Two weeks ago Cara Mazzei started as the museum’s new director of development, and she hit the ground running. At a Tessitura software training session, just days into the job, Mazzei asked pointed questions and spoke fluently in a tech language many museum staff members are still learning after a year of Tessitura sessions.
Around the administration offices, Mazzei, who is originally from Rhode Island, has been darting between offices, making inquiries ranging from membership records to donor identity protocols to web-based donations. “Help me understand this” is one of her go-to phrases, as when asking development associate John Sy about a file of donor receipts, each of which represents a different transactional method. She reads the fine print, and thinks big picture.
Coming from five years as senior development officer at Hawaii Community Foundation, Mazzei is a development veteran, but this is her first time working at a museum. Still, she’s no stranger to HoMA—she has long frequented its cafés, exhibitions, and many ARTafterDARKs. She has been living, working, volunteering, as well as long-distance paddling in Hawai‘i for the past 20 years, but still works at a New Yorker pace—a holdover from her three years at publishing giant Condé Nast in Manhattan.
Mazzei took a break from organizing her new office to answer a few questions about her background and the exciting possibilities at HoMA.
So you have been on the job for a week. What has been your process for transitioning? Is it methodical or by the seat of your pants?
A little bit of both. For me all the nonprofit development software—Raiser’s Edge, Tessitura—I am comfortable with those things because they are fundamental kind of development practices and parts. But in terms of the museum, that’s all new for me, so I am really depending on the generosity of my colleagues here. People have been sharing information with me, whether it’s the communications team, people in the café, the Museum Shop; they all help me and point me the right way.
My biggest fear is leaving and setting the alarm off! I’m used to working late and now I don’t want to be the last one here.
You have been living and working in Hawai‘i for more than 20 years. What brought you from the East Coast to Hawai‘i?
A job in advertising and marketing. My first nonprofit job was working at the YMCA of Honolulu. I was director of communications for the nine branches here on O‘ahu, but I reported to the vice president of development, Monica Grant, and she was fantastic. I supported her efforts and worked with her on a lot of the communication pieces and capital campaign elements, and I think that’s when I started to realize the connection. They really feed off of each other.
Is there something about charitable organizations like the YMCA and the Hawaii Community Foundation, that resonates with you on a philosophical level?
I also worked in the political world for a while, and it was fascinating and I learned a lot, but I realized that I missed mission-driven kind of work, where you’re not tied to the individual’s aspirations and goals, as in politics. It’s more about the mission, and you’re connected in that way. I also like to volunteer for nonprofits, like the YWCA. I think the work that nonprofits do is powerful.
What excites you about working at an art museum?
I have no technical art skill or background at all, but I really have a passion and interest in it. My aunt, who is only 10 years older than me, went to the Rhode Island School of Design, and I used to tag along with her a lot. I was exposed to museums and art through her eyes and her talent, so it’s always been something I have been interested in.
I think art in general is something that, even without having technical skill, connects people, and connects the community. I think the museum really is a game-changer for the community, because it can be there everyone—for children, young professionals, ladies who lunch. It also offers opportunities for visitors to connect in Honolulu who maybe aren’t aware that we have such beautiful art here. And the education component makes the museum accessible for adults that want to supplement what they do beyond their day job, as well as for kids. So it has a lot of levels and ripples in the community, which I think are really powerful when you look at the big picture.
What would you say are the key skills and achievements you bring to the museum?
I think one of the main things is developing really relevant, authentic relationships with the people I work with, and also the donors and prospects. For me, that was one of my biggest accomplishments. It’s being able to work with donors and help them with their philanthropic planning in ways that give them comfort, especially in legacy planning if you’re an individual with no heirs or family. Helping them on this journey, to offer a sense of comfort by letting them know that they’re going to have a plan and be able to support the causes they care about. I enjoy that work, and hope to carry that on here.
What will your initial steps at the museum be?
There’s already a great foundation here, and my goal is to see what I can do to elevate some of the practices and programs—whether it’s through development, donor relations, or for the development team—to the next level.
And you know what class I want to take? You’re going to laugh. Ikebana! I love flowers and all things Japanese.