Faculty Focus: Sophie Penney

Sophie Penney
Sophie Penney

Sophie Penney teaches courses for the Penn State World Campus Fundraising Leadership Certificate. We recently sat down with her to talk about the certificate program, as well as her background in the field of fundraising. Here’s our conversation:

Please give our readers a sense of your background and teaching interests.

As a first-generation college student and the child of first-generation Americans I know the power that higher education can have to transform lives. My undergraduate degree is in music education, but I went on to earn a master’s degree in student services and embarked on a 25+-year career in higher education administration. Six years ago I launched a start-up development operation at a midsize nonprofit and collaborated with the executive director and campaign chair to successfully complete the first-ever capital campaign.

Can you talk about your experience in fundraising?

Because I had no previous fundraising experience my first boss took a huge gamble in hiring me because to lead the corporate and foundation office at a small, private liberal arts college. He gave me ample opportunity to learn the ropes and I was quickly able to develop knowledge and skills that supported early and significant success including helping the institution garner a $2 million grant from the Lilly Endowment.

I started at Penn State in 2001, working on a campaign to raise funds for WPSU TV to enable the public television station to make the conversion to digital transmission. In my role at the College of the Liberal Arts, I worked with a team of staff members and deans committed to fundraising.

Over the past six years I’ve collaborated with others to reinstitute a culture of philanthropy and fundraising structures at a midsize nonprofit in State College and helped them complete their first major capital campaign to which donors contributed more than $1 million.

As a faculty member who teaches courses for the Penn State World Campus Fundraising Leadership Certificate, could you provide a description of the courses you teach and their importance?

The 10-credit certificate, designed to prepare you to become an outstanding fundraising leader, provides a curriculum highly focused on:

  • strategies for effective fundraising and best practices
  • factors that motivate donors and volunteers
  • ways to increase your capacity to manage and lead at all levels of an organization
  • techniques to hone your communication and time management skills

I teach L A 402 Fundraising Leadership: Building a Strong Base (3 credits) and I also teach L A 802 Fundraising Leadership II: Achieving Success (3 credits). Philanthropic leaders must be well versed in management principles, yet capable of exerting wise, strong, and agile leadership. L A 402 and L A 802 develop basic and advanced knowledge and skills about internal and external relationship building, qualities of successful leaders, and more.

You’re also involved with the Filippelli Institute for e-Education and Outreach. Can you talk a bit about your involvement/work/projects?

As program coordinator for the Fundraising Leadership Certificate program, I focus on building relationships with organizations and individuals that might benefit from the program. I am also working on developing a new course the working title of which is Introduction to Careers in Fundraising.

What is the future of philanthropic leadership? Where do you think this field is headed?

Many factors will impact fundraising going forward:

  • There is a coming tsunami of retirements in the field, resulting in a dearth of fundraising professionals at all levels.
  • Donors are increasingly sophisticated and have ever higher expectations.
  • Competition for philanthropic dollars continues to increase.
  • Staff members and donors will come from ever more diverse groups of people who will bring differing norms and expectations to giving.
  • Legal and ethical issues will continue to challenge all leaders.
  • Services needed and services delivered by nonprofits will evolve.

The Penn State World Campus Certificate in Fundraising Leadership can help students gain an important advantage in the areas of development and fundraising, whether they are new to the field or already working in a professional setting.

What unique learning characteristics do Penn State World Campus students bring to the classroom environment?

In my experience, Penn State World Campus students have clear goals and often a heightened desire to achieve goals in a shorter time frame. They are more often working full-time while juggling family and community service along with course work. As a result, they may more readily connect their course work to their jobs and have a laser-level focus on acquiring information and skills that will help advance their careers and enhance their quality of life.

What makes you a proud Penn Stater?

While not an alumna, I have been affiliated with Penn State for 15 years as a staff or faculty member, student mentor, and a donor. My husband and I instituted the Wisniewski Family Fund in the Psychology Department during Penn State’s For the Future Campaign and have been deeply impressed with the students whose work we have supported. As a faculty member and administrator, I am Penn State Proud and very happy to be part of a world-class university that takes the time to focus on making world-class educational experiences available to every student.