Marissa Nielsen, M.A. ’16, knew she wanted to do something fulfilling and meaningful for her career, but wasn’t sure what.
Her communications degree from Spring Arbor University in Michigan first led to a job with a local newspaper, but she soon found her true passion when she connected with her local community foundation’s board president and began to work there.
“I loved it,” she says. “I was working in my hometown of Homer, Michigan, creating real change, and it was empowering.”
However, Nielsen’s husband Paul, M.A. ‘15, was looking for a career change, and applied to the master’s degree program at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
“The school is so well-known. As soon as he got his acceptance letter, we knew we were moving to Indy. If you get in, that’s exactly where you need to be,” Marissa said.
Paul began classes while Marissa worked at a nonprofit, and he soon realized the program would be a great fit for Marissa too.
“He told me, ‘This is right up your alley, you have to do it while we’re here,’ ” Marissa said. “I started the one-year graduate certificate in philanthropic studies. It was a big commitment because I was working full-time, but it was also manageable because I knew after nine months I would be completely finished. It felt achievable. And when Paul got a great job here as a Foundation Program Manager at Anthem, Inc., I was able to roll those credits into the full master’s program.”
Thanks to her work at the Homer Area Community Foundation in Michigan, Marissa knew she wanted to work in foundations. She served in a graduate assistantship at the Smithville Charitable Foundation, a private foundation in Monroe County, Indiana.
“I was their only staff member,” Marissa says. “I did everything from conducting regular meetings with our grantees, redeveloping the website, reading all of the grant applications, and preparing board communications to implementing a program for grant reporting, and conducting site visits. I felt like I was able to take them to the next step because of my previous experience. I’m very grateful for my time there.”
Marissa also interned at the Christel DeHaan Family Foundation with alumna Melynne Klaus, M.A. ’03, as her mentor.
“I was given critical and informative work,” Marissa said. “I shadowed Melynne and not only attended meetings with grantees, but also saw how Melynne conducted those conversations. I also worked with a collaboration of different funders to decide on summer programming funding and how each organization could work together to help fund those programs.”
Her classes also were enlightening and informative.
“I loved the foundations class and the civil society class, both with Dr. Katie Herrold,” she said. “She was a phenomenal resource and sounding board because of her previous work in foundations. And I thoroughly enjoyed the gender and philanthropy course that Dr. Debra Mesch and Andrea Pactor co-taught online.”
Marissa also jumped at the opportunity to study in Germany, saying “it was a really eye-opening experience.”
Together, Marissa says, her classes and off-campus experiences all contributed to her growing knowledge and experience and gave her a network of people working in foundations because she took advantage of the opportunities the program offered.
After graduating, she soon earned a job at the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), where she now works as a Philanthropic Advisor.
“I have a portfolio of donor-advised funds and work with individual families. My role is to build relationships with donors and I see that as a long-term commitment,” she says. “I’m their point person for the foundation. In my current work, I not only draw from experiences at the foundations where I have previously worked, but also reference different readings assigned to me at the school. My experiences there have been very applicable to what I do now.”
Abby Rolland is the blog content coordinator for the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.