#NonprofitBookClub: Social Startup Success

By Caylin Haldeman

2019 is off to the races, everyone. How are you doing on your resolutions?

Me? Work in progress. I made the resolution to read more books on things I feel passionate about. I even created a reading list of books that will help me get smarter on topics like affordable housing, notions of “community” and “belonging” and (shocking) nonprofits.

But man, it can be hard to find the time! Josh and I talk all the time about how to stay on top of all of the great thinking coming out of the nonprofit sector – both locally and in other communities. We listen to podcasts (On Life and Meaning, BrandBuilders and the Charlotte Podcast have all featured great local nonprofits lately) and read online publications like SSIR, yet I have been watching as my “to read” stack of nonprofit literature grows taller and taller on my bookshelf.

In late January, hundreds of nonprofits gathered together at Project 658 for SHARE Charlotte’s 2019 Nonprofit Summit. It was a packed day, with two panels featuring local nonprofit, philanthropic and corporate leaders and a keynote address by Kathleen Kelly Janus, social entrepreneur and author of Social Startup Success: How the Best Nonprofits Launch, Scale Up and Make A Difference. Which just so happens to be one of those books in my stack…

I took that as a sign from the universe – “Get to reading, Caylin.”

So, I did. Here’s what I learned, organized by four ideas Kathleen presented during her keynote:

Nonprofits Must Invest in Themselves – This, I would argue, is the crux of the book – and just so happens to be one of Next Stage’s organizing philosophies, too. Too often, organizations are subject to the nonprofit starvation cycle, in which nonprofits underspend and underreport on overhead expenses due to unrealistic funder expectations.

In her book, Kathleen presents five core strategies for nonprofit success: testing ideas, measuring impact, funding experimentation, leading collaboratively and telling compelling stories. Each of these strategies requires deep investment – of time, resources and brand.

Nonprofits Must Harness the Passion of the Next Generation – According to Kathleen’s research, 55% of millennials say that they choose companies to work for because of their commitment to social good. Other research shows that 75% of millennials would even take a pay cut to work for a more socially responsible company. As Next Stage’s resident millennial, I feel like I can vouch for this: the next generation really cares about engaging in social good.

But we are also discerning in how we engage with nonprofits, in a way that diverges from the generations that have preceded us. While donors have zeroed in on evidence and efficiency in recent decades, the next generation has demonstrated an appetite for risk-taking, ambitious vision and bold story-telling. Nonprofits have to shift data collection and analysis, fundraising and communication strategies to meet these changing priorities, testing new strategies to harness the support of next-gen volunteers and donors.

Nonprofits Must Cultivate More Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – This is an unfortunate truth in the nonprofit sector: philanthropy often presents an inherent bias toward a nonprofit’s pedigree of leadership over an authentic representation of the community it serves. And due to the unique nature of the nonprofit structure, the sector tends to organically organize itself around philanthropic demand.

This means that the most successful nonprofits are typically the ones most aligned with this bias – organizations headed by well-connected, well-resourced and credentialed leaders. But in recent years, there has been increasing emphasis on the importance of cultivating diversity, equity and inclusion in the nonprofit sector both from nonprofits themselves and from funders. While this topic was a huge theme of Kathleen’s keynote address, I was disappointed to see that it does not play a central role in her recommendations related to cultivating collective leadership in Social Startup Success.

Donors Must Invest in Nonprofits – Nonprofit leaders have long championed efforts to reframe the way donors understand “overhead” and instead highlight capacity building – not program funding – as the key to unlocking more sustainable nonprofit business models. Frequently, donors will pair an investment with specific, restrictive expectations about its usage and impact. Kathleen calls this “donor entitlement,” and if you’ve spent any time working for a nonprofit, I bet you’ve run into it.

While the tides of donor attitude toward capacity building are slowly changing, many nonprofits develop alternative fundraising strategies to cover operating costs. As Josh explored in a recent article for his Breaking Good column in the Biscuit, Forget “Charity.” Think Like a Business, earned income is an underutilized method of revenue generation for many nonprofits. Kathleen leans into this notion, dedicating two chapters within the theme of funding experimentation to an exploration of how to build successful earned income strategies.

In sum, Social Startup Success was full of well-researched strategies for organizational strengthening, and was a great kick-off for my new monthly series on the Next Stage blog: #NonprofitBookClub. What should I read next?

P.S. I have to give a shout out to our friends at SHARE Charlotte for all that they do to champion local nonprofits – their leadership has done so much to strengthen our community’s supportive infrastructure through the encouragement of philanthropic giving, volunteer engagement and other forms of charitable involvement. Facilitating conversations about topics like the ones presented in Social Startup Success will make all of our work more effective. If your nonprofit has not yet joined their online platform, I encourage you to check it out.

“We Already Have Full-Time Jobs” & Other Lame Things Board Members Say

Next Stage Consulting hits the road this week with two presentations on the same topic – Managing Up: Understanding Board Profiles. I’ll be in Columbia, South Carolina on Thursday 5/14 to present to the AFP Central Carolinas Chapter, and on Friday 5/15 presenting to the AFP Greater Augusta Chapter in Georgia.

Ever heard a nonprofit board member say something like:

“I’d ask him to help but he’s already so busy with work and family…”

“I really don’t know that many people…”

“I’m just not comfortable approaching my customers for financial support…”

Encouraging volunteer board members to engage in development activities is rarely an easy task. Boards are comprised of many different types of volunteers, all motivated differently and with a diversity of resources available to them.

In this session, I will be discussing ways to change the “one size fits all” board fundraising strategies to be more segmented, looking at five classic board member profiles and ways to encourage involvement in donor development activities. This session will include practical suggestions for motivating board members that they can take back to their offices.

It’s a slightly irreverent session for sure that I hope will elicit some laughs as well as thoughtful contemplation. I hope you can make it, and if you have interest in the content, let me know!

Crowdfunding Backlash: Reading Rainbow

So, did you hear LeVar Burton raised a whole bunch of money on Kickstarter last week to relaunch Reading Rainbow?

The original goal was to raise $1 million in just over a month, with donations used to expand the Reading Rainbow app Burton has already developed (he bought the rights in 2009) into a web-based destination. In less than a day, the project reached its initial goal amount. The campaign has raised more than $3.2 million and climbing.

If you’re famous and can leverage nostalgia, crowdfunding can be very lucrative, but not without some criticism. The Veronica Mars Kickstarter Campaign raised $5.7 million for a movie based on the television show, and Zach Braff built upon affinity for his first film with a $3.1 million campaign to finance his new film. Both efforts were roundly denounced in the media, with Kickstarter’s founders forced to go on record with their reasoning.

Which brings us to Reading Rainbow. Despite a tremendous outpouring of support from donors and largely positive media notices, there was this from The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey:

Crowdfunding is theoretically supposed to bolster charities, start-ups, independent artists, small-business owners  and other projects that actually need the financial support of the masses to succeed. It’s not supposed to be co-opted by companies with profit motives and private investors of their own…”

As someone who has dedicated his life to helping nonprofits, a part of me understands this criticism. But I’ve come to accept that the world is changing, that technology has created a way to connect people with projects they want to see happen, and they aren’t digging up 990s on Guidestar to make their decisions. More than 72,000 people have supported the Reading Rainbow project, and despite sour grapes from the traditional press, folks are wearing their support like a badge of honor on social media.

Rather than see this as a challenge to the charitable sector, I suggest nonprofits study it and look to replicate it themselves. So what are the ingredients to a really good Kickstarter campaign?

  • Name Recognition: Millions have been generated for Reading Rainbow because many remember it as children.  If your nonprofit doesn’t evoke similar nostalgia or recognition, try securing a spokesperson who does. Bringing a recognizable face to your crowdfunding project helps it get early traction and shares on social media.
  • Marketing: A common mistake is to launch a crowdfunding campaign too early, assuming the site itself will market your campaign. In reality, a crowdfunding campaign is just like any other fundraising campaign – it needs a solid marketing plan to support it. Social and traditional media coupled with person-to-person outreach lights the spark of awareness that helps get the campaign off the ground, and can give it a boost if it lags.
  • Personal Requests: The dream of every fundraiser is that their message will hit a tipping point, and the dollars will start pouring in from people who are completely new to the organization. But the reality is that a base of support is needed first, and that is most likely to come from friends of friends. Your organization’s stakeholders have to be willing to leverage their networks to get that first 10-25% of support. 
  • Rewards: Those who support a crowdfunded campaign are typically different than your annual fund donors. They are more likely to skew younger, are impulsive in their investment, and are definitely wooed by perks. LeVar Burton offered donors of $10,000 or more the opportunity to wear his famous Star Trek visor (so far no takers), but that benefit has been reported by nearly every reporter who has covered the story. What can your organization offer that might get you some ink?

In the future, we are likely to support artists, writers, directors, musicians and yes, corporations by voting with our credit cards at the R&D stage, mitigating the risk of new ventures. For now, the morality police are keeping the space clear for the little guys – don’t let this opportunity pass you by!

Cultivation: Step Two to Stronger Grant Submissions

In the second entry in the firm’s five part series on creating stronger grant submissions, Next Stage Consulting explores the do’s and don’ts of grantmaker cultivation, investigating what works and what doesn’t, and how to walk the fine line between forthright and pushy.

No Matter What, Don’t Break Her Heart

“Am I on a blind date?”

The thought occurred to me as I was handed a glass of wine by the daughter of a trustee of my organization’s largest foundation donor. Perhaps it was in the way she handed it to me, or the way her family was watching us out of the corner of their eyes, but it suddenly occurred to me that I was sweating profusely.

I had accepted the invitation to the private party with excitement – a chance to spend time at an intimate party seemed like a great opportunity for donor cultivation.  I had come to know the family fairly well and I truly enjoyed their company. This was also a chance to meet other members of the extended family, who I learned had their own donor advised funds as well. I’d arrived fashionably late only to find myself the lone non-family member . It wasn’t long until my Spidey sense began to tingle.

On the surface, it made good sense. I was single at the time, and the young lady was perfectly lovely. But rather than “just go with it,” the advice I received from my colleagues later on, I felt the weight of an ethical quandary – what if this turns into something romantic only to end sourly? Am I risking my organization’s relationship with this very important donor? Further, what if I am completely reading this the wrong way and I end up offending her?

The stress was too much to bear – I politely thanked my hosts and exited stage right at the first available moment, very likely offending everyone in the process anyway.

“I Just Sent Grant Requests to 27 Foundations”

One of the biggest misconceptions about grant development is that it is all about writing grant proposals, developing tomes of wordy material and sending it off to people you’ve never met who will pass judgment on the merits of your mission. The fact is, sending in the grant proposal or application is typically the last step in a much longer process that begins with identification and leads to cultivation. If you fill out grant applications and send them in unannounced to a laundry list of potential donors, success is very unlikely.

Unlike communication, which is typically one-way directional, cultivation is two-way directional. Sending newsletters and other material to a prospective donor is not cultivation – it’s communication. For real cultivation to take place, two or more people need to be speaking to each other either by phone, written communication via mail or e-mail, or face-to-face.

The tricky part of grantmaker cultivation is that each funder has different rules of engagement. Some do not want you to contact them at all, while others require a letter of inquiry be submitted before first voice contact.  Some will follow you on your social media and save every newsletter you send, while others throw away any correspondence that appears to be marketing in nature. Some want to be very hands on, while others prefer to be slightly aloof.

In this way, it is hard to create hard and fast rules. Still, after years of doing this work, it is clear there are some unwritten rules of the road that are universal in nature.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Grantmaker Cultivation

  • DO follow the rules on the grantmaker’s website regarding the process for communication and requests. If it states that you shouldn’t call or contact staff, be sure to follow that advice!
  • DON’T miss an opportunity to leverage a personal relationship with a stakeholder or gatekeeper, even if the public communication discourages direct contact. But before you do anything, do some digging to make sure that it won’t damage your relationship with the staff of the funder.
  • DO invite the staff and trustees of prospective grant sources to tour your facility, meet your staff and volunteers, and learn more about the impact of your organization’s mission.
  • DON’T put a grantmaker who doesn’t know you on a mailing list to receive every invitation and piece of marketing material you will produce in the next year – it is more likely to injure than help your potential relationship.
  • DO attend public seminars hosted by grantmakers to provide insight into the application process, but be sure to sit near the front of the room so when it is over you are close enough to be first in line to ask follow-up questions.
  • DON’T raise your hand and ask very technical questions that apply only to your organization in a room full of your peers – it wastes everyone’s time, and makes a poor impression on the staff of the grantmaker.
  • DO remain vigilant in your pursuit of a meeting or phone discussion, particularly with the staff of a grantmaking institution. These are often extremely busy people who need to be reminded several times, and may even acknowledge your persistence positively.
  • DON’T make a nuisance of yourself, hectoring the staff of a grantmaker where the mission isn’t a very good fit anyways. It is a fine line, and while it is important to push, tact is incredibly important.
  • DO engage gatekeepers and decision makers should you see them informally out in the world. They are people, just like you, and a friendly hello with a brief conversation to follow is acceptable.
  • DON’T stalk someone, follow them to the parking garage, or otherwise create an awkward scenario where you ask repeatedly for a determination on your recent grant submission. This may seem obvious, but I’ve heard some real horror stories.
  • DO accept invitations to meet informally with the staff and trustees of grantmakers, have a glass of wine (one glass only!) and engage in conversation about topics that have nothing to do with your organization. Relationships with grantmakers are not much different than other types of donors – they are people and they have lives. Be more than a walking grant proposal.
  • DON’T break anyone’s heart, or otherwise compromise your organization’s current or prospective relationship with a grantmaker. Your organization is likely to exist for a long time after you are no longer around, and job one is to leave it stronger than it was when you started.

At some point, I’ll share my tips for sitting shiva with the trustees of your other most important foundation grantmaker. But for now, please check out #GrantChat on Twitter at Noon EST on Tuesday April 29, when I will serve as guest for a lively discussion of this very topic of grantmaker cultivation!

Too Risk-Adverse To Fail (Nonprofit Edition)

by Josh Jacobson

“Eight out of 10 businesses fail. Are you sure you want to do this?”

Not exactly the sort of thing you want to hear when you’re contemplating launching a new business.  Now almost three months into my own new consulting venture (76 days to be exact, but who’s counting?), the knowledge that it is far more likely that Next Stage Consulting will fail than succeed is actually a tremendous motivator.  I’m a guy who likes to know my odds, long as they may be.

upsideAs a rule, no one sets out to fail, but a new book suggests that falling on your face may not be as bad as one might think. In her book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, author Megan McArdle suggests that failing, and even being encouraged to fail, is a critical component of future success.  In fact, McArdle suggests that what sets America apart is an underlying tolerance for failure, with a lenient bankruptcy policy that allows for forgiveness and growth.

For everyone but the nonprofit sector, that is.  In a country that prizes entrepreneurs as champions of innovation and change that in turn drives our economy, Americans are reluctant to give the same leeway to community-serving nonprofits.

If “failure is how businesses learn,” as McArdle suggests, what does it mean that we refuse to let our social good organizations take similar risks?

A few causes of risk-aversion are below, and thankfully, the news isn’t all bad:

  • Over-Reliance on Government Support
    As noted seven years ago in a study by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “government is by far the most important source of funding for the high-growth nonprofits in our study.” The Urban Institute reported that “in 2009, governments contracted with human service nonprofits for over $100-billion worth of contracts and grants. For organizations with government contracts and grants, government funding amounts to 65 percent of total revenue.”

While there is no doubt that government sources of support are critical to sustainability for many nonprofits, the increased accountability standards and outcome measurements expected post-Recession effectively overwhelm nonprofits, swallowing up the time and energy of leaders.  It is a system badly in needed of reform.

There are some signs that governments are thinking outside the box.  Depending on whom you ask, Social Impact Bonds may be some of the most important/exciting/unexpected tools created to inspire new ways of tackling social issues. By encouraging private investment, Social Impact Bonds create a market where one did not exist previously and keeps the focus where it should be – on rewarding positive outcomes.

  • Vilification of Overhead
    By now, I hope you’ve had a chance to watch Dan Pallotta’s game-changing TED talk about the double standard that penalizes nonprofits for how much they spend on supposedly non-mission serving expenses. The dreaded 15% overhead ratio expectation, which states that no more than 15% of a nonprofit’s budget should be spent on administrative costs, is a huge drag.  It is an expectation utterly unique in the business world – no other industry is held to such a standard, laughable in for-profit enterprise, and hardly the expectation of our own government.  And yet it is something that continually comes up in conversation with would-be donors to local nonprofit clients, as if such costs were evil and to be largely avoided.

Thankfully, there is a move afoot to refocus donors on demonstrated success over fiscal conservatism.  In an unprecedented move, the leadership of Guidestar, Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau released a joint statement in 2013 denouncing the overhead ratio as imprecise and inaccurate.  Further, the trio acknowledged that “organizations that build robust infrastructure—which includes sturdy information technology systems, financial systems, skills training, fundraising processes, and other essential overhead—are more likely to succeed than those that do not.”

I mean, duh, right? But the fact remains that as long as organizations feel squeezed by their donors to demonstrate extreme frugality, the likelihood of nonprofits embracing risk-taking opportunities remains low.  Accountability standards like these were meant to protect us from fraud, but have also taken all the wind out of the sails of social entrepreneurs.

  • Reluctant Volunteer Boards
    I am personally a big fan of local leaders who believe so strongly in a nonprofit’s mission that they are willing to take on a role that pays nothing and yet is likely to take up a big chunk of their time.  As a board member of the Charlotte Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, I know from experience.  Volunteer board members are mostly deserving our praise.

Note that I said mostly.  That’s because the system of serving as a board member for a nonprofit is wholly different from serving in the same role for a for-profit corporation.  Without a profit motive, nonprofit board members are identified based on their own passion and interest in the cause.  And that isn’t always so reliable.  “Let’s all remember that we already have full-time jobs,” is typically not the preface to a board member signing-up for risk-taking opportunities.

For some volunteer leaders, it is enough to simply steward the nonprofit to ensure no crises arise on their watch.  When it comes time to consider high-risk, high-reward opportunities to advance mission, some board members use a different set of priorities in assessment than the population that organization is called to serve.  Not all, but some. Thankfully, board training has never been more plentiful, and offerings like the Arts & Science Council’s Cultural Leadership Training Program are helping nonprofits secure volunteer leaders who understand their roles well.

McArdle suggests that the key failing well is to recognize mistakes early enough to allow one to channel setbacks into future success.  But if we never let our nonprofits have that same opportunity, we’re apt to see the entire system fail as organizations cling to doing things the way they’ve always done them.  

Three Questions to Consider This Week:

  1. What do you consider your biggest professional failure?  What did you learn from it?
  2. If you’re a manager, do you encourage your employees to take risks?  If so, how do you handle potential failures?
  3. What is the one thing you wish your organization or department would try that leadership has been reluctant to embrace?  How might you mitigate the negative impacts of failing?

Image credits: Featured Image (123RF – tomwang), Book (goodreads.com)

Spring Forward? No Thanks, I’m Good.

by Josh Jacobson

Ah, daylight saving time. That inane tradition Americans are told to blindly follow and the purpose for which no one can quite explain.  For everyone except those in Arizona and Hawaii, that is.  I’m not a huge fan of Arizona’s lawmakers these days, but I’m on board with their anti-DST stance.  This appears to be something that could go away forever, and few outside of owners of golf courses and amusement parks would complain. Spring forward, indeed.

No one likes losing an hour, especially on the weekend.  The busier you are, the more it seems like you’re losing an hour every week, whenever traffic is bad or a meeting goes long.  You look up and it’s 3pm.  Where did the day go?  Time is truly the only resource that is absolutely fixed.

CalendarIt took me a while to figure it out, but one of the most important activities I engage in each day is the management of my time.  I may own my own business, but I obey the big boss – my Outlook calendar.  That is a snapshot of my calendar to the right, with color coded entries and a special system of symbols that are meaningful to only me. It is a security blanket like no other, and my best accountability system.  Nothing that gets added to the calendar can be deleted, only moved forward until I get it done. It’s a rule.

I believe a well-established computerized system of time tracking is extraordinarily important, and something every nonprofit development department should mandate for all employees.  There are a number of good reasons:

  • Getting it Right the First Time – Be committed to never making scheduling errors.  No double-booking, or forgetting that after-work beer with colleagues, or neglecting an important donor’s birthday or anniversary.  With a system of time management, you are far less likely to embarrass yourself.  We could stop right now, as that’s important enough.  No collection of post-its and hand-written planners can hope to compete with a cloud-based calendaring system.
  • Assessing Return On Investment (ROI) – How long does it take you to perform various tasks? It is a question I often ask of employees in development departments and find that they are not quite sure.  Everything that happens in a development department can and should be tied directly to revenue-generating activity.  Calculating ROI is important when considering how to do more with less, increase revenue without adding expense, or double-down on a strategy that is working well.
  • Integrating New Processes – At times, I feel like I am in the business of figuring out how to help nonprofit professionals add to their plates.  For many, the fact remains that they must squeeze more into an already hectic week, and the only way to do that is to set weekly calendar goals.  When I know it will be a challenge to get to a new activity, I will create an anchor in my calendar – an activity that cannot be moved and must be completed no matter what. As a function of willpower, a calendar can be a best friend.

The term “accountability” has gotten a bum rap, taking on a negative connotation it doesn’t deserve.  A synonym of accountability is responsibility, something we all take on as nonprofit professionals, not only to our supervisors, but to the people who fund our nonprofits with their charitable support.  We owe it to our donors to be as effective and efficient as possible, and I know of no better way to do that than through effective time management.

I hate to keep this short, but I lost an hour this weekend and I’m a bit behind.

Three Questions to Consider This Week:

  1. Does your organization have an established system of time management? Is it optional? Why or why not?
  2. If you do utilize a system of time management, how often do you export data and analyze it?  What might you look for toward effectiveness and efficiency?
  3. How would you cluster your daily activities into four or five categories? If you needed to expand your focus on one, where might you look to trim?

Ten Things Every Early Career Fundraiser Should Know

by Josh Jacobson

Early in my career as a development professional, I must have made hundreds of mistakes. Some were fairly minor, others somewhat more substantial, and some… well, let’s not go stirring up things better left in the past, shall we?

I certainly learned from my mistakes, but that is just the sort of revisionist thinking you tell yourself in retrospect.  In truth, I wish I hadn’t made most of those mistakes.  Looking back, I wish I could have had a heart-to-heart conversation with my older self, to have been counseled by a wiser, more centered version of me.  I may have been too pig-headed to take advice from anyone else back then, but I’d like to think I would have been able to get through to… well, myself.

If I did, the following is a list of things I would have told that wet-behind-the-ears go-getter I once was, in no particular order:

  • 10548684_sRead the Newspaper – Daily newspaper reading was not something that resonated with me in the early days.  And if I did pick up a newspaper (or log on to the newspaper’s website), I was probably looking up sports scores or the movie theater listings.  It took a while for me to realize that the newspaper was the single greatest prospecting tool available to me, providing a wealth of insight into my local donor base.

Beyond being a great platform for research, it also made me a more intuitive thinker, allowing me to make connections between seemingly unrelated items I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do.  And if nothing else, it is vital for donor relations – if subjects come up in conversation and it is assumed you read the day’s front page news or an important Op-Ed, the embarrassment of not being in the know is something you’ll want to remedy.

  • Follow the Stock Market – I remember it like it was yesterday, calling a prospective family foundation donor to discuss making a gift the day after the market had taken a huge drop.  There are few things more mortifying than to have a longtime donor chastise you for being unaware of the current financial environment, hanging up the phone in your ear.

I’ve found that fundraising professionals are often former liberal arts majors, and as such may not have as firm of a grasp on the intricacies of financial management.  But that is hardly an excuse for not paying attention to the stock market and timing your solicitations accordingly.  Further, if you work with a number of foundations, I suggest modeling the holdings of your top five or six foundations based on their 990 filings.

  • Know Thy Sector – It stands to reason that not every fundraiser is an expert on the organization and its mission when the position is accepted, but most immediately become students of that nonprofit’s programs and finances.  It is difficult to raise money for something you don’t understand well.

So, too, should a fundraiser study the broader sector in which the nonprofit operates.  What differentiates your programming from another organization’s offerings?  How are you complementary to each other? Your donors are likely supportive of other nonprofits in your sector and will expect you to have a working understanding of how they all fit together.

  • Know Other Sectors, Too – When I worked in theatre development in New York City, I spoke with my funders about plays and playwrights roughly half of the time.  The other 50% I was expected to understand what was happening with the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and a whole host of other cultural and non-cultural topics. Had I been to MOMA in Queens? Did I have an opinion of whether the museum had an obligation to the neighborhood to maintain a Queens presence after so many businesses had opened due to its temporary relocation? Speaking of borough revitalization, what were my thoughts on creating an Industrial Business Zone in Long Island City? And so on…

Really successful fundraisers are typically those who are plugged in to what is happening everywhere, and donors gravitate to them as much for their sense of connectedness as their knowledge of the nonprofit they serve.  Someone told me once in passing that studying the recreational options of Jackson Hole, Wyoming would make me a better conversationalist with donors who had vacation homes there.  And it was true.

  • 12143436_sScrub Your Online Profile – Having conducted a number of development searches both as a staff member of nonprofits and as a consultant, I can tell you that young professionals are foolish when it comes to social media. If you are actively seeking a job, posting pictures of a keg stand on your publicly-accessible Twitter account is not wise.

It seems teenagers growing up today are smarter than the bubble of young people who graduated college in the 1990s and early 2000s and began using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media as adults.  Perhaps children today better understand the legacy of poor choices as captured forever on the Internet, the way things can haunt you for years.   I continue to encounter individuals who must have never googled themselves, or assume that no one is smart enough to enter their name into a search engine.

That DUI mugshot of you from college that shows up on the first page of Google?  You should probably try to do something about that (if you can).  Because it may not be that your future employer wants to penalize you for your prior mistakes, but more likely that they fear a donor finding that information and having it tarnish the brand of your nonprofit.  Your personal brand is just as important.  

  • Get Rid of Your Bumper Stickers – Speaking of personal brand, it’s probably time that you ditched the 10+ bumper stickers on the back of your car.  The word play of “visualize whirled peas” coupled with the emphatic advocacy of “drink craft beer, dammit” is probably not the statement you want to be making.  That said, this advice is less about the content of those messages and more about presenting yourself professionally.

It may be controversial, but the one rule I would make about content relates to political bumper stickers – avoid them, particularly if you are a major gift officer who meets donors off-site and uses that car to transport yourself.  One of the great things about fundraising for nonprofits is how it brings together both sides of the political aisle.  As a representative of your organization, your job is to be a conduit of philanthropy for people of all political beliefs.

  • Stop Your Road Rage – Do you drive fast, honking your horn at people who get in your way?  Do you gesticulate with various fingers, yell at people as if they can hear you, and turn to scowl at the person as you pass?

Imagine passing that person and realizing it is your single biggest donor. Your eyes meet. You know she saw you, and a look of disappointment crosses her eyes in that split second.  And look at that, you were speeding to a stoplight, and pulling up next to you is the person you have spent countless hours creating strategy to approach for a sizable, multi-year gift. How will you explain the situation to your organization’s board chair?

  • 7823729_sStick to One Glass of Wine – Depending on your nonprofit, this may not be a big deal.  However, some fundraisers may find themselves in situations where the imbibing of alcohol on the job is not only accepted, but encouraged.  At your organization’s gala, or grand opening, or donor cultivation event, or even just the company Christmas party, one should always drink in moderation.

I suggest sticking to one glass of wine, and more or less carrying that glass around all night long if you have to.  This is the one rule I’ve broken too many times, and find I regret having broken it the morning after.

  • Be a VolunteerSome very early advice I did receive was that I should get out of my sector and feed my soul through other interests.  It may be difficult for you to find volunteer opportunities in your own sector that don’t feel somehow like spying, but engaging in unrelated nonprofit sectors is encouraged. 

If you need a selfish reason to volunteer for another nonprofit, consider it a study of best practices – a chance to learn other techniques and meet new people.  But mainly you should volunteer because it feels good, and can renew your inner self as the pressure of deadlines increase your stress level.

  • Find a Mentor – If you’re lucky, your future mentor may be in the office down the hall.  I was fortunate to have someone like Amy Crane during my time at the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, who thought enough to provide counsel and encouragement to a 20-something who was badly in need of both.  

But for many early-career professionals I’ve met during my time as Chair of the AFP-Charlotte Mentoring Committee, an in-office mentor is not to be found.  Organizations like AFP make formal mentoring opportunities available, and I believe everyone can benefit from it.  However seeking informal mentors is a skill worth developing.  I would tell the younger version of myself that it is okay to admit that I don’t know everything, and that there is much to learn from others who have been down this road before me.

Stuff that just missed the list: Don’t date a co-worker, don’t then break up with that co-worker and have it get weird, never ask if someone is expecting, fully understand your organization’s audited financials, buy Girl Scout cookies from the Executive Director’s daughter, use an office-appropriate ringtone on your cell phone, don’t crack jokes that are in questionable taste, use mouthwash, stop biting your nails, keep your very impressive rapping skills to yourself, lock up your valuables, start contributing to your 403B as soon as possible, and remember birthdays and anniversaries.

Are there items that I missed? Add them below in the comment section!

Image Credits: Featured Image (123RF – Visions Of America), Newspaper (123RF – Noppasin Kortungsap), Facebook ((123RF – Igor Kovalchuk), Wine Glass (123RF – chr1)

“They Have a Basketball Court?” – Red Ventures & How Data Can Transform Nonprofits

By Josh Jacobson

Though it has been in business since 2000, I hadn’t heard of Red Ventures until just a few years ago.  And even then, what I knew was somewhat fuzzy.

Most folks talk about the amazing headquarters located in Fort Mill, South Carolina – a striking 150,000 sq. ft. campus complete with a full-length basketball court and its own on-site restaurant, perfect for a beer on Friday company-endorsed happy hours.  People I know who have been there talk about the stunning array of flat screens everywhere you look, with real-time streaming data concerning client activity.

If that sounds a bit like the playground-style offices of tech start-ups of Silicon Valley in the 1990s, you probably aren’t far off.  It is clear Red Ventures has defined its brand and created a work culture with a great deal of intention – to attract talent, project success, and increase client acquisition.  I can only assume this, but it would certainly make sense – Red Ventures is in the business of demand generation and sales conversion.

I say I’m a bit fuzzy about what they do because it is largely a big secret.  The company doesn’t say much about the clients it serves, but the word on the street is that they are involved with many Fortune 500 companies, with a defined focus on home services, energy, media, telecomm and insurance.  If their building is the first thing people mention, their process is typically the second thing, and little is known about it either.  Their website provides a fairly high-level explanation of the typical sales funnel.  But what they do is different. Or so I’ve heard.  “They will go head-to-head with the sales department of a reluctant client prospect and beat their numbers by a multiple factor,” a colleague told me once. “They’ve got it figured out.”

So, what is “it” exactly?  And how can nonprofit organizations learn from what this company does?  While much of it remains a mystery, two differentiating factors are clearly evident:

  • People – The Right People in the Right RolesInterview
    Red Ventures is a growing company – a really growing company.  Earlier this month, they held an interview day with the intent to add 200 additional employees in 2014.  And that’s on top of its nearly 2,000 current employees.  If you go to their website, the front page is basically a giant classified ad with various positions that need to be filled yesterday.

If you’re an employee at Red Ventures, it means you made it through what is called by Business Insider one of the top-20 most difficult interview processes in corporate America.  I’ve heard it said that, despite the need for so many new employees, the company hires a staggeringly low number of the people who interview.  It seems they know what they are looking for, and don’t accept “close enough.”

From the comments on various employment seeking websites like Glassdoor.com, it appears the company is looking for characteristics and traits that don’t show up on someone’s resume.  “Tell me a joke,” a recruiter asked an applicant for a sales position, for example.  Applicants who don’t get invited back note feeling disoriented and perplexed by the experience, and angry that the interview didn’t follow a predictable format.  Perhaps that’s the whole point.

While nonprofits may not be able to offer the salary or perks afforded employees at Red Ventures (though I hear the YMCA has a great basketball court), they can certainly learn from this process.  The company wants people who can think on their feet, who have a task-oriented skill set matched with a capacity for critical thinking.  They are looking for people who will thrive in the workplace environment they have created.  Like everything about Red Ventures, it’s all very intentional.

For under-resourced nonprofits, the need to find dynamic development staff members who can get results is even more critical.  I’ve argued in the past that there are typically two types of development professionals – those who crave getting out of the office and engaging in donor interaction, and those who prefer to develop messaging strategies and computer-based awareness from within their offices.  Few are experts at both.  At Red Ventures, there are entire departments constructed of both types of people.

While they are both important needs for a nonprofit, too often they are traits (left-brain oriented and right-brain oriented) expected to be found in just one person – the Director of Development – who typically has too little time and too many distractions to do any of it effectively.  Now, I’m not saying organizations should go out and hire additional development staff – I mean, they are likely needed, but most nonprofits don’t have the budget to do that.  But what I am saying is that you should have a good idea of the type of person who will be effective given your organization’s culture, and find the right person to match your strategies – not the other way around.

  • Data – At the Heart of Every Decision & StrategySpreadsheets
    When I close my eyes and imagine meetings at Red Ventures, I picture employees with their sleeves rolled up, pouring over spreadsheets and having heated (though still professional) discussions about data analysis.  Because they are passionate and it’s how they are wired. “But what does it mean? And how can we use it?”

In truth, I’m a pretty big data wonk.  Or at least I aspire to be.  Where most people see the increasing loss of privacy as we opt-in to social media and search engine tracking, I admit that I get pretty excited. The idea that we could model preferences and behavior, and apply that understanding on a large scale?  Yea, that’s pretty game changing stuff.

Red Ventures puts it so well on their website, I won’t even try to paraphrase: “Data drives our decisions – and we build tools that give us unique, actionable insights. We scrutinize response, conversion and economics at every level to continuously boost ROI.”

Put a bit less techie, the company seeks to understand a client’s customer base and what motivates it to act, refines sales strategies through real-time analysis, and once the company is satisfied it has a sales systems that works, it models the current customer base and seeks other people with the same characteristics.  But that doesn’t happen just once – it is a system that continues to inform itself with fresh data, modifying tactics as new variables become known.

Re-reading that last paragraph, I get goosebumps.  Why can’t nonprofits do this too?  It’s a question that has led to some really interesting discussion with Chris Meade, CEO of Catapault InfoSolutions, who has thought a lot about the subject.  In fact, much of this post is informed by his ideas.

A primary challenge is simply the lack of data collected by most nonprofits.  A large percentage of donor databases in the Carolinas are tracking just one thing – financial transactions.  So if we want to understand how an individual became a donor, like who referred them initially or what the person read that motivated them to act, many donor databases don’t shed much light on the subject.

That shouldn’t be a surprise.  What nonprofit has a Chief Information Officer or prioritizes data accumulation for both programming and marketing?  Whereas Red Ventures understands the importance data holds for making decisions, nonprofits typically relegate data management to the most junior person on the development team.  That person is rarely invited to the table or present in the meeting, and so that important data goes un-captured.  A centerpiece of my Data Flow presentation is the need to elevate the process to encourage a “culture of data.”

The other big barrier for nonprofits is a financial one – though data is cheaper to purchase than ever before, it is still more expensive than most nonprofits can afford.  And because many nonprofits have a basic misunderstanding of how direct marketing leads to donor dollars, the ROI on any activity is calculated on a one-to-one basis. “We tried direct mail once, but the response rate was poor so we didn’t do it again.”

After retention (a topic for another day), donor acquisition is the most important metric any nonprofit should track.  And to dispel a popular myth, your board of directors is an important part of lead generation, but should not be your only source of prospects. Through donor modeling and message testing, segmented outreach can be very effective at motivating people who don’t know you to become educated, encouraging those who know you to give charitably and driving people who already give to give more.

Did I really just spend 1,500 words saying that successful fundraising comes down to talented people using data to inform strategies that move people to act?  Yep, I sure did.  And while that may seem a fairly obvious thing, so simple it isn’t worth spending so many words to say it, I can promise you it is a fundraising success model too few nonprofits understand or resource effectively.

Three Questions to Consider This Week:

  1. What are three traits you believe are necessary for an employee to be successful at your nonprofit?  How do you interview applicants to determine the right fit?
  2. Left-brained or right-brained – so which one are you? How do you compensate for the “other half” to ensure you cover all the bases?
  3. How does data inform your organization’s fundraising strategies?  If you could collect one additional piece of data about everyone in your database, what would it be? How would you use it?

Image Credits: Featured Image (Red Ventures Website), Interview (123RF – vgstudio), Spreadsheet (123RF – David Hilcher)

Prospecting: Step One to Stronger Grant Submissions

The lure of grantsmanship is the intoxicating concept that your nonprofit can secure outsized investment by simply applying for it. Too many think of it like submitting a credit card application; based solely on the merits of your organization’s mission and impact, the grantmaking source will prioritize your project and reward it with a big check with many zeroes.

The fact is, this isn’t how it works. Grantmaking sources receive hundreds, if not thousands of submissions every year. The movement toward online submission processes has made it relatively easy for 501c3 organizations to submit applications and grantmakers are deluged with requests, many of which do not match giving guidelines. The likelihood that your proposal is carefully reviewed is relatively low given the number of applications that must be processed.

So what does this mean? Should you give up on the hope for grant funding? Of course not. But it does mean that you should do your homework and focus your energy on sources that are more likely to fund you. In Next Stage Consulting’s first installment in its five-part series, I’ll talk about prospecting for grantmaking sources.

Identifying Sources
It is an oft-asked question – “isn’t there a website where one can seek grant opportunities?”

The answer is “yes and no.” There are certainly websites, but they are rarely free. Some of the best sources are The Foundation Center and FoundationSearch, both of which offer access to searchable foundation profiles for a fee. My personal favorite is FoundationSearch, which is run by Metasoft, a Canadian company that operates as a for-profit business. The Foundation Center has a very good product as well, Foundation Directory Online, but I’ve found Metasoft does a good job of staying one step ahead of the competition.

In some communities, you may find that your local library provides access to foundation software. For example, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library provides access to The Foundation Center at its Main Library branch and six satellite branches.

These are fairly comprehensive resources, but you might find that not all corporate sources of support are profiled. Some companies may have a community relations team that provides gifts and sponsorships, but do not operate under a 501c3. Still other foundations operate under the umbrella of your local community foundation, and do not report directly to the IRS.

To identify these and other sources, search engines like Google can be the best bet. Search for queries using your mission focus, geographic region and words like “gift,” “grant,” “allocation” and “award.” You may also want to look at the websites of organization similar to yours and seek out online annual reports that might give you an idea of sources you have not yet uncovered. If you are familiar with the IRS form 990, set up a free login with Guidestar.

Types of Sources
Grantmakers are likely to fall into one of three categories:

  • Corporate Foundations/Corporate Outreach – Some companies develop a separate 501c3 foundation to operate as a channel for grant making. These are typically large companies that want to separate gift making from sponsorships, where they are likely to receive sponsor recognition in return. Most companies do not have a foundation, though they may also allocate gifts to support causes. Corporate foundations will often have a designated contact along with a board of directors. Companies without a foundation will designate a Director of Corporate Communications, External Relations, or Corporate Outreach to be the initial contact. In both cases, internal contacts at high levels of the company have the ability to introduce projects for support, and overlap with sponsorship efforts are common.
  • Process Foundations – Foundations where the founder is no longer the sole decision maker are more likely to operate with a very defined process. A gatekeeper is apt to be defined (either an Executive Director or Foundation Director), and the foundation’s board of directors are each involved in determining which organizations receive support. These foundations are attractive because they seem to be cut-and-dry regarding the application process. However, many factors contribute to whether your organization will receive support, and relationships are key to success.
  • Family Foundations – Though they are formed as 501c3 entities, soliciting family foundations is often akin to soliciting an individual – there is typically no defined process for applying for support, and the decision is made by a single or handful of individuals who are related. Relationships are the single most important factor to receiving support, either through direct interaction with foundation directors or gatekeepers connected to decision makers.

Determining Likelihood of Support
Like most forms of fundraising, successful grant seeking typically boils down to three motivations:

  • Mission-Suitability – This seems obvious, but grant makers usually tell you what they want to support. This information can be found online, but you might have to look of the foundation’s Form 990 to figure out where they tend to allocate funding. However, not all missions are created equal. Knowing that a foundation supports education programming is useful, but it is also important to figure out whether there is a preference for direct service or systemic change, or if there is a geographic focus to grantmaking. Even when an organization’s mission is very appropriate, the foundation may already be supporting an organization with a similar profile, and may choose not to duplicate support.
  • New/Latent Relationships – As indicated throughout this post, relationships are singularly important – an organization must understand the importance outreach plays in securing grant support. These may be relationship that already exist, as in a board member who is friendly with a member of the foundation’s staff or board. Or is may be a relationship that does not yet exist, and requires intentional outreach by your organization’s leadership to establish connection. The first stop is typically a program officer or lead contact – it is perfectly acceptable to seek a meeting to discuss programming. Board members may also be successful at connecting with other decision-makers, particularly important in influencing corporate giving.
  • Self Interest – It may be not be obvious, but self interest is a very important factor. For family foundations, recognition opportunities play prominently, particularly in capital asks. In corporate giving, while it may not be considered pure sponsorship, the recognition plan for a charitable gift should be described in detail.

What Next?
In the next installment, Josh will review the process of cultivating gatekeepers and decision makers. To make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe to the blog!

Five Steps to Stronger Grant Submissions

Nothing seems to make development professionals groan more with frustration than staring down the barrel of a massive grant submission. Fundraisers in small development shops must find ways to balance relationship-building with “computer work” that may include multiple grant proposal submissions. In larger shops, one staff member may be in charge of managing the grant calendar, but is often working in a vacuum of well-worn narratives.

In early 2014, the Next Stage Consulting Blog will feature a grant writing series – “Five Steps to Stronger Grant Submissions” – focused on improving your chances of grant-seeking success. Over the next few months, Josh will share tips on the following topics:

To make sure you don’t miss any of the series, please consider signing up for the Next Stage Consulting blog. Enter your e-mail address in subscription box to the right – we promise not to bombard your inbox!