By Patricia O’Dell
“I ended up in fundraising completely by accident,” recounts Rachael Steele of her 38-year career. “I started working for Kit Bond as deputy campaign manager and raised $1 million, which at that time was a lot. The fundraising was very grassroots. I just stepped up and said, “‘Yes, I’ll do that.'”
Steele, senior director of major gifts for UMKC’s School of Computing and Engineering and recipient of the Mid-America Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) 2017 Excellence in Fundraising Award, has been stepping up ever since. Following Bond’s campaign, she went to work at Children’s Mercy Hospital as associate development director and director of planned giving. She recalls that it was a remarkable opportunity.
“I fell in love with fundraising at Children’s Mercy,” she says. “It wasn’t just the mission of the organization, but the amazing community volunteers who took the time to mentor me: Marion Kramer, Adele Hall, Laura Cray, Anita Gorman. They provided a focused mentorship, but they also modeled giving back, professionalism, volunteerism and the ability to make a difference. They were an inspiration.
A stint with former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth began as fundraising, but grew to include relationship building with community leaders and constituent services and proved to be equally significant.
“All my success goes back to Jack Danforth’s belief in me,” Steele says. “His believing in me gave me confidence. He was a great model. Jack taught me it was OK to say, “‘I don’t know.'”
Steele joined the UMKC Foundation in 2010 to increase the capability of the School of Education.
“I work for organizations for which I have a personal passion,” Steele says. “To a great degree this usually means supporting the underserved. The School of Education’s purpose is to prepare teachers, administrators and counselors for success in urban schools. This basically continued the work I had been doing.”
When the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering committed to construct a new facility to accommodate the school’s burgeoning enrollment, Steele wanted to be a part of that project.
“I like to build things,” she says.
Steele understands that the key to partnerships, especially on big projects, is developing relationships with donors.
“I’m not a salesman. It’s not my job to decide. I’m not judgmental about what a donor should or shouldn’t support. It’s important that it should be mutually beneficial for the donor and the organization.”
Jennifer Ingraham, UMKC Foundation assistant vice president, believes Steele is an inspiring model for others in the field. Ingraham nominated Steele for the AFP award, which will be presented at the AFP Mid-America Chapter’s National Philanthropy Day 2017 on Thursday, Nov. 9
“Donors working with Rachael will stay committed to a project in large part because of how she manages the relationship,” Ingraham says. “She always works with the utmost respect. Donors know they can trust her.”
In addition to her donor relationships, Steele is focused on providing the type of mentorship she received when she started in the business. Based on her leadership, the Foundation instituted a mentoring program for the newest team members.
“This provides a peer resource who can coach on best practice solutions for day-to-day challenges,” says Ingraham. “This creates a great sense of comradery.”
Ever evolving, Steele is leaving the Foundation to return to consulting.
“I see myself as a middleman,” says Steele. “I’ve worked over my lifetime to help organizations achieve their goals with donors and connect donors to causes that they’re passionate about. It’s all about connection.”