Can Fundraising Be Beautiful?



I think so.

Tamaria Kai Perry is Assistant Vice President of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the nation’s largest organization exclusively representing the Black College Community and a long-term client of The Athena Advisors. Here, Tamaria tells us of the beauty she finds in fundraising.

I absolutely love my job!  Actually, it’s more than a job, it’s a daily opportunity to utilize my talents to make a difference in the world. For me, that is the beauty in fundraising.

Let me provide a bit of perspective on how I fell in love with fundraising. I grew up in a family that firmly agreed with Marian Wright Edelman’s perspective that “service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.” From a young age, I remember my mom taking me to the local food kitchen to serve Thanksgiving meals before we enjoyed our own, or encouraging that I pick out a gift to donate for a child when we were shopping for Christmas. I helped build houses with Habitat for Humanity, created care kits to pass out to the homeless, and collected spare change to buy a cow for a family halfway across the globe. While I didn’t know it at the time, for each of these projects my mom would work with other mothers to solicit funding or support. As a teacher, she didn’t have the personal additional funds to finance the projects. Yet it was important to her that her daughter learn to incorporate service into her life, so she collaborated with other like-minded mothers to figure it out. As I got older, my mom passed the tasks to me, and I begin to learn the power of a well-crafted ask. Even though I didn’t know to call it fundraising, I knew that if I asked our church members to give a little more, or knocked on the neighbor’s doors to tell them about a new project, or saved up my own birthday and Christmas gift money, I knew that collectively we would gather whatever was needed to successfully support the effort. I developed and carried the skill set into high school, college and graduate school, leading efforts to gather money for issues and projects that were important to me. Then one day while working on a brief at work, I realized all the projects I enjoyed were more important to me then my job. I was spending long hours doing legal work that didn’t fulfill me like my volunteer work did. I started to explore career alternatives, and finally realized that there were job options that would pay me to do what I was already doing for free!

So, I quit my job and decided to make a shift into higher education fundraising. It was a huge risk as I carried educational debt and took a pay cut that forced some difficult budgetary decisions. Yet I decided that I did not want to build a career that didn’t bring me joy. I decided that I wanted a job that didn’t feel like an actual job, and I wanted to curate a beautiful and purposeful career. I spent time reflecting on my transferable skills as a lawyer and revamped my resume to highlight my years as a volunteer fundraiser. I outlined an interview framework to talk about my perspective on the art and science of fundraising as a way to advocate for my transition out of the law and into a position I would enjoy. My strategy worked, and in 2007 I packed up everything I owned and moved to New York City to accept a formal role as a fundraiser. For the first time in my professional life, I was happy going to work. I was able to integrate all the aspects that I enjoyed about project management, problem solving, advocating for an issue I found important, and meeting very interesting people who became my donors. I was able to grow in my new career, taking on additional responsibility, larger projects, and leadership rolls. With each new position my understanding of the different aspects of fundraising expanded and I learned how to curate beautiful philanthropic experiences.

I’ve seen the beautiful moment when a student thanks the person who provided the scholarship that made it possible to attend their dream school. I helped a son beautifully honor his mother’s legacy with a named endowment in the same subject area that she taught for 50 years. Even in the midst of a frustrating platform integration, I appreciated the beauty in building out a new workflow process that made running a donor stewardship report WAY easier! Ultimately, in becoming a good fundraiser I learned how to truly see beauty in all the ways I get to make the world more beautiful. And for that, I am grateful.