It’s hard for most of us to ask people for money—even on behalf of worthwhile causes—yet there are some people for whom it seems a natural extension of their interests and personality.
Such is the case with Palm Desert resident Gailya Brown—a woman who has truly found her calling.
Brown was born in Texas and moved to Southern California at the age of 4. She was raised in the Riverside area in a religious family; her dad was a pastor, and her mom, whom Brown describes as brilliant but a bit intense and eccentric, was a teacher who became a librarian.
“My mom went back to school to get a master’s degree,” says Brown, “and she was a serious career woman. The message I got from my mom was to have empathy and compassion for others, because otherwise, I could lose my self.
“My dad was a devout Christian and really lived it. He was laid back and practical, and despite being a preacher, he rarely spoke much. One thing I remember most was that he was a baseball addict! He gave me a sense of balance about life, especially since he always made time to play. Following that example was hard for me. I was more like my mom.
“I also have a younger brother who has worked in the nonprofit world his whole life, on issues like racial and social justice. He’s focused on serving humanity. “
After earning a degree in English at California Baptist College (now California Baptist University), Brown went on to get a master’s degree in theater at Baylor University in Texas.
“As a kid, I wanted to be an actress,” says Brown. “I always had an intense fantasy life, and I did act a little in school, but I was too much a Baptist pastor’s daughter. My first jobs were in retail—behind a candy counter or as a sales clerk. I worked in television doing program development for about 15 years, but it’s an uncertain business, so in 1994, I started doing consulting and marketing for nonprofits, doing grant-writing. I realized that maybe I could turn that into a real job. I’ve found that whether it’s writing thank-you letters, scripts or funding proposals, writing is such an important skill.”
Brown became an assistant to the chairman of the board of the Los Angeles Music Center. “I learned what nonprofits were really about, and I really regretted not having found out much sooner. It became my calling,” she says.
Brown was involved in the funding campaign that built the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and in developing the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts at California State University, Northridge, which she describes as one of the most beautiful performing-arts centers anywhere.
“I’m SO proud of that one,” she says.
In the desert, Brown has worked with the Dezart Performs theater company, OneFuture Coachella Valley, Habitat for Humanity of the Coachella Valley, and Palm Springs Concerts. She has done consulting on fund-development campaigns, major-gift and capital-campaign planning, donor-recognition programs, and writing services that go beyond fundraising.
“When it comes to raising money,” says Brown, “it’s very much the ability to articulate my own feelings about the project I’m representing. I admit I didn’t like it at first, but now I don’t look at it as asking for money. I have to be passionate about what I’m raising the money for, and then structuring the story of the project to match the interests of the potential donor. Some of the biggest gifts are where I don’t have to ask; I just have to tell the story, and (explain) how supporting the project is a way to make a difference in people’s lives.
“I discovered that I love working with people, getting to know them, and matching their passions with an organization’s message. People want to give to make a difference; I just have to find out what they care about. My best professional decision was to go into the world of nonprofits. “
Brown married a man who liked to move around a lot.
“I’ve lived in nine states, including Tennessee, Georgia, New York, Oregon and Hawaii,” Brown says. “It’s meant that my viewpoints over the years have evolved—but I have to say that one of my best decisions was to come back to Riverside.”
Now divorced, Brown has a son who is a graphic designer, and a stepdaughter who is a teacher with two teenage children.
“When you’re a parent, you want your kids to be happy and fulfilled,” Brown says. “It gives me so much pleasure that we’re all so close.”
How has Brown been getting through the pandemic?
“I hate being isolated. I love hugs,” she says. “Normally, I’d be getting together with friends, going to movies—I love movies, but not if they’re predictable or have bad acting—the local film festivals, the theater or my book club. But I have managed to work through it.
“Along with Dezart, I’ve also done consulting with College of the Desert and the Palm Springs Community Concert Association (which provides free concerts to students in the Palm Springs Unified School District). I’m also on the board of the local chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. I’m very lucky. I have lots of friends, and they enrich my life every day.
“I’m staying busy, including some involvement in politics—making phone calls and sending postcards. I must admit that my birthday was the day they finally called the election. It takes a lot to make me cry, but I found myself absolutely sobbing when that happened.”
Brown credits many people with having influenced her life choices, particularly a pastor at a Baptist school in Hawaii.
“He gave me permission to ask questions about my faith,” she says. “I also had a great boss at the Music Center who gave me one opportunity after another, and was always happy to give me more to learn. And I had a professor at Baylor who exploded my mind about learning; she made me believe I could do anything I wanted.
“I’d describe myself as a person who thrives on relationships, friendships and family. I love surrounding myself with talented people. … I guess if I were going to give a message to my younger self, I’d say don’t let yourself be defined by others. Take your chances, and never be afraid of failure.”