Courtney Spence on How Rejection Can Strengthen Fundraising Resolve

In Chapter 15 of 15 of her 2010 Capture Your Flag interview, non-profit executive Courtney Spence answers "How did the Duke University Administration help your organization get started?" Spence shares how she secured school administration financing to launch what would eventually become her non-profit Students of the World. Spence pitches the idea to several Duke University administration officials. Early rejection pushes Spence to refine her pitch and continue presenting it to potential investors. Ultimately, Spence connects with the Vice President of Student Affairs, receives financing, and goes back to those who had rejected the idea and ultimately finance the project.


Erik Michielsen: How did the Duke University Administration help your organization get started?

Courtney Spence:  I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the Duke Administration, both for the people that said yes and for the people that said no.  I think I went on this journey my sophomore year and I tried to take a meeting with any person at Duke that would sit down and talk with me. Even if I didn’t think they were necessarily directly related to international documentary work and student activism and organizations.  I would take a meeting just to say, “Hey, let me tell you about this idea I have.  What do you think?”  And if it made sense for me to say, “Hey, would you – your office – would this be something you would invest in?” Or approach people for money, or who else should I speak to, or just for advice.  And we got a lot of “No’s” at the beginning and a lot of people were, I think sometimes, I think rightly so, administrations are a little bit hesitate to start up student organizations because they happen so frequently and because of turnover you see them die out once the founder graduates.  So, there is a hesitancy to invest heavily in sort of the crazier ideas initially, but I think by the people saying “No” it challenges you to go back and be like, “Do I really want to keep doing this? So, yes I do and yes I can.” 

And it also challenges you – “Well, what’s not quite right about this?  Why am I getting so many ‘No’s’ on this front?”  And then for us, it was a woman, Janet Dickerson, she was the Vice-President of Student Affairs at Duke at the time.  An incredible woman and I’ll never forget, we walked into her office – it was me and another student that was sort of co-founding the organization at that point.  We walked into Janet Dickerson’s office, told her what we wanted to do, had our little presentation and she said, “Yes.” When she said, “Yes.” She said, “Five thousand dollars.” “I’m going to set up a lunch meeting other related administrators and faculty members and sort of put their feet to the fire because I think this concept is new and kind of exciting.”  But what was really the most rewarding was there was a gentleman who had said, “No” you know that fall, so and you know, as we were trying to start the organization.  So, I went to him and he was like, “I think this is a great idea, but not one I think my office can invest in.”  I went back the following year and said, “Hey, so here’s what we did and this year we’re going to Cuba and is this something you want to be invested in?”  And he said, “Yes.”