Alumni in Action

Public Service Spotlight

Becky Rafter

MPA-PNP - 2011

Director of Stakeholder Engagement Funding Exchange

Tell us about your current public service work. Can you briefly describe your employment organization and position responsibilities, as well as any relevant volunteer or entrepreneurial activities?

My current work aims to increase the available resources for systemic social change work by advancing the finances, mission, and positioning of Funding Exchange (FEX). FEX is a nearly 35-year old foundation that stands out because of its commitment to movement building. Unlike other funders, foundations in the FEX network (FEX funds) work to break down the historic divide between funders and movements. Rather than being solely accountable to measurable results, FEX funds work to make philanthropy accountable to the communities they serve.

My role at FEX is the Director of Stakeholder Engagement. This title was created to reflect the energy, vision, skills, and nuance needed to advance an alternative framework for moving this work forward. I help set goals that shape our forward momentum and I create infrastructure and programming to engage donors in the work. Stakeholders can participate in resourcing and advancing movements in a myriad of ways – contributing money, great ideas, time, community influence, or other resources. In this role I’ve refined my personnel and project management skills, and I’ve frequently found myself in the role of diplomat and strategist. Helping guide the organization, engaging people and building relationships across differences, and being a thought partner on exciting new ideas and research opportunities are the things that energize me most in this work.

Please summarize your professional and academic background. What has been a highlight?

At Agnes Scott College, in Decatur, GA, I double-majored in International Relations and Spanish, with a focus on Latin America. When I graduated, I was unclear where to go professionally. While working for a professional art college, I began volunteering at a non-profit organization called the Feminist Women’s Health Center (FWHC). They had a leadership program for young women, and I started learning important skills and leadership tools that I wasn’t getting from my job. I learned how to manage special events, interact with donors, lobby, and develop professional relationships.

I spent two years volunteering at FWHC while working in the private sector. I worked the volunteer “leadership ladder,” serving as the chair of an annual fundraiser, becoming a senior workshop trainer, and even joining the board of directors. Having learned how to work in the field, the volunteer work resulted in an entry-level non-profit position, working for NARAL Pro-Choice Georgia (NPCG). At NPCG, I acquired a strong knowledge of development tactics and became a successful fundraiser. Once again, I worked my way up and in a few years became the Executive Director.

My work at NPCG led me into partnerships with social justice organizations in Atlanta, groups like Project South and the Georgia Coalition Against Hunger. After six years, I left NPCG to impact this work more directly, joining the Fund for Southern Communities (FSC), one of the FEX network funds, where I oversaw the development and grant making efforts across the southeast. It was at FSC that I developed my passion for social justice philanthropy and built the connections in and knowledge of the field that led to my current position.

My interest in clarifying management and policy skills led me to NYU Wagner. Driven to continue supporting movement-building work as well as to familiarize myself with the New York community and gain more tools, I took a student position at Wagner’s Research Center for Leadership in Action (RCLA) where I coordinated a capacity building program for NYC’s grassroots social justice organizations.

What led you to pursue a master's degree in Public Administration? Why did you decide to study at Wagner?

I chose to pursue an MPA because my professional, academic, and community experience called me to be a stronger leader. I aimed to learn how to build healthy and productive relationships with money and with people, in the service of mission-related work. Toward that end, I sought to learn new management styles in order to help people more fully unleash their potential, work more efficiently, enhance their belief in their work, and bring their full selves to the work. Also, I was interested in learning to manage finances in a way that demonstrates the creativity and boldness of the work; knowing how to plan, invest, predict, and analyze.

I also wanted to enhance my analytic skills in policy, politics, and budgeting, all within an international, and not solely domestic, framework. In fact, one of the reasons I attended Wagner was the offering of international policy courses. I chose to concentrate on international policy and non-profit management because that’s where the classes were clustered that most aligned with my interests. Overall, at Wagner I had to construct a way to get answers to my questions and particular professional needs; and it helped to know what I needed going into it. So even though movement building work and its correlating issues of resources and relationships weren’t necessarily a focus at Wagner, I was able to transform the tools I learned into relevant skills for my field.

In your current position, how do you use the knowledge and skills that you gained at Wagner? Which skills do you use most frequently?

I use something I gained from my time at Wagner every day. I lump them into three categories: interpersonal, financial and planning, and analytical. I probably use the interpersonal skills most frequently -- because relationship building is such a big part of my job.

In my work, I also use the planning, monitoring, and management tools for finance, budgeting, and strategic planning. Whether doing budget projections, assessing marginal revenue, analyzing financial statements, or conducting strategic planning and its elaborate components, the new knowledge and hard skills that I gained at Wagner have been crucial to being able to produce professional, practical, and useful results at my job.

Lastly, while I focused on the coursework required by my concentration, I also snuck in as much research-based learning as possible. I took all the statistics and evaluation courses I could squeeze into my packed schedule. Meanwhile I picked up new, democratized qualitative research methodologies at RCLA, after finishing my other duties as a student worker. Research was my secret passion. I wasn’t sure where statistical and qualitative research analysis was leading me save blissful moments of knowledge midwifery, but it didn’t matter. In my current position, I’m finding some opportunities to engage in researching the growth of a widening intersection of social justice activism and philanthropy, and I try to find ways to engage Funding Exchange stakeholders in the projects. There is much to be gained by conducting research! I just love it.

Reflecting on your academic experience, what Wagner courses, professors, and / or projects had the greatest influence on your professional development? How?

A traditional fundraiser sees their bottom line as a dollar sign. I see my bottom line as relationships. When the relationships are good, the bottom line takes care of itself. It takes strong interpersonal management skills, as well as interest, to be a good at that. Often learning by reflecting on my own behavior, experiences, biases, and thought processes, my interpersonal management skills were greatly improved at Wagner. I gleaned much knowledge through my Capstone project, the Conflict Management and Negotiation course, the Human Resources Management course, and my Managing Public Service Organizations human-resources team project. Erica Foldy, Alan Zerkin, my Capstone team, and my fellow students were important players in this realm.

Other courses that helped the most were Financial Management I and II, Strategic Management (with International Component), and my Capstone project. Two professors who really stand out in this area for me are both practitioners: Ed Sermier and Jody Spiro. They work in non-profit financial management and philanthropy, respectively, and they used case studies in class that I could easily translate to the work I do outside the classroom.

Stat I, Multiple Regression, Estimating Impacts, and Program Analysis and Evaluation were great courses taught by two of my favorite professors, Judy Polyne and Todor Mijanovich. Hard to believe that I walked into Stat I enmeshed in doubts! Some of my favorite policy courses include Politics of International Development, International Economic Development, and Participatory Policymaking with Nicole Mason - where I learned to give intersectional analyses of public policy in a more robust manner. John Gershman, besides being my rock throughout graduate school, dropped more knowledge per hour of his international policy classes than most people have thoughts in a day. The same goes for Rogan Kersh, whose poignant public policy lectures are infamous. I use the skills I learned in these courses frequently in my work creating political education and programmatic infrastructure to engage stakeholders that is based on issues, politics, wealth, race, LGBTQ issues, immigration, environmental justice, art/media, housing, and more.

Reflecting on your time outside of the classroom (social events, orientations, trainings, etc.), can you describe one or two key moments at Wagner that impacted your passion for public service?

A key moment at Wagner that impacted my passion for public service occurred while planning and attending two public events that I co-coordinated with leaders from several student groups. They were both fishbowl-style speaker events around a common theme: Systemic Violence Against LGBTQ Youth of Color (domestic) and Systemic Violence Against LGBTQ Communities: An International Perspective.

The events featured movement leaders and media creators from grassroots organizations and academia. Planning and implementing these events took a year, meeting with leaders from the sponsoring student organizations, working across language, home, race, and culture. We faced a significant barrier when we couldn’t offer any of the speakers stipends for their time, and the Wagner Student Association helped lobby the administration to create a new policy around honoraria. Both events featured grassroots leaders as the sole voices and draw for the event, which was a first at Wagner.

This experience impacted me by process and by result: On the process side, I learned to compromise and trust the opinions of others on the planning committee, as it was a joint event. I also learned that sometimes it helps to give the benefit of the doubt to people in positions of power. By taking the time to explain, on a one-on-one basis to the administration and student leaders, what benefits would come from a change in the honoraria policy, I found that people were willing to listen and create the changes necessary to see us be successful. As a point of result, the events delivered more than we could have imagined.

Are there any programs, opportunities or other aspects of the Wagner experience that you wish you had leveraged during your time as a student?

I wish I had paid more attention the day we learned pivot tables in the Excel II Module. Overall, I wish I had spent less time working and more time enjoying New York City.

How are you involved with the Wagner community as an alumna (i.e. attending events, mentoring students, maintaining connections with other alumni, recruiting at Wagner, etc.)?

I am involved as an alumna. I have attended some events, such as the National Wagner Alumni Happy Hour (I happened to be in Oakland for that one!) and Wave the Flag for Wagner Alumni Celebration. I keep in touch with a handful of professors (whom I mentioned already), I search for ways to continue partnering with RCLA and Wagner at large, I meet with current students when professors suggest that they talk to me, and I stay in touch with my Wagner colleagues regularly.

Prospective students have expressed interest in learning how alumni funded their living expenses and education during their time as a Wagner student. If you feel comfortable, would you please tell us how you made it work?

I received a scholarship from Wagner, which helped a lot; so whether or not you get one of those, I would suggest applying for grants and scholarships from other sources. For living expenses, I took out loans so that I wouldn’t have to worry about making ends meet and could focus on my studies. I had a regular work-study position, and I'd recommend looking into that or trying for a graduate assistant position. The extra income helped me buy the dreadfully expensive meals that I got delivered to my second home, the 5th floor of Bobst Library.