Doing Good: Training Tomorrow’s Fundraisers

November 4, 2013

By Tracey Palmer
Stonehill Alumni Magazine  Summer|Fall 2013

Laura Sidla '11

In high school, Laura Sidla ’11 (left) cohosted a student art gallery in Rhode Island to give young artists the chance to show their work. Proceeds from gallery events went to international charities. In recognition of her work, Sidla earned a college scholarship from the Association of Fundraising Professionals. “That’s when I realized this was a professional career,” says Sidla. “I could do this for a living.”

Sidla’s experience is unusual. There are roughly 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States. Fundraising is a steadily growing field, but very few people who become professional fundraisers actually plan to join the profession. Even fewer have a college degree in the subject. The fact is there are very few academic programs offering the fundraising option, especially for undergraduates. However, an increasing number of young people are passionate about making a difference in the world. And many of them want to put that spirit to work in the nonprofit sector. That’s why Stonehill’s Developing Fundraising Leaders Institute (DFLI) is so important.

At Stonehill, where Sidla majored in communication, she was quick to get involved with the Center for Nonprofit Management (CNM) and DFLI. Working full-time to pay for college, she wasted no time in building up her nonprofit network; every job she landed was in a nonprofit organization, every opportunity the result of a CNM or DFLI connection.

Launched five years ago as a collaborative effort between CNM in the Mission Division and the Advancement Division (the group responsible for the College’s fundraising efforts), DFLI teaches students the ins and outs of philanthropy and fundraising, also called development. In 12 weeks, accepted students learn about major gifts, annual giving, corporate and foundation relations, development communications, stewardship and special events, and development research. Members of Advancement teach eight of the learning modules and CNM leads four mini “boot camp” sessions throughout the program.

Students who are accepted into DFLI are “woven from a different cloth,” says Douglas Smith, assistant vice president and director of development, who teaches in the program. “They have a passion for fundraising and making a difference in the world.”

“They have a passion for fundraising and making a difference in the world.”
 Douglas Smith, Assistant Vice President and Director of Development, Stonehill College

Today, Sidla is part of a professional fundraising team at a large international non-governmental organization based in Boston that raises about $90 million a year. “Most people don’t realize how complex fundraising is,” Sidla says. “We wear so many hats. Nonprofits are understaffed, so we have to be the designer, marketer, data specialist, advertiser, event planner, grant writer…With DFLI, I got to learn what all those components are.”

In the program, Sidla says, she also learned the importance of listening to donors, learning about their interests and motivations. “It helped me understand that I am supporting donors in achieving their philanthropic and financial goals,” she says. With only two years on the job, Sidla was recently promoted to leadership gifts coordinator. “In this profession, you get to connect people with a mission they care about. It’s a meaningful way to spend 40 hours a week. I just love it.”

Professionals With Passion

Sarah Varadian '10“Traditionally, fundraisers have been refugees from other professions, who learn the job as they go,” says Smith. “There’s really been no formal training available. DFLI was created to provide students with the skill set they need to enter into the nonprofit world with firsthand fundraising knowledge and experience.”

Although the DFLI program awards no course credit, the interview and application process is selective. “Students must show an aptitude for fundraising and a passion for a nonprofit career,” says Smith. “Because it’s more than Development 101.” On top of the five other courses most students are taking in their junior or senior years, DFLI students must finish regular assignments and homework, attend special events and complete the four  boot camps.

“It’s a rigorous program,” says Sarah Varadian ’10 (right), the CNM interim director. “It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it.” Varadian was a CNM intern in 2008 when DFLI was created, and participated in the first DFLI class. After Stonehill, she worked as a consultant for Lifespan, a healthcare system whose development department is responsible for the fundraising and advancement of five hospitals in Rhode Island.

Varadian eventually returned to her alma mater to help run DFLI, applying the skills and knowledge she acquired as a student. But her enthusiasm for fundraising existed well before that. After Sept. 11, while still in high school, Varadian launched her own nonprofit project, Wee-Care Bears. The thousands of dollars she raised making and selling teddy bears helped build schools for girls in Afghanistan.

“It's a rigorous program. It's a challenge, but it's worth it.”
 Sarah Varadian ’10 

Mission and Purpose

Janna Stanke '11With more than 60 graduates to its credit, DFLI is fulfilling its mission to build the leadership capacity of nonprofits in the region.

Janna Stanke ’11 (left) is putting her DFLI education to work as a development associate and database coordinator at Father Bill’s and Mainspring House in Quincy.

“The program was one of the best choices I ever made,” says Stanke. “I really enjoy what I do.”

It was DFLI that connected Stanke to Father Bill’s, where she first worked as a part-time intern. When a full-time position opened up, she was ready. “The program really gives you a little of everything,” notes Stanke. “I’m still using what I learned, only I wish I had taken advantage of it sooner, because it offers wonderful connections. It’s a great network.”

“The program was one of the best choices I ever made. I really enjoy what I do.”
 Janna Stanke ’11 

Wendell Cosgrove '11Only nine days after Wendell Cosgrove ’11 (right) graduated from Stonehill and DFLI, he landed a job at CCS, a large international fundraising consulting firm, and traveled to Cleveland for his first assignment—a $125 million campaign for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

“Without DFLI, I probably would not have gotten this job,” says Cosgrove, who is eager to spread the word about the program. “I think more students would take advantage of it if they knew about it,” he says. “It gave me the development and sales skills I needed, and led me to where I am now in my career. If you told me when I was a senior at Stonehill that I’d be making $500,000 asks, I would have laughed. It’s a good feeling to know that I’m also teaching other people to do something they don’t want to do—ask for money. And seeing what the money can do for these small parishes is so rewarding. I can definitely thank DFLI for that.”

To learn more about the DFLI program or to apply for DFLI 2014, please visit:

Making Your Match


Your palms are sweating. Your heart is racing. Adrenaline is rushing through your body. You’re about to meet someone who could change your life, but you have only six minutes to convince this person that you’re the one.

Will you say the right thing? Or will your nerves get the better of you? No, it’s not blind speed dating…but something very much like it. It’s the Donor-Nonprofit Speed Networking Challenge, and here’s how it works.

Near the end of the DFLI program, students are paired up and given no more than 90 minutes prior to the event day to prepare. Each student team’s objective is to create a fictional nonprofit organization. The pair must develop a clear mission statement for its nonprofit organization and create a project in support of its mission, with a specific fundraising goal. On the day of the Speed Networking event, each student team has 15 minutes to regroup and finalize the outline of its fictional nonprofit organization and perfect its elevator pitch.

Then the fun begins. In the room are 10 donors. Each donor has a different giving capacity. There is a total of $100,000 (in fictional money) to be given to various charitable causes. Each student team has exactly six minutes to make a pitch to each donor. After the last round, each team has one minute to briefly explain its mission, project and fundraising plan to the entire group. Now… may the best pitch win!