Director of Major Gifts Shares how Donors Encouraged us During Challenges of this Year

Trenton Blythe was hired as Director of Major Gifts for Sunshine this past February 2020.  Trenton was born and raised in a small town in Iowa with three young brothers. He attended Central College in Pella, Iowa where he studied elementary education and later earned a masters degree in higher education administration from Suffolk University in Boston. In 2012, he moved to Chicago and took his first fundraising position at North Central College. From there he went on to positions at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Trenton lives in the Bucktown neighborhood in Chicago with his wife, Jessie and their 2 year old son, Stetson. They are expecting their second baby in March! They’re very involved in their church, Soul City, which inadvertently led him to his role at Sunshine. In his free time, Trenton enjoys just about anything outdoors including golf, gardening, and reading historical fiction. 

Holly:  Tell us what brought you to Sunshine. 


Trenton:  In October 2018 I was listening to a sermon my pastor, Jarrett Stevens, at Soul City Church in the West Loop, was giving on the pretty typical church topic of giving and stewarding your resources. It wasn’t that the topic was new to me, it was that it sparked the question of, how can I be living more radically for the kingdom? Initially this was focused on how I personally could be answering that question but eventually it affected how I viewed my career. From that day forward I became more acutely aware of the issues facing Chicago’s most under-resourced communities. This also wasn’t a new thing for me- I had been volunteering at a community development organization on the west side of the city since 2012. What did change was the conviction I had to be more purposely involved both personally and professionally. This sharpened my focus to find opportunities to help remove whatever obstacles may be in the way as people pursue their dreams and goals. As I reflected on my childhood in small-town Iowa and the endless opportunities I had to pursue, I wanted to contribute to organizations that were helping to level the playing field for others. It was this desire that led me to fundraising in the private nonprofit world versus continuing at a university or college. 


Holly:  What most excites you about your new role at Sunshine? 


Trenton:  What excites me most about my role here at Sunshine is that everyday I get to share the message of our work to anyone and everyone that I can. The impact we are having on the students and families of the greater Woodlawn community is amazing and the opportunity I have to share about that is special to me.  It’s also been rewarding to bring my experience as a higher education fundraiser at some large universities to the development operations here at Sunshine.  A specific example of what I’m bringing from higher education is the concept of multi-year pledges which is commonplace there. The beauty and power of these pledges is that it allows for the organization to thoughtfully and effectively plan over the span of several years instead of just on a year-to-year basis. For our programs, this ability to plan over the course of several years would provide a freedom to think outside the box and grow the programming.          


Holly:  So you started working at Sunshine in February and then the Covid lockdown came five weeks later.  What was your initial reaction?


Trenton:  Yeah, having the lockdown come just 5 weeks into my time at Sunshine certainly was a bit surreal. What’s even more surreal is that nearly all of my first year will be remote! That said, my initial reaction was one of confusion and uncertainty around what my work was going to look like going forward. As a fundraiser I was quickly wondering how continuing to cultivate relationships would work in a world where face-to-face interactions were essentially impossible. Without these in-person experiences I wondered about the ability to truly connect and convey our message in an effective, impactful way. In terms of our organization I was concerned about how the initial economic and stock market reaction to the societal shutdowns were going to affect our donors ability to not only continue to give, but at what level.  


Trenton with his son Stetson


Holly:  Within the first few weeks of Covid, the development team mobilized and began to  raise funds to help families in our community.  What did you anticipate the need would be? 


Trenton:  We speculated that there would be a heavy need for household items and for bill-pay assistance since we assumed many of our families would have at least one adult lose their job or be put on furlough. It turned out that the greatest need was focused on household items, technology devices for e-learning, and providing hot prepared meals for our families. Bill-pay assistance came later. When Covid first hit, we didn’t know the capacity our donors may or may not have. But they absolutely blew us away!  We had donors reaching out to us asking how they could help, which led to donations that were above and beyond, before we even knew what we needed.  The generosity and willingness of our donors to step into the unknown with us, allowed us to reach our community beyond what we thought was possible.  We had donors reaching out to us asking how they could help, which led to donations that were above and beyond, before we even knew what we needed. 

The generosity and willingness of our donors to step into the unknown with us, allowed us to reach our community beyond what we thought was possible.

Holly:  As the summer progressed, one of the things you became more invested in was the meal program.  Tell us about how that met the needs of the community as well as the local business owners. 


Trenton:  The meal program evolved into a beautiful thing because it was a win on a variety of levels. Ultimately when all was said and done, we fed just over 6,000 individuals from early May through mid-September. This of course was a massive win for our families in that they enjoyed restaurant quality food relieving both their pocketbooks and demand on their time. Second, we were able to provide a direct cash injection to two local food businesses run by entrepreneurs we know and who also graduated from our partner organization, Sunshine Enterprises Community Business Academy. This cash infusion not only stabilized their businesses during an unprecedented time but also allowed them to rehire employees and in the case of one of the vendors, hire additional staff to meet the demand. The ripple effect this had on the business owner, their family, and the families of the staff they were able to employ truly carried people through some very difficult months. I’m encouraged to see that both have pivoted their businesses to actually capitalize on the new world they’re operating in.


Holly:  What has encouraged you most this year?  


Trenton:  The overarching encouragement is seeing the way people stepped in to help during what has been one of the most challenging years any of us have ever experienced. This includes our staff, our families, our community members, and our supporters. There was not one time when it felt like we, Sunshine, were on an island having to fend for ourselves. The willingness of our donors to learn about our needs and respond as they could was reassuring that we were all going to get through this together. Some helped through volunteering, others through purchasing items, and others by financial gifts. Another encouragement is the opportunity we now have to potentially serve and minister to an entire group of community members that we really didn’t interact with before COVID. In total, we engaged with nearly 1000 households during our relief efforts which is impressive but also so cool to think of how to continue those relationships.

Without our generous donors we wouldn’t have had the chance to serve and minister to our community the way we did in 2020 and certainly not into the future.

Holly:  I know Covid shutdowns have affected many nonprofits financially this year.  How is Sunshine doing? 


Trenton:  Fortunately, Sunshine has weathered the storm of 2020 very well. We find ourselves on a solid financial footing thanks to the relationships built with hundreds of supporters throughout the years. For this I have to give Joel and Paula a ton of credit because without these strong connections built over many years I’m not sure where we would be right now. I’m excited to continue having conversations with and getting to know our supporters. Without our generous donors we wouldn’t have had the chance to serve and minister to our community the way we did in 2020 and certainly not into the future.