JOURNEY FROM FUNDRAISING
TO INVESTMENT BUILDING
by Keesha Gibson
There are many places I could begin this story—but I figure it’s most fitting to start it at work. The year was 1994, and I was 24 years young, divorced, working the night shift at New York Hospital as a front desk ICU unit clerk. The night was seemingly no different than the rest. I was still not getting paid enough to want to be there. I was still tired, still bored, and still missing my two-year-old son. Thankfully, there wasn’t much traffic at the hospital that night, but you know what they say about calms and storms—so I maintained a healthy amount of pessimism.
Maybe it was while I complained about my job, as she dropped off a meal she made for her grandson. Or perhaps it was when I told her the story about my incompetent manager, during the ride with her to the pharmacy. But somehow, while digging for a snack at the bottom of my purse, I found a church pamphlet left by my mother-in-law with a note that read, “Get yourself out of there, girl.”
On the pamphlet was a list of job openings in our area with a Development Associate position at Harlem United Community AIDS Center circled in red ink. At the time, all I saw was that the starting salary was $50,000 and I was sold—literally. I knew nothing about fundraising, grant writing, or proposals—basically, everything they were asking for in the application—but I did know that I had great administrative skills, customer service experience and that I was a quick study.
I applied the very next day and got called in for an interview a week later. I am a quick talker, and so with absolutely no development experience to point to, I somehow got the Development Director to turn to me and say, “I don’t know what it is about you, but I’m going to give you a shot.” And this is how I got my start in the world of development, fundraising, and later consulting—by just being myself.
Fast forward five months into my position. The same Development Director who took a chance on me had been fired while we were in the middle of planning a major fundraiser at The Schomburg Center. Her absence left a void that little ol’ inexperienced me was left to fill. I had to complete reports and write out proposals, all with no formal experience. Everything I knew was either self-taught in the moment, or pieced together from what workshops I would attend on occasion. I was scared, overwhelmed, and beginning to feel defeated. But I was determined to not fail.
Now, if you ask those closest to me they’ll probably tell you that my being stubborn isn’t anything new. Usually, I would combat such a claim, but I have no counter argument for the night I was tasked with creating a newsletter. Similar to all the other aspects of development work, I knew nothing about putting a newsletter together, let alone in Publisher. To be frank: I was a mess! I was beginning to feel myself reaching the edge.
That night was a culmination of months of feeling like a complete fraud—and I was tired of it. So I stayed in that office until almost midnight working. If a print didn’t look right, I just scrapped it and started again until it did. I was out so late that eventually my mom called and asked me if I was okay, and I told her, “I’m going to get this newsletter done!” And, dammit, I did.
The entire office loved my final product, and it was the confidence of getting that done that carried me through my first major event at The Schomburg. With the assistance of just a couple of consultants, and the attendance of 200 guests, I managed to raise over $100,000 for our organization that night, which, in 1994, was a big deal. So big, in fact, that the Executive Director of A Better Bronx for Youth who was also a board member for Harlem United was so impressed with my work that she offered me a job as their Director of Programs.
I got my start by giving myself a start.
- Madam C. J. Walker
Since my beginnings at Harlem United, and the later transition into my role of Director of Operations & Development at A Better Bronx for Youth, I have worked with countless non-profits, raising money for their programs and creating business strategies and plans that would see them flourish and grow. I have also worked as a consultant for many small organizations as a side hustle. All before the age of 30, I was the Executive Director at two separate non-profits, one of which I was fired from when a board chair, whom I originally beat out for the job, discovered I didn’t have a degree. Determined to never let that happen again, at the age of 31, now with two kids and back at work in the Bronx, I enrolled as a full-time student at the College of New Rochelle.
Working full-time, being a full-time mom, and student would have been impossible had it not been for my best-friend Linda King! I first befriended her while working at New York Hospital. When I decided to go back to school, she took care of my children like they were her own. She and her husband would watch them about three or four times a week and weekends if needed. She believed in me in ways that still leaves me at a loss for words. That encouragement, along with my added experiences, led me to write the business plan that made A Better Bronx for Youth the very first nonprofit to own a UPS Store franchise in the country. And It is the love and generosity of her and people like her that I’ve encountered on my path that empowers me each day to grow Gibson Consulting and embark on this new venture now.
Today, I am taking my more twenty years of experience in the nonprofit sector and forming the 40 Acres Fund. The 40 Acres Fund is designed to provide micro-financing and business development services to small businesses and entrepreneurs who do not have access to capital from commercial sources. The goal is to increase leadership and innovation to the micro lending industry and ultimately the circulation of the American dollar within communities of Color.
Compared to White owned companies, the majority of businesses owned by people of Color are more likely to:
Be Denied Loans – At about a three times higher rate, at 42%,
Avoid Applying for Loans – 33% minority firms did not apply for loans because of fear of rejection.
Pay Higher Interest Rates on Business Loans – 8% on average for loans compared with 6.4% for non-minority firms.
Receive Smaller Loan and Equity Investments – The average equity investments was $3,379 for minority firms, which is 43% of the non-minority level; and
Have lower wealth levels that are a barrier to industry entry acquire investments
I’ve seen too many under-million-dollar organizations get left behind. So many great ideas that could potentially benefit communities and the lives of folks in often vulnerable populations and under-served communities are getting lost. The goal of my organization is to help new businesses so that they don’t have to go through the same trial by fire that I did. My goal is to take my years of experience and diverse network to shape new ways of doing business.
I know first-hand all of the adversity that faces people of Color in this industry. As a Black woman, I spent my career not only working to raise money but also working to be taken seriously. When I was coming up you could count on one hand the number of Black people in this work—let alone Black women. Very often, people of color have to fight the perception that when we’re doing the work of fundraising, we’re begging for money for ourselves, and not for the organization and mission we stand behind. This is a fight that I no longer want for my people, and plan to alleviate.
Through pro bono consultation, I will sit down with new business owners and ask them about their dreams and goals. I will talk to them about what they are doing currently that is working, and what they can do that might bring them to the next level. I believe no one should have to pay for a simple conversation. A fee will only be required if, from our conversation, a client is interested in moving forward with a service or project. I will then, lay out the exact next steps I believe they should be making.
Two years ago, I took a look in the mirror and reassessed all my experiences. Working with different organizations, witnessing how poorly people were treated, the missed opportunities. I told myself, “Something needs to give.” There is a difference between being a boss and being a leader. When you are a boss you still have the capacity to be oppressive, which (especially in the nonprofit sector) is counterproductive to the work you claim to want to do in the world. But when you are a leader, your job is to guide people into an unknown that is brighter and better than the place you all left.
Today, I am ready to empower all of my people to be the latter.
Gibson Consulting was founded by Keesha Gibson. With more than 25 years of executive management and non-profit industry experience. she raised and managed millions of dollars in funds for organizations across the country. Ms. Gibson and her growing team of consulting professionals are seeking to broaden the horizons of entrepreneurs and businesses by providing "out of the box" ideas and strategic services to encourage business owners to remain steadfast in their visions of success. Learn more at www.kgibsonllc.com.