Whitney Martin – Her Journey From Graduate Studies in Modern Foreign Languages to Development Professional

“A great Chief Development Officer is one who has a nurturing presence and is present for the major gift officers.” -Whitney Martin

[00:00:00] Whitney Martin: We were talking about this with my son the other day, he had heard a Malcolm Gladwell podcast that said you have to have 10,000 hours to really do well on something.

John and I started to talk to him about that, that looks like maybe four years, being in a role, a professional role, eight hours a day, five days a week. And I think that probably rings true in a fundraising position. It takes about three to four years to really get up and rolling, getting to know the landscape, the mission, and the important people that will support the work that you’re doing.


[00:00:44] Tommy Thomas: Any time I question the value of all the time I spend conducting candidate research on LinkedIn, all I have to do is remember how I met our guest today. I was conducting a search for a major donor rep, and the position was located in the Carolinas or Virginia. So, I was looking for a seasoned professional who lived in that area.

And one of the names that came from the research was Whitney Martin. On paper, she seemed like a solid candidate, so I contacted her. As it turned out, the overnight travel component of the job was a bit much for her and her family’s season of life, so she passed on the opportunity. But as I do with every strong candidate I meet, I added her to the JobfitMatters database, and we’ve remained in touch.

Whitney took her undergraduate degree in French and International Studies from UNC Chapel Hill and her Master’s in Modern Foreign Language Instruction from Boston University. As you might imagine, she’s fluent in French and has more than a passing proficiency in Spanish. She recently joined the Advancement Team at Duke Divinity School.

Prior to this, she was Senior Director of Development for Duke Health Development and Alumni Affairs. Whitney, welcome to NextGen Nonprofit Leadership.

[00:01:56] Whitney Martin: Thank you, Tommy. It is such a privilege to know you, and thank you for such a kind introduction.

[00:02:03] Tommy Thomas: I think I’m remembering right from our conversations a year or two ago, but there was a time in your life when you thought you might be wearing Auburn burnt orange and navy blue instead of Carolina blue.  Is there a short story there?

[00:02:16] Whitney Martin: That’s exactly right. I even think I said War Eagle to you. And I know Toomer’s well, even had a shirt from there, but you’re right. As a child, growing up in Charlotte, I was thinking about spreading my wings and heading out of North Carolina and Auburn was one of those schools that I saw a couple of the graduates from my high school attend and thought, let me go check that out, until my parents made me drive the entire way from Charlotte to Auburn.

Did I realize that’s a little too far? I think they had that in the back of their minds that, let’s show her how far it really is. But I still have a fondness for Auburn and love watching their football games.

[00:03:04] Tommy Thomas: Take me back into your childhood. You grew up in Charlotte. What was it like?

[00:03:09] Whitney Martin: It was a great place to live. We had a wonderful community, our church community, wonderful schools to attend. At that time, there was a lot of desire to make sure that there was diversity in our schools, and so during that time in my life, I was actually taking a bus an hour from my home to uptown Charlotte to attend elementary school so that I could be with people from all walks of life.

And that value was instilled at an early age by my parents and my community. And in that respect, I think it was a great place to grow and learn and really try to figure out how to be in the world, but also how to care for others in our community. So it was great.

[00:03:57] Tommy Thomas: What do you think may be the greatest gift your parents gave you?

[00:04:01] Whitney Martin: Gosh, the greatest gift. I think trying to create an opportunity for me to develop a worldview and understand what generosity looks like, of time being relational and also providing resources to those who need it.

They were always very generous. And I think that was one of the best gifts that they gave me.

[00:04:27] Tommy Thomas:  How did you get into foreign languages?

[00:04:31] Whitney Martin: Gosh, I had a really challenging French teacher in high school at East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte. She was so challenging that I actually fell in love with the language and decided during my time at UNC Chapel Hill that I wanted to expand that worldview, get out of my comfort zone.

That’s always been a theme in my life, and so I had an opportunity to study abroad and was able to really get excited about the language in a new way. And after that experience in my sophomore year, I decided to make sure that was one of my majors in college.

[00:05:10] Tommy Thomas: And where does the international studies piece come in?

[00:05:13] Whitney Martin: My husband laughs at this, but there was a test called the Grammar Slammer that was required to get into the communications school at UNC, and I could not pass the Grammar Slammer, ironically, if it were in French, perhaps I could have, but that pivot was at the same time I did the study abroad opportunity.

And so once I started to see there are other options for a degree at UNC, I realized, okay, what is something that is interdisciplinary in nature that pulls history, poli sci, languages, and gives me some flexibility to explore? And that was actually the most flexible major at UNC at that time and so I was one of the first students to actually get that degree at UNC.

[00:06:06] Tommy Thomas: So what’s something that people are always surprised to learn about you?

[00:06:11] Whitney Martin: That’s a good question. Whenever we do an icebreaker and somebody says, what is the funniest job you’ve ever had, some people might not guess that I’ve had, I actually was a hot dog temperature tester at Fenway Park while I was a grad student at Boston.

So that might be something that somebody would be surprised that I had found myself doing.

[00:06:37] Tommy Thomas: How did you get to Boston?

[00:06:40] Whitney Martin: There were two really great teaching programs that I thought would be a great fit for me and that was the University of Florida and Boston University. I visited both locations and ultimately decided on Boston.  The city really was attractive and I met with the faculty and really thrived in that environment.

They knew all of their students and really took the time to develop relationships with their students and help them and so that’s ultimately how I ended up in Boston.


[00:07:17] Tommy Thomas: So how does somebody with all this language skill and knowledge get into fundraising?

[00:07:22] Whitney Martin: That’s a great question. I think the nature of language learners or, even in my case, I became not only a language learner, but a teacher, is that ability to want to translate, desires to be a good listener, tries to be relational with the language, and also a connector.

And so I think those values and those skills that I had on the language side were very valuable as I moved into the fundraising side. I rely on those skills and tools every day as a fundraiser. So that’s the way I would describe it, but it is unusual. 

[00:08:04] Tommy Thomas: What was your first foray into fundraising?

[00:08:07] Whitney Martin: This was a great opportunity back at UNC. I found myself leaving Boston and coming back to North Carolina to get married to my husband. And so, when I landed at Chapel Hill, I reached out to my network, and it happened to produce an opportunity to work in the humanities – a program called Carolina Performing Arts.

Emil Kang was my supervisor at that time, and he was really trying to get a huge program off the ground at UNC. It was a very expansive interdisciplinary program to incorporate the arts into campus life in a new way. And so, donors kept calling and saying we want to meet you, we want to talk to you, we have some ideas.

And he would pass the phone to me and say, can you just take care of this? Or can you talk to these people and figure out a way to get them engaged? And so, I felt very comfortable talking to these individuals and, connecting them, being the bridge to the larger vision. And that’s really how I landed in fundraising.

[00:09:18] Tommy Thomas: Who’s played the biggest role in mentoring you in fundraising? And was that formal or informal?

[00:09:25] Whitney Martin: And I have to say that is probably the most important piece to my career in fundraising. I think Rob Parker, who after I left Carolina Performing Arts, I realized, oh, this is an area I really enjoy, and I love academic higher ed.

I wanted to get further into that, so Rob Parker hired me at UNC to be a major gift officer for the UNC Arts and Sciences Foundation. He really trained me formally but then also he has kept in touch with me over the years over 15 years. He’ll check in with me and give me advice or he’s my source to check in with him as well.

So I’d say Rob Parker and then so many others. Donors have also been that for me too.

[00:10:14] Tommy Thomas: So how has the donor mentored you?

[00:10:18] Whitney Martin: There have been several donors that have really asked me questions about, how can they partner. How can they serve? I didn’t always know the answer to how to plug them in appropriately.

And my goal was always fundraising. And really trying to refine my role in those relationships was always a learning experience. But I have a couple of donors that have always kept in touch no matter where I went and wanted to make sure that I was being successful and challenging me and asking me questions and I think they also are great stakeholders, as we develop relationships with them.

[00:11:06] Tommy Thomas: Give me some words and phrases to describe a great chief development officer, or in your case, a great boss.

[00:11:14] Whitney Martin:  I think about that a lot because I always think about the people who have mentored me, but also how can I pay that forward because I would love to be that for someone else.

Having a nurturing presence and being president is what stands out to me as attributes of a great Chief Development Officer

And I think that the goal is to get mentored and then you pass that along. So, I think the most important perhaps is just being relational and being able to care in a nurturing way, and nurturing looks different for everybody. But I think having a nurturing presence and being present is what stands out to me as a great chief development officer.

They’re showing up for their donors. They’re showing up for those that they supervise. And really just making sure that you have everything in your toolbox that you need and challenging you to perhaps improve or shape those areas that you might not be as equipped to do.

[00:12:26] Tommy Thomas: You’ve seen people probably come and go, although you’re still a young professional fundraiser. You’ve been around a little bit. What causes people to wash out?

[00:12:37] Whitney Martin: A loss of being mission-focused.

In today’s environment, metrics are huge and that can overshadow the missional aspect of the work.  If you can’t connect the donor with the mission, there is potential for burnout.

Maybe the mission is not clear anymore. Maybe in our environment right now, metrics are such a big piece and sometimes I think that overshadows the missional aspect of our work because I think our work is to connect the donor with the mission and have an impact. If you’re not connected to that, then you do wash out, you do get burned out.

And I think losing that relationship with a mentor or a guide who can be a sounding board and draw you back to the mission is important too. So, it’s easy. It happens all the time, but I think that’s the key is to keep that connection to the mission strong.

[00:13:31] Tommy Thomas: What have you and your husband learned about a two-parent working household?

[00:13:38] Whitney Martin: Oh my goodness. I have to say, I think we’ve accepted that it’s challenging and not perfect, right? That it’s going to be changing as our children grow, as we grow as individuals, and as our professional lives grow. And I think we debunked the myth of this idea of having a balance.

You hear that all the time. Oh, I need a work-life balance. And for us, it was always a myth. It’s more or less, what are we prioritizing as a family? And sometimes we did great at doing that. Sometimes we’ve messed up. But I think for us, communication has been key. Keeping a calendar, and a schedule.

Taking breaks. That might be that John needs a break, I need a break. Brene Brown likened it to percentages, and so that you as a couple bring 200%. And there are days that she would show up and say to her husband, I have 25%. And so that meant that her husband had to make up a hundred and seventy-five percent.

John and I look for resources like that to really affirm what we’re trying to accomplish, but also tools that keep that communication going,

[00:15:01] Tommy Thomas: Going back to the fundraising, maybe some of the nuts and bolts, and this may not be a fair question because you’re not a Chief Development Officer, but you probably have some notions.

What do you think is a reasonable expectation for the amount of time it takes a major donor rep to learn the field, begin to cover their expenses, and be a net asset to the organization?

[00:15:21] Whitney Martin: We were talking about this with my son the other day, he had heard a Malcolm Gladwell podcast that said you have to have 10,000 hours to really do well on something.

And John and I started to talk to him about that, that looks like maybe four years, being in a role, a professional role eight hours a day, five days a week. And I think that probably rings true in a fundraising position. It takes about three to four years to really get up and rolling, getting to know the landscape, the mission, and the important people who will support the work that you’re doing.

[00:16:01] Tommy Thomas: What’s the hardest part for you major donor reps?

[00:16:07] Whitney Martin: I think it’s trying to do two things simultaneously. Really getting to know the mission and the people who do the core business, in our circumstances, who are the students receiving scholarships?

Who are the faculty that are teaching? And I think the second, at the same time, is developing relationships with donors, the key stakeholders who have been giving or are new, and holding both of those at one time can be tricky. And so I think you have to be comfortable in that dynamic and know that at some point you will become the expert, you’ll be the bridge that really helps the donor create impact.

But I think sometimes that discomfort lasts for a while. And so I think sometimes people get discouraged and might leave before they reach that third year or that fourth year of really the fruit of their hard work.


[00:17:21] Tommy Thomas: You mentioned, I guess in a conversation we had a couple of weeks ago, the difference between the relatively fast pace of raising money in a medical community versus the relatively slow pace of working back in the academy. Can you unpack that?

[00:17:38] Whitney Martin: Yes, it’s so interesting the culture at Duke Medicine and then at Duke Divinity and I think you know, in the medical side, the pace, there’s urgency in health care, helping someone who received a diagnosis redeem that in some way by using their philanthropy to impact others downstream.

There’s an urgency there. On the academic side, while there is an urgency to make sure that our professors and students are equipped and cared for, there’s a longer road map that we can be on. I think for me, trying to develop relationships that are not as transactional, but transformative to the mission.

I’m enjoying at Duke Divinity the opportunity to have a little bit more of a road to do that. We did that a lot on the health side, but the pace was just more urgent because of the nature of the health care system and diseases that we were dealing with the same, that they’re similar in that there’s this urgency to heal, right?

Heal our communities through healthcare or equipping leaders who graduate from the Divinity School to go out and heal others in the community. They’re the same in that way, but the pace and the nature is different for me in making that transition.

[00:19:19] Tommy Thomas: My friend Jeff Jowdy wrote an article called Mastering the In-Person Fundraising Ask.

And he makes a statement, the role of the person making the ask is to get closure on a conversation that’s been occurring over many months, if not years. Can you take us into maybe one of those kinds of experiences you’ve had, obviously without breaking any confidences of the donor, but take us into a long-term ask.

[00:19:47] Whitney Martin: Yes I love that quote. It’s so true, and it really names this idea of having a transactional relationship versus a transformational one, right? If it happens over a month, that might be transactional. If it takes months and years, there’s a transformation that can occur. And that’s where I get really excited.

Inviting donors to have an impact and not just make a deposit in an annual fund account. One example, and this happens to be on the health side, was an opportunity to fundraise for an ALS professorship. There’s a dynamic physician Dr. Rick Bedlack, who started and runs the Duke ALS Clinic, and he had a group of very generous donors who had been giving to research for ALS.

And then there were some new donors that wanted to make an impact and it turns out that the priority was we need someone to be dedicated 100 percent to research and training and equipping new ALS doctors in the future. Duke did not have someone dedicated 100 percent to that mission. And so all of these donors who had that urgent need to make an impact because of their diagnosis came together and I think that these were conversations that we’d been having for a while with some of our previous donors.

And the new donors that came along said, we want to help you get to that challenge. We want to raise the 3.5 million to help you get there. And so that invitation really invited people who were complete strangers and had a new focus that they came together to do.

And it actually happened over about two years and there were even peer solicitations. Donors who had been giving challenged the new donors. The new donors challenged the ones who had been giving. And in the end, we had about five to six.

And then we had another group of individuals that gave a good amount as well. So, it was a very meaningful effort and in the end was very successful, and now that person is appointed. It is Rick Bedlack and he’s in that role now. It’s very exciting to watch what they were able to accomplish together.

[00:22:29] Tommy Thomas: One of the people that I wanted to interview in my podcast but I didn’t get to was the late Peb Jackson of Young Life. And I read one of the tributes that someone said about Peb. The person making the tribute commented one day, he asked Peb something like, “How do you know if you’ll be a good fundraiser?”

Peb’s response was, “Do people enjoy being around you?”

[00:22:52] Whitney Martin: I love Peb. I remember being at a Young Life conference and he and his wife came, and it was like they were famous in the crowd. Everybody wanted to talk to them. I love that quote. I think he’s exactly right.  You absolutely have to be relational.

You have to be a good fundraiser, in my mind, or a chief development officer, you have to be motivated to have and care for relationships with others. And development is just relational at its heart and its core. There are often times when I don’t perhaps have the same perspective as a donor, but we certainly can find a place to enjoy being around each other and enjoy making an impact on the mission.

When I’ve interviewed individuals who might be interested in this role, the first thing I ask is, are you relational? And tell me a good story about a relationship that you have. Not how do you do your work in the database or how do you make an ask because a lot of that develops over years of investment, right?

So yeah, I think that’s a wonderful quote from Peb Jackson.

[00:24:10] Tommy Thomas: So let me close this out with a little bit of a lightning round. These may or may not have longer answers. I’ll let you decide that. I get this idea from Alan Alda’s podcast and he always closes out with seven questions having to do with communication.

I haven’t quite got the number seven nailed down and I’m not sure what all mine relate to quite yet, but I’m working on that. What is one small act of kindness that you were shown that you’ll never forget?

[00:24:38] Whitney Martin: Oh, gosh, lightning rounds are hard for me.

Generosity of time. Being able to sit with me. And show up in a way that just was able to listen. Generosity of time.

[00:24:55] Tommy Thomas: What’s the best compliment anybody’s ever paid you?

[00:25:00] Whitney Martin: That I take the time to have a deep relationship with someone.

[00:25:08] Tommy Thomas: If you could go back in time and tell a younger version of yourself one thing, what would you say?

[00:25:14] Whitney Martin: Don’t stress. Life will come and it will be beautiful.

[00:25:22] Tommy Thomas: If you’re sitting beside a total stranger at a dinner party and you want to have a meaningful conversation, how do you start?

[00:25:30] Whitney Martin: I always say, tell me about XYZ. I want to hear what they have to say. So, tell me about it.

[00:25:41] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done? Aside from being a hot dog tester.

[00:25:48] Whitney Martin: Exactly. I actually went on a mission trip to Kenya and that was a very formative experience but felt crazy at the time. I was 19, so can’t believe my parents let me go.

[00:26:02] Tommy Thomas: What do you think is the greatest invention of your lifetime?

[00:26:07] Whitney Martin: Oh, I think it’s social media, but gosh, I wouldn’t call it great. But technology has just soared since I graduated from college.

[00:26:20] Tommy Thomas:   If you could meet any historical figure and ask them only one question, who would it be, and what would you ask?

[00:26:30] Whitney Martin: I’ve always wanted to meet Amelia Earhart, and I’ve always wanted to know her story and why she wanted to do what she did. And I’ve always wanted to know what happened to her. 

[00:26:45] Tommy Thomas: Any parting words of counsel you would give to rising fundraisers?

[00:26:54] Whitney Martin: I would say, take the time to relish the discomfort of those early days.

And just, find a great mentor. Find a great mentor. That can be someone who’s a peer or someone who’s been in the field for a while.


[00:27:14] Tommy Thomas: I’m grateful to Whitney for being our guest today. We’ve had several seasoned fundraisers as guests in the past. So I thought it was time to have a younger development professional. This conversation with Whitney turned out so good that I planned to have a couple of additional younger professionals as guests in the future. Although Whitney has been in the fundraising field for 15-plus years, she’s still learning and growing. I hope that our younger listeners can learn from her candor and this conversation.  Join us next week as we continue our journey to make the nonprofit sector more effective and sustainable.



“In today’s environment, metrics are huge and that can overshadow the missional aspect of the work.  If you can’t connect the donor with the mission, there is potential for burnout.” -Whitney Martin


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