The brilliant, quirky fundraising career of Professor Denny Young

Published by Rebecca Davies on

quirky2Our 101fundraising community has lately been blogging and talking a lot about fundraising leadership: the emerging and the stale, the breathtaking and the reprehensible. I now want to pivot the conversation from managing up to managing out: how do the best in our profession manage their own careers? Did/do they take a prescribed approach with each job move? Is career retrograde sometimes more strategic than progression, and something to consider? And as I’m right now transitioning out of a director role I’ve loved for seven years and looking for my own act two, I’m particularly keen to learn the right questions to ask myself, and do more soul-searching than automatic ladder-climbing. But how?

So when the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Toronto Area chapter – my chapter and the largest in the world – announced Denny Young as the 2014 Outstanding Fundraising Professional, 101fundraising congratulated and invited him as the guest on the first North American #101webinar. We broadcasted live from Toronto, Canada on December 1, 2014, less than a week after he received this award at a luncheon in front of 1,000 fundraisers and philanthropists. And on Thursday, November 27, the day after Denny received his award and made his speech, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (where Denny was VP Philanthropy until very recently) announced a surplus at its annual general meeting, as well as a fully-funded European tour, the first in fourteen years. Knowing the heroic struggle many arts organizations worldwide have to survive and thrive, this was tremendous fundraising impact! A peer-reviewed outstanding fundraising professional AND professor AND the man who, through his triumphant servant-leadership made my city’s cherished symphony orchestra greater every year? Our subject expert was confirmed. There was no one more perfect and who we’d be more privileged to discuss career management with than Professor Denny Young.

Lessons from the Professor

Oops. We didn’t hit record until ten minutes into the webinar, so here’s what’s going on: the webinar starts at the jumping-off point for our conversation, when Denny reveals an executive search consultant’s reason for his elimination as a job candidate.

quirky3You’ve got to admit, Denny, your resume’s quirky, the recruiter told him, on the basis of his career path that zigzagged and squiggled more than climbed predictably.

The recruiter observed the organizations he’d work for had been in the arts then social services then health then back to the arts; and his title had even once swooped from executive director to coordinator. But Denny says,I don’t believe any one of the steps I’ve taken in my career has been a mistake. They were all what I should have been doing. Quirky is to be aspired to.

So enjoy our chat, full of quirk, with lots of thoughtful questions from you (is there a skill-set you can’t live without as a great fundraiser? Should you work for a brand you love, or seek to do the work you love even if it’s elsewhere? What was the highlight of Denny’s career?) and of course supportive, helpful and sometimes surprising answers from our Professor. Be sure to watch to the end when 101 has a surprise for Denny himself.

Here it is: http://youtu.be/nXN7qw-ldVY

Beyond the webinar: more accolades for the Professor

Tara George, VP & Executive Search Consultant, Ketchum Canada Inc.: Denny’s so right. Squiggles are beautiful. I don’t think a career is a ladder; more like a web. And the trick is to find the common thread in your web. That’s your joy and will be your success. Sometimes you have to take risks and try something new. Look at my career: teaching high school, then to marketing, to alumni relations and into fundraising for twelve years. I’m still a fundraiser, but on the recruitment and talent management side of things. As professionals we have an obligation to be broad-minded, and pay it forward when we can, for those who gave us a chance in our careers.

Barbara Track, Executive Director, Woodsworth College, University of Toronto (and mystery webinar guest 1, comments at 26:30)

Devan Katsof, Humber Fundraising Class 2015 (and mystery webinar guest 2, comments at 28:45)

Teri Worthington Coombs, Director of Development, Soulpepper Theatre: Denny and I are avid Aaron Sorkin fans, and I can’t think of a better way to express who and how is than through this clip from the West Wing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQJ6yqQRAQsDenny has jumped in that hole many times with us. I’m where I am because of him. But before I even worked with him as a fundraiser, years ago I got to go to one of his sessions at Congress about volunteer management. Denny, who has a strong United Church tradition, said to us, “In fundraising, we’re the conductors, and volunteers are the choir. They are the stars, and make all the work happen.” Everything he said resonated and filled me with knowledge. He made me realize I knew way more about this business than I thought I did. He made it relatable and approachable. He made it about people and not gift disbursements and quotas. He also gave me my first job in the industry, at the National Ballet School. Nearly thirteen years later, he’s still my mentor.

quirky1Selga Apse: Business Manager, Canadian Olympic Foundation: What tremendous fun Denny is to work with! We agree we need to laugh and that decadent cupcakes help stressful situations. I’ve worked with Denny three out of 3 out of the four jobs I’ve had in my career. One of the reasons is we love to challenge each other: we love to argue in a team setting in front of our colleagues. It’s a tennis match: lighthearted, but with the aim to get the best result, to perfect the idea. Under Denny’s leadership, you’ll walk away from group brainstorm session not realizing just how much you learned. He was great at getting us to brainstorm and to dream.

Marion York, Director of Philanthropy, Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Denny was my colleague and also my study and travel mate -Toronto to Minneapolis – as we pursued our Masters in Philanthropy and Development at Saint Mary’s. He just loves learning and sharing, is an early adopter of new technologies, and is always exploring and questioning. He does it with a lot of kindness humour and generosity, and has ended up where he wanted to be and should be: teaching, sharing, and mentoring. Denny’s an amazing communicator, and his writing skills for development are powerful. His journalism background helps to convey the urgency, and his story telling rallies people to act.

Steve Thomas, Chairman and Owner of Stephen Thomas Ltd.: Denny the client: we worked with him at Alzheimer’s many years ago. He’s no pushover, and was always fair. Denny the friend: I could bubble over. Within hours, at my request after my mother died, he wrote a long and thoughtful email with church organ music recommendations for her funeral. I’ll never forget that.

Brenda Boyes, Fundraiser: Denny is so keyed into an individual’s interest, and is concerned with what’s going to be most meaningful to them. For example, for a farewell gift to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s board president, who is also a church organist, Denny arranged for the chairman to be able to play the organ at Roy Thomson Hall.

Patrick McConnell, Director Marketing Coordinator, MSF Canada and aid worker with MSF (currently on mission in Democratic Republic of Congo): I took a marketing course with Denny at Ryerson University. It was reassuring to see someone with that much experience in fundraising still have so much passion in his work. It was inspirational to see someone who supports and genuinely believes in charities, both big and small. Denny also showed me how important it is to keep improving even the best charity, whether it’s through responsible fundraising in Toronto or thorough accountability in spending resources in Congo.


And you, dear crowdblog reader? What has been your career trajectory? Please give us your experience, and you’re invited to ask Denny more questions here on this blog post.

About our guest

Denny YoungDenny Youngis an award-winning non-profit management specialist, educator, and coach. He has an exemplary, 25-year record of successful leadership in the non-profit sector, including his last role as Vice President, Development at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He’s now a Professor at Humber College and the Program Coordinator of its prestigious Fundraising Management graduate program, and is the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Toronto Chapter’s2014 winner forOutstanding Fundraising Professional, which he received November 26, 2014.


Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies is incoming Chief Development Officer of Save the Children Canada. As past director of fundraising for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, from 2007-2014 she lead a team that in seven years increased private revenue from $19 million to over $50 million. Prior to joining MSF, she held senior fundraising positions in some of Canada’s top hospitals and the University of Toronto. Her current volunteer passion is the Ripple Refugee Project, where she and a group of concerned Torontonians are sponsoring and settling five Syrian families over the new few years. Rebecca’s an active musician (French horn), plays hockey and golf, and very proudly is on the executive for and was the inaugural blog post contributor to 101fundraising.org.


Laurel Shapton · December 5, 2014 at 15:51

I had the pleasure of having Denny as my teacher for one of my courses at Ryerson. What an inspiration and true fundraising professional! Thank you Denny for bringing passion and commitment to your teaching and to our incredible profession!

Montie Brown · April 4, 2015 at 07:28

Career building is really essential for every human being; therefore in most of the occasion we have found that people are looking for better opportunities through suitable career building programs. But the real fact is that to build a better career we need the support of suitable teacher and here we have found that Professor Denny Young provides various o suitable opportunities to the students to build their success career.

Henry Larry · February 19, 2024 at 07:36

Engaging insights from Professor Denny Young unconventional career in fundraising. The emphasis on embracing the quirky elements in ones path resonates. career as a web not a ladder. Thought provoking perspectives for anyone navigating their professional journey.
Hard Drive Recovery Services in Riverside

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *