40 Under 40

Sara Wajda

UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health
Chapel Hill, NC

Why is a 40 under 40 winner

1. Sara expanded Duke Cancer Institute's (DCI) annual giving program revenue from $832,000 in 2015 to over $1.4 million in 2019. The revenue growth was driven by a 170% increase in new donors and a 55% increase in overall donors.

2. She is co-chair of annual giving for the National Association of Cancer Center Development Officers (NACCDO) and a regular speaker at NACCDO conferences.

3. Her communications work supporting the Duke Cancer Institute's annual giving program has led to over 15,000 Facebook followers and a 900% increase in social media engagement.

4. Under Sara's direction, annual giving to DCI increased by more than 30% in 2018, reaching an all-time high in dollars raised.

Q & A

1. How did you get into health care philanthropy?

I remember going to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) on “Take your Daughter to Work Day” with my father and visiting The Children's Inn, a residential facility that allows families with seriously ill children participating in research at the NIH to stay. I remember being in awe of the facility and thinking these kids are not so different from me. 

Quite a few years and several smaller nonprofit development jobs later I ended up at Duke Health and I knew then I had found my career. I was fortunate to work with grateful patients across a leading-edge research health system and I was able to see the value of my work and the impact it had on patients and families. 

2. Why did you choose to make health care philanthropy your career?

I have always been civic service-minded, and thought: what better way to give back and pay it forward than to promote health research and discovery that could impact future generations? Everyone has a personal stake in health care philanthropy. I was very fortunate to work with Duke Heath, Duke Cancer Institute, and now with UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Public health is a cause that has a universal impact on people everywhere. If I can facilitate a donor’s passion to support a student or researcher in finding the next breakthrough discovery, then I have done my part. Health affects everyone and everything; we might as well do our best to protect and preserve it locally and around the world.

3. Tell us about a pivot point or crucial step in your career journey.

Mentorship and failure. I have learned the most - not by doing the right things - but from the wrong things. I was fortunate to learn and grow in an environment where I was allowed to gain insight, perseverance, creativity, innovation and strength from my failures which ultimately led to my greatest successes. 

I sought mentorship from everyone and anyone. I was fortunate to enter a mentorship program specifically for cancer center development officers and I was able to learn from the best in the field. I am grateful for the leadership I have witnessed that has ultimately inspired me to be a leader and mentor for others.

4. What was your first job, and what is something it taught you?

Many of my first jobs involved children, whether it be daycare, camp counselor, tutor, mentor, etc. I learned grace, patience, creativity, wonder, delight, imagination, but mostly in meeting others where and when they need to be met. Meeting people where they are is a great skill to have as a fundraiser.  Being able to adapt to and identify someone’s values, style, and needs, and then connecting with them in a way that is effective, enhances more meaningful relationships and ultimately leads to greater understanding.

5. What are your future aspirations?

I hope to inspire people to dream big, think outside their norms and grow to serve our community and society in their own unique way. I hope to pursue a senior leadership position in a healthcare organization and travel the world with my family.
Sara Wajda

Fun Fact:

In 2012 I led a group of K-12 NC educators to Costa Rica to evaluate equity in educational opportunity.