#Inspiringfundraising: Meet Amanda Seller

“Always strive for as much simplicity as possible and there are no cosmic prizes being given out for complexity.”

Amanda Seller is recognised as an inspirational world thought leader in international fundraising and leadership in the non-profit sector. She is a true internationalist and an inspirational leader/change maker who brings transformational growth to any organisation that she works for.

In conversation with Daryl Upsall, Amanda describes her career, the changes she has seen and the challenges and enormous opportunities ahead for the sector.

Humanitarian, global leader and change maker

Daryl: Many thanks Amanda for agreeing to be interviewed for the #InspiringFundraising section on our website Daryl Upsall International

We have known and worked with each other for many years in your leadership roles at World Animal Protection, UNHCR, International Rescue Committee and more recently as CEO, USA for UNFPA.

You have just taken on a new role as President of MSI US and VP Global Partnerships & Philanthropy at MSI Reproductive Choices, formerly known as Marie Stopes International. In your LinkedIn profile you describe yourself as “humanitarian, global leader and change maker”. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Amanda: I deliberately use the word ‘humanitarian’ (which means seeking to promote human welfare) in order to proudly own the contribution, I (and my colleagues) have made to humanitarian impact using my particular skills. There is an unhelpful shorthand that gets deployed in our sector, that only those who work on the frontlines (highly admirable as they are) are the people who are serving or who are truly committed.

The global leader part points to a particular passion of mine – international working.  I have been based in the UK, Switzerland, Denmark and the USA: but in all my roles I have tried to adopt an international mindset.

And change maker – relates to the fact that I am a good deliverer of radical visions and change journeys.  It’s the way of working that suits me best.

From community organiser and journalist to a fundraiser

Daryl: When and how did your career start in the nonprofit sector? Please tell us more about those early years.

Amanda: I started out as a community organiser (with a focus on women’s rights) and a journalist working on social change issues. This led me into contact with various NGOs that impressed me deeply, and at one point one of them (a wonderful charity called Alcohol Recovery Project that worked with homeless people with addiction issues offered me a job I didn’t even realise existed – running their fundraising and comms.  So, I was literally given an office in a cleaned-out broom cupboard, and I learned from there. And made many mistakes!!

Daryl: What was the biggest challenge you faced when you began working in the sector and started with fundraising?

Amanda: I didn’t know what I was doing, and I don’t think there was access to as much training and support as there is now. 

Always strive for as much simplicity as possible

Daryl: Who and what causes inspired you in those early years? Did you have a mentor or someone you turned to for support and advice in those days?

Amanda: Not really – not in those early days.  I really had to roll up my sleeves and work it out for myself, by trying things and seeing what worked.  Not ideal – but I think it taught me a resilience that has helped a lot in my career.

Daryl: Is there one piece of advice you wish you had been given at the beginning of your career in the sector?

Amanda: Can I have two? Always strive for as much simplicity as possible and there are no cosmic prizes being given out for complexity. 

Daryl: Your first major international leadership role was in the early 2000s as Director, International Fundraising and Communications at what is now World Animal Protection.

How did that prepare you for the opportunities and challenges of working internationally?

Amanda: Like much of my career, I wasn’t sufficiently prepared – but by then I had learned the skill of how to learn: I had developed the ability of moving to a new role, a new context, and immersing and absorbing information. 

Again. I am sure I made many, many mistakes – especially cultural mis-steps of reading contexts & people incorrectly because I was applying a British lens.  Luckily the team at WSPA (now WAP) were truly awesome people – both incredibly professional and also kind – and they were very generous to me in helping me to find my feet. 

Daryl: When you moved to Geneva and joined UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, as Global Director Fundraising and Engagement, in 2009 you led long-term transformational growth in its private sector income and set the organisation on a trajectory that continues to this day. What were the key ingredients that you brought together to enable this exceptional growth?

Amanda: The answer to that is maybe a few factors:

  1. Some people were there ahead of me – remarkable leaders and strategists like Julie Weston, Clare Rogers, Chris Innes and Christian Schaake. They had already worked out the blueprint for success.  We were able to add to that team and draw in some remarkable talent.
  2. We already had some remarkable National Committees and national UN programs in place with highly talented fundraisers – including in Spain, Australia, Japan etc. They were already proving what was possible.
  3. The High Commissioner – António Guterres – had identified correctly that the trend for refugee displacement was heading in a negative direction, and that more resources (especially unrestricted) were urgently needed.
  4. We were able to set an ambitious growth strategy that required high levels of investment but also offered rapid returns.
  5. We were able to build a blend of high growth individual giving coupled with some ambitious partnership programs.
  6. Ultimately it came down to people and commitment: the cause was so important and the level of determination to deliver growth was determined.

“Amanda is an exceptional communicator, probably the best I have worked with, and a leader who always goes for growth and ambitious targets that she then gets her teams and stakeholders to rally around. Big things happen when Amanda leads.”

Chris Innes– Director, Global Fundraising & Marketing Hub, Save the Children International

Every organisation is different, even when the cause is similar.

Daryl: Staying with the pressing cause of refugees in 2015 you moved to the International Rescue Committee headquarters in New York City, as Senior Vice President of Global Partnerships and Philanthropy and led an impressive 44% increase in private sector income during your 5 years there. How was this different to UNHCR in terms of the challenges?

Amanda: I’ve learned that every organisation is different, even when the cause is similar.  The culture, the way of thinking about the work, the appetite for risk. IRC is a highly US centric organisation – and like many US NFPs, they have a wonderful strength and track record in high level philanthropic giving.  But they were far less developed in terms of marketing or digital engagement. Small donations were largely reliant on a traditional cash direct mail program when I joined. What is wonderful about IRC is its commitment to clear strategic direction, and impact measurement.   It was very clear to our donors what we were trying to achieve, and we were deeply committed to helping to transform the lives of our clients: not just the delivery of services.  What was surprising was its resistance, in some ways, to innovation.  IRC, in some respects, was less willing to make audacious moves in how it talks about the work, and how it makes decisions, than the UN: which is perhaps counterintuitive.

Daryl: You continue to work in a leadership role in the international humanitarian field, until recently as Chief Executive and the Friends of UNFPA, also based in New York City. Who or what inspires you in your work today, and why?

Amanda: At UNFPA I was working in reproductive rights and healthcare delivery now – which I LOVE!

It’s inspiring and has a direct transformative impact to the life of each woman we reach (as well as delivering profound transformations on a community and societal level).  I feel I am back with my roots form 30 years ago of being on the frontline of women’s rights.

That is why the move to … is such an exciting move

I’m inspired by slightly different impacts at this point in my career.  I’m no longer chasing those enormous $ numbers for the sake of it – or building global programs for the sake of it.  I’m much more interested in how we build sustainable organisations & teams; how we build teams that are effective and healthy.

“I’ve learned through experience to value the collegiate & robust colleague, over the sparkly stars that work in our sector who often bring in results but who struggle to build healthy and supportive working environments – indeed who can often burn out themselves.”

Daryl: There is much evidence to show that the sector and in particular, fundraising is failing to attract and retain the top talent and develop the next generation of global leaders? What do you think that we can do to address this?

Amanda: I think we haven’t, as fundraisers, sufficiently positioned our work as a key pillar of global impact. We need to work out how to talk about our work with fewer $ metrics (although they matter) and more impact measures in the lives of our clients. I also think that we sometimes model quite a machismo leadership style, which doesn’t always come across as very healthy or inspiring. If a 25 year old was looking at us as a leadership group – does the way that we live and talk about our employers seem attractive and compelling?

“We are globally failing at diversity.”

Amanda: When I first joined WSPA (now World Animal Protection) I was the only woman in a group of about 15 men who were leading the biggest INGOs/UN agencies.  Now the gender of those leaders is more even – thank goodness!!! – but nearly all of that group are still white people. We have to get serious about this and start at earlier points. We must create more entry points and flexibility at the 25-35 year old stage – being willing to invest in future stars and provide a range of global experience. Maybe the pandemic and zoom culture will actually help on this: there is no reason why someone based in Nairobi or Manila shouldn’t lead on global projects, or be seconded to a team in Spain or Canada. 

I also think we should work more collaboratively on this issue: imagine if Save the Children, UNHCR & Oxfam (for example) created remarkable training and development programs together and were willing to cross offer opportunities?

Daryl: Over the years you have been very involved with sector bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Fundraising in the UK and the Resource Alliance and its flagship event, the annual International Fundraising Conference in the Netherlands. Why are this type of organisations and events so important for the sector?

Amanda: They are where we meet our peers, learn about what others are doing, and can support each other, especially when we hit the professional bumps that are inevitable.  I still have many friends I have met in these forums: I think these forums are critical. 

Daryl: For you what are the most important positive trends in the non-profit sector and particularly in fundraising.

Amanda: We still have a huge distance to go in becoming more digital but we seem to understand now that this journey is necessary and inevitable.

“I think the increasing breaking down of national borders will increasingly open up the world to INGOs and NGOs – and take us away from the traditional country office approach.”

Many of us still do a poor job at expressing simple and compelling brand messages in ways that speak to our donors (not us).  In this digital world, those that can cut through with their message will stand out.

Daryl: What for you are the greatest challenges the sector currently faces?

Amanda: Talent is everything. We still don’t train sufficiently (I don’t think we are always clear what our sector standards are) so it is still very hard to pull together a dream team.

Daryl: In your opinion, COVID 19 damaged the sector, been a positive force for change or both?

Amanda: Like any crisis, some will flourish and emerge far stronger, and some will struggle and fall backwards.

Daryl: Finally, is there one piece of advice you would like to share with colleagues that are just embarking in their career as a professional fundraiser?

Amanda: There are amazing well-led NFPs and awful badly-led NFPs.  Choose wisely (and move on when you need to): you deserve to work somewhere that values and appreciates what you have to offer. 

Daryl: Thank you again Amanda for joining us today for this interview and we wish you every success in your new role at  MSI Reproductive Choices

Amanda Seller https://www.linkedin.com/in/amanda-seller-9051b240/