French at the Natural Resources Defense Council (feat. Tim Wilson)
Alumni Aloud Episode 88
Tim Wilson earned his MPhil in French at the Graduate Center and is now a Senior Grant Writer at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Tim shares insights about tapping into your network, figuring out what you want in a career, and developing a strategy to get your dream job.
VOICEOVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with the GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
MISTY CROOKS, HOST: I’m Misty Crooks, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the Graduate Center and a fellow in the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development. In this episode of Alumni Aloud, I talk to Tim Wilson, who graduated with an MPhil from the French program at the Grad Center. Now a senior grant writer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Tim shares insights about tapping into your network, figuring out what you want in a career, and developing a strategy to get your dream job. For all this and more, listen on.
CROOKS: Tim, thanks for joining us today. To start with, can you give us an overview of your organization’s mission and your role there?
TIM WILSON, GUEST: Yeah, so NRDC is an environmental action organization. It was founded in 1970. And in the United States, its history is very bound up with the environmental movement blossoming in 1970 coming out of Rachel Carson, and with the launch of the EPA under Nixon in ’70, and clean air and clean water acts, and all that stuff. And NRDC was very involved in how those bedrock laws took shape, both from writing the legislation to writing the regulations to fighting out case law in the courts over the years and using those laws to actually hold polluters to account and that sort of stuff. And then we started getting more in the 90s, things started shifting in a couple of different ways where we started to work more internationally. Like in China where we continue to work, and we have an office in Beijing. That international work expanded 15 years or so later. I think in 2009 we started working in India. And that work has all different aspects to it. It started out more around energy efficiency and energy codes, and now it’s got cold cap stuff in it, and then in India there’s all sorts of different things too. There’s building codes. There’s cars, EVs. And electric vehicles, not necessarily cars, not necessarily four wheelers, two wheelers and three wheelers too, and lots of interesting stuff. And in the US, it continues to be climate now that’s the central thing, and that’s coming out of the 90s as well that climate started to emerge as a major theme and an organizing principle within our work. I think the going estimate is still 70 percent or so of NRDC’s work is climate related. There’s work that is arguably not really climate related that’s more directly, for example, related to pollution, racial injustice, environmental inequality. And we have an equity center that’s a whole new thing that helps integrate across those elements of our work. But there’s conservation, there’s wildlife trade, so a lot of different things.
And my job is as a grant writer, so I work on the foundations team. We work raising grant funding from private foundations. I work very much in collaboration with others both within the foundations team where there’s grant writers, portfolio managers, and more operations focused folks making sure that we basically smoothly use and collaborate across our database software and have our team’s tasks assigned, and don’t drop any balls basically since there’s a lot. We’re talking about hundreds of grants from dozens of foundations. It’s a tremendous amount. I mean, when there’s a big foundation that gets really excited or really engaged in a particular area, there can be a flurry of activity in a six month to twelve month period across all different areas of work. And sometimes that means that that particular relationship manager, portfolio manager on our team is really pushed to hero levels. And I’ve seen it happen and I’ve got some really tremendous colleagues.
And so on the foundations team, there’s about fifteen of us. The bulk in terms of numbers, it’s grant writers. There’s 5 of us maybe, and the portfolio managers who are the primary relationship holders, so each of them has a set of foundations. It’s grouped a little bit by geography, a little bit by theme area of work. Then we’ve got a couple of deputy directors, one who really manages the work plan and the writers, and one of them who is more on a portfolio management side, doing prospecting and strategy and forward thinking and external work. And a couple of team members who are a little more administratively. One’s kind of our super database expert, and the other supports more directly with the external facing deputy director and the head of the foundation’s team Nancy Watson, and works with putting together events that we invite foundations to, and doing communications out to all of our foundations when something big happens like there’s leadership change at the organization or something. And then there’s a new member of team of the team who came on last fall in 2021. It was really exciting. Mari Eva Mendez, who’s Director of Partnership Fundraising. She has been building from the ground up completely from scratch a whole way for NRDC to support some of our closest smaller partners with their own fundraising, so kind of enhance the sustainability of their organizations. And I think she does that in multiple ways. She’s developed a whole way of partnering with them and co-creating with them. And it’s really impressive what she’s created out of nothing. So that’s the team. So most of it is we’re working towards raising funds for the core of what NRDC does. And then Mari Eva’s this whole new interesting function of the team that has a really exciting future, too.
But my job as a grant writer is to really work on the translation. I mean, I’m a paper pusher in a way where basically you’re doing proposals and reports for the most part. And proposals can have various parts to them, and reports can take various forms. But you’re basically telling foundations what NRDC is going to do and you’re telling foundations what NRDC has done. And the scope of that can vary considerably, and there’s a vast amount of work that NRDC does. And one of the wonderful things about my job is I get to cover basically that whole scope. As a grant writer, I’m not assigned to any particular foundations. I’m not assigned to any particular areas of work of NRDC, so I get to span that whole thing. You end up falling maybe into certain areas more than others as opportunities come up, and the way that the workflow rhythms across the team play out. But I’ve gotten the opportunity to work on a lot of different, very diverse areas of work and gotten to work with a lot of different people across the organization, too, which is really cool. And obviously it’s narratives where you’re doing written language, writing, and editing and that sort of thing. And you’re also doing the budget side of things, so you’re helping build and present numbers and working with the finance team more on the reporting and program assistance, who manage the money on the program side with finance as grants are spent down, to make sure that you’re reporting accurately on all of the spending that’s going on. So it’s basically proposals and reports, and it’s writing and budgets.
CROOKS: That’s really interesting. And I think a lot of grad students would find it fascinating that proposal writing as a genre which, we’re pulling our hair out over and getting rejections, a career can be made off of that.
WILSON: Oh no, totally. I think that honestly that’s I think a big takeaway from this because that was for me something that I didn’t know that this career existed. And it’s fulfilling. It’s good stuff, you know. And as somebody who is at school at the doctoral level, you are someone who presumably has some capability in terms of translating really complex ideas, especially if you’re teaching. You should be able to take really complex, difficult things and translate them basically into a broader readership, make them more accessible. And that’s a lot of what I do, because, although there’s a lot of specialist understanding within the foundations world on our reader side of our proposals and reports, that’s not always the case. And even when it is, best practice to try to avoid jargon, and really have your work speak in plain language so that anyone could potentially understand what’s going on. And that can be hard when you’re talking about building codes and EV subsidies from public private entities in collaboration with the partner nonprofit in India. It starts becoming challenging, but that’s the puzzle of it. I’ll say too, it’s much more rewarding to write proposals for an organization for me than it was to write them for myself. I built my grant writing chops as a grad student writing proposals for myself. It’s much more fun to write them for an organization, or more rewarding in the sense that, I don’t know, it feels like it’s contributing to something more than me right. So that feels better.
CROOKS: Yeah, yeah, I can absolutely see that. So how did you get from the Grad Center to where you are now? Can you take us through that journey?
WILSON: Yeah. See, this is the part where I wish I had memorized the speech from Elf, you know, where he talks about how he got to the city. No, it wasn’t like that. (laughs) So I basically, I got to the ABD phase. I was in the French program PhD: Um. And I had this incredible dissertation whose time had not yet come that was gonna be a cultural history of television for children in France.
WILSON: Yeah. And if you ask anyone at least around my age give or take ten to fifteen years, if you say the word Dorothée, Dorothy in French, they know who that is. And then you can say that word to people who have been studying Proust and French literature for twenty years, they have no idea who you’re talking about. And I felt like that was this incredible disconnect. But she was this major figure in children’s television for like twenty plus years. Anyway, I spent a couple of years trying to get funding for it. The second year I was a finalist for a Fulbright which was incredible, and then when I didn’t get it, it was like, well, my advisor on my committee who was a TV studies person in France, which in France almost nobody studies TV because it’s not considered serious. Anyway, after that second year, when I felt like I really had all my ducks in a row, and I came so close. I was getting married. I was turning thirty. I was like, you know what, I need to open a different avenue.
So I was like I need to see what the nonprofit world is like, and where I could maybe fit in there. And I started with people. I went to the Career Services Office and was given the advice to do informational interviews and try to chain them together. So I talked to my wife as a first stop who knew one person she could think of who had a nine to five at a non-profit in Manhattan, and so I went and got lunch with that person. And basically in talking with me, she said it sounded like with my skill set and everything, I would be best off in the fundraising world because I had some background in fundraising for my own stuff and writing grants and that kind of thing. And she said that’s actually a really good place to be, development within the nonprofit world for a couple of reasons. Money compared to some of the areas of the nonprofit world can be better in development, she said. And she also said that it’s flexible across fields, which is true and my career has demonstrated that. So you can be in arts or in social services or in environment, or medical and university. You can float across those fields on the development side, which on the program side is much harder to do. You become more specialized, and you become narrowed into one area. And that also, I would say, was really attractive to me as somebody who was living in this super specialized PhD world where I was always attracted to that kind of generalist style of academics. And my adviser, Jerry Carlson, is very much a generalist. He did this course on Baroque that was like Latin American literature, Faulkner, and Glissant and all this stuff, and it was just like across three different languages and regions. And he’s connecting it to film and showing us Chinese films and connecting it to all this. And I was like, this is incredible.
WILSON: A grad school perspective. That idea of being able to live in a generalist space, which as I described before, with the grant writing work that I do, definitely has been true. So this friend was really on the money, and then turned into a gold mine for informational interviews, too, because she had recently completed or was about to. I think she had recently completed the MPA in public administration at Baruch. So she had a group of friends who were her cohort in that group. And so she basically connected me with them. And I would have just talked to one and then ask them to suggest somebody else. And that was the key, right. And eventually that that died out. I eventually got somebody who didn’t recommend anybody. But I managed to chain maybe six of them or something, and one of them got a group together for me. So I did that, and that was over the summer of 2013. And I also applied to stuff, and I tried to get a gig, and I couldn’t pull it off. And I felt very stuck in the over qualified, under-qualified problem. You know, I have no real experience to be applying for la mid-level position, associate level position, or whatever. So I’ll apply for la lower position, but then it’s absurd because I’ve got an MPhil. I’m in a PhD program. I have teaching experience at the college level. So I was very much feeling that. And so I felt like what I needed to do was basically just kind of take a bootstraps approach. And so the next school year, I took one of my informational interviews, which was a cold call to the manager of fundraising at The Museum of the Moving Image, who sat down with me at a Starbucks and chatted with me. And then I saw they were looking for interns, and so I wrote her. And I said, hey, I threw my name in the hat for an internship. And I think because she had already met me, I kind of became a shoe in, and you know it was easy. So that informational interview sort of unwittingly, I set myself up for that. I did also apply for a job at the same time at The Museum of the Moving Image. I did not get it. But I got to work with the person who did get it, who was wonderful. She was a really interesting artist as well as a fundraiser, too. But then I basically added that in so. But it worked out very well for me because I love that museum. It’s in my neighborhood. I could walk there.
WILSON: I only had to do it two days a week. So I could juggle it. I had a part time job that was this money making thing I’d had for years as a stage doorman at an off Broadway Theatre called New World Stages. I was teaching at Marymount Manhattan College, and I had a gig at ILETC, which is the Institute for Language, Education and Transcultural Context, which is housed at the Graduate Center and was new and was really interesting, too. That was working on conferences and grants for language educators. And we were writing a grant to get a Department of Education Federal funding for it to become Language Resource Center. You know, I added in the internship on top of all this other stuff, and it was a pretty bananas for a while. But that nine months also taught me a lot about the nuts and bolts of fundraising. And I was doing prospect research. I was doing membership mailings. I was working events and I was learning. It was a staff of three. They had just hired that new membership person and the person I had met and then there was the director. So it was three full timers plus me. And it’s not a huge organization. They had like two million dollars something annual budget, I think, at the time. It wasn’t huge, but still it feels like the same amount of work, honestly, raising a hundred million versus two million because your staffing support. It meant that they were wearing a lot of different hats and everything. So but I got that kind of credit. You know, it’s a cultural institution, city connected museum. So to have that on my resume, I think made me a real person on paper.
I’ve emphasized that to folks that I’ve talked to who are trying to look out of academia into something like what I’m doing in the nonprofit world or something, is that idea of there’s so many places where you could write the best cover letter in the world. You could have all the skills to be terrific at this job, and they’re going to look at your resume and just not see a literal fit. And if there’s not the literal words and connections that they need to see, you’re just gonna not make it past the first screening. And so that was my feeling at the time, and I was like, I need to get that thing that’s just going to be look, I have a thing. You know, it’s an internship at age thirty, but it also shows that I’m committed to this, and that’s another thing that I emphasize to folks too. It’s that especially if you’re in that over qualified under qualified zone, it’s really important to have a compelling, true, convincing story, narrative that you can pitch that is why you want to be in this job here now. Why do you want this one? And it’s got to be about you going toward it, not going away from something else. And it’s got to be about you going toward that particular job at that particular institution rather than being like, I want to work in development, or I want to work in foundations, or I want to work in the arts. It had to be when I got my first job, I want to be this grant writer on the foundations team at Carnegie Hall. And I got really, honestly, it’s like lightning striking you or something type of absurd thing that happened when I got my first full time job because I literally finished out the semester on like a Wednesday or something, and I started my full time job at Carnegie Hall the Monday after. I mean I had applied to other stuff, and plenty of rejections and. Cover letter writing is something that I got really good at. Honestly, though, too, within the grant writing world, it’s a great thing to practice, because it’s very similar to grant writing. And it’s just a genre, right, so you’re learning a genre. And so, you think of it as a practice, and you get better at writing cover letters, and it gets easier. And then you can just submit things and not think about them. And don’t worry about it and just keep going. But I got absurdly lucky. I mean it was a whole thing. So I happened to know somebody at Carnegie Hall, so in my informational interview mode, I was like, I’m gonna go talk to this guy because there was a job opening there. He was the manager of individual giving at the time, but years before he had worked at New World Stages, my part time job, where I had met my wife. My wife had sat next to him because he was an intern hired by my brother,
WILSON: events coordinator for the New World Stages, who was the one who had gotten me a job there. When I initially came to New York City to do grad school, my brother was the only person I knew in the city. I lived with him. He had just left the restaurant world and gotten this events coordinator job at New World Stages because he had a theater degree. And he just told me I should apply for an usher position, which the turnover in the usher positions was like you didn’t even need a recommendation. If you walk in, they’re gonna hire you.
WILSON: You’re good. Yeah, I mean it felt like kind of a shoe in type of a thing. And then an open position opened up at the stage door, so that’s why I ended up there. I applied for that and managed to get up there. But um, yeah, Jonathan Schlossen was the guy who was at Carnegie Hall and so I went and did a walk and talk with him, and found out, that as it turns out, I knew him there first of all. And then the job that was opening was in foundations. It was grant writing, which was exactly my skill set, right. Carnegie Hall. I was in a PhD program in French. My other major as an undergraduate was music, so I knew the music world, love music, love Carnegie Hall, could talk passionately about Carnegie Hall. And the position, even within the foundations team, there was two writer’s positions. And one was more general support, and one was the restricted grants for specific programs. And that was very much more interesting to me. It fit my skill set better. The literal one job at Carnegie Hall that best fit my skill set opened exactly when I needed it to, and I happened to know somebody there. And then the hiring manager, the Director of Foundation Relations, was somebody who before she went into fundraising, she worked for twenty years of marketing at Chase. But before that she did a PhD in English. She was the exact right person to be hiring for it, so it was truly like the stars aligned for me to land that gig. And financially it was like a lateral move for me when I started there as an associate. But then I got raises that I would not have occurred as I had continued adjuncting and cost of living increases. So that was how I got that first gig. And then, I was there for five years. I eventually got promoted up to manager. Was there a couple of years of that. I actually applied in 2018, I think, either when I had just gotten the manager title, or shortly before, I applied to NRDC. And it was just one of those black hole applications where you submit it, nothing happens and you move on with your life. But I tried it again two years later.
They did a phone screening interview in October, so I knew that I had got an interest. And I just kept following up relentlessly. I think February, March, I had interviews. And eventually, they had two rounds of interviews, I think, where I met with the supervisor, who was the most direct hiring manager, and one other person, I think. And then I met more broadly with the team, where there was two or three team members and an HR person present. And then I had to do a writing test and budget test. And even with that following up. I didn’t get the word that I had gotten the offer until late April.
CROOKS: Yeah. So quite a long process.
WILSON: Yeah, it took like two months, I want to say interview to offer, so it was a long process. It sort of fits, though, if you’re in development to follow up and do it cordially and nicely, but also relentlessly. It’s a way of also demonstrating you know how to be a good fundraiser in a way.
CROOKS: This is a really interesting story. And I think you were saying that the stars aligned, but I think they aligned because of all those experiences you had, and because the relationships you had built, which speaks to the importance of networking, and that relationship building, and you being able to tap into that at different points. And so the stars aligned, but then we help them align, I think.
WILSON: (laughs) Yeah, and the fact that I didn’t hesitate to reach out to Jonathan Schlossen and say, hey, let’s talk. And he said, how can I help you, and I said, well, actually, there’s a job opening, which is a big no, no in informational interviews generally speaking. So, it only really worked because he was the one who I actually knew personally as opposed to some of the other folks who I had cold called or met from somebody else. In his specific case, I felt like it was okay. And he also literally asked, how can I help. I have to say. (laughs). Let’s just do it. You know, semester is wrapping up. Let’s go for it.
CROOKS: I think that’s good advice too for grad students, because we don’t necessarily learn to think about things in that way of really going in with the bolder ask for people. But outside of academia that can actually work really well.
WILSON: And I want to mention too that the separate informational interview thread that I had followed out from that initial meeting. By the time I was interviewing at Carnegie Hall, I was being offered the opportunity to interview for a job at the ACLU due to one of those connections. But that opportunity was coming to fruition, did materialize by the time I got to the end of the academic calendar just through those informational interviews with folks that I didn’t know before.
CROOKS: Yeah, small world. What does a typical week look like for you?
WILSON: Honestly, in terms of like Monday to Friday, there’s not like really a typical flow because my timetables are longer. So it’s more sort of based around monthly almost.
WILSON: Because there’s a lot of deadlines that are end of the month basically or middle of the month. And it’s funny you end up on this sort of treadmill feeling like once I get through this pile of deadlines, I’m going to have a free and clear period. But as soon as you get through the pile, you’re like, I should probably get a little bit of a head start on these other ones before they get too bad. All of a sudden, you’re just snowballing into the next deadlines. And that’s how it goes basically is, within that cycle, however it falls. It starts out with my best laid plans, and it often ends with a hectic sprint towards the finish line.
WILSON: No matter how well you lay your plans. And it depends. For the most part, things come together, and very often they come together without too much scramble. As basically sort of the project manager for these proposals and reports, I do my very best to reduce that. It can just be hard because especially working with program staff, to a degree working with finance as well, they just have a lot of other stuff on their desks. But it’s also essential, because for them to do that work, they need to have the money, right. And it’s also relationship based all of it, so you want to produce a good product via the proposal or the report, and you want to produce it in a timely fashion. And you meet all those deadlines because it’s about respect for and valuing that relationship with the funder, the donor, right?
WILSON: And all of my colleagues at NRDC understand that. So that’s the hard thing too, is they understand. They get it, and they want to help. And it’s just they have a lot going on a lot of the time. And things happen too. Like NRDC is so important to a lot of stuff that, for example, when Biden was elected, a lot of our staff all of a sudden was just a flurry of activity working on the transition because they are working with the transition team. They are literally working to get plans in place and develop ideas and all this stuff that is super important to be prepared to hit the ground running post inauguration. So it’s hard to be like, hey, we need to submit this report on our nuclear program when you’re talking to the guy who’s going to be president in two months’ team. That can be a little bit of a challenge. But it tends to start out a little slow, and then accelerate for me basically. And then it goes in cycles.
CROOKS: Yeah, yeah. This segways nicely into the next question I wanted to ask. What skills and qualities do you think are helpful for a role like yours?
WILSON: That’s a good question. I would say, honestly, one of the top things in any position within development is emotional intelligence, understanding where other people are at, and working with that, and being able to build and maintain and sustain, cultivate good relationships with people. That’s internally and externally in all different kind of roles within development. That relationship stuff and the collaboration stuff, if I was unable to collaborate fluidly with all these different folks in different departments, my job would be absolutely impossible. Any kind of friction around that is tough. And so, you do your best to manage it. And it’s always challenging when there’s someone who’s not responding, or whatever, right. You end up being in this position of sort of pestering. You don’t want to be in that position, you know. It can feel like you’re pestering a friend if you have a good relationship with them right? But there’s also an understanding, too, where they’ll then be apologetic sometimes. I find for me a lot of the time humor is very helpful. And my philosophy of the human condition is that we’re all those inflatable, flappy armed creatures where we’re just like flailing around all the time, and everyone’s just sort of flailing and doing their best. And so we’re all just experiments in comedy and I think that helps. You just have a sense of humor about yourself and everything and that helps lower the stakes for others, is my approach.
Because the other the hard skills or harder skills, a lot of those can kind of come with the job. I learned a lot at Carnegie Hall in terms of institutional knowledge. I will say, coming from the humanities, it was very helpful for me that my dad’s a math professor. I had a math minor as an undergraduate to go with my two bachelor’s degrees. But I’m a mathy person, so I like doing that stuff so I was teaching other people at Carnegie Hall how to do Vlookups. I like Excel and doing that kind of thing. And I didn’t use Blackboard by the time I was teaching in my final two, three years. I created my own spreadsheets to do weighted percentages of all quizzes and tests and everything. I was doing all that math on my own in my own spreadsheets, which is totally a project that anybody in grad school who is teaching should be able to take on. And that kind of skill, if you’re looking to migrate that out, being able to do that. The test that they gave me at NRDC, which was a budget related test is just the type of thing where you should be able to even just look in Excel sheet and look at somebody cells and be like, how are they doing this? What are the formulas they’re using or not using? And you can start to see kind of their competence level.
CROOKS: As the last question, I always like to ask if you can leave current grad students with a final piece of advice or overarching wisdom for their own paths from academia into the world of generally outside of academia?
WILSON: (laughs) Yeah, before that I’m gonna comment on the question a little bit. There was a great jack-o’-lantern I saw on Twitter that was like I decided to do something truly horrifying this year, and it said, this is more of a comment than a question. (laughs)
CROOKS: (laughs) That’s great.
WILSON: I want to comment more than question first, but, which is that one of the things that really struck me not long after getting out of academia was how much academia is just a part of everything else. All those walls, barriers, and feeling like you’re in some sort of a cloistered space, it may feel like that to you while you’re in it, but that is absolutely not the case. And guess what, there’s fundraising teams just like mine who are raising money from foundations and donors. And all the politics of deans and presidents and appointments, and all this stuff that plagues the rest of the world of nepotism and corruption and privilege and racism. And all this stuff is happening inside of the academy and across the academy and the way that it relates to other institutions, too. And it’s all there. You’re already out. You’re not inside anything. You’re in one part of the pool, but it’s all the same pool. The water goes everywhere. So that’s what I’d say about the question just because that was striking to me honestly how much I felt the difference in terms of how connected academia is to the rest of the world when I was inside it versus outside of it.
And then in terms of advice, the one thing I would say is to try to get clarity for yourself, and informational interviews are a great way to do this because you learn so much about other people’s experiences and organizations. There’s a whole world of knowledge out there to access that’s gonna help you understand yourself and where you’re coming from. Because what you really need to understand and get clarity about is where you want to go, actually know where you want to be.
WILSON: You know, I said, I applied to NRDC in 2016 and 2018 because I still just wanted to work there. I was fairly contented at Carnegie Hall. There was a pretty short list of places that I wanted to go to, and I just kept plugging away at that. Once you kind of figure out something broad enough like development, go do that. And then try to just continue to get clarity on where you really want to be in the world. And I think it’s really helpful to be like, these are the organizations that I most want to work for or the companies I most want to work at. Or finding people, too. This is a person who I want to have their job one day. You know, I could do this job. I want to do that job. I think that’s really helpful for you to that toward thinking. When I talked about interviewing too. Whenever you’re interviewing for any job, tell them why you want to be there, why you’re going to that institution. Why now, why there, why this job, you know.
CROOKS: This has all been really, really helpful and insightful. Thanks so much for joining us today.
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