AFP Member Spotlight Q&A: Abbie J. von Schlegell, CFRE
March 28, 2018
AFP recently named Abbie von Schlegell, CFRE, as a member of its 2018 class of Distinguished Fellows. Von Schlegell has been in the development field for over 40 years! She was the editor of the first book on women’s philanthropy, Women as Donors, Women as Philanthropists, published by Jossey Bass in 1993 - a best-selling handbook about women’s giving.
We sat down with Abbie to ask her a few questions about her thoughts, career and experiences!
1. What’s your professional position now, and what are your responsibilities?
In 2007, I established my own firm, a. von schlegell & co, based in western MA. As a fundraising and governance consultant to nonprofits, my work is primarily with independent schools, colleges, cultural institutions, human services and environmental organizations. Services range from individual coaching to large group facilitations. Recent experience includes capital campaigns, board training, interim management, governance assessments, and major gifts development, among others.
2. What do you love about working as a fundraising and governance consultant? What got you interested in governance in addition to fundraising?
Helping people realize their full potential and uncovering what they actually know how to do. Successful fundraising depends on the Board, and if they’re not involved it creates a handicap. Teaching board members to fundraise person to person is so rewarding because I get to see them comprehend the value in building relationships. And then they realize it wasn’t so scary or uncomfortable, that by sharing their support and passion for their organization is actually part of that process -that’s just icing on the cake!
3. How long have you been in fundraising? In AFP?
It’s hard to believe I have been in fundraising for 49 years and a member of AFP since 1981.
4. Tell me a little about your career arc. Did you start out as a fundraiser?
From the very beginning. I started out as a development officer at Stanford University and then at The University of Chicago. I was the first woman gift officer hired by Stanford University. Additionally, I was the first woman who went into major gifts and, capital campaigns. Working at Stanford was like getting a Post-Doctoral degree in Development; I learned something almost every day, which I’ve treasured over the years. In 1971, Stanford launched a $300 million capital campaign, the largest in the US at that time; I was in-charge of major gifts for Silicon Valley! Civic-mindedness runs in my family. My parents were highly involved in fundraising. They served on boards and actively volunteered for numerous charities. Working in the nonprofit sector has been the whole of my entire career and I’m proud to say that my daughter has been in the same field for 25 years.
5. What are you most proud of in your career at this point—key accomplishments, achievements, etc.?
Recognizing and promoting the importance of women as donors. In 2012, women controlled 60 percent of the wealth in the U.S.! In 1990, I was the recipient of the President’s Award from the National Society of Fund Raising Executives (now AFP International) in recognition of my service to the profession. Starting my own firm, sharing my knowledge and experience with others and of course my book about women’s philanthropy.
6. You’ve just been selected as a 2018 AFP Distinguished Fellow. Congratulations. What went through your mind when you first heard the news?
I hold the previous and current recipients in high regard. So, honestly, all at once I was honored, ecstatic and humbled to be their peer!
More ten years into my career I became aware of AFP – then NSFRE and promptly got involved in the Chicago area. I earned my CFRE in 1987, so now it has been more than 30 years! Many AFP colleagues have been wonderful mentors and long-time friends. The professional education I have received from the many AFP conferences is outstanding, and I treasure the relationships that have developed.
7. When you think about how fundraising has changed over the time you’ve been in the profession, what stands out the most to you?
The fundraising professional staff has completely switched from being male-dominated to female-dominated. Three-quarters of the AFP membership now are women. Women bring a different sensibility to the profession, and are much more relational. We want to get to know people and what their interests are, what their passion is, and then we'll try to relate it to our organization.
8. March is Women’s History Month. What has that meant for you as a fundraiser in this field?
I wish organizations that benefit women and children were taking advantage of Women's History Month. It's a real opportunity and I don't think nonprofits make the most of it. I believe organizations should plan to engage women during March each year and feature what women are doing now in their organizations. There is a tremendous opportunity to emphasize the important role of women in the nonprofit sector.
9. In 2007, you established your own advancement consulting practice, a. von schlegell & co, fostering the art of philanthropy & governance. What was the transition like from Managing Director at Brakeley Briscoe, Inc. to Principal of your own firm? What’s been the most rewarding?
Being my own boss, I get to make all the decisions. My schedule can be flexible as needed, which is good for clients. I live in the Berkshires, a cultural mecca, so I appreciate the ability to control personal and professional time. However, I do have to tip the scales to ensure I have a positive cash-flow. My work ethic and perseverance has paid off as last year I celebrated 10 years in business.
10. You have worn many hats in your career. Recent experience includes capital campaigns, board training, interim management, governance assessments, and major gifts development, and more! Do you have a specialty or type of fundraising you most enjoy?
As a consultant, I most enjoy strategizing with clients about major gifts and women in philanthropy.
11. What’s the most challenging issue the profession faces right now? How can future fundraisers and philanthropic leaders continue to advance the profession throughout the United States and Internationally?
The long term projections suggest that the amount of money raised may start declining in the future. These numbers are reflected in research conducted by the Lilly School of Philanthropy, and Giving U.S.A. This is a huge challenge, and we must begin to pay attention to Millennials. Trends indicate that Millennials do not have a habit of giving, so now we must work to instill that habit and getting them more involved as volunteers.
12. Advice for a professional fundraiser wanting to get into management and senior leadership?
Gain experience in as many types of fundraising as you can, including some management experience, if possible. Try to work in an environment that has a culture of philanthropy. Volunteering is an excellent way to gain a different perspective.
13. What do you think AFP and the profession can do to encourage individuals from under-represented groups to consider fundraising?
Diversity was important since I started in Development 49 years ago. It's essential to reach out to professionals of different colors and races and provide ways to get them more engaged. Diversity includes people of color, different sexual orientation, age-demographic, etc. Diversity should be integrated into significant initiatives and not a separate entity. We recruited people of color into the Development office at Stanford when I was there; some of these people are now leaders of other organizations, colleges and universities.
14. How could AFP better serve senior professionals?
Bring more sophisticated programs to chapters. Engage the 2018 AFP Distinguished Fellows and other senior leaders in mentoring programs, training sessions and the like.
15. How do you stay engaged with AFP? What has your experience with AFP been like?
On a regular basis I train for AFP, CASE’s Annual Summit and District Conferences, MA Nonprofit Network and for the United Way. The most frequently topics are on major gifts, governance, women's philanthropy, capital campaigns and building successful development programs. Recently I served on the AFP WMA Board as Programming Chair.
Nationally, I have presented at more than 25 AFP chapters. On at least 10 occasions I’ve presented at the AFP International and Regional Conferences.
Internationally, I have spoken at a fundraising conference in Shenzhen, China and counseled individual nonprofit leaders and presented at the Hong Kong AFP Chapter.
16. How do you manage to balance your personal and professional life? How often do you make time to counsel new fundraisers?
Since fundraising is all about relationships, trying to separate professional and personal life is kind of an exercise in futility. I love culture in all its forms so that keeps me involved with nonprofit organizations whether I’m on the clock or not. However, if there is an opportunity to spend it with my family, I simply drop everything and cherish the time.
Helping to prepare a new fundraiser for a successful, professional, and ethical career is a rewarding experience. I can’t think of an instance where I was asked to counsel a new fundraiser and didn’t make time for them. In fact, if I see potential in someone, you can be sure I’m encouraging that person to enter the field.
Recently, I made time for a new Executive Director (who is also a new AFP WMA member) to advise him about the fund development industry and his role as the executive director.
17. I hear you are a lover of nature. What do you like to do in your spare time?
Sit outside in my gorgeous garden and read a book. I reside in the scenic Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. It's an absolutely beautiful area and the cultural capital of America. I make time to enjoy plays, museums, music and dance at Tanglewood (the Berkshire summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Berkshire Botanical Gardens, Clark Art Institute and MASS MoCA – the largest Contemporary Art Museum in the world. These are just some of my favorite places.
I'm also active in my community, currently serving on the boards of Tapestry Health in Western Massachusetts, Music2Life, and the Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires. Additionally, I'm a long-time Stanford volunteer, serving on various volunteer Committees.
18. You are the editor of the first book on women’s philanthropy, Women as Donors, Women as Philanthropists, published by Jossey Bass in 1993, a best-selling handbook about women’s giving. What’s the one takeaway, or key message from your book that’s continues to be relevant and applicable today?
Pay attention to women as donors. That's the most important issue!
19. Any fundraising books that you’d recommend (or speakers who inspire you or make you think):
Ted Talks on Design Thinking. I find so many interesting subjects on TED. I go to the Chautauqua Institution every year for a week and am always inspired by the programs and the speakers. The last I book read was Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy.
20. How would you like to be remembered?
Professionally, I would like to be remembered as a giving person, who focused on women's philanthropy and being a good mentor.
Personally, I would like to be remembered as someone who put my family first and looked and took advantage of opportunities to “pay it forward”.