedicated to a healthy environment, social equity, and economic prosperity for all Canadians.

I started my career at Tides Canada as an office administrator with ambition. Right out of the gate I said I wanted to grow, develop, and advance my career. I supported our client services team and as the team transitioned into a fundraising team, I too began my transition into fundraising. I started out doing prospect research, moved into annual giving, and began supporting major gifts fundraising. I now do a bit of work in all stages of the donor cycle and manage our Donor Advised Fund Program.

Q: What does diversity and inclusion mean to you? What has it meant for your career so far? Has it changed over the years, especially with being a part of the Fellowship program?

To me, diversity and inclusion means living in a world where people are not discriminated against because of their unique traits, but are encouraged and embraced for being their authentic selves. Being just like everyone else is boring and being authentic is cool.

Diversity is seen as an asset in the workforce, one that drives creative and innovative solutions to today’s most pressing issues. A world where people come together to collaborate and co-create is awesomeness—a world where no one gets left behind or is excluded because of their differences. This is what diversity and inclusion means to me.

In my career so far, I have been blessed to work for organizations that have diverse staff. Don’t get me wrong, we still have a long way to go, but we’re getting there. I think organizations are starting to realize that, in order to be successful, they need to hire diverse staff to bring new and exciting ideas to the table. 

Being a part of the Fellowship reaffirmed why diversity and inclusion is so important and gave me the tools and network to advance diversity and inclusion practices in the workplace. Being an AFP Diversity Fellow gave me credibility in my organization to champion diversity and inclusion; I now have a voice at the table when discussing how Tides Canada can advance its commitment to diversity and inclusion. It’s quite remarkable. Tides Canada has been supportive of my involvement in the Fellowship, and I want to continue utilizing the knowledge and skills I have gain through the experience.

Q: What’s been most challenging for you so far in your career?

Allowing myself the time to grow and develop. As a young professional, I have always put an immense amount of pressure on myself to constantly prove that I am competent and capable of taking on more. I’m never satisfied just doing my job, I’m always looking for ways I can take on additional responsibility. I think that I’m at a point in my career where I want to be more strategic about what I do. I think I have proven to myself that I am capable of tackling new challenges, that I thrive when I’m learning new things, and I need to trust that I’m on the right path. I am now in the process of building my personal brand statement, so that I know what value I bring to an organization and I can continue to align my values with work I am passionate about.

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

A: I would tell them that there are lots of fundraising jobs out there. Fundraisers do great work every day to raise the necessary funds to create positive change in the world, so take your time finding an organization that you can truly get behind. You’re going to learn a lot on the job and you need to be passionate about what you do, in order to be successful. Work hard, find a good mentor who can help guide you, and be sure to focus on your professional development – take as many courses as you can. Fundraising is an art and a science, so it’s good to have a few tools in your toolbox. Networking is critical, everyone knows each other in fundraising and I have found that fundraisers are some of the nicest people. They’re always willing to meet and share from their experiences.

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

A: Everything! There is so much to do in Toronto. You can always find a market to go to, a new documentary to watch, or a cool bar/restaurant to visit. I enjoy trying new activities and spending time with my family and friends. I’m currently taking Brazilian zouk lessons and I’m trying to perfect the base movements, so that I can move on to the next level. I have an assessment coming up where my instructor will grade how well I can tendu, plié, and relevé – wish me luck! 

Q: Last three songs you’ve listened to?

  1. The xx – Say Something Loving
  2. The Weeknd – M A N I A
  3. Europe – The Final Countdown (There is a story behind this. I was engaged in an intense Dutch Blitz battle this past weekend and this was the theme song for the winning game).  ( Editor’s Note: Really, Melissa, there’s no shame in loving one of the greatest hair metal 80s songs of all time! ;-) )

 To learn more about the Fellowship program, click here.

You can also read Melissa’s blogs about Sharing Impact for A Different Level of Donor Engagement, or Grassroots Fundraising – Getting to the Root of the Issues

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