Natalia P. Sanders, 38, Director of Development, University of Tennessee at Knoxville Tickle College of Engineering
Natalia Sanders has been working to make a tangible, positive impact at the University of Tennessee. As the director of development for the Tickle College of Engineering, Sanders has brought in millions of dollars of gifts in her five years in the role. Through her work, Sanders helped UT exceed its $1.1 billion goal for the Join the Journey Campaign in 2020. Originally from Poland, Sanders became an American citizen in 2018.
When you reflect on your career so far, which achievement stands out most?
My position allows me to "bring people back" to UT Knoxville. I travel the entire East Coast as the liaison for the Tickle College of Engineering. I think a great achievement, outside dollars raised as a fundraiser, is the knowledge that alumni have a bridge back to campus through their relationship with me. I recently was told this story: An alumnus who was featured in the departmental magazine had been able to reconnect with her college roommate because she had seen the article. They lived states apart and hadn't been in touch in over 35 years!
What is the greatest professional obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
My greatest obstacle is usually myself. As an immigrant and oldest child, I always strive to do the best I can at whatever is in front of me. While that's a positive trait for being driven, it can create situations where something you did well isn't done as well as you think it should be. I've had to stand back from certain tasks and accomplishments and see them from an outside perspective.
What will you focus on in 2022?
When your job revolves around relationship building and human interaction, a global pandemic puts a halt on a lot of your daily tasks. 2022 will be a year for me to get back to what I love about my career: traveling, bringing alumni back to campus, attending events, and reigniting relationships in person when possible. On a personal side, 2022 will also include spending as much quality time with all six kids and my husband and dog; we made it through a pandemic together and know that there are only positives in the future for us all.
What is your biggest professional goal?
Ultimately, I hope to run my own office as the executive director. I look forward to the opportunity to have a staff to collaborate and continue in this line of work. It's rewarding to see the human element of fundraising and the importance of giving and being a "Vol for life." I want to continue sharing my story of UT and hearing alumni talk about how they got to where they are and who may have helped them along the way.
What mistake did you learn the most from?
Everyone has their own views, timeline and needs when it comes to philanthropy. I learned early on that just because alumni may have come from the same college, their experiences are unique, so my relationship with them must be. Not everyone decides to create a legacy in their name, but maybe some want to contribute anonymously to students from their hometown. The only way you'll know is to listen.
What motivates you?
My family. I saw my parents succeed in a new country. I want my kids to see their mom do that also.
What is the most overrated piece of business advice you’ve heard?
You "must have experience" to prosper in certain roles. I think that with guidance, belief in yourself and a mentor system, you can naturally grow your position while continually learning. My background was not in fundraising, but I was allowed to show how my skill set would be an asset to the development team, and that was five years ago. I was given a chance and support, and there are times when that's more important than a few years of work on a resume.
What trait do you most want in a co-worker?
Camaraderie. I believe you have to trust your co-workers and enjoy working for a shared goal.
What about Knoxville would you like to improve?
I've lived in Knoxville for over 20 years, and I've loved seeing the city change and grow. The parks are lovely, it's family-friendly, and it's a wonderful place to raise a family. As a runner, I would love to see more greenways. I'm sure my kids would want even more splash pads and options to cool off around in the crazy Knoxville summers. As someone who travels for work and pleasure, I think more direct flights out of Knoxville would be a perk!
Who in Knoxville is underappreciated?
In the last couple of years, I think teachers have turned into superheroes. Being able to pivot to online teaching, deal with the pandemic, and still carry on with a smile for our kids is inspiring. With five of my six kids enrolled in public schools in Knox County, I have had a front-row seat to all they've had to do to continue teaching. Here at UT, I'm inspired by the leadership of Chancellor Donde Plowman. She has been a wonderful example of guiding the university in unprecedented times with grace and strength.
Family: Jeff Sanders, husband; Irena and Wes Piekosz, parents; Bella, Zane, Tabby, Mia, Jasper and Lola, children
Years worked at current company: 30
Degrees and certifications: Bachelor's in psychology and master's in English education, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Community involvement: Wesley House; Diversity Action Plan Committee for UT Foundation; Engineering Development Forum
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
— Becca Wright
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Knoxville 40 Under 40: Natalia P. Sanders, University of Tennessee