I was coaching an enthusiastic and talented client who is at the beginning of her nonprofit career. Given her passion around several issues, she asked if it was better to work for an existing nonprofit or start her own. I couldn’t help but take off my coaching hat and speak from the heart.
I shared that when I launched Teens Run Yonkers (TRY) it felt like a once in a lifetime moment where my work, passions and interest in serving diverged perfectly. I was running in the Philadelphia Marathon in 2008, saw firsthand the impact of Students Run Philly Style (www.studentsrunphilly.org) and was inspired to replicate their program in Yonkers NY, my hometown at the time.
That “entrepreneurial spark” seemed to occur in a singular moment following the marathon. In reality, it was the next step on an accidental but meaningful journey. My nonprofit career began as a funnel with the simple intention to “do good stuff”. My first stop was launching a fundraising operation for a nursing home. From there, my experiences enabled me to narrow my focus to work supporting young people with a special interest in their health. Not a big surprise here as I was born with a congenital heart defect and often questioned my potential.
Just a few years prior to starting “TRY”, I participated in a transformative program called Leadership Westchester. During this nine-month program, I spent time with twenty other leaders understanding our own mission, vision and values while being introduced to the many services in our community. I came away understanding the many opportunities to serve and how I wanted to do so.
Part of the program was doing a service project. Working in partnership with an organization where I served on the board, we created a local model of YouthBuild, a national program that helps young people change their lives through education and training. Unfortunately, our proposed program didn’t receive the funding to launch. While It was frustrating, I now had a taste of what it felt like to create something new with the potential to have a positive impact. Around the same time, I had developed a passion for distance running. Running became “my thing” and I never tired of sharing the joys of it with others.
I probably couldn’t have intentionally created the path I just described. Yet the series of actions and events contain steps worth following in pursuit of creating something entrepreneurial. You can’t force that Entrepreneurial Spark but you can do things to Nurture it. Here’s what I suggest:
Wikipedia describes a Creative Spark as a small but noticeable and desirable quality or feeling. If you really want to find that spark, make sure you are forever nurturing its potential
The challenge of the coronavirus grows daily and continues to be very much top of mind. We’ve awakened to a conversation about race and equality that is way past due and sorely needed. With these challenges becoming our daily reality, we sometimes need to seek out special opportunities for gratitude, positivity and forward thinking. One way I do this - in fact, one of the true joys of working side by side with nonprofit leaders - is to enter their world of possibility, optimism and creativity. At a time when some in the nonprofit sector struggle to see beyond the current moment, I wanted to highlight these inspiring leaders and skills we might want to cultivate:
Scaling the Smart Way - Starting Small and Learning Big: When I met Peggy Welch about a year ago, she was incredibly motivated to launch her new nonprofit Justified Ministries. Peggy had plenty of ideas and passion for having a positive impact on women who were leaving prison. After developing her focus, she’s been able to hone down her programming to her best offerings. She’s launching her operation with a simplified yet powerful model where she and her team will work closely with a cohort of four women and build from there. Peggy has also started to raise the funds necessary to support this approach. Equally important, it allows Justified Ministries to be a learning organization, perfecting its’ model before scaling up.
Adaptability - Making the Most of the Current Environment: Billy Coleman, Matt Benford and Barry Tonge head up the leadership team at Today’s Youth Matter (TYM) a youth development ministry that provides year-round services in West Contra Costa, CA. As I highlighted in another post, the team did a fantastic job of transforming their annual fundraising walk into an engaging and inspiring virtual event. Next on their agenda is reimagining TYM Summer Camp, their signature program, into a virtual experience for kids. Given their commitment to providing a holistic transformational experience, the team moved quickly to meet the new reality and is hard at work creating an engaging online experience for the nearly 200 young men and women they serve through this impactful program.
Creative Leadership - Building Connections and Community - As an adult with congenital heart disease, the work of the Adult Congenital Heart Association is extremely important to me. The ACHA is committed to improving and extending the lives of folks like me through education, advocacy and research. Beyond the high quality programming however, what’s stood out to me during the last four months is the dedication of Aliza Marlin, one of their national board members. Since the beginning of April, Aliza has been creating and sending a weekly calendar of virtual events that volunteers like me can participate in and connect with others. This includes ACHA Cafe, Yoga Classes which she leads, a Trivia Night (I’m really bad at these!) and so much more. She has provided true leadership in building a connected community through these events, a true gift during this time of separation.
I hope the stories above provide you with inspiration of the possibilities that are there for us even in difficult times like these.
This past Saturday, I had a wonderful experience at a nonprofit’s fundraising walk. The kickoff was a great opportunity to learn about the nonprofit. We were introduced to the leadership team when they provided their background and told us what role they played at the organization. Then we heard from the Executive Director who shared a bit of history and clearly articulated the mission and vision of the nonprofit. Once the intro was done, we learned about the details of the walk, the day’s activities and options available. Finally, one of the children who has participated in the nonprofit’s programs led us in a warm-up including jumping jacks, mountain climbers and sit ups (it was tough!). And then we were off
Does the above sound like the beginning of the typical charity walk that’s become the anchor event of so many nonprofits? Having spent much of this past decade doing these walks, as well as bike and run events for charities, I would say so. In fact, I’ve just described what went on at Walk For Their Future, the 10th Anniversary of the fundraiser done in support of Today’s Youth Matter (www.tymkids.org) This year’s very appropriate theme was Moving Forward and like most of the fundraising events taking place, it was moved from a live to a virtual event. Yet despite the miles and distance, I truly felt a part of something very special.
As a very committed runner, I’ve done several virtual 5K’s and half marathons as substitutes for the live races on my spring schedule due to the coronavirus. It’s been a nice way to support charities I care about and add extra incentive as I do my solo runs. Yet, I have to admit that I’ve been quietly skeptical about the ability for nonprofits to create an impactful experience that provide participants with a sense of community when moving their events from live to a virtual platform. This past Saturday, I was pleasantly pleased to see how wrong I was!
I wanted to share several best practices based on my experience with Today’s Youth Matter (TYM). And in the interest of full disclosure, I am a fan of TYM as I provide grant writing services for them. If you’re in the process of moving your event from live to virtual, I hope the following can help you create the best possible experience for your volunteers, fundraisers and donors:
And most importantly….
While there are other key components to crafting an engaging virtual experience, these are some building blocks that will create a strong foundation for success.
It started when the same ad kept coming up in my Facebook feed after I became a certified coach. A self-described master coach continuously invited me (and many others I’m sure) to her free seminar. She offered participants the “secrets to client acquisition success using sales techniques she learned closing customers while selling mops at a big box retailer.” And no, I’m not kidding! This was the culmination of my fascination - or perhaps call it what it is - my Love to Hate relationship with the myriad of gimmicks and tools aimed at professional coaches. They dangle magical and oh so top-secret shortcuts as an alternative to offering real service as the key to creating value as a coach.
But I don’t want to single out this individual coach. The truth is you could spend endless hours (and $$) plowing through get rich quick books, seminars, and workshops geared towards making success seem like something you can grab for three installments of $39.99 (or fill in some ridiculous price). As long as you ACT NOW!!
Don’t get me wrong. There are many fantastic individuals out there offering very real support in helping individuals like me develop their coaching and consulting practices. In fact, I’m incredibly grateful to be working with several of them such as my wonderful mentor-coach Angela Cusack of Igniting Success. I’m also thrilled to be joining Melissa Ford for her Game-Film group coaching program. Melissa’s book Living Service: The Journey Of A Prosperous Coach has been an absolute game-changer for me in the way I approach creating clients.
As an aside, this experience takes me back to my early days in the nonprofit industry when I was getting my start in fundraising. I was bombarded with invitations to programs that would teach me how to be a better fundraiser, craft the perfect ask and opportunities to mingle with other fundraisers. I have absolutely nothing against learning and networking. Yet, I wasn’t quite clear how I was going to become a better fundraiser without spending the bulk of my time well, fundraising!
Here’s my point: Whether you’re a coach, consultant or fundraiser - or pretty much anything else, You’ve Got To Do The Work. Yes, it’s worth capitalizing. No matter what you do, there will always be someone - or several someones - telling you there’s an easy way to do it. There will always be distractions from the real essence of what you do. But remember: reading and talking about coaching isn’t coaching. You become a better coach by coaching. Similarly, learning about and networking with those who fundraise isn’t fundraising.
As for me, the only way I know how to do this is the following (spoiler alert: a lot of this is crazy obvious but still worth staying)
As I’ve been coaching leaders during the coronavirus crisis and observing others, I’ve noticed that they tend to fall into one of three categories in terms of their response to the times:
It won’t surprise you that I’m a huge fan of #2 and love #3 even more! The reason I love doing what I do is that I’m always amazed and inspired by the leaders I work with. In fact, I thought I’d make this week’s an opportunity to inspire others by highlighting the actions and approaches I’ve noticed among the amazing leaders I work with over the past two months:
I hope these quick stories serve as reminders that the work of you and your organization is important. That was true before this crisis, even more critical while we’re in the midst of it and still will be when it’s over. If I can help you and your organization navigate through these challenging times and plan for better ones ahead, please contact me at email@example.com
As a coach and consultant to nonprofits and their leaders, this unique moment has resulted in my having a recurring conversation with my clients. We’re living in a time of fear and it's apparent in these discussions. Many of the leaders, staff, and volunteers of nonprofits are finding themselves paralyzed and wondering:
While there’s no perfect or “correct” answer to these questions, I believe charities and their leadership will respond based on their shared values and what they deem most appropriate.
As for me, my response has been the following:
Nothing Has Changed while Everything Has Changed
For clarification, nothing (about your mission and vision) has changed while everything (about the world we’re operating in) has changed - at least for the near term. I believe our actions should be driven by that reality. My response is formed by personal experience and perspective.
I started my nonprofit career a week before September 11, 2001. I was living in New York City and life there was an endless reflection of the grim events the world had witnessed. If you worked for a nonprofit that wasn’t saving lives or caring for those involved in the rescue efforts, it was a struggle to feel relevant. It was even harder to feel like it was appropriate to ask for support for your work. At the time, I was a volunteer fundraiser for a nonprofit doing wonderful work for children in hospitals. I truly believed the organization’s work was important at that very moment and would be once life resumed with some sense of normalcy. I felt compelled to ask for donations even in the midst of this challenging environment.
I’ve also been thinking about conversations I’ve had with volunteer fundraisers hesitant to reach out to donors year after year for a campaign or event like a walk. These volunteers feel the need to “leave the donor alone for a year or two” thinking the donor is tired of giving - and hearing from them. Personally, if I was giving to (for example) heart disease research, year after year and then I stopped being asked, I’d be a little curious... Did they find a cure? Did the fundraiser stop caring? What’s up? If it was important last year and the year before that, it still is unless something has changed about the cause.
Here’s my major point: If you believe in the work of your organization, continue to believe in it, advocate for it and fundraise for it! The need for what you do hasn’t changed, only the environment in which you work has. You may need to make modifications to be respectful of what individuals and families are going through. However, I believe you’ll be well served by taking a proactive approach to communicating with your constituency and stating the need for support. Here are a few guidelines for doing so effectively:
I can’t guarantee that doing the above won’t result in the occasional grumble or unsubscribe. But if your work was worthy of donor support before we knew about the coronavirus, unless something’s changed about your mission, it still is. I believe that by continuing to communicate your presence and need for support, you’ll be better positioned once we find ourselves in that new normal.
If I can be of assistance in crafting your approach, I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org
For the long holiday weekend, my wife and I went back to her hometown. As is our longstanding arrangement, she was doing the driving (everyone is happier that way!) I wasn't sure where we were headed and to my surprise, we pulled up to a newly built animal shelter. I knew another pet for our household was off the table so I asked why we were here. My wife explained that we had donated to the building. An old friend of hers had been a member of the campaign leadership team that drove the fundraising to build the shelter. She was eager to see how everything turned out.
As we stepped out of our car, I sensed some hesitancy on her part. "Do you think we'll be allowed to take a look around?" she asked. Her question seemed surprising to me. I couldn't imagine a reason why we as donors wouldn't be welcome to see how our support was being used. I am happy to share that we stepped in and were warmly greeted by a team of friendly volunteers. We spent the better part of an hour touring and visiting pets that were treated with dignity and compassion.
This got me thinking back on my experiences with donor visits or what I often refer to as Show and Tell. I've worked with several organizations - particularly in major gifts and institutional fundraising roles - where donor visits, tours and learning opportunities were an assumed part of the cultivation strategy. At the same time, I realized that too often individuals that didn't meet a predetermined threshold were rarely - if ever - encouraged to get an upfront look at how their donations were being put to work. This is a missed opportunity on the part of the charity.
While not every nonprofit may not be able to provide donors with opportunities to see, connect or even talk to those who benefit, if yours does, take full advantage of it. Here are some suggestions for a good start:
Make donors aware they can visit: Sounds obvious doesn't it? But using our case as an example, we didn't know that we were 100% welcome and were concerned that we'd be interrupting the work. As it turned out, there were volunteers that were more than willing to provide guidance. Remember, this is your chance to shine! Be sure you're getting the word out that your volunteers, prospective donors and donors are welcome and encouraged to see your mission in action. Make it part of your messaging on your collateral, social media and every part of your communication.
Make sure the visit has a specific structure: Ensure that your organization has a set structure for encouraging donor interaction and engagement when visiting. Involve your volunteers, staff and (if appropriate) clients in designing a tour that introduces visitors to the core elements of your mission, best practices and most importantly, the impact of your work.
Make the visit inspiring: In a recent post, I noted the "Johnny Can't Read" approach to introducing donors to the work of a charity. This is the classic tug-on-the-heartstrings approach and I'm not a fan. You show the children that can't read, the family without a home or food on the table, the isolated at-risk teen...you get the point. Do the opposite! Use your visit to highlight the impact your donors have made possible through their donation. Show them the children that now can read, the family that has a home and food on the table and the teens that are the first to graduate and go to college in their families. Tell them stories of Inspiration - not tragedy.
Make the visit actionable (with a range of options): You've had a great visit, your donors are enthusiastic and inspired. Now what? Be sure donor visits conclude with a specific and timely call to action or better yet, several options for action. Sure a donation is fantastic but there are other ways your donor might want to get further involved. Maybe your organization has a need for in-kind contributions or services. Let donors know that these are welcome. Encourage donors to volunteer or even consider board service. Think beyond dollars.
If your donor has taken the time to visit, you're already doing something right. Use the visit to educate, inspire and move them on to an even deeper level of connection with your organization. .
A few months ago I wrote a piece called Three B’s To Focus on Now That You’ve Got Your 501(c)-(3). It was focused on three components nonprofit leaders should concentrate on once they are legally launched. I suggested focusing on building their Brand, Budget and Board. I noted that getting these pieces right create the foundation for thriving nonprofit organizations.
There was a reason I started with Branding as that first B. There might be a few marketing professionals that will take issue with how I’m utilizing the concept of Brand and the activity of Branding here. Nevertheless, for ease of reference (Three B’s are easy to remember) and as a way to capture the big picture, identifying a nonprofit’s Brand stays true to form.
Chances are you’re familiar with some of the more well known nonprofit brands - their logos as well as what they stand for. A bit over two years ago, The Nonprofit Times published Consumers Pick Top Nonprofit Brands. The list included names such as The American Red Cross, ASPCA, Special Olympics and St. Judes Hospital. The survey was driven by asking consumers what they thought of the charity and whether they wanted to interact with it.
Larger and well-established nonprofits tend to have the resources to work with sophisticated marketing agencies that can respond to these questions. And I’m fully aligned with with Dan Pallotta and the Charity Defense Council in their assessment that this is money wisely spent. Nonprofits should commit a portion of their resources to marketing and building brand recognition: it’s critical to their ability to fundraise. Since I tend to work with newer and growing nonprofits, I wanted to offer a few suggestions for developing a nonprofit brand that will create ongoing trust and relationships with the communities they interact with:
Focusing on these three practices might not be as cool and snazzy as a new logo. They will however, help your organization build trust, recognition and support enjoyed by the best.
If you need help or guidance on the above, please reach out at email@example.com or (917)733-8569.
Exercise and fundraising.
What do these activities have in common? At first glance, very little.
But they take on a special meaning for a client of mine named Thea Wood, founder and President of Backstage Chats Foundation, a wonderful organization doing transformative work around music and gender equality. She groups them together as the activities she tackles first thing in the morning before moving on to the work that inspires her, drives her and what she’s most passionate about: amplifying the voices of women in music — both the entertainers as well as the industry itself.
If you’re a leader for a small or a newer organization, taking a regimented approach to your fundraising
efforts (much like daily exercise) can be invaluable.
For example, blocking out an hour of your day for person-to-person fundraising activities can be transformational.
There’s an important distinction here: I’m not talking about fundraising-related activities, i.e. writing grants, managing social media, etc. While these are important activities, they don’t involve the definitive work of development: cultivating relationships and sharing your mission with others. Rather, this hour is dedicated to true one-on-one fundraising work with real people and where you’re speaking as opposed to emailing or texting. To get started:
This is an invaluable practice to start now. The cool thing is that by the time you’re starting to find high-quality prospects, you’ll be getting good, comfortable and articulate. The only difference would be that you may have a shorter transition from the lesser-quality to the higher-quality prospects.
And much like exercise, it gets easier over time.
Give it a try, in just an hour a day!
“Because we have to chase him. Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now, so we'll hunt him. Because he can take it, because he's not a hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a Dark Knight.”
From “The Dark Knight”
Maybe you’re wondering what this confusing yet oddly memorable quote from the Dark Knight has to do with Board Development for nonprofits. Actually a lot. When you set aside all the hero and chase stuff and focus on the idea of needing vs. deserving, it’s quite simple and relevant… Just like Gotham City in 2008, too often charities start with the board of directors they need at that moment. Yet, they now find themselves without the strong and effective one their admirable work deserves.
I was reminded of this recently when I was working with several new charities on maximizing the effectiveness of their board. All were in the startup to growth phase and speaking with them, I identified three consistent trends:
These characteristics for new boards may be all too familiar to you. To make matters more difficult, founders of these organizations are often reluctant to ask these new members to step up or step off. This is understandable since often these members are part of their inner circle.
Let’s face it – starting a nonprofit is hard enough. It requires extraordinary commitment, passion and perhaps above all, perseverance (popularly known as Grit). So, don’t go it alone. Here are three suggestions to organizations that find themselves in this place:
If you build it, they will come...We’ve gone from Batman to Field of Dreams! If you need some help on this, feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or 917-733-8569.
Robert Grabel is the President of Nonprofit Now! You can find his posts here and at www.robertgrabel.com
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