AFP Member Spotlight: Susan Earl Hosbach, CFRE
March 21, 2017
Q: What’s your professional position now?
I’m the chief development officer at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville Tenn., which is the largest science center in the state. It’s a well-known institution in Nashville—definitely iconic, located on a hill overlooking the city. I’m responsible for raising all our philanthropic support, managing our fundraising events and overseeing our membership department. We raise about $2 million annually. I oversee a department of three—two in fundraising and one in membership. We have a 40-member board plus three positional slots. We have terms but no term limits, so some board members have been serving for a while.
Q: How does that play out? That’s a fairly large board.
With that large of a board, you gravitate towards those who want to be your fundraising champions, and we have some members who have shown time and again they want to serve in that role. Then there are others who want to help in ways other than fundraising. It’s a bit like the 80/20 or 90/10 rule in fundraising, and a big part of my job is identifying the best role for each board member.
It’s all about training and creating the right opportunity. I don’t think boards always respect fundraising training all that much, and often they’ll listen more to an external consultant than internal staff. So I think a critical role I have—and all fundraisers have—is to figure out the best way to get board members trained and engaged, whether it’s something I do or bring in someone else.
I see fundraisers as the people who connects donors with their passions. I find those opportunities for those connections to happen, whether it’s something I know the donor would be inspired by, or a priority of the organization that needs to be funded. Building those relationships is everything in fundraising, and what I try to focus on in my daily work.
Q: You’ve been in fundraising for 25 years, but like so many people, you didn’t start in fundraising.
I’m hopeful that in today’s world, where they are degrees focused on fundraising and nonprofit management, that people will find a better route to this career than I did. I am definitely one of those people who fell into fundraising.
I was one of the first female sports broadcasters in the United States—I was on air even before Phyllis George! I loved sports and was working on my communications degree at Boise State University when I was hired as an intern working at a local CBS affiliate. My boss subsequently left but recommended me to fill as the station’s sports director, despite having very little experience.
I learned quickly that I hated being on air, but I was much better in interviews and doing the work behind the scenes. I think that was when it first started to click that I loved the opportunity to talk with people and find out things about them. Although I wasn’t great on air, they asked me if I’d move the weather—I guess because that’s where most women were in television news those days!—and I said no way. But I did move into sales, and that’s how I spent the first 20 year of my career in business development in the for-profit sector.
Q: So, you’re working with people but on the for-profit side. Is that how your interest in philanthropy start to grow? Was there a defining moment for you?
It was when I switched up a bit and went to Dallas to serve as the vice president of business development for The Associates, which worked in the gasoline and automobile industries, where I found my real passion for fundraising and helping people.
Working in gas and cars—it was a man’s field at the time. It was old school. Women didn’t wear slacks. Not many women were in senior leadership positions. It was challenging, but I had a great mentor in the president of the firm, who was also on the local United Way’s campaign board. He required all senior leaders to participate and encouraged volunteer visits for different charities. I ended up volunteering for The Salvation Army, and that’s where I found my passion for helping people.
When I moved to Nashville, going from a large public corporation in a large community to a smaller city, I fell back on connections I had made with the Salvation Army and got an interview with Second Harvest. I was hired on the spot as the organization’s events manager. Again, it’s all about the relationships.
Q: You’ve worked for a variety of different organizations—botanical gardens, a boys and girls club, Second Harvest, now a science center. It’s all about the relationships, as you say, but have you felt any significant differences in fundraising for these different types, whether in approach or other way?
I don’t think there are significant differences really, but there are subtle changes, such as in culture. In my experience for example, social services have a bigger focus on volunteers and grassroots support, versus a subsector like the arts, where it’s often about finding that right donor, that one right connection. It’s still about relationships, but in different ways. That said, I’ve worked mostly in smaller shops, so going from Second Harvest to say a higher education institution—I can see that being a bigger sort of change.
Q: You seem to enjoy that—working in smaller shops.
I love it. There’s a sense of camaraderie and teamwork that is infectious. The largest fundraising staff I’ve worked with was at Second Harvest, when I grew the staff to eight. The smallest was when it was just myself, serving as director of development for Rochelle Center, which supports individuals with disabilities. The big challenge is, of course, staff resources and how to get the most from your staff in the most efficient way without burning them out. And that can happen very easily, even with the smallest changes.
I can remember a time at the Science Center when I was so excited that my membership coordinator was promoted. But we still needed to fill that role before we hired a replacement. And it was very easy to think, okay, I’m the chief development officer—I shouldn’t be doing membership stuff. But you must do it all, which can be exhilarating but you also have to watch closely for strain and burnout.
Q: At what point did you realize you wanted to take that step into management?
I never laid it out. I never said, okay, now I want to manage and lead a fundraising team or an organization. I think of myself as an over-achiever, and so the question is always: what’s the next challenge? What’s over the next hill? I always wanted to do better and do more and if that included management and leadership, then all right. I was all for it.
What I’ve been very fortunate to have throughout my nonprofit career is great mentors. The CEO of Second Harvest, Jaynee Day, is the woman who hired me as events manager. She has been a fantastic mentor to me, and in fact, still is. She is an amazing woman and we are great friends and keep in touch to this day. She and I made a strong team at Second Harvest—our personalities and work styles complemented each other greatly—but she always encouraged to take the next step. She said I should consider other jobs after my work as events manager, and then after I had gotten some great experience at another organization, she hired me back as vice president of development. Through her vision, I successfully accomplished my first capital campaign. She helped to kick start my career, but she’s also always encouraged me to look for change, whether it was at Second Harvest or elsewhere. What more could you ask for in a mentor?
Q: You mentioned change, which can be hard, and especially so in a smaller organization. How do you manage and explore change?
I’m a big believer in change, but you have to prioritize and look at change in its entirely. Does the change align with our mission? Will it advance our mission? What resources are needed? And most important and often overlooked, what resources will be taken away from existing programs and operations to fulfill the change? This is SO crucial in small organization, especially where little changes can create a domino effect and have huge unintended consequences. And it’s so hard nowadays to even think about change where you have such little down time. We specifically try to make and schedule time to look at how we can implement change at the Science Center.
Q: How is that going? What sort of changes have you made or are looking to make?
The center was originally created as a children’s museum, and while it’s changed focus to natural history and then to science, it’s never lost that children’s feel. But if you look at most bigger science centers, they appeal to a broad audience. We are now trying to expand our audience from mostly K-4 students to older kids and young people. We have instituted a series of young professional events that have been very successful, and our new Science of Beer classes have also been very well received. And there’s more on the way I can’t quite tell you about yet!
Q: You spent seven years as president and CEO of PearlPoint Cancer Support. What was it like?
I loved it. I loved growing that organization. It went through a lot of changes when I was leading it because everyone thought it was a for-profit organization that was part of a major corporation, when the reality was it was a nonprofit that had a broad-based community mission. We did a name change and major rebranding, both of which were very successful. I’m proud looking at the organization now and how it’s continued to grow, and that I was part of that.
It was the largest staff I’ve ever led, which was great, but as CEO, one has a lot of different personalities to work with. Moving all pieces of our organization towards that common goal in parallel line was one of the biggest challenges of my career. I was very pleased to be still involved in fundraising, but working with our major donors mostly.
Q: Would you do it again?
I would consider another CEO position, and I’ve been asked to consider that role at a couple of different organizations. But it would have to be the right sort of organization and the right sort of fit, likely a smaller institution in the social services subsector. I think as one gets more advanced in one’s career, finding the right niche becomes very critical. And I love what I’m doing right now at the Adventure Science Center.
Q: What sort of challenges have you faced as a woman entering the top levels of fundraising and leadership at various organizations?
I’ve been fortunate in some respects to have great women leaders like Jaynee Day working in smaller organizations. But I think there are little things that sometimes people don’t notice but are very pervasive and discouraging. For example, after a while working with different organizations, I noticed that when donors were in town and were invited to meet with board members, it was often men who filled out the tables. Women, even leaders of organizations—married or otherwise—were not. And I wasn’t the only woman to notice—it became a standard talking point for a group of us.
I don’t think it was done intentionally, but it’s the sort of thing that we need men and the whole profession and sector to see and understand. I do think the situations are changing, especially as we get more women into leadership positions, both in staff roles and on boards. But these kinds of points are great opportunities for us to educate and make people see a larger perspective about what’s going on in our profession and some of the barriers that women can face.
Q: What advice do you give to women moving up through the ranks of fundraising?
My advice is for anyone in the profession, but especially women: Find a mentor. Find several. Ask a lot of questions. Learn everything you can from them. And don’t be afraid to speak up!
As an advanced professional now, and from talking with my colleagues, I can tell you that we are more than willing to share our experiences and what we’ve learned—successes, pitfalls, advice, opportunities. It’s so important in our sector. I would not be where I am today, and have not been so successful, without the input and perspective of my mentors.
Q: Name one or two of your top professional accomplishments.
The first two things that come to mind are these examples. First, I had a volunteer come into my office who was ecstatic that he had just asked and received a big six-figure gift from a donor. I felt so inspired because I had done all the pre-work, setting up the meeting, talking with him through the possible conversations and working on the actual ask. It was a great moment we could both share, knowing our preparations had paid off.
The other is when I led a $3 million renovation campaign for Cheekwood Estate and Gardens, which is a beautiful historic property with botanical gardens, an art museum, and natural stone walls and ponds. The property’s infrastructure hadn’t been cared for as well as it should have been, which happens frequently with institutions as other areas take priority. So we needed to raise funds for its restoration. I’ve always found that these kinds of renovation and infrastructure campaigns are more difficult to raise money for—they’re not the most appealing sort of campaigns that donors want to give to. But I thought we were very innovative in our approach to our fundraising, and the result of the campaign was just extraordinary.
Q: Typically, we ask how do you stayed engaged with AFP? Well, you’ve been engaged with AFP for 23-plus years! So I suppose the question for you is: why? What is it that you get out of AFP that’s so appealing?
I love giving back to the profession, but as I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, it goes back to networking and mentoring. Being involved with AFP not just at the chapter level, but at the international level, has given me a global glimpse at our profession. I’ve met some amazing friends and mentors around the world. I have people I can reach out to with such a great wealth of experience and different perspectives. That’s been very important in helping me building my career.
You received the Barbara Marion Award for your leadership and contributions to AFP. What was that moment like?
I know how surprised and humbled I was to receive this, and to have one of my favorite people (Josh Newton) call me and then give this award to me in Montreal at the Leadership Academy—it was just so overwhelming. I never had the opportunity to meet Barbara. I wish I had because she was an extraordinary woman. This makes the award even more special and reminds me to be mindful of its meaning: be a mentor, use my role as an opportunity to help others be successful, give freely and often, volunteer and help move philanthropy forward. It was truly, and continues to be, an inspiring recognition.
Q: How could AFP better serve advanced professionals?
I feel like I’ve said it a lot but it deserves one more mention: networking and mentoring. At this point in my career, talking with colleagues and mentors and mentees is the most important part of my AFP experience. I think AFP needs to figure out how to better gather advanced professionals together—to pick our brain, develop a strong mentoring program and discuss burning issues of the association and the profession to get perspectives.