Recently, we’ve been highlighting key figures who have shaped the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and its predecessor, the Center on Philanthropy, throughout their combined history.
Today, we’re spotlighting Gwendolyn Perry Davis. Davis is completing her two terms on the Board of Visitors and also teaches for The Fund Raising School, which she was introduced to early in her career. Here, she shares her story.
Abby Rolland (AR): What is your background?
Gwendolyn Perry Davis (GPD): An important note to remember is that I had no formal education in fundraising. When attending Butler University, I studied accounting but soon realized that I did not want to be an accountant! I had to complete an internship and I ended up working at a small nonprofit. While there, I became very interested in the development director’s work.
I discovered The Fund Raising School after accepting my first full time development position. That discovery really changed my perspective and my idea of what my career could be.
AR: What do you do now?
GPD: I am the deputy director of development for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. I lead the development team, which consists of 17 team members. We cover all areas of fundraising to ensure that the Museum can present the work of extraordinary artists to the public. Our work is important because philanthropy is the largest revenue driver for the institution. Depending on the year, about half of our annual operating income comes from philanthropic sources.
AR: Going back to your roles with The Fund Raising School and the then-Center on Philanthropy. How did you become involved with each of them?
GPD: I started as an instructor for The Fund Raising School. I was young and incredibly passionate about the work I was doing (and continue to be)! Drs. Gene Tempel, Tim Seiler, and Dwight Burlingame are really amazing and special people. They listened to all of my ideas and interests and provided guidance and advice during that formative period.
Soon after I started teaching, I had these amazing opportunities to partner with those same individuals on projects that the Center on Philanthropy was undertaking. One that stands out was a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to build bridges and foster connections between academic institutions and fundraising practitioners working in the field. I was the practitioner partner for the project.
It gave me an intense and behind-the-scenes understanding of what the Center was trying to accomplish, how that influenced The Fund Raising School curriculum, and the important role that practitioners play in making sure that we continue to address the questions, concerns, and opportunities that donors and institutions are raising. There is a really amazing ecosystem and when we work well together, we do important things. So, I was very engaged even before I became a member of the Board of Visitors.
AR: Talk about your time as a member of the Board of Visitors.
GPD: I was invited to the board by Dr. Patrick Rooney. At that time, there was significant work in supporting the leadership as the Center transitioned to a school. I was able to contribute my advice and share my dreams for the school.
Since then, I hope that I’ve been helpful in advocating for the school. My work introduces me to a lot of interesting philanthropic donors and institutions. I try to make introductions that are helpful to others. I hope to continue to do this work now that my official term has ended.
In addition, I’m a donor to the school and I was a donor to the Center. It’s one of my top philanthropic priorities. I’ve benefitted from the most amazing opportunities and I want to help others have similar experiences.
AR: What has been your favorite memory?
GPD: The moment when the school was approved was an important memory. It was —and still is — a transformative action for IU and the field. Schools aren’t created often on university campuses, so that certainly stood out. It was great to see all of the staff’s hard work come to fruition.
AR: What’s the benefit of having a school dedicated to the study of philanthropy?
GPD: Fundraising has become more professionalized during my career. A school gives my work more validity. It interprets donor behavior through thoughtful research. A school is a place to capture donor stories.
It’s also a very clear feeder for where to find smart, young professionals – bright young minds who are thinking about the nonprofit sector in new ways.
AR: What has been the impact on you of working with The Fund Raising School and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy?
GPD: The work of The Fund Raising School has been important to me personally and professionally. It’s been as much of an opportunity for me to serve the profession and the people that I’ve met over the last 17, 18 years as it is for me to develop my skills in teaching others how to do this work.
Fundraisers are good people. I believe that we personally benefit from moments with donors who’ve said, ‘you’ve helped change the way I think or view the world, or changed my life in some way.’ As an instructor, I’ve heard those stories and I hope help other fundraisers have those moments in their work. It’s powerful.
AR: Any other thoughts?
GPD: I hope that you can express my thanks for the opportunity to serve the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. I don’t have enough public occasions to express my thanks for the opportunity and the people in my journey. The students I’ve met along the way, the leadership of the school, the peers and professionals. Thank you!