Sometimes people go after their chosen careers and, as Erin Tunnicliffe, senior vice president for institutional advancement at Berklee College of Music and Norwich resident of 20 years, knows, “sometimes career choices come to you.”

In Tunnicliffe’s case, the career that found her is fundraising for Berklee College of Music, where she works with her colleagues to identify philanthropic opportunities for the school, build compelling cases for support, and help the team of fundraisers connect to the donor community. Tunnicliffe helps the school raise funds that enable direct support for students such as the Thrive retention scholarship that sustains student support throughout schooling or the K-12 community program “We Have City Music” in Boston.

While Tunnicliffe never dreamed of ending up in philanthropy, she can see what may have lead her to success in this field. “I always wrote my thank you notes,” Tunnicliffe recalls with a laugh, “If I go back in time and think about what prepared me as a kid, my mom instilled in me that after any gift you say thank you.” Tunnicliffe’s parents were both public school educators and although she was raised in a family of relatively modest means, she says, her parents were extremely generous with what they did have and that had an impact on her.

Tunnicliffe on her first day touring the Shames Family Scoring Stage board in a new studio at Berklee

The path that brought her to development has been a circuitous one. Tunnicliffe worked as a strategy consultant in marketing after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and obtaining her MBA from the Tuck School of Business. While she found the people with whom she worked compelling, the day-in-day-out of what she was doing wasn’t a phenomenal fit.

Working out of Boston at the time, Tunnicliffe often visited the Upper Valley, interviewing students at Dartmouth for her firm. “I found myself wanting to come back to the Upper Valley; something took when I was here,” she recalls. So when she was offered a position in the career office at Tuck, she took the job. Tunnicliffe remembers her hesitation considering how much she’d invested her education into a consulting career but was compelled by the thought of helping students find their path.

Tunnicliffe felt ready for a change again several years later when the Dean asked her to assist with a capital campaign. She had never considered fundraising, but the Dean had confidence in her based on her knowledge of Tuck and the relationships she had built running the career office. “I trusted him and took the leap. Oftentimes career choices kind of come to you, and there is this sense of, ‘What is the downside? If I try this, what might I learn?”

“Sometimes these opportunities are put in front of you. Sometimes people are really planful and they have their sights set on something and other people, when something comes up, they know when to act.” 

This mindset came into play again after Tunnicliffe concluded her career with Tuck and was running her own advisory business. She was receiving a lot of attention from search firms, and one particularly thoughtful scout caught her interest. He had a gig for Tunnicliffe with Berklee, which needed an interim to fill a vacancy while a new role was crafted. Not only did Tunnicliffe say yes to taking on the interim position, Berklee ultimately offered her the role: “I had learned enough about Berklee and the role to say yes.”

“Berklee itself is just wildly compelling,” Tunnicliffe says, “It’s just such a special place.” Tunnicliffe first knew the school by reputation. CODA, a film deeply connected to Berklee both in plot and behind the scenes with music and production contributions from students and alumni, had recently won best picture; Tunnicliffe felt particularly connected to the film as her father was a hearing child of deaf adults. She soon learned there was even more to appreciate about Berklee beyond this. “My screen for working for another institution was that it had to be excellent at whatever it did, and Berklee certainly is.” She adds, “It also needed to have a commitment to inclusiveness and access.” Berklee, she felt, provided that access as an institution serving a broad population where students are accepted on their ability: “It is young people who have raw talent.”

At Berklee, Tunnicliffe is again able to help young people find and follow their pathways, “Berklee allows young people who have a passion to connect it to their education and to a career aspiration, from tech to production to performance. It enables young people to see a path and get some guidance.”

Tunnicliffe’s passion for Berklee is intertwined with her love for music. While not much of a musician herself – “I say I have a perfect voice for singing alone in a car,” she jokes – she has a deep appreciation of music that stems from having musicians in the family, such as a stepmother who was an elementary school music teacher.  Tunnicliffe grew up taking lessons in piano and flute – “the required childhood stuff,” she laughs, but now takes on the role of the superfan.

Being immersed in this musical environment very much has its perks. In Tunnicliffe’s first week in the role as SVP, Berklee gave Ringo Starr an honorary degree. Tunnicliffe was just a few strides away from Starr as he spoke and hopped on the drum set to give an impromptu performance of his music.

Joni Mitchell (wearing the “Dr. Joni” beret) and Erin Tunnicliffe
Joni Mitchell (wearing the “Dr. Joni” beret) and Erin Tunnicliffe

Even cooler than that, Tunnicliffe says, was the event at a little house party in Los Angeles where Berklee gave an honorary degree to Joni Mitchell, one of Tunnicliffe’s personal heroes. The event highlighted Berklee’s Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice; students and alumni performed jazz renditions of Joni’s music. “Joni was just so appreciative,” Tunnicliffe recalls, “She said, well I wish my parents could see this,’ and it was really sweet. People show such reverence so that was really special.”

This was early in Tunnicliffe’s tenure so she gives all accolades to her team. The one contribution for which she takes credit is the personalized beret – a signature accessory of Joni’s – gifted to the songwriter. Rolling Stone picked up the beret story and Tunnicliffe jokes that “she was basically in Rolling Stone.”

Beyond the encounters with iconoclast musicians, Tunnicliffe finds one of the best parts of the job the amazing talent of the students whom she supports. She calls out a student group, The Wildmans, who perform American roots music on banjo, fiddle, and guitar. The group recently won the bluegrass “FreshGrass” festival at MASS MoCA. They also performed at a recent board meeting. “This is like no other board meeting,” Tunnicliffe recalls thinking.

“It’s almost silly how many moments I get just in the course of work,” Tunnicliffe says, “We don’t gather without music.”

The Wildmans, she notes, are scholarship recipients, and make her incredibly proud of the work she does. “This is the difference between their being here and not.”

One stipulation of taking on the role at Berklee was that Tunnicliffe was not going to move away from the Upper Valley full-time; she spends a few days down in Boston most weeks. “It lets me be me,” she says of Norwich, “This is my home, and it makes me who I am.” An active runner, hiker, and yoga practitioner, Tunnicliffe and her husband embrace all our area has to offer. “It’s a place that is so innately home to me.”

Tunnicliffe and her husband are very active and often found on bike rides

People often suppose that anyone in fundraising has to be an extrovert, Tunnicliffe muses, but as an introvert, she loves the quiet that Norwich provides so she can come home and be with her family. “It restores me and lets me be able to be out in the world. And,” she adds, “it makes be really efficient when I’m in Boston so I can get everything done and get home!”

Tunnicliffe sees her work as a privilege to help connect people with opportunities for giving that can make a real difference. “It’s not sales, it’s generosity,” Tunnicliffe says, “If I can help people activate that state of being generous and doing something that they care about deeply, well that’s terrific.”

Tunnicliffe has an enormous amount of reverence for the act of philanthropy: “We can all think about a time that we’ve been helpful to someone, and that’s a really beautiful thing. That was the real hook for me.”