The Goldie Company

Parley: April 2013 - Engineering a Fundraising Career

How does one go from a career as a chemical engineer to one as a Canadian fundraising guru? It’s a rewarding path—just ask Jim Hilborn.

Like many fundraisers, Jim Hilborn didn’t start in the profession.

Born in Quebec in mining country, Jim grew up in Ottawa, where he excelled in his English studies. “When I was in grade school, a teacher told my mother that it would be a pity if I didn’t go into journalism,” says Jim. “She laughed at the idea and said ‘Oh no—they don’t earn any money and they drink too much!’”

Jim didn’t lose interest in writing, but he followed his friends to Queen’s University to become a chemical engineer. Upon graduation, he began work at an engineering company, but his supervisors soon recognized his ability. Soon, Jim was writing the company’s press releases and composing speeches for its president.

“The penny dropped about four years into the business,” says Jim, who adds that he enjoyed the writing more than the work he was originally hired to perform. “I saw an ad for an assistant editor position in a chemical magazine and decided to apply.”

Jim flourished at Southam Business Publications, eventually becoming the editor of Canadian Petroleum magazine. After about five years, he and an engineer friend with similar skills decided to launch a chemicals newsletter. “I quit Southam and got my wife’s permission to begin my career as a journalist,” Jim jokes.

Twelve years later, Corpus Information Services Ltd. had 80 employees, published 11 different newsletters, and held annual conferences. Jim and his partner sold the business to Southam, his old employer, and he became president of the subsidiary. But the entrepreneurial urge struck him again—just as Steve Jobs’ Apple Lisa hit the market. Around the same time, Pagemaker was released. “That revolutionized everything!” says Jim. “Now anybody could layout a newsletter.”

These two innovations got Jim back into the business. Before long, he and his new company were creating newsletters for an airline and other clients.

“Don Stephenson in the Development Office at University of Guelph asked me to do a newsletter on planned giving,” Jim explains. At the time, he wasn’t sure what “planned giving” meant, but agreed to launch Canada’s first newsletter on the topic in 1984.

In no time flat, Queen’s University asked for a similar publication. University of Toronto and University of Alberta followed, and then hospitals started asking. “Before we knew it, we were doing a bunch of newsletters for non-profit clients,” says Jim, who eventually sold the business to the newsletter printer.

In 1991, he launched a popular newsletter called Canadian FundRaiser that served the non-profit sector. A few years later, with a friend, Jim launched CharityVillage, a website that continues to this day. “I’ve been reporting on gift planning and fundraising ever since,” Jim adds.

Reporting and participating, that is. Jim joined others in the foundation of the Canadian Association of Gift Planners in 1996. He also launched Civil Sector Press, which specializes in fundraising literature. Three years ago, he and an associate launched a consulting service for non-profits to help them cultivate relationships with supporters that are likely to make a bequest.

It’s safe to say that Jim Hilborn has his work cut out for him. So, what makes Jim excited about the non-profit world?

“Six months into publishing Canadian FundRaiser, I started thinking about the people who work in the sector. They’re all on a mission. They’re all involved in something that they believe is good for society. One day at lunch, the penny dropped again. ‘I’m going to work in this sector for the rest of my career,’ I said to myself.”

From that moment, Jim hasn’t looked back. “Fundraising is a wonderful sector. It’s difficult to make a living selling stuff to the charitable sector—there is a huge cultural chasm between the business mind and the charity mind—but we’ve found ways to help and it’s been an incredibly rich experience.”

The writer in Jim wants to build upon that experience. Last year, Jim began flexing his creative writing muscles with an informal series of emails to 60 or so people—a list he calls “Family Plus.” Writing his thoughts and getting responses from friends all over the world has kept him connected, he says. It also gives him a chance to be a writer, fulfilling the destiny his teachers predicted back in Ottawa.

Does he plan to move on from fundraising for yet another career? Not a chance. “I’m still here, and I won’t be leaving,” says Jim. “They’ll have to carry me out.”