Kelli Smith About Kelli SmithKelli’s career in philanthropy spans more than two decades in health care and academia, serving in organizations whose missions closely align with her own passions to serve and invest in the needs of the community. Kelli recently joined John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, MI as the Chief Development Officer, leading the strategic vision for development, marketing, communications, and community engagement. In her prior role, she led major and planned giving as Director of Philanthropy at Saint Mary’s Foundation at Mercy Health.

She is active in her community and serves on several local boards and is the Chair Elect for the CGP Board of Directors. Kelli holds a master’s degree in Health Services Administration and is pursuing her Chartered Advisor of Philanthropy (CAP) certification.

Conversation with Kelli Smith

Eddie Thompson:   Thank you for joining us for our podcast, Conversations with Industry Icons.

We appreciate you listening and hope that you’ll have really important lessons to learn from Kelli Smith, who is our person of emphasis today.  Kelli is the incoming Chair of the Board of Directors for the National Association of Gift Planners.  Kelli is a remarkable professional and we’re really thrilled to have her on today.  Kelli, thank you for joining us. 

Kelli Smith:  Eddie, it’s a pleasure to be here with you.  Thank you so much for having me! 

Eddie:  Well, it’s our pleasure, to say the least. Kelli is so incredibly insightful.  You don’t have to be around for very long before you’ll notice that she’s not only a gifted professional, she’s a really good person.  So, Kelli, we appreciate you taking time for us today.  

I have two simple questions for you.  The answers may be harder than the questions; but, looking back in your young career, what lessons have you learned that’s really made a difference? 

Kelli:  You know, that’s a loaded question.  There are so many things that I can point to along the way.  But, I think there are three things that stand out to me.  The first one is to be fearless.  The second one is to make sure you have solid relationships.  And the third one is to be fully present. 

I’ll take a little time and dive into each of those, if you’ll indulge me for a moment. 

Eddie:  Sure, love to! 

Kelli:  In terms of being fearless, I’ve spent a lot of time second guessing myself earlier in my career, allowing the pursuit of the perfect to get in the way of the good, so to speak. I really wanted to make sure that I got everything right.  What I realized that I was lacking was mentors – people who paved the way for me, helped me figure things out as I was learning my way.  Much of this time was solitary. I was left as a newbie to figure things out on my own, throw things against the wall and see what stuck.  Sometimes I flourished and sometimes I failed.  But, I had to learn to trust myself.  I did that by revisiting my successes and use those as a reference point.  So, being fearless means just embracing those moments and opportunities and casting doubt aside and doing it anyway – in spite of the fear, in spite of the doubt – just continuing to move forward. 

The second one I’ll dive into is relationships.  I have always enjoyed helping people, which is the beauty of the work that we do and learning their stories – how they grew up, what’s important to them, what keeps them up at night, what are they known for and what would they like to be known for generations from now.  I grew up surrounded by grandparents.  I had the gift of great grandparents being there with me in life who inspired me with their stories.  They lived lessons both hard won and hard, really did a lot in the way of shaping and molding the way that I think and approach things.  My family, related and unrelated, taught me powerful lessons about meeting others.  They shared valuable lessons about respect, connections, education, understanding, and nurturing your gifts, which I carry forward today and try to share with others.  They believed in me and I cherish them.  I thought they were the best people in the world.  I had imaginations of writing books about these great griots who kept me rooted in what’s most important.  Hopefully I convey some of that to the families and people I serve. Relationships are critical to our existence, as you know.  Many times people listening and taking a genuine interest, and that’s what makes the difference.  So those relationships are really the glue that holds all of this together.

The third thing that probably has made the biggest difference in my career has been when my schedule is crazy and I’m pulled in 100 different directions (which I know you can relate to), I have to remind myself to be fully present when I’m with others and choose to engage instead of resort to e-mails and phone calls and texts. None of us should be so important.  I try to remember that I owe whoever I’m spending time with my full attention.  Once that time is gone, it’s gone forever.  I know that can sound a little bit dramatic.  

I wanted to share this last final point about this.  I received a wonderful 360 degree evaluation.  One of the responses I got was from a donor and the donor gave me probably the most flattering comment of my career.  He shared that when I meet with Kelli, she makes me feel like I am the only person in the room. 

Eddie:  Wow! 

Kelli:  The reason that was so powerful to me is because we had a long-standing president of the organization (he has since passed), and that was his special thing.  He had a way of making people feel like they were the only person in the room when he was speaking to them. 

Eddie:  Wow, that’s so important!  These are three great points you’re making, Kelli.  It’s hard to be fearless when you’re fearful. 

Kelli:  Oh, yeah, absolutely. 

Eddie:  All of us experience that and all of us have gone through periods of our career, and I’m sure still today, there are times when we take pause and we’re anxious. 

Well, let me ask you the naughty question.  What is the biggest mistake you’ve made professionally?

What did you learn from it? 

Kelli:  Oh, there are so many.  I am a fan of failing forward. I didn’t know I was a fan until it kept happening, and then I realized, “oh ok, this is hard.”  This is ebb and flows, this is part of the journey, it’s a vicious cycle.  Until you get comfortable doing uncomfortable things, you are never going to be successful.  Once I was able to grasp that, things got a little better.  

I would say probably my biggest kind of hurdle that I had to overcome was imposter syndrome. We talk about being fearless, but first you have to figure out don’t doubt yourself.  When you are feeling doubtful or fearful, you just do it.  I’m a list-checker.  I tend to think that I need to do A through Y before getting through – no shortcuts!  I talked myself out of pursuing a lot of opportunities with that mindset. I often felt like I did not have what I needed to be successful in certain roles.  I would watch someone else come in who had less experience, less skill, but a lot more gumption, and apply, get hired, and say to myself, “wow, I should have went for it.”  And, gosh, that is just the most grueling feeling that not only did you feel like you failed at something, but you didn’t even give yourself the opportunity to pursue it.  So, you don’t even know if you could do it or not.  

I would say that was one of the biggest challenges.  I was thinking about this… where did I get this from, how did that come to be, because that is not the way I started my career.  I felt like when I came out of college, I was like, “I can do anything, I could do everything!”  And, then I get out there and you’re like, “OK, well, I thought I could do everything, but everybody else is saying maybe I can’t do everything that I said.”  I shared earlier about this great family foundation I had and all of this enthusiasm in people who believed in me and really empowered me to go out and do great things.  Well, I got into the workplace, and the workplace doesn’t always look like your family.  And often, they don’t always ascribe to the same values or have the same goals.  So, my early work environment really favored competition, transactional metrics and goals, and lots of pressure. That often fostered a culture of just ruthless and being unpolite.  It can make reaching for your goals feel a little bit intimidating.  From that, I felt a little bit ill-prepared to go after those things that I knew in my heart I could do. I started to doubt myself and started to feel like, “OK, well, maybe I can’t do what I’m trying to set out to do.”  After a while, that kind of gets into you.  When you think of imposter syndrome, you start to feel like, “well, maybe I’m a fraud. Maybe I can’t do exactly what it is that I felt like I had prepared to do before I got here, and I’m not fully able to implement or orchestrate.”  

But, I will tell you what happened. Once I started circling myself with the right people, I started to seek out organizations that I could align my personal values with their mission and their culture, and seeking those places out for, “OK, these are the types of organizations I want to work for.  I know who I am, I know what I have to offer, I know my self-worth.  So, what is it that I need to do to take the next step forward?”  

When I talked earlier about relationships, this is where that linkage comes in.  Find yourself a fantastic mentor or sponsor. I mean, I feel like Eddie, I’ve had conversations with you, and you have definitely been a person that I felt like, “OK, this is the person I can come to and I can pick their brain a little bit, and they can redirect me when I’m thinking one way, and they’re like, ‘Hey, let me show you another way to look at it.’”  The other thing that a sponsor, preferably over a mentor, can do for you, is they can open doors, they can introduce you, and they can advocate on your behalf in a way that they’re really invested in your career.  I would say for anyone that is coming up, that is something I wish I had done much earlier in my career.  It is so worthwhile! 

Eddie:  That is so true because all of us have felt like imposters or frauds at some point in time in our career. Often, by the time you figure it out, you’re nearing retirement for a lot of us!  

I admire Kelli!  Kelli is incredibly bright.  She is really special.  The day that you were voted in as Chair Elect and now current chair of our board for National Association of Charitable Gift Planners was a good day.  

You’ll hear a lot from Kelli, I hope you’ll have some time with her.  She is a special, special professional.  Kelli, we admire you. 

Kelli:  Thank you! 

Eddie: I appreciate you taking time today to join us on this podcast.  Do you mind giving your e-mail in case someone has a follow-up question? 

Kelli:  Oh, sure!  No, not at all.  My e-mail is

Eddie:  I forgot to tell them where you worked!  

Kelli:  I am the Chief Development and Engagement Officer for John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Really great place to work! 

Eddie:  You’re the best, thank you for your time!  We’re looking forward to your leadership for our National Board, and I’m sure you will help us progress and move forward to new heights, and we wish you the very best.  Thank you for taking time today. 

Kelli:  Oh, it’s my pleasure, and same thing right back at you, Eddie.  I really appreciate the work that you’re out there doing.  Love serving on the board with you, and can’t wait to see what we’re going to be able to accomplish next year.  So, this is my pleasure, thanks for having me. 

Eddie:  It’ll be great!  This is Kelli Smith, who’s the chair of the board of directors for the National Association of Gift Planners, a great professional.  We thank you for joining us today on this podcast for Conversations with Industry icons – we’ve obviously done that today.  We wish you the very best.  We look forward to our next time together. Have a great day. Go be successful!

Conversations with Industry Icons Podcast Series

With this podcast series, Eddie Thompson, Founder and CEO of Thompson & Associates, brings incredible insight and inspiring stories interviewing leaders from different perspectives of the fundraising community: higher education, healthcare, consultants, academia and more!  Hear these professionals tell stories of lessons they’ve learned during their distinguished careers.  We hope these conversations inspire you to continue to strive for excellence in this noble occupation of fundraising!