Position: President and chief executive of the National 4-H Council, a youth development organization in Chevy Chase.
Jennifer Sirangelo discovered the nonprofit sector while doing volunteer work in college, and she knew that was the career path she wanted to take. When she graduated, she landed a job as the executive director of a small homeless shelter, and quickly saw the importance of raising money after she had to turn a family away one night. She began to focus on fundraising, working stints at the National Kidney Foundation and William Jewell College. She eventually moved to the Boys and Girls Club as a fundraiser before coming to the National 4-H Council, where she is the organization’s first woman president and chief executive in more than 100 years.
Many of the nonprofits you have worked for focus on young people. Why?
My family was on food stamps. My dad lost his job. I was in high school. It was very tough sometimes. This is why I have a heart for young people that have a huge potential and desire to move beyond their circumstances and give back. I was fortunate to have a mother who invested in me. She taught me to read. More than that, she told me I was a reader. So I had parents who built confidence in me.
What business skill does it to take to be successful at raising funds?
It’s a higher order of sales than you would have in the business sector. Whether a corporation, foundation or individual, when we talk to them about investing in the mission, we know they have many choices of things they can invest in. Most people have three or so. I feel that our role as fundraisers is to ask, “What difference will you make?” Not “This is the mechanics of investing and how it benefits you,” but “Before your investment, this is where the family was. After your investment this is where they will be because of you.” I don’t feel like my job is ever to make someone give. I always feel like my job is to let them know the impact they’ll make. Then they will choose whether this is the impact they want or not. People have told me they would hate to have a career where they ask people for money. I’ve never felt that way. I know in the deepest part of my heart, that every time I ask someone to invest in a mission I work for, it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the lives of the people we impact.
What’s the worst way to go about approaching fundraising?
Anything where there’s not transparency or honesty.
You helped drive increases in funding during two particular crises, Sept. 11th and the recession. What was the smartest move you made?
Both times, we focused on the outcomes of investments in young people 100 percent. We focused on the authenticity of our relationships. We had deep, long, abiding relationships with investors of all different kinds. We focused on strengthening those at that time.
What does it mean for you to be the first woman leader of this organization?
For me personally, it’s an awesome job. I get to do the two things I love most. I do love the mechanics of leadership. I love running organizations. I have a business mind-set. I get to use all of my energy there. I also have a cheerleading positivity to my personality. I love telling the story and championing the value of young people and their ability to contribute to the biggest issues today. Also, knowing that young women can see themselves in the leadership here at National 4-H Council and know that those are possibilities for them is something that means a lot to me.
What business books are you reading?
“Tribal Leadership” [by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright] and “TouchPoints” [by Douglas Conant and Mette Norgaard] because my role in building the culture here is something that means a lot to me.
— Interview with Vanessa Small