A Development Officer’s Perspective
Editor’s note: Christine Sturm Kirk is a full-time law student at the University of Memphis School of Law and a part-time editorial staff member at The Sharpe Group. Before entering law school, Christine worked in non-profit development and public relations for more than 10 years, including positions at the American University, The National Center for Children and Families, and the Baddour Center.
Two and a half years ago, my husband and I both decided to pursue major changes in our careers. For me, the decision was to take a hiatus from my work as a nonprofit development officer and return to the life of a student. I had worked in nonprofit development and administration for more than 10 years and had always considered it a privilege to serve my community and work in a profession that I loved. Still, I had been considering attending law school for several years, and, with some all-too-serious doubts lingering in the back of my mind, I resigned from my position as Director of Development and entered the law school class of 2004.
Back to school
Some people claim that they have always known that they wanted to be a lawyer. I am not one of those people. The decision to attend law school was a long, gradual process for me. During my career as a development officer, I, like many in the development field, found myself spending more and more time with donors who were not only interested in making immediate, outright gifts to their charitable interests, but also wanted to make gifts as part of their long-range financial and estate planning. As a result, I also spent more and more time meeting with donors’ attorneys and learning about charitable giving techniques and related tax law issues.
My interactions with estate planning attorneys who had little knowledge of charitable giving and seemingly less interest in philanthropic purposes frustrated me. I began to think that maybe I could serve donors better as an attorney than I could as a development officer.
Now entering my third, and final, year of law school, I can honestly say I have enjoyed law school and will never regret the time and other resources I have invested in this endeavor. Law school is intellectually stimulating, personally challenging, and a nice change of pace from working 70-80 hour weeks! In law school I have been able to hone my oral and written communication skills, become more methodical in solving problems, and become a more effective advocate for people and causes in which I believe. As a result of the law school experience, I feel I will be better equipped in some ways to serve donors with their gift planning needs than before.
On the other hand, I have also learned that law school should not be considered as a prerequisite for success in planned giving or other aspects of nonprofit development work. Law school will not necessarily help me become a better development officer. Development work is first and foremost a “people business.” While many lawyers enjoy working with people and helping people through significant events in their lives, law school does not really prepare anyone to be a good listener, an empathetic friend, or a thoughtful advisor. No amount of technical understanding garnered in law school can compensate for an inability to understand and empathize with the needs and concerns of donors.
Development officers, like lawyers, must be comfortable speaking with people about what may be very personal and confidential matters—such as family relationships, finances, and their own mortality. Development officers should be at least somewhat familiar with the basic legal implications of those matters, but it is far more important to understand the personal needs, desires, and goals of donors. Law school cannot and does not teach you those skills. That comes with practice and is built on personal satisfaction derived from helping people make gifts as they also meet significant and sometimes difficult challenges in their lives.
In the end, I believe that my legal education will make me a better, more competent, and more capable development officer. But I have also come to believe that a legal education is not necessary to be successful in major and planned gift development. If anything, I believe that prior experience as a development officer may ultimately help practicing attorneys be more service oriented, empathetic, and better able to articulate complex matters in a readily understandable way. I am also finding that the two career paths are remarkably similar—exciting, meaningful, and rewarding—and I look forward to using what I have learned over the past three years to help nonprofits and their donors meet their goals in mutually rewarding ways.