Question & Answer Session with Amy Varga, Non-Profit Extraordinaire

–By Emily Anderson

I met Amy Varga a few years ago when I was enrolled in the second cohort of the Willamette Valley Development Officer’s fundraising cohort. Always cool, calm and collected, I felt it worthy to share a brief question & answer series so we can all learn a little more about her, her business, and her love of the non-profit sector.

Why did you start your consulting business?

I started my consulting practice for a number of reasons. In 2008 while I was working full time, I created a set of community workshops and classes in fundraising and board development at Portland Community College. Through teaching, I discovered the mission I cared most about was building the capacity of leaders, boards and organizations versus advancing the mission of one particular organization.  In addition to that, on a personal level, I saw starting my own business as a way to craft a career that I had control over, that allowed me to be creative, and provided me the sort of flexibility I wanted.

When did you start your consulting business?

I incorporated in 2015 but I’ve been consulting, training and coaching leaders and boards since 2008.  First, I took on side projects while I was working full-time. I took the leap into full self employment in 2013 and in 2015 finally got my ducks in a row to make it official with the state.

My business is actually in the middle of a re-branding and growth stage right now.  Varga Consulting is becoming The Varga Group to better reflect the fact that the business is more than just me.  I have a small and mighty team of associates and contractors who work on different client projects as needed. The new branding and website (with loads of new content and free resources) will be launching in August.

How did you feel starting a new business while also teaching in the 2nd W.V.D.O. fundraising cohort?

I’ve actually been involved from the ground floor of creating the W.V.D.O. certificate program. Portland State University hired me to work with W.V.D.O. to create the learning objectives, curriculum outline, marketing strategy, and instructor oversight on their behalf — in addition to developing and teaching my own sections.

I (was) involved before the first cohort launched, doing these elements and have taught in it from the very beginning.

The first certificate program launched in September 2013, seven weeks after I had my second child. It was a truly wild and exhausting experience putting the final touches on the program, having a day job, getting ready to teach my classes and having a newborn and a 2-year-old.

I can still vividly remember day 1 of the very first certificate program: I left my tiny 7-week-old newborn baby and 2-year-old with my husband, pumped so I could be gone for a few hours without breastfeeding, somehow squeezed into my professional clothes and taught this new class for the very first time. It was surreal and looking back, I don’t know how I pulled it off but I’m glad I did.

 Are you still or have you been an instructor each year for the fundraising cohort?

I do still teach a few class sessions in the W.V.D.O. certificate program each year, but I have stopped the rest of the teaching I [was] doing. I had been teaching in the Portland Community College program as well as teaching master’s-level graduate classes in Portland State’s Master’s of Public Administration program and [the] University of Portland’s M.B.A. program in addition to teaching in the W.V.D.O. certificate program.

As much as I truly love teaching, I’ve had to make hard choices and trade-offs about how I spend my time in order to manage a busy client load, a growing business and a busy home life.

What are the most promising or profound changes you’ve witnessed in your clients after helping them with fundraising support?

I love seeing board members really connect with why they care about the mission, learn how to share that passion with others, and become energized and engaged ambassadors.  I love helping board members and staff think about fundraising differently — helping them see it as connecting and listening to donors and not “pitching.” I also love being involved with capital campaigns — there’s nothing like supporting an organization in bringing their vision to life.

On your website, on the “Resources strategy services page” you list your services. Do you have one service you love to teach clients about more than any other? Or do you enjoy providing all services equally?

Every project and client is different, and I enjoy all of them in different ways. What I love most is getting to know and support the amazing staff and board members that make our communities stronger.

You’re Oregon-based, but do you have any plans to expand your services outside of the Portland region?

While most of my clients are in the Portland metro area, I have had (and currently have) clients throughout the state as well as in Washington, California, and Colorado.  We are available to support organizations and coach leaders nationwide.

How do you balance family life with running a business?

It’s hard! I’m part of dual-working-parent household and both my husband and I work in demanding and rewarding jobs. I’m a big believer in what Sheryl Sandberg said once that “the most important career decision is who you marry.”  I’m able to balance it all because my husband is a full partner in parenting and in tending to our household needs.  He’s made sacrifices at work to forego advancement opportunities so that he can be available to be a fully engaged parent and partner. I also have my parents nearby and their help is also a big game changer.

I’ve also gotten extremely ruthless about how I spend my time, and have had to learn how to say “no” to many, many things I’d love to do but just can’t right now. That’s been a hard lesson that I have to re-learn all the time.

On a very practical level, I get up at 5 [a.m.] and work in the quiet, uber productive early mornings until 6:45 a.m. when I turn into Mom and get my kids ready for their day.  Putting in that dedicated early morning time has been my productivity hack. [This has allowed me] to be able to go to the gym after I get my kids to school a few days a week and stop working in the afternoons to drive them to their after school activities and still fit it all in.

If you have any advice for non-profit employees who sometimes feel burned out (they love the mission, but are understaffed, for example), what would you tell them?

The foundation of being able to make a difference in the world is to first take care of yourself.  Just like they say on airplanes, you have to put your oxygen mask on first.  You’re of no use to anyone if you burn out and are perpetually exhausted.  I want people to stay in this work for the long haul and that requires a marathon pace, not a sprint pace.

Creating and committing to reflective practices is so central to doing this well — whether that is regularly engaging in meditation or prayer, journaling, taking walks, reading, creating art, or [finding] other ways to connect with yourself and make space to take a broader perspective.

The work we do in nonprofits isn’t just about changing other people’s lives, it’s also an invitation for us to grow and change ourselves. The challenges we face each day are invitations for us to grow our resilience, our patience, and our capacity for reflection. Through the daily challenges, we have so many opportunities to practice how we want to show up and decide what kind of person we want to be.

Why do you do what you do? 

What I most want more of in the world is more empathy. I believe empathy is the heart of fundraising. Learning how to be a great fundraiser and leader means learning to be more empathetic. I hope that the work I do, and how I do it, inspires those I work with to deepen their empathy for themselves and others.

*This was first published on my blog parmigianipapers.com.*