Cornerstone: Alumnus Ties Nonprofit Impact Back to Foundational UCF Experience

Dan Samuels ’08 would have told you himself when he started to get his business degree at UCF that he didn’t have a clue what he was going to do with it.

But it was in that business major at UCF that Dan found step one toward a 12-years-and-counting career in nonprofit fundraising and a recent position as the new Director of Philanthropy at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.

How did Dan go from a fair-weather business major to a passionate non-profit professional?

During Dan’s junior year, he took a class within the College of Business called Cornerstone. Essentially this program connected students with a nonprofit to help them raise funds or complete a project and then the students gave presentations and wrote papers based on the work they were doing with that nonprofit. It was a learning opportunity unlike anything else Dan had encountered thus far in his schooling.

“That Cornerstone class was a pivotal moment for me,” Dan starts. “It was my first hands-on experience at a nonprofit and it made me realize that that’s what I wanted to be doing. I remember walking out of the Student Union one day, calling my dad, and saying ‘I know what I want to do for a living – I want to go raise money for a nonprofit.’ And his response, which gets me every time, was ‘it’s about damn time you figured that out. I’ve known it for years.’”

Dan began to connect the dots between everything he had done in high school and college and realized it was all philanthropic. He was the high schooler throwing walkathons and carnivals to raise money for his temple. He was the college student who ran Knight-Thon for two years. He was the 4EVER KNIGHT that quickly became a 4EVER Knight Ambassador. And during that Cornerstone class, Dan worked alongside Boys Town, a residential-based program for children facing turmoil such as abuse or neglect, and helped the organization facilitate the building of an onsite basketball court. After that experience, and that eye-opening conversation with his father, Dan stuck with a general business major but added a nonprofit certificate (which is all that existed at the time).

“That Cornerstone project led to an internship at Boys Town for two years,” Dan says. “It provided a paid internship, hands-on experience and work in an actual nonprofit. I absolutely credit that work to getting my first career-job. If you take it all the way back, a class at UCF helped me define my career path and led me to an internship that gave me the hands-on experience that got me my first job. I can tie every step since back to UCF.”

Dan went from Boys Town to Devereux, a similar nonprofit that serves at-risk children. He was there for seven years, starting at the bottom of the totem pole and working his way up to the Director of Development. From there, he got a call from a friend who was the Executive Director of an on-campus nonprofit called Central Florida Hillel. His friend mentioned he was looking for somebody to handle fundraising and wanted to see if Dan knew of anyone. The phone call lasted about 30 minutes and ended with Dan’s friend saying, “Let me know who you think of, even if that person is staring you back in the mirror.”

That undercover recruitment-call led to three years for Dan as the Director of Development for Hillel, an organization that helps to create community for Jewish students on UCF’s campus.

“It’s a phenomenal organization,” Dan says. “It’s definitely something that I still support and something that I really believe in, but I saw an incredible opportunity here and I couldn’t turn it down. I jumped on it.”

“Here” is Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, where Dan currently serves as the Director of Philanthropy. For Dan, deciding to join the team at Second Harvest was two-fold: what the organization means for the community and what the organization could mean for his career.

“On a bigger picture, I couldn’t imagine being hungry,” Dan says. “I’ve never had to want for food. And since being here, that’s really hit home for me. You realize how many of us are just one car accident or major medical incident away from needing help. And then, on a personal note, the decision had a lot to do with what I wanted to accomplish in my career. Over the years, I’ve built a skill set and here I can really focus my skill set on something I want to be a part of.”

Dan is now a part of the collection, storage and distribution of donated food to over 550 feeding partners throughout Central Florida. The food Second Harvest provides goes to food pantries, soup kitchens, women’s shelters, senior centers, day care centers and Kid Cafes. It goes to partner programs throughout our community who know their population and can make an impact through the food Second Harvest provides. This type of partnership is one of the things that appealed to Dan about the organization.

“Part of what we do is feed the masses and part of what we do is change the system,” Dan says. “But that’s only possible when the community works together. Nonprofits build better communities. They make the community a stronger place by helping to solve problems the community can’t solve on its own.”

It doesn’t take long to pick up on the enthusiasm Dan feels about not only each nonprofit he’s worked for in his career, but nonprofits in general. That enthusiasm wasn’t only born at UCF, it was fostered there. Dan had the opportunities, through things like Knight-Thon and Cornerstone, to develop his passions and skills into a career that impacts the entire Central Florida community.

“My experiences at UCF built my resume,” Dan says. “But UCF also made me a more well-rounded person. I really feel like myself there. I became more comfortable with who I was. The experiences were great for my career, but also college at UCF was just great for me as a person.”

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