Robbie Klein has spent her professional career in the arts, education, and the nonprofit world. A past director of Art Chicago—an international art fair—she also was a co-founder of Chicago Art Project. She founded and ran CHALK (Chicago Art Link for Kids), which at that time was the only children’s art school in the city, and was Midwest director of the American Poetry & Literacy Project. She also has held leadership positions at major universities in the Chicago area. Her company, RK March, specializes in nonprofit and higher education fundraising communications, and helps clients navigate the complexities of branding campaigns, messaging, and connecting with donors.
It’s clear from all that you’ve done and been involved with that you have a passion for the arts and education. But I know that in building a career, passion isn’t always enough. You need more in your toolbox. What did it take to build your career?
Yes, I consider myself passionate, but one of my organizing principles is my ability to make connections. I take pride in doing that and it comes very naturally to me. I do that unavoidably in my personal and professional lives.
I moved to Chicago 30 years ago and began relationships that I maintain to this day. That was probably the critical element that allowed me to go off on my own. And it enabled me to be successful in my business.
Of course, making connections and developing relationships doesn’t come easily to everyone. Can you give a few pointers to those who find it awkward to be in that role.
I think it might come down to just one pointer: ask questions. People say of me, oh she knows everybody. Well, that is because when I have a conversation with somebody I ask about them – general questions like “Where are you from? Where did you grow up?” Not intimate, probing questions. And I find that as often as not I have a personal or familial or historical connection with that person. I think that’s not unique to me. If you ask simple questions about a person’s life, background and history in a non-threatening way, you find that exists.
Have those connections brought you work or simply a better understanding of people and how they are?
Both. I have a website, but I have not used my website to solicit business. It has all come through connections I have had or have made. I keep those things in my head. And I find value in creating opportunities that connect others.
Tell me a bit about your company, RK March. How does networking serve what you do there?
We describe RK March as an “advancement communications agency.” Advancement was developed as a term to describe all the efforts an organization makes in order to go further, to succeed, and move ahead.
In today’s world, nonprofits survive and thrive based on the amount of money they can raise. The successful ones do this through having great communications strategies that capture the attention and spark the imagination of people who become supporters, advocates, and donors.
And it’s no surprise that the best communications strategies are the ones that most effectively use networks.
So, you help clients develop networks?
We do more than that. We help them recognize networks they didn’t know they had or had access to. And we focus on getting communications to the key people who will carry the message on and support the organization.
Sounds complicated. In the age of social networking, is this where all communications are heading?
Not exactly. Because social networking is nothing new. What we’ve seen in recent years is technology driving social networking on a mass scale. At RK March, we look at the micro scale. We are interested in connecting our clients with the right people at the right time. We go to great lengths to have deep, personal connections with both our clients and the people in our networks.
What we understand is that, truly, the right few people can effect change better than a thousand of the wrong ones. Successful fundraising comes from finding those perfect matches and fits.
I understand that you are known for holding “salons” where you connect people over drinks.
Drinking is not a requirement, but you’re right that I do this.
Is this a business service of RK March?
That’s a very interesting question. We look at it this way: we believe that connecting people yields good things, regardless of the income it might generate. We hold these gatherings because we genuinely like, respect, and care about the people involved. There is no quid pro quo that we are seeking when we do this.
Some of it is just a natural instinct of mine. I think maybe I was put on Earth to bring people together in this way. But it became part of our business, as well, in that we wanted our clients and friends to know that we are looking out for them and are invested in their success. That’s why we try to bring them together with other interesting people who may share their interests.
How do I get invited to one of these?
A lot of people ask me that. And it’s simple. When I find people I feel need to meet one another, I get them together. I am always looking to build connections, so if I know you, I have my eyes open all the time for opportunities and connections that could help you. When I see those possible connections, I’ll invite you to one of our salons.
I can’t imagine that in high school you saw your future as a person who connects people.
Certainly not. I wanted to be an anthropologist and get a law degree and single-handedly revise the American judicial system. And I’m not doing that.
Someone needs to do it.
Yes, someone has to, but unfortunately it won’t be me! That’s a different calling. So I moved to Chicago in 1984 and started working with and then owning a gallery. Everything I’ve done since has really been an offshoot of that, including my work in higher education and fundraising. So no, I did not in any way imagine this career path.
Was the gallery an opportunity that presented itself or were you already involved in or at least interested in the world of art?
I’ve always been interested in the arts. I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and it had a very strong art community and art center. That had a huge impact on my intellectual development. And in college I did a double major in philosophy and art history. I’ve always loved it, but the job itself presented itself through some connections. I had not come to Chicago intending to work at a gallery.
Are you concerned about the availability and quality of arts education in schools today?
Yes. I’m very worried because it’s a huge problem. It’s one of many problems in Chicago Public Schools. But my recent work with Be Creative: The Campaign for Creative Schools, has given me a lot of hope.
This is an effort to raise $38M to implement an arts education for each one of Chicago Public Schools’ 400,000 students. Thanks to Mayor Emmanuel, CPS School Board President David Vitale, and our chairs and leaders, this issue could be facing a remarkable turning point.
You’ve been so adept at creating networks in your career, were there networks in place that helped you form your career?
No. There were not. I did not have mentors and I think mentorship is very important. I rode upon my most encouraging friends and their belief in me, so it wasn’t a structured thing. If I had an idea I wanted to pursue, my friends were pretty straight with me and gave me invaluable, enthusiastic support – or a reality check when necessary. I’ve taken great pleasure from mentoring young women at those times when I have had a staff.
How have you approached the inevitable problems of finding enough time for both life and work?
Yes, that’s an important question in career building. My son is 20 and at Stanford. When he was a little boy I had the great fortune to be able to work from home. When you have a tiny child, you, as a parent, consider child-rearing decisions and I was able to make that choice. And when you have an infant, you only look at the literature on infants. It made sense to me to be at home while I could.
Then, your child grows and hits middle school age and the [child-rearing] literature tells you, oh, it didn’t really matter what you did when your child was 2 or 3 but it really matters now. That’s actually when I went back to a serious, outside the home job.
In my first job, I had enough autonomy to handle the demands. But I felt terribly guilty. There was not a day when my son got home before I did that I didn’t feel guilty. And he was totally independent and fine and well adjusted. This is self-imposed guilt that frankly continued through his high school years.
What advice do you have for young people who, like you, maybe think they want to change the judicial system but also may end up doing something entirely different but just as fulfilling?
The first thing I would say is, don’t worry. I think you create what you worry about. Think positively about your choices and surround your self with people who are going to support you. Put yourself in front of opportunity. Do your homework, do your due diligence, become really well informed about whatever it is you want to do. And then put yourself out there. Talk to people. Take dozens of informational interviews if you can.
Look in unexpected places. You don’t just have to talk to CEOs. Look within your own network first.
Maybe a friend has a friend or sister who’s doing work in the area you’re interested in. Ask if you can talk to them. The answer is almost always going to be yes because people love to talk about themselves. It goes back to what I said before: Ask questions.
If you think positively and put yourself out there, then I believe that magic happens. Unexpected things.