"Be a Little Crazy." A Top Fundraiser on What It Really Takes to Succeed

Dyan Sublett MLKCH Portrait.jpg

“Be a little crazy.”

That’s the advice Dyan Sublett, president of the MLK Community Health Foundation in Los Angeles, gives to fundraising colleagues. Being crazy, she explains, means taking career risks.

“I always took the long view of being successful, getting there in a way that excited me or made me a little afraid,” says Sublett, who has spent her entire career raising money. “If I didn’t have that, I’d probably get bored.”

Indeed, in taking her current position five years ago, Sublett had a lot to fear, says James Looney, a local fundraising consultant. With the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital, which is supported by the foundation, Sublett was charged with replacing a hospital that had failed spectacularly in providing services to the Watts community, he says.

“She took an idea about what this new hospital could be and replaced what was called Killer King because it was so poorly run,” Looney says. “Dyan has helped bury that reputation.”

In the greatest challenge of her long career, Sublett is raising money for a safety-net hospital with patients who cannot afford to give but are grateful for their care. Her first fundraising hurdle: raising $8 million in 18 months to enlarge the too-small maternity unit with no staff or donor base. Working with the hospital’s chief executive, Dr. Elaine Batchlor, Sublett raised the money, largely from local foundations, allowing a new and improved hospital to open two years ago. Together, the women have raised more than $25 million. Next up, Sublett says, is establishing annual giving, planned giving programs, expanding the foundation’s board, and getting other doctors to raise money, starting with their peers.

Different Strokes

Among fundraisers, Sublett is something of an anomaly. While many development officers come to fundraising from a sales or business background, Sublett is a multifaceted artist, taking decades of piano lessons, serving as first soprano in her church choir, and writing poetry after obtaining her master’s degree in fine arts. But she’s also athletic, with a lifelong love of horses, study of dance, and mountain running. And if you ask her if she is an introvert or extrovert, she will say she’s somewhere in the middle.

Perhaps it’s this ability to straddle different spheres that has led to an uncommonly varied fundraising career. Unlike many other development professionals who tend to stick with the same type of organization, Sublett’s career includes raising funds for dramatically different causes: In addition to medicine, she has worked in social services, museums, other arts organizations, and higher education.

Among Sublett’s signature accomplishments is co-founding the Women & Philanthropy program at the University of California Los Angeles with Karen Stone, a former colleague there. The fundraising program, still going strong today, celebrated its 20th anniversary three years ago. Members, who are encouraged to donate to whatever interests them at the university, have given more than $160 million, paid for some 250 new positions, and inspired a national movement of women uniting to flex their financial muscle in philanthropy.

“We wanted to find out what women were doing with their money at UCLA, where we had 11 percent women on the board even though the institution had more women than men,” recalls Stone. “Many men did not encourage us.” A lasting achievement of the Women & Philanthropy program is bringing alumnae together for meaningful interaction and educational sessions on topics like women and stress, brain research and women’s entrepreneurial activities.

“The group changed my life,” says founding member Joy Monkarsh, who later served as its president. “I became a leader, more charitable. I met so many women, all different types of women. We carry a lot of cachet, and we also have great respect for one another.”

Sundance Years

Sublett grew up in Indiana, where she got her undergraduate degree before moving to Amherst, Massachusetts, to earn a master’s degree in creative writing. She started her fundraising career at nearby Hampshire College the following year. At Hampshire, she worked her way up from the first director of the annual fund to director of development in five years.

Next, Sublett was recruited by the actor Robert Redford, who worked with an executive recruiter to convince her to move to Salt Lake City. The goal: helping him raise money for the Sundance Institute, which administers the now-renowned Sundance Film Festival.

But Sublett didn’t want the job. For one thing, the Sundance Institute was deeply in debt and in need of donors, staff and fundraising programs to ensure its survival.

But Redford was persistent. When he asked Sublett what he could do to persuade her to take the job, she asked for a horse. When the actor quickly offered to give her a horse and stable it alongside his own, Sublett agreed to move to Salt Lake City, but only for three years.

But there was a problem: Redford, she recalls, “was surrounded by handlers.” To get the actor’s undivided attention, Sublett set up periodic meetings with him—on horseback. Redford and the young 30-something woman would spend a hour or two, sometimes longer, on the trail, he astride his Palomino and Sublett on her Arabian gelding. Afterward, she delivered Redford back to his handlers.

While the Redford chapter adds a bit of glamour to her career, Sublett does not regard those years as very significant professionally. But personally, they were very important: She met and married her husband, Alan Echeverria, an actor, at Sundance. As her three-year promise to Redford came to a close, the couple, now married and expecting a child, decided to move to Los Angeles, a better professional market for both husband and wife.

Looking Back

As she reflects on her career, Sublett says she wishes she’d had a lighter touch when she entered the fundraising profession. “I was very serious because it was important to do well, and I had the idea that my professional demeanor should be serious,” she says. “When you gain experience, you gain confidence, but when you are young, seriousness takes the place of your confidence.”

Sublett also wishes she hadn’t doubted herself so much. “When I was recruited to Sundance, I was absolutely convinced I made the worst mistake of my life,” she recalls. “I would break down in tears in the middle of the grocery aisle. I was alone with no peers or colleagues. But I met my husband, and we have a long marriage and a daughter. At a moment when I thought I failed, it was exactly the right thing to do.”

A close examination of Sublett’s professional track record reveals multiple career-enhancing skills that fundraisers would do well to emulate:

Recruit with imagination. Over the years, Sublett has used creativity and persistence to lure top talent to her organizations. For example, when she led fundraising at the Museum of Natural History, she became friendly with Tom Jacobson, a playwright in his spare time who held a fundraising position at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Impressed with his work ethic and imagination, Sublett tried talking Jacobson into joining her at the national history museum, but he resisted.

Then one day, Sublett sent him a taxidermy specimen of an American wigeon, a type of duck. “Everyone freaked out, but I loved it,” says Jacobson. “This big dead thing shows up and prompted a lot of ‘gross’ reactions. But I decided I wanted to go where the duck is from. It told me Dyan would be a lot of fun to work for.”

In other cases, Sublett has hired fundraisers with zero experience in the type of work she needs them to do, trusting they can and will rise to the occasion. That was the case with Thanh Hoang, a major gift officer who Sublett recruited to be her senior director of planned gifts at the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles, an association representing 26 branches of the charity.

“I had an annual fund background, and I was at a point in my career as a major gifts officer thinking about planned gifts,” recalls Hoang. “She actually hired me with no planned giving experience, she thought outside the box. Dyan has the ability to seek out talent and give people unusual opportunities.”

Focus on board relations. Recruiting and managing board members is a necessity among top fundraisers, and Sublett excels at it, several colleagues say. She singlehandedly built and staffed the board at MLK Community Health Foundation, according to Manny Abascal, an attorney and partner at Latham & Watkins who Sublett persuaded to be a foundation trustee.

“Her contacts in the grantmaking community are extraordinary,” Abascal says. “We needed board members and she recruited all of the board, about nine people. She had to create the foundation giving structure.”

Sublett has made board development “an important part of her skill set,” says John E. Kobara, an executive at the California Community Foundation who's vice chair of the MLK foundation board. “She loves it and goes deep into it. This is a skill that is so undervalued in the marketplace.”

Expect internal politics and professional threats. Most experienced fundraisers encounter leadership changes or other conditions that endanger or add negative complications to their job, and Sublett is no exception. One problematic leader she worked for took a year-long “sabbatical,” leaving Sublett and Linda Norlen, a colleague, to run the entire organization.

“It was trial by fire,” Norlen recalls. “We rose to the occasion and worked well together, but it wasn’t that easy. We became good friends as a result. You bond in a combat situation.”

Lack of chemistry between Sublett and the chief executive she reports to prompted her departure from two of the seven organizations where she has led fundraising in her career. Except for her three-year stint at Sundance, she has averaged seven years at each charity. She reports excellent relations with Dr. Batchlor, her hospital’s top executive, with the two women teaching each other about their respective areas of expertise—hospital administration and raising money—and collaborating productively.

When on-the-job difficulties do arise, Sublett says she tries to think beyond her own comfort level and consider other factors, such as what’s best for donors and for the organization itself. That’s something she taught Susan Rice years ago, when Rice led the fundraising arm of a troubled Los Angeles Zoo.

“It was a difficult time,” recalls Rice. “The zoo was about to lose its accreditation, there were negative news stories, and the zoo director was fired. I just wanted to quit.” But after talking with Sublett, “a very good listener,” Rice says she decided to wait it out. “You care about the mission, your donors, and volunteers,” she says. “I stayed until I had a nice opportunity, and I was able to depart in a professional manner. The timing was better for the organization and for me.”

Take time to mentor—and ask for help. Several fundraisers who’ve worked for Sublett laud her mentoring skills. One is Amy Hines, now a fundraising consultant with the Alford Group.

“She tracked what we agreed I’d be doing,” says Hines. “When we met again, we went over that. She did this very well and authentically. I felt supported as a woman and a colleague. She helped me move along in my career.”

At the same time, Sublett does not hesitate to request assistance and information when she needs it, says Norlen, her former colleague. “Dyan was not afraid to ask for help and be mentored by someone who knew more,” she recalls. “She knew when she could win it herself and when she needed support.” 

Understand your role with donors. The best fundraisers understand that fundraising is not just a job, says Renee Bianco, a development officer who worked with Sublett at the Los Angeles YMCA. “It is so much more than that.”

Sublett, she says, understands that “while people have various reasons for giving, they want to do something meaningful. What you are able to do is give people joy. I learned from watching Dyan that you are helping donors experience the joy of giving.”

Negotiate to your advantage. Sublett, says Norlen, “is a really good negotiator, not only for herself but for people on her staff. If the budget doesn’t fit or if the organization is not offering enough, she can find a way.”

Having earned an executive degree in negotiation from Stanford, Sublett has some advice about how fundraisers should negotiate for the best possible salary.

“Be very specific with numbers, do not talk about how donors like you,” she says. “Talk about the numbers-based performance of your team.”

Furthermore, fundraisers need to do research on actual salaries in their region, because “somebody in Indianapolis cannot earn what I earn in L.A.,” Sublett says. Salary surveys are conducted by fundraising associations, she notes, while other information on fundraising pay can be gleaned by consulting the 990 forms nonprofits are required to file with the Internal Revenue Service. 

"Talk to three or four well-known people and see if they have more experience and position yourself among your peers. If your peers with similar experience are earning $200,000 or 250,000, compare yourself to those folks."

Don’t hold onto dead wood. Sublett says that over the years, she’s had to let multiple fundraisers go when their job performance proved to be unequal to the demands of their position.

She has tried to do so humanely, she says, focusing on the fact that the fundraiser and the position are not a good fit, helping the person figure out where they would be happier, and when possible, helping the fundraiser find his or her next position.

One dismissed fundraiser was so grateful for the way she handled his involuntary departure that he subsequently asked Sublett to serve on an advisory board organized by his new employer.

Keeping people who aren’t doing a good job not only hurts poorly performing fundraisers by keeping them from succeeding elsewhere, Sublett says. It also hurts the chief fundraiser’s reputation in the eyes of his or her colleagues. “When you hang onto fundraisers who aren’t doing a good job, colleagues and staff lose respect for you,” Sublett says. “It’s got to be about the good of the organization.”