Molly Griffith: Development
Senior Director of Development, College of Arts & Sciences, Emory University
WFU Class of 2002
Major: Studio Art
Molly Griffith graduated from Wake with a Studio Art major, and a desire to work with non profits. Now as Senior Director of Development at Emory University's College of Arts and Sciences, Molly gives us insight to her path since undergrad and what has motivated her along the way.
DeacLink: I know you were a studio art major at Wake. Tell me a bit more about that. How has your career unfolded since?
Molly Griffith: When I was a student, the concept of development was not as professionalized as it is today. Now, there more academic programs in place for professionals interested in the development track. I remember being a student and thinking that I was not cut out for a corporate job. Wake was great at helping people get jobs at banks, but I felt a bit lost. I was offered a teacher assistantship in France following graduation, but I felt that I wanted to be working with nonprofits in some way. It wasn’t that I was intimidated by the private sector, but instead nonprofits felt more in line with my ethos and personality. Also, it tied back into the culture at Wake of pro humanitate. Nonprofits felt like the right place for me to be.
I knew I wanted to be in Atlanta after graduation, and I started blanketing nonprofits with low-level job requests. I eventually landed a role as a receptionist for The Nature Conservancy. I was able to get the job because of a personal connection with the state director, going to show that who you know can pay off. Like it is for many development professionals, my personality allowed me to gravitate to a role in this field. I didn’t pick it, but it picked me. I worked closed with the Director of the Nature Conservancy and the Director of Development, and enjoyed it immensely. However, I wanted to get back into the museum world. Next I went on to be the Assistant to the Director of Museum Development at the High Museum of Art. This role really allowed me to touch a lot of things and learn more broadly about Development. Over the years, I have held every position you can in development, from behind the scenes work to face to face time. I changed roles a few more times, and ended up in higher education, where I feel the most connected.
DL: Would you mind telling me about what you're doing at Emory?
MG: At Emory, I am the Senior Director of Development for College of Arts and Sciences. This means that I have a portfolio of donors, and I manage a group of development officers. My portfolio is mostly Atlanta based, and I am getting to work with the best candidates for support for the institution.
DL: What surprised you the most about going back to work for the school?
MG: It was a fantastic experience, and I loved working for my alma mater. One of the best things about switching from arts to high ed is that I found it to be an easier sell. I truly believed in the mission. But then to be able to represent your own school, that was really special. I did make a conscious effort to try and be sure that I could keep my alumni and student experiences separate from my professional one. It wasn’t always going to be the perfect job every day, so I wanted to keep those things separate. My career was wonderful there. Also, making the case to donors couldn’t be easier when you are representing your alma mater. Because you have years of memories to draw on, you never feel unprepared. That kind of authenticity doesn’t come with every position.
DL: Do you think networking plays a key role for development roles?
MG: I will say though that at the lower level, entry positions in Atlanta, you have to move around to advance. That is pretty pretty common though. Normally, people last eighteen months in a role before moving on. That leads to high levels of turnover among development staff, and that’s expensive for a nonprofit to deal with. The high turnover also opens up a lot more opportunities - there are lots of open development positions across various nonprofits at any given time. Instead of networking, people get in a position, realize they’ve hit a ceiling, and then start looking around. Sadly, there aren’t a lot of growth opportunities in most departments. Also, I would say the application process is much more common for getting a role than networking. I got my position at Emory through the HR website.
DL: The development track seems to very popular with art alums. What do you think is the hardest part about breaking into the development field?
MG: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s challenging to break into the development field, but you do need to start at the bottom. Also, nonprofit work is not known for producing highly compensated individuals. You have to start pretty low on the totem pole, and that’s expensive. My first salary was $22K a year, and that was in 2002. I tutored and babysat on top of it so I could get by. Once you are in at a lower level, the next challenge is getting face to face fundraising experience, which can be really hard to do. One of the coolest programs is what Wake does with their advancement fellows. The recent graduates are able to start having those conversations early. If you are interested in development, consider a fellowship as a first step. There are very few nonprofit roles where people with little to no experience are able to represent the institution. The liberal arts background prepares the fellows really well. Most students are terrific communicators that can adapt in any situation. They also have a broad basis of education that can hold up to whomever they are speaking with.
There has to be a willingness to bite the bullet early on from a salary standpoint, but then scrap to get the face to face experience. At my entry level role at at The Nature Conservancy, I was a liaison with the Board of Directors. If you are being trusted to communicate with biggest supporters of the institution, but can spin that to showing you can be trusted with important relationships.
DL: What surprises you the most about the arts/cultural institution scene here in Atlanta?
MG: I have been outside of the arts and culture arena for some time. However, I did spend five years on the board of Atlanta Celebrates Photography. I rolled off two years ago when couldn’t commit the time. I think there are two different art scenes in Atlanta. The first is the dominant Woodruff Arts Center/High Museum of Art scene. This is the traditional museum base that has a higher capacity donor base. It is the old guard scene for arts. Then there is this entirely fun, burgeoning, underground art scene at places like The Goat Farm Art Center and Art Papers. However, these groups are not supported in the same way. They have to be more creative about how they make their case for funding, and I like that part of it. Not to be negative about the High and other long standing institutions, but they don’t have the same dynamism at smaller nonprofits.
I think many people are quick to dismiss the art scene here because it’s just the High Museum. The High also doesn’t have a well known permanent collection. If people don't know about Atlanta Celebrates Photography, smaller theaters and galleries, the Museum of Contemporary Art, people think there’s just one cultural behemoth, and Atlanta is much more dynamic than that. Think about Art on the BeltLine which speak to the growth of Atlanta. Like a lot of places, where artists go, growth happens. When you get creative young minds, you will see activity artistically and economically.
DL: What advice do you have for students considering moving beyond the arts arena?
MG: I have worked in places where I haven’t felt a connection to the emission, and it does make it harder to be successful from a fundraising standpoint. It is much easier to do when you truly believe what you are doing. One of the things I have really enjoyed is keeping a toe in the art world from an avocational instead of vocational standpoint. I have been able to engage the arts outside of my career, while still advancing my career.
DL: What do you think Wake arts could do to better prepare students for life after graduation?
MG: I love the art department at Wake. I think one of the things that needs to happen is the introduction of graphic and digital programs, and a general design pace. I was a painting and photography student, but it was analog photos and oil painting. And let’s be honest, it is incredibly difficult to make a career out of those two things. Thankfully my family told me to study what I loved. It worked out in the end, but it is not the most responsible way to think about an education. The school should be thinking about ways to connect artistic people to careers like design or architecture.
Also, I think it would be good for the school to bring the arts out of scales. Things are very sequestered, and should be further integrated into the broader curriculum. There is the one Management in the Visual Arts class in the business school, but that’s not enough.
DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on to current students and recent alums?
MG: Find someone that can serve in a mentor capacity. I think that a lot of students graduate and think they have done the hard part by figuring out what they want to study and then getting a job. But there might be a point down the road where you question the path you are on. As a result, it is important to find those mentors from a career building standpoint who can help guide you along the way.