On her fifth birthday, Harriett rushed to her local library branch to get her first library card. Today, she helps raise critical funds for resources and programs at Chicago Public Library for Chicagoans of all ages.
A former student caller tasked to reach out to alumni at UChicago, Harriett didn’t think she’d go into fundraising after college. Fast forward to now, she’s the Library Foundation’s Development Communications Manager, writing grants, appeals, and proposals to expand corporate and civic partnerships for the Library.
First thing’s first. Walk us through your career journey.
I studied history in college. I also studied (though unofficially) a lot of foreign languages such as Italian and German and I got the chance to go to Austria post-college to teach English to high school students for two years. I liked teaching and for a while, I thought I was going to be a teacher, but then I entered the non-profit sector and decided I liked that more. After I got back from Austria, I moved to Washington D.C. and started working for a nonprofit that focused on reproductive rights for four years. Then, I moved to Chicago in 2020 and eventually began working here at the Library Foundation.
Is the work you’re doing now the work you thought you’d be doing when you started your career?
Most of my family works in STEM fields so I didn’t know much about nonprofits or the careers that existed outside of the doctors, scientists, and math people that were in my family.
My first fundraising experience was in college when I called alumni and asked for donations for our university, which I honestly didn’t enjoy. I swore I wouldn’t take a job in fundraising again but here we are. I’m just glad I don’t have to do as many cold calls as I did back then!
Are you a self-taught grant writer?
I haven’t done any official grant writing training, so I guess I am a self-taught grant writer, but I am not a self-taught writer. There isn’t a huge difference between grant writing and the other types of writing you may do. The persuasive writing you learn in high school and college transfers over into grant writing. I often tell people who aren’t grant writers that writing a grant letter is like writing a cover letter on a job application—you’re just writing a cover letter on behalf of your organization.
What specific things did you like about the nonprofit sector that kept you in it?
I enjoy helping others and working for places dedicated to empowering communities that may not have access to certain resources. Also, I know this isn’t a universal answer, but I’ve been very fortunate to work at nonprofits that have a great work/life balance. That’s been a big factor for me.
What drew you to the Library Foundation, then?
There are a couple things. First, like everyone else on staff, I love libraries. Libraries have given me so much in my life—and I believe that everyone should have access to lifelong learning opportunities. I was also very intrigued by the private/public partnership—the city working with civic partners and leaders to advance the organization’s mission—which is not something I was super familiar with before I worked here.
You’re 6+ months into your role now. How has your experience been? What have you learned?
It’s been great! Learning more about the Library has been one of the most fulfilling things for me. I knew the Library had a lot of resources, but I feel like I didn’t even know the surface. It’s been amazing to me to learn all the things the Library has to offer from free homework help to digital support for seniors, and the fact that there are so many branches of the Library across the city. Most people live within walking distance to their Library!
I also really enjoy the rest of the team—we all have different personalities but gel really well together.
You went from raising money for reproductive rights to Library programming and resources. How has that shift been in terms of writing?
Reproductive rights require a different knowledge base. It’s still dealing with inequalities, but they’re different inequalities, obviously. The biggest difference for me, though, is on an organizational level. I went from a more traditional nonprofit to this public/private partnership. Before, there were only 30 people at my previous organization and so I knew who to go to for the information I needed for grant proposals and appeals. Now, there’s so many people I reach out to at the Library—the information gathering process has been expanded in a way that it wasn’t before. At the same time, it’s been an opportunity to learn how to find information in other ways through online research.
If there’s one thing you want Chicagoans to know about the Library Foundation, what would that be?
I would want Chicagoans to know that the Library Foundation can introduce you to all the resources the Library has, not just as a supporter of the Library but also a user of the Library. I also want people to know that we make it as easy as possible for you to support the Library.
What’s your Library story?
I grew up in Rochester, New York and you had to be five to get your library card. So, the day I turned five, that’s all I wanted to do: go to my local branch and get my library card. I still remember what it looked like and how my signature was in half uppercase letters and half lowercase letters.
What Library program resonates with you the most?
YOUmedia and the Maker Lab. They’re such a departure from what people thing a library does. They make crafts and art accessible to teens and adults. We’re accustomed to these things being offered to kids, but teens and adults need these spaces, too. They reinforce that the Library is for everyone.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Favorite Library branch?
Lozano! It’s so close to me and it’s always been there for me.
What are your hobbies?
Biking, biking, and biking. I do a lot of biking and bike advocacy, asking people to sign petitions for safer streets and pedestrian infrastructure.
If you weren’t working here, what would your dream career would be?
I’d want to be like Anthony Bourdain. I would want to have my own TV show, travel around, and try different foods and learn about different cultures.
Last question: you were a monthly donor before working here. What made you want to donate to the Library Foundation?
Having worked in the nonprofit sector, I knew being a monthly donor meant it was a reliable source of income for an organization and that I help sustain the Library’s missions for years to come. Most nonprofits I donate to, I donate to monthly with that in mind. I also find that giving a place $5 or $10 a month is more financially doable for me than a one-time donation at the end of the year. It allows me to still give a certain amount a year and have the same impact I want it to, but it’s spaced out and factored into my monthly budget.
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