Before Elizabeth (Libby) Roberts joined Lindauer, she enjoyed a diverse multi-sector development career.
Here, the former CDO shares some of the insights she’s gained from a variety of vantage points, including a stint working at her alma mater.
Q. How and why did you first get into development?
A. I started doing “good deeds” as a Girl Scout when I was eight or nine years old and as an acolyte in my hometown of Crawfordsville, Indiana.
As a Girl Scout, I sold 800 boxes of cookies. As a pat on the back I was named “Girl Scout of the Month.” I really liked being part of the troop, as well as the competitive nature of selling more cookies than anyone. As an acolyte, I loved serving my church, and especially wearing the robes.
The whole “you ask and you get” concept became part of my childhood. My father ran a company and sold polyethylene sheet, so I knew that he presented ideas and convinced people to part with their money. My mother was a den mother and a church volunteer. When someone suggested that fundraising combined the bottom line perspective of my father and social value of my mother, it sounded like the perfect path for me.
I was advised by a college friend that fundraising was the absolute best profession because you can visit a buttoned-up stodgy executive and watch him become 18 again when you speak with him about his alma mater. There aren’t many professions where you can see the sentimental sides of people, and that appealed to me.
Q. What did you like best about the profession?
A. While later in my career I was able to help teach generosity, early in my career passionate alumni taught me about generosity.
Philanthropy is very American – if you look at our university, hospital, and library systems, they are built by people who were generous visionaries and that is unlike any other country in the world. Philanthropy speaks to the values of our country and I am proud to be part of an industry where people give a hand to the next person.
It has been a privilege to be a fundraiser for 30+ years. While there is a myth that you can’t move between sectors, I did quite successfully. I found that if you are passionate and demonstrate that you can build relationships, you can absolutely follow your heart and change sectors.
Q. What, if anything, would you have changed about the profession at any point?
A. I once had a boss who thought it was noble not to ask for more resources. When I went to him with a request, he would tell me to “work smarter.” While that may have been the right decision at the time, institutional leaders now seem to have a better understanding that if they give fundraisers a quarter, they will get a dollar in return.
Q. You’ve served in #1, #2 and staff positions in just about every sector: healthcare, higher education, secondary education, religion and the arts. Talk about the pros and cons of each.
A. Healthcare was my favorite sector. I found at the end of the day, in my small way, I had helped someone get closer to a cure. I never met people who were more alive than when I worked with Dana-Farber cancer patients and their families. The little annoyances didn’t matter and these beloved people always took the high road. I had goose bumps every day.
In higher education, I took satisfaction from knowing that my work allowed some to go to college who otherwise might not have attended. One of the reasons I loved being at Harvard Law School was because the law school was in its own orbit while being part of the larger university. This gave me a broader reach so that I could test more of my skills.
I believe it is important for professionals to understand how they are wired and which sector and what part of the fundraising machine matches their abilities and make-up. Some people should never manage others, but are misled to think that’s the only way to get ahead. Those who take the long view and are patient are typically better equipped for major gifts. Some people just have to be in the arts, period, the end. My point is to reflect and evaluate one’s skills and ask: is this the right environment for who I am and for this particular time in my life?
Q. What traits did the leader(s) who mentored you possess?
A. They were confident optimists and were my champions. They demonstrated to me that if you have conviction in the mission, when you ask for money, you will get it.
They also taught me that if we do our job right, we are invisible. Someone else is going to get the credit, whether it is other staff, your boss, etc. You have to be someone who is confident in your own abilities, and not too proud.
My mentors helped me remember my role and that it was important to always put someone else first. If we do our job right, we help people find the joy that comes with the impact they are making with their gift.
Q. What traits did you look for in your staff or #2’s?
A. In addition to know-how, I looked for curiosity, optimism, grace and those who knew which bread plate was theirs. Humility was also key which goes back to invisibility of the role.
It may sound strange to say, and trickier to identify, but it is really important for fundraisers to be interesting and well-read. We spend a lot of time in the car with the president, or in the elevator making small talk with board members. The best relationship builders are those who can get conversations started, help others feel comfortable and important, and who can talk about anything.
Q. At one point in your career, you went back to your alma mater, Dartmouth. What was it like to “go home again?”
A. I was in heaven. I didn’t think I could ever do a better job than when I was advocating for my alma mater. I wore my passion on my sleeve and that will never end. As someone once said – you don’t go to Dartmouth for four years, you go for the rest of your life.
Q. What personal values or beliefs have impacted your professional success?
A. Working in the nonprofits is doing God’s work.
When I was young, each week my parents gave me a dime to put in the church offering plate. I didn’t really know what it meant, but somehow I knew it was important and it made me feel good. Modeling behavior and helping people find that joy is a really important part of this profession for me.
This profession permits development professionals to help people work through the relationship they have with their money. Despite the fact that we are an affluent country, we have a fear of money. Many live in fear that they will not have enough money. Others fear people are attracted to them because they have an abundance of money. Helping people think about “how much is enough” runs through this profession. Helping donors leverage their money for impact is very powerful and one reason why this is an amazing profession. It allows us to participate in something bigger than ourselves and that changes the course of the world.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring CDOs?
A. Choose your boss very carefully, and don’t be blinded by the money.
I interview well but what I could do better is interview those with whom I’ll be working and working for. If I had asked better questions and pulled back the curtain a bit more, I would perhaps have made different decisions. These “lessons learned” help me be a better Lindauer ambassador.
One of the things I always tell my candidates is: Share how valuable you are and will be to the client. Be humble and confident. Do your homework and ask all the questions necessary to ensure that this is the right fit for you at this time of your life.