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Barbara O'Reilly, CFRE

Barbara O'Reilly, CFRE

Introduce yourself to our audience. Tell us who you are and what you are currently focused on.

For as long as I can remember, philanthropy has been a part of my life whether being on the receiving end of a donor's generosity or simply aware of the impact charitable dollars has in the community around me. So it's not surprising that fundraising and philanthropy have become core tenets in my life.

As a senior fundraising consultant, I help non-profits of all sizes cut through the noise and develop a profitable fundraising strategy that focuses on the resources, skills and tactics they need to build more effective donor relationships and catapult their revenue. It's my mission to transform leaders, staff and board members into fundraising superstars equipped with the right combination of annual, major gifts and campaign know-how. Through coaching sessions and training workshops my clients feel more confident to have the conversations that lead to more funds and greater mission impact. In addition to fundraising strategy development, I'm also hired to conduct deep-dive assessments and campaign feasibility studies.

Tell us about your favorite Ellevate Network memory or success story. Why are you a member?

I really value the Ellevate Network most for the educational programs and networking events where I can meet talented women in the DC area whom I might not otherwise have crossed paths.

What qualities does it take for someone to be successful in your line of work?

I've been consulting on my own for the last 10 years and have been in fundraising for 25 years total. Fundraising is so often perceived as "dialing for dollars" but that's a misconception. Whether as an in-house fundraiser or now as a consultant, my work is about building relationships, listening to and learning from donors or clients, and then determining the best way way forward. When I was a front-line fundraiser, this was understanding how to connect donors and potential donors with the projects or opportunities to realize their philanthropic dreams to be part of the change they want to see in the world. Now as a consultant, it's helping clients figure out what skills and capacities they need most right now to raise more money.

We’d love to hear more about your career path. What led you to where you are today?

As a young girl, I never thought “when I grow up, I want to be a fundraiser.” I distinctly remember wanting to be a teacher, then a doctor, an advertising professional (I had dreams of writing commercials!), and a photojournalist. Fundraising certainly was not in that list. In fact, it wasn’t even a recognized profession then. My story is not unique. Most people I’ve met in this field never intentionally decided to become a fundraiser. We all “fell” into this profession in some way or another.

For me, it all started when I was a rising senior at Columbia University and I needed a summer job. I wasn’t inspired by a call to action for a higher purpose. I just needed a job. I called the Alumni Affairs and Development office and what followed was an incredible learning experience staffing the Director of Alumni Affairs and Development over that summer and the following academic year. I did prospect research, worked on Columbia’s campaign case statement, wrote correspondence, attended alumni events and got a “behind the scenes” look at how to build relationships with alumni.

That part-time job propelled me to join Harvard’s Development team after graduation (until I “figured out what I really wanted to do”). Now, twenty-five years later, here I am, still in fundraising, although now I train, coach, and consult with nonprofits to help them more effectively fundraise.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I am so privileged to advance the mission of so many incredible organizations in their work to change lives, improve communities, advance solutions to critical societal problems. Being a very small part of their work--by extension--is the most rewarding part of my job for sure.

What is it about your job that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?

Fundraising is the exact right fit for me because I'm a problem solver, a really good listener, and want to save the world. Working with nonprofit clients, I have to really listen to what they say and don't say to understand what's holding them back while identifying their best opportunities for growth. Then, based on what I learn, together we develop a right-sized strategy for the organization’s goals, abilities, and culture.

What is your favorite social media site? Why?

I have been a very reluctant adopter of social media but I have to say LinkedIn and Twitter are tied for my favorite site. I like them both because I feel part of wider virtual communities and I've become connected to pretty terrific and smart people because of both sites. I also love the fact that they are so different. In LinkedIn, I have a great platform to showcase my thought leadership. On Twitter, I can promote that as well, but I can also be a little more irreverent and fun.

What advice would you offer future leading ladies wishing to break into your industry?

If you are mission driven and love working with people, consider fundraising as a career. Over the last 25 years, I’ve watched this field grow and become more “professional” through academic programs in fundraising and nonprofit management, certification, and an abundance of webinars and other workshops offered online and through professional fundraising organizations around the country.

Fundraising doesn't just mean asking for money. Even then, there's a strategy and intentionality to donor engagement. When it's done correctly, making the ask for a gift is a natural next step in building relationships with your donors. But there are other roles that support fundraising such as in communications, research, and finance that are equally as important.

What is the best career advice you ever received?

There are two pieces of advice that have shaped my career. First was from my mom who told me I can do anything I set my mind to do. Thinking of that has always given me the confidence to try new things even when I wasn't so sure it was the right next step.

The other piece of advice that has stuck with me was from my Dean for Development at Harvard when I started out as a fundraiser fresh out of college. I sat down with her to ask what I needed to do to have a successful career. She responded that how I volunteer my time outside the office was as important as my performance in the office. As a 22-23 year old who was lucky to get to work barely on time every day, I didn't know what to do with this advice. Yet it's something that has stuck with me for the last 25 years. I haven't always agreed with it and sometimes even scoffed as I recalled that conversation. But at last I get it. As fundraisers, we've got to walk the walk. Being donors and volunteers ourselves helps us to understand all the factors that go into philanthropic and volunteer decisions. I've volunteered for various organizations over the years, serve on an advisory panel for a fundraising think tank, offer trainings pro bono for various organizations around DC, and this year am president-elect of the Association of Fundraising Professional Metro DC chapter. All of those volunteer opportunities have enriched my professional life and connected me with incredible colleagues and friends.

What is one piece of advice you’d offer working moms?

I always thought in the back of my head that I wanted to be a consultant someday. When my daughter was born, I figured that was the best time to make that transition to allow myself to have a little more flexibility in my schedule and workload. While I have continued to work since my daughter was less than a year, it's taken me quite some time to really figure out how to get the work/family balance right. Yes, I have flexibility in my schedule, but as a solo-preneur, there is always something to for my business--whether it's client work, new business development, marketing, content creation, billing, etc. Turning off is not always easy.

Over the last year, I've committed myself to being more diligent in how I schedule my time (I've found the Stephen Covey First Things First approach a lifesaver!); discerning when I can really say "no" to things and giving myself permission to do that; and unplugging more so that when I am with my husband and daughter, I am really "present."


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