Maria Cervantes never saw herself as a workplace innovator. She was just looking for a job that offered a chance to learn new skills and care for her young son.
"It was a step down from my previous job to become the receptionist, but I saw that it had potential," she says 11 years later of MIND Research Institute, the Irvine, Calif.-based nonprofit that provides services to challenged learners.
Cervantes' faith in the program, which uses a visual, non-language-based approach to problem solving and math proficiency, made her an ideal ambassador for the organization. She took particular pride in reaching out to the Latino community, where immigrant mothers grew worried when their Spanish-speaking children had difficulty assimilating into the public school setting.
"This is a good fit for non-English speakers, because language is not key to the instruction," Cervantes says. "The children feel like they are playing games and helping a character named Jiji accomplish goals; but really, they are achieving the goals themselves."
Cervantes has achieved a number of professional goals during her time at MIND. After helping her own son, now 11, with homework, she stayed up late to work on college classes and earned a bachelor's degree. She has advanced to the title of Diversity and Community Relations Officer, which includes fundraising and creating mutually beneficial partnerships.
And, this spring, she was honored by Cosmopolitan for Latinas as one of 12 individuals in the Latin community who has made outstanding strides in their field. Awards also recognized such high-visibility Latinas as Natalie Morales, co-anchor of the Today show, actress Michelle Rodriguez and Olympic boxer Marlen Esparaza.
While she has raised more than $3.5 million to make it possible for low-income elementary school students to participate in MIND, Cervantes was stunned that an education fundraiser was part of the mix.
"I started doing fundraising just by helping out at special events," she says. "Now I'm always on the go, explaining to people who we are and what we do. We are always looking at new partnerships to keep the program accessible for Latinos and under-served students. They should have the same opportunities as everyone else and not be limited."
Cervantes has raised more than $3.5 million to make it possible for low-income elementary school students and English language learners to participate in MIND. The STEM-focused curriculum is designed to prepare youth for the challenges of higher education and success in the high-tech workplace.
Cervantes has done no research on why Hispanics are under-represented in the nonprofit sector but suspects that her own experience may be typical.
"I think as Latinos we're not taught about philanthropy. We're not taught to give our time or money for nothing," she says. "When I got into the nonprofit world I was so amazed. I didn't know about philanthropy or what a nonprofit was."
Jaye Lopez Van Soest believes that Cervantes' assessment is accurate. "If you had asked me in college what I planned to do, I never would have said fundraising," says the director of development at UDC David A. Clarke School of Law in Washington, D.C. "I didn't even know it was a career."
Lopez Van Soest serves on the international board of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and is the immediate past president of the Washington, D.C.-Metro Chapter. She figures there are fewer than 10 Hispanic members in the nearly 900-member chapter, which is one of the largest in the nation. "I'd be shocked if I need more than one hand to count the number of Latinas," she says.
"Part of it is regional. When I moved to DC and started working for a large civil rights organization in 1999, I was one of only two Hispanics in the organization," she says. "It was a huge culture shock for me. The social services organization I was with in Los Angeles had a much larger percentage of Hispanic employees."
Cervantes' story of falling into a development career by working hard for an organization she believes in is common, Lopez Van Soest says. She thinks few Hispanics intentionally seek the career field, especially those who are first in their family to graduate from college.
"The career paths expected of them by their families usually are in not nonprofit world," she explains, adding her own family expected her to go to law school. "One other person out of 20 first cousins is working for a nonprofit. The rest are lawyers and accountants and in other professional fields which typically provider higher compensation."
AFP collects nonprofit salary data annually. While salaries vary greatly by location and type of organization, it reports that a typical starting salary for a development assistant is between $35,000 and $40,000. The overall average salary for U.S. respondents of a recent AFP salary survey was $82,028 in 2012, an increase of nine percent over 2011. The overall median salary was $71,000, an eight percent increase from 2011.
The well-intended push for prestige jobs overlooks "how truly fulfilling working in the nonprofit sector is," says Lopez Van Soest , who will mark 17 years in the field in August. "I am raising money because I am passionate about the organization. It is my job to guarantee that our students graduate with as little debt as possible."
Back at MIND, Maria Cervantes is working to raise money to expand program capacity so more young students will be prepared for college and workplace success.
"We focus on helping our kids to become critical thinkers," she says. "When they can problem-solve with mathematical concepts, it translates across the board. It makes them feel smart and want to reach higher.
"We want them to understand that school is not just about memorizing formulas," add Cervantes. "It's as much about learning about yourself and accepting responsibility for your own success."Comment on this article