Five minutes with … Steffi Chang

In this week’s Q&A, FIA’s Kim Carter chats with Steffi Chang, the 2020 Blackbaud/FIA Young Fundraiser of the Year. In this wide-ranging interview, Steffi talks about her beginnings in the sector as a F2F fundraiser, being blessed to work at the ‘academy’ of Peter Mac, her exciting new role at Plan International, paying it forward as a volunteer and mentor and working through COVID-19.

And the winner is…Steffi Chang took out the Blackbaud/FIA Young Fundraiser of the Year award at the 2020 FIA Awards for Excellence in Fundraising in late February.

Congratulations. You’re the 2020 Blackbaud/FIA Young Fundraiser of the Year! How did you feel about winning this award?

Completely floored – I was not expecting it. I had mentally prepared my best ‘gracious loser’ face!

Do you think winning the award will be helpful to your career? 

In some ways, yes. It’s given me a lot of visibility in the industry. However, now that a lot of eyes are on me, I’m conscious of the pressure of having to live up to expectations. 

You have a communications and media degree. What prompted you to look at fundraising as a career option instead of journalism, marketing or PR? 

I dabbled in journalism and PR but quickly decided they weren’t for me. Perhaps I’m idealistic but working for the benefit of corporations was incredibly disheartening at times. In fundraising, I’ve found a career that is fulfilling and challenging in equal measure. It also helps me sleep easier at night, knowing I’m doing something that helps others.

 Take us through a few of your career highlights. For example, you started in face-to-face fundraising. How was it when you first started?  

I started as a F2F fundraiser at Public Outreach as a university student. I did that for two to three months, and I stayed on in various roles, working my way up from administration to being head of client partnerships. It turned out to be a very formative period of my life. I met many like-minded people – several smart and driven young adults who were socially conscious, determined to have a positive impact and have a bit of fun along the way. I was there for eight years, and it was honestly some of the best years of my life.

Ethical F2F fundraising has indescribable energy and spirit – it was almost cult-like how hard we worked and how much blood, sweat and tears we poured into fundraising for our causes. I always think that if we can harness and channel that somehow in terms of professional development, the not-for-profit industry would never have an issue recruiting the best and brightest.

From there, I moved on to Peter Mac. The team really took a chance on me as I never had any major gifts experience before. Peter Mac has somewhat of a reputation as an ‘academy’ for fundraising – they exhibit year after year excellence and best practice. This was what drew me to Peter Mac – if I was going to learn the craft of philanthropy, I wanted to learn from the best. 

I’ve recently started at Plan International Australia. It’s an organisation I’ve been drawn to since I began working in not-for-profits. It was one of the first campaigns I worked on as a F2F fundraiser – I remember being so impressed with their thoughtful and bold programs aimed at equality for girls. I knew I always wanted to end up somewhere like Plan, so I was thrilled when I was offered the opportunity.

Most recently, you were the philanthropy manager at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation. Tell us a bit about your two and a half years there. For example, you worked on a matched capital campaign to help the Peter Mac Hospital to get the funds to buy a gamma knife for brain surgery?

My time at Peter Mac was a tremendous educational experience. I learned so much about excellence in fundraising and governance from the team. I would say my greatest takeaways are a sense of accountability for achieving the best outcome for our beneficiaries as well as perseverance and resilience in the face of challenging circumstances. 

The matched capital campaign was something I was proud to be a part of. The government pledged to match donations from philanthropists to buy a $7 million+ gamma knife. Of course, the highlight had to be when we successfully secured a $1 million lead gift from one of our most valued and committed donors. Everything fell into place after this key milestone. And it was made even sweeter knowing that we achieved this while severely under-resourced in the philanthropy team.

Just after Easter, you joined Plan International as their key relationships manager. This is a profoundly personal career move. Tell us why you’re excited about it and what you hope to accomplish in your role? 

Plan is the type of place that I joined the not-for-profit industry to work for. It’s a bold yet experienced international organisation with a reputation for innovative and well-considered program work. Their spotlight on girls’ equality is rooted in evidenced-based development studies that show how a gendered lens is crucial to achieving long-lasting changes for impoverished communities. 

My first contact with Plan came when I was working at Public Outreach. They ran a program that really stood out in my mind. It had to do with raising awareness and support for young girls about menstruation in developing communities. The stigma and lack of support for young girls when they started menstruating had been identified as a critical factor in girls dropping out of school and their subsequent lack of socioeconomic independence. I remembered being in awe of how simple solutions could have such a great impact down the line. 

Now that I’m here, I engage more major donors with the same enthusiasm I felt with Plan’s work. I hope to lay the foundations for a strong and resilient program that prioritises sustainability and long-term growth. 

How is Plan International coping in these challenging times? Are they doing anything interesting you can talk about to combat the challenges?  

I would say Plan has a very distinct culture. So far, the executive team have been very transparent and supportive, which has trickled down to every layer of the organisation. There is a strong feeling that we’re all in this together. 

Any tips for your fellow fundraisers on managing their way through the next few months, especially on capital campaigns or major gifts?  

I think I know about as much as the next person about how to function in such unprecedented circumstances. The best we can do now is just to be as open-minded, flexible and adaptable as we can. I plan to do a lot of active listening with my donors and respond to the challenges as resourcefully as possible. I’m conscious that this crisis is affecting everyone differently, but I have a responsibility to our beneficiaries, and so I plan to do everything in my power to continue generating income to support those who need it most. 

We understand fundraising ethics is vital to you. Did someone inspire you in this direction, or was it something you came to on your own? 

It really trickled down from my various managers and mentors over time. We’re lucky in this industry that there are a lot of good-hearted and capable people. I’ve always gravitated toward leaders who demonstrate integrity and transparency in their work. Especially in an industry like ours, our behaviour needs to set the standard for ethical practice. 

As the winner of the Blackbaud/FIA Young Fundraiser of the Year award, do you have any advice for young fundraisers coming up the ladder behind you? 

It doesn’t matter whether you have experience or specific fundraising knowledge – the key to my success has been perseverance. Don’t be afraid of hard work. Most importantly, no matter what challenges arise, let’s just get on with it.

We’re sorry that you couldn’t claim your YFOTY prize and attend the AFP Conference in Baltimore this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But you will get to go to the 2021 event, all being well. What are you most looking forward to learning? And at least you’ll have the 2021 winner for company! 

I’m thrilled it’s worked out this way as I’m glad I’ll have an ally on the trip (the 2021 winner). I’m most excited just to meet fundraisers across the globe and compare our experiences. Australia can feel quite isolating at times, and I can’t wait to open myself up to the global perspective, especially on how everyone has risen to the challenge of COVID-19.

In addition to your paid work, you also volunteer in the sector. Tell us about the special interest group you set up for junior and mid-level career fundraisers. What prompted this step?  

The group I set up is aimed at connecting philanthropy professionals in Victoria. Moving from F2F where everyone knows everyone, I felt there wasn’t much of a community in philanthropy, so I just invited out a bunch of people to after-work drinks, and it blossomed from there. 

 You also sit on the FIA Victoria Committee. What is your role there?

I’m a committee member on the VIC committee – our key responsibilities are to create and nurture opportunities for professional development in our sector. A lot of my work is quite hands-on in planning and organising these opportunities. I’m mainly involved in special interest groups in Victoria – one of my current projects is compiling a list of organic interest groups for new members to access so that more people can partake in knowledge-sharing and networking with their peers. 

You’re a firm believer in ongoing professional development. How’s work progressing on your CFRE? 

Unfortunately, not much has progressed due to everything that’s happening right now. But I do believe strongly in advancing my tertiary education so whether that’s the CFRE or some other kind of degree, I’ll get onto it soon! 

You’re also keen on mentoring and helped a junior colleague at Peter Mac to understand fundraising theory and best practice. Why did you want to become a mentor? 

It sounds very formal when you put it that way. If I can help someone out, I will. I remember being young and inexperienced – a lot of people have given me a leg up to where I am today. Think of it as paying it forward. 

What do you think FIA and the profession can do to encourage individuals from underrepresented groups to consider fundraising as a career? 

I think raising the profession’s visibility as a viable career is the root of the issue, especially among the younger generation. Studies have shown that millennials and Gen Z-ers are the most socially aware and progressive generations in our history – they strongly believe in having a positive impact on our world. We just need to harness that. Once we have broad recognition as a viable career path, the hope is that our fundraising community will reflect the diversity we see in our everyday lives. 

What is the most challenging issue the sector is facing right now? 

Brain drain and excellence as compared to the commercial sector. The way so many not-for-profits are set up rely on generosity to continue – on the generosity of our donors and of their staff. I hope that we can continue to innovate to find sustainable solutions that are profitable to everyone when it comes to solving the ills of the world. 

Can you tell us something surprising about yourself that your fellow fundraisers don’t know about you?

I moved around a lot growing up – I’ve lived in Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and now Australia. I went to an international school, which is why I have a strange hodge-podge, quasi-American accent. It makes it a little hard to stay in touch with my childhood friends as they’re all scattered across the world. When we do a group web call, it’s usually 6am for someone and midnight for someone else. One of the few silver linings from COVID-19 is that now we have all the time in the world to stay in touch and it’s been incredibly eye-opening to be able to hear first-hand about how it’s affecting people differently in each country. 

What do you like to do in your spare time? 

Food (especially eating), travel, book club, skincare, going snowboarding at least once a year.