Networking and Nonprofit Management With the Fundraising Students Association

As the president of the Fundraising Students Association (FSA), Carly Irizarry-Thalmann  plays a major role in building the student community in the Nonprofit Management program, which serves a mixture of students who are part-time and full-time, national and international. It’s a constantly shifting position that accommodates the many interests of the Nonprofit Management class, whether it’s a happy hour at the MET or a nonprofit career day where students can meet professionals from their industry.

For Irizarry-Thalmann, the Nonprofit Management program “changed her life.” She had initially discovered her passion for fundraising while working as a retail store manager, and the experience that she got in Columbia, which she had been attending part-time since 2014, opened up a world of career possibilities.

By attending Columbia and developing her nonprofit skills, Irizarry-Thalmann was able to work in a pilot position at the American Red Cross, where she was a major gifts officer who specialized in donor acquisition. She recently started a job as the Director of Development and Communications for the New York Junior League, a hybrid industry leader position that stemmed directly from her time in the class The Wired Nonprofit.

The course taught Irizarry-Thalmann  about the importance of creating a social media strategy for a nonprofit, and it gave her the opportunity to do that work for a company. This preparation meant that when the position at the Junior League opened up, Irizarry-Thalmann was able to forge a connection to the company with her Wired Nonprofit professor Marcia Stepanek, which gave her a head start regarding the position.

We talked with her about her plans for the FSA this year, the Nonprofit Management program’s new direction, and more.

Tell me about your position in the Fundraising Students Association.

I'm the president of the Fundraising Students Association. The Fundraising Students Association was started because the program was originally meant for part-time students who were working full-time. They wanted to create a sense of community on campus because it was really easy to create that when you're living on campus as an undergraduate, but not so easy to create that when you're working full-time.

When it was created, it was just a series of happy hours for the students to meet each other and go to out and network with each other, and it kind of evolved from there. When I took it over in January, we hit this momentum high where we were able to do events that were based on educational events that were great for the students, networking events with current students and alumni. We got to go to Huffington Post headquarters and learn about virtual reality and how that's being used for fundraising. We were able to make the connection with Huffington Post due to faculty. We do a lot of cool stuff, and our membership has grown by huge leaps and bounds.

I like to say that we are the head of community for our program. We want to make sure that everyone feels they can connect with one another and that once alumni leave the program, they're really invested in it, and this gives them a way to still participate in things.

How does the FSA help Nonprofit Management students?

We're really there to be an answer to whatever students need. We listen to the students, we hear what they want. They told us they want a place to find really specialized jobs, so last year we got them a nonprofit career day where they could have on-site interviews and networking with real professionals in the fundraising world. And they said to us, "We're students from all over the world, what is there to do at night?" So we said, "Okay, let's have more happy hours after class," so you can meet each other and create that sense of community even though you're miles away from home.

We open the floor up to the students every time we think of an event, we listen to them, we get their input. Some of them want to do their own events, so we have our steering committee, who post happy hours on behalf of FSA. We had one at the Met organized by two students in the steering committee. We use our interconnected network of connections based on where we work, where we live, where we volunteer, to bring opportunities to all the students in the program.

Is there anything specific that you’re proud of regarding your work with the FSA?

I'm proud to be a part of something bigger than classes on campus. Classes are the heart of Columbia, it's what you're paying for, but you ultimately will get more out of an experience if you have a relationship with it. Our program, and the way our careers are all designed in nonprofit management is based on relationship-building. So if we can't own that and we can't successfully execute it at a student level, then how are we going to do it in the real world? I feel like the Fundraising Students Association is an answer to that [question] for our current students.

What are you hoping to accomplish with the association this year?

I'd like us to adapt to all the changes as the program transitions to Nonprofit Management. I also hope to gain more membership. My time as president will end this December, so we will be looking for a new president, vice president, treasurer, and secretary for the group, and I'd really like somebody with the same passion to take over.

How do you balance work and classes?

It's creating a space. When you're at work, you can bring everything you've learned from your classes to work, and then when you have problems at work, you can take your problems at work to class and have everyone help you figure it out. It's a balance, and I think that I got a lot more out of the program working and going to school because I was able to see exactly what we were learning being applied in real time, and what actually works for a nonprofit and what, actually, you may not need at a large nonprofit.

How do you feel about the name change?

Fundraising is really a specialty, but it's also very limiting if you want to be a leader in the nonprofit world. If you want to be a director of development, or an executive director, or a chief development officer — just the name alone [on your resume], Nonprofit Management, will get you a lot farther.

This interview has been edited and condensed.