4 Lessons Learned as an Emerging Nonprofit Professional at The Giving Institute Mentor Series 2023

Blog post by Cassie Bey, Photos by Thandi Cai (3-minute read)

The next generation of changemakers has arrived! Hear from this newcomer about her experience of The Giving Institute’s two-day gathering of sector leaders as she shares takeaways for other aspiring nonprofit professionals.

The Giving Institute consists of member organizations that have embraced and embodied core values of ethics, excellence and leadership in advancing philanthropy. It is the parent organization of The Giving USA Foundation which advances philanthropy through research and education and produces the annual report on giving in the United States, Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy.

What is The Giving Institute Mentor Series?

The Giving Institute Mentor Series is two full days of programming and networking for people new to philanthropy consulting. It features presentations by seasoned experts, roundtable discussions guided by leaders of consulting firms, and a chance to connect with consultants from other firms – it’s basically a deep dive for nonprofit nerds like myself. A month after the series, I am still reeling from everything I learned, the most important of which I share with the hopes that I can help other aspiring nonprofit leaders and their mentors along in their journeys.

Image on the left shows two people in business casual attire having a conversation at a table. The image on the right shows a woman in a tweed blazer holding a microphone.
Left: Cassie Bey, Client Service Associate at Alford Group, roleplays the Nonflict Model of Conflict-Resolution. Right: Dr. Gloria A. Chance, Psychologist, and CEO of Mousai Group leads workshop on Nonflict with attendees.

Lesson 1: Be courageous, be curious.

Admittedly, I did not expect to be able to bring my whole self to The Giving Institute Mentor Series. As a long-time fundraiser who is new to the consulting community, I carried preconceptions about what I would experience at a conference hosted by The Giving Institute, an organization shrouded in prestige and serious business.

I envisioned entering a boardroom filled with suits, drowning in a sea of industry jargon and acronyms. I was almost immediately proved wrong; the Mentor Series is the welcome offering at the beginning of your consulting journey; the cornucopia of learning for nonprofit consultants; the great equalizer.

The morning began with networking over breakfast pastries. I embarked on a conversation with team members with organizations I had recognized as Alford Group “competitors,” which soon evolved into a genuine exchange of stories.  In a world of professionalism, I have not always felt spaces were so welcoming to honest conversations about the reality of our work. Again, The Giving Institute surprised me as I engaged in a rapid-fire segment about workplace bias.

Image on the left shows the back of a woman's head as she sits in a conference room full of people. The image on the right shows two people sitting at a table talking.
Left: Bey listens in as Jim Bush, CEO of Winkler Group presents “Understanding Discovery.” Right: LuCinda Vacura, Vice President of Business Development & Marketing at Alford Group, engages in a breakout session conversation.

Lesson 2: Let your nonprofit nerdiness fly.

The presentations and workshops were underway, and the wealth of knowledge in the room was palpable. At first, I panicked— I didn’t know anything about the topics that were being presented. But after the initial anxiety wore off, I leaned into this and used my newness as my superpower. No assumptions here.  When a question popped into my head, I made sure to voice it: I polled the audience of attendees, I asked the person next to me, and heck, I even inquired of my neighbor in the bathroom stalls. We are all in this together, right?

My inner student couldn’t get enough. It was like a crash course in consulting coolness right at my fingertips. And boy, was it validating, especially for a rookie like me!

Now, don’t get me wrong – I will always feel a deep love for my fundraising community, but as my dreams for my career evolve, it was valuable to be in a room of consultants who could challenge and support me in new ways. I didn’t think there was more to life than planned giving and campaigns. Now that I was immersed in the environment of the Mentor Series, I had an opportunity to soak up all the fascinating facets of the job that my consulting peers had to offer.  

The image on the left shows a consultant wearing a zebra blazer sitting at a table speaking into a microphone. The image on the right shows a consultant standing and speaking into a microphone.
Left: Bey poses a question during “Research in Philanthropy and the Future of Giving USA.” Right: Paul Koreen, CEO of Ketchum Canada Inc. poses a question during the same session.

I didn’t wait long to put this newfound wisdom to use. The day after absorbing Winkler Group CEO Jim Bush’s wisdom on “The Best Results Start with Great Discovery,” I was throwing game-changing questions into a discovery call faster than you can say “consulting superstar.” The nugget that I put in my pocket and pulled out only days later was when Jim stated that many problems in client work could be traced back to a lack of alignment that could have been uncovered in the discovery call.

Lesson 3: Your nonprofit network is here to support you.

Before this series, my colleagues at Alford Group had often mentioned The Giving Institute’s commitment to growing the nonprofit profession. This experience was an invaluable confirmation of that. Everyone in attendance was eagerly on standby to drop some industry knowledge, and refreshingly, to receive knowledge too. Even though I did not have all the answers, I found that my experiences and thought leadership was celebrated and strengthened through my interactions.  

One of my favorite sessions was “Research in Philanthropy and the Future of Giving USA” facilitated by Josh Birkholz of BWF and Wendy McGrady of The Curtis Group who provided attendees with new trends to watch and datasets to obsess over. I wondered about the “generosity crisis” and how to quantify social impact investments. This session was especially exciting when the presenters turned the mic over to the audience for our input. I was boosted by the presenters’ commitment to lifelong learning and excited to engage with leaders and experts as they asked for my input.

The image on the left shows a board room with black walls. At the front of the room is a nonprofit leader sitting looking at the crowd with their hands folded. The image on the right shows three people sitting at a table. The person in the middle speaks into a microphone on the table.
Left: Brenda B. Asare, President & CEO of Alford Group, opens her first Giving Institute board meeting as newly appointed Board Chair. Right: Joshua Birkholz, CEO of BWF and chair of the Giving USA Foundation board with Asare who led The Giving Institute board meeting.

Lesson 4: The future is ours.

My engines are revving from the conversations about the future of generosity, giving and nonprofit work. It’s day two, the last leg of the event. I am sitting at Giving USA Board meeting– a VIP experience at a consulting rock concert, minus the screaming fans. My ears and eyes were open at the chance to listen in on what the board members of a nationally acclaimed organization leading top-tier research in our field discuss in this formal setting – now that’s good stuff. The future vision of Giving USA started to take shape in the back-and-forth before us. Surrounded by this new crew of thinkers and doers, I felt like I found my people.  

And you know what? We are a part of that future vision. “Chair Bey” of a Giving Institute committee or taskforce has a nice ring to it. Thank you to the Mentor Series for turning my professional journey into a fun-filled, eye-opening ride. 

The image on the right shows a consultant smiling and waving. The image on the right shows three consultants standing and waving.
Left: Bey is a Client Service Associate and first-time attendee of The Giving Institute Mentor Series. Right: Asare and Bey pose for a photo with Ryan Woroniecki, Director of Business Development at Lighthouse Counsel.

Learn more about Alford Group’s partnership with The Giving Institute and this year’s Giving USA Annual Report in our webinar recording Giving USA 2023: Beyond the Numbers.