By Sherry Joy Hugh
“I know my journey’s not over yet, and that life is a winding path, but I can only hope it somehow circles back to the place I belong.” – Nicholas Sparks
My road back to AFP is closely linked to feeling a sense of belonging to a community, which is a two-way responsibility. What I’ve learned along the way, is that gaining a new perspective, being inspired, and feeling included, were the signs I needed to guide me on the pathway back.
It was the late 90s when I stumbled upon fundraising as a career. I actually fell into it, and when I fell, I fell hard. I was freshly graduated from UofT with a Sociology degree and the only clarity I had was the word Community, so, to find a job where I could do something good for community was like finding Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Golden Ticket.
I considered myself lucky. I had this great new job, using my skills to help raise funds for the local hospital my family and friends relied on, and bonus, my new boss Catherine, was a joy to work with. Smart, witty, fun, and well-connected in the fundraising world. She encouraged me and the others on the team to network and take courses to help us grow professionally and that’s how I first heard about the Association for Fundraising Professionals (AFP). I had so much to learn, and I had a boss and this association where I could start learning and meeting others in the sector. But, within less than a year, all of that changed, and I found myself on another path.
A merger. A bigger, better hospital. The boss I loved, gone. A new boss in place. A whole new team. A different environment. A different role. I was starting all over again. This time with a team that I didn’t feel like I belonged to. A new word replaced Community and that was — Survival. My plan was to try and fit in, don’t ask for too much, put my head down, don’t rock the boat, and do a good job. Professional development and AFP did not fit into this plan that lasted for close to a decade.
I later moved on to work at an educational institution and later, a national organization, that had memberships with several associations, including AFP.
I was back! I was motivated to take advantage of all the learning and networking opportunities available to continue building my career and grow my network. I enthusiastically attended lots of AFP days and conferences. I did my best to show up at events, proactively introducing myself and starting conversations, actively listening, and trying to find common ground. People would engage in polite small talk, and they’d answer my questions but noticed that they weren’t really asking me any questions or inviting me into their conversations with others. I felt like that new kid walking into the cafeteria and not being invited to sit at anyone’s table.
After a while, I got tired. For reasons I couldn’t articulate, my interactions with other members felt one-sided. Did I mention that I was one of the only fundraisers of colour at that time? There were so few people of colour at the events I attended, and absolutely no other Filipinos, at least, that I could see. But I refused to believe that this was why I felt a barrier to really connecting with people. I was raised believing that if I worked hard and did my best to fit in, it would all work out. I honed the ability to blend in, and still, the same feeling prevailed event after event and I started to think — “Was it me?” “Do I even belong here?”
I decided that I didn’t belong, and almost completely stopped going to AFP events. From time to time, I would pop into a conference on a shared pass, but at that point, I would just focus on going to the courses, taking notes, and then doing my job. I didn’t believe AFP was a community for me. So, I stayed away for years, until…
A New Perspective
I lost my job. It was a job I loved and thought I would be at for the rest of my career. There were good reasons why my job no longer existed, and COVID-19 was one of the main ones.
This sudden and unexpected break forced me to reflect deeply about my career and rediscover if fundraising was where I wanted to be. I considered lots of options — Do I start my own business? Do I look at working in the private sector? Do I go back to school and go on a completely new path?
My heart, followed by my mind, knew that working for a mission-based organization was something I needed to do, and fundraising was the skill I could bring. This reflection also got me to take a good look at myself — was I doing everything I could do to refine my fundraising skills and connect with others in the sector? Was I doing everything I could do to learn and grow? The answer was simply, No. At that point I thought of rejoining AFP, but still I held back.
I started working for a new national foundation and was welcomed with open arms. The organization was actively working on building an inclusive workplace culture and made a real effort to make everyone feel welcomed, heard, and valued. This new path was exciting, and my energy for the work and sector was renewed.
Soon after I started, I also met a senior fundraiser at a partner foundation who was, wait for it… Filipino(!), still rare to find in the non-profit sector. I immediately reached out to connect.
Our conversation was easy, two-way, and we were both curious about each other’s fundraising journeys. With me being much older, I had lots of stories to share about my time coming up — donors asking me to be their personal assistant, donors and colleagues weaving into conversation how I would remind them of their nannies, and other microaggressions, and he had his own stories to share. I felt relief. Finally, someone who saw and understood me.
I also learned that he was really involved in AFP and was chairing AFP Fundraising Day with the theme IDEA — Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access — AFP’s recently established values. He shared his vision for the event and that he was currently pulling together a committee and thought, with my background, I’d be a good fit to help with booking plenary speakers for the event. I told him I’d think about it. He didn’t know it at the time, but I was inspired by his effort to lead the way for change and started to think about AFP differently, seeing the organization with fresh eyes.
Was AFP changing? I know I was changing. The world was also changing with people being more open to tackling the uncomfortable and challenging conversations related to race, equity, inclusion and belonging. I noticed that AFP, through this event, was making an effort to have a different conversation and I wanted to be a part of it, so not only did I join the committee, I rejoined AFP.
To feel included, one must feel the ability to share their ideas without fear of repercussion, feel heard and accepted despite having a different perspective. The willingness to tackle the difficult and uncomfortable needs to be present along with the knowingness that together, once we’ve overcome the challenge, we could create something even more beautiful.
That has been my experience volunteering on the AFP Fundraising Day committee so far, and I have the committee and especially its leadership to thank for that.
I have a renewed hope that AFP is evolving and that the younger me would feel more of a sense of belonging, today.
What is also clear to me is that I have a personal role and responsibility to help build a community that makes people who may feel like outsiders, feel included.
Where I am right now
So today, I’m a renewed member of my local chapter of AFP and am open to see where this new path will take me, but I don’t want to walk it alone and welcome others to join me on this journey of discovery.
If you have ever felt like I felt, like that kid not being invited to sit at the table, hopefully my story brings you a new perspective, inspires you to try again and gives you confidence that you’ll be more included. And if ever you don’t feel like you belong, come find me — we’ll find a table to sit at together.
Sherry Joy Hugh is the Director or Corporate Giving & Employee Engagement at Canada’s Children’s Hospital Foundation (CCHF).