By Cecilia Morales, Doctoral Candidate in English
Given that one of my goals in applying for a Mellon Fellowship was to discover the Ann Arbor community beyond the walls of UofM, my position as the Communications Intern at the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF) was the perfect fit. AAACF maintains an extensive network of connections to donors and nonprofits in Washtenaw County, holding endowments that benefit a wide range of individuals and institutions. In short, they know a lot of people, and they have a deep influence on the community.
This breadth of engagement meant it was difficult for me to not feel overwhelmed upon being thrown into the community foundation world. My introduction to the position was at AAACF’s Annual Community Meeting, where AAACF makes exciting announcements about the past year’s accomplishments and outlines their plans for the year ahead. It also serves as a sort of “who’s who” gathering of Washtenaw County’s philanthropists; this year’s attendance was well above 400 people. Yet the size of the crowd was not the part that intimated me as much as the discovery of just how much impact gets generated within AAACF’s small office on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor. The crowd was there not only to network with each other but also to learn about AAACF’s understanding of Washtenaw County’s needs and priorities. It felt like day one of graduate school; people were asking questions I didn’t even know it was possible to ask. I was confused about how I was going to write with any kind of authority on behalf of this small, yet complex, organization.
As it turns out, my academic training prepared me perfectly to do just that.
Much of the work I did for the Community Foundation involved analyzing complex content, consolidating large amounts of information, and positioning arguments with an eye to particular audiences – a process not unlike the process of writing a dissertation. My job duties for AAACF included writing pieces from Enews stories, developing website content, and creating material for donors. I also researched AAACF’s social media influence and Google Analytics, which I organized into a report at the end of my internship.
A focus of my internship was working on AAACF’s new website. The old website contains hundreds of pages of content, much of which needed to be continuously updated and much of which was unnecessary or redundant. The new website consolidates this information down to 50 pages. We also needed to shift the perspective of the current content to more effectively target donors and professional advisors. While I had a lot to learn about donor’s needs, tax benefits, and investment options, reading complex information and delivering it cleanly was a familiar modus operandi for a graduate student in English.
In fact, I spent a lot of time thinking about my job as a GSI for English 125: Intro to Writing and Academic Inquiry. While I constantly remind my writing students about being conscious of their audience, I realized that it had been a long time since I had written for any audience other than an academic one. For my students, I place value on thinking about audience as an exercise in empathy and flexibility. I really believe that helping a student read their argument from a new point of view helps make them better thinkers and better writers. Yet until this internship, I had never actually tried this exercise for myself. Suddenly, I was faced with the task of writing a scholarship page that concurrently helped students navigate the application process and informed donors about the stakes of giving to scholarship funds. I wrote grant announcements that simultaneously celebrated the accomplishments of recipients, informed future grant applicants about AAACF’s funding priorities, and encouraged future giving from donors. I think facing these challenges made me a better, more careful writer within the scholarly mode as well.
I also picked up new skills along the way. I learned how to use social media and Google Analytics, Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and other software. I learned about best practices in website design and social media. I learned about endowments and how they work. I learned about AAACF’s grantmaking, impact investing, and coordinated funding – all of which I then wrote about.
However, I think the most valuable component of my experience at AAACF was the opportunity to make connections. In my first couple of weeks at AAACF I interviewed everyone in the office in order to rewrite staff bios. During these conversations I heard about each staff member’s job and career path and talked to them about my own career aspirations. The culture of AAACF’s staff is friendly and supportive; they care about each other’s wellness and do things like take lunch breaks together at Blank Slate. Depending on what I was writing about, I collaborated with staff members who were experts on the projects I was describing – a refreshing change of pace from the isolation of dissertation writing. Furthermore, the smallness of AAACF’s staff allowed me to observe a lot about the happenings of the community where I live. Even though I was working mostly behind the scenes, I felt connected to the community beyond UofM for the first time, and I realized that I had something to contribute to it: a voice.
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