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Kelly Gagan on Leadership

Kelly Gagan Vice President for Institutional Advancement Nazareth College, Rochester, NY

Hundreds of books have been written on leadership. Some of them have even become best sellers with familiar titles: “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” “Superbosses,” and “Lean In” to name a few. Filled with wisdom and powerful advice, books on leadership can be a great way to dip a toe into the idea of leadership. But to transform yourself into a true leader, you have to get out there and do leadership.

That’s what Kelly Gagan has been doing for two and a half decades in the field of Advancement. No, she did not start out in a leadership position. Like most people, she started out in positions for which she was qualified with titles like “Development Associate,” then worked her way up to jobs that conferred titles with more distinction, like “Senior Associate Director,” and then “Associate Vice President,” and today, “Vice President (for Institutional Advancement).” Along the way, Kelly was doing leadership. Because that is what it takes; it doesn’t come from books.

So, when we asked Kelly to talk to The Woolbright Group about leadership and the attributes of strong leaders, we got a chuckle out of her initial statement: “So I’ve given this a fair amount of thought...” Understatement? And then she got down to business.

Kelly: “So I’ve given this a fair amount of thought, and I will tell you that I have come to believe in 25 years of being a professional fundraiser, and many of those spent as being a leader of a fundraising team, as an advancement leader you are only as good as the people who surround you. Building a strong team, empowering that team and then figuring out how to allow them to do their work with minimal input is key to successful teams.”

Asked to identify key characteristics of a great leader, Kelly started with “authenticity” as most important. She notes that people who choose fundraising for a profession naturally possess a high degree of emotional intelligence. Renowned psychologist and author Daniel Goleman identifies the five pillars of EI as:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • People Skills

Kelly’s point about people with a high degree of EI is that they will know inherently if their leaders are being their true selves, i.e., authentic. Confidence is another characteristic of a strong leader, according to Kelly. As the one representing your institution and your team, demonstrating confidence in yourself, the vision, and your role as leader is of vital importance.

And finally, integrity ranks high on the list. Again, representing your institution with sincerity, working for and with donors whose trust is implicit in the very act of giving, and leading a team that relies upon you for your honesty, ethics, decency, fairness and principles demands of a leader that he or she serve with integrity as a closely held standard.

So, for those who aspire to leadership (not everyone does!), one should begin thinking about and cultivating these attributes early on. Be aware, Kelly cautions, that you are building a reputation. Professionally speaking, it’s a small world. Chances are high that you will move around from job to job. Your reputation may precede you, or at the very least accompany you! Reputation not only plays a role in getting hired, but also in who will want to work with and for you. People talk, and what kind of a leader you are perceived to be will be key to your success. Take advantage of opportunities for self-assessment to get in touch with what kind of a leader you are or where you need work, Kelly advises. She strongly recommends a 360 review, which she did early on in her leadership career. She found it “absolutely enlightening and humbling.”

The qualities required of leaders have not changed, states Kelly, but the mechanics of carrying out the duties of leadership have. She cites the advent of needing to be responsive 24/7, the accelerated response time resulting from electronic communication, managing expectations, balancing what is realistic with what might be required or demanded of yourself and your team, are just some of the balls that a leader has to juggle every day.

We asked Kelly about people who inspire her, and what about them impressed her. In 1997, Kelly worked at The Carter Center in Atlanta and had the opportunity to work with former president Jimmy Carter. Kelly’s admiration for President Carter stems from the fact that he “cares deeply for a world that many people chose not to see.”

Kelly: “He is one of those amazing, unique and very rare individuals who has given his life to help others. Watching him and working with him and having such respect for a human being who has given so much of himself tirelessly and without a lot of fanfare was a gift. It was a gift to me. It was a gift to the institution that he represents. And it especially was a gift to the millions of people whose lives he has completely changed.”

The president of Nazareth College inspires her for similar reasons.

“He has given so much of himself through legal aid work…and he listens. He listens to the students and to what they are trying to achieve. He is fair to faculty and staff, and a tireless advocate of this college.” She calls him “authentic,” “personable,” and “genuine.”

“Those are the type of people who you will follow because you feel strongly about the values they hold dear,” Kelly states.

Parting advice?

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help or run an idea past someone. Asking someone to help you think through a project or a problem gives you access to ideas and perspectives you might not arrive at on your own.”

Great advice from a great leader. Thank you, Kelly.


Kelly Gagan is Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York. A member of the Nazareth team for 16 years, she has been vice president since 2006 and her areas of oversight include marketing and communications, fundraising, government relations and alumni relations. In close collaboration with the president and the Nazareth board, Kelly is responsible for the fundraising activities of the College, maintaining relations with alumni, parents and friends, and for communications to internal and external audiences through publications, advertising and media relations. Her marketing team collaborates closely with the enrollment division of the college and collectively they celebrated a record number of students enrolled this fall. Kelly is the administrative adviser for both the advancement as well as trusteeship committee responsible for nominating college trustees.

She previously worked as Senior Associate Director of Major Gifts at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. While at The Center, Kelly was responsible for the major gifts program of the $150 million Campaign to Endow The Carter Center and traveled with President and Mrs. Carter for cultivation and solicitation calls. Prior to that, Kelly worked in health care fundraising in both Worcester, Massachusetts and Syracuse, New York.

Kelly serves as a board member on the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, District II. She is a past board member for the Bivona Child Advocacy Center as well as the Association of Fundraising Professionals/Genesee Valley Chapter where she received their Outstanding Professional Fundraiser Award in 2010.

Kelly is a graduate of LeMoyne College in Syracuse and lives in Pittsford, New York with her husband and three children.


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