Paula Sakey’s path to the Boston Public Library Fund’s Executive Director role involved a few stops along the way. Forgoing the long-held opinion that changing sectors was not good for your career, Paula pursued opportunities that spoke to her and describes her current role as the perfect intersection of professional and personal.
Please share a brief overview of your career.
I fell into fundraising after graduating UMass Amherst with a business degree and worked at Liberty Mutual. I didn’t like the large corporate environment. I found my first role supporting the Director of Corporate Relations at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the Help Wanted section of the Boston Globe. It was a great job and I couldn’t have landed at a better place – it was the start of their journey to being the powerhouse they are today. I moved into prospect research and then major gifts and at the end of my tenure, led their Western MA/CT effort as Regional Director for the Jimmy Fund.
I loved my work with the Jimmy Fund but realized it wasn’t growing me in the ways I wanted to. The theme that runs through my career is that I start at nascent organizations and help grow them. I was able to do that at both the Nursing and Public Health and Health Sciences Schools and the College of Engineering at UMass Amherst. When the time came to think about the next step, my family was open to being closer to Boston. The opportunity at Wentworth Institute of Technology tied nicely into my work at the College of Engineering and they wanted to grow their program. Again, my favorite thing to do so I hit the ground running. During my tenure there, we laid the groundwork for a $100M campaign, the largest in the institution’s history. After six years working with President Zorica Pantic and helping with her transition to retirement, I was able to onboard the new President and then felt it was time for me to explore the next chapter in my career.
What drew you to the Executive Director and Vice President of Development role at the Boston Public Library?
I think there was a mutual attraction. My experience with education and with building best-practice, comprehensive fundraising programs was attractive to them. Everything about them was attractive to me! I was interviewing for VP roles in higher education but felt my heart wasn’t in it given the incredible changes in the higher education landscape. Lindauer called and Libby Roberts said there was a leadership role at a leading and iconic institution in Boston, she couldn’t give details yet but wanted me to know that she was thinking of me. She piqued my curiosity, to say the least! When she called back and said it was the Boston Public Library, I said “Wow, this is it.” My husband is a trained librarian, and his father ran the Cambridge Public Library system for more than 25 years. I have a personal interest in the resources and services that libraries provide that are critical to the health and wellbeing of communities. They needed someone to build a program and my career has been about building programs. The scale of this opportunity spoke to me – public libraries are free to all, building a program with that level of impact spoke to me. I spent 18 years at UMass where I made the case for private support of a public institution – I understand how philanthropy can go above and beyond what a city and state can provide.
I feel really good about this intersection of my personal and professional worlds. While talking with the president and chair of the board during the interview process, they could feel my passion. You have to believe in the institution and its mission. Having genuine connectivity to the work you do and articulating your passion for the mission comes through with donors and your team and enables you to dream big. I love the level of excitement and potential for what we can build.
People often think you can’t change sectors once you have worked in a certain area. You transitioned from health care to higher education and now to the Boston Public Library Fund. How have you navigated these changes? What are the skills that you feel carry through to each position?
When I shifted from healthcare to higher education, my work with individuals was different. It was far more metric oriented, and I was traveling a lot. I think one of the skills I carried with me from sector to sector was managing my time. Identifying key priorities, staying focused, and keeping my eye on the goal.
What has been the biggest highlight of your career?
Relationships stand out to me – I feel fortunate to work in this profession and meet the people I have met. I can think of two individuals who stand out to me. At Wentworth, I was with a donor who I would help with small errands occasionally. One time we went to City Hall so he could pay a bill. The woman helping us recognized his last name and asked if he established the scholarship at the high school that benefited students every year. She thanked him for his generosity because her son was a scholarship recipient and I think her appreciation meant the world to him. When he passed, Wentworth received his entire estate – he was a civil servant who never married and didn’t have any heirs. He was so unassuming and humble; I think about him often as we developed a close friendship and his influence on me was quiet but profound.
Another recent highlight for me was talking with a Boston Public Library planned giving donor who grew up in Boston and used the library as a child. Later in life, he became interested in finance so took advantage of all the programming the library offered. Ultimately, he developed a real estate company and in his words is able to “live the American dream’. He is giving one-quarter of his estate to the library to support financial literacy programs – how incredible is that? You meet people in this work you wouldn’t meet any other way. It is profoundly moving how people give back. These stories and these people are my highlights.
What do you see as the biggest opportunity for your work with BPL? What is most exciting to you?
There are so many opportunities! The Boston Public Library ticks nearly every funder’s box from access, opportunity, education, and equity for all citizens starting with our early literacy programs to adult ESL classes and everything in between. One of the biggest opportunities is educating the philanthropic community about the work that takes place in the library. More than just books, the Boston Public Library is a place of information and resources, offering equal access to help people navigate and access tools to better themselves both professionally and personally. Its 26 branches throughout the city represent safe-havens. During the pandemic, a bright light has been shined on the inequities in our community, making the role of the Boston Public Library an essential service. As we look at the important work of the Library during the pandemic and post in the recovery and health and well-being of our citizens – from workforce programming, essential financial and technical literacy services, ESL, access to stable internet and technology, as well as youth engagement and mentoring, there is no better place to invest to provide impact and scale in helping Boston build and strengthen its communities and citizens.
So in my book (no pun intended), this call to action is for everyone – my constituency is all of those people and institutions that believe in equal access, democracy, and bettering the lives of our citizenry and hence our communities. We are building our donor base and I am proud of how our community is responding and the impact of the work ahead.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
That’s a tough question! Honestly, it would be to lighten up a bit. As we age, we understand that concept a little better. I now have history and learning behind me that I didn’t have as a younger person. It would have been nice to have some of this balance at a younger age.
Written by Megan Abbett, Lindauer Senior Consultant.