I recently reconnected with my former colleague Seanna Bruno, who now serves as the Managing Director of Partnerships at the One Love Foundation. I wanted to hear about what this organization was and what made it such a good fit for her. The One Love Foundation is a nonprofit organization created in honor of Yeardley Love, a University of Virginia student who was killed by her ex-boyfriend, a fellow UVA student. The organization, founded by Love’s mother, Sharon Love, is dedicated to ending relationship violence by educating, empowering and activating communities, both on college campuses and online. In this column, Bruno and I discuss how her passion and desire for positive work continue to light her nonprofit career path, what it’s like to have a mentor and how her work with One Love is the most important thing she has ever done in her life.
Caroline Kim Oh: We met years ago when we both worked at iMentor in New York City. You were a gifted fundraiser. I know that, after iMentor, you went to work for your former boss. Could you tell me a bit about your current work?
Seanna Bruno: Of course. As you know, I work for the One Love Foundation, and I was the third full time hire—the first one being our CEO Katie Hood. I oversee all our partnerships including national opportunities and fundraising—including individual, corporate, community and content distribution. For example, we are currently working with the Discovery Channel on content distribution, and working with the ACC Athletic Conference to educate all student athletes about violence in relationships. We’ve grown quickly to 18 staff serving 550 campuses across the country.
I know that you watched our film Escalation, which follows a college couple and shows nuanced signs of relationship abuse. Through the discussions that accompany the film, we really start and engage in a dialogue about unhealthy relationship behaviors so that students are empowered to make informed decisions in their own lives. We’ve also recently launched the PSA Love Labyrinth with the hash tag campaign #thatsnotlove to educate and to build a movement in the digital world in addition to campus communities. None of our programs are one-off, flash in the pan. I get that choked up feeling, you know, that overwhelming, happy feeling, when I think about my work. This is the most important thing I’ve done in my life.
CKO: What makes you so passionate about this work?
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]1 in 3 women, 1 in 4 men experience relationship violence.[/pullquote]
SB: Katie Hood, our CEO, and I worked together when I was with the Michael J. Fox Foundation For Parkinson’s Research (MJFF) from 2010 to 2013. She had continued to mentor me over the years, and when she began working with the Love family to grow the One Love Foundation in 2014, she asked me to join her. In speaking with Katie and with Yeardley’s mother Sharon Love, the cause became immediately personal, partly because of something that had happened in my own life in the past, and also because of the positive, community building approach the foundation was taking to address this issue of relationship violence. We try not to do anything one-off. We help students and local communities to really understand relationship abuse—emotional abusive behaviors in particular, and have started a movement to educate young people about what is healthy and what is not healthy, what is love and what is control.
On a professional level, I had never experienced a true start-up, and I’d never had the job of growing an organization before. It is so hard and so exciting. Speaking with and receiving messages from students fired up about our work is what fuels me on a long, exhausting day. It speaks volumes about how important this work is.
CKO: How did Yeardley’s story resonate with you personally?
SB: Relationship abuse is shockingly common. And I think people, both those being abused and people who love them, often don’t know what to do. The summer going into my junior year in college, I was in a relationship. It was the kind of a relationship where he was always there when I got out of a class, and I wasn’t seeing any of my friends. I think I was flattered by the attention in the beginning, but then I wanted it to end. Ultimately I had to get a restraining order. There was a break-in. I remember thinking I couldn’t tell my parents what was happening because I didn’t want them to worry, and because I felt that I was a strong, independent woman. But they ended up finding out because he showed up at their house at something like four in the morning. Even though I grew up in a healthy household, it was very hard to know what to do.
One in three women and one in four men in the US experience relationship violence in their lifetime. Women in the 16 to 24 age range are three times more at risk.
CKO: That is really scary. As a woman, and as a mother, I’m happy to know that you and your team are working on this. And it sounds like you’ve really benefited from having a mentor in Katie. Could you tell me about that?
SB: The second time I went to work for the MJFF, Katie was the CEO and I got to work very closely with her as her Director of Advancement. My job was raising money from major donors. The MJFF was such an amazing place to be at that time. I had so many mentors there, and I’m really proud of my work there.
I left MJFF in 2013 to fundraise for iMentor, which was a program I was volunteering with as a mentor to high school students and felt super passionately about. That was a great opportunity, but I jumped at the chance to work for Katie again when she called me about One Love.
Katie is an incredible person to learn from. We talk all the time. We really take care of and support each other. I hope that I can do that for others on our team also.
CKO: It sounds like you really like your job. What’s really hard?
SB: Gosh, so much is hard! (Laughs.) What’s really hard is that we can’t meet the demand for our program fast enough. We have so many schools and organizations wanting to bring One Love to their community, but we need to raise enough capital and grow the team. We’ve grown so much, but not as quickly as the demand. Fundraising is hard.
We sometimes compare fundraising for a growing organization to speed dating: it takes a long time to cultivate donors properly, but it feels like we don’t have the time to wait. There is so much need. I travel a lot. I moved back to Philadelphia to be with family and friends, but in a typical month, I am home only one day a week. It can be really tough.
CKO: I often joke that if you can do fundraising, you will always have a job in the nonprofit world. So how did you get started in development?
SB: I studied communications at La Salle University. I even hosted a cheesy but fun TV show while in school. I aspired to work as a news reporter, but aside from not wanting to relocate as far away from home as South Dakota, I decided that I didn’t want to spend my life chasing what felt like negative stories all the time. I wanted to be and do something positive.
Around that time, I applied for an assistant role in development at my college. I was just looking for a full time job with benefits.
There’s no special training or school for fundraising, really. In this job, I received hands-on experience, and learned all about development; I traveled all over the country to meet and built relationships with alumni, and invited them to get involved as volunteers and donors. I loved it.
Then after a brief stint at the MJFF where I met my current boss and mentor, I moved on to a position with the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, so that I could move back to my hometown. That was June 2008, the WORST year for fundraising, with the financial crisis, Lehman Brothers, you remember. At Wharton, I learned how to fundraise when things are tough.
CKO: How do you fundraise when things are tough?
SB: (Laughs.) You know, I had always worked for causes and organizations that I felt really passionately about. I went to La Salle, so I could speak about my experience as a student once I worked in their development department. My great uncle had Parkinson’s disease, so I could talk about that at MJFF. I was a volunteer mentor at iMentor before I went on to fundraise for the organization.
At Wharton, I had so much to learn before I could go sell it, and I didn’t have a personal connection of any kind.
I learned that even a in difficult economy, even when I wasn’t the expert in the experience I was selling, fundraising was still about building relationships, bringing the organization to them or bringing them to the organization, making connections, helping them engage with the organization and inspiring them to make a gift. It’s about asking, even in difficult times. It really takes a lot of time and effort.
CKO: That makes a lot of sense. So, did you get to work with Michael J. Fox himself? And what is it like to know the Love family?
SB: I didn’t report to Fox, but I did have a lot of opportunities to interact with him in meetings, dinners and such. He is so smart and positive. The Michael J. Fox Foundation was an incredible place to work. They really moved the needle for Parkinson’s.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We want to stigmatize relationship violence the way MADD stigmatized drunk driving.[/pullquote]
Sharon Love, Yeardley’s mother, is another reason I felt I needed to work for One Love. She said from the beginning that she wanted the foundation to be for relationship violence what the Mothers Against Drunk Driving is for drunk driving—stigmatize the behavior and get bystanders to take away the keys. When she saw the witnesses come forward in Yeardley’s trial saying that they saw all these signs of trouble but didn’t know what they could do, she realized this is what she needed to do to honor Yeardley. This is why we won’t just post our film Escalation on YouTube, but will only show it with workshops and discussions. We are trying to build a positive, supportive community.
CKO: I’m hearing that you work a lot. How do you take care of yourself?
SB: Right now, not so well. (Laughs.) But I do know what I need to do.
When I’m taking care of myself better, I love to read and exercise. I love to read things that make me feel more light-hearted, if that makes sense.
Moving back home helps too, of course when I’m not traveling so much. My family has had rough few years, and it feels nice to be closer to them now. I love being able to leave work to go to my Godson’s hockey game. Things like that make me feel great.
Ultimately, this is something I’m passionate about. I know that for others, having passion for work may not be as important. For me, it really is. It’s that fire in my belly.
When I don’t feel that, it’s just not as fun no matter what I’m doing.
CKO: How can our readers help you?
SB: We definitely need financial support to keep bringing our programs out to communities. There is so much we can continue to do. I would love for everyone to look at the content on our site and help us push it out to literally everyone. And personally, I’m hoping to do more on social media, especially Twitter, so I would love to connect with people there.