Garrett Backes

Garrett Backes

Year of Graduation: 2009

Major(s): Communication

Current Position: Director of Corporate & Foundation Relations, Minnesota Children’s Museum


Please provide a brief description of your current position and where you work.

I am the Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at Minnesota Children's Museum (MCM). I lead the museum's institutional philanthropy program including corporate and private foundation grants, corporate sponsorships, and deeper engagement of corporate partners in the community. With locations in downtown Saint Paul and Rochester, MCM is dedicated to sparking children’s learning through play, providing children with a fun, hands-on and stimulating environment to explore and discover. 

What path did you follow to arrive at your current job?

I got my start in the nonprofit world with an internship at United Way of Central Minnesota the spring semester of my senior year of college. My senior year, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do for my career, but I had previously heard about nonprofits, and the prospect of working for the greater good of the community appealed to me. From the start of my internship, I absolutely loved the feeling of working for a cause. After graduation, I had a short summer stint in the SJU Advancement Office, was a campaign consultant at United Way that fall, and then got my first permanent full time job at Southwest Initiative Foundation in a blended Development and Communications role. I then went to The Arc Greater Twin Cities where my work focused on individual giving and sponsorships. This March, I started with MCM.  Not a lot of people grow up saying "I want to be a fundraiser," but we development folks find our way here - often by way of a communications/marketing/sales track. I was fortunate to learn of this career track early on and have a great nonprofit experience right off the bat. 

What skills are important in your field?

Communication is number one, in so many ways. Having an opportunistic mindset. Listening and hearing out the priorities and goals of the donor, then connecting how that might fit with what your nonprofit organization does. Being proactive, future-focused, and always envisioning the possibilities. Being gracious and grateful go a long way in this line of work. Sincerely expressing appreciation and gratitude is vitally important. 

What are the rewards and challenges of your position?

The rewards: seeing a big gift or corporate partnership come to fruition. Year-end, when the bulk of charitable support comes in the door, is especially fun. Seeing all that hard work--all those letters, emails, phone calls and meetings--pay off as so many generous donors decide that your organization is worthy of support. The generosity of individuals and companies in Minnesota is overwhelmingly heartwarming. These are people who want to make a difference so they trustingly make investments in nonprofits to better their community and help others. It’s incredible.

The challenges: I would say the flipside of the above. If a big gift that you anticipated does not come in or your program funding is cut, the bottom line is that the programmatic work cannot be done, and you can't help a bunch of people in need. "No money, no mission" is a harsh reality. Sometimes things out of your control (economy, business, etc.) can ultimately determine donors' capacity, your fundraising success, and hence drastically impact your organization.

What activities/experiences were helpful at CSB/SJU (and elsewhere) in preparation for this career?

The basic Benedictine values permeate everyday campus life and the coursework. I think of it simply as "Being a decent person". From holding the door for the next person, to being respectful and appreciative of nature, to listening for understanding of others, and gaining a keener sense of the common good. 

More concretely, I found my Communication and Sociology coursework key in preparing me for the nonprofit field. In retrospect, there not being a "Nonprofit" Major, this was a great major/minor combo to set me up for this career track. And, speaking of which, if/when you feel you're at a crossroads of uncertainty in declaring a major, talk to Career Services. Halfway through sophomore year, I didn't know which direction I wanted to go. I was encouraged to think about what I was good at, what I enjoyed and then follow that course track. Taking a breath and knowing that you're not etching your next 50 years of work in stone right then and there helped free me of the anxiety to make a decision. 

Why did you decide to work for a non-profit organization?

I think most everyone wants to "do good" in one way or another, and I have seen many, many people in the corporate world do a whole heck of a lot of good volunteering, sponsoring, personally donating, advising pro-bono and sitting on boards of nonprofits. For me, I wanted to accomplish that through my "day job" -- my career's work. I get great satisfaction from helping, from connecting one to one, learning about a person's unique perspective, and helping those who are not as fortunate. I recognize how privileged I am in so many ways, and understand how many folks do not have the same opportunities. To quote the late Senator Paul Wellstone, "We all do better when we all do better." Working for a nonprofit is a great way to help us all do better.  

What are the benefits of working for a non-profit organization?

In my experience, the workplace culture is great, the workday is a bit more flexible, and benefits can be richer, including more vacation and holiday time off. The nonprofit community is tightknit, so having that interconnectedness and culture of sharing ideas, helping each other out, is nice as well. Who knows when your paths will cross again, whom your organization might partner with or when you might be working with each other. Intangibly, the feel-good of working for a cause greater than that of 'for the sake of business', for the betterment of those less fortunate and your community is very rewarding to me. 

What advice/suggestions would you have for students who might be interested in your career?

Volunteer. Join committees. Do informational interviews. Network. I have found people in the nonprofit world to be exceedingly generous with their time, want to help those trying to make their way into the field. We appreciate fellow folks who also want to do good in this world. And, we are deeply appreciative of volunteers! Volunteering is a great way to learn about organizations, make connections, and get some job experience in a way -- especially if you are helping in a committee capacity.

(May 2017)