Member Insights: A conversation with non-profit consultant, Lisa Keitges
Interview by Nicole Carrea
Director of Development, National Kidney Foundation
In her role as a Director at a premier non-profit consulting firm, Orr Associates, Inc. (OAI), Lisa Keitges works closely with clients in New York City and across the country providing development management and strategic planning assistance. It wasn’t the consulting, but rather the journey, that brought us together over breakfast on the Upper East Side.
Nicole: Hi Lisa! Tell me your background, how did you come to be the person that is sitting across from me today?
Lisa: I had a mish-mash of a trajectory. I was born in Japan and grew up in Texas. I decided to leave the state for college in Ohio, where I had dreams of attending law school before ultimately realizing that public service was where I could make the largest impact. Life has a funny way of changing course on you, and my first job after college ended up being with the New Orleans Saints (achieved through a random LinkedIn connection!). It wasn’t glamourous - I picked up trash at training camp in 100-degree Louisiana heat, but it opened a door. I was hired into the Saints front office and worked with several departments, including with the community relations team. With that team, we brought fitness to schools through the NFL’s Play 60 campaign. I realized I loved how it felt being part of the community and seeing the direct impact of our efforts. I wanted more of that. It was all nonprofit work from there on.
N: Picture yourself during that first job. What advice would you give that person?
L: Don’t underestimate how far being a good person and hard work will take you. The hard work is a given. You need to work hard and smart to have an impact, but it’s not talked enough about that people want to work with good, honest people. Stay true to that and yourself. It got me most places then and since.
N: Your career path has been a winding road but from my perspective you’ve pivoted at all the right moments and taken lessons from each chapter to build a really strong foundation for your next move. Having lived it I’m sure you wouldn’t agree that it was so seamless but what do you think really helped you along the way?
L: I was given the opportunity to do big things at a young age and always had great bosses that allowed me to thrive. I was the first ever full-time events coordinator at the Louisiana SPCA. Here I was, 23 years old, putting together these big fundraising events like galas, beer festivals and dog walks. They couldn’t afford someone more experienced, and I was willing to do the work. I put in the sweat equity. For me, it’s important to trust your gut, pull from your experiences, and use the expertise of those around you. I find that people have a lot of pride and won’t admit what they don’t know, and it always comes around to bite them. I’m not that person.
N: I love that attitude! It’s a mentality we, as development professionals, need to key into more often. Especially as we recruit new fundraisers into the industry. Any thoughts around that?
L: I agree- we need to recruit more self-motivated young professionals into the field and agree to allow them to make a big impact. We stifle young, ambitious people in entry level jobs where they plug numbers into spreadsheets for years. We should empower them to make decisions. Give them a stake in the game. We have to invest in our junior staff because one day they will be our senior staff. When you’re hiring, take a chance on people that don’t come from the most well-known schools or prestigious internships. It’s most important to see if they understand thought process, can think logically, and have basic relationship building skills.
N: Building on that concept of developing young staff, what role did AFP play for you early in your career?
L: I became involved with AFP as a young fundraiser to understand the career paths and different parts of fundraising. It was crucial for me early in my career to have those conversations and attend those education sessions. I was broke and couldn’t afford the sessions, but was very fortunate to have workplaces that believed in my professional development and would underwrite my attendance. Fast forward to 2018 and I’m mentoring at Fundraising Day. It’s an open call so anyone can sign up and you just talk about things like their resume or their next career move. It’s a great opportunity to pay it forward and help someone who needs an unbiased person to talk to. Or just get to know other people in the field. We’re all in this together, foster the next generation. Even if you think you have nothing to add you probably do. Get involved!
N: In one sentence, describe your current role as a non-profit consultant.
L: I work with nonprofits to help them more effectively and efficiently achieve their mission—whatever that may be-- by employing creative fundraising strategies and using best practices.
N: Do you always consult on the same area or type of situation?
L: Every non-profit partner we work with needs something different, so while I consult on a broad range of issues, my niche has become major gift programs. It’s what everyone is looking to build right now. I help nonprofits build prospect pipelines, I do trainings on how to move event attendees to major gift donors, and I even help them close major gifts as an embedded partner. I meet with my nonprofit partners often, and we talk a lot about what major gifts fundraising is, what it is not, and how to set a new or failing program up for success early. I enjoy this work, because a successful major gifts program is not only fiscally rewarding for the organization but it’s also fulfilling for the fundraisers. It’s meaningful to form relationships with donors who are working towards the same goal.
N: So many event fundraisers hit a wall in their career when they know a change is necessary but next steps might not be so clear. What was that process like for you?
L: I dove right into major gifts. It’s the future of fundraising and I knew it was where I needed to be if I were to grow in this profession. I think from a career path perspective, it takes a bit of getting over yourself. Qualifying a prospect portfolio for major gifts is hard and humbling work. And sometimes when it feels like you are going nowhere, a prospect that you’ve been cultivating for months, years, comes back to you and is finally ready to make an investment. The most rewarding part of major gifts is that after every gift I’ve closed, the donor has thanked me for allowing them to make a transformational gift. They see you as a conduit to impacting the future.
N: Your first official foray into major gifts was at NYU Langone Medical Center where they have an established program and a specialized staff to run it. What was that like for you?
L: I consider myself a jack of all trades, so It was difficult making the transition from doing everything to doing a few things. At big shops, you become segmented in your responsibilities. My job was solely to work alongside physicians and scientists, and speak to prospective donors, not to do research or fix the copier! Being in this setting, at a big shop with seasoned professionals, I quickly learned the best practices in major gift fundraising. I was very lucky to have great bosses that showed me the way and gave me the freedom I needed to excel.
N: By your own admission you weren’t an expert major gifts fundraiser when you joined the NYU Langone team. Why do you think they took a gamble on you and what gave you the confidence to do it?
L: I’d have to ask them, but I believe they saw that I understood the process and had the personality for the job. I had been entrepreneurial in my career up until that point, and that benefited me in a position where I had no goals except numbers. You have to be your own boss and I had done that, though I hadn’t really realized it. It’s important to set benchmarks and goals for yourself. I believe that smart progress and action leads to gifts and money. If you take no action, you raise no money. And beyond the ambition and bullishness of asking for major gifts, I had the persistence to not let up if I thought it might lead somewhere. To be honest, sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t.
N: Give me the “how to ask for a major gift 101” cliff notes.
L: Major gifts is a long game and you have to be willing to invest the time and resources. You start by understanding the donor’s inclination. Typically, major gift prospects have given before, so start by thanking them, understanding why they’ve been involved, talking to them about the impact of their past gift. Start to explain new initiatives and future vision, and how they could play a pivotal part in the grand strategy. When it’s time to ask them for a gift, carefully choose an amount and designation that is fitting for that person. By the time you get to the ask, the donor should expect it.
Timing is everything. Donors may not always be ready when you first approach them, but they won’t come back around if you don’t give them the opening. Send research updates, impact reports, keep them up to date and let them know the opportunity remains to be involved and make a difference.
N: Let’s bring this full circle back to your current career. How did you decide to move into non-profit consulting?
L: Over the course of my career, I had done everything…annual fund, major gifts, events, planned giving, etc. and I missed that. I wanted to do more. I also liked the idea of serving as a mentor and trainer in the professional sense, after having done it on a more ad-hoc basis for fundraising friends and junior team members before. I had known about OAI’s reputation, and their team-based approach really appealed to me. I’ve been at OAI for a year and half now and have worked on 5 or 6 projects. I’ve filled a lot of roles and have learned a lot in a short period of time. This has been a rewarding role. I feel like my time has an even greater impact now because I’m able to help more organizations achieve their missions.
N: At this point in your career, what’s your proudest accomplishment?
L: I’ve had a lot of moments in my career thus far where I’m like man I can’t believe I pulled that off! I pulled together some events at the Louisiana SPCA with great teams alongside me. At NYU Langone, I met so many people that were touched by the Medical Center’s services. I feel so fortunate to even be a little part of their lives and of their families.
N: Getting to know families and donors is always amazing. The relationships are the fun part of what we do! Is that what keeps you going?
L: Yes- and also knowing that we’re working for a better tomorrow. All of us together in the non-profit world are in this together. When you have that critical mass working towards something, that’s when you know when you can really make a change. People make fun of me for that pie-in-the-sky view, but I really believe that.
N: Is there a notable learning moment in your career?
L: This is a more general thing I’ve learned. Anything that has gone wrong in my career is because of a lack of communication. It’s always because a conversation didn’t take place that probably should have. Maybe I felt uncomfortable, didn’t want to waste someone’s time or whatever it may have been – and then it backfired. A lot of things can be fixed by just by picking up the phone or sitting down for coffee.
N: That's a strong lesson for us all to remember and perfect words of wisdom for us to end on. Thank you for sharing your career journey with us!