Meet Allie McCarthy. She’s driven and goal-oriented, 25-years-old, and works in the world of nonprofit development at the impressive Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. Allie says that for her office, “Like most nonprofits, it’s all hands on deck.” From working with donors to managing databases to planning events, no two days are ever the same.
Allie studied acting performance in college, which is where she says her interest in nonprofits initially developed. Working with a student run theater group that brainstormed ideas of how performing arts could raise money or awareness in the community, Allie says she “began to enjoy researching the nonprofits we wanted to donate the proceeds of our shows to more than I enjoyed actually performing.” Allie’s first job after college was as an administrative assistant at Kohl Children’s Museum, and from there she transitioned to The Joffey Ballet.
Allie has learned a great deal throughout the early stages of her career and is here to share those lessons today. Read on for Allie’s insights on nonprofit work, advice she has for others in her field, and how she made it to where she is today.
Name: Allie McCarthy
Current Title/Company: Development Assistant, The Joffrey Ballet Chicago
Education: Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting Performance from Ohio University
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
I was the administrative assistant for Development and Group Sales at Kohl Children’s Museum. I worked there during high school for the Visitor Experience Department and kept in touch with former co-workers while I was away at college.
When I returned to Chicago after being in Ohio for my bachelors in acting performance, Kohl had this position available. I went eagerly through the interview process, even though I didn’t have any professional experience in fundraising besides helping my friends raise funds for their films through Kickstarter (thankfully crowdfunding was just developing). I had a passion for the work the children’s museum was doing and had retained valuable knowledge from working in different departments, which translated well to fundraising. They took a leap of faith and hired me!
It really is true—networking and staying in touch with people you enjoy working with goes a long way and can be the start of a career you didn’t originally plan.
Like most nonprofits, it’s all hands on deck…You’re constantly moving, which makes it so exciting.
What were your job responsibilities at the Kohl Children’s Museum?
When I started working at the museum they were integrating multiple financial, membership, and donor-based databases, and I was the point person for this project. A person can be multiple things to an organization: a subscriber, a donor, or a prospect the organization wants to gather information about.
Within recent years, nonprofits have been moving forward with the times thanks to new innovations graciously funded by donors. Nonprofits are spending time and resources on obtaining better technology to ensure working smarter, not harder.
You currently work at the Joffrey Ballet as a development assistant. What are your job responsibilities in this role?
Like most nonprofits, it’s all hands on deck. One day you could be doing your daily work—for me this is managing a database of donor records for fundraising and financial reporting in addition to other tasks such as generating tax receipts. The next day could include helping set up a donor event and viewing an academy rehearsal of eight-year-old ballerinas followed by running across town to the Auditorium Theatre for that night’s company ballet performance. You’re constantly moving, which makes it exciting. It’s thrilling to be in the front row and to see donors support an exceptional art form based in Chicago.
When did you develop an interest in working for a nonprofit?
In college I was a part of a student run theater group that would meet to discuss how performing arts could help raise money or awareness for a community. I began to enjoy researching the nonprofits we wanted to donate the proceeds of our shows to more than I enjoyed actually performing. I was drawn to the business operations and social media campaigns that increased the contributions raised at one nonprofit over another.
You studied acting performance in college and now work in development for a nonprofit—not a typical career path by any means! Does your college degree relate to the work you do as a development assistant?
I was surprised at how many actors end up in this world when I first started. I can’t speak for all actors, but many I find like constantly working towards the reinvention of an idea, which is vital in development work. You are going to hear “no” in this field but during my acting training “no” just meant find a better, bolder choice. Acting involves teamwork and trust. When you’re fundraising for a ballet production or to sponsor a Chicago Public School student to take ballet class you are asking a donor to join your team and trust this is the best use for their charitable giving, just like you are trusting your acting partner to say the next line and the stage manager to deliver the right lighting cue.
Tell us about the Joffrey Ballet staff! What is the office culture like?
They are the best part of coming to work. We are led artistically by the incredible vision of Ashley Wheater; he has created bold and exciting seasons while also staying true to the original mission of Mr. Robert Joffrey and Mr. Gerald Arpino, the founders of The Joffrey Ballet.
Greg Cameron, our executive director, is so invested in the work that each department contributes to make the Joffrey grow; his energy inspires all of us to contribute our skills to provide a better work environment. He and Ashley truly make each of us believe there are no backstage or small players and that everyone is vital to keeping us a powerful force in the future of dance.
Our fundraising department is eight talented women focusing on Donor Events, Individual Giving, Major Giving, Board Giving and Institutional and Corporate Giving and I am fortunate to be learning about each sector right now. All of us are at different points in our careers and are invested in helping each other succeed in our personal and work goals.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Being in this environment of history and education is extremely rewarding. When you’re at Joffrey Tower, you are surrounded by the history of what the company has been and what it will become. On the walls around the office you have photos of former and current dancers by director of special projects, Herbert Migdoll (who has been photographing the company for 46 years). It’s a beautiful blend of current dancers and those who have been a part of the company’s history over the last 60 years. From my desk I can look down into the Joffrey Academy studios and see young dancers who are learning the tools to possibly be a Joffrey ballerina in their future and I can also hear the company dancing above us; it’s an amazing juxtaposition.
What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced in your career and how were you able to overcome them?
The biggest obstacle has been valuing these years in my twenties as my time to learn and lay the foundation for a fulfilling career. I used to get really caught up with comparing my career and work to my peers. What snapped me out of it was hearing those I admire say they wish they could go back and invest their time in classes and the work they were given at the start of their career. I’ve learned to value this time in my life and to make mistakes now so I can learn from them.
What advice can you give women seeking a career in the nonprofit sector?
Be a storyteller and be passionate about the work you do. Nonprofits live on word of mouth and if you want to be successful in this sector, it is vital to enjoy talking about and sharing the work your organization is doing.
Learn about the technology out there that will benefit your career. In the development world, most organizations use databases called Raiser’s Edge or Tessitura. Take a look at the video tutorials online or apply to internships that will let you learn and use these products.
Subscribe to npo.org’s email list. This site has a lot of job postings from many different nonprofits.
Be a storyteller and be passionate about the work you do.
Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
I’m very interested in corporate giving to nonprofits. I’d like to help corporations come up with ways for innovative giving through social media, viral video campaigns and marketing campaigns as well as more traditional giving like sponsoring a production or employee appreciation opportunities. It is fun being a connector and seeing corporations and nonprofits show their brand and missions to a larger public because they teamed up on a project that excites both of them.
What is a typical work day like for you?
It starts with a morning mocha and writing the top 5 things on my to-do list for that day. I’ll then read Crain’s Chicago online and the dance sections in the NY Times, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Sun-Times, during my commute on the L. At the office it’s a lot of inputting data that helps us move forward with fundraising goals. The work gets exciting when we see how the reports and information help our team and donors see the big picture of how beneficial their gift is. I also try to fit in a mid-day yoga class or after work hip-hop class offered by our Joffrey Academy.
Best moment of your career so far?
This job provides a lot of amazing, pinch-me moments. From seeing all the amazing work the company did last season, to walking into our breathtakingly beautiful Gala this past spring, to working with a strong team of coworkers and caring donors in Chicago.
What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
Don’t bully yourself if things don’t go according to your set in stone plan. When I was eighteen, I had so many rules and plans for myself I felt if I didn’t accomplish them exactly I was failing. In my twenties, my cousin gave me this saying from Max Ehrmann’s poem Desiderata that has become my mantra: “And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” I started writing down skills I enjoyed and I would want in my future employment rather than focusing on a specific job title to be successful. I believe the universe, along with my own efforts to live optimistically, are leading me on a path I never would have pictured for myself at eighteen.
Allie McCarthy is The Everygirl…
I love watching art being created, which is why my dream vacation would be to go up to Eau Claire, Wisconsin to Justin Vernon’s recording studio April Base, to see the band Volcano Choir record an album.
Best advice you’ve ever received?
Gratitude changes everything. It helps you calm down, be happier, and listen to people clearly. Thanks Mom and Dad!
Favorite part about living in Chicago?
The people I have met living in my neighborhood of Wicker Park. I love going out to the Park, or The Revel Room bar, or any of the many amazing restaurants in Wicker and meeting someone new and interesting. Chicagoans work hard and are passionate about the work they contribute to our city and there is always someone fascinating to meet.
I wish I knew how to ________.
Be a cinematographer. I’ve worked a lot with the creative and business sides of film and theatre but would love to know more about setting up a shot and the technical parts of filming with a camera. Recently we had Big Foot Media come in and live stream a rehearsal of Swan Lake, a first for a US Company (check it out on The Joffrey Ballet’s YouTube channel). Seeing them move through the room with the camera to get exciting angles of the dancers working was awesome.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
I would love to have lunch with Lauren Parsekian Paul, one of the founders of Kind Campaign, a nonprofit that helps educate about the powerful belief in KINDness that brings awareness and healing to the negative and lasting effects of girl-against-girl “crime” through documentary films and school based programs. It’s important we teach girls how to support each other rather than bring each other down, and thankfully we have nonprofits like this advocating these lessons. I’d suggest we order Chicago deep dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s.