My Career Path – From Caterpillar to Butterfly

Looking back, today I can describe myself as a caterpillar waiting to become a butterfly who explores, learns and grows. 

Three years ago, before changes in leadership, my role was not as dynamic as it is today. I was the director of gift processing and data administration for USC Dornsife, responsible for all gift and constituent data management, as well as the administrator of our legacy donor database. Life was status quo.

I had learned as much as I could in the environment before my role changed.

Not only had my direct supervisor changed, so too had our school dean and our senior associate dean who oversees the advancement department. My biggest fear with new leadership was that I would not have enough work.

Now, I have so much work that I need to delegate more. The role changed when we needed to create a dashboard that tracked gift production fiscal year week to date year over year, which involved exploring all gift accounts, transactions and historical data. During this process, my supervisor identified my technical talents, organizational knowledge and appetite for data analytics. I had no way of knowing what I was signing myself up for.

I had previously created reports in other systems, but this project required learning Tableau Software to quickly create financial reports for senior leadership. One of the main challenges I had to overcome was learning how to manage the tension between speed and accuracy with data analysis deliverables. Those who have never worked in data and reporting do not realize that “pulling a list” is not as simple as clicking a few buttons. It involves asking questions, understanding complexity and worrying about accidentally lying with statistics. If you move too quickly, you can miss some very important details.

In fundraising, we look for motive, intent and opportunity so we can identify donors to bring in gifts.

Adapting and embracing change, keeping an open mind, as well as believing and trusting in myself and others when running into obstacles were among the most difficult challenges I faced. I had to ask a lot of questions until I had clarity — and not just the same ones, twice. Asking questions is sometimes scary because others can often mistake questions for ignorance, but I believed in myself, and the questions I had were making me tap into my detective mode. It’s no coincidence that my favorite TV show is “Law & Order SVU.” In this TV show, the detectives have attention to detail, search for the truth and gather information to identify a main suspect (motive, intent and opportunity). Similarly, in fundraising, we look for motive, intent and opportunity so we can identify donors to bring in gifts. Data analytics simply helps turn this art into a science.

Shifting from director of gift processing and data administration to senior director of strategic analytics and operations was not easy. Leading a team of development operations staff who acquire, analyze and deliver information across multiple departments (major gifts, corporate and foundation relations, annual giving, stewardship, events, etc.) has taught me that everyone in an entry-level advancement role needs to understand why raising money is important. When I worked in gift processing, I processed many gifts and saw the fundraising numbers increase, but I never understood why donors made gifts. I never understood donor’s motives and intent. I was not challenged to find out or to understand why and how the donors were connected to our institution.

In my new role, I am responsible for training, and because of my trajectory, I am able to share the whole picture and all I have learned with new fundraising employees: the beginning, middle and end, and how data analytics and information delivery is essential to a successful fundraising organization. Using data, I can explain the many reasons why donors give, why they are involved with our organization and what motivates them to be philanthropic. This is something I wish I had known when I started in fundraising over 10 years ago.

So, what’s next for me, besides a well-deserved vacation to Hawaii? My focus is now on continuing to build on my success and expand my technical and leadership skills. I’m learning R, which is a free statistical programming language, and I am also exploring new data visualizations, reporting and business process to enhance our fundraising operations. Adding these skills gradually over time has made the process less intimidating and has allowed me to “do analytics” in the meantime.

On the leadership side, I look forward to more cross-training and delegating so I can focus on strategic planning, systems management and data analytics projects.

I truly enjoy being resourceful and a mentor to others. I had to overcome the fear of failure — I now believe and trust myself, I am reaching beyond what I think I can do. By believing and trusting myself, I have allowed my transformation to happen: from data administrator to leader and beyond.

For anyone who wants to get into data analytics, I say take a chance, try something new, adapt, learn and grow. Today’s businesses rely on data to make decisions, and if you have the appetite for numbers, get in the game. Take a free course. See if data analytics is for you.

I have finally realized that the sky is the limit.


Xiomara J. Moncada is the senior director of strategic analytics and operations at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she leads a team of advancement services professionals who help grow fundraising and engagement using data, information and reporting. Xiomara completed her graduate studies in communication management at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.


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Care about your career development? Check out some Apra webinars, including Act Now: The Intentional Career Path and Be the Change: Opportunities for Leadership and Change Management

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