George Zeno

As a Louisiana native and 19-year professional in the field of fundraising, George’s innate ability to discern the subtleties of life has lead him on a rewarding journey. His passion for advocating for the voiceless and underrepresented are far-reaching as he reflects on his early childhood dreams of becoming a psychiatrist to his current position as Executive Director, Student Affairs Development at the University of California, Berkeley.


What path lead you to your career in fundraising?

George initially began his career as a stockbroker, but after witnessing a co-worker have a stroke due to the rigors and stresses of the profession, he took a chance on finding a career path that would enhance his quality of life while affording him an opportunity to make a living. This change in perspective lead him to Seattle, WA where he began work with clothing company Eddie Bauer’s corporate headquarters.

As he continued his path, George became interested in the work at a local school in Seattle, and it is through this volunteer work that he eventually landed his first fundraising position—Database Manager/Annual Giving Officer at The Overlake School just outside of Seattle. George subsequently held positions at Cornish College of the Arts and the University of Washington (UW), where he became the first major gifts officer to be hired to solely raise funds for underrepresented minority students in an anti-affirmative measure state. His stellar career at UW led to several promotions, ultimately as the Executive Director of Advancement for Scholarships & Student Programs overseeing a team managing the divisions of Minority Affairs, Student Life, and Undergraduate Education portfolios George welcomed the opportunity to expand his professional development and transitioned into his current role at University of California, Berkeley, as Executive Director, Student Affairs Development.


If you could bring a famous person (living or transitioned) with you into a high-profile meeting as support, who would it be and why?

George quickly and enthusiastically responded, “Maya Angelou! That woman could sell anything.”

As fundraising professionals, we are in the business of telling stories and painting pictures, and Dr. Angelou could do it in a magical way. George actually had an opportunity to speak and exchange emails with Dr. Angelou in preparation for an MLK Assembly for The Overlake School in 1995. The loquaciousness of George’s speech became limited when Dr. Angelou’s voice resounded on the other end of the line.


Fundraising is fun when the economy is doing well, what motivates you in tight times?

George believes that he is in the right field. “Scholarships are a high-priority—even in tough times.”  Where funding for campaigns, innovative research and building funds may be a struggle in a slow economy, scholarships are an easier sell in hard times. Wealthier donors, especially in the local region, are willing to dig deeper to assist students who families may have been impacted by a downturn in the economy.


What is the one quality every fundraiser should have?

“Emotional intelligence.”

As a fundraiser, you must be able to get to the heart of the donor’s passion. This comes not only as a result of spending time, but paying close attention to the donor’s gestures, conversational tones/pitches, and frequency of word usage. In doing so, you set the environment to be able to receive the gift of a lifetime.


Looking back over your career, what would you say to your 20-year old self?

“Listen to you own voice! Your voice is the only voice that is right for your life.”

George expressed that for many years, he allowed his voice to be muted based upon other people’s expectations for his life. In doing so, he disempowered his own decision-making process because he did not want to mess things up. Good or bad—George guides his life by his own intuition or “gut” feeling.


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