The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 40

How CoachArt Is Using Tech and 10x Thinking to Scale Impact, with Greg Harrell-Edge

In this Episode:

When Greg Harrell-Edge first joined CoachArt, they were doing great work in the Los Angeles area. They knew that there were so many more kids who could benefit from their services, but with their current systems, it was taking 7 hours to match one child to a volunteer.

In the last 5 years since Greg joined, CoachArt has quadrupled impact, doubled revenue, quintupled cash reserves and have now gone nationwide.

The journey began with questions about what was holding them back, and what it would look like if they could grow. That led them to exploring and adopting technology and dramatically changing their story.

Greg joins us to talk through the challenges they faced, successes they’ve realized and how other organizations can adopt innovation into their own strategy.

Listen to this Episode

[00:00:04.070] – Intro Video
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 for all of us. Da-Ding!

[00:00:20.550] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Nonprofit Hero Factory. Today’s episode is, I guess you could say, the new normal for us. We are talking to another nonprofit leader who is doing some really interesting things in the space of, well, impact and technology. He prides himself on innovation, and he’s here today to talk to us about how he has transformed his organization and hopefully ways that we can all incorporate into our own nonprofits to help increase our own impact.

[00:00:51.000] – Boris
Let me tell you a little bit about Greg Harrell-Edge. He is a second-generation nonprofit executive and now the CEO or Executive Director, I should say of CoachArt, which is a nonprofit founded in 2001 that matches kids affected by serious illness who want to learn an arts or athletic skill with volunteers who can teach them that skill online or in person.

[00:01:12.780] – Boris
Since taking over in 2016, Greg has overseen CoachArt more than doubling its revenue, quadrupling its lesson hours, and quintupling its cash reserves by building the CoachArt Connect app to make Coachart’s model more scalable and expanding the program from two cities to now serving kids affected by serious illness nationwide.

[00:01:31.980] – Boris
Pretty impressive feat. And that might be attributed to his superpower, which Greg describes as a genetically inherited mutation of a traditional nonprofit mindset with a more entrepreneurial perspective. I love and respect that. And now let’s bring him on to the show to talk about all of those things and more. Hey, Greg, how are you?

[00:01:52.730] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Boris, I’ve been great. How are you?

[00:01:55.230] – Boris
I am great. I’m really happy and excited to have you on the show. We’ve been trying to get you on for a while now. I’m so glad we could finally coordinate and learn from you today all of the amazing things that you are doing with CoachArt. Before we dive in, you heard me read your bio. It’s awesome what you’ve been able to achieve. But first, let’s start with what’s your story? How did you get to this point?

[00:02:15.210] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Sure. So I credited my superpower with you all as being a genetic mutation, because I do think that that’s the case. In a lot of ways, my story in nonprofit starts with my dad. My dad spent his entire career in the nonprofit sector. And when I was growing up, I didn’t have any sense that that was what I was going to go on to do myself. But I always heard him at the dinner table sort of talking about his experiences, which, frankly, he found equal parts inspiring but also frustrating.

[00:02:48.130] – Greg Harrell-Edge
He’s somebody who was really about social change and social justice and making the world a better place. But he also was this huge vision guy who loved the idea of sort of a big picture of what are we going to do and how are we going to get there and found a lot of limitations and nonprofit, especially at the time in the 80s and 90s. But a lot of those limitations still exist today. And so, like a lot of folks are nonprofit, I sort of zigged and zagged and wound up in it myself and realized it was in my blood. And that both sides of that were. That I loved the idea of making the world a better place, but I also shared—well, my dad had the idea of, let’s take a more entrepreneurial approach and how can we really do something to scale?

[00:03:28.950] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And so when I came across CoachArt, CoachArt had been founded in 2001 by now tech CEO Zander Lurie of SurveyMonkey now Momentive. And it was a perfect match from what they did and what their kind of culture and mindset was with what my approach to nonprofit had been.

[00:03:49.640] – Boris
Awesome. So you come in in 2016. Is that right?

[00:03:54.170] – Greg Harrell-Edge

[00:03:54.920] – Boris
The organization had been going along for 15 years. They must have been doing something right. Tell me, what was the situation like in terms of what you were able to do and what kind of impact you were having when you first come in to CoachArt?

[00:04:10.350] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Yeah. They were doing a lot of things really right. The thing that I always said when I joined CoachArt was the magic that happened when a volunteer knocked on a kid’s door. Everything after that point was so impressive and the impact of it you could see so much. But when I came in, what I said was I wanted to get a lot more volunteers knocking on a lot more doors of kids impacted by chronic illness.

[00:04:36.700] – Greg Harrell-Edge
So the organization started in 2001. As you alluded to, kids impacted by chronic illness would sign up and say what arts or athletics activities they wanted to learn. And these are kids who often were—it was after they had been discharged from the hospital where with medical advances, kids are actually spending more time outside of the hospital, even with really serious illnesses than living in the children’s hospital anymore.

[00:04:58.480] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And so the idea was these kids would sign up, say what they wanted to learn, and then CoachArt would recruit volunteers. And those volunteers would say what they could teach. And it was our team’s job to match them together, to get that volunteer to knock on that student’s door and teach them something.

[00:05:13.750] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And so just to give you an example of what it would have looked like from 2001 up until 2015, Boris, I know you lived in LA at one point, right? Whereabouts in LA did you live?

[00:05:24.520] – Boris
I lived in Hollywood and Hollywood Hills in that area for almost ten years, no more than that.

[00:05:30.170] – Greg Harrell-Edge
So we were founded in LA. So you could have been one of our volunteers during that time. If you had said, “Hey, I’m interested in volunteering with CoachArt.” We would have said, “Okay, what activities can you teach?” Do you have any arts or athletics that you’re passionate about?

[00:05:44.550] – Boris
Well, the whole reason I was there is I was involved in a Hollywood scene. So I’m a trained actor and writer, director, all that kind of fun stuff. So yeah, I’d love teaching.

[00:05:56.970] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And we have so many kids impacted by chronic illness in LA who—they’re so close to that scene. They would love a coach who has a background in acting or in theater or in any of those things. So our job is matchmaking, right? And we were just really inefficient at making that match. So if you had come on anytime from 2001 to 2015, we would have said, “Okay, where do you live? What can you teach?” And then we’d say, “Okay, the next step is you need to come to our office in Koreatown.” And folks who are listening outside of LA don’t have any idea. But, you know from LA traffic, this would take forever for you to do. And we would say once a month we have a training. So sometime over the next few months, drive to our office in Koreatown on a Saturday. We’ll give you a training.

[00:06:36.580] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Then after that is when the really tough part is going to start. We’re going to go into our database, start calling the kids who live near you and saying, “Can you do Tuesday afternoon?” Nope. Well, Boris can only do Saturdays. Then, “Hey, Boris, would you be willing to drive to the Valley?” And that process used to take 7 hours of staff time. And this is not what our staff signed up to do, right? These are people who want to be having a direct impact on kids, not calling back and forth and trying to schedule something. But it’s an information problem, the information problem that our staff was trying to solve. What’s the activity, when is it going to take place and where is it going to take place?

[00:07:14.140] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And so we built a piece of technology. And so that was—for us, the whole idea, it didn’t start with technology. It started with, what do we have to do to rapidly grow? And that was one of the biggest barriers. So then we tried to use technology to solve that. But really coming from a starting point of, how do we grow as quickly as possible?

[00:07:32.730] – Boris
First, I love the concept of the organization. And had I heard of you guys when I was in LA, because I was involved with several nonprofits at the time, I would have loved to be a part of it. I got goosebumps just thinking about it as you’re walking me through, like what it could have been like teaching kids, helping kids who want to express themselves, who are facing these insurmountable, perhaps challenges, with the things that I’m passionate about and helping them express themselves in writing and acting and performance. I think it would have been an amazing experience. So kudos to you guys for offering that opportunity to people like myself who want to make a difference in those lives. So amazing.

[00:08:16.290] – Boris
But I do see how it could be incredibly frustrating, especially with LA traffic to get to K-Town and to sit through whatever the training needed to be, then to wait for a match and to try to do all that. I definitely see how technology could drastically improve that process. But how did you guys get to that conclusion?

[00:08:39.570] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Sure. So it seemed obvious basically looking at technologies that existed at the time. Right. And so you have a lot of apps. By the time I joined the organization, the technology had advanced since 2001 when they founded the organization. And so basically we said, what is the Lyft or Airbnb? So two-sided marketplace platform is the sort of technical term. And I’m not a super technical person, but was the sort of layman’s term for understanding the grouping of the technology that we were looking at.

[00:09:13.260] – Greg Harrell-Edge
So we said, let’s solve this with a two-sided marketplace platform. Let’s look around and try to figure out, are there any other nonprofits that have done this? What are the for-profit versions that look like? Who are the providers that provide things like this and ultimately we’re able to find a development shop in San Francisco that had built a version for a totally different use case of something that was close enough to what we wanted, where we could at least start to map out…

[00:09:45.290] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And I remember taking a piece of paper and sort of wire framing out. Now we need to go to a screen where you see the kids. They need to be ranked by how close they live to you. You need to be able to click on them that it basically was just taking something that existed and figuring out how are we going to create the version of this that works for us?

[00:10:05.910] – Boris
I could easily see how that would be helpful. I love that you compare to an Airbnb or an Uber. I think Uber is probably the better example. As you were talking, I was even thinking of dating apps. In 2001, dating websites were kind of slow and kludgy, and it was a whole big process. By the time you’re coming into CoachArt, they’ve evolved to basically swipe left, swipe right. It made it so much faster, more accessible, more immediate that I could see how people would also want that kind of innovation and similar user experience really for a nonprofit. Because just because you guys are a nonprofit doesn’t mean people expect or are willing to go that much further and have a worse experience to be able to contribute. Right? You’re still competing for the same amount of time, the same money they could be spending in other places if they’re donating. It totally makes sense.

[00:10:56.800] – Greg Harrell-Edge
It’s fundamentally the same technology. One of our core beliefs is, the same technology that makes anything more efficient or faster or more convenient for any user or company probably has use cases in nonprofit to be able to make it more efficient or easier to scale and have a bigger impact.

[00:11:16.990] – Boris
And that’s one of the things I love about what you’re doing and that I love in general to do is take, what are the technologies out there? What are the new platforms and methodologies and use cases that are going on? And how do we adapt them for nonprofits to do, frankly, more good in the world, not just to create more wealth and income, which I’m all for, but nonprofits are necessary in our system and therefore need to compete really well. So I love all of that. And I want to break down how you guys went about it and what the results were. Before we dive too deep into that, I just want to know, was it a successful endeavor? What change did you see after you guys implemented this platform?

[00:11:58.770] – Greg Harrell-Edge
So one of the most interesting things is that immediately it was unsuccessful that we were—and dig into what the actual technical solution looked like to the degree that’s it’s helpful. But basically, we launched something that went from taking 7 hours of staff time to match an individual volunteer with a student to now something that took seven minutes of staff time.

[00:12:22.400] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And so the day after we launched it, we said, starting today, we can serve about ten times as many kids and volunteers as we could yesterday. What actually happened was the first month we saw an enormous decrease, about a 75% reduction in the total number of matches that we made between kids and volunteers.

[00:12:43.080] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And we said, oh, no, have we totally messed this up? And slowly but surely—we stayed committed to it. And slowly but surely it took three, four, maybe five months before we got to the point where we were making as many matches between kids and volunteers as we were the manual way. But it was taking a lot less staff time. And so what happened was that line just kept going up and what had been a fairly static line for a long time, we now have shot past.

[00:13:10.510] – Greg Harrell-Edge
So now, fast forward three and a half years later, we’re doing four times—those numbers that you rattled off. We’re doing four times as many lesson hours per month as we were before we launched the app. We expanded from just being in two cities to first nine cities last year. And now a few weeks ago, we actually flipped the switch where we’re accepting kids and volunteers nationwide. And the growth we hope that we’re still just at the sort of middle of the hockey stick curve of hockey stick growth because there’s still 20 million kids that could benefit from the program.

[00:13:42.770] – Boris
Yeah, it sounds like you’re not even at the middle of the hockey stick growth curve because you just went nationwide and your reach is now exponentially larger. So that’s a really exciting time. And thank you for painting for us the picture of the success, but also telling us that it wasn’t an instantly out-of-the-ballpark home run, that there was some kind of struggle earlier on. What do you think that was about? Why did this matching rate suddenly drop off?

[00:14:15.210] – Greg Harrell-Edge
I think adoption rates for any new technology. I think we underrated the education that needed to happen of telling people this is the old way that you’ve been doing it. And this is the new way that’s going to be better in these ways and why. And starting to be able to recruit volunteers that were excited by that and families that were excited by that. And, for that matter, supporters that were excited by that and continuing to have board members that were excited by that, that it was sort of not only shifting the culture of our staff but shifting the entire culture of all of the stakeholders and community of the organization to something that values scale.

[00:14:57.810] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And by the way, one quick thing that I wanted to go back to, that idea that you were talking about, about how do we use these tools that are out there? I think if anything, one of the mistakes that nonprofits can make is start with the tool and figure out how you can use it, that we see all these shiny objects that are out there that are doing these cool and interesting things and thinking, okay, well, how can we use that? Well, really… I think the most effective way to start is sitting down with your team and saying, what would it look like if we were to really effectively and quickly grow? And identifying the hurdles that exist to growth and then saying, what technology exists that solve these exact same hurdles for other sectors and in other situations?

[00:15:48.150] – Boris
Right. So I just want to focus for a half-second longer on that early issue that you guys had, which it sounds like your existing volunteers were not that quick to pick up the new technology. It was a bit of a struggle. There was some friction there to turn them into this new direction. And a lot of people don’t like change. A lot of people feel like, well, this is the way I’ve always done it. This is the way I’ve been doing it. Why do I have to do something different? I’ve got to learn something new. I’ve got to do something that I’m not as comfortable doing, perhaps.

[00:16:23.820] – Boris
And that could be a scary proposition. And I know, I’ve got plenty of clients who have been worried about that same exact thing of, well, this is what our board expects. This is what our constituents expect. And if we suddenly upset the applecart, if you will, we’re in danger of losing our board, our main supporters, our volunteers. And at the same time as you’re talking, I’m thinking this is exactly what the smart businesses out there do, the for-profit companies do. They disrupt themselves. Because if you are not thinking and working on what’s going to make you obsolete, you better believe somebody else is.

[00:17:00.450] – Greg Harrell-Edge

[00:17:01.890] – Boris
It’s just like Steve Jobs cannibalized Apple computers by creating the Macintosh. He created the Skunkworks program, right? And he knew it was going to completely destroy the existing model for Apple computers. But if he didn’t do it, someone else would, in fact, others were working on it at the same time.

[00:17:20.450] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Yeah. And one of the things that we point to in that same vein, and the tech disruptors Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, has that quote, “Every company needs to be a software company.” And we say, every nonprofit needs to be a software company on some level. That there’s nothing—other than the tax status—there’s nothing different about the way that we run a business that that quote wouldn’t apply to us. And we even used the term Software as a Service, SaaS, has grown so much in the for-profit sector the last few years. We said, well, what does it look like for software as a community service? And the idea of the app that we built being the basis of what that looks like for us. And what does that look like for other organizations to have software to be the sort of centerpiece of their community service?

[00:18:08.390] – Boris
Yes. For those that don’t know that might be watching or listening, SaaS is Software as a Service, SaaS. I like this concept of software as a community service. And you’re absolutely right. I recently said a little while ago, actually, on another show that some nonprofits are born digital, some achieve digital, and some have digital thrust upon them, and the rest die. They just disappear because they’re not evolving and keeping up. So I’m excited that you guys were at the forefront of this. And I don’t mean that you were one of the first organizations to adopt digital strategy, but you didn’t wait for something to come along and knock you guys off. You looked for ways to innovate and to grow your own services with the latest expectations and technological advances.

[00:19:00.990] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Yeah. Absolutely. And to that exact same point about not being the only ones that we’re always really interested in the sort of tribe. And you and I have talked about this—of how do you build the tribe of organizations that are trying to do similar things, individuals that are trying to do similar things? And there are subsets of that. Right? What does this look like for digital marketing? What does it look like for actual programmatic, for technology? What does it look like for the programs that we do? But, yeah, trying to build a community of people who are…

[00:19:30.700] – Greg Harrell-Edge
I often think about a kind of next wave of nonprofits that feels like it is coming. And I don’t know the degree. You would probably know better. We’re so much isolated in our own work here, but we’re definitely trying to sort of build a tribe of folks who are trying to be part of that wave. By no means do we feel like we’re leaders, we more are trying to be part of that wave and trying to figure out who else is part of that wave.

[00:19:59.790] – Boris
Yeah. And I think about how many of the organizations that I’ve worked with or that I know that even have someone who is thinking about technology in that way, much less perhaps having a CTO whose job it is to be on top of technology and to be infusing it and integrating it to the mission and to what the organization is doing. It’s really low right now. But I agree with you. It’s coming. It’s growing quickly because, frankly, technology is a giant lever. And in my analogy, story is the fulcrum, and technology is the lever that can really move the world. And technology is the most efficient lever there is right now. So absolutely. Let’s talk a little bit about…

[00:20:47.070] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Sorry. One more thing that reminded me, even then, I think technology is probably too limited of a scope that—you all at Nonprofit Hero Factory, and in your intro, talk a lot about innovation more broadly. And technology is certainly right in the middle of the Venn diagram of innovation. But I think innovation extends to culture and extends to your marketing approaches, extends to your storytelling. Basically, what does it look like to constantly be trying to iterate and trying to advance what you’re doing across all parts of your organization, technologically or otherwise, just continuing, if anything, I think it’s that culture of innovation.

[00:21:33.270] – Boris
Absolutely. Absolutely. And I’m glad you said that. I do want to break down for everyone watching and listening, how they could basically take on the same types of projects in their own organization. So I want to ask you just a few questions specifically about what you guys did. How did you, first of all, decide what you’re going to do? And second of all, what was the process like to get there?

[00:22:03.430] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Yeah. Two big questions. I think the best answer that I can give is that there was no one, “here’s our one-week planning process; here’s our one strategic plan.” That it really was starting with that question of what would it look like if we grew… And again, that question of what does it take to have a lot more volunteers knocking on a lot more kids doors? And now in the pandemic, we’ve pivoted to video lessons. And so really, it’s virtually or physically knocking on the door of a kid impacted by chronic illness and always starting… first and foremost, it’s a mindset thing.

[00:22:48.850] – Greg Harrell-Edge
We talk a lot about scarcity mindset in nonprofit, but there’s also a certain scarcity of limited thinking. Limited thinking accompanies scarcity, and one begets the other. And what happens if you do start telling people we want to 10x. And one thing that I’ve always said is, just saying that you want to 10x your organization is not going to get you there. Even having a great plan for how you could 10x your organization doesn’t mean somebody’s going to hand you a check to do it. But I think it’s impossible that somebody is going to come up and hand you a plan and a check to 10x your organization if you’re not out there telling other people how it’s going to happen. That you need to be—and your leadership team needs to be the chief evangelists of, this is what we’re trying to do. This is the North Star of where we’re trying to go. This is a path of how we can get there. Who wants to come on board? And that… one thing…

[00:23:42.540] – Greg Harrell-Edge
One last point on that is that I think if you were to talk to any for-profit business leader and ask them, what’s your plan to 10x your company? They would instantly be able to rattle off a bunch of bullet points for you of how they’re going to get there. And they might even say, 10x is just the first step. We’re thinking about 100x. We’re thinking about 1000x. But in nonprofit, I think we frequently say, 10x? Talking about what we’re doing right now and doing ten times more of that and that we just don’t—we limit ourselves in how we think and how we talk about our organizations and our potential impact.

[00:24:16.530] – Greg Harrell-Edge
So I think culturally, it was that as much as anything infusing that into every leadership team meeting that we had, every board meeting that we had, every stand-up that we had. And then starting to pick at it piece by piece and say, like we talked about, what is the biggest hurdle to that right now? It’s the time that it takes for our volunteers to match with our students. What technology is out there that could do that? And just sort of on an iterative process, right now today we say, what are the biggest hurdles—we’re approaching the 2022 planning. And we say, what are the biggest hurdles for us to have the highest possible growth next year? Identifying those and then looking in the for-profit or nonprofit sector and saying, how are other people solving for these and would those solutions work for us? And that mindset is everything, I think.

[00:25:06.850] – Boris
All absolutely on track and spot on. In order to get somewhere, you have to have a vision of where did you want to go. But you don’t always know what the best road is going to be to take you there. If you don’t set that destination though, you’re never even going to know that that’s someplace you could go. And sometimes you just really do have to shoot for the moon. I think of Peter Diamandis and the XPRIZE and Moonshots that so many of the big tech companies are involved in. Without the XPRIZE, we wouldn’t have had SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and these companies that are now, whether you love them or not, are doing really incredible things that were unimaginable just 20 years ago.

[00:25:51.370] – Boris
So having that same kind of mentality for nonprofits, and actually there might be something similar in for-good space, whether it’s for nonprofits or just in general. But having that mentality within every organization I think is amazing and invaluable to actually succeeding in your mission, because if your mission is just to help a few people, then that’s fine. But if your mission is to change the world, then you’ve got to be thinking on a scale or something or how to scale, I should say, to a level where you can be changing the world, right?

[00:26:23.240] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Yeah. Absolutely.

[00:26:25.150] – Boris
So to a lot of organizations, building an app is this cool idea, at least it was a few years ago. It’s kind of died down a little bit, I think, at least in my conversations. But most of the time an organization comes to me and says, oh, we want to build an app. And I’ve had several clients come and ask for that. And I’m going to be honest with you. I tell them, 99% of the time you don’t need an app. You just need a website and you can do all this stuff on a website. Or even I’ve honestly built apps or the same experience as an app on existing platforms like Facebook Messenger, which are already on most people’s mobile devices.

[00:27:02.170] – Boris
What did you guys do? How did you approach this? Did you just go straight out and say, okay, I’m going to build an app for the app store and have people download it, or was there some sort of iterative process for you guys as well?

[00:27:15.550] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Definitely an iterative process. But again, that idea of what is the perspective that you’re starting from? Well, we didn’t start from the perspective of, we want to build an app. We started from the perspective of, if we’re going to grow, we need to reduce the time that it takes for the volunteers to match with—the staff time that it takes for the volunteers to match with the students. How can we do that? And what are other companies that are doing that, and really is what led to somebody saying, like you said, off the top of your head. Well, dating apps do that. But they don’t do the scheduling part of it. But Lyft and Uber, that’s really—you’re talking about a one-to-one match with a scheduling component or Airbnb. So then what is their technology even called? Let’s Google it. Who else… when you Googled it…when you find two-sided marketplace, what does it look like if you put in two-sided marketplace nonprofit, what comes up? Two-sided marketplace developers. So it really is just that process as much as anything else, which again carries through to this day.

[00:28:14.490] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And so for us, that was what led to finding a single developer that had built something that was as close as we could find to what we wanted and getting a quote from them and what would it take to build this. But it’s that same process that I think we go through all the time as let’s not start with… I would say, for any of those organizations that approached you and said, we want an app. I think the question is, what are the five biggest pain points that you’re trying to solve for? And who else solves for them and how?

[00:28:47.350] – Boris
I love that you’re starting with the pain points and that you’re looking at existing technology because what you described to me, I’ve built similar things on websites at this point. There’s off-the-shelf technology and components that you could put together onto a website and first try it out. I’m a big fan of Lean methodology and the Build-Measure-Learn cycle. Right. So what can you build to measure whether or not people are interested whether or not it can work? What do you learn from that test? And then iterate upon that and keep going with that cycle.

[00:29:19.580] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And that reminds me of a key point where I’ve used the term app this entire time. And that is not the term that we used when we first launched it and not actually what we first built. A similar thing… I thought of it when you said MVP. I was really a believer in that quote, gosh, I can’t remember his name now, but the idea that if you’re not embarrassed by the MVP version of what you put out and you waited too long. And so what we put out was browser-based. At the time we called it our platform or two-sided platform. It had a login that was connected from our website.

[00:29:52.150] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Fortunately, what we had found that product that I was alluding to that was most similar to what we’re trying to solve was built in Salesforce, and we were already a Salesforce customer. And so we were able to build this in Salesforce. It could link. It was browser-based. You could link to it from our website. And when we looked back, we are embarrassed by what we put out.

[00:30:14.990] – Greg Harrell-Edge
So part of the answer when you said, why do you think the matches went down immediately the first month? Is also because it was ugly, and it was—if you’re not embarrassed by what you put out, part of being embarrassed by it is that it’s not working all that well, right? But you need something to start being able to test and make changes and iterate on. And so we’ve been doing that literally every month since then, with a roadmap that constantly is adding new features and constantly iterating to it with something that now I am not embarrassed by what CoachArt has that now is an app that’s in the app store and available for Android on phone or browser.

[00:30:52.990] – Boris
So there’s definitely an investment of talent and time and certainly brain power in order to get this kind of system in place to conceptualize it, to build it. What’s the monetary investment? And I’m sure every app is different. Every platform is different. But I don’t know if you could talk to us a little bit about, what did it cost you guys? And then how do you decide whether or not or at what point it was worth it and paid for itself?

[00:31:24.550] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Yeah, it’s a great question. For the second question, I don’t know that we have a very sophisticated way to do it other than to say— so the original build cost us, I believe, $60,000. I would have to check. Which, of course, is a big investment for an organization. We were a $1.2 million organization that would be lucky if we had a $20,000 surplus every year. So this was a huge investment for us, right? One of the things that we found right away was that it helped our fundraising before we even built the app at the time was the platform. And we didn’t do what a lot of organizations do, which is sort of a specific campaign around—help us fund this piece of technology.

[00:32:09.250] – Greg Harrell-Edge
What we really started to do, was all of our fundraising started to become more infused with this idea of a big vision and where we wanted to go. And that was in every email that we sent, every conversation that we had at the board level, at our events. A lot of our fundraising is event based. We actually saw an increase in fundraising before we ever even had to write a check for the app, just from the way that we started to talk about what was possible and painting a picture for folks of what was possible and what we were trying to do had a magnetism to it I think that benefited us before we even made the first build and still does today.

[00:32:54.970] – Boris
That totally makes sense because your story changed. You now had a different story with a different goal, something that people can envision and get on board to. And maybe people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in supporting a very worthwhile CoachArt that was doing great work on a local level, but might be interested in supporting a CoachArt that is going to be able to do ten times that amount of work and maybe scale to who knows how far and help every child in need. Every child who is in a similar situation. Right?

[00:33:28.330] – Boris
It’s a completely different vision, and I think attracts a certain type of investor. And by that, I don’t mean the traditional venture capitalist. I mean, someone who wants to invest in the ROI being impact and the change that they want to see in the world.

[00:33:47.350] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And I would actually argue, I think my assumption beforehand would have been that it attracted a certain type. And I think what we found is it attracts almost all types. Because again, that idea when people are making a donation, it’s not a gift. One thing we talk about a lot. At CoachArt, we don’t consider donations gifts. We consider them investments and impact. Investments in making the world a better place.

[00:34:11.290] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Now, they might be motivated—more motivated by the story of an individual child with an individual student. But the button on that story of—and we’ve already grown by four times over the last three years, and we’re trying to grow four times more—that there’s no one who at least as a part of the story that that’s not something that’s appealing to them or very few people, I think.

[00:34:33.070] – Boris
Right on. And I certainly get the way that you guys did it and it makes sense. I do think and I’m actually thinking about another episode that we recorded. I think it was episode 17 with Sarah Lee of New Story, where they actually have a pool of donors, of investors who are interested in funding these new technological innovations, these new solutions that are very much tech-enabled in their case or tech first, that they’re excited by the change that they can make on the entire world.

[00:35:05.810] – Boris
So there are definitely people who their connection—and this is proven psychology. Their connection to one individual is going to motivate them to donate. But then there are people who are thinking along the lines of vision and of long-term, high-impact, high-yielding investment, if you will, that they particularly… I know at New Story, as Sarah said they wouldn’t have necessarily been able to attract on an individual level.

[00:35:38.050] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Yep. Yep. Absolutely. Then ultimately, it’s two stories. Here’s the story of one child with one volunteer, and here’s the story of the organization. And we still wrestle with that all the time when we talk about the CoachArt story at events is, what’s the mix? How much of each story do we want to tell? And that mix, I think, is different for each person, but I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t enjoy both parts of the story on some level.

[00:36:07.310] – Boris
So, Greg, I keep talking to you about this for hours, and I’m sure we’re going to continue this conversation. We already talked before we went live, and I look forward to talking to you more about it again. But in the interest of being respectful of your time and our viewers’ time today, I’d love to ask you, if nonprofits haven’t started down this road yet, are there any tools or resources, or maybe they are thinking about it right now. Are there any tools or resources that you recommend that they take a look at?

[00:36:36.730] – Boris
And I ask this question of all our guests ahead of time. And I was excited because you sent us a really long list and comprehensive in so many different facets that I’m going to link to every single one of them in the show notes so that people can check them out by going to the website, but are there any that you want to spotlight for those people that are driving right now or watching somewhere where they don’t have access to the website? What should they go check out?

[00:37:04.640] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Sure. And part of the reason why the list was so long is I feel like 90% of the content that I seek out is from the start-up community and from entrepreneurs. And I think it’s too uncommon in nonprofit for that to be what we’re reading and looking through, because that has so many answers people trying to scale their startup. It’s the exact same applicable stuff. And then of the 10% of things that are in nonprofit, I love people who are trying to take that mindset and figuring out what works and what doesn’t and what jargon can we shed? What concepts can we keep?

[00:37:40.470] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And so of those folks that I think I had particularly listed Dana Snyder in Positive Equation, her company Positive Equation, are ones that were a huge fan of Spencer Brooks and Brooks Digital, a person and individual entity that we’re a big fan of. Rod Arnold from Leading Good, Caroline Fothergill from Marketer on a Mission that these are all folks that I think are right in that sweet spot for me that really speak to—how are we taking some of these ideas and best translating them to the work that we do that’s mission focused. So those are the folks I would really particularly spotlight.

[00:38:17.390] – Boris
I’m going to go connect with them and check out their work as well, because this is definitely my sweet spot of where I like to live in terms of taking—what’s going on there in the startup world and technology in general and combining with storytelling and nonprofits to create a better world.

[00:38:33.130] – Boris
So I really appreciate that list and the longer one that we’re going to link to, as well as anything else that we’ve mentioned on our website, we’ll try to link directly to your site and your app so that people can maybe go check that out, even if they don’t want to volunteer, which hopefully they do. Maybe they’ll at least want to check out the app and see how it works and what they could do similar for their organization.

[00:38:56.750] – Boris
What’s your, at this point, call to action for the folks that have been watching or listening to this that are interested in learning more about you and what you are up to? What do you want our heroes to do at the end of this interview?

[00:39:10.460] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Yeah, absolutely. To your point, if anybody is interested in volunteering and joining our monthly donor program and becoming a tech ambassador, which is a program that we have, they can visit, but also just the idea of—when you had mentioned Sarah Lee with New Story, she’s definitely been on the list. I know that you’ve chatted with her of somebody that I’ve wanted to talk to for a long time where I’ve been trying to without much structure, build the sort of tribe of people who are trying to—whether it’s technology or marketing, just broadly be more innovative about how to scale their mission.

[00:39:47.180] – Greg Harrell-Edge
And so if anybody knows of a community like that or is interested in sort of formally or informally starting to build more of that community, they can just email me at G-R-E-G at C-O-A-C-H, art A-R-T, dot org and I would love to hear about the content or communities that other people look to and are a part of and just sort of build those relationships and start to build that tribe of other folks and nonprofits that are trying to scale.

[00:40:17.090] – Boris
I’m really excited about that idea. As you and I were talking earlier, I want to be a part of it so you can already count me in. And I’m excited to find out from you what you hear on the topic of—are there any communities out there? Who are the people that are active? And I’m happy to bring in anyone and everyone I know that’s already doing this type of work to help contribute to that conversation so that we could really lift everybody up and empower and enable every nonprofit out there to 10x their mission and their vision.

[00:40:52.070] – Greg Harrell-Edge
Here, here. We’re still on that path, and I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves that we’re hoping to achieve 10x here, but it’s opportunities like this to be able to tell our story and chat with you and have your audience hear more about us that make that possible. So I’m really grateful to you for having us and for everything that you put out there that’s helping to carve that path for folks like me that are trying to get there. So thank you for everything that you do.

[00:41:19.130] – Boris
It’s absolutely my pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us today, for talking about your story, about what your organization has been able to do, what the challenges were and really what the successes were, how you guys got there. I think it’s going to be invaluable to a lot of organizations, it’s going to be at least inspiring, but hopefully even a lot of the steps that you outlined, we’re going to break them down in our show notes so that hopefully it’s actionable, not just inspiring.

[00:41:43.770] – Boris
So if you guys are watching at home or listening at home or in your cars or wherever you are, do head over to the show notes, check it out and take action. Email Greg, check out CoachArt. Get in touch with me and let’s see where we can go with your organization and how we can create more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Because ultimately, that’s why I show up every week and every day into this office.

[00:42:09.650] – Boris
Thank you, everybody. I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of Nonprofit Hero Factory. If you like this episode are inspired and want more people to find content like this, please, please give us a like, give us a review and a rating on iTunes. Follow us on Spotify or whatever your favorite platform is so that we can reach you and others like you and inspire more people to do more good. Have a great week.

[00:42:33.950] – Outro Video
Thank you all for watching and listening to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. We hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform and let us know what you think by leaving a review.

Concepts and Takeaways:

  • CoachArt matches kids affected by serious illness who want to learn an arts or athletic skill with volunteers who can teach them that skill online or in person. (00:51)
  • When Greg joined CoachArt, it was a 15-year-old organization, and great work was being done, but not a lot of matches were being made between kids and volunteers. (04:10)
  • The match process took 7 hours of staff time to coordinate interests and schedules and onboard volunteers. (06:18)
  • To scale and rapidly grow the organization’s impact, the process had to be reconsidered and they turned to a technological solution. They looked around the tech scene to see what technologies were available and being used to match people to services, like Lyft and Airbnb, and settled on the idea of a two-sided marketplace. (07:15)
  • People’s expectations are shaped by the technology they use in their everyday lives. Nonprofits need to be able to match that experience. (10:05)
    • “One of our core beliefs is, the same technology that makes anything more efficient or faster or more convenient for any user or company probably has use cases in nonprofit to be able to make it more efficient or easier to scale and have a bigger impact.” (11:02)
  • When the new platform launched, the match time went down from 7 hours to 7 minutes. BUT… the product seemed to be a failure, with a 75% reduction in the total number of matches made between kids and volunteers. (11:58)
    • It took 3-5 months to get back to the same number of matches that they were previously doing manually.
    • From there, the growth just kept going up and up. They are now doing 4 times as many lesson hours as they were before, in a fraction of the time and cost.
    • They’ve since grown from two cities to nine, and now launched nationwide.
  • Adopting any new technology will be met with some challenges and friction. But if done well, the culture of the organization can change, exciting stakeholders and attracting new supporters who value scale. (14:15)
  • A mistake that nonprofits make is starting with tools and seeing how they can apply them, rather than starting with identifying the hurdles to growth and then finding tools that solve those same problems in other sectors. (14:57)
    • “I think the most effective way to start is sitting down with your team and saying, what would it look like if we were to really effectively and quickly grow? And identifying the hurdles that exist to growth and then saying, what technology exists that solve these exact same hurdles for other sectors and in other situations?”
  • Change can be a scary proposition but it’s inevitable. If you’re not working on the next iteration of the work that you do, someone else likely will, possibly making your organization obsolete. (16:23)
    • Nonprofits should be thinking of themselves the same way as for-profits, who rely on “Software as a Service” (SaaS) products to improve and scale their operations.
    • Greg proposes a “Software as a Community Service” model for nonprofits.
  • The next wave of nonprofits will be the tech-enabled, innovative problem solvers who are applying technology as part of their solution to problems. (19:30)
    • Innovation extends beyond technology, to story and to culture.
  • Adopting new technology starts with the question, “What would it look like if we grew? What would it take to 10x our mission?” (22:03)
  • Nonprofits have limiting beliefs that are holding them back. No one is going to hand you a check to 10x your work if you’re not out there telling people how it’s going to happen. This is a cultural and storytelling shift that begins with your leadership. (23:17)
  • You can’t get somewhere if you don’t know where you want to go. Even if you don’t know the best road yet, it starts with setting a destination. (25:11)
  • The process of tech development for a nonprofit, like other businesses, should be iterative. Don’t try to jump straight to the (expensive) final product. (26:25)
    • Start with your goal of removing the biggest obstacles to your growth.
    • Find what technologies already exist that are solving your challenges.
    • Look for developers that are experienced with that technology.
    • Build the first version and iterate from there (Build-Measure-Learn)
  • The first version of CoachArt’s platform was actually web-based, built on Salesforce, not an app store app. There are likely off-the-shelf components that you can put together to test your hypothesis in a Minimal Viable Product (MVP). (28:47)
    • LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman famously said, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
  • The platform development cost was not insignificant for CoachArt, but it helped their fundraising before they even built it. (31:24)
    • They didn’t fundraise specifically for the app. Instead, they fundraised around the idea of their big vision and where they wanted to go. Painting a picture of what was possible helped them raise more money before they ever had to pay for the development.
  • The story of a bigger vision and greater impact appeals to current donors and new potential donors who see the ROI in their investment going much further. (32:54)
  • Some organizations, like New Story (NPHF episode 17), attract a group of donors who specifically want to invest in nonprofit technology that will scale the mission. (34:33)

Action Steps: What Now?

  • Resource Spotlight

    In this episode, the following resources were mentioned:

    • Greg is a fan of Substack newsletters both free and paid, some nonprofit but mostly for-profit marketing and growth ones such as….
    • For non-profit resources, Greg’s favorites are folks that are actively assessing the latest trends in for-profit and deciding whether and how they apply to nonprofit:
    • Check out CoachArt’s app on Android and Apple app stores
  • Start implementing!

    • If you’re interested in getting involved with CoachArt as a volunteer, Impact Investment Club member or Tech Ambassador, visit:
    • Greg is curious what online or offline groups that people in nonprofit are part of around nonprofit innovation. If you have a great group to recommend – or you’re interested in forming one, email Greg at

About this week’s guest

Greg Harrell-Edge

Greg Harrell-Edge

Executive Director, CoachArt

A second-generation nonprofit executive, Greg is the Executive Director of CoachArt—a nonprofit founded in 2001 that matches kids affected by serious illness who want to learn an arts or athletics skill with volunteers who can them teach that skill, online or in-person. Since taking over in 2016, Greg has overseen CoachArt more than doubling its revenue, quadrupling its lesson hours, and quintupling its cash reserves, by building the CoachArt Connect app to make CoachArt’s model more scalable and expanding the program from two cities to now serving kids affected by serious illness nationwide.

Connect with Greg Harrell-Edge