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California fundraiser

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Mari Ellen Reynolds moves to Community Foundation Silicon Valley.

By Jennifer Whytock

When Mari Ellen Reynolds was growing up in suburban Washington, D.C., her father made regular donations to the Smithsonian Museums and the National Zoo, and talked to her about what he was doing and the importance of philanthropy.

She sold cookies to raise money for her Girl Scout troop and, as a high school student, persuaded the Smithsonian Natural History Museum to hire her as a volunteer docent, even though she was young for the job.

Now in her 10th year as a professional fundraiser, Reynolds recently was named director of development at the Community Foundation Silicon Valley, which has 500 funds and $600 million in assets.

A big challenge, she says, will be helping potential donors understand the role a community foundation plays.

“That is very different than asking someone for $100 to buy food to help the hungry,” says Reynolds, who previously was director of development for the nearby Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.

Mari Ellen Reynolds

Job: Director of development, Community Foundation Silicon Valley

Born: 1969, Okinawa, Japan

Education: Undergraduate, Biology, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass.

Dream job: Write for National Geographic

Hobbies: Hiking, growing tomato plants

Favorite travels: British Virgin Islands, Big Island of Hawaii

“It is a more complicated message and isn’t easily distilled into an elevator pitch,” she says. “I need to talk to each person directly about their philanthropy goals.”

After studying biology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Reynolds worked as a research technician at the Model/Zinder lab at Rockefeller University in New York City.

“I loved the challenge of research and doing wonderful things like researching a cure for cancer, but it required more patience than I had,” she says. “When you get out of college, you want to change the world, but it didn’t seem like you could change these things in my lifetime and I wanted instant results.”

Reynolds also worked as a volunteer chairman for the Vespers Christmas choral concert at Mount Holyoke and enjoyed it so much she wondered if she could make a career of fundraising.

In her first fundraising job, as director of development at the all-girls St. Michael Academy in New York City, Reynolds enjoyed seeing donation money have an immediate impact on girls at the school.

Reynolds says 10 years raising money has taught her the value of patience.

“As I matured as a fundraiser, I became more patient with donors and listened better to what they wanted and what they said,” she says. “I learned to cultivate donors over time. Maybe they don’t want to give now, but I know I can work with them to maybe give later.”

Reynolds always has tried to work for groups whose mission she cares about, but after facing some personal difficulties, she realizes that caring about her work can be both a blessing and a curse.

“When you have a great passion for your work, it is easy to forget your personal life because it can become all encompassing,” she says. “I need to balance my life. I know that now.”

Though she spends much of her free time volunteering for her college, the Junior League and other groups, she also enjoys hiking with her boyfriend in Pinnacles National Park and Mission Peak and spending time with her newly-adopted dog that she rescued from a shelter.

Until she was three, Reynolds lived on the island of Okinawa in Japan, where her mother was born and raised. Reynold’s father was an American Marine who met her mother during the Vietnam War.

“My dad always took the time to explain answers to my questions like ‘Why do we give?’, and he taught me how to ask questions, so now I can ask people, ‘Why give at all? Why give regularly instead of just once?’,” she says.

“I don’t try to change the way a donor thinks,” she says. “I try to listen to their whys. If I can help a donor find the passion behind their philanthropy, they will enjoy giving more and therefore give more.”

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