Shane Dunn


My definition of philanthropy is that it’s a relationship with a human cause. Develop a relationship so it’s more than a dollar bill. It’s the relationships people choose to support. The impact the organizations have on society.

Location: Boston, Massachusetts

Profession: Managing Director, Strategic Growth and Development at Excel Academy Charter Schools

Twitter: @shaneadunn

What was your first gift?

A quarter in a Salvation Army red kettle. I haven’t missed a year of doing that since I was at least 8 or 10

What do you do professionally?

I am a fundraiser and communications professional for a network of public charter schools in Boston. My role as a senior leader within the nonprofit is to oversee all development, communications, and governance responsibilities for our growing organization. Because of my role, I think about philanthropy full-time. I find people and organizations who are willing to support low income Latino kids who deserve access to the same college experience I had. Right now, they are receiving the best public middle school education in Massachusetts for free. And I’m helping fund and grow it.

What’s your charity of choice?

I give to many organizations. My current philanthropic priority is Cornell University, my alma mater. For me, I have a lot of reasons to give back to Cornell. First, as a kid growing up in Central New York, Cornell was my dream school when applying to college and very much a reach –  definitely the loftiest and most selective school I aspired to attend. I didn’t get in on my first try. I was a guaranteed transfer.I knew I had a chance to go to Cornell, but I had to go someplace else freshman year. I chose to go to Ithaca College (which I give to annually) and transfer into Cornell sophomore year to fulfill my dream. I think Cornell took a risk on me. I wasn’t the typical successful applicant. I didn’t have great SAT scores, I came from a middle-of-the-pack public high school, but I did have aspirations and characteristics that made Cornell the right fit. I still feel very grateful that Cornell took a risk on me.

I came from a relatively low income family and my parents and extended family didn’t have much knowledge of college and couldn’t provide me with resources that are important to college success — resources I’m acutely aware of as I now work with kids who aspire to be first-generation college to guide me. When I was at Cornell, it opened my eyes to so many wonderful experiences and like many students, I received generous scholarships that I know were paid for by Cornell and by alumni who came before me. I unfortunately still left Cornell with a lot of debt that will take me many more years to pay off, butjust because I have debt to pay doesn’t mean I can’t give back. Giving even a small amount can do a lot for the broader collective. I get a lot of return on investment – I’m an active donor and give what I can. But Igive more than money. I volunteer a lot. I have almost a second full-time job as an alumni volunteer and I meet amazing people and get to give back with my energy, passion, and skills. True philanthropy is about more than giving money. It’s about giving back in multiple ways and developing lasting relationships.

What made you want to pursue your professional role?

I’ve always had a passion for  the nonprofit sector. My mother worked in several social service organizations when I was growing up and I attended Head Start, so I believe in nonprofits and government can support and enhance lives. Nonprofits have always a part of my life. I didn’t have much exposure to the private sector as a kid. And when I was in college, I did a lot of service work and was a leader in that movement at Cornell which brought people together to discuss and do service on an ongoing basis. I realized the nonprofit world and education was where I wanted to be. Out of college, I worked in alumni affairs and development  at Harvard, Tufts and MIT, while earning a master’s degree in higher education administration.

Then, this opportunity came about serendipitous and it was an easy sell. I found myself really attracted to the mission of the organization and its goals of investing in creating a lifetime of success for students. The overall role is focused on developing relationships with philanthropic people and institutions to scale our organization, which includes building a brand new college-preparatory high school. It was almost too good to be true. It fully aligned with who I am as a person and was a great challenge to develop my skillset and have an impact on the world and these kids who deserve every right that their wealthier peers have access to.

If you could start any charity what would it be?

Ultimately, what I care about is kids from underrepresented communities and disenfranchised identities who deserve equal access to levels of education and citizenship. Full representation,participation, and rights for all people is important to me and access to resources. It’s deeply ingrained into who I am. That’s my human mission – to make sure people are getting a fair shot and are respected for who they are.

How do you manage your personal philanthropy?

I give to between 15 and 20 organizations per year in very modest amounts, including my own, which I think all social sector workers should do. I’m not good at saying no. It’s important to my personal identity to give to a variety of people and causes. Sure I have a budget and it’s important to show my support even if it’s a minimal amount. Diversity of mission without diluting your giving is a priority. I like to give gifts in honor of people – weddings, birthdays, holidays. It’s meaningful to me and to them.

I also serve on a few boards. I am the President of the Cornell Club of Boston and of the Cornell Class of 2007, a member of the Cornell University Council, and was just recently invited to join the board of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), in Boston, which has done groundbreaking work for equal rights for LGBT people around the country. I’m proud to be one of two heterosexual board members on the board of an organization that has done so much to advance the rights of a traditionally marginalized population of people.

What would say to encourage others to be philanthropic?

Don’t overthink it. I really feel like there’s something good and special about people following their gut in many ways over time. If you continue to think there’s only one way to give (as philanthropy has become more data-driven and business-like), you are going to miss out on an opportunity to do a lot of good and help a lot of people who need and deserve it. Because you lose out on the individual piece. If you are looking for some obvious, quantifiable return you might not get it. Everyone should want to give, whether it’s a dollar or a billion dollars, because you know it’s going to make someone’s life better.

How do you define philanthropy?

My definition of philanthropy is that it’s a relationship to a human need that urges you to take some form of action. Philanthropy is about developing a relationship with a cause or organization so it’s more than a transaction. It’s the relationships people choose to support. The impact the organizations have on society drives people to be philanthropic: with their money, their time, and their influence.

What would you say to people interested in working in nonprofit field?

Realize that there are a lot of nonprofits out there. I’d say recognize that not all nonprofits are created the same. It’s a very heterogeneous sector. Most nonprofits are very rewarding places to support and work for. Usually you are working there because you have some attachment to the organization or its mission. If you are interested, know that the sector needs more talented people at all levels. It’s a great area to have an impact and be welcomed with open arms.

Don’t see a job in the sector as transactional; you need to be all in. You need to see yourself as an agent of change for the community you’re trying to serve. Regardless of title or structure, everyone has a role to play and everyone needs to be committed fully to try to make a difference for the long-term and to help solve society’s problems.

 


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About

Julia Levy, Founder, has a decade of development experience, including working for a philanthropist, a small nonprofit and now a large nonprofit. She has raised significant dollars for numerous causes, from education to religion and from donors of all ages. Julia holds a Certificate in Fundraising from NYU’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and an undergraduate degree from Cornell University. Julia has taught fundraising workshops, most recently at Brooklyn Brainery and coached development professionals.


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Why We Give tells stories of ordinary philanthropists, making a difference, dollar by dollar and hour by hour.  

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