Austin, Massachusetts

I spent the last three and a half days (Sunday-Wednesday) at a development conference in Austin (Texas—the subject of this blog is a line from the movie Road Trip that Caroline says whenever I say “Austin”). This was the 2008 Petrus Leadership Conference, which is hosted by a company that consults with Catholic campus churches (called “Newman Centers”).

I have to say…I gave up on academia a long time ago. The educational experience of American college was disappointing for me. I don’t blame Wash U. They tried to mold me into a high-powered investment banker. But instead, I blinked myself awake through most of my business classes and really only enjoyed Art/Sci classes. The only material I’ve retained is Japanese, and even that has faltered to the point of idiocy.

So let’s just say that I wasn’t super excited about sitting in a conference hall for 10 hours a day, listening to speakers drone on about the art of development (fundraising, for those of you, like me several months ago, who had no idea they were the same thing). I thought it would be boring. I thought the introverted side of myself (the left side; it carries slightly more weight than the right) would suffocate through hours of schmoozing. I thought the intense Catholicism of the event would be overwhelming. And yet…

…it was awesome.

One of my big concerns going into this event was that I had yet to convince myself that my organization was worth raising money for. I say that with the fullest hypocrisy, because I myself financially support the Catholic Student Center more than any other nonprofit organization, and I really truly believe in our ministry. But going into the event, I had a hard time convincing myself that I could reasonably ask someone to give their money to the CSC instead of, say, an organization that administers malaria vaccinations in Africa.

Halfway into the event, I still wasn’t convinced. I was learning all these brilliant ideas about fundraising, both from the speakers and the 67 development officers, priests, and business managers who attended the event, but I wasn’t committed to implementing those ideas for the CSC.

Then something happened. I listened to a woman from Peru named Sylvia Mayo speak about an organization she started in Peru nearly 3 decades ago. Her organization helps “differently abled” kids find a way to operate in society and find jobs. It’s a beautiful idea, perfectly executed, and wholly (and holy!) effective. I get somewhat emotional when I see underdogs succeed, so I was fighting back tears during the presentation.

Afterwards, I was talking with Vanessa, a development officer at UT, about how I was having a hard time convincing myself that people should give to the CSC instead of Sylvia Mayo’s foundation. Vanessa’s response? (Paraphrased):

“Think about it this way. You could give money directly to Sylvia Mayo. Or you can raise money to support students at your Newman Center who want to go on service trips and improve the world. Some of those students may go on support ministries like the one in Peru. So instead of giving a few dollars to Sylvia Mayo, you could give a passionate human being to her, someone who could make far more of an impact than a few dollars.”

Vanessa was right. I can do my part in improving the world by helping to raise money for the CSC and make sure that the money is spent on ministries that spark the passion in students to help the world. I can create programs for future lawyers, doctors, and businessmen to take solid ethics and principles into their professions. I can support an endowment that will keep the building that houses these young people around for decades to come.

So yeah, I drank the Kool-Aid. I’m in. I believe in development, I believe in Catholic development, and I believe in Catholic development for the CSC.

The small problem is, development isn’t even my job. But that’s okay. There are many ways that I can support development through my position, which is more financial and operations focused.

I won’t ramble on about how excited I am about the stuff I learned at this conference (and wow am I excited…I have a list of a million things to do, and I have difficulty falling asleep at night because I can’t wait to get to work and do stuff the next day. I’ve already worked 62 hours this week), but I want to say one more thing about development. This is something I learned the first day.

A lot of people hear the words “fundraiser” or “development officer” and they think you’re going to ask them for money. Sure, money’s involved. But development isn’t about asking for money. It’s about giving opportunities to people to be a part of something that they’re passionate about.

Sounds like hokey-pokey? Maybe. It didn’t sit well with me the first time I heard it, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. A big part of it is how you’re asked. If someone sends you an e-mail asking you to give them $50 to support ear-cancer awareness, the “opportunity” presented is way too broad. You’re supporting awareness? What does that mean? Are you helping to pay for an overpriced, overproduced ear-cancer commercial?

But if someone called you and told you about a kid with ear cancer who clings to a giant, overstuffed koala bear when he sleeps and wants to drive a fire truck when he grows up—if he grows up—you might listen for a minute. And if that person says that your $50 donation would give that kid a chance at driving that truck, suddenly you’re invested in that kid’s life. You have the opportunity to help someone, an opportunity to add value to someone else’s life and your own. Suddenly it seems like that person did you a favor by calling you instead of the other way around.

Maybe you had to be there to believe this. But I do. I really do.

A few notes about Austin before I sign off: It’s a great town. Full of Texans, mind you, but still a great town. Fact: There are no non-Mexican restaurants in Austin. Fact: It’s a lot warmer in Austin in the winter than it is in St. Louis, and when it snows in Austin, the snowflakes are made of cotton candy. Fact: Contrary to my paranoia, Texas isn’t covered in a thick layer of tarantulas, snakes, and scorpions.

PS. I’m not sure if you all can see it, but my new URL is www.jameystegmaier.com. Sweet sweetness. No need to change your links or anything—Google will forward you to the proper page. I just went big time.

Tomorrow:

A Birthday Boy at 10,000 Feet