Member Spotlight: Nicole Engdahl

Posted by askirvin on Jun 16, 2023 12:00:00 AM

Nicole EngdahlCongratulations to Nicole Engdahl on her new role as Vice President of Individual Giving at the African Wildlife Foundation. We sat down with Nicole to ask about her new position, experience and advice for emerging professionals. 

Tell us a little about yourself, including how you started in gift planning.

When I graduated from college, I went straight through to graduate school because I thought I wanted to be a communications professor. During grad school, I got burned out and started to think about other options. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to work in non-profits, so I started to look for jobs in Communications/Marketing or Fundraising. My first job was with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of Wisconsin in fundraising. That was 26 years ago, and I have been a fundraiser ever since. 

I started in gift planning after I interviewed for a major gift officer position at the National Geographic Society. I got through the final interview stage and got a call saying that they had decided to go with the other candidate because she had more experience. I was sad but understood. “HOWEVER”, (my future boss said to me) “I was wondering if you would be interested in joining the team as a planned giving officer?” I laughed and said something like, You mean to tell me that I didn’t get the job as a major gift officer because someone had more experience than I do, but instead, you want to offer me a job in planned giving where I have absolutely no experience at all? She said, “Yes. You have the qualities we are looking for in a gift officer, and we can teach you the rest.” And I have worked in planned giving as at least part of my job ever since. That was 18 years ago, and I have no regrets. 

What is your area of focus, and why did you select this niche?

Right now, I am in a leadership role. I oversee multiple departments (major gifts, midlevel gifts, membership, and planned giving). I spend a lot of my time talking about how all the different levels can work together. Planned giving is still my specialty. I am the in-house planned giving expert and I have a portfolio of donors with the expectation that I will continue to close planned gifts. My current org (AWF) is embarking on a comprehensive campaign and blended gifts are going to be a big part of it, so I am also training my whole team in planned giving and how to incorporate it into their asks at every level. 

Walk us through a typical workday. How do you balance your time?

It feels like a fundamental truth that the higher your position, the more time you spend in meetings and the less time you spend with donors. I just started my current position two months ago, so I am still on a steep learning curve. Right now, I’m not only in a lot of meetings to learn all the different aspects of our mission, but I’m also in meetings with my team. I’m trying to conduct an audit of each program I oversee to learn where the challenges and opportunities are. I am a member of the Senior Leadership Team where we discuss the development of the overall strategy for the organization, and also spend time discussing solicitation strategies for our board and top donors as we prepare for the campaign. 

What is your biggest challenge, and how do you work through this?

Right now, my biggest challenge is learning all the new information that comes with joining a new organization. But in general, my biggest challenges tend to be resources and capacity. 

With resources, it is that delicate balance between fundraising expenses and revenue. I think it is so important to try new things and consistently think of new ways to bring in more donors. But that costs money and must always be balanced with being good stewards of our donors’ contributions. It’s also important to be a good communicator with your organization’s leadership to make sure they understand your strategies and continue to support your efforts with increasing resources. 

Capacity can also be a challenge. I’ve been able to work with amazing people and I know what a difference it makes to have smart, thoughtful colleagues working with you. If you can build or be a part of a good team, the sky’s the limit! The opposite is also true, if you do not have the capacity to build a solid team, it makes everything feel like a challenge. Taking the time to find and hire the right people for the right job really helps mitigate future challenges. 

What is the most rewarding aspect of your role?

I still really love talking to donors who want to make a planned gift but don’t know how. Helping someone figure out exactly what they want to do to support an organization or program they love is a huge reward for me. I love seeing the emotion that can come when someone is able to make a gift they never thought they could possibly make. It brings such peace of mind and joy. As fundraisers we know something that a lot of people don’t realize - - giving money away feels really good. If you can give money away, especially at the end of your life, it means you don’t need it. It means you get to support something bigger than just yourself, and that’s a wonderful feeling of accomplishment and legacy. Seeing that joy on a donor’s face never gets old. I really love it.  

Also, I have come to really enjoy leading teams and mentoring the next generation. I remember going to my first CGP national conference in my early 30’s and feeling like I was one of the youngest people in the room. That is no longer the case! I love seeing people start in planned giving and then make a whole career out of it. That’s amazing! Seeing our industry change and expand over the decades is important to me. I love that planned giving professionals are becoming more diverse which in turn will help diversify our donor base and types of gifts. We still have a way to go, but the diversification of professionals in our field is a wonderful sign that the future is bright for our industry. 

What advice do you have for someone who is just starting their career?

Learn as much as you can about how ALL the different aspects of fundraising work. It is vital for future leaders to understand how interconnected the work of each department is. How gifts come into an organization and what happens on the “backend” of a gift is key to keeping donors retained and happy. Ignoring this can lead to all kinds of future problems. Befriend people in every department. Be curious. Ask questions. Try to always stay donor focused. And whenever you can, try to evaluate the long-term ramification of any gift decision or situation. Sometimes getting a quick win gift isn’t actually a win. 


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Topics: Member Spotlight