Learn More

See GivingDNA in action alongside your peers in fundraising. Tour the Platform on 5/26/21 @ 12pm CDT.

Kris with SF Mayor and Habitat Homeowner

Kris Leja with San Francisco Mayor and a Habitat Homeowner

At Pursuant we get a front row ticket to see the incredible work that is being done every day by nonprofits of all stripes. Today we want to share that perspective with you by pulling back the curtain to not just talk numbers and strategy, but to introduce you to one of the amazing nonprofit leaders we get to work alongside.

Kristine Leja is the Interim CEO and Chief Development Officer of Habitat for Humanity, Greater San Francisco. Today we are kicking off the first in a new series called the “Nonprofit Leader Spotlight.” We wanted to share about the truly inspiring work Kristine and her team are doing in San Francisco as well as pick Kristine’ brain to learn some of the insights she has gleaned over the years. Enjoy!

Nonprofit Leader Spotlight: Habitat for Humanity San Francisco’s Kristine Leja

HS: Tell us about your role at Habitat for Humanity, Greater San Francisco.

KL: I’ve been the Chief Development Officer for 4.5 years and this past summer, our CEO moved on to a new organization, and in addition I have taken on the interim CEO role. As the CDO at Habitat I am responsible for annual fundraising and campaign goals, marketing, public relations and communications. Our succession plan named me as interim CEO in the event that the current CEO vacates. The CEO role at Habitat is very externally facing, we have a lot of home dedications, groundbreakings, fundraising events, advocacy, earned media engagements and a large and active board of directors. We are in the midst of actively recruiting a new CEO and hope to have this new person in place by the spring of 2016.

Habitat is lucky to have an extremely strong COO and we have become partners in ensuring that the organization remains strong, that we are hitting our milestones and still moving forward on our ambitious 2020 Vision goals. Collectively we are a really strong organization, comprised of strong individuals that are extremely passionate about our mission.

HS: In your own words, will you describe Habitat for Humanity? What might people not know about Habitat?

KL: San Francisco was the last major metropolitan area to start a Habit for Humanity affiliate. Many did not believe that Habitat could work in San Francisco given the space constraints of the city and the broader Bay Area. But a long standing SF resident, Steve Jacoby, a United airline pilot, met Rosalyn Carter on one of his flights and she encouraged him to start a Habitat affiliate in San Francisco. And he did. Despite the fact that he had little time to live and was HIV positive, starting our Habitat affiliate was one of the last things he did before he passed away.

Habitat affiliates are formed by a group of volunteers who see a need and want to start one in their local community, often—if not 100%— volunteer grown. The Habitat model is unique, because each community truly determines how to be the most effective. There is no one size fits all when it comes to the types of homes we build. We build to fit the neighborhood so that our homeowners are part of their community and their homes look like every other home on their block. Because land is hard to secure in our tri-county service region, we try to fit as many homes as possible on a lot and build multi-family developments, such as townhomes or condos and we do it all with the help of over 8,000 annual volunteers. Homebuilding in our region has to be innovative and different.

Yet, the partnership model with each homeowner is universal: Habitat offers a zero-percent interest, zero-down payment loan to qualified families and they partner with use by contributing up to 500 hours of sweat equity on our construction site building their own home.

Aside from our homebuilding efforts, we’re also partnering with two neighborhoods on revitalization efforts that include park beautifications, residential home repairs for elderly, long-time residents, and community facility repairs. We have focused these efforts in the Bayview in San Francisco and East Palo Alto. This program is only four years old, but is rapidly growing due to strong neighborhood partnerships and a desire to stem the displacement of long-time residents.

HS: I saw that you went to school for english and creative writing. How did you arrive at fundraising and non-profit management?

KL: I’m from Chicago and I moved to San Francisco to begin a graduate program in creative writing with a concentration in poetry. Upon leaving Chicago, I had been working in real estate and I knew I didn’t want to continue on that path. I was also doing volunteer work in Chicago for a rape crisis center and they asked me to help with grant writing, something I had never done before. I liked the idea of it a lot and thought I could bring my skills as an English major into an area of focus while simultaneously doing something good. My volunteer work really set me on the path to become a fundraiser. When I arrived in San Francisco, I spent the first three months sending out my resume and trying to find an entry level position in fundraising. This proved to be more difficult, given my background and lack of non-profit experience. The deputy director at Westside Community Mental Health Services took a chance and hired me. I was able to bring my marketing and communication skills to the organization and he taught me fundraising. He was truly a mentor to me. He taught me every aspect of fundraising from government to foundation to board work. I also had the great fortune to work with him on focus groups, program work, a little bit of everything in the nonprofit field. And I’ve been in the non-profit space as a fundraiser since then and haven’t looked back.

HS: What does a typical day at work look like for you?

KL: There is no typical day. (Laughs) There’s so much that happens. I oversee a pretty large team, fundraising and communications, plus the CEO role. I’d rather tell you about my ideal day. An ideal day for me would include going out and meeting with a donor, discussing why they’re giving to Habitat and sharing how they can take the next step with us. Then I’d have some strategy sessions with the management team and talk about how we’re going to move into this next phase of growth. I love strategy sessions, they really give me energy. I’d follow that up with diving more deeply into our advocacy work, an area that I’ve had to learn more about since assuming the Interim CEO role. Also, I love calling donors to say “thank you.” Weekly, I’m able to call at least 5-10 donors to just say thank you. Finally, I love editing so I may take a look at a draft of an annual fund letter or a grant proposal and provide some input. My best day is when I can flex a lot of different muscles and use many portions of my brain.

HS: Habitat for Humanity is one of those awesome organizations where people can really practically see where their dollars go. There’s a literal house. This is great. But beyond just a picture of a house with a smiling face— How do you inspire donors to give?

KL: The physical home is a big plus for fundraising, but ultimately, our donors are most interested in the long-term generational impact on a family. We’ve just started a robust learning agenda as an organization and will be surveying all 208 of our current homeowners to evaluate health, education, asset building and community engagement outcomes for our families since moving into their Habitat home. Historically, we’ve been really good at storytelling and telling each families individual story, and by combining this with the evaluation work we are in midst of completing, we are confident that this will only strengthen our case for support. It’s one thing to tell the story of the Abarca family, a single mom with two children who was living in the dining room of a relative’s home. Her son was really struggling in school because he didn’t have a quiet place to study and after moving into their Habitat home his grades went from C’s and D’s to A’s and B’s because he was able to concentrate. It’s stories like these that we want to quantify and compare against our existing pool of homeowners and national and local norms, and soon we will be able to do just that.

HS: Can you tell me a little about how Pursuant works with your organization?

KL: I met Kelley [Stuart] when I first started at Habitat about four years ago. We met at a fundraising conference in New York City. We discovered that we had a lot of similar philosophies around fundraising, donor management, and the nonprofit field. She shared Pursuant’s philosophy around fundraising and I found it refreshing and quite different from what most big consulting firms were offering. We continued to remain in touch and Kelley has been a great sounding board, particularly as we launched a feasibility study and ultimately a campaign. She was so generous and responsive and I knew I wanted to work with Pursuant in a formal capacity. Today, Pursuant is completing a robust data mining project of all 100,000 of the individual records in our database to help us build our major donor pipeline, but also to help establish and grow a formalized mid-level donor program.

Additionally, the fantastic Rachel Muir has completed a team training for the development department at Habitat. We worked together to create a highly customizable training plan that focused on our areas of growth. Every single person on the team felt that the training was valuable and has helped them in their long-range planning and day-to-day work. We continue to revisit those training modules in our monthly team meetings to ensure that we continue to learn and implement best practices.


HS: You’ve worked in the nonprofit space for over 12 years. How have you seen the space grow and change over that period of time?

KL: It’s changed a lot in the 12 years I’ve been in the nonprofit space. Online, crowdfunding and social media play such an important role in fundraising now. Over the past four years we have seen tremendous growth in online giving and year-over-year we can’t believe the increases. Giving Tuesday and other regional days of giving. Who could’ve predicted that a national day of giving (Giving Tuesday) would take off the way it has? I think that philanthropy in five years will look so different. It has to. Just think about the chances that have occurred most recently: social enterprises, impact investing, tax credits, etc. If the ways in which the nonprofit sector functions remain exactly the same then we’re doing a disservice to the people we are serving. Non-profits have to adapt and change as the market and the economy changes. As people look for an embrace new ways of giving we have to embrace that as a sector. That openness is much more prevalent now than it was 12 years ago. Exactly what the future holds I can’t say, but I do think we should be asking ourselves the following questions: What new forms of philanthropy can we explore? How does this change the way in which we talk about our organizations? How can we be part of the conversation rather than being reactive?

HS: If you could give one piece of advice to fundraisers, what would it be?

KL: Have fun. Be curious. Build authentic relationships.
Build relationships that don’t just live with you. Make sure you’re introducing your donors to multiple people within the organization. Have a real desire to ensure that the relationships you are building will extend beyond you and will truly be the organizations.
Let your passion for the mission guide you and leave your ego out of your job. The best fundraisers I know are not just about hitting their revenue targets, but ensuring that the broader development team is successful.

HS: I love seeing a nonprofit make good use of a blog! How does digital media fit into your strategy to reach your donors?

KL: Digital media is a really important avenue for us to reach our broader community, from donors to volunteers to neighborhood advocates to our homeowners. Everyone is using social media. The blog in particular really does a lot in terms of diversifying our voice. We not only use it as a more casual medium for inspiring action, but also for sharing information. The communications team is responsible for blog content, but relies heavily on guest writers as well. In fact, our most popular blog post last year was written by a volunteer that attended our annual global village trip to Vietnam. Annually, we send a group of ~20 volunteers to a remote village in Vietnam to help build two Habitat homes. I went in 2013 and the trip itself had a profound impact on me. Each year, we encourage our global village attendees to record their experience and share it through our blog. This blog post was written by a volunteer who had fought in the Vietnam War and he shared his experience returning and what that meant for him. You can read it here.

HS: What would be your advice to someone who is beginning his or her career in nonprofit management/fundraising who would like to lead an organization like yours one day?

KL: I cannot underscore the value of volunteering for an organization that you’re passionate about. Volunteering or internship have always been a way a way for me to explore the culture of an organization and get a feel for a new industry. As I shared earlier, it was my volunteer experience at the rape crisis center in Chicago that solidified my desire to enter the non-profit space. Contrast that with internships I had in college as an English major where I interned with a publishing house, a literary agent, and a local lifestyle magazine and realized that publishing wasn’t for me.
Once you enter the non-profit space always let passion be your guide. Work for organizations that inspire you. It makes the long hours worth it to know that you are helping to make the world a better place.

Our thanks to Kristine Leja for taking the time to share with us about her own journey and the work of Habitat for Humanity, Greater San Francisco. If you’re interested in reading future posts like this be sure to subscribe to the Intelligent Fundraiser below. And if you know a nonprofit leader who I should interview for a future Nonprofit Leader Spotlight, drop me a line!

We’re also excited to share that the brand new relationship fundraising research conducted by Dr. Adrian Sargeant and the Rogare Fundraising Thinktank is now available for download. Get it here.