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Meet Julie Puzzo at American Kidney Fund

Julie Puzzo is the Chief Development Officer at American Kidney Fund. For more than two decades, Julie has served the health and disease sector at organizations like the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) and CureSearch for Children’s Cancer. 

In this episode of RKD Group: Chat, Julie shares her journey into nonprofit fundraising, what a day looks like as a development executive and why American Kidney Fund’s mission is so close to her heart. 

Show chapters 

  • 1:26 Julie’s career path 
  • 4:01 Her calling to serve health and disease organizations 
  • 5:39 Memorable moments from her career 
  • 8:41 Advice for other development professionals 
  • 10:12 Her tie to American Kidney Fund’s mission 
  • 11:27 What her day-to-day looks like 
  • 14:12 Advice for those interested in a career in fundraising 

 Meet our guest 

Julie Puzzo - 1200x627


Kate McKinley:  

Hello, and welcome to the first episode of our newest podcast, RKD Group: Chat. 

Group: Chat is a series of mini episodes narrated by me, Kate McKinley. 

Each episode will feature short chats with professionals who have been called to serve at nonprofit organizations. 

Our goal is to peel back the layers of who they are, why they do what they do, and what day-to-day life looks like for someone who works in such a purpose-driven role. 

This is our way of shining a light on the amazing individuals working for good and highlighting the compassion and heart that fills our sector. I'm very excited for our first guest. She's someone who embodies this compassion, heart and purpose. 

Julie Puzzo is the Chief Development Officer at American Kidney Fund, and as you will hear from our conversations, she has deep roots in nonprofit work. She started her career in the anti-poverty space, she worked for a brief period in political fundraising, and she later moved to the health and disease sector where she's worked now for more than two decades. 

Her calling to serve missions that are focused on supporting people battling life-altering disease is so moving. And her stories of leadership and perseverance during challenging times are something that I think we can all take some inspiration from. 

But that's enough from me. Let's hear from Julie. 

Julie Puzzo: 

I started my career in the anti-poverty space. So, I worked for what’s called a community action agency, in Connecticut. And my dad was actually the president of a community action agency. So, I grew up in the nonprofit world. I grew up giving back to the community, working at food banks, doing, sort of, all kinds of activities like that. And so, when I started my career, I was in, again, the anti-poverty space but not in fundraising. 

And I used to do fundraising on the political side as, you know, a hobby, I guess. 

So, when I moved to DC, I realized that politics is very different once you actually get into the belly of the beast. And I decided I wanted to stay in the nonprofit space. And I really just loved the fast pace, the sort of competitiveness of fundraising and knew I wanted to be able to give back to the community, but I'm not a researcher; I'm not a health educator, and I thought the best way I could do this would be to raise money and then put it in the hands of the people that know how to use it. 

And so, I started in the chapter space; I was just a special event director. 

I worked at the Arthritis Foundation, and then from there, I became the Executive Director of the DC chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. And that's really where I think I learned the most about fundraising. 

The CF Foundation is a well-oiled machine when it comes to fundraising. And then I was able to move to the national platform, and I worked at a couple of different organizations. I worked at a pediatric oncology nonprofit called CureSearch for Children's Cancer. I worked at a food allergy group called FARE, and then for the past ten years, I've been here at the American Kidney Fund. 

And I think what I like the most about the mission here is that we … part of our responsibility is serving a low-income population; not all of it, but it really, sort of, combined the skills I had in voluntary health organizations and that type of fundraising and also a mission that I'm really passionate about, which is helping those that may need, sort of, a hand up as they're trying to go through difficult times. 



As she shared, Julie has spent over twenty years serving nonprofits like the Arthritis Foundation, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, FARE and now the American Kidney Fund. She shared her desire to give back to the community through her professional career, but I wanted to dive a little bit deeper into what called her to the health and disease space specifically. 


I think that, you know, there's an expectation I think that the public has, or believe the public has, that the federal government is going to take care of, you know, research, and education and all of the things necessary for people as they are battling, you know, a really difficult situation or a really difficult diagnosis.  

And that's just not the case. 

And there is so much money needed to really serve those populations, in the way that they deserve. 

And I think that a lot of the public also really only tend to support those organizations if they have a personal connection to them. So the money that comes in is not the same as money that, say, comes into a food bank or an animal charity that people just feel a need to support. So, I think that it's important to have, you know, good, qualified fundraisers who are dedicated to really help, what is often a difficult time for our patients. And, you know, I've been really lucky to work at some really good organizations that do that. 


So, the purpose and heart and determination behind why she does what she does is so evident to me in that clip. And purpose and determination were two things that carried throughout our entire conversation. 

One of my next questions for Julie was about memorable moments from her career. And one that stood out was how Julie and the entire American kidney vent team worked to navigate the pandemic. 

Like everybody, they had to shut down in March 2020 and rethink how they operated as a remote development team. They also had to think about the patients that they served who were much more affected than the general population. 


We, you know, what … our last day was on a Friday. 

On Monday, we sat down and met, and we established a COVID emergency fund, and the organization― we allocated, you know, we sort of dug in and found about three hundred fifty thousand dollars that we allocated to provide these emergency funds to pay, and we do this already through our disaster relief program for when people are struck by hurricanes or flooding. 

So based on that experience, we figured that three hundred fifty thousand dollars would last us, you know, for a decent amount of time. So, we announced the program, you know, at nine o'clock on, I think, Wednesday morning, and all of the funds were gone by noon. 

And so we realized, okay, this is gonna be a very different, a very different experience. And so, development, of course, was tasked with fundraising. And so, you know, we're trying to learn how to work from home. You know, I don't know how to manage that from home, and I have what turned out to be the biggest fundraising challenge and experience in my life that I've ever had. 

By the end of the project, we had raised about three and a half million dollars, and from every source you can imagine. From corporate foundations, individuals. We just went everywhere looking for this funding and really trying to create a true understanding of why we needed these funds and what they were going to be used for, because dialysis patients, which is who we provide these funding to, you know, we all stayed home; they had to go to a clinic three times a week. And it wasn't necessarily safe for them to ride public transportation anymore. They were already at a higher risk, and so they had transportation expenses. 

People lost their jobs, but they went to food banks, and they didn't have kidney-friendly food. 

They, you know, there were a million reasons why these people needed funding. And so, it was an incredibly gratifying experience to see not only my team, who I was incredibly proud of for raising all of that money, but the entire organization, every department, was behind these efforts, getting the grants out, working with patients, providing development, the data we needed to keep fundraising. 



Based on the success story and her experience working her way up in the development field, I was curious what her advice to other development professionals would be. 


We really try to instill in the staff to never let an opportunity pass by; to always just look and see what the other possibilities might be. And if I have a company who's giving us a lot of funding for a project, I also wanna make sure that I have someone talk to their HR staff to see if we can get them involved in our peer-to-peer activities or do a campaign with their executives if we know that they're really engaged. So, it's really trying to make sure that we don't leave any opportunities on the table. 


Another area Julie noted was the role data has played throughout her entire career. 


And then the other thing that has ruled my whole career, strategy wise, is I am all about data. 

I live and die via spreadsheets and by analyzing data. And not just saying, like, oh well, we made our, you know, we were running behind, but we made our numbers, so we're done. Well, it turns out that there was some random surprise gift for a hundred thousand dollars. And if we hadn't gotten it, we wouldn't have made the numbers. Well, it's important to look at that and make sure you understand so that two months from now, that same, you know, trajectory you were on is gonna keep going. You're not gonna get a special gift every month. So I really am constantly looking at data and then ensuring that I go where the money is. 



Okay. So as we moved into the second half of our conversation, I wanted to get a little deeper into her time in, kind of, her day-to-day life at the American Kidney Fund. 


We really make patients the heart and center of everything that we do. 

And we are an organization, I think, that is flexible and pivots well. So we've really grown and changed over the last ten years since I've been here in terms of looking at what our patient base needs, what it is that, you know, as health care is changing, what does that look like? And, you know, I sensed all of that, I think, you know, even just in the interview process and really, like, understanding the types of questions I was being asked and the kind of projects that we were talking about. And, you know, having the leeway and latitude to then be able to do what I think is the best thing to do to make the most money has been also just really nice; that, you know, I'm not, I'm not micromanaged here or questioned all the time. I'm, you know, it's nice to have respect for your areas of expertise. And I think that happens across the board here. 



And as a member of their executive team, she spends her time focused on various different areas. 


I spend a lot of my time with my senior staff and my department. 

We have divided the staff up really by revenue channel. We're very much a multi-revenue-channel organization. And so, really trying to make sure that each person feels supported, that they have the tools that they need, and, you know, that I'm providing both support and feedback to everything that they're doing because we just we wouldn't be where we are without the staff that we have. 

And then, you know, there's a lot that I have to do from being part of the executive team. So, a lot of organizational conversations and discussions that we're having, again, as the organization and the health care field sort of, like, morphs and changes. So, you know, way too many meetings, not a lot of time to do work. Yeah. Just a lot of meetings back to back. 

So it's, you know, it's the same challenge that everybody else has. 

But I do try to allocate, you know, solid time each week to thinking about strategy, thinking about the analyzing of data benchmarks so that I don't get bogged down and suddenly, you know, you're at the of Q1, and you realize that you haven't thought through it from a strategic standpoint. 

If you're just counting dollars, you're never gonna get where you need to go. So it's really about thinking about strategy, you know, long-term, short-term, on a real basis. 



And when I asked her what made her life easier and helped her do her job better, she said, hands down it was the staff and her team members. 


We really are very connected. We trust each other. 

I don't think that always happens, right, in the nonprofit world that, you know, you've got different areas that are, sort of, fighting for real estate, for attention, you know, for getting more focus in the organization, and we really work very closely together. So I think having this solid executive team that I can lean on … and then I really have an amazing staff in my department. 

Specifically, I, you know, I have four senior directors that I count on for so much of what we do, but really, all of the staff, I think, are very, they're very dedicated. They're very focused, but they're also really positive. And I try to, you know, it's easy to get bogged down and, like, you know, gifts don't come through, budgets look scary, but we try to be, you know, as light and positive as we can. And I think all of that has been helpful for me. 



So, Julie was so generous with her time, her knowledge and her advice for all of us in the nonprofit and fundraising space. 

And I was so excited to share this as our first episode because I think her story perfectly encompasses the heart and the motivations behind why so many in the nonprofit space do what they do. 

And with that in mind, I wanted to leave you with one closing remark from Julie that I think perfectly sums up our time together: 


I think that, you know, for anybody who's either thinking about becoming a fundraiser or looking at where their goals might be in terms of their career, you know, I personally think that, you know, fundraising is a really satisfying career; there's a lot of opportunity. There's a lot of different places you can find yourself, whether it's in the nonprofit space or the consultant space. 

And I think that when, you know, we're having those tough days, we're feeling overwhelmed, you know, I just always have to turn back and think about, you know, what it means to the people on the other side, what it means to the patients, and the individuals, and not even just the actual dollars that are coming in but the fact that there are people fighting for you, that there's somebody who doesn't know you and doesn't have your condition but is still out there saying I wanna put the most money in the bank. For the people that we serve. And I think if you lose sight of that, then this job is gonna be, it is way too difficult and stressful. Yeah. But if you keep your eye on that, it makes it much more satisfying and a much more palatable way to spend your day. 

Group: Chat is a production of RKD Group. For more information, including how you can partner with RKD to accelerate growth for your fundraising and nonprofit marketing needs. Visit 

RKD Group

RKD Group is North America's leading fundraising and marketing services provider to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, social service, disease research, animal welfare, rescue missions, and faith-based charities. RKD Group’s omnichannel approach leverages technology, advanced data science and award-winning strategic and creative leadership to accelerate net revenue growth, build long-term donor relationships and drive online and offline engagements and donations. With a growing team of professionals, RKD Group creates breakthroughs never thought possible.



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