Life Lessons: Jorge Fernández of International House
For the longtime fundraiser, philanthropy is all about relationships
Jorge Fernández calls himself a late bloomer. His family emigrated from Cuba when he was 7 and eventually settled in Miami. He dropped out of college, reenrolled, worked in restaurants and sales, and tried his hand at teaching. After he moved to Charlotte in 1987, Fernández loved to listen to the local public radio affiliate, WFAE. Even though he had no experience in fundraising, the station’s general manager, Roger Sarow, hired him to lead a new program to solicit high-dollar gifts. In 2003, at age 49, Fernández at last found his career, one in which his skills led to millions of dollars in revenue for an organization he was passionate about.
North Carolinians donate about $5.9 billion per year to charitable organizations, including the more than 2,500 that operate in the Charlotte area. Nonprofits here include WFAE (where I worked with Fernández for two years) and International House, which offers legal aid and English and citizenship tutoring to the local immigrant community. Fernández left WFAE in 2017 and accepted a position as director of development at International House, where his job goes far beyond asking for donations.
He researches and contacts prospective donors, maintains ties with existing ones, and forges links throughout the community. For example, before COVID, he coordinated with the Charlotte Film Society to screen foreign films at International House’s auditorium in Plaza Midwood. He sees his work as a way to repay the generosity of those who supported him. He builds relationships and charts connections so that when others are looking for direction, as he once was, they have a place to turn.
Here’s Fernández in his own words, edited for space and clarity.
My great-grandfather (Mario García Menocal) was the third president of Cuba, from 1913 to 1921. We left Cuba in ’61. My father and his father had leased land to American Sugar in Cuba and had run two refineries. When we came here, my grandfather retired in Miami, and my father went to work for American Sugar in Manhattan.
I was 17 when I went off to George Washington University. My older brother was at Georgetown, and my mother thought it would be good for me to be near him. And I was not ready for college. I was just flailing around. So after a semester, I dropped out and went to work in Florida.
I was traveling cross-country. I was stopping in Minneapolis to visit a friend I had known in Florida, and I was running out of money. I lucked out and got a job at a very good French restaurant. After about a year, I was in kind of a desultory state. This was a mom-and-pop restaurant. The pop pulled me over one day, sat me down, and said, “What are you doing? You’ve got a great university here you can go to. You can work here at night and go there during the day. I’ll take you off the lunch schedule—but you have to work Sunday brunch.” And he gave me a kick in the ass that I very much needed.
I began as a journalism student. Remember, I’m in my 20s (at the time), so I feel this need to make my education somewhat vocationally oriented. (The University of Minnesota) had a very good journalism school, and I took some classes, but then I took the introduction to literature class from this—I’m tempted to say he was an old coot—he was an older professor, kind of bent over, almost shaped like a question mark. Without being didactic, sitting in his office one day, he said, “Remember that you’re here to get an education.” If I were working tarring roofs, I wouldn’t trade my major (English literature) for anything.
I had done some substitute teaching at a private school, and there was a program called lateral entry into CMS, where if you had a certain grade point average, you could apply to teach that subject. I sent in my college transcript. I wanted to teach upper-school English, but I came to realize that, not being a parent, I had more interest in the content than I had in teenagers. There was an opening at East Mecklenburg High School that came down to me and an attorney who was leaving the legal field, and I was told I was one of the two finalists. And I prayed all weekend that I would not get the job.
I was interested in WFAE, and I noticed that there was an opening in underwriting. I had worked in freelance sales jobs, so I put on my suit and took my résumé up there. Right after that, I volunteered to answer phones during the pledge drive, and I came to find out that the position had been filled. But they were thinking about starting this new program, a new position in major gifts. And I got the job. Roger Sarow hired me with zero experience. I’ll always be indebted to him for taking that chance.
It’s a generous community. People here support the arts generously. People think people aren’t philanthropic enough, but I think there’s a pretty sound base for this community. That includes the Rock Hill area, Gastonia, Hickory. It’s not limited to Charlotte. There are generous people who care a lot about the community.
The ABCS of fundraising are cultivation, stewardship, and solicitation. That’s textbook. I’ve never written as much as I do now. I’m a big fan of handwritten notes. An old girlfriend gave me a fountain pen, a Parker 75. That’s still my go-to all these decades later. You want to stay in touch with donors and keep them abreast of what’s going on at International House. You want them to be connected to what’s happening. You don’t want to find yourself in a position where you’ve not been in touch with donors, and then a year later, you’re calling them to ask for money.
At the end of the day, you present to (a prospective donor) what your mission is. Our mission is advancing international understanding and immigrant integration. Our summer program—our Rising Readers—involves taking elementary school kids from non-English-speaking households and having a summer program that will keep them from falling back. You want to keep them ahead of the curve. That’s one of our main programs. It’s helping bridge the divide that exists today, which has never been worse (because of COVID).
Of all the nonprofits in Charlotte that I’m aware of, International House was just an absurdly good fit. Because not only am I an immigrant who came here with five siblings and my parents when I was 7, but when I went to the University of Minnesota, I applied for student aid from the Office of Minority Students and basically never paid a penny for school.
That’s where I make gifts every year. The university will be in my will when the time comes, because there were all those people who wrote checks to make it possible for me to go to school. That’s why, at International House, in a way, I’m giving back a little bit to people who are younger but in somewhat similar situations.
I really base it on relationship-building. That just leads to fundraising. It was a learning experience, but I just took to it. I’ve had people tell me before that I should have been a diplomat, and to be honest, working in a good restaurant, there are qualities that you need that aren’t that far from being a development person.
If there were two words to describe (fundraising), I would say humility and gratitude. It’s one of those things where you have to be unassuming. Every year. You can’t assume anything. I take nothing for granted. I never have, nor will I, deem anybody by the level of gifts or whether they give or not. The relationships and their value to me dwarf everything. For me, it’s based on genuine curiosity about people. And to have met so many over the years—it has just been a gift. No pun intended.