Using your liberal arts education for the common good – Q & A with Wyn Furman, CAS 2009

Wyn Furman graduated from Penn in 2009 with double majors in History and French. She is currently the Manager of Community Research for The San Diego Foundation, a community foundation that stewards philanthropic funds on behalf of the San Diego region. She recently shared her thoughts on her nonprofit career with Career Services.


1.       What got you interested in working for a nonprofit, and in the philanthropy field, specifically?

My interest in working in the nonprofit sector developed when I realized how much I had benefited from the generosity of others—particularly in receiving my education—which made me want to “give back” through my work. Arriving at Philanthropy was a happy accident. In our field, we feel that people don’t graduate from college hoping to enter our line of work, probably due to a lack of familiarity with this part of the nonprofit sector. As a result, some of us are hoping to introduce more intentionality to this career path by encouraging young talent to pursue philanthropy sooner.

2.       Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and why it’s important?

Primarily, I serve our donors by helping them learn more about the issues and organizations to which they would like to dedicate funds. This includes providing background on challenges our region faces and even evaluating organizations’ financial position via tax records (which I enjoy, even though I was a history major!).  In addition to the research component, I also solicit reports from organizations that describe the work they do with grants from our donors.

The aim of my work is to help donors feel more informed when deciding which organizations to support. This is great for the community because we help donors act on their passions. For instance, we’ve had donors who read about an organization in the paper call us to vet the organization before making a grant. In those cases, we’ve helped turn news coverage into dollars that support the community!

Our capacity for research is also among the services that help distinguish The Foundation from other institutions that manage charitable funds, like banks. Although my role is “behind the scenes,” I think it is important because I provide tools that help my colleagues strengthen their relationships with donors, and that help donors feel more connected to the community. It’s a win-win that ultimately benefits our region.

3.       What are the different hats you’ve worn since joining the San Diego Foundation?

I started by helping to coordinate Our Greater San Diego Vision (, a campaign that engaged 30,000 people across the greater San Diego region in planning for its long-term future. After more than a year and a half in that position, the bulk of the project was complete, so I chose to apply for the newly created position of Manager, Community Research.

This work draws on the regional knowledge I gained by working on Our Greater San Diego Vision. The nice thing about moving from a programmatic role (working on the Vision) to donor stewardship is that I have a solid understanding of the responsibilities and priorities of our two major areas of operation, and relationships throughout our organization. This has led to being engaged in some exciting projects and discussions in which I might not otherwise have been involved.

4.       Of the most valuable skills you’re using in your job, which did you learn in college and which did you learn on the job?

Particularly in my new role, I think the research and analytical skills I honed at Penn were critical to attaining and succeeding in this position. An understanding of the dynamics of a multigenerational office environment—as well as adjusting to the 8-5 schedule—was something that could only be picked up on the job. Fortunately, I worked in offices before and during college, so I was at least anticipating the shift.

5.       You’ve interned in nonprofits before, and of course not all nonprofits are the same. So, what surprises you about the work and environment at this job?

Until I began working for The Foundation, I didn’t appreciate the many differences between philanthropic organizations, such as foundations, and direct service nonprofits (i.e. one that provides services to the public, like a health center). As one of the former, our organization predominantly works with charitably-minded individuals or corporations, and the nonprofit organizations that directly serve our community, rather than providing services directly to those in need. Coupled with being a community foundation (thus not dedicated to advancing one particular issue), we need an understanding of the multitude of challenges facing our community. This was a nice surprise for me since I like being exposed to a broad array of issues.

6.       What would you advise college students to do if they are considering a career like yours? Are there particular classes they should take in college? Activities they should join?

A Penn education could prepare most students to work in this sector. For instance, I like to remind Whartonites that even nonprofits need experts in marketing, investing, and accounting! As with any field well-honed written and interpersonal communication skills are critical because relationship building is heavily emphasized. Passion for an issue—while necessary—can only take you so far.

I strongly encourage students who would like to join the sector to work, intern, or volunteer for a nonprofit if possible. This will give a taste of the culture and values of the field, and may help you discern what type of organization would be a good fit for you (e.g. a larger organization might have a more clear advancement path, but a smaller organization—or one with fewer resources—might permit you to take on more responsibility, and therefore afford you the opportunity to distinguish yourself sooner).

If you’re really motivated to get into the field, you could also join a professional organization, like Young Nonprofit Professionals Network ( or Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (, for “sector-learning” and networking opportunities.

7.       Since you’re not from California, what did you do in terms of research or networking that helped you find this job in a new city?

Unfortunately, we moved to California at a terrible time for the economy, which made my job search a struggle that was compounded by not knowing anyone in the area. The people I did reach out to, however, were really kind even though they were ultimately unable to connect me to job opportunities. Networking allowed me to practice talking about my skills, and also helped me learn more about the local professional culture. After many long months, I was hired for the perfect job with The Foundation, which I found in a surprising place: Craigslist, a decent resource for entry level and nonprofit jobs since employers do not have to pay for listings.

 8.       It looks like you’ve been promoted already at the San Diego Foundation in your short time there. Besides working hard, which I’m sure you’ve done, what did you do to make yourself so successful?

I had to go through a competitive process to earn the role of the manager, but it was a big step up from my previous position. I think it helped that I did my best to earn people’s trust by building up a record of solid work. I was also fortunate to have a great relationship with my then-supervisor, which made it easier to communicate what my interests, strengths and longer-term aspirations were.

9.   Finally, if there’s one thing you wish someone had told you when you were a college junior or senior, what would it be?

Well, I really wish I knew that it was more like moving to a different country, not a different city (at least after living in the orbit of Philadelphia my entire life)! It also didn’t occur to me that the corporate culture and thus job market might reflect some of the cultural differences that I am still getting used to.

I also think it might have helped to read more about the job market in general (not that I had time to read more while finishing up two text-heavy majors!) One of my favorite blogs now is, which has a lot of sensible advice for job seekers and employees. The comments on the site also add nuances that reflect geographic and sector differences.

Author: Helen Cheung

Helen Cheung is an Associate Director in Career Services for College of Arts & Sciences undergraduates.