Notre Dame alum takes a strong stand for nonprofits.
The world of nonprofits is one fraught with peril as there is an infinite number of causes worthy of support but a seemingly finite number of those willing to contribute to those causes. Ensuring that aid reaches needy individuals or organizations is a tough job requiring trained development personnel willing to do the hard work that has as its essence the often uncomfortable task of asking others for money.
Working hard, however, doesn't appear to be a problem for 2002 Notre Dame grad Kristen Rossi, who currently is vice president of development and communications at the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Michigan.
She said that despite the sometimes frustrating and difficult work, she loves working for nonprofits because it's challenging and because of its diversity — diversity of people and diversity of need.
"I’ve had the great opportunity to step into many different spheres and wear many different hats in the nonprofit sector," she said recently in an interview with the Notre Dame Alumni Association. "Apart from where I work, I’m also engaged in other local nonprofits as a volunteer. I serve on the board of a human-services organization, Community Social Services of Wayne County. I also sit on a committee for the Eastern Market and I'm very active in the Detroit Boat Club Crew."
Wanted to be a teacher
Rossi's interest in development and fundraising actually began back in college while working toward an expected career in education.
"I went to Western Michigan University and absolutely loved my time there," Rossi said. "Western was a perfect choice for me. I wanted a college on the smaller side, but not tiny. I wanted to be outside of my hometown, but not too far. And I wanted to be a teacher at that time, and WMU had a great teaching program."
But the path to becoming a teacher ended up being rather short.
"I must have changed my major five times or more at Western," she said. "I wanted something that wasn’t quite as scripted but still very action-oriented. I just happened to take a class in nonprofit leadership during my junior year of college and I was immediately smitten. I ended up minoring in that subject and that drove me into a master’s program in public administration with a focus on nonprofit management."
Perfect grammar and ready for anything
Rossi recalls how she felt totally ready for the rigors of college when she first arrived on campus in Kalamazoo.
"I felt very well-prepared in my first semester at college," she said. "I remember getting back my first writing assignment in advanced Spanish, and my professor congratulated me on having perfect grammar. I attributed that to Senora Tesada and Senora Anderson at NDP."
Rossi also noticed that many of her fellow students at Western were struggling during their first semester. But in her case, she felt totally prepared due to some really great teachers at Notre Dame.
"I knew Mrs. Anderson when she was Ms. Rose and she was definitely one of my favorites and just an amazing Spanish teacher," Rossi recalled. "Mrs. Bembas taught me the enormously valuable five-paragraph essay and really helped foster my love of reading. And, of course, Mr. Simon made political science so much fun!"
First nonprofit job
Meanwhile, as she was going through her master's track at WMU, Rossi picked up her first actual job at a nonprofit in the university's Foundation, which promotes and provides donor investments to the school.
"I received a crash course in fund development and learned what it actually takes to execute big initiatives," she said. "During my four years at the Foundation, I learned the importance of community connections and how to lead a team. This also was the first place that I truly felt part of a wider network. I joined a local board, I volunteered on an equal-rights campaign and felt totally connected to the Kalamazoo community."
She was tempted to stay in the WMU/Kalamazoo community after completing her Master of Public Administration degree because it had become like home to her. Instead she took a big leap, literally and figuratively, and she moved to Italy for two years to teach English as a second language with Berlitz.
"That really was fulfilling another one of my dreams of living abroad, plus I did get to do some teaching after all," she said. "Later, I even wondered if I should take those two years in Italy off of my resume because it wasn’t really congruent to the rest of my career at that point. But eventually I realized that it was not only a pivotal experience in my life, but it actually taught me just as much if not more than any other job or course of study I had. I learned to get by on my own in another country, I had a front seat to ancient history, I learned another language and I connected more deeply with my family in Italy."
When Rossi returned to the states, however, she was eager to jump back into the nonprofit sector again, this time in Detroit. She got a job in development for the Detroit Opera House and quickly moved to the Detroit Historical Society where she also worked with another Notre Dame alum, Robert Bury ('71), who is the executive director and CEO of the Historical Society.
"I loved working in arts and culture — it’s a tough game, but it is very rewarding."
She also learned a lot about community and economic development and how to make sure that one's organization always has a seat "at the table" in Detroit's philanthropic arena.
Now at the Alzheimer’s Association, she said she considers herself lucky to be able to gain even more insight into public policy and research, and how to work toward big institutional goals. Rossi also is quick to credit her education and past positions for her early career success.
"Without a doubt, the mentorship and guidance I’ve received over the years has been the most influential as I moved into increasing levels of leadership," said Rossi, who in 2014 earned a fellowship in the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Detroit Chapter Marjorie S. Fisher Fellows program. "I love to meet and get to know new people, so asking for help has always been second nature to me. But especially early on, I never expected those connections to truly help guide my career. Starting with the professors in college and other people I've admired, I have benefited greatly from the kindness of others."
She said that because she realizes that her own good fortune was due in large part to her own mentors, she's learned to pay it forward, to be assertive, to never miss an opportunity to connect and be connected with others, to be a lifelong learner and to be genuine in all interactions.
"I am honored to work in service to others and hope that over time I can help give back all that has been generously given to me."
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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org.