This month, like they always do, Nonprofit Management students gathered for fall semester’s main event: the Big Ask. With fundraising expert Neil Melbrod leading the Fundraising & Development class, this event has become something of a tradition. Students have been working all semester with their nonprofit service learning partners to produce a complete fundraising portfolio – fundraising letters, special events, corporate sponsorship letters, even a long-term development plan.
The Fundraising semester culminates in a major ask simulation, where students and executive directors sit down with Mrs. Gotbucks – a feisty, millionaire octogenarian who might be persuaded to write a big check to support the right cause. The stakes were high, but this year’s event was special for a different reason: it was the last event for Professor Neil Melbrod, who is retiring from the program. Neil, who has worked in fundraising for nearly 30 years, has poured his knowledge and experience into building a strong Not-for-Profit Management concentration. Today, the concentration offers a rich, engaging experience for nonprofit leaders that is unmatched in the area.
Over the years, Neil has helped to build the concentration, facilitating focus groups and community research in the early phases of building the coursework. His students have gone on to leadership, fundraising and programming positions in some of the most reputable and impactful service organizations across the country. But it’s not just students who have benefitted from Neil’s work in the program. He has helped forge a strong relationship between area nonprofits and the ComLead Master’s program. Word of the valuable work his students provide to nonprofits has spread – so much so that these days, classmates can pick from dozens of organizations eager to partner with one of Neil’s fundraising students.
As one of Neil’s students, I experienced how he infuses each class with his most valuable insight. He brings lessons on donor relations and grant writing to life with stories from his own experience. In Fundraising and in Special Topics, I remember how Neil shared the experiences that have surprised, challenged and taught him as a fundraiser with the Buffalo Museum of Science and the American Red Cross, among other organizations. His stories have stuck with me most, and from them I learned that fundraising, and nonprofit work in general, is really about people. Fundraisers are an essential part of how a nonprofit serves and empowers people in need. And their work, when it is done with passion and sincerity, connects individuals from all walks of life with opportunities to make the world a better place.
Neil taught me that fundraisers need empathy, intelligence and passion. But this lesson wasn’t included in any of his lectures or found in any notes. This most important truth is one he taught by example as a fundraiser, professor and mentor.