Rebecca Cardwell is an Associate Vice President at PBR Executive Search. She joined the firm in 2022 after working across New York City’s cultural scene for more than a decade. Most recently, Rebecca was Director of Development for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), where she was responsible for raising the entire annual budget and implemented a capital campaign for LMCC’s Arts Center at Governors Island. Previously, Rebecca served as Associate Vice President at DUNCH, a leading management firm, where she spearheaded fundraising campaigns and strategic plans for a range of clients in the cultural sector across the USA, Australia, and the UK. Rebecca has taught fundraising to graduate students at Bank Street College of Education and Brooklyn College and served as a guest lecturer in arts management at NYU and Marymount Manhattan, among others. She received her MFA in Performing Arts Management from Brooklyn College and her BA in Liberal Arts with a concentration in Dance from The New School.
WID: Can you share with us your career experience prior to your entry into development? What were some of the different roles that you held?
Rebecca: I majored in dance and, after graduating college in 2008, I packed up my things and moved to the Berkshires for the summer to intern at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. It was a learning experience in more ways than one! Born and raised in London and having lived in NYC for college, I’d never spent much time in the woods. I interned in the Pillow’s archives which, as a dance history lover, was a lot of fun. The experience at the Pillow began to shape my understanding of arts administration, and that there were viable career opportunities within the sector. On returning to the city, I interned in the press department at Brooklyn Academy of Music and took an administrative assistant role at BAX Brooklyn Arts Exchange. This was my first taste of nonprofit administration, and I loved it. During my first year of graduate school, I worked in the education department at New York City Center. That was when I first learned how the work of a programming department intersects with fundraising.
WID: How did you learn about fundraising? Can you tell us about the experience that led you to your first development role?
Rebecca: Fundraising was one of the first classes I took in graduate school. I was apprehensive going into it because I didn’t like math and numbers, which is what I thought development was. I quickly realized that it’s actually about people and relationships. That class was a soup-to-nuts crash course in every element of fundraising, and I enjoyed learning how to tie an organization’s mission and values to a donor’s interests. That led to my first internship in development at Dance Theatre Workshop (now New York Live Arts), which then led to a role at a consulting firm, where I worked with a range of different clients to advance their development goals.
WID: What were the transitional skill sets from your previous roles that have been assets in your fundraising career, and what were some challenges unique to development that you experienced?
Rebecca: Being front facing, whether speaking to patrons at a Pillow event, or helping someone with their press seats, taught me important customer service skills early in my career that still show up every day in my work. Active listening and learning how to engage with people to understand what makes them tick was key to my success as a fundraiser.
I worked primarily in arts and cultural fundraising, and the behind the scenes “money can’t buy” experiences we provided donors – like artist studio visits, salons, and backstage passes – are unique to that world and allowed me to connect donors to artists and their practice. Development can be very high-pressure, and you are often dealing with sensitive situations. I sometimes found myself in moments which were hard to navigate. Tapping into my instincts about the donor and asking for help when I needed it was key.
WID: What advice would you share with anyone looking to move into fundraising from another industry?
Rebecca: I recently transitioned out of fundraising to executive search, where I recruit for nonprofit organizations. PBR Executive Search finds executive leaders for museums, higher ed institutions, social services agencies, foundations, performing arts organizations, and more. I love connecting talented people to their next great job opportunity, and establishing long lasting, successful candidate and client relationships.
My advice for anyone looking to get into fundraising would be to find an organization whose mission you really care about. Your success as a fundraiser lies first and foremost in your belief and passion for the work. Volunteering at events is a great way to connect with an organization, get to know the players, and establish an understanding of their fundraising goals and objectives.
WID: What are you most proud of?
Rebecca: Someone very wise once told me that you should build your own personal board of directors. Over the past decade, I‘ve amassed a group of advisors – mentors and friends from all stages of my career – who have been instrumental in every big decision I’ve made. I’m most proud of the network I’ve built and leverage it every day. One specific career highlight was opening The Arts Center at Governors Island, the first permanent home for arts and culture on the island. Besides ensuring the money was raised to open the space, ferrying 600 people to Governors Island on a rainy September evening was an accomplishment in itself, and something I’ll never forget!