The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 4

Boards, Grants, Fundraising and Storytelling in Times of Crisis with Marian Stern

In this Episode:

Boris talks to Marian Stern, Principle of Projects in Philanthropy, who shares how nonprofits are impacted and advice on how to pivot during COVID to create your budget, reach out to donors, share your message and stay true to your mission while creating new funding needs.

Listen to this Episode

Boris Kievsky 0:04
Welcome to the nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video broadcast and Podcast, where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more heroes for their cause and a better world. Dading!

Everybody and welcome to Episode Four of the nonprofit Hero Factory. I’m really excited to have my friend and occasional collaborator Marian stern on the show today. Marian is a consultant, a former professor at the NYU School of philanthropy. She provides services to nonprofits around fundraising, strategic planning, Board Governance and development. She also advises foundations on grant making. We’re going to talk to her a bit about that today and specifically in terms of the response to COVID-19 And how nonprofits are reacting, how foundations are reacting. I don’t want to delay any further because there’s so much I’d really like to talk to her about. So without any further ado, let’s get Marian onto the show.

Marian Stern 1:13
Hi Boris!

Boris Kievsky 1:14
Hi, Marian, how are you today?

Marian Stern 1:16
Good. Good. Thank you and you.

Boris Kievsky 1:18
I am doing all right. All things considered doing great. So, thank you so much. First of all, for coming on the show. I’m really excited to have you here. You and I have worked on a few projects together at this point. And I honestly always learn a lot from you. So I’m really happy to bring you on the show and help more people learn a lot from you. If you don’t mind, tell me a little bit since I’m so focused on storytelling. Tell me a little bit of your story, Marian?

Marian Stern 1:47
Oh, sure. Sure. Well, certainly I’ve been in this business for decades, both as a grant maker way back several decades ago and then owning my own firm which is called Projects and pholampathy. I work with public charities. as you indicated in the intro, I do a lot of fundraising planning, I like to work on strategy, etc. Recently during COVID my work has has changed a bit and has also accelerated. A lot of nonprofits. Initially were very concerned about events that seemed to be the biggest problem once they were able to go virtual with their services. Then, almost every nonprofit I’ve worked with had something scheduled for April May or June. Those events either had to be postponed or canceled had to go virtual, some converted to emergency campaign. That was the initial shock in the system of nonprofits and what to do about that. I’ve seen everything. I’ve seen people postpone them, I’ve worked with nonprofits who have gone virtual. I also feel in some respects, the best tactic for many of them were emergency campaigns in lieu of events. If you want to know I can tell you a little bit more about that. Then the next phase of my work with nonprofits is okay. What do we do now?

Boris, I think you know me well enough that I tend to believe in the real deep best practices of fundraising, which is to work with the donors who know you best. For many of your organization’s we really emphasize going back to major donors, explaining to them new needs that may have resulted from the crisis either lost revenue if you had earned revenue as a nonprofit, or other grants that might go away and work with those major donors to see if they could help you. They’re also asked them to help you in your asking for others. We’ve developed emergency campaigns. I we’ve also learned and I learned this actually with you, Boris and another broadcast from Tracy, the Foundation Center that institutional donors really want to help now and most foundations and corporate giving programs have removed many of the barriers For communication with nonprofits and also they want to get money out the door very quickly. That’s what I’ve been doing on the advice side the next phase I seeing a lot of nonprofits begin to grapple with is many have fiscal year ends of June 30. Maybe a lot of them have bought in a good amount of money in the past couple of months or earlier in the fiscal year they did very well in their annual campaigns, their earlier events etc. Now all of a sudden the new fiscal year is looming and they’re very worried about revenue production beginning July one.

Boris Kievsky 4:37
There’s a whole lot to unpack there

Marian Stern 4:39
I know.

Boris Kievsky 4:41
Thank you. That’s awesome stuff. Just for the for the record. Tracy is actually going to be on the show next week. So next Thursday, Tracy now candid when we knew her well, Foundation Center and now its Foundation Center is merged with Was it a Wasn’t it? Yes, exactly. Now they are candid. I guess what I love to do is really break things down and help audiences understand as much as possible things that they could do things that they should be looking out for and implementing these days totally agree that the initial mad rush was, what do we do? How do we fill our budget gaps, if we don’t do our online, our in person events, our major gala is a lot of nonprofits. Their fiscal year end is in the summer. Several that I spoke to were really worried about it. Then they slowly figured out with advice from people like yourself and me and other pros out there, how to take those events, put them up online instead, really make a call to action around the fact that this is an emergency situation and As much as I rail against it against using the term, but put it in terms of now more than ever.

Marian Stern 6:07
Few too many times.

Boris Kievsky 6:09
Just gets a little much in my inbox. But yeah, and a lot of them have successfully now pivoted and started offering their programming online. Actually one organization that I’m in regular contact with actually raised more money this year, based on everything that’s going on, they now have a surplus. Their concern is actually for next year at this point. If they can’t resume their regular operations, what are they going to do then? Before we even get there, though? Tell me a little bit. I know that you’re currently working with a relief fund.

Marian Stern 6:46
Yeah. Yeah.

Boris Kievsky 6:48
Tell me a little bit about what you’re seeing there. What, what are the big things that nonprofits are feeling the challenge with and what are the responses that you’re helping put out

Marian Stern 7:00
Okay, so I was fortunate enough to be asked to serve as a grant proposal reviewer for the New Jersey pandemic Relief Fund, which was started by Governor Murphy’s wife I forget her first name. Now Forgive me, along with most of the major foundations in New Jersey who pulled funds. Then they had that they had a telethon that Springsteen and Bon Jovi were on and they raised money. It’s been very interesting. They received many more proposals than they expected from a whole spectrum of organizations from the largest in the state to very grassroots kind of church based organizations or soup kitchens, things like that. The priority of the fund right now is to get money out the door for immediate relief, food, health care, safety, those kinds of issues.

What I’m seeing is that the response by nonprofits in New Jersey has been really formidable, again from the smallest soup kitchen. That is having multiple Request for triple or quadruple the number of food packages or meals to larger or to the food banks. It’s been very rewarding to see how the state has held the nonprofit’s in the state have really rallied. For those of you who are out there, Please don’t reach out to me about this because not that I wouldn’t love to hear from you and people can reach out to me for anything but I can’t help you in in the review process. I’m just helping to review the grants the board makes the final decisions. Sorry, I had to do that.

Boris Kievsky 8:36
Oh, absolutely. I understand. That said though. What are the things that you’re you’re seeing in applications that are helping people actually get those grants? What are the key points or stories that you’re reading?

Marian Stern 8:56
Boris, I can’t really serve as an official spokesman on behalf of them. They have those people, Tammy Murphy and others, again. I’m seeing this with other foundations that I’ve spoken with. I’d like to make this a more universal kind of assessment. I’m also a member of a large women’s King circle in New York City, which is associated with the New York Community Trust Fund, which has also started a very, very large emergency fund. I’m seeing probably a hierarchy among institutional donors now, which is immediate relief. For those who have family members or they themselves are sick, people have lost their jobs and wages. People are going hungry, people who feel that they don’t have sufficient funds to pay their mortgage or the rent.

Working with organizations that basically serve the most vulnerable populations, and I’m seeing that and I think Tracy will confirm this next week. I think all institutional donors going forward or like nonprofit saying, Okay, we got through this really quick mergency period, it was very, very intense. Now there are going to be issues of sustainability. I think that’s what nonprofits need to think about in terms of their appeals, and who they go to, for what, and also institutional or after that matter, personal individuals who give away money. Where can they make that difference in this area sustainability, because the next year is going to be maybe longer will be extremely challenging, and serving people because of the employment matters.

Boris Kievsky 10:30
Right. Right now we’re looking at, essentially, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right, and the things that are most core to our survival, which is shelter, food safety, right before we could get to the other things. I understand that’s where a lot of grant giving organizations are focusing right now because those are perhaps identifiably the most pressing needs. But we do. Even though it’s framed as a hierarchy, we do actually need all of the things on that pyramid that Maslow formulated, including community including a sense of self and self worth. What are we advising nonprofits that maybe are not dealing with? Can you pay your rent this month? Do you have food on the table, but are still really providing essential services to their communities?

Marian Stern 11:26
Yeah. This to me is really the existential question for now through at least the next six months. I’m even thinking about arts organizations and where they fit into this larger sphere. First of all, but I’ve been advising my clients right now is that in many cases, and I never understood this, why there was the Finance Committee on their board and then there’s Development Committee and the Finance Committee creates the budget and then the development committee is responsible for seeing that the fundraising or the unearned revenue side is The budget is fulfilled. Well, right now I am suggesting that development, your development board and staff and your finance board and staff work together as a team to do projections for next year’s budget. I’m saying do an optimistic, optimistic and pessimistic versions, three versions of next year’s budget on both the revenue and expense side. Because it’s just too hard to predict right now. Expenses are probably a little easier to predict. But on the revenue side, it is extremely difficult to predict what’s going to go on. So I think that holistic approach to planning for next year is essential. First of all, secondly, I always advise organizations do not disassociate yourself with your mission. If you are in an arts organization, or you’re an education organization, and you haven’t been in the frontline of getting grants.

That doesn’t mean now that you want to pivot completely and become something you’re not what I’ve been suggesting. That you stay true to your mission, but then you create an additional value proposition. Why now and going forward your organization needs assistance to be to help sustain individuals or for the larger community. We know for example, that arts organizations when they enter a community, they are usually the first revitalizes of a depressed community because artists will come in, they’ll build they need the low rents, etc. They begin bringing people to communities, whether they’re coming to view a theater or visual arts or music, and they revitalize community. Well, arts organizations will play a very important role, I believe, in the next six months and potentially they have the funds, hiring people, most unemployed actors or waiters. They’re getting no revenue right now.

that’s an example of how nonprofit can create this value proposition that I think will help with funders. Again, always go back To the funders who know and love you best first education organizations. We don’t know what’s happened with schools in the fall either, primary and secondary schools. A lot of universities are still have not announced what they’re doing I’m particularly concerned about low income children preschool age, who have been in state funded daycare centers, or flexibly funded daycare centers. They have been getting no socialization, no education. Their parents are probably still frontline workers working in supermarkets or Home Depot. I think that’s another area that educational organizations might want to think about. If they are primarily elementary school, can they possibly do something jointly with the preschool where their services could be more holistic and maybe more attractive to a larger swath of donors?

Boris Kievsky 14:55
Everything you said they’re starting with their is a need to innovate within your organization within your mission at this time, but it has to stay true to the mission. You don’t want to lose your funders. You don’t want to lose your community because suddenly you see an opportunity, right? In the for profit and startup worlds. We talked about pivoting, right a company might pivot. Well, a pivot is fine, but a huge turn might lose everybody that it has been serving in the past. It might strike a chord of dissonance right? With your existing supporters that might suddenly say, Well, this is not what I signed up for. This is not why I’m giving monthly, but finding new ways to serve your communities during this time. absolutely critical. I’ve seen many organizations do it successfully at this point, with either digital services, your online services or even food delivery services, whatever it might be. Asking their communities, what do you need right now? How can we help get it to you? Then turning around and saying, Hey, here’s what we’re doing. Here are the programs we’re launching. Can you our supporters, our champions, help us to fund this type of programming so that we could keep serving these needs?

Marian Stern 16:17
Wow. I’m glad you mentioned digital because I’ve been speaking with nonprofits who are going again to their closest donors and saying, We need money to invest in better technology, because not only will our fundraising goal more digital, our provision of services is going to be more digital, telehealth, this is not going to go backwards. This is going to stay this is going to continue in the future. I also have been suggesting to nonprofits that now that the flooring for some of them is a little bit over and there’s a little bit more spaces there, that this is an excellent time to talk with their boards about really strategic looking taking a strategic look at what their future will look like.

I heard a great story from a Jewish Family Service Agency up in Boston, which had a gala in some fancy hotel in Boston and raised almost somewhere between 1,000,002 million dollars. Well, they had to cancel it. She said for the first time, her board is saying, Wait a minute, maybe we should invest more, and hire another major gift officer, because these people are going to need to be calling on virtually or eventually in person and major donors, working with them, helping them to understand what we’re doing. They’ll support new initiatives and whatever. Taking the time or giving yourself the luxury of having those conversations now, I think is not really a luxury. I think it’s essential for planning for the future.

Boris Kievsky 17:50
Absolutely. The appeal to helping low income folks that nonprofits may have already been helping, but are now needing help. Even more. putting that out. I’ve seen that come back in spades where people who, without any requests without any sort of major campaign have just come on to websites and said, I love what you’re doing. Thank you for serving my community. I care about this community. Here’s just a donation, some have become recurring donors, some one time donors. Of course, if they’re just one time, your job is to now nurture them into recurring donors. Don’t lose out on the opportunity, I guess, to create true supporters, rather than just one time givers out of the crisis, people who recognize your value, you should be able to prove that value going forward as well right to really

Marian Stern 18:42
Boris I think that’s really where your emphasis on storytelling makes the most sense, because we know that some donors are more data driven, and we talked about this before more data driven, they want to see the numbers, but right now during COVID most and I’ve been watching this closely donors are motivated much more on the personal stories on how a social worker in a Human Services Agency made the effort because a senior didn’t answer her phone then got in her car and knocked on the window to make sure that the person was okay. Those kinds of stories right now I believe, are driving donors, generally for small gifts. But as you said, then it’s our job as fundraisers to convert them to long term supporters.

Boris Kievsky 19:31
Yeah, absolutely. We got to drive that oxytocin give that that that feedback loop of, we’re doing something, we’re getting feedback on it, or we’re collecting our stories where we’re sharing our stories, those stories, then in turn, generate additional additional supporters, which then generate, hopefully new stories, right,

Marian Stern 19:54

Boris Kievsky 19:55
Michael going until, you’ve served every person you possibly can in your community.

Marian Stern 20:04
Obviously capturing as much as you can on video. I think people are tired of screen time. I think they’re tired of. I know I’m just reading constantly on my screen but a short video with a moving story that doesn’t feel manipulative or disingenuous that is really true and can really go a long way.

Boris Kievsky 20:24
Absolutely. Video is amazing for this. Becausejust the whole driver behind storytelling is the connection from person to person is our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of another person, we can’t even help him. When someone tells a story. We imagine ourselves in it, but to actually see the person and to create that connection to create that empathy that’s going to drive the results much much faster. But absolutely, authenticity has to be key. It can’t be manufactured. It can’t be put on people. We have pretty strong bs detector. If you will, when it comes to those things, and as soon as we even get a hint of it, we feel if we feel like we’re being manipulated, we instantly turn it off. Because there’s a million other things pulling for our focus pulling for our dollars. Right? So always err on the side of too little and authentic then and disingenuous. Absolutely.

Marian Stern 21:24
The research that I’ve done on donor motivation. I’ve done a fair amount of research on that show, particularly with larger donors, what we would consider major donors. They’re driven really by two very important factors are there the hierarchy of factors are really two one is to make a difference, to make a deep difference. The other is gratitude. This is the first time in history that we anybody who has not been impacted directly by the virus can feel gratitude in other crises. We haven’t felt that sense same sense of empathy because we wouldn’t necessarily be impacted by it.

When Katrina took place, for example, or Superstorm Sandy here in the northeast, people around the country felt badly for those being impacted, but they didn’t necessarily feel the same empathy because the geographic distance prevented some of that. This situation is unprecedented because every single one of us can be in the same place. So concept of empathy, and also belonging in a nonprofit that you try previous donor or a potential donor you really want about you. You are helping us if it lets your scholarship sages I’ve been working with very, very closely of which their recipients are very low income students, and the message has been, every time you donate us You are one of us making sure that this young woman can get a laptop at home so she can finish school this semester.

Boris Kievsky 23:00

Marian Stern 23:01
That’s, I think also, again, what authentic and very compelling.

Boris Kievsky 23:09
Not to plug myself too much here. That’s why this is called the nonprofit Hero factory, right? We want to create, we want to make people feel like heroes that sets that gratitude. That’s that feeling of impact. Right? Closing that story loop and making someone feel like a hero to someone else. Also, like you’re empowering that person that you just gave that laptop to that you just sponsored up to, to become a hero in their own lives. Right. It’s a double effect. It’s so powerful.

Marian Stern 23:37
Yeah, I think a great message from a nonprofit right now is if you’re going outside, as much as possible, and you’re wearing a mask, and you’re doing social distancing, you are a hero, because you’re helping to protect anybody else who you would encounter when you’re outside your home space. Then you can just add to that heroism of the average sort of situation, which is When you support your community, for people who have more difficulty practicing social distancing, because they live in a walk up a tenement in New York City, and they’re constantly passing people in the stairwell or whatever, and you’re making sure that they get the assistance that they need, whatever it might be. That just adds to your heroism.

Boris Kievsky 24:20
Absolutely. We talked a little bit about grants and applications and the ones getting the most attention from foundations right now or the ones that are fulfilling the most diarist of needs. What are some other resources though, that most nonprofits might be able to take advantage of? Do you have any that you recommend? Things that nonprofits can be doing right now or taking advantage of?

Marian Stern 24:45
Yeah well, in addition to try to develop this special new value proposition, certainly nonprofits that have not been deployed, social media needs to do more than ever and it doesn’t happen. To be particularly professional looking, I think everybody in some respects has lowered their standards a little bit on what’s being produced out there. I mean, I’m just looking at my hair right now what everybody looks like. So, so definitely get your message out on social media. Secondly, as states start to open up, one of the things I’ve been sort of brainstorming with with organizations is the concept of some in person gatherings. I think big events, I would say for the next 12 months don’t even consider a large event.

It’s just not worth the time and the anxiety that is going to cause but we’ve been talking about small parlour meetings, which are generally not asked meetings, they are donor stewardship meetings or education meetings in someone’s home, somebody who has a large home, let’s say or a large apartment, you invite very few people 45 minutes, so that the exposure is limited and you you create it so that people don’t have to be on top of one another. For two reasons one is to get your message out again, in a smaller, more intimate setting where people feel that it’s being directed to them individually. Secondly, to say thank you. But I’m not sure if that was your question. Was your question like, what resources are out there?

Boris Kievsky 26:22
Yeah. That’s great. Those were a great strategy. Thank you for sharing that. Yeah, are there specific resources that you think more organizations should be taking advantage of or looking into?

Marian Stern 26:34
Well. I think it would be helpful for nonprofits to just see what the general trends are out there. Whether donations are going up or down and getting an overview, larger, much larger than what you are now you’re doing here right now boris. I’m an avid reader of the Chronicle philanthropy, they’ve been following philanthropy nationally, very closely. Recently. Secondly, I know what you want me to say for us based on our earlier conversation. Secondly, reach out to past providers. If you use marketing firms, if you’ve used consultants, with your fundraising, board, governance, whatever I am finding, and I’m doing this myself, that virtually all of my colleagues are providing some pro bono help right now. It might be a one off one hour conversation.

You can say, or is what we’re doing right? Do you have any new ideas? It could be reduced rates, it could be a longer term relationship. But I see on my LinkedIn page, and just by talking with colleagues and bars and I are both doing this, that those of us who work in the nonprofit space are the first I think, who are likely to say, Hey, we’re in this together, we want to help you so people can reach out to me if they’d like. I’ve been giving a couple of organizations have asked me to be part of a team that’s giving free one hours and then negotiating with clients for some low low cost assistance. So that’s a great resource right now.

Boris Kievsky 28:13
I remember when this first started, when we first began the the big waves of lockdowns and things. I had sent out a newsletter, saying I’m offering free consultation and if somebody needs a pop up on their website or some kind of alert or something, just let me know. I’m doing it for free. You were one of the first people like within minutes of that newsletter, you responded saying this is amazing. I’m doing the same thing. This is great.

Marian Stern 28:39
Yeah. I know I have a crackerjack reach prospect researcher who I work with a lot. She just put on a LinkedIn page. She wants to help I know capital camp capital campaigns. Now, this is a complex issue. I think they should continue. I think they can be they can be successful, but it is more complicated. I know capital campaign. Pain specialists who are giving some free support. Yeah, and marketing and marketing people. I’ve noticed that a number of marketing firms that do a lot of work in the nonprofit space, have been putting a lot on their websites. Again, like what you’re doing posting recordings of discussions about how to market right now. I’ve been putting a lot of PowerPoints up on my LinkedIn site, about best practices and a lot of what we talked about today. So if you are aware of consulting firms, and you know, competition, but they’re a zillion times bigger than I am CCS, which is probably the largest consultancy in the nonprofit in the fundraising space in the world, their their website has a ton of free content on it right now. Yeah, so they’re there. People do want to help.

Boris Kievsky 29:53
Yeah, absolutely. And I really appreciate the time even depth you’re taking today, Marian, I know that you provide A lot of value all the time on on LinkedIn. We’re going to have that link in the show notes today, as well as the links to the Chronicles of philanthropy and some of the other resources that you mentioned. I encourage all our viewers and listeners to go check them out and take advantage as much as possible.

Marian Stern 30:18
Right want to link Boris then if I can, to CCS? Yes, yes. Racing consultancy. And also big duck as a marketing firm in Brooklyn. You know, big duck. They do brilliant work. And they have been running a lot of seminars, and I’m sure that they’re living on their website now.

Boris Kievsky 30:35
Mm hmm. Absolutely. Yeah. So we’ll definitely link to all of those and encourage people to connect with Marian to get in touch and maybe she could offer some some free consulting there as well. We’re always conscious of your time, which I know you’re spread really thin these days. So I don’t want to I don’t want to mob you with requests, but I’m sure people are gonna be

Marian Stern 30:58
I don’t have any young children at home. So I don’t have to deal with for people with young children. It’s been so challenging. So a little bit. I wish my grandson were here, but sadly he’s not.

Boris Kievsky 31:09
Yeah, it’s both a blessing and awesome. Thank you again so much, Marian, I really appreciate you. I know we’ll be talking more soon. I’ll have you back on the show, hopefully talking about something other than pandemic response in the future.

Marian Stern 31:27
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Great. Thanks, boris. Thank you, everyone.

Boris Kievsky 31:31
Bye bye.

All right. Thank you everybody for joining us. Thank you again, Marion. Definitely check out the show notes. If you go to You’ll see all of the different shows. This was episode number four with Marian Stern, and we’ll have all the resources and the transcript everything all linked up there, including the video if you want to watch the replay later on or share with friends. Stay safe everybody stay sane everybody whether you have kids at home a new puppy or not. We’re all in this together. I know the path forward is going to be a little challenging, but We definitely can and we’ll get through it stronger as a community. Thanks for everything you do.

Concepts and Takeaways:

  • Create a holistic approach to planning – finance and development committee collaboration for next year’s budget projections
  • Stay true to your mission while creating additional value proposition
  • Understand donor motivation and what it’s driven by during this crisis
  • Work with major donors who know you best

Action Steps: What Now?

  • Resource Spotlight

    In this episode, the following resources were mentioned:

    • Chronicle of Philanthropy – serving nonprofit leaders, fundraisers, grant makers, and others involved in philanthropy with news, advice and resources
    • CCS Fundraising – leading consulting experts in campaign and development strategy
    • Reach out to past providers – marketing teams, capital campaign specialists and consultants are willing to do pro-bono service
    • Connect with Marian on LinkedIn
  • Start implementing!

    Check out Marian’s LinkedIn page for lots of free content:

    Marian’s LinkedIn

About this week’s guest

Marian Stern

Marian Stern

Principal, Projects in Philanthropy

As principal of Projects in Philanthropy, Marian Stern provides consulting services to non-profit organizations in the areas of fundraising planning, board governance, training and development, strategic planning and meeting facilitation, as well as providing grant-making advice to foundations.

As a former professor of philanthropy at the NYU Center on Philanthropy, she has been quoted widely in the press on many issues confronted by non-profit organizations and philanthropists, alike.

Connect with Marian Stern