John Donohue with Lou and Nina Rawls.

John Donohue with Oprah Winfrey.

Stevie Wonder and John Donohue.

Career path leads across the country and to the stars

In his office at The College of New Jersey, John Donohue keeps a framed map of New Jersey, where his visitors can point out their hometowns as Donohue continues to learn about the state he now calls home.
The Lawrence resident has been getting to know his new community since he took on the positions of vice president of college advancement and executive director of The College of New Jersey Foundation in October, and immediately dove into his work building brand awareness of TCNJ so students are recognized across the country and raising funds to keep the school on the cutting edge of new programs and services.

Donohue had been eager to get back to working on a college campus, and as he began to learn about TCNJ, he quickly realized he wanted to be a part of it.
Sharing the story of the school and those who are part of it is what Donohue hopes to do in his new role.

Yet Donohue, 55, also has his own share of stories to tell.

The Long Island native has called many places home over the course of his career, which primarily focused on raising funds for the nonprofit sector. His work has lured him throughout the U.S., from tiny, historic towns to big cities, and has even landed him in the company of Oprah, Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Hudson and George Clooney.

Raising funds for nonprofit organizations had never even been on Donohue’s radar as a child. His father was an aerospace engineer and his mother worked in banking. Donohue had hoped to land a job in human resources after college and ingratiate himself into the private sector. After he graduated from the State University of New York at Oswego, he contacted a friend’s father, hoping to secure an HR position at his company.

Yet Donohue’s connection also happened to be the campaign chairman at United Way, where Donohue subsequently worked for the next five years. To his surprise, Donohue found that working in the nonprofit world suited him.

“What I didn’t realize is how much I would enjoy working in the nonprofit sector and being that link between those who are trying to achieve something and need some extra help, whether it’s support through a human services agency like Salvation Army, or a scholarship, and somebody who has resources who wants to do good,” he said. “So it was kind of nice being in that middle ground.”

His newfound passion for nonprofit fundraising continued in his career, as Donohue worked at Stony Brook University, University of Texas at San Antonio, and Dillard University, a historically African-American college in New Orleans.

When the president of Dillard University went on to become president of the United Negro College Fund, he took Donohue along as his executive vice president.
Donohue’s responsibilities included fundraising, marketing, brand management and communication. But some of his noteworthy stories detail his experience there and the people he met.

The UNCF, whose primary purpose is to support higher education, was originally formed as an organization that provided funds to African-American colleges to support their operations.

In the 1970s, the organization shifted to providing scholarships for students. Despite its name, the UNCF is very diverse in the scholarships it provides to individuals.

Its slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” became one of the most recognized slogans, and the start of the “Lou Rawls Parade of Stars,” now known as “An Evening with the Stars,” would eventually become the longest running TV programs in the U.S. The annual show featured a night of musical tributes and stories of the importance of higher education. A number of noteworthy stars would perform, before an honored individual finished off the night.

Some of the honorees for the show included Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie and Chaka Khan, and Donohue had worked with all of them. The reality hit Donohue at the first show he had worked on, a tribute to Quincy Jones, where he sat in the front row with the UNCF president at the Kodak Theater in California.

“I just remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, two weeks ago I’m down in New Orleans working, and now I’m here in California having a conversation with Oprah Winfrey and Sharon Stone,’” he said. “It was just an amazing kind of realization of where my career was going.”

Donohue spent eight years working with UNCF, he and his wife Jane waiting for their sons to finish college and get out on their own before the couple decided to settle down permanently elsewhere. In that time, Donohue found himself playing on the golf course with Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy, corresponding with Oprah and Jennifer Hudson, and attending three Oscars, where Clint Eastwood and George Clooney were just a few of the noteworthy individuals he met.

Yet some of his most poignant memories highlighted the actions of specific individuals and the volunteers who made every effort a success. He recalled spending an hour and a half speaking with Vernon Jordan—a lawyer and civil rights activist who in 1970 became executive director of UNCF—at what was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting, struck by the realization he was sitting with a man who had overcome so much and fought so relentlessly for what he believed in.

While he fondly recalls his memories of UNCF, Donohue said TCNJ is exactly where he wants to be. Donohue and his wife had only ever passed through New Jersey on their travels, and were pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoyed settling into their home in Lawrence.

“When we were deciding where I would be interested in looking at opportunities, we realized this is one of the last stops on the professional career,” Donohue said. “We’ve been so pleased with what we found here.”

Though Donohue began his work at TCNJ just one week before Superstorm Sandy, the school’s response to the situation gave Donohue one of his first looks at the programs that educate students beyond the classroom. The student service organization mobilized to begin sending supplies and volunteers to the shore to help with recovery assistance, and still continues to send busses of students and staff on weekends now.

The story he wants to share is of efforts like these, and other civic engagement programs like a “neighbor to neighbor” and community assistance program in the town.