Nancy Aburi

#Inspiringfundraising: MEET Nancy Abury

Truly international fundraising leader Nancy Aburi shares her fundraising journey around the globe working with several leading international NGOs and UN agencies.

Nancy’s career has taken her from Nairobi, Kenya, Ireland, Rome, New York and now back to Nairobi. She has works across multiple countries and continents with such leading organisations as Concern Worldwide, UNHCR, SOS Children’s Villages, UN Women and back to UNHCR today where she is Chief of Private Sector Fundraising for Africa.

She is a leader who inspires teams and partners to create transformational impact, able to bring out the best in people and mobilize around shared value and purpose. Nancy is a strategic planner who clearly connects purpose to action with passion to shape and optimize opportunities.

Daryl: I like your LinkedIn strapline “Harnessing African Philanthropy” what do you mean by that?

Nancy: Giving, helping others, generosity in multiple shapes and forms, is well interwoven in our way of being. It is very much part of our culture and in our DNA as Africans.  I’m trying to harness that African spirit of helping your neighbour, to bring together likeminded individuals and companies to support people forced flee their homes due to conflict, violence across the continent, and trying to do it in a uniquely African way!

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

Nancy: I formally started in fundraising in 2002, in Ireland. Those days when fundraisers used to gather to learn the craft in Birmingham under the auspices of the UK Institute of Fundraising – remember those days? I did my Fundraising 101 with the Institute.

I got into fundraising because I couldn’t bear a career in Advertising- selling perfumes I didn’t think smelt any good and I figured I better ‘escape’ before someone put me on a cigarette account. I did. And Ireland was the best place I could ever dream of starting a career in fundraising. The Irish welcome, the Irish generosity and loyalty of our donors…. I haven’t fundraised in any market quite like it since.

Daryl: You started as a Community Fundraising Manager with the Irish development charity Concern Worldwide. What did you learn from that experience?

Nancy: The power of spending time with your donors and supporters understanding their motivation to give!  The hours I spent traveling across Ireland meeting community groups, school and church communities was invaluable.

I built strong donor relations and many friends, many I’m still in touch with to this day. I knew most of our donors by name, I knew their homes, I knew why giving to Concern mattered to them and I knew exactly what they wanted to achieve with their contribution- stuff you just can’t get quite in the same way via a mailing or digital outreach.

It prepared me very well for my future roles working with Companies, Foundations and High Net Worth Individuals.

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

Nancy: I was new to Ireland. I moved to a new country to start in a new field with a new organisation. I was nervous my lack of local knowledge or culture would be a hinderance- it turned out to be an opportunity. It opened so many doors and was a great conversation starter.

I truly think I was very lucky. Any challenges I have faced in my career came later on, not at the beginning!

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?

Nancy: Concern Worldwide and the work they do was an inspiration. That was why I wanted to work with them. I admired their work with African farmers and on nutrition in particular the innovations they lead in tackling malnutrition- probably because I also understood quite intrinsically the difference that work makes in my home continent.

And then there were so many Irish examples to look up to for inspiration- from the work of Bono and Bob Geldof to numerous Irish missionaries and the contributions of the Irish diaspora through the Ireland Funds. I always felt like Ireland was this small country leading the world in this area. Everywhere I turned in my early years there was a great Irish example!

I was lucky to work under great bosses. They really were my early mentors. Tobin Aldrich probably taught me most of what I know of Individual Fundraising. Sally Anne Kinahan was my first example and teacher of what phenomenal Integrated Communications could achieve for fundraising and Susie O’Rawe helped me hone my proposal writing and donor pitch preparations. I’m forever grateful for those three first bosses in Fundraising.

There have been many others along the way, but these three gave me a great foundation.  

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

Nancy: Hmmmmm that fundraising was addictive!

That when you meet the people you serve, see the need, then secure that first big gift, go the field and see the impact that gift will make, then bring back a donor to see the impact made sometime later and it comes full circle.

The adrenaline starts and it never stops! I have tried to quit fundraising twice now. Someone should have told me once a fundraiser, I will always be a fundraiser.  

Daryl: Who or what inspires you in your work today, and why?

Nancy: Hope. Seeing the generations that come after me and how they view the world, how they value equality and how tuned in they are to global issues like climate change gives me hope that we can, through or work, achieve a lot.

Hope is the opposite of despair and desolation and it’s very easy to be discouraged when the challenges we try to raise funds for don’t seem to lessen no matter how much we raise.

Daryl: What do you feel has been your greatest achievement or contribution to date in your career?

Nancy: Probably the teams I have built and people I have mentored along the way. Some of them in fundraising and some in other social impact areas.

Daryl: You have been working within the UN for 10 years now in UHNCR, then UN Women and for almost 5 years now back with UNHCR. What has attracted to you to work with the UN and what advice would you give to anyone wishing to pursue and fundraising career in the UN?

Nancy: After a career with International NGOs, I was looking to make a contribution in a global, multicultural context. The UN seemed like the natural path to take. The UN Brand is as strong as they come (and that is both a pro and a con in fundraising!) it is recognisable and has a strong reputation for delivery and convening power.

The United Nations is probably the only entity that can through its mandate, convene all actors – governments, civil society, private sector to discuss and/or take action on development and humanitarian issues. That means it has the ability to achieve transformational and systemic impact supported by policy changes and so on.  

For anyone wishing to pursue a fundraising career in the UN- do your homework.

Just like you would if looking for a job with other organisations/charities. The UN has many different parts- Funds, Programmes, Agencies – all with different mandates/causes and structures. Some more invested in developing private funding than others and at different stages of growth when it comes to fundraising or private sector engagement.

Once you narrow down to what causes you are passionate about, then find out how to apply for roles there. The best starting place to find vacancy announcements is on the agency websites and sites like www.globalcharityjobs.com  or www.impactpool.org .

Even if there aren’t many fundraising roles within the UN, you can find roles at different levels from entry positions to senior roles. If you are in your final year of university or recently graduated, you can apply to internships which is a good way to get in and to learn the organisation you may work for one day.

However, I must also advice – if you apply for a position in the UN, be patient! The process can take very long. I like to tell candidates that is because we are very thorough and will review every application!

Daryl: You have lived in many countries during your career including New York, Dublin, UK and now in Nairobi. Have you enjoyed that variety and what have been the opportunities and challenges for you?

Nancy: Yes. I have enjoyed the experience very much! I thrive on change. The variety has been good for my career and opened me up to different fundraising cultures.

I could chat all day about the difference in donor stewardship in the US vs Europe!  

It has enriched me both professionally and personally. The challenge has been the impact on the family.  Especially now as my son is 11 years old- I probably won’t be moving again in a while.

Daryl: For you what are the most important positive trends in the non-profit sector and in fundraising? Also, where are we getting it wrong?

Nancy: Trends – Innovations in Digital – The world is really a village! We can reach across geographies from the comfort of our rooms. Even the smallest charity in the middle of nowhere can now reach possible donors across the globe.

And I’m really watching with excitement what crypto does for markets like Africa! (Ask me about that in a couple of months)

Then on the High Net Worth and Ultra High Net Worth Philanthropy space- the greater involvement and engagement of individual donors and philanthropists.

Donors are a lot more aware and want to influence how their donation is used not just in terms of earmarking but in terms of how they give and giving instruments used – I find that fundraisers in this space in particular need to be more business savvy and understand wealth management dynamics and financial instruments. I think this is positive as it potentially could improve non-profit effectiveness and open up opportunities for different operating models.

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

Nancy: I think one of the defining issues will be how the sector responds to a changing world when it comes to power-dynamics associated with race, equality and access. Especially when this directly and disproportionally relates to the beneficiary groups.

And this is not only an issue of the global north-south dynamics for International NGOs but for national and local non-profits and how they embrace diversity, including for some, inclusion of the very people they serve in decision making and leadership of these organisations.

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

Nancy: From where I’m standing it has been a positive force. A sad but positive force. Through this pandemic, we are learning that we need each other. Solidarity has grown.   We have also proven that we can work remotely and deliver same and in some of instances even more than we did pre pandemic.

I hope the positive will remain and become the new normal.

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?

Nancy: Know that it’s addictive! But know also that it’s as hard as it is fulfilling. Take time to learn from others and as someone told me when I started- people give to people, bring your authentic self to the job.

Daryl: Thank you very much for taking the time to read and respond to these questions.