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Devin Mathias: business leader showcase

Self improvement often comes from studying other leaders and learning what has brought them to where they are. Today, we talk to a leader in the nonprofit world to learn what makes him tick.

The life of a nonprofit consultant

When we are pursuing self improvement, one of the fastest means of doing such is by studying how other successful people operate, how they tick, how they got to where they are, and by learning from them.

What is particularly fascinating is looking at people outside of our own industries when possible. We had a chance to talk with Devin Mathias, consultant at Marts & Lundy, the leading nonprofit fundraising consulting firm in the country.

Q: Tell us about yourself and your work

A: My work is focused on helping clients analyze, improve and develop strategies around broad-based fundraising campaigns (a.k.a. annual giving), marketing, the implementation of social media into the nonprofit communications plan, capital fundraising campaigns, constituent engagement, and generational marketing. I live in State College, Pennsylvania a few miles from Penn State. I’m a single father to three kids. I love traveling, live music and my friends.

Q: Walk us through a typical day in your life.

A: There’s no such thing. That’s the challenge and beauty of what I do. I am regularly engaged and excited by something new, but today I may be sitting in my home office catching up on client reports, submitting receipts and billing, while tomorrow I may be on four planes, in a train and a rental car off to see a client and conduct a number of interviews or presentations.

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Q: Where were you raised? Where all have you lived?

A: Born in DC. And I love saying that, because it often makes people say “Oh, I’ve never met anyone actually born there.” Once I was filling out some online form and it asked for your birth state and DC wasn’t an option. Not cool.

I’ve lived in DC, Northern Virginia, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, York and Gettysburg, PA and three Baltimore suburbs. That gets us to fourth grade. We then returned to Gettysburg and I was there through high school. I did undergrad at Penn State, where I met my ex-wife. We married after undergrad and moved to Gainesville, Florida where she began graduate school at the University of Florida.

I became a fundraiser at UF and then completed my MBA and half of my Ph.D. before being recruited to work at the University of Michigan. We had two kids at that point and decided Ann Arbor was where we should head next, to be closer to family, etc. She also hated living in Florida. At Michigan I was the Director of Annual Giving – aka broad-based fundraising – for about four years. From there, I moved into the consulting world. And I love it.

Q: How did you get into your current career?

A: I found philanthropy / fundraising as a career in what I think is a unique fashion – I was chasing a woman. My freshman year at Penn State I was interested in a senior named Amy. She suggested I get involved in Penn State’s Dance Marathon and I was going to do anything she said. THON, as it’s called, is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. It raises money to support the Four Diamonds Fund, which helps pediatric cancer patients and their families.

There are not words to describe how impactful THON is on the lives it touches – from the families to the students. The closest I can come to explaining it without you attending is to direct you to this video, which was created this year in celebration of the event’s 40th anniversary.

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This year THON raised more than $10M. All raised by students. THON 2013 should send the cumulative total raised by THON past the $100M mark. It is incredible.

That experience directed me to working with fundraising and alumni relations at Penn State and shaped my career. I joined a small alumni relations firm before the stops with Florida and Michigan mentioned above. Now I’m with Marts & Lundy, the leading nonprofit consulting firm in the country.

Q: What is something unique that you do to balance work and life?

A: This is a huge topic in my firm. We are a firm made up of over-achieving workaholics – mostly former vice presidents of development or presidents of an organization/university/etc. Most of us work from home when not on the road, which can be a challenge for the balance… It’s easy to work, when your work is always right in front of you.

I literally have to walk by my office when I wake in the morning or go to bed. I would love to say “I make myself go for a walk every day,” or “I remember to turn off my phone in the evening,” but I don’t. I love music and my friends… and I let both of those interrupt my day at times. It does help me stay sane.

Side note: A couple of questions after this one, I was put in my place by my 4 year-old daughter “Dad, are you having dinner?” (“Yes”) “Well, we’re at the table now.”

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Q: What keeps you up at night?

A: Lately, The Walking Dead. Not because of nightmares, but because I was watching the first two seasons on Netflix and couldn’t stop.

Oh? Not what you were going for? What keeps me up at night professionally are the looming challenges for the philanthropic world – a tighter economy, potential shifts in the tax-deductibility of charitable giving, endless competition for the philanthropic dollar, etc. Oh… and did I mention I have three kids?

Q: Who would you swap places with?

Q: If you could spend one day in the life of another industry leader, who would it be? Why?

A: Sir Alex Ferguson. Manager of Manchester United. Because I love soccer, primarily, and also because he is respected as a leader and motivator (though the sarcastic & cynical side of me says FIFA chief Sepp Blatter so I could see all the corruption in the organization and bring it to light).

Q: What tools can you not live without?

A: I am attached to my iPhone. I won’t deny that. I would also say that, professionally and personally, there is a specific private punk Facebook group that keeps me sane and informed, even when I can’t participate as much as I like.

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Q: At age 15, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A: I actually remember specifically being asked this before taking the PSATs. My buddy Jason and I put down “entrepreneur” because we thought it was cool, but I don’t think we knew exactly what it meant. He also put down professional golfer and I put down professional beach volleyball player. Now I do this and he’s in the FBI.

Q: What inspirational quote has stuck with you the longest?

A: When I was working at a summer camp around the age of 18, Pastor Hoover and I were leaning on the fence looking at the pool. His three daughters all worked at the camp at different points and were all friends of mine. He said to me, “Always tell girls they are beautiful more often than you think you need to… the world tells them they are worthless and ugly all the time. You need to remind them that’s not true.”

It has stuck with me forever and goes beyond simply telling women they are beautiful… but reminding those that are wonderful they are just that. At least I hope I do that.

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