Success Stories

Ted Mills

Ted Mills: From Bankruptcy, Litigation and Corporate Law to Fundraising and Development for Non Profits

After just a few years working long hours as a lawyer, Ted Mills knew he wanted to leave the field by age thirty -- but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. He discovered his interest in non- profit fund-raising and development, made connections…and has never regretted his successful career change. With positions at John Hopkins University, Swarthmore College and the Philadelphia Museum of Art under his belt, Ted feels he’s finally found something professionally he’s both skilled at and has a passion for.  Here’s what he says…

AR & SR*: What were your reasons for going to law school?

TM: As an undergraduate I worked in the university honor system as a representative of people accused of honor offenses, and I enjoyed the work. Also, a few of my friends stayed in Charlottesville after we graduated and seemed sort of lost. I was worried about drifting and applied to law school, got accepted, and felt I should go.

Q: Can you tell us what path your career has taken since you’ve finished law school?

A: I finished Harvard Law School in 1993 and worked for one year doing bankruptcy, two years doing litigation and three years doing corporate work at law firms in New York City.

Q: How did you find those work periods in your life?

A: I loved New York, but the field wasn’t a great fit -- although I enjoyed being independent and the challenge of learning a lot at my first jobs. I decided I really wanted to be out of the profession by the time I was thirty. So that’s what I did.

Q: How were you able to navigate that change?

A: I attended a few sessions at the bar association [Association of the Bar of the City of New York] about career transition, read a couple of books, and found Celia Paul Associates, a career counseling firm for lawyers, which is what really did it. The advantage of working with a career counselor is that there was a structured approach that started off with assessment testing and systematic self-reflection. The systematic part was important because I had been reflecting, but not in a way that helped me figure out what I would like in a job and what intrigued me.

Q: How were you able to identify what you wanted to do?

A: One of the questions on Celia’s worksheets was “Describe a time when you were most happy and where were you at that time.” College was a really great place and time for me. Then I took an assessment test that showed I had an interest in sales, which bothered me at first because I didn’t want to be an encyclopedia salesman. I also had an interest in academia, so that made me think that maybe I should be in a career services office at a law school or consider fund-raising.

Celia suggested that I start on informational interviews to get an idea of what the fund-raising world was like, and they were so helpful. I found my first informational interview through the Harvard alumni directory. I eventually spoke with someone who worked at the American Foundation for AIDS Research in fund-raising. After talking to him, the field just sounded so interesting, and he mentioned a couple of other people I should call. Also, through a good friend of mine I was able to meet with the head of the Development Office at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, and she introduced me to others in the field. I had more than enough informational interviews once I got rolling.  

Q: And what was it that you felt made these informational interviews rewarding and apparently smooth and relatively easy to you?

A: I was genuinely curious and prepared. I have interviewed candidates for fundraising jobs and I’ve spoken to lawyers trying to transition to fundraising. I look at their resumes and some aren’t well-prepared. They know very little about the fund-raising profession or the institution I’m working for.  These are fundamental things: learn about the institution, understand a little bit about the business, and prepare [good] questions.

Celia encouraged me to research the profession, so I bought the Chronicle of Philanthropy. I started to get to know the field and I think that really helped the informational interviews because people saw that I was serious. It was also really key in changing my resume to fit this new field. Eventually, when I started the job search I decided on fund-raising, higher education and ‘planned giving’. And so the resume we created worked because it was a pretty specific job I was looking for.

Q: So how do you illustrate to people that you’re a “Y” when your resume says you’re an “X”?

A: There are some lawyerly skills you can bring to the job. And one thing you’ve got to show is that a lot of what I did as a lawyer transferred directly to this new field. For example, being able to quickly understand legal issues was important because talking to donors meant understanding tax issues and types of assets that might be given like stock, art, or real estate. Also, law is certainly a client-oriented business the way fund-raising is. The client is really central and that was a core value of the type of work I had to do at the firms, plus I showed that I was able to work hard and long hours. At the firms, I worked 70 hours a week when the market was really robust.

Q: How did you get your first job in fund-raising?

A: One tip Celia gave me that really worked is to get in touch with the exact person you would be working for when applying for a position. The thing that really got me my first job at Johns Hopkins University was that instead of only sending my resume to the HR office (which was their instruction) I found out who my boss would be and sent the resume to him too. And then I called him three or four times until he answered the phone. The thing I learned in litigation is to call after 5 pm. So I got him on the phone and we just talked and talked. And he sort of said “OK, you’re persistent which is good, so come down to Baltimore for an interview.” I got the job and was there for two years.

Q: Where did you move next?

A: I then went on to work at Swarthmore College for five years. The Vice President of Development at Swarthmore got my name from a senior development person at Johns Hopkins and called me. The funny thing is I had clipped the ad for the Swarthmore job, but just tucked it away because it called for seven years of experience and I had only had a year and a half. And so when Swarthmore’s Vice President called me I said “I don’t want to waste your time. You should know that I’ve only been doing this for a year and a half.”  And he’s like “Yes, well come up anyway”. And I got the job. I prepped for the interview by learning about Swarthmore’s culture, and it’s especially an intellectual school, which fit my personality.

Q: Harvard Law School helped you land the job too, right?

A: It got me in the door certainly for the first interview. And one of the really important things is I loved my own college experience. And I really believe that this period in a person’s life is so important. Plus, I loved what I was doing for medical fundraising at Hopkins and was excited about the prospect of raising money for the undergraduate experience.

Q: What eventually led you from Swarthmore to the position you’re currently in?

A: I’m currently working in at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was a lateral move, but I wanted to stay in the area; just wanted a change and the museum is one of the best in the country. It’s incredibly well run.

Q: How would you approach a potential donor to the museum?

A: The best donors are your existing donors, so you tend to know them really well. And at the museum, we have the opportunity to have our donors in the museum to see new exhibitions, to meet with curators, to have lunch with us at the museum restaurant, and to hear lectures by guests. So the real way to being successful in fund-raising is to focus on people who have already expressed an interest in supporting you and [to] nurture them. That’s the single most important thing you can do. It’s just amazing how generous and interested donors are. They want to give you money -- but they also want to really know what’s going on at a place like this. They really understand the issues. And they’re real civic leaders, really philanthropic people.

Q: So looking back on it, was there a certain inevitability that you could see in retrospect but probably not in prospect?

A: I wouldn’t say going into my current field was inevitable. But it was inevitable that I would leave corporate law. And I just felt what really motivated me to spend the time, energy and money when working with Celia Paul Associates was that I wanted to be in control of the transition. ####

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