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  • Impact Austin

Member Spotlight: Catherine Ervin

By Phaedra Rogers

Impact Austin attracts superstars from all over our community – we’re very, very lucky that way. But luck aside, some of our members have full-time careers in the nonprofit sector and have a bird’s eye view of what’s going on outside the framework of our nonprofit. One such member, Catherine Ervin, is the Head of Advancement at St. Andrew’s School. Not only that, but she’s also the president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Greater Austin Chapter, so she really has a finger on the nonprofit/fundraising pulse.

We sat down to find out why she chose to join Impact Austin, discuss philanthropy trends, and discover the most essential thing that keeps fundraising at St. Andrew’s successful.

Why did you choose to join Impact Austin?

Rebecca Powers said it best in her book, "taking ordinary women and helping them do extraordinary things." I was drawn to Impact Austin because I believe in the collective power of women's organizations, but I also admired Rebecca's idea that giving back should be an opportunity for anyone who wants to try.

There's a bit of a myth about philanthropy, that perhaps it's only meant for people with significant means, and that's not true. Philanthropy comes in many forms beyond financial contributions that are valuable and necessary: time, energy, expertise, etc. It all matters.

I liked Impact Austin’s grassroots approach to philanthropy, opening the door to opportunities and offering more than just a thank you note for a donation. If you want to give more than dollars, Impact Austin also values your time, wants your opinions, and even wants your moxy. Yes, you can donate your money and feel wonderful about it. But you can also donate your time and talent. It’s a wonderfully holistic and welcoming approach to philanthropy.

I connected with Impact Austin by serving on a Grant Review Committee (GRC). I loved the work, which gave me an incredible opportunity to pull the curtain back on dozens of organizations in our community - many I’d never even heard of. I met executive directors who worked at folding tables with no A/C to try and keep their budgets lean, founders who poured their lives into creating opportunities for those less fortunate and are witnessing their dream every day with each life they save, volunteers who ended up loving the work and mission so much they joined the staff. It was amazing.

This town does REALLY good work all over the place. It's mind-blowing. And to sit in those grant review sessions and read proposal after proposal from these extraordinary, passionate nonprofits -- half of them on shoestring budgets, desperate for staff, trying to serve more people and expand their bandwidth -- it was both heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. But that's why we do what we do at Impact Austin - the name speaks for itself!

As the Director of Advancement for St. Andrews, how do you manage roadblocks in fundraising, like a sluggish economy or infrequent donor involvement?

We are so incredibly blessed at St. Andrew's. Schools are really complicated ecosystems, and it boils down to developing meaningful and honest relationships with our families and faculty. Without that, there is no connection to our mission and certainly no fundraising.

The best part of my job is meeting our new families every year, watching their children flourish over their time here - and then watching them graduate! - and having the extraordinary opportunity to see that entire cycle of a student's experience. I love welcoming our graduates back on campus to see their teachers or a favorite classroom - it's a full-circle experience, and I’m grateful for it.

But back to relationships. We focus on not only our students, teachers, and parents but also alumni and grandparents, and trustees…it's a large group of people! If you can establish strong roots with every family and ensure they understand their importance and impact, those families will help you weather all the complicated, messy, beautiful, and rewarding components of being a school. We couldn't do half of what we do without our parent, grandparent, and alumni engagement.

You're the president of the Greater Austin chapter of the Association for Fundraising Professionals. What trends do you see, especially in women's philanthropy?

One of the biggest trends I see is the shrinking nonprofit workforce pipeline. Hiring is challenging right now! And further, because fundraising is not perceived as a "traditional job" in the market, there aren't many young people who are being trained or are even aware that fundraising is an opportunity for a rewarding career. It plays a critical role in our country, economy, and communities. There are more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States - think about how much human capital those efforts need. They need a lot.

Because fundraising is primarily about building relationships and deepening connections, it takes a lot of time. How can you serve your mission if you are constantly looking for candidates or navigating high turnover? We need to pay attention to retention and better serve our profession by promoting our sector in a more direct way to recruit talented people.

AFP Austin Chapter at LEAD 2022

Also related to staffing is this dire need for grant funding to help hire more talent. Oftentimes funders and foundations are more interested in programming or serving a specific need, which is wonderful, but if there isn't the staff to serve that need, then it doesn't work. I hope that more funders will see the return on investment of investing in people to further the mission of an organization and the communities they serve. So many of the grant requests we received at Impact Austin were from organizations that desperately needed funding for additional staff - it's critical. And I am proud to say we could support many of those requests!

I think women innately inspire women when it comes to leadership, so yes - I believe more women-led philanthropies will only inspire more giving. Rebecca Powers is an example of that! MacKenzie Scott has certainly opened eyes with her model for philanthropy. In our own hometown, Kendra Scott has made philanthropy a core part of her business model. She does amazing work to empower women and children. She started her brand to "do good first and sell jewelry second" and has delivered that message from the beginning. And there are many more -- including the dozens of women's collectives across the country that continue to grow.

Some final thoughts?

I was raised by a family devoted to service and community. My father was a fighter pilot in the Air Force, and my mom was a nurse. Giving back was innate in every city, state, and country we lived in. So the notion that I would work outside of that frame of reference - service and community - was not something I ever thought about strategically because it's all I knew. But when I graduated from the University of Texas and began my career - broadcast news for a couple of years, public relations, and advertising - something big was missing from my life. And it was this framework of service and of giving back. Fortunately, I found what I needed at St. Andrew's.

Lastly, a plug for Impact Austin and AFP - you get what you put into these organizations, and the effort is 1000% worth it. I've made many meaningful connections, collectively agonized and celebrated many challenges and victories, and learned so much from my peers at AFP and Impact Austin. These are good people doing excellent work. Don't underestimate the long-term value of those connections and experiences - we are better together.


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