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Q&A with Thaddeus Teo

March 8, 2017

300x200 TheoQ: What is your job title and description right now?

A: I am a Donor Relations Officer with the United Way of King County in Seattle. A significant portion of my job is exactly as my title describes— to cultivate personal relationships with a large portfolio of loyal annual donors who have typically given through United Way workplace campaigns but who have yet to receive a more personal touch, in hopes of cultivating a major gift. Because of the unique model of traditional United Way fundraising, I do both stewardship and discovery work simultaneously, which I think makes my job so unique and exciting.

Q: Tell us a little about the work and impact of United Way of King County.

A: Although United Ways across the country have traditionally been known for their federated fundraising model that supports the social services, United Way of King County has shifted our emphasis away from just acknowledging the problems to making focused allocations that produce significant and measurable results on critical issues facing our region. We see ourselves as a community impact organization that works in strong partnership with government agencies and local CBOs. We are committed to building a community where people have homes, students graduate, and families are financially stable.

Thanks to a significant grant and match from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, United Way of King County is able to significantly reduce our net overhead. Donors often tell me that they appreciate knowing that more than 96 cents of every dollar donated goes directly towards addressing community needs, which is something I previously never realized was so important in philanthropy.

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: When I was growing up, I was always taught to be a positive value-add in people’s lives. From things as simple as smiling more at people walking by to lending a hand and helping others around me, I’ve always believed I could play a role in making this world a happier place.

I remember when I was younger and wanted to be a doctor because that was the only profession, in my limited understanding of professions, that would’ve allowed me to help others for a living. In fact, I frequently pretended to be sick just so I would have an excuse to see a doctor and learn more about the medical profession.

Fast forward to the present— many fundraising professionals and donors I meet with are often surprised when I tell them that I was a biology major in college and was on a pre-med track. I like sharing that my passion for helping people remains steadfast, and that if you consider the origins of the word ‘philanthropy’, the Latin and Greek root words of philo and anthro quite literally mean the love of humanity. My understanding of different professions has clearly expanded thanks to numerous informational interviews and internships.

Q: I noticed from your LinkedIn profile you’ve been an intern a couple of times? How was that experience? Did you find it helpful in finding the job you wanted?

A: I love internships. I honestly think internships are one of the best ways to gain experience in an industry and develop self-awareness for strengths and weaknesses, as well as personal likes and dislikes. I’ve been fortunate to have gotten internships ranging from bioscientific research and development in the biotech industry to teaching undergraduates in a university setting. Although these internships did not directly lead me to finding my fundraising job, it definitely gave me a better understanding of my skillsets and the type of work that I enjoy.

I now know that I love being in a job that allows me to meet, interact, and share ideas with so many different people from all sorts of backgrounds— that’s the culture of philanthropy, and something I appreciate so much. Keep in mind that internships aren’t just limited to students. Young professionals with full time jobs can still ‘intern’ with organizations; it’s just called volunteering.

Q: How did you get your first job in the fundraising profession/philanthropic sector? What would you say to young professionals looking for their first job in fundraising?

A: Like many fundraisers, I entered the profession through pure happenstance. A very random conversation with a stranger who turned out to be a recruiter led to informational interviews with folks in the profession. Ultimately, I was hired by someone who coincidentally also wanted to be a doctor while in college decades earlier.

Falling into an entry-level fundraising position was the easy part. Moving up from events and administrative roles into frontline fundraising was the real challenge, as other young professionals can probably attest to as well. Every frontline fundraising job posting requires candidates to have frontline fundraising experience, creating a classic catch-22 situation that has become notorious among young professionals in this profession. Getting my first frontline job became a real test of perseverance, passion, and creative ability to fulfill that prerequisite. I went through 8 different job applications and interviews before landing my current job.

If you are a young professional currently facing this catch-22 situation, I’d encourage you to find creative ways to gain experience beyond your current job situation. Volunteer to help a colleague with projects or join a nonprofit board or committee to gain additional experience—there are many nonprofit organizations that would love to get additional help with their fundraising. It’s also important is to keep networking with other professionals in the field. Ask for introductions or better yet, cold call. Reaching out to other professionals in the field and getting a coffee meeting to network and learn from them isn’t that much different from getting a coffee meeting with a donor after all. Plus, it’ll be good practice for when you land that frontline fundraising role.

Q: What did you find most surprising in your first job? What was most challenging?

A: I think one of the most surprising things for me when I first entered the profession was learning how humble donors can be. Some of the most successful and wealthy individuals I got to meet or hear about were also some of the humblest people I had ever met. I don’t actually know why I expected otherwise, but I remember being awestruck by so many successful community and business leaders who took time to have a conversation with me when I was just the nametag guy greeting them as they arrived at a fundraising event. On the flipside of that, the challenge was resisting the urge to want to follow up with these donors over coffee to continue whatever inspirational conversation topic we had because, well, that wasn’t quite my job to do then.

Q: What was it like moving from a higher education institution to the United Way?

A: The move from working in higher education fundraising over to social services nonprofit fundraising has been a very interesting experience for me. For starters, colleges and universities have alumni who automatically make up a pool of prospective donors that United Way or any other nonprofit do not have. Understanding the nuances between affinity-based fundraising and mission-based fundraising, and how to communicate with donors and prospective donors, has been a great learning experience for me. It’s a lot easier helping a donor understand how funding a scholarship works because paying for college is something they’ve personally experienced before, but helping a donor understand how making a gift that funds various strategies aimed at moving 50,000 people out of poverty? That requires a whole different approach to igniting empathy and generosity.

There are also certainly more resources at higher education institutions, especially large research universities, for prospect research, data analytics, marketing, professional development, etc. than at a nonprofit. I’ve had to wear more hats at United Way, which I really enjoy, and being at a relatively smaller organization means having to deal with relatively less bureaucracy. It’s a lot easier experimenting with different ideas and strategies, even if they aren’t fully fleshed out yet, and we can be nimble enough to change course midway through a plan if it isn’t working.

Q: Has it been easy to find and network with other young professionals? What do you do (if anything) to help that process?

A: Finding a network of other young professionals who also believe in the power of philanthropy has been surprisingly challenging for me. Besides those whom I used to work with and those I currently work with, it’s been few. I don’t exactly have an explanation for it, but now you’ve got me thinking about creating a young professional’s affinity group of sorts within my local chapter.

Q: What has your experience with AFP been like? Are you active at the chapter level?

A: I’ve been an active member and volunteer with the local Advancement Northwest chapter for over a year now and have enjoyed the opportunity to meet and network with many professionals through various events and professional development programming. As a volunteer on the National Philanthropy Day committee, it is so rewarding playing a role in putting together such a large and powerful event celebrating the power of philanthropy. Getting 800 caring and compassionate people together in one room is truly incredible.

In addition to my involvement with NPD, I am also on a task force that seeks to develop AFP Collegiate Chapters here in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve been involved in numerous conversations on how we can begin to attract and support college students thinking about a career in development—you’re never too young to start! This exploration led me to attend the Emerging Fundraisers Academy in 2016 where I got to connect with professionals from AFP chapters from all over the country for the first time, which was an enjoyable experience. It’s always good to step out of the local bubble to learn about how things are done elsewhere.

Q: How would you improve AFP? What could it offer that it doesn’t?

A: My CEO recently shared a conversation he had with an executive vice president at a large tech company when he tried to get them to adopt an employee giving campaign. The response he got was very interesting. The vice president said that if we (United Way) wanted his company to implement something, he was the last person we should be talking to. We instead needed to galvanize the millennial generation at his company to a tipping point in order to implement something companywide because they were the future of the company.

More than ever before, we’re seeing the significance of a bottom-up approach within corporations, and I’d love to see AFP do the same by getting more and more young professions on a committee or on the board to help with strategic planning. Young professionals crave involvement and engagement, and opportunities like these provide them experience to be a part of something bigger. It also provides senior professionals fresh insights and perspectives to avoid groupthink. I think all of this must start at the chapter level.

Q: When you’re not helping people or organizations, what do you do in your spare time?

A: I am a huge coffee aficionado, or at least I am trying to be one. I spend a lot of my free time learning about coffee and experimenting with different types of beans, brewing methods, and creating original recipes. I am hoping to find an intersection between my own coffee business and philanthropy someday in the future—“Coffee for a Cause” type of thing. Who knows where life will take me.

I also recently got engaged so a lot of my time has been dedicated to planning a wedding as well. It’s a good thing fundraisers have good event planning experience!

Q: What was the last movie you saw? Recent shows you’ve been watching (or binge watching)?

A: I just watched Interstellar for the first time, and it completely blew my mind. I’ve recently been watching Black Mirror on Netflix, which is a show I like to describe as the modern-day Twilight Zone. The show looks at the effects of new technologies in modern society and the many unanticipated consequences of pushing the boundaries of technology in our lives. Each episode has a different storyline and is set in various alternative realities, but each could very well become a reality for us in the near future. I’ve always enjoyed science fiction. and I am even more intrigued when the line between science and science fiction becomes blurred. It’s a very thought-provoking show, and it got me examining my own use and reliance on technology.

Q: What do you like most about living in Seattle?

A: Living in one of the fastest growing cities in the United States is truly exciting. There’s always something to do out in the community and new restaurants to eat at. From a professional perspective, I believe there is also tremendous philanthropic potential that comes with a booming economy. Nevertheless, if I ever needed to escape the hustle and bustle of Seattle, it is so easy to drive 30 minutes and be out in the mountains enjoying the outdoors.

Thaddeus enjoys connecting with professionals from all backgrounds and would appreciate any opportunity to share ideas, thoughts, and perspectives. Email him at

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