Jennifer Beirne: Transitioning from Theatre to Non-profits



Jennifer Beirne, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’89, is currently the chief development officer for New York Cares.


Jennifer Beirne, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’89, is currently the chief development officer for New York Cares, a non-profit organization that helps New Yorkers find volunteer opportunities across all five boroughs. In her position, she is responsible for raising money for the organization by planning events and working with donors — a job that still allows her to enjoy one of her passions: theatre.

Beirne came to FCLC as a theatre major who had a passion for working behind the scenes, working on light design and running the light board for productions. Sitting down to talk with Beirne about her time at Fordham, it is clear that she has found a career that still allows her to use her creative side while helping raise funds for those in need. Looking back on her days as a Fordham theater student, Beirne shared some of her favorite memories as a college student and how her Fordham education has helped her with her career to this day.

Why did you choose Fordham College at Lincoln Center for your bachelor’s degree?

I wasn’t really exactly sure where I was going to go to college after high school. I had done some theater in high school and that’s probably what I was going to major in, but I wasn’t particularly driven one direction for college. My mother went to the college of New Rochelle and when she was there she had acted in some productions at the Rose Hill campus with the Mimes and the Mummers, I don’t know if that’s still a thing. So, she knew about Fordham and she knew that they had a campus at Lincoln Center, so really, she just sort of — I lived in Manhattan on the Upper East Side — so she hopped on the crosstown bus and got an application and I filled it out and I got in. So, it was a little bit of a happy accident.

Before college was theatre an important part of your life? Was that something that you were really passionate about?

I was. I had been — I went to Stuyvesant which wasn’t really an art school at all. It’s really math and science. I spent a lot of time when I was there working in the theater program — it was an after-school program — working on sets. I was always a backstage person. When I got to Fordham what I probably wanted to do was technical theater. There wasn’t, I don’t know if there is now, there wasn’t really a technical theater major. But, I started out with a 101-stagecraft class and really enjoyed it and the person who taught it at the time was the technical director, Jeff Richardson, and he was wonderful so that’s what really made me stay in the theater program.

What were your thoughts on Fordham’s overall approach to education? They like to use the term “Cura Personalis” which means care for the whole person, where they encourage you to take all kinds of classes no matter what your major is or concentration. Did you enjoy that?

I actually thought that was great. I enjoyed all the classes I took outside of the theatre program as much as I enjoyed the ones I took within the theatre program. I took some fascinating classes in media, I took a really interesting philosophy class, I took some really great film classes. So, I really liked that I was able to take classes in a lot of different areas. For me I don’t think that a conservatory approach would have been right, I know it is for some people, but I prefer having a more well-rounded education. And I think it served me well.

What was your overall experience in the theatre program?

It was really overall wonderful experience. The technical theatre program was quite small. There were really only three of us at the time who were, you know, quote unquote majoring in technical theater. So, we got to do everything. We ran every show in Pope Auditorium and in the studio theatre, I was the lighting person, so, the first thing that I did at Fordham was run the light board for a production when I was a freshman and then maybe by second semester of freshman year, Jeff put me on electrics. So, I had a ton of responsibility and I ran load-ins and strikes and trained people on running the lighting board. So, I was there all the time you know 24 hours a day when I wasn’t in class. It was a great experience. I made incredible friends and Jeff was an incredible teacher and mentor to me. We also had Gary Dart who was in charge of sets and costumes and he was wonderful, and we also had the experience of bringing in lots of outside people to either direct shows, or in some cases we had professional actors in some of our shows, and obviously teaching as well — we had alumni come back and teach. So, I think being in the city as a theater major — there’s no better way to do it.

Is there a production that sticks out in your memory — one that was your favorite or a good experience?

I suppose one of the more formative ones for me was the production of “King Lear.” It was probably my junior year. It was just an enormous production, we really blew it out. And that was one of the ones where we had a professional actor come in to play Lear I believe. It was all hands, a cast of thousands and very technically challenging. I thought that we did it well, so, that one sticks out. My very first one where I ran the lighting board, that was just, you know, a sort of an interesting experience. I got to meet the older kids, which was sort of interesting too. “Happy End” was the name of my first show, a musical.

You said that you enjoyed your academic classes just as much as your theater classes? What classes, overall stuck out to you?

We took a class called Ethical Issues in the Media. It was taught by Brian Dembo, who had been a producer at CBS News. It was such a great class and he brought in Andy Rooney who had been
a contributor at 60 Minutes, it was so, so interesting. I got to learn about news and journalism. It has certainly changed over the years, but to reflect back on it even now on what I learned in that class and how so many media outlets don’t have any ethics to speak of the way he was taught. He had worked with Edward Murrow — he was just such a fascinating person. So, that was a class that really stuck out for me.

So, when you graduated Fordham, did you have an idea of where you were going to go next?

I didn’t know exactly but I did wind up going over to Juilliard. I had worked there a couple of summers as well while I was at Fordham and I wound up going to work there. I was an assistant in the production department. My first job after Fordham was at Juilliard and I think that I knew I wasn’t going to be a lighting designer, but I thought that I wanted to stay in the performing arts and they gave me a view into what the arts and administration side was like.

You went from working at Juilliard to working at the Metropolitan Opera House. What made you make the switch?

I thought that I wanted to try development. So I had taken a couple of classes in that for a while. I was getting my degree and I thought that might be a direction that I wanted to go. It was interesting. The professor that I had at NYU was quite interesting and I noticed when I was working at Juilliard I used to get Art Search at my desk and that was like the art sort of job magazine and there were always jobs and development every time like there were thousands of them. So, I wound up going to the Met and finished my degree at the Met.

You transitioned from theater to event management and you are currently working now for a non-profit. How did you make that transition?

When I was working at City Lights, I was doing fundraising, and we had a special event that we were working on and we had an event firm help us do the event. It sort of reminded me of theater really. A special event is sort of like putting on a show. And I was interested in that and I thought that it could marry the theater part of me, you know the production part with the fundraising part. So, I had a friend —  two friends from high school and we were all theater majors and I said I think you know, I think we could probably do these events for nonprofits. So, we started a business and we decided that that’s what we were going do and I did that for 13 years. So, we grew the business just, you know, through word-of-mouth and different connections that we each had throughout our lives. One of our events came through Juilliard, each of us has kind of brought different people and then you know you grow sort of organically that way. We would do maybe eight to 10 large scale galas each year. It was exciting, and I never worked harder and then after about a dozen or so years I decided I wanted to go back to straight up developing and leave consulting behind.

You now work for the non-profit New York Cares. Tell me about your current position. What does it entail?

I just became chief development officer here about six months ago. I was hired a year ago as director of individual giving and special events and then I moved up into this role rather quickly. So, we are about an $8 million organization and we basically mobilize New Yorkers into volunteer service throughout all five boroughs all 365 days a year. Everything from parks revitalization to working with seniors and students and working with people who are homeless. It really runs the whole gamut.

What advice would you give to Fordham Theatre student’s today?

I would say you should take every opportunity that comes your way. And don’t say no to anything, try everything, take advantage. I think in general college is what you make of it no matter where you go. And if you’re lucky enough to go to a school like Fordham in the city of New York, take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way.

This interview has been condensed and edited.