The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 47
Evaluating and Optimizing Your Nonprofit Programs, with Allison Shurilla
In this Episode:
Which is a better way to serve your nonprofit’s program participants: Experience and knowledge-based assumptions, or regular input from the participants themselves?
The answer is, of course, combining both. After all, how do you know how to apply your knowledge if you’re not regularly asking your beneficiaries what they need and how it’s working?
That’s where evaluation comes in, to collect the feedback and input from your constituents and provide insights (and stories) to how you’re doing and how you can serve them better.
Allison Shurilla is the founder of AS Community Consulting. In this interview, she lays out how evaluations can help nonprofits by first clarifying what they want to achieve, then establishing the evaluative processes that they can use, and finally incorporating them into their regular processes.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:05.030] – 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!
[00:00:21.670] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome to another episode of The Nonprofit Hero Factory. We talk a lot about storytelling. We talk a lot about donor engagement, and we talk a lot about technology. And today’s guest is actually at the intersection of all three of those I think, in that she helps organizations figure out what is working and what is not working within their programs so that they can then apply it to their storytelling, their technology and their programs in general and create better connections with donors, but also deliver more value.
[00:00:52.730] – Allison Shurilla
So I’m going to bring her on in a second, but let me tell you a little bit about Allison Shurilla. She is the founder and lead consultant of AS Community Consulting, where she helps community organizations build a culture of evaluation and integrate evaluation into their organizations so they can learn about their work, to do it better, and have the greatest impact. AS Community Consulting supports community organizations in building evaluation culture through consulting, coaching, and leading trainings and workshops. And that’s kind of what I’m going to have her do today. Her superpower Allison describes is connection, both in terms of connecting people and ideas.
[00:01:26.660] – Boris
And with that, let’s connect with Allison and bring her onto the show. Hi, Allison.
[00:01:31.760] – Allison Shurilla
Hi, Boris. Thank you for having me here.
[00:01:34.470] – Boris
It is absolutely my pleasure. We’ve been talking about having you on for a while now. So I’m excited that you are finally here, and I’m ready to pull as much information as I can out of you for all our nonprofit heroes at home or at work or in their cars, wherever they’re watching or listening to this show. Don’t watch and drive, it’s bad. But before I do, before we dive in, Allison, tell us a little bit more. What is your story? Why do you do what you do today?
[00:02:00.310] – Allison Shurilla
Yeah. So my background is actually in education and youth work. I started out as a nonprofit professional, and I decided that I wanted to do something at not the ground level. I originally thought I wanted to be doing policy work, and I got a Master’s in Public Policy, and I thought I wanted to be doing research. And I ended up finding evaluation while I was in policy school and while I was kind of pursuing learning about research. And evaluation really struck me as the thing that could have a really huge impact by helping people and organizations use the information that they have to make decisions to improve their program, to have the impact that they ultimately want to have. And ever since I learned what evaluation was, I have been running with it and trying to find the best ways to do it and to find the best way that it can be helpful for organizations and really help them do what they are here to do.
[00:03:00.550] – Boris
Awesome. So many of us started out in the nonprofit space on the inside and then realized that we could hopefully have a bigger impact and help more organizations do more. It’s a common transition. And I appreciate that you have taken on because it’s not easy going out and suddenly opening up your own shop, if you will, trying to get your message out there. But you know that it’s important. You know that it’s helping organizations. So I, for one, appreciate what you’re doing, and I’m sure your clients do, too.
[00:03:30.930] – Boris
But let’s talk about what is the problem that you’re solving. And let me start by asking you what’s happening right now? Maybe things have changed since the pandemic began. Maybe not. But what’s happening right now in the nonprofit space, from your point of view?
[00:03:45.970] – Allison Shurilla
I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty and there’s still a lot of questions. Like uncertainty is a word that we still hear every day. People are still talking about whether or not they’re going to do programs online or in person or how they’re going to navigate changing or what’s going on with the populations that they’re working with and what’s going on in their communities. And there’s just a lot of questioning. And evaluation ultimately helps to answer those questions. That’s why I’m here to do what I do. So I’m finding that everywhere from what’s going on with the participants in our program, what’s going on with their lives, how can we help them? How do we optimize our program so that we’re serving them the best way? To what is the impact we’re having anyway? We can’t tell because things don’t look the same way they used to.
[00:04:34.270] – Boris
I definitely can see that. And especially since the move to digital, the great jump into digital that everybody had to take, I feel like a lot of organizations did things based on instinct or reactionary, which was necessary, and I’m not judging any of them for doing it. But they may not then realize what the effects have been or they’re not sure how to look at it. Is that the kind of thing that evaluation is really there to help them with?
[00:05:02.230] – Allison Shurilla
Absolutely. I think that evaluation sometimes gets put in this box of surveys or reporting or just looking at your numbers. But it’s really there to help you answer those questions. And when things change or you know things are going good and you want to figure out what exactly is working, evaluation is here to help you dig into that and really answer those questions.
[00:05:25.390] – Boris
So what’s the problem with the way that, let’s say most or the organizations that don’t incorporate evaluation into their lives, into their work lives? What’s the problem with the way that they’re making decisions today?
[00:05:38.470] – Allison Shurilla
I think that it is lacking a specificity and the type of information they’re getting in real time. So program developers, executive directors, whoever they may be, they’re making their decisions based on a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience. Maybe they went to school for something. Maybe they’ve been living in the community they’re working in, and they have this really in-depth knowledge about what goes on or how to design a program. But they’re not necessarily getting regular feedback about what’s happening at this moment or what’s happening in real time or if something like a pandemic comes along, what you do now, because everything you know, it’s not the way that things have become. And so the problem is that if you don’t have an evaluation system that’s helping you look at things as they change or even just look at things in general, you’re kind of just running on guesses based on maybe previous knowledge, based on academic knowledge or community knowledge, which are all important. But evaluation gives you that extra real-time piece.
[00:06:42.910] – Boris
I find that that happens a lot in organizations. I work with their storytelling all the time, obviously, with their communications and marketing. And I’ll check out their websites. And there’s a lot of inside the bubble speak, right? We’re inside our organizations. We’ve been in them sometimes for 20, 30 years. So we know everything so well. And we assume that all of that gets communicated. Similarly, we know everything so well we assume that we’re doing the right thing. We’re doing the best thing without necessarily having that evaluation or testing our hypotheses or to see whether or not there’s a better way or something else that we can optimize.
[00:07:23.110] – Boris
So then I guess what’s the solution to that? You mentioned surveys, and that’s what a lot of people think when it comes to evaluations. Maybe we should start with what does it mean? What does evaluations mean in the sense that you’re using it? And what does it mean for nonprofits in general?
[00:07:40.810] – Allison Shurilla
Yeah. So kind of along the previous conversation that we were having, I was having a conversation with a group of evaluators recently, and we find that we’ll come into an organization and they’ll ask us for the answer. They want to know what the best way is to develop a program and they want to know what the best practices or they’re using what is known as the best practice. And we as evaluators are in real time creating the best practice.
[00:08:06.090] – Allison Shurilla
So in the organization, we will come in and help you look at talk to people in your community or talk to your staff to harness that knowledge. So all of those things that we just talked about, the best practices, the going to school, the knowledge of the community, evaluation kind of takes that and puts it together and looks at it to answer very specific questions so that you can use that information to make changes or to increase efficiency in your organization; to find out what it is about your program that’s really having the biggest impact; to find out what your community really needs so that you can be serving them to the best of your ability.
[00:08:47.890] – Allison Shurilla
And then it also gives you tools to communicate that, so you can communicate that to your funders, to your donors, to the community itself. If you want to get more people coming to your program, you can use that as evidence of saying, “Hey, come here, look at this great time all these people are having.” Or, “This is how it’s influencing people and impacting people.”
[00:09:07.690] – Boris
So it definitely sounds like a very powerful tool to use in our processes, in our systems. I know you talk about this all the time. Is it something that we should be doing on an as-needed basis, or is it something that organizations should be doing on a continual basis hand-in-hand with whatever program they’re delivering or whatever services they’re working on?
[00:09:31.810] – Allison Shurilla
It should be done along with the program. It should be something that’s continuously done as part of the work that you’re doing. So evaluation, in my opinion, is most powerful when it is part of what you’re doing and not a separate add-on. So a traditional evaluation or a way that is very commonly done is that I, as an evaluator, might come in, do a big research-looking study. I might design some surveys, or I might do some interviews or focus groups with people. Then I would write you a nice report that tells you what I think and what I found out.
[00:10:04.570] – Allison Shurilla
I think it can be much more powerful for an organization to be able to build in processes so that they’re looking at data, they’re looking at the information, they’re talking to people and gathering feedback from people in a way. And then using that to make their decisions as they’re trying to develop program changes or applying for a grant or trying to decide what to do for their big event that they’re doing, right? Evaluation is the thing that can give them these little pieces of information that can help them make those decisions with real-time information that’s happening in the community.
[00:10:41.050] – Boris
So then, you mentioned surveys early, and it sounded like you were saying that’s what people associate with evaluation, but that’s not necessarily the heart of it, which I totally understand. But then are surveys then… How do you do ongoing real-time evaluation unless it’s something like a survey? Are there other tools that you put in?
[00:11:03.370] – Allison Shurilla
I talk about surveys a lot because they’re still very common in evaluation. And that’s the thing that I get asked about a lot. And so it comes up a lot, and I witness it happening. Most organizations have familiarity with it in some way. But they can be busy work. They can be giving you information that’s not that valuable. They could be not giving you the right information that you need. And so I deal a lot with conversations and talking to people. A way that I really like to work with organizations is, say that you have something like a youth program, like my background is in working with youth in education.
[00:11:43.810] – Allison Shurilla
We have a youth program that we meet every Tuesday, and so we have this population of kids, right? That we’re talking to our students or young people, whatever language that you want to use for them. And we give them a survey once a quarter. They give their answers. It feels like a test. It doesn’t necessarily feel like something where they can feel like they can authentically engage with the organization or with the program.
[00:12:07.750] – Allison Shurilla
Another option might be to have a conversation that’s integrated with the program, an activity that you design to gather feedback from the students to find out what they think and how they’re responding to the program and what they think would make it work better, how they can get their friends there, maybe how it’s impacting their grades and their relationship to school or to their families or to community.
[00:12:29.000] – Allison Shurilla
Whatever your goal is or your focus of that program, instead of just handing over a piece of paper or an online survey to students, you can have a real conversation with them. And that can be extrapolated to your staff or to parents or to other community members you’re working with. I also work a lot in public health. And if you’re working with patients, how can you really get some authentic, real information from them? That’s not… The survey can be a little dry and a little removed.
[00:13:07.410] – Boris
I see. So whereas a survey feels more designed to collect data, you’re actually trying to be more interactive conversational and almost extract stories from them, but really let them guide some of the conversation as well, rather than just a one-directional or I guess two-directional, but an exchange. It is an actual kind of interactive conversation about the subject. Is that right?
[00:13:37.060] – Allison Shurilla
Yes. And a little bit more about my background is that the methodology that I use is based in story collecting and qualitative methods is what we call them, as opposed to quantitative methods, which are like statistics. And a survey is actually considered a quantitative method. And in community-based participatory research methods, which is a little bit of a big word. But basically the essence of it is that the people that we’re gathering information from have a lot more to give than just a data point. They have a lot more to give than just a one to five on a survey. I’m sorry I’m hating on surveys so much. I don’t hate surveys. I use them. I think they’re very valuable. Please, nobody come for me for hating on surveys, but they can be overused and they can be improperly used. And I see that happen a lot, which is why it’s such a common example that I give.
[00:14:32.670] – Allison Shurilla
And so the type of evaluation that I do and the way that I work with organizations tries to move them beyond that so that evaluation isn’t just a piece of information, but it’s a process, and it is a relationship, and it is something that harnesses both the expertise and knowledge and talents of the people working in the organization as much as the people that are receiving services from the organization or interacting with the organization.
[00:15:06.510] – Boris
So if I’m a nonprofit professional right now, listening to this episode, I’m thinking, okay, that sounds nice, but it sounds super resource intensive. It’s going to take a lot of my time or my staff time. How do you answer that? Is it worth it, first of all? I’m sure you’re going to say yes, but how do you justify all of that time and expense in terms of staff power, to do this kind of work?
[00:15:37.170] – Allison Shurilla
I mean, certainly it can be resource intensive, and it can turn into a very big, comprehensive thing if that’s what you want to do. But it can also be very simple. One of my passions is to work with organizations to make it simpler and to make it integrated into what they’re doing. I don’t want to create extra work. I don’t want to create busy work. We have enough to do. Nonprofit professionals, we’re doing everything, right? And so how can evaluation be something that is a part of all of that? So with the youth program example, we’re already using the program that we have. We’re not developing anything new. We might take that information that we get and use it in a staff meeting to talk to our staff, or we might integrate a couple of minutes of a staff meeting every time to talk about… To go over maybe a dashboard or to talk about evaluation.
[00:16:30.390] – Allison Shurilla
And the way that I also work is in looking at the information that’s actually going to be the most valuable to help you do what you need to do, to have the impact that you want to have, to have the processes that are efficient. Evaluation can actually create efficiencies by finding the things that are working well and the things that aren’t working as well; and using the things that you’re doing every day and just putting a different lens on it. Like, looking at it a little bit differently so that you’re using it as an evaluative process or an evaluative culture so that you can learn from that way and you don’t necessarily need to do a big extra thing.
[00:17:15.450] – Boris
So in the case of your youth example, your youth group, are you talking about at the end of each… I don’t know. Let’s say they do ongoing meetings. At the end of each meeting, they spend five minutes asking for feedback.
[00:17:29.010] – Allison Shurilla
It could look like that, or it could be a dedicated session that you work with them on it. I’ve also worked with youth programs to do what’s called youth participatory evaluation. So they’re actually involved in the whole process and helping you make those decisions and answer questions. And it’s a program in itself. It can be… So it can be a very generative thing for those students as they learn how to look at data and process data and talk to people and writing skills, and they can learn all kinds of things. That’s a very robust example, but … I think in my work, I find that it works different ways with different programs and whatever is going to work for you, it could be as simple as doing something every once in a while, or it could be a lot more comprehensive. I hope that answers your question.
[00:18:23.030] – Boris
It does, it does. I’m still just trying to figure out exactly how much extra resource it might take up. It sounds like what you’re saying is that’s really up to you. It could be as little as you want or as much as you want. And you can make an entire program out of just your evaluation—or at least an event out of your evaluation—where you might discover what it is that you should be evaluating in the first place because you’re going to get input from your constituents.
[00:18:51.710] – Allison Shurilla
One of my goals as a consultant is to help organizations find the sweet spot about how much they want to invest in this and in what way they want to invest in it, right? So do you want to do a big extra project? Those are really valuable and really important sometimes. But do you want to develop a system within your organization so that it’s so seamless you don’t even know that you’re doing it? It’s hard to answer that question because they’re just limitless options, right? It could be very simple or it could be very, very comprehensive. And I think even when it’s simple, it can be very powerful because you’re just starting to look at information a different way that can help you do your work a little bit differently.
[00:19:39.930] – Boris
Okay. So how do you know that your evaluation program is working? Let’s assume that we’ve signed on for this concept of continual integrated evaluation. How do we know that it is working, that we’re asking the right questions? What are some of the results we might see from the process and the work?
[00:20:07.570] – Allison Shurilla
The results that you’ll see is that you will have more confidence. I think is one of them could be that you are making the right decisions instead of being like you’re guessing. I don’t know. Maybe I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to say that people aren’t confident in the decisions that they make. But what you’ll see is that when you are talking to your community or you are working with your community, you know the way that you’re affecting them, you know the way that you’re impacting them—is really powerful, and it’s something that is your unique way of working with them. As opposed to, like, they couldn’t just get it from anywhere else. Because they know that your organization is the one that’s making the difference. Your organization is the one that’s affecting them that way because you have the data to back that up. You have the stories, you have the numbers, you have whatever it is, those things are going to tell you what exactly is happening.
[00:21:02.110] – Allison Shurilla
Another thing you might see that I witnessed in my work is that you can find out what it is about your work that is having the biggest impact, so that you can be dedicating your time and resources to those things that are really having the impact instead of the things that may not be.
[00:21:18.500] – Allison Shurilla
So you might know that you’re having a great impact on your students or on your community. You might know that their grades are doing really well or they’re having great conversations about health with their peers. But you don’t know which part of your program is doing it, right? You don’t know if it’s because they have the one class or if it’s the entire program or if it’s the frequency of the program or if it’s the guest speakers you have in. So you might be dedicating all these time and resources to developing these programs. Evaluation can help you understand what about them is working, and it can help you poke the holes in the gaps that might be not working so well so that you can change those and not be wasting your time doing something that’s not so effective. And you can take that and extrapolate it to anything in the organization: your staff, your work processes, whatever you might have a question about evaluation is going to help you kind of boil it down into what’s working really well, what’s not working, what’s missing so that you can fill in those holes, all those pieces.
[00:22:26.350] – Boris
That sounds pretty great and I think really important. Again, for organizations that… like most organizations that I’ve worked with, for example, go on instinct, they go on experience and they might start a new program. It may or may not work. Then they’ll try something else, which is totally fine and fair. But really knowing why something is working, what parts of it are working, what parts that are not working will definitely help you optimize and decide what to double down on, what to pull back from, so that you can better serve your community ultimately and so that you can empower them better with the tools and the things that they really crave or are responding to in your particular situation.
[00:23:08.230] – Allison Shurilla
Yeah. I mean, nonprofits, the organizations I work with, ultimately, they’re mission driven, right? They have a purpose. They have something they’re trying to achieve. And evaluation helps you know whether or not you’re achieving that, how you’re achieving it, and what you can do to achieve it better, what you can do to do it better.
[00:23:29.130] – Boris
Or as we say on the show, how to create more heroes for your cause.
[00:23:32.210] – Allison Shurilla
[00:23:33.430] – Boris
So if an organization is not currently doing evaluations, if it’s not currently in a culture of evaluation, within the organization. Where should they get started? How do they start approaching this or thinking about this concept of evaluation?
[00:23:50.290] – Allison Shurilla
Yeah. So my recommendation is always just to start with a question. And when I say that, I mean a really simple question. What is something… If you’re talking to someone in the hallway, you’re talking to a family member or a friend, you say, “I wish I knew this.” Or, “I wonder…” The kind of thing that you’re like, “I wonder about this because I think knowing the answer to that would have an impact on my work.” It would help me be more confident in my work or make changes or be able to do my work to the best of all.
[00:24:20.100] – Allison Shurilla
You just start with a question and then you look at how you’re answering it. And when I lead workshops on this and when I lead people through this process, I encourage them not to think about evaluation. I’m already there as an evaluator. But I’m like, don’t think about it right now. Think about the really organic ways that you’re answering that question. Right? So we talk to people. I talk to the staff member, I talk to people in my community, I talk to my students or my patients or Joan at the front desk. And she told me, right, like, what’s going on? Those are the things that you can take.
[00:24:57.700] – Allison Shurilla
And then once you think about it that way, you can start to drill it down into something that looks a little bit more strategic. So how can you turn that into a more robust conversation, like a focus group or develop a survey? This is when we decide whether or not we need a survey, right? This is when we say, you know what? It actually would be really helpful if we send out a survey to every single person we talk to to ask this question or whatever it might be. That could give you some really great information. And so it can be very simple. And you can start with one question or one issue or one topic and put those little pieces in so that it doesn’t feel like a lot and it’s integrated into what you’re doing.
[00:25:43.810] – Boris
You just brought to mind the known unknown matrix. You’re familiar with that one? Where you’ve got four quadrants of known knowns. What is it? Actually, I’m going to look at it. Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns.
[00:25:59.180] – Allison Shurilla
[00:25:59.790] – Boris
Right? And it sounds like and maybe this is where the whole survey thing comes in is a survey can measure the unknown knowns, right? Or the known unknowns. But it can’t measure the unknown unknowns, whereas an evaluation process is going to help you discover the things you don’t even realize you don’t know. And some things that you might know that you didn’t realize you knew.
[00:26:23.770] – Allison Shurilla
Yeah. That’s actually a really good framing. That’s absolutely correct.
[00:26:28.990] – Boris
Free of charge. You can incorporate that into your next workshop. So then it looks like we start from what you’re saying. We start with first, evaluating or no, just is it brainstorming and writing out what is it that we wish we knew? So what are our known unknowns things that we know we don’t really know yet, and then start going deeper and deeper from there?
[00:26:53.300] – Allison Shurilla
Yeah, I think that would be a good way to put it. And if you want to start real small, I have a tool that you can use that you just take like 10, 15 minutes, like just a few minutes, and just sit down and kind of brainstorm some ideas and kind of work through this in your head what it might look like. And it can start with baby steps like that, and eventually it can become something a little bit deeper.
[00:27:19.630] – Allison Shurilla
So you start with, what do I wish I knew? If I could know anything, what would be the answer? What would be the information that I would have? And then you drill it down into very simple things like, what do I know now? And how do I know that? And then you learn how to make it more specific. And ultimately, at the end of all of this, you will have a process where this is so seamless that you’re just, like asking questions. You’re bringing out ways to answer them. You’re answering them. You’re making your program changes based on what it is, and then your senior community flourish because you are such an amazing, efficient nonprofit that you’re doing all your work the best you can.
[00:28:04.330] – Boris
That’s awesome. And I think that’s a great point to wrap up the conversation. But I do want to ask you, if people are interested in learning more about evaluations in general or maybe an example of evaluations done well. Are there any tools or resources, books even that you recommend people might go check out?
[00:28:21.010] – Allison Shurilla
Yeah. So I have my own resources on my website that talk a little bit about evaluation that do help you walk through the process that I just described. I have a workbook and like a one pager that kind of helps you start to think about it.
[00:28:34.810] – Allison Shurilla
One of the resources that I always point people to is called, I believe the title of it is like, “Why Am I Always Being Researched?” And it’s from an organization called Chicago Beyond based in Chicago. And it’s basically like this tool that talks about research, which evaluation is kind of a type of research, and relates it to the human side of it and the person side of it, instead of just seeing people as ways to get data or ways to get information or to extract information from. It’s a very long kind of comprehensive thing. But if you look at it on a very basic level, it does help you put into perspective what evaluation can look like that isn’t just a data point. And I just love the resource because it’s one of the bases for kind of how I do my work.
[00:29:27.430] – Boris
Fantastic. We’re going to link to that and to the resources you have on your website, because I have checked them out. I like them. They’re a great, very simple framework to just start thinking and brainstorming around these topics and then to hopefully take some actions to implement things. So we’re definitely going to link to all that. Do you have any other calls to action for our audience? How should they connect with you? What should they do once they’ve finished listening to this episode and wanted to follow up with Allison Shurilla?
[00:29:55.450] – Allison Shurilla
Yeah. So you can go to my website, you can send me an email, get in touch with me that way. I do free consultations. And there is also a link in my website that you can go ahead and just schedule that directly with me. And I have a newsletter that you can sign up for and a blog. And so you could sign up for my newsletter, keep in touch with the kind of things I’m working on, what I talk about. If some of these ideas are interesting to you, but you want to hear a little bit more about them, that’s a great way to just kind of follow me. So that you know what I’m doing and what I’m talking about and what I think about some of these things.
[00:30:32.290] – Boris
Awesome. And I do encourage people to go and do that. Check out Allison’s site, get those resources, and then book a call, spend some time picking her brain for free to figure out what it is that you could be getting from evaluations and how you can conduct evaluations to better optimize all your processes and ultimately your impact on the world.
[00:30:55.690] – Boris
Thank you, Allison, so much for joining us today and breaking down what is really a difficult topic to just wrap around. But I think we’ve really gotten to a point where hopefully if people don’t fully understand it, didn’t fully understand it before, that they get a really good idea of it now and all the benefits that it can provide them. And I appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule to share that knowledge with us and how to start implementing a culture of evaluation or thinking about evaluation within our own programs.
[00:31:22.990] – Allison Shurilla
Alright. And thank you for having me. It’s been great to talk to you today.
[00:31:26.540] – Boris
Awesome. Thank you, everybody who is watching, listening or reading the transcript of this episode, be sure to check out our show notes at nphf.show for all of the takeaways from this episode and all of the resources that Allison has shared with us. We’re going to, of course, link to them right there on our site. And if you like this episode, please do share it with your friends. And please leave us a review on iTunes, Spotify, or whatever your favorite platform is, YouTube as well. We do, of course, have the show live there every time too. Thank you everybody. Have a great week. We’ll see you soon.
[00:32:00.250] – Intro 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 chat platform and let us know what you think by leaving a review.
Concepts and Takeaways:
- Evaluation helps people and organizations use the information that they have to make decisions that increase impact. (2:23)
- Two years into the pandemic, there is still uncertainty today around the most effective ways to deliver programs, online or in person. At the same time, the lives of program participants have often dramatically changed. (3:45)
- Most organizations run on experience, accumulated knowledge, instinct and assumptions. But they’re not testing those assumptions and getting regular feedback. (5:38)
- Evaluation helps organizations harness their knowledge and resources and understand how to best apply them in service of their community’s needs at a given point in time. It also gives you the tools to communicate your impact to funders and the community itself. (8:07)
- Evaluation is most powerful when done continuously, not as an ad-hoc tool. (9:32)
- Traditionally, evaluation is done as a big research effort, but it’s more powerful to build in evaluation to their processes and programs to get continual feedback.
- Surveys are what most people think of when it comes to evaluation, but surveys are limited because they only collect the data you ask for, like a test. Evaluation should engage with the participants in a more authentic way that allows them to lead the conversation and give their input rather than just feedback. (11:03)
- Community-based participatory research methods are based in the idea that people have more to offer than just a quantitative data point. (13:37)
- “Evaluation isn’t just a piece of information, but it’s a process, and it is a relationship, and it is something that harnesses both the expertise and knowledge and talents of the people working in the organization as much as the people that are receiving services from the organization or interacting with the organization.”
- Evaluation can be integrated into processes without adding a lot of additional burden. It can actually also create efficiencies in your existing processes. (16:43)
- Both types of efforts—dedicated evaluation programs and incorporated evaluation in your regular programs—can be valuable, depending on your goals and resources.
- Data and input from evaluations helps organizations make the case for the unique value they offer their communities, because they have the data and the stories to back up those statements. (20:24)
- It also helps you see what aspects of your work are having the greatest impact, so that you can better channel your resources to what’s working.
- Alli recommends starting with a really simple question, like what do you wish you new, which, knowing the answer would have an impact on your work. (23:50)
- Don’t think of it at first in terms of evaluation. Start by looking at the ways that you’re already answering the question.
- Then you can start to boil it down into something strategic, whether that’s a conversation or a survey.
- Within the known-unknown matrix, surveys can help you with your known-unknowns and unknown knowns, whereas qualitative evals can help you discover things you didn’t realize you didn’t know (unknown unknowns) and some of the things you didn’t realize you knew (unknown knowns). (25:43)
- Once you incorporate evaluations into your programs, you should have a seamless process in which you’re asking questions, collecting answers in different ways, and evolving your programs in response to better and more efficiently serve your community. (27:38)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Allison ShurillaFounder, AS Community Consulting
Allison Shurilla is the Founder and Lead Consultant of AS Community Consulting where she helps community organizations build a culture of evaluation and integrate evaluation into their organizations so that they can learn about their work to do it better and have their greatest impact. AS Community Consulting supports community organizations in building evaluation culture through consulting, coaching, and leading trainings and workshops.
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 46
Raise Your Nonprofit’s Profile with an Effective Media Strategy, with Sean Kosofsky
In this Episode:
Getting media attention for your nonprofit’s work is a powerful way to reach new people, build your authority, and shape the narrative around your mission. It’s not enough to put out a press release and hope it gets picked up by some new source. Today, nonprofits of all sizes need a media strategy built on relationships and the ability to provide value to both the reporter and their audience.
For better and worse, news media itself has been undergoing rapid change over the last 20 years. With newsrooms shrinking, news cycles accelerating, and news sources multiplying, the competition for attention presents both a challenge and an opportunity for media-savvy nonprofits to step in and make their voices heard.
Sean Kosofsky, founder and CEO of Mind The Gap Consulting has been working with nonprofits to develop their media strategy. He joins us this week to break down how any org can develop relationships with news media and to be part of the public conversation versus simply reacting to it.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:04.610] – 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!
[00:00:21.910] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. As always, I am your host Boris Kievsky, and I am here today with a friend of mine whom I’ve known for a few years now. I don’t know how many we go back. Maybe he can remember, but his name is Sean Kosofsky. Let me pronounce that right. And I love his moniker of the nonprofit fixer it says a lot right there. But he is a coach, consultant, trainer and strategic advisor to nonprofits. For the past 28 years, he has helped causes, campaigns and candidates, raise millions of dollars and transform nonprofit organizations and leaders.
[00:00:57.690] – Boris
Sean has served in a wide variety of roles in nonprofits from policy, communications, development, organizer, direct service, boards, and five stints as an executive director. He has worked on a wide range of issues including LGBTQ equality, reproductive justice, voting access, bullying prevention, climate change, and more. All really great, important issues. Sean’s work has been covered in media outlets—really relevant to today—internationally, and he has received numerous awards for his work. He’s an author and the owner of Mind The Gap Consulting. Sean is currently the Executive Director of Climate Advocacy Lab. He is a proud Detroit native, but lives in New York with his husband and their dog, Harry.
[00:01:39.790] – Boris
Before I bring Sean on, let me just tell you that his superpower is pitching. He says that he’s very good at breaking things down and explaining them simply in a way that is easy for people to understand and I’m guessing very effective for hooking media attention, because that’s what we’re going to be talking about today. We’re going to be talking about your PR and media strategy and training. With that, let’s bring Sean on to tell us more. Hey, Sean.
[00:02:03.190] – Sean Kosofsky
Hey. How are you?
[00:02:04.410] – Boris
I’m doing great today. I’m really happy to have you on the show. We, as I said, have known each other for a few years now. We’ve done a few things together. And finally, I get to have you on the Nonprofit Hero Factory.
[00:02:16.510] – Sean Kosofsky
Absolutely. Thanks for having me. I’m super excited to be here to talk about all things nonprofits.
[00:02:21.550] – Boris
Awesome. And I know you can talk about all things nonprofits, but we’re going to zone in and hone in, I should say, on one particular strength of yours, which you have several, and that is the media training thing. But before we dive into that, I read your bio and your superpower here. Clearly an impressive dude. 28 years. Hats off to you off of my bald head here. But real quick, why don’t you give the folks at home a little introduction? What’s your story? Why do you do what you do today?
[00:02:48.130] – Sean Kosofsky
Well, I think that for me, nonprofit work has been a lifelong journey, as you said 28 years. I got my start at age 16, really stayed in the sector, had no idea in college what I wanted to do when I grew up. But when I fell into a really great job at a civil rights organization in that state at age 20, I was hooked and realized I could make a career out of doing this. And I have just been in the nonprofit space ever since. But I really think the experience as a gay man of being in the closet when I was a teenager, the painful experience of being in the closet and what that felt like has really driven so much of my advocacy and so much of my activism during my life because I really want to make sure that I can end suffering wherever I see suffering happening. And if I can get paid doing that, that’s amazing. So my journey has always taken me to organizations where I can specifically tackle people suffering or struggling or the world in some ways with climate organizations that I’m with now, the world sort of struggling.
[00:03:46.870] – Boris
That’s awesome. It’s interesting because a lot of nonprofit founders, I feel, get into the work because they personally have their own mission. Obviously, they have to be mission driven in some way or other. And a lot of it stems from what in the for-profit space might be called scratching your own itch, right? You have a problem and you want to solve it. I think most of us can resonate with that. And I really appreciate that you shared that bit with us today. So let’s then dive into what’s going on in the nonprofit sector, particularly when it comes to PR and media? What’s happening in terms of COVID? How is the world happening? How is the world working or not working these days for organizations?
[00:04:33.460] – Sean Kosofsky
Well, I think for a lot of people, they’ve realized that the news environment and the media environment has really, really changed. And especially for nonprofit organizations, it’s changing a lot because it’s getting harder and harder to break through. So some of the things we’ve noticed that are happening out there in the past 10 or 15 years is that newsrooms are shrinking. Not only… I mean, most of the newsrooms, the daily and local print and radio and broadcast publications across the country are getting smaller. It has to do with the fact that more and more news is available more and more freely for folks. And whether Huffington Post or all these different trends really started this idea or Facebook or whatever it is that people can get lots of their information now for free, that we are seeing a lot of individuals out there sharing news and sharing news around the country more freely. But it is causing news sources to kind of shrink. And that means that people’s sources of information are actually shrinking, too.
[00:05:34.430] – Sean Kosofsky
So many people around the country are getting more and more of their trusted news locally and that really can be a good thing for nonprofits since most nonprofits are small. But it also does mean that there’s more polarization. So this is one of the other problems that exist out there is that increasingly people are being pushed to one side or the other based on where their new source is from. You can look at this through a lot of demographic data, more than partisanship, more than almost anything else. Where you get your information from has a big indication of where you fall politically. And that has a lot to do with the fact that some news is getting shared and repeated across the country that is not being fact checked because newsrooms are shrinking and fact checkers are shrinking, right? So the problem in the news media for nonprofits, especially advocacy organizations or anyone trying to dispel myths or rumors or bad information, whether you’re working on mental health or you’re working on advocacy or civil rights, it’s really a problem that we are seeing across the media environment.
[00:06:33.970] – Boris
So that’s absolutely all spot on. And there’s a lot to unpack in there in terms of what’s happening in the world. Yeah, absolutely. Newsrooms are shrinking because anyone now has access to become their own media channel. Anyone can now become a news source in one way or another now, whether or not they are biased. I mean, it’s hard for any human being to not be biased in some way or another, but there are trained professionals who try to limit their bias when it comes to their reporting. And then there’s the rest of us who just want to present our point of view, our perspective. And now that anyone could be their own media network, right? Look, right now we’re on our own show. Even 15, 20 years ago, this was near impossible for us to do. Pre dotcom boom. It was completely impossible. So that’s definitely having a positive and negative effect. There’s more news to find and more individual personal stories that you could access. And at the same time, there’s less of what you’re referring to as fact checking and more of that echo chamber effect that when you get into it, the world looks one way as opposed to what everyone might be seeing on the other side.
[00:07:50.860] – Sean Kosofsky
[00:07:52.030] – Boris
So then how do we manage that? How do we navigate that as organizations? I guess we want to get our point of view out there. Hopefully, it’s a fairly accurate and neutral point of view. But of course, organizations have opinions, too, right? If you didn’t think… have an opinion that there’s something wrong with the world, you wouldn’t be starting an organization. So how do you differentiate and then let’s talk about how you get your point of view out there.
[00:08:21.140] – Sean Kosofsky
Well, I think one of the most important things is to not sit idly by and let the media or news environment happen to you. It has to be proactive engagement with newsrooms. It has to be actively putting out there to your email list, your website, social media and to your media list, your point of view, your perspective and the facts. I think that for a lot of organizations, this really does mean holding truth to power and making sure that when you see articles that come out, that you contact that reporter and say, “Hey, here’s this thing you just ran, or here’s this thing that’s actually problematic or wrong.” So we need to be correcting a lot of the things we see in the media. And that’s one of the ways you can get press attention. It’s simply watchdogging and policing it and making sure that it’s actually accurate.
[00:09:06.430] – Sean Kosofsky
And then you can do your own sort of work where it is packaging the work you do, the accomplishments you’ve had and pitching newsrooms or building relationships with reporters or publishers or in some cases influencers to get a larger audience for your organization.
[00:09:21.930] – Sean Kosofsky
But I do think one of the biggest things out there is getting the discipline down for organizations to understand what is my key message? What is the thing that I want to say and that I’m talking to the reader and to the viewer, not to the reporter, right? You’re trying to reach the actual public, not some conduit, not some journalists. They are helpful. They are important. But they are a means to getting the truth out to the public. That’s what journalism does, and that’s what the news media does. And successful organizations will know how to harness the media to get out its point of view and its perspective.
[00:09:54.250] – Boris
Okay, awesome. Let’s break all of that down. So first of all, you mentioned holding truth to power and watchdogging. Does that mean whenever you see something that you disagree with out in the media, it’s about putting out a statement? Is it trying to get in touch with the publication source, or is it just putting out your own thing somewhere else? How do you define watchdogging? What does that kind of look like for an organization?
[00:10:20.950] – Sean Kosofsky
I think if you… Let’s say you’re an organization in Metro Detroit, my hometown. And the Detroit News or the Detroit Free Press is deciding to cover something in the news, like the recent shooting in Oxford Township, Michigan. There was this shooting there, right? If you’re an organization working on public safety or gun issues or gun safety, or if you’re a gun advocate, whatever the issue is. If there is an article or a series of articles covering something that is untrue or is based on a premise that you believe is untrue, you can contact that reporter and contact the different media outlets and use the coverage of what you’re seeing as part of what story it is you want to cover, right?
[00:10:59.500] – Sean Kosofsky
Simply pointing out the bias or pointing out the lack of information included in news articles can be newsworthy. So when I say watchdog, I don’t mean being a pain in the butt, right? I just mean that folks can absolutely reach out to journalists or to the editorial page or to broadcasters or to independent journalists and bloggers and say, “Hey, here’s something I’m noticing happening and this needs to be corrected.” This is part of the whole issue environment that we’re traveling in right now that people keep referring to with this word or this term or with the wrong angle. And those are things you can do as a watchdog.
[00:11:33.750] – Sean Kosofsky
Or you can also put out your own statement, right? Responding to the events of the day with your own written statement through email, through press statements, through social media. All of that can have an echo effect for your followers to be saying the same thing that you are and elevating that perspective.
[00:11:50.050] – Boris
I love that because it’s empowering your supporters to really get your message out there more and feel like they are helping the cause at the same time. Like it’s an easy action that they could take to share your message in response to something to get more people looking at it from your point of view.
[00:12:07.010] – Sean Kosofsky
[00:12:08.110] – Boris
So then it seems like you’re talking about major news outlets, right? In this case, like the Detroit Free Press. What about these smaller or more independent outlets that you’re talking about, these smaller local news outlets or even some of these folks you mentioned influencers earlier. You’ve got… Right now, as we’re talking, there’s an ongoing I don’t know if it’s a scandal or debate about Joe Rogan and his influence on Spotify. I don’t think a lot of nonprofits are going to be able to reach out to Joe Rogan and say, “No, I want airtime on your show.” Right? So what is it that we can do when it’s not a major news outlet, but yet we want to respond to something or change the conversation around something?
[00:12:59.890] – Sean Kosofsky
Well, a lot of people are getting their news more locally. So obviously a ton of people are tuning into Rogan and they’re getting information from huge influencers, Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow. They’re getting their information from huge sources, right? But I think the most important thing for most nonprofits is to focus locally, right? So if you notice… again, newsrooms are shrinking, so there’s fewer and fewer journalists. So these newspapers are subscribing to content around the country.
[00:13:26.790] – Sean Kosofsky
So if your company owns the Washington Post and like 30 other newspapers around the country, you’re going to recycle the same articles around the country to save money. So if you’re a local paper in the thumb of Michigan—folks from Michigan know there’s like a thumb in the shape there—there’s local papers there that might be just syndicating or copying or subscribing to the same misinformation that’s happening around the country.
[00:13:47.780] – Sean Kosofsky
A year ago, for example, a year ago maybe this week was the big freeze in Texas where they had this giant storm that froze the entire state or for vast swaths of the state. And there was a huge disinformation campaign about what was to blame, right? Was it the windmills which people were circulating images of windmills that were not in Texas and saying that this is the reason why this happened. So as someone who works on climate and clean energy, I know that that is a perfect moment to reach out to your local paper and say, “Look, we all know locally where our energy is actually coming from, especially in Texas.” It is gas and oil, right? So we know that it’s not the windmills causing this problem. So there are opportunities locally to have an impact. And then when people are doing fact checking or their Google searching, as they are right now around the one year anniversary of that thing that happened in Texas, they can see the truth, right?
[00:14:35.480] – Sean Kosofsky
So you might not be able to break through with the large folks who might have a commercial interest in actually spreading disinformation or misinformation. But locally you can have an impact. National nonprofits typically are a lot more sophisticated and have a larger press list and can actually go after a Joe Rogan or someone else and say, “You need to stop this.” And there’s a lot of advocacy right now around what’s happening with Spotify, misinformation about COVID-19 and artists pulling back their content from Spotify. So that’s an activism thing.
[00:15:03.800] – Sean Kosofsky
We’re seeing this opportunity of how do we confront misinformation and disinformation? And one of the creative tactics emerging is getting artists to take a stand in this area, not just on Spotify, pulling back their content until they correct things on the Joe Rogan show about these vaccines, but also in many, many other ways where we’re seeing people use artists to tackle these large platforms because the little guy might not be able to do that.
[00:15:29.510] – Boris
Right. So it’s leveraging someone else’s power who might believe in you and is hopefully already part of your community in one way or another to get them to draw attention to something because they have that bigger platform to speak from.
[00:15:43.670] – Sean Kosofsky
Right. Absolutely. Depending on your issue, depending on your locality, depending on the demographics you serve, you’re going to have different tactics available to you.
[00:15:51.860] – Boris
Very cool. And I like the statement you made about larger nonprofits will have a more national reach and have larger distribution lists, whereas local nonprofits, smaller nonprofits, whatever it might be, can still have an impact on a smaller or more local scale, but still a dramatic impact. I also think that it’s sometimes an opportunity for a smaller nonprofit to break out and get its voice heard on a much larger scale, sort of go viral, if you will, if they do take a great stance in opposition to something that’s going on and make their voice heard.
[00:16:28.270] – Sean Kosofsky
[00:16:29.830] – Boris
So then how do we develop these relationships with newsrooms? You mentioned that earlier. And when I think of developing a relationship, it’s communication, it’s getting on phone calls or going out to dinner with somebody, before COVID you’d take a client out to dinner or something like that. I don’t imagine that that’s how it happens necessarily with newsrooms. But what do you do? How do you get that going?
[00:16:56.770] – Sean Kosofsky
Well, I think that the first and most important thing, if you’re a local organization, which most nonprofits are or even regional or statewide, the most important thing you need to do is create a media list. A media list can be really simple. It can be a one-page piece of paper or a spreadsheet or someplace or in your donor database, wherever you’re keeping track of contact information, to create a list of all of the outlets that you want to have a relationship with. These can be daily papers. These can be weekly alternative news magazines that tell you about concerts coming to town, all that stuff. If you’re in a rural area, it might be the local register that talks about like purse snatching or the price of agricultural products. I don’t mean to be dismissive of that, but like those smaller town rags, people gobble that information up, right? And the information is hyper, hyper local typically, right?
[00:17:47.490] – Sean Kosofsky
So if you’re working in a rural environment or a local environment, make a list of all of the outlets that you want to be in, including digital. So don’t just think of broadcast in print. Think about, does someone have a great blog? Does someone have an important Substack or Medium channel that they can, or even a Facebook following or Instagram following that you want to make sure that that person is on your list of people to build a relationship with. And then over time, if you have anyone focused on communications in your organization, have that person or the executive director be the main point of contact with that person. You want to be familiar with these folks. You want to be helpful to these folks.
[00:18:28.230] – Sean Kosofsky
Most journalists and writers, they have deadlines, they have facts, they have things they need to do. And if you can be a resource to them and make their job easier, they’re going to call you every single time. One of the most important things with media is to make it easy for the media to cover your issue. I send out a press release that has three quotes in it already from experts. I’ve made their job so much easier as a reporter, right? So they’re going to call me every single time an issue comes up on my topic because I make it easy for them.
[00:18:56.480] – Sean Kosofsky
So build a list of your outlets. Who’s the person there? Get their Twitter handle, all that different stuff, and then begin building that relationship regularly with them and make it easy. Then they start calling you. You don’t even have to do the pitching.
[00:19:10.930] – Boris
How does that work, though? How do you start building that relationship? Is there just a cold outreach that you do, a campaign where you just start either tweeting at them or you send them an email somehow. How do you begin that relationship?
[00:19:25.760] – Sean Kosofsky
Yes, it’s totally cold. If you have a warm connection, great. But unlike fundraising, where it’s a little trickier, right? You want to make sure you come in as a fundraiser in a way that warms them up or doesn’t look too salesy or whatever. But for a reporter, you want to help them do their job better. They want resources. They want people who are sources. They want people giving them information. So it’s actually a lot easier with journalists.
[00:19:47.840] – Sean Kosofsky
I would just reach right out to them with a phone call. People don’t make phone calls anymore. They text or they email. But I really strongly recommend when it comes to a reporter because they deal in facts and they deal with clarity. And sometimes getting a conversation on the phone is so much better than something over email or text. I would definitely reach out, even if it’s cold, and say, “Hi, this is my name. This is the organization I work with. We are experts in this. And whenever you cover this issue, we’d love to be considered as an expert source.”
[00:20:15.350] – Sean Kosofsky
And we do this all the time. My clients, we do this. We reach out to daily and regional outlets and say, “Please make sure we are on your short list of sources when you’re covering gun violence or when you’re covering climate.” So that you start getting calls. But yeah, it does start as a cold outreach. And it could be again, text, social media. But I always recommend a phone call if you can find their phone number.
[00:20:37.090] – Boris
So I’m really glad you said that you should just do a cold outreach and just introduce yourself and try to get on their list. I was wondering, should you wait until there’s an opportunity, until they’re actually talking about something that you can give input to and respond to?
[00:20:55.370] – Sean Kosofsky
No, I would say be a resource before your subject pops, right? When a reporter has… Reporters have deadlines, sometimes multiple per day. They have several stories that they need to get this topic or this 500 words or whatever it is to their editor by 01:00 p.m., right? They have very little time. It is like a very, very deadline-driven career. And so you want to be top of mind that they have things like on their desk or in their phone. They immediately can know who they can pull up, right? They do keyword searches and figure out who do I go call. And so you don’t want to wait until something breaks or something explodes or some topic erupts for you to get in front of them. Obviously, that’s a good time to start if you’re late. But you don’t want to wait for that moment, right? You definitely want to be an expert in their mind before they need a resource.
[00:21:44.290] – Boris
Really cool. And I just wanted to add, because you were saying earlier about local and regional publications for the smaller nonprofits. I think there’s another opportunity that today, because anyone can start their own media channel, there are certainly specialized media channels as well. So it might not be a publication or a news outlet of some sort that covers many different topics, but it might be a specialized blog or like you said, Substack or Medium that’s talking about something very specific that you really are an expert in.
[00:22:16.830] – Boris
And one of the things that I love about media outreach in general and the types of strategies that you’re outlining is, it really establishes your organization and individuals within it as thought leaders in the space. And every brand wants to be a thought leader. So this is an opportunity to put your nonprofit brand out there as one as well, right?
[00:22:39.790] – Sean Kosofsky
Absolutely. I think that there are many, many places now where people are basically publishing. So in addition to blogs, in addition to social media, there are now Substacks and Medium. Medium was launched five or six years ago to be a new publishing platform for creators or anyone to help them to develop their own audience. Substack is the same way. I can create a newsletter and get paid for that newsletter for my own individual content. Individuals are now publishers, and increasingly people who are experts or just really opinionated are publishing their own stuff. And if it strikes a chord or it’s accurate or they uncover something really interesting, it just takes off or it goes viral.
[00:23:19.550] – Sean Kosofsky
I can’t tell you the power that is in that, simply being local makes you an expert. Someone nationally could just need a local take on something going on. For example, simply being a local person in a battleground state heading into a presidential election could make your voice really matter about what you’re seeing on the ads on TV, what you’re seeing about whether politicians are talking about your issue or not.
[00:23:41.550] – Sean Kosofsky
So lots of folks can use social media. You can begin just tweeting what you’re seeing happening live with police violence or something, anything at all, right? And people are going to start gravitating toward your platform, whether it’s your Twitter feed or whether it’s your Substack or whether it’s your Facebook group. You can start publishing anywhere where you can develop an audience.
[00:24:00.170] – Sean Kosofsky
So nonprofits have access to all of these platforms for free. Substack is free. All these things are free. Social media is largely free. Tik-Tok, all of these things. So don’t hesitate to use your platform and your topic as a reason for creating expertise. If you want to be a thought leader, begin putting out not just newsletters to your own members, but commentary and comment out to the public through a different channel. It’s an additional way to get noticed by the press.
[00:24:28.510] – Boris
One more channel I’d add to that is, well, it’s a combined channel of shows like this one where people are doing either video or podcasts, exclusively audio and they build up an audience, they build up a following. And like me, for example, they’re always looking for great guests. They’re always looking for people who can speak to something that may be topical or at least relevant to their audience. So it’s another opportunity to put yourself out there and to develop your thought leadership and branding out in the world.
[00:24:57.220] – Boris
I do want to ask if, let’s say your organization, a nonprofit, has the resources to have multiple people in these roles where they have a marketing—a dedicated marketing person, dedicated press person, or maybe they’re the same person, but whom should they be pitching? Should it just be anyone in the organization, or should they be trying to develop a relationship with, for example, the executive director or the head of a particular program that the organization is sponsoring?
[00:25:27.910] – Sean Kosofsky
So to make sure I understand your question correctly, who would be doing the pitching in this situation?
[00:25:33.320] – Boris
It’s not necessarily who would be doing the pitching, but you talked earlier about establishing relationships and saying, “Hey, we are in authority on this.” When it comes to a reporter calling for some sort of input or quoting someone, I would imagine usually it would go to someone who is on a senior level at the organization. Do you try to say, feel free to reach out to so and so at any time, or how do you structure that relationship?
[00:26:03.130] – Sean Kosofsky
So for the nonprofit itself, you usually have dedicated people who are the actual spokespeople for the organization. Usually it’s the executive director or senior level staff that have been given clearance to talk to reporters. So for the reporters out there to know who to talk to usually start with the executive director. They’re usually the biggest conduit, right?
[00:26:20.690] – Sean Kosofsky
And then internally in a nonprofit, you could dedicate someone on an issue to being a spokesperson based on their seniority or based on their closeness to the issue, right? So you could say, I have a frontline organizer who is involved in this local community where this horrible thing happened. And simply by being from that community makes them an expert. I deputized them sort of to become our reporter, to become our media spokesperson. So I’m not sure if that really answers your question, but I definitely think within organizations you should have a strategy for who can speak. And people should definitely get trained. You don’t want to put folks out there in front of a reporter without getting some kind of media training. It can go bad. And then for reporters and journalists out there, definitely they have a beat.
[00:27:01.420] – Sean Kosofsky
Normally, with newsroom shrinking, it’s harder to have just one beat. Sometimes one reporter is covering four beats now, so they need to know who inside an organization is their first point of contact because they are in a hurry. Reporters definitely want someone who can respond on the spot. A lot of folks are like, “Oh, let me think about this and get back with you.” Well, reporters aren’t going to call you back again if you constantly have to make them wait. If you’re able to get on the phone and immediately give comment because you are practiced, they’re going to call you way more frequently in the future. So that’s the person you want in your nonprofit basically taking these calls.
[00:27:33.170] – Boris
That’s exactly what I was trying to find out from you is, do you have within your organization folks who are deputized, as you just said, or really authorized to speak on behalf of the organization, to speak to media and hopefully are trained in doing so? That’s exactly on point. Thank you.
[00:27:51.250] – Boris
So then we’ve developed this relationship. We know who in our organization can speak to certain topics when they are called upon to do so. But there is this other angle of pitching, pitching your stories. I know that reporters are constantly and publications are constantly looking for content. And if you could give them something worth publishing that works for them, they’ll be happy to take it a lot of times. But what goes into a pitch and this is part of your superpower, so I’m going to really put you on the spot here. How do you structure a pitch? What goes into a pitch to a potential publication?
[00:28:33.280] – Sean Kosofsky
So different than fundraising, when you’re pitching a newsroom, you have to be thinking there’s two sides of this. There’s what do I know newsrooms want to hear? And then there’s what do I want to say as a source, right? So the first thing as a source, as an organization, I have to be thinking about what is actually newsworthy about this moment? Just because it’s not making headlines doesn’t mean it isn’t newsworthy. I’ve uncovered a new trend, a new piece of information, some new facts, some new report that came out that a reporter didn’t know about. What makes it new? What makes it newsworthy, right? So when I go to pitch a newsroom, I can’t just be like, “Hey, climate change is happening.” Yeah, we know. What’s new about this, right? So the first question is going to be, what do you have that makes this deadline-driven medium and this deadline-driven culture newsworthy?
[00:29:14.140] – Sean Kosofsky
So the first thing is, why is it new and why is it newsworthy? Did someone locally do something? So make it local. The more you can make anything local, the more interesting it is. You also have to be able to make something super like national. Not only is this thing happening here in Poughkeepsie, but it’s also a national problem, and here’s why. So make sure it’s new and newsworthy, but you can localize it and nationalize it, that goes into any kind of pitch.
[00:29:37.890] – Sean Kosofsky
What I need to be thinking about as I pitch is what’s on the other side of that pitch call, which is the reporter’s constraint, which is why should I care? Every news desk, every editor of every outlet out there is getting 500 people pitching them for news stories every single day. And every day they are throwing all of them in the trash saying, “Why do I care? Why do I care?” So if you can break through to them and say why this matters to your readers, to your constituency, to your stakeholders, that’s how you’re going to break through.
[00:30:05.750] – Sean Kosofsky
So for the reporter side, they have an editor that they need to get this through, right? And that you need to convince them why this matters now. So the case, the super succinct way that you can explain why this matters, human harm, suffering, violence, corruption, what is happening right there that you can prove that will break through because that’s the number one filter they’re using is, why do I care? In order to sift through the 500 different pitches they’re getting.
[00:30:31.810] – Boris
It sounds like what I teach in storytelling a lot. And what I learned in fourth grade, which is you want to really present the who, what, when, where, and most importantly, why, why it’s relevant, why it’s significant, why it deserves column inches in print or screen inches on digital.
[00:30:53.050] – Sean Kosofsky
[00:30:54.310] – Boris
Cool. All right, Sean, I want to be very conscious of your time, and we’re hitting the 30-minutes mark now. I know that when I asked you for resources, you had a whole bunch of them that you wanted to share with us. Give me the highlights, which… I’ll link to all of them in the show notes. They’ll all be there for folks to find. But what should people be looking at as they’re trying to develop their own idea of media strategy?
[00:31:16.850] – Sean Kosofsky
So if you have a little bit of a budget, I definitely would say folks could look into Cision. It’s a little tricky spelling. I think it’s C-I-S-I-O-N. Or some people might know one of their products as PR Newswire. If you don’t have an in-house communications capacity, you could pay for a subscription to disseminate your news releases everywhere. I will say that I don’t always think that just blasting news releases all over the country is the best use of your dollar. But it is a way for some organizations to get into newsrooms for sure. So Cision and PR Newswire is one way you can both pay to track news and also to distribute news.
[00:31:52.580] – Sean Kosofsky
Another way is Meltwater. Meltwater is just one of the many ones out there that does clipping service. So if you’re getting a lot of coverage and you want to track trends or your opposition is getting lots of coverage and you want to track trends, Meltwater could be an interesting tool. I don’t know the pricing right now, but I know that you can subscribe to Meltwater.
[00:32:09.860] – Sean Kosofsky
But for those on a budget, I think that Google Alerts is really powerful. You can set a Google Alert on anyone, any topic, any keyword, any event, and see what’s actually happening the minute something hits a blog or the news, you will get an email on that or get a daily digest on that. That’s a free option for you.
[00:32:26.980] – Sean Kosofsky
Another way to see whether something is popping in terms of a trend, to see whether something is newsworthy is to use Google Trends. Google Trends is free. Anyone can go to Google Trends right now and see what words are popping. Is it some popstar like Dua Lipa, or is it something about Ukraine right now? What issues are popping? How can your issue fit into that trending issue, right? See if you can figure out whether your topic matches something that’s in the national conversation right now.
[00:32:53.480] – Sean Kosofsky
If you have a Twitter account which is totally free, they have a trending section, right? See what’s actually popping on Twitter right now and see if your issue can sort of fit into there. Those are different ways for free or for cost that you can kind of track issues and then use that to capitalize on how to fit your issue into that stream, right? Another tool out there for folks… Can I mention the tools that I have or you want to check…
[00:33:16.440] – Boris
Sure. I usually ask anyway, what is your call to action? What do you want people to do? And I’m happy to have you promote any of your work that you think is relevant to this. So please go.
[00:33:27.140] – Sean Kosofsky
Excellent. Yeah. So folks, I think in the show notes you’ll be able to get these links and stuff. But I think that one of the things that’s really important is for nonprofits to learn how to create a unique value proposition. This is something created by marketers and the private sector to help understand how to sell products. But I think nonprofits could really benefit from learning how to take not just their case statement, but also take a new thing called a unique value proposition and really explain to people why my organization is the most suited to solve a particular social problem and what the call to action is.
[00:33:58.650] – Sean Kosofsky
I have a free guide on how to create a unique value proposition. I didn’t see anyone out there offering this particular tool, so I have a free resource for you to download on that. I also have a handout that you can grab for handling tough media questions. Some folks want to avoid the media because they don’t like being put on the spot and they’re afraid of getting really tough media questions. I have a free guide about handling tough media questions, rapid fire questions, trick questions, all that stuff.
[00:34:25.650] – Sean Kosofsky
And then also you can grab my full course, which is not very expensive at all. But I have a course training nonprofit leaders, how to do media engagement, how to write press releases, how to do editorials, how to actually craft your message. All of that is based in my course Media Skills Crash Course for Nonprofits, and I’ve been spending many, many years training people on how to do the media. And so you’ll get a link to that course there. So those are just some of the resources I have today.
[00:34:51.320] – Boris
I really appreciate all of them. The free ones I use all the time. Google News Alerts and Google Trends. Google Trends is interesting. You might find things that you weren’t really looking for there, but there’s definitely really great knowledge to be absorbed from it. I know I’ve worked with Cision before as well, and I know that you put out great stuff. So I’m actually going to check out some of those resources.
[00:35:14.150] – Boris
I talk about unique value proposition when I work out an organization’s storytelling plan. But as you just said, I’ve never actually seen just a tool to figure that out. So I’m really curious, actually, how you do it. And I encourage everyone to go check it out. We’re going to have all the links to all of the resources that Sean mentioned, whether they’re on his site or some others in our show notes. So I hope everybody will come and check those out. Any parting words for the folks at home, Sean?
[00:35:41.080] – Sean Kosofsky
No, just I really encourage folks to lean in, engage the public, engage the media. It’s your friend. You really can be more powerful and get a huge audience for your nonprofit and make a bigger impact faster by engaging the media. So don’t sit on the sidelines. Engage.
[00:35:56.110] – Boris
Absolutely. Thank you, Sean, for breaking all of that down. You didn’t hold back anything that I was asking. You broke it down as best as possible. And I hope that organizations—nonprofit leaders, because organizations don’t have ears, but nonprofit leaders do—who are listening to this really do follow up and take the actions to engage with media. Get your voices heard. Don’t let the story be controlled by the Joe Rogan’s. No offense. Not that he’s going to be listening, but no offense, if you’re a fan of his, don’t let them control the narrative. Take charge, take power back and hold truth to power or yes, hold truth to power like Sean said earlier.
[00:36:35.200] – Boris
Thank you, Sean, for joining us. Thank you, everybody for watching and listening today. I hope we have helped you create more heroes for your cause with these strategies. If you enjoyed it, please, please, please do leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite platform so that more folks like you can consume this content, can find it, and can create more heroes for their cause, too. Have a great day, everybody.
[00:36:57.550] – Intro 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:
- Sean’s story began as it has for so many others, feeling hardship in his own life and not wanting others to struggle in the same way. (2:48)
- The news and media environment has changed significantly. Newsrooms are shrinking their staff as more news sources have become available. This makes it hard for nonprofits to compete for the attention of journalists at larger publications, but also more opportunities for attention at the local level. (4:45)
- It also means that there’s a lot more polarization based on where people choose to get their news today. Nonprofits themselves have an opinion about the problem they want to solve in the world that others might not share. (5:41)
- It’s critical that nonprofits try to get involved in making the news and shaping the narrative, rather than let it happen to them. Such as: (8:21)
- Speaking truth to power, correcting or rebutting the mistruths or problematic stories that news media puts out.
- Packaging the work you do and your accomplishments and developing relationships with reporters and publishers
- Nonprofits first have to understand their own key message. What’s important for your audience to know? (9:21)
- Watchdogging: “Simply pointing out the bias or pointing out the lack of information included in news articles can be newsworthy.” (11:00)
- Focusing media efforts on local issues and publications can actually have broader reach, as many of them syndicate content to affiliates around the country. (13:00)
- It is difficult for a small nonprofit to compete with large influencers, but they may be able to find influencers on a similar level who can help them get their narrative across and to whom larger media will listen. (14:35)
- Developing relationships with reporters starts with creating a media list of outlets and reporters with whom you want to have a relationship—both traditional and new media. (16:29)
- If you can be a resource to journalists who are stretched thin in a way that makes their jobs easier, they will want to keep working with you again and again. So make it easy on them. (18:28)
- Start building the relationship by reaching out to them directly, even if it’s a cold call. Sean recommends calling the reporter on the phone. (19:26)
- Introduce yourself and the value that you offer to the reporter.
- Ask to be on their shortlist of sources for covering your topic.
- You don’t want to wait until a topic erupts before you get in front of reporters. You want to have a relationship by then so that they turn to you when it arises. (21:25)
- Getting your message out in the media helps establish your organization’s expertise and authority on the subject. Sometimes being a local expert can catapult you on to a national stage. (22:18)
- Anyone (or any organization) can become their own media company today with online tools for sharing your stories. Developing your own audiences on these channels is another way to get the established media to notice you and think of you for news stories. (22:40)
- Who should be the point of contact for media at your organization? Nonprofits should have designated individuals on the team who are authorized to speak to the press on particular subjects. (24:57)
- These people should be trained in dealing and speaking with media.
- Newsrooms are constantly looking for great content. Your pitch has to present it to them in a clear value-driven way. (28:04)
- What is newsworthy about this moment?
- How does your local problem resonate on a national level?
- Why should the reporter being pitched care about this story? You have to be able to relate it back to their readers, and why they’ll care about it.
- Sean recommends free and paid tools that you can use to track what’s happening in the news around your cause, and what’s trending that you might be able to speak to? (30:54)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Sean KosofskyOwner, Mind the Gap Consulting
Sean Kosofsky is the Nonprofit Fixer! He is a coach, consultant, trainer, and strategic advisor to nonprofits. For the past 28 years, he has helped causes, campaigns and candidates raise millions of dollars and transformed nonprofit organizations and leaders. He has served in a wide variety of roles in nonprofits (policy, communications, development, organizer, direct service, boards, and five stints as an executive director. He has worked on a wide range of issues including LGBTQ equality, reproductive justice, voting access, bullying prevention, climate change, and more.
His work has been covered in media outlets internationally and has received numerous awards. He is an author and the owner of Mind the Gap consulting. Sean is currently the Executive Director of Climate Advocacy Lab. He is a proud Detroit native, but lives in NY with his husband and their dog, Harry.
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 42
The Behavioral Science of Rallying Support in the Digital Age, with Sarah Welch
In this Episode:
The digital age, accelerated by the pandemic, has pushed most activities, including fundraising online. That has opened up our stories to audiences around the world. At the same time, that has removed some of the personal connection that we have to each other and causes.
Sarah Welch is a behavioral scientist and Vice President at ideas42. She focuses her time thinking about—and helping organizations—affect positive change through the principals of behavioral science.
Sarah joined the show to chat about what’s been happening in the nonprofit world. How do we navigate the changing landscape and rally support for causes large and small?
Read the Transcript
[00:00:05.210] – 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!
[00:00:21.370] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of my favorite topics. I do have a few. I’d love to geek out about many things. One of them is behavioral science and specifically the ways that we could apply the insights of behavioral science that have come out over the last—I don’t know, 20, 30 years now that have really changed the way we understand human behavior, how to apply those towards for good causes like nonprofit communications, like fundraising, like making the world a better place for all of us.
[00:00:56.090] – Boris
Today, I’ve got Sarah Welch with me on the show. She is the Vice President of ideas42, where she helps lead behavioral innovations in two focused areas; improving the way donors at all levels give to charity and tackling climate change. Prior to joining ideas42, Sarah completed a three-year dual-degree program at Yale School of Management and School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where she focused on urban resource management and planning.
[00:01:23.770] – Boris
In her past life, Sarah was an ecological designer, restoring natural habitats in and around New York City, which is pretty cool. Sarah holds an MBA and an MEM from Yale and received her BA in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard. She’d take cheese over cake any day. Sarah describes her superpower as using behavioral science, which gives us a deep understanding of why humans do what they do to unlock better giving by donors to the organizations they care about. And if that’s not an ideal topic for one of our shows, I don’t know what is. So with that, let’s bring Sarah onto the show.
[00:02:00.910] – Sarah Welch
Hi. Hi, Boris.
[00:02:03.390] – Boris
Hi, Sarah. Welcome. Thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate your time. I read your impressive bio with all the impressive schools that you attended. I’m sure you have a lot of great stuff to share with us. Now you have to live up to that bio, of course.
[00:02:17.790] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. Jeez, thanks for setting expectations.
[00:02:21.430] – Boris
But let’s just start with something simple, which is, what’s your story? Why are you doing what you do today?
[00:02:29.050] – Sarah Welch
I love that question. So now I work in behavioral science, right? And I try to understand why humans do what they do. But as you recounted so accurately, I started my career working in landscape design and ecology. I thought I wanted to be a landscape architect, and so I had this kind of did all this work and I eventually went to Grad school, felt a little lost. While I was at Grad school, I discovered behavioral economics, of course, at Yale and kind of had this light bulb moment where I realized the thing that it was so interesting to me about nature and the environment and landscape wasn’t actually… the trees are wonderful. Right. That’s really cool.
[00:03:13.450] – Sarah Welch
But the thing that would be interesting was how humans interacted with that landscape. Right? How are humans taking cues from their environment and then making decisions? And so when I discovered behavioral economics, behavioral science, one of the key tenets of that, is that our context and what’s around us, our environment is influencing our behavior and our biases. That for me was just like, oh, this is it. This is what I’ve been looking for. And so after grad school, I founded ideas42 and I’ve been doing this work ever since. And I still like trees, but it’s a different feeling about them now.
[00:03:51.830] – Boris
Now you help more people understand why they like trees and why they’re important.
[00:03:55.440] – Sarah Welch
[00:03:56.160] – Boris
And why they should value them, because, you know, little thing called climate change.
[00:04:02.310] – Sarah Welch
Right. So I mean, the social impact piece is really important to me. Right? So I could have, I guess, just left and gone and worked in… marketing has a lot of the same aspects to it. But for me, I still had that social impact drive and ideas42, we’re a nonprofit organization also, and we work across the spectrum. So in my time there, I’ve been lucky enough to work on education projects and health projects and criminal justice, climate change, eventually. And now philanthropy and giving, which has been super fascinating.
[00:04:36.990] – Boris
I love, love, love behavioral science. It can be applied to so many different things. It’s really a way of understanding how our brains work and how we respond to things and really take action. Why we take action, why we do the things we do. What are the stories we tell ourselves about the things that we do, which I’m always fascinated about in every single webinar I do, or course that I present, I quote Danny Kahneman who is… correct me if I’m wrong, one of the fathers of behavioral economics and behavioral science as a whole, who said that no one ever made a decision because of a number they need a story. To me, that’s just total validation that, A. Storytelling is critical but, B. That behavioral science and understanding how people think and why they do the things they do will really help us help them make the decisions that are going to benefit all of us in the end.
[00:05:35.700] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. I drink the Kool-Aid. I believe in all that. I find it so compelling personally, too. Right. I mean just right now I told you a story about how I became interested in behavioral economics. And to be quite honest, that’s something that developed after the fact. It’s just something that we all do as humans is we tell our stories afterwards. Right. We have the storytelling urge.
[00:05:55.470] – Boris
Yeah. It’s the way we organize information in our brains. We need some sort of causality. We need a beginning, middle, end to it. We need that moment of discovery or overcoming an obstacle. Otherwise, it doesn’t really feel as fulfilling in a lot of ways. I wish it was simpler because I’d sure be happy to not have to go through several obstacles to get to epiphanies and things like that. But it works, and it’s getting us… society forward for the most part. Occasionally we take a step back, but I’m happy to geek out about all this stuff all day.
[00:06:26.350] – Boris
But let’s focus in on what hopefully our audiences are interested in, which is specifically how to apply this stuff to nonprofits and the work that we’re doing. What are you seeing out there in the nonprofit space these days? I know that lots has been going on, obviously over the last couple of years, specifically. And then with the development and new concepts in behavioral science, talk to us Sarah. What’s happening out there?
[00:06:51.080] – Sarah Welch
Well, there’s so much that I would love to cover. And Boris, I encourage you… I have so many colleagues who are working all sorts of interesting things and so many other people in the space. I spend a lot of my time now focused on philanthropy, which is really saying, why do people give, whether that’s time or money or voice or energy, whatever it is, why are we altruistic? Why do we help others? It doesn’t actually rationally really make that much sense. And so it’s actually quite behavioral and really fascinating to dig into that.
[00:07:24.910] – Sarah Welch
And sort of the overall challenge there is that over the past decade or so, I think household giving has been going down so trending downward people. And to be clear, what we’re talking about when we say that is like tax-deductible gifts that can be recorded that we see. Right. So the pandemic might have contributed to a little bit of an upward momentary blip there. But generally it’s been going downward. And that’s fascinating and challenging for the nonprofit sector that a lot of nonprofits rely on that type of fundraising to carry them forward.
[00:08:03.610] – Sarah Welch
It also means that people who are billionaires with lots of money to give suddenly will continue to have outside voice and disproportionate voice in the sector. And that comes with its own sort of challenges, even if they mean well, they are kind of unelected people with a huge amount of power. So there is an argument to continue to have these individual voices being part of how the nonprofit fundraising sector works. Right. Yeah. In that space, we’ve seen this downward trend.
[00:08:38.830] – Sarah Welch
But then there’s been other things, I think lately that we think a lot about. One is that the pandemic really did shift a lot of things. Right? It caused the whole nation, the whole world really, I think… to have a reckoning with equity and ask questions about like who has power and why do they have that power? And how do we shift it if we need to? What does it mean to be part of a community? How do we interact with people virtually if we have to rather than in person? All those things have come to bear on the philanthropic sector as well.
[00:09:09.620] – Sarah Welch
And so I’ve seen a lot of discussion right around. Like how do we take those questions of power and bring those into giving and who’s donating and to where are they donating? But also what counts as giving? Right. So in the pandemic, we saw this rise in mutual aid, which is not counted when we do the tax deductible giving. Right. But there’s also just like you and I don’t know, being kind to our neighbors or helping someone out or during the pandemic, it became a thing about shopping local, right? Are you supporting restaurants and giving big tips? All of those things all kind of come together into one big picture about what it means to be a generous and kind of person in a community. So there’s been a lot of talking too now about how do we recognize that type of giving?
[00:09:53.230] – Boris
I want to break down a lot of that stuff because it’s absolutely fascinating and critical to understand in greater detail. So I did an episode a little while back with Doug White, who is a philanthropy expert as well. And we talked about this that, yes, overall giving actually has gone up while individual per capita giving has gone down. So philanthropists are the bigger philanthropists, let’s just say, let’s call them billionaires for lack of better word. But honestly, anybody over $10 million that’s giving a net worth, that’s giving so much more than an average person.
[00:10:30.920] – Boris
If the majority of people are giving less and the minority are giving more, then the minority can dictate what programs get funded, which nonprofits they’re interested in and the types of work that they’re doing, that’s what’s going to happen. Even schools and universities get funding from big-name philanthropists who may or may not want their name on a building. And that dictates the direction they could go, because that’s the money that they could spend on certain things. So it’s definitely an issue and a cause for concern in our society today, where we want that element of our network of our… what is it called? The social safety net, if you will. To be more democratic for the entire population in one way or another, to get a say in what we think is most important today for those of us who are perhaps less privileged or for society as a whole. So that’s definitely an issue that I recognize and appreciate that you’re working on to help solve.
[00:11:37.900] – Boris
The other things that you’re talking about in terms of the trade offs in the different types of giving that are going on and how things aren’t measured. Yeah, during coronavirus during the heights of the pandemic, it was a lot more about coming together as a community, protecting each other, hopefully in various ways, even the act of wearing a mask when you’re not afraid yourself you’re going to get coronavirus, but you’re wearing it to protect others. There’s something that gets reinvigorated in our social stream of consciousness, in our social contract to each other, where we feel more responsible to our neighbors and sometimes even to virtual neighbors around the world. Right?
[00:12:22.230] – Sarah Welch
Right. The virtual piece, I think, is super interesting. Right? And that’s another trend that I don’t think it’s going to go away is that, in general, we now have all these digital tools available to us, and in many ways, it makes things like giving much easier. Right? I can text a small number to give 10 bucks to somebody. Right? Or I can find something. I can find any charity I want online and send them a donation. But in other ways, there are trade offs there, too, because the old fashioned way of somebody coming up to you and asking you to give actually has a lot more weight when it’s so social and visible. And we are social creatures. And so I think there’s some trade offs there that we’ve been looking at, too. The rise in digital tools may have some trade offs in the social norm space. I think there’s something we can do with that. But that’s been another tension I think that we see in the space.
[00:13:18.190] – Boris
So dig into that for me. What is it that makes us give if someone is coming to us in person to ask? And I could visualize it in my head right now someone asking me that.
[00:13:30.480] – Sarah Welch
Yeah, it’s normal to feel that… as you describe that, what that feels like.
[00:13:32.300] – Boris
Yeah. It’s hard to say no to someone, to someone’s face unless you’re a New Yorker and are constantly being asked for money on the street. And at some point you feel like it’s overwhelming. It’s too much. You can’t help everybody so you stop. A lot of New Yorkers, and I’m sure homelessness is on the rise around the country. I’m sure not just in New York. But why is that more powerful than a digital ask and then what do we do about that?
[00:14:04.540] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. I mean, we’re ultimately such social creatures. Right. The behavioral economic phenomenon that we talk a lot about is social norms as described, basically refers to the fact that we are always subconsciously, even if not consciously comparing ourselves to our peers, especially in situations where we’re not quite sure what the right behavior is. And giving is full of that. Right. We’re never quite sure. Like, I don’t know. Should I give to this charity? Is this the right one? How much should I give things like that? And so that means that we are, I think, even more susceptible in cases where somebody’s asking you for money, ask you for a specific amount to those types of influences.
[00:14:46.430] – Sarah Welch
There’s research specific to charity about this. It sounds a little bit silly, but people will literally go out of their way to avoid being asked because of the guilt. Right. There’s a level of guilt that comes with saying no. They ran a study in like a shopping mall that had two exits. Right. And people went out of the way to avoid it was literally Santa Claus, I think ringing a bell to avoid that ask. And so, yeah, we’re just ultimately so social that it’s really hard to say no.
[00:15:14.130] – Sarah Welch
But I do think there’s something interesting here too, where, again, you imagine you are that person getting that ask, right. You feel a little icky. But after you make that donation, most of the time you still feel pretty good. You still have what we call “warm glow” from that donation. And that’s true of a lot of other sorts of pro-social activities. Maybe wearing the mask, right. You kind of feel pressured by other people to wear a mask, but you do feel good ultimately that you’re wearing that mask.
[00:15:43.070] – Sarah Welch
And so I think there is—it’s attention. And I don’t know if the answer is totally to get rid of it or rely too heavily on it. But we do see that when you make things sometimes to make things so easy, we put them online. Right? You remove that social aspect.
[00:15:59.630] – Sarah Welch
There’s one example that comes to mind. I think the combined federal campaign, the CFC, right. Sort of famous—or infamous, maybe depending how you felt about it—fundraising effort within the federal government. And the sort of old fashioned approach was people walking around, the pledge captains walking around, the office with clipboards and saying, “Hey, Boris, will you donate this year? How much are you going to give out of your paycheck?” And that’s social pressure, right? You would feel very obligated to contribute. I’m putting my reputation on the line by asking you and the CFC in general have been going down, just like individual giving overall have been trending downward for a number of years.
[00:16:40.690] – Sarah Welch
And I think somewhere around 2017 or so, in an attempt to make it at least easier to give, they put it all online. They got rid of the whole paper system. And that was also the year that they saw the biggest decrease. So suddenly you’ve taken away that social pressure. But you had put it online where the behavior was mostly invisible. And I don’t know, maybe Boris, you’re donating. But maybe you’re also just browsing the Internet on TikTok or whatever people did in 2017. So those trade offs are everywhere. Right. And again, I think there are ways that we can make digital tools still have that compelling social angle. But I think it’s an interesting thing to come to reckon with. Are we okay with that trade off if you’re not pressuring people? And what do you give up?
[00:17:26.570] – Boris
Yeah. So I’m personally all about digital adoption. But I’m also about storytelling and behavioral science and I totally understand. I used to live in Los Angeles, and I’d be walking in Santa Monica or on the streets of New York, and there would be a team of youngish adults with signs and clipboards and saying, “Hey, can I ask you a question? Do you like animals?” Or something like that. They’re just trying to rope you into a conversation. And, yeah, talk about avoidance. I would cross the street to go around them because I didn’t have time and I knew I might get sucked in or because I would feel guilty saying no in that specific situation.
[00:18:04.730] – Boris
I don’t know if there’s a direct translation to the digital version online. You’re right. We keep trying to remove friction. We keep trying to make it as easy as possible, going to the work of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The default option. The easiest option is the one that people are going to take the most. And please correct me if I’m wrong. But I think one of the biggest discoveries that they made in terms of behavior, whereas economics used to think of it as it’s all about reward and punishment, getting people to behave in certain ways and take certain actions. Behavioral economics said, actually, it’s a lot more nuanced than that because we’re not all econs, and the easiest way to get somebody to do something is to just make that the easiest path for them to go down. Right?
[00:18:55.110] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. Hassles are a real problem. They’re a real barrier. Tiny little things that we think don’t matter matter so much.
[00:19:04.610] – Boris
So, in digital fundraising specifically, but in general, in digital marketing and methodology, we’re always trying to make things as frictionless as possible. At the same time, we’re trying to get people to take the actions by telling them stories that help them connect to that particular cause, to a particular person perhaps. How do we find the balance? I don’t think there’s a virtual version of that gauntlet that I might walk down in Santa Monica or in New York where there are people on both sides of me trying to get my attention asking me, and maybe we don’t want that gauntlet. But how do we compensate for what we’re losing?
[00:19:46.370] – Sarah Welch
I know. I go back and forth on this, right? Like, do we want that gauntlet? You do see some of this in social media, right? Like Facebook introduced fundraising a while ago. Right? And that provides social visibility, social norming. During the pandemic we saw a lot of people talking either again online and then mostly or virtually about the actions that they’re taking that are pro-social, that are generous, that are helping people. So you get some of that, right. You’ll get some pressure from that.
[00:20:19.760] – Sarah Welch
I do think—I remember actually talking to one of our partners. She was saying that it’s super easy to get people to share things like lots and lots of people will share things online. So people love—you post something like, here’s a creative way to give back. And people are like, that’s great. Like, like, like. Share, share, share. But then they don’t actually donate. It’s very easy to get people to virtually saying all this, basically. Right. That’s what happens. That can happen in the virtual space.
[00:20:45.030] – Sarah Welch
But I do think there’s something promising. Again, I don’t think we cracked it yet… but I do think there’s something promising there. There are ways to think about, how do you hit that balance so that you can still bring in some of that social aspect? Or, I don’t know—sometimes I’m also like, maybe we need to just find some ways to bring it back into the in-person space as well. I haven’t quite figured that out yet.
[00:21:10.250] – Boris
Well, we’ll give you a little bit of slack on this one. It’s not the easiest problem to solve, but come back to us in a week and we want to you to have an answer.
[00:21:17.500] – Sarah Welch
[00:21:19.130] – Boris
There are of course, most organizations want to go back to the in-person events, to the in-person fundraising dinners and galas, because there is that social aspect, there is that social pressure, the person to the left of me and the person to the right of me just gave X amount of dollars. Well, I feel now that I should do my best, maybe even compete and outdo them, but at least try to match them or present that.
[00:21:45.610] – Boris
Well, I am a person who cares too, in one way or another. I know, actually, as we were talking, I was thinking Zoom recently introduced their in-meeting donation functionality. And one of the great things about it is when you give, it will let you instantly put up a little banner under your photo that says you gave. And talk about social pressure, if you’re seeing a screen of 12 faces or nine in that TV show format that… Where’s Alice? Sorry. If you’re seeing everyone else around you all of a sudden have that little banner. Oh, I gave, I gave, I gave. Yeah. You’re going to feel that pressure. So maybe there are ways to work that back in on the social and the digital side.
[00:22:32.860] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. That’s super interesting. I admit, I didn’t know about that. And now I really want to try it out. That’s awesome. I’m going to check… look into that because I think that yeah, that helps. Right? That’s different. That’s no longer like on a social media platform with some distance. That’s very intimate. That’s very like these are your peers giving in the moment. So I like that. That’s really interesting.
[00:22:52.430] – Boris
So we have the personal side of things. And I know that in behavioral science, and I know you work with this sort of thing. We talk a lot about telling that story, getting across that you can help a specific human being or an animal perhaps that we try to get someone to connect to a specific outcome in a specific person’s or someone’s life. What happens when we’re trying to impact more than just one person or one small community?
[00:23:31.100] – Boris
Now that we’re online, one of the advantages—one of the disadvantages that I should say first that you brought up, is now everyone’s online. And so now it’s who basically has the best marketing capability to get out there in front of people, right? Not necessarily who does the best work and has the greatest impact because we don’t respond to numbers, as Danny Kahneman said, we respond to stories. But one of the advantages is we can now find people around the world that are interested in what we’re doing in our little corner of the world or in the way that we’re trying to help the world to recover or to heal or to progress.
[00:24:14.070] – Boris
So where does behavioral science come in when we’re talking about bigger cause pictures and things that are not perhaps something that I myself can solve with a donation?
[00:24:28.610] – Sarah Welch
Right. And that’s the other fascinating, actually, when you read my bio, the other thing that I focus on is climate change. And climate change is exact… I mean, this is the problem. Climate change behaviorally speaking, is hitting all of the wrong buttons, right? It’s long term. It’s vague. It doesn’t affect me personally, right? It might generally, but not in the same way. The effects aren’t very salient to me. And anything I do today feels like a drop in the bucket. Right. So all of those things make it so hard for us as humans to take action on climate change.
[00:25:04.950] – Sarah Welch
And if you contrast that right with one of the most effective stories that you can tell in philanthropy for fundraising, it’s like the super compelling, specific problem. There’s a classic example from, I think, like the 80s of a baby fell down a well in Texas. I think her name was Jessica. So baby Jessica is stuck in a well and we need some money to get her out. And then it’s like, oh, my God, it’s a baby. She’s stuck in a well, she has a name. And I know that if I give some money, they’ll be able to save her, and the problem will be solved.
[00:25:38.320] – Sarah Welch
And for us as humans, that’s the opposite of climate change. Right. That’s like, take all my money and solve that problem, please. And I will feel so good about it. And so I think the challenge is, how do you learn from baby Jessica and apply it to climate change? Or maybe climate change is… maybe that’s like really, really hard. So let’s step back and at least try something like anti-poverty work. Right. How can we not just raise money to solve the symptoms? Right? Like, it’s great to provide people with food and help children and all that. But can we get at the sort of the underlying causes of poverty instead? And that type of work is way broader. Right. And it doesn’t have that specific, compelling story. But I think this is something we’re hoping to do some work on, actually.
[00:26:25.360] – Sarah Welch
I think that there is something there, like maybe we can take something that is a big social change issue and try to break it down and give it that level of urgency, like do a super urgent, old fashioned. What is it like the thermostat kind of, like type of fundraiser around something that is a big social change issue, like some aspect of climate change or some aspect of anti-poverty work that you can fundraise the same way.
[00:26:52.520] – Sarah Welch
Like, can we bring some of the urgency and specific stories to something that is a big intractable problem? I think there is something promising there. Again, that’s where you see people taking the most action. So again, taking the behavioral features of those challenges and could we try to translate them to these big problems? Don’t have the answer again to that one either, Boris, but I think there’s something there. And yeah, check back with me in like, maybe two weeks, at least for that one.
[00:27:20.300] – Boris
Well, with the holidays, I understand it might be a little backlog. So actually, there are definitely nonprofits that are working on that kind of a scale. One that comes to mind is New Story Charity. They’re working to end global homelessness. And they are innovating, specifically technological answers to homelessness, which doesn’t sound like a technology problem. It sounds like a physical and low on the high or low, depending on which way you’re looking at the pyramid Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s critical. And yet they are innovating constantly.
[00:27:58.130] – Boris
They are famous for 3D printing an entire community in Mexico. 3D printing—I don’t remember how many homes for an entire community in Mexico. And there are definitely people—when I spoke to actually, her name is also Sarah. Sarah Lee from New Story. She was telling me that there are people who will invest in that specifically, they’re attracted to the fact that we can make a difference on a huge scale and tackle some of the sources, but also tackle en masse some of the issues that we’re facing versus helping house one family.
[00:28:40.050] – Boris
What’s interesting is they then still tie the outcomes to a specific gift. So if you give, they will match you essentially with a family within that community that they’re building houses for. And you get to see their story from beginning to end, where they move into their new home. You get to hear from them. And they’re great about delivering the video to the donor, showing this whole process because you might not be there in Mexico to see it. But you get that full reward cycle that reinforces the story of why you gave in the first place.
[00:29:19.360] – Sarah Welch
Yeah, that’s great. And that also reminds me of some other new research I saw that I really was excited by around those narratives. And so the traditional thinking had been that we need to show people… we need to tell really sad stories to people. We need to show people stories that kind of reframing the people you’re helping as like victims in a way that other research that actually ideas42 and others have done like suggest that if you tell someone they’re a victim, that doesn’t necessarily empower them, that can actually be quite a negative psychological experience.
[00:29:54.390] – Sarah Welch
And so there was some new research that came out showing that actually you can still fundraise with these empowering narratives that are… and maybe this fits in with the story you were just telling, right. But something much more empowering showing someone still getting help, but not in the same sort of native troops that we were so used to in the past. So that’s something else I think that we’re also really excited about.
[00:30:14.580] – Boris
Yeah. I’ve talked and worked with organizations that are worried about sharing clients stories because they feel it’s exploitative. And the answer I agree with you is show the empowerment, not the victimhood. And that’s what we all ultimately want to give towards anyway. We want to empower people. We don’t want to feel bad for them. We don’t want to pity them. We want empathy. We want to evoke empathy. But we also want to show that it’s something that we can all solve if we contribute to this cause in one way or another.
[00:30:47.850] – Sarah Welch
Right. Right. Yeah. Absolutely.
[00:30:49.710] – Boris
Well, unfortunately, we’re not going to solve all of the issues that we’d like to today. Maybe we’ll have you back in a little while to see what you’ve come up with and how you’ve been able to solve them. That’d be awesome. I’d love to continue this conversation. But for organizations that are listening for the nonprofit professionals or heroes in this case, that are looking to activate more heroes for their cause, what should they be thinking about? Where should they be evaluating maybe their marketing or their fundraising to help them activate, create more heroes for their cause?
[00:31:21.920] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. Great question. I think that specific space around like where can you take… especially if you’re working one of these big intractable problems. Right. Like, where can you break it down and create that urgency and that compelling narrative? Again, I’m going to go back to climate change because I’m familiar with the space, but I think for so long it’s changing a little bit now. There was such adherence to like scientific language and lots of rigor and how we spoke about it. And that goes against the sort of compelling narrative, human personal touch that we’ve just been talking about is so powerful.
[00:31:55.830] – Sarah Welch
And so taking something big like that, and where can you create that urgency, that compelling narrative and make it the specific—break it down to something specific and that feels solvable? One, if you can do that, that’s awesome. And two, if you are doing it, please reach out to me, and we can work on that more, because again, I feel like this is the thing that we need to do to unlock those more difficult areas of fundraising.
[00:32:19.170] – Boris
You’re reminding me of another study, and I don’t remember. My brain is not great at remembering details… I’m much better with concepts, so please feel free to fill in the blanks here. But there was an experiment done where they were trying to get people to save power, to not use as much electricity in their homes. And in letters that they sent to people from the power company, it basically said something like, on average, this is how you compare to your neighbors. And on average, last month, so and so saved X amount of kilowatt hours versus what you did and suggestions for how you might also lower yours.
[00:33:01.210] – Boris
And I feel like that kind of brings it back to you’re not walking down that gauntlet. And you’re not at an event with a lot of people seeing that they are giving and maybe you’re not. But it creates that social pressure of keeping up with the Joneses, if you will. But in this case, in a positive light of, well, other people are doing more for the environment, I probably should, too. That’s social pressure.
[00:33:27.710] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. That’s a great example, actually. That’s the Opower innovation. You probably get one of those. I get those reports now. They’re everywhere, and they are extremely effective. And it is super weird because nobody else sees you. Literally nobody knows. You could take that report and throw it away and never act on it. But just that subtle nudge of seeing that. Oh, actually, I’m not actually doing as well. Actually, if you interview people, most people think that they are above average about everything, but including energy conservation, but seeing that it’s like, oh, interesting. Good to know. Maybe there’s some changes I can make. Right.
[00:34:03.810] – Sarah Welch
Another interesting thing I will say about it is it’s not a gauntlet, right? It’s not visual, but people do. This is a strong word, but some people hate them. They still get that same visceral reaction, but it works. I don’t know. This is a weird thing about social norms is that they do make us uncomfortable sometimes those sorts of nudges, and yet they are really effective. And yeah, I don’t know. I’m not going to weigh in, I guess, on whether that’s good or bad.
[00:34:30.790] – Boris
Like everything, it could be used for good or it could be used for evil.
[00:34:34.020] – Sarah Welch
Exactly. Yeah. It does get used in both ways. Great example.
[00:34:40.250] – Boris
Awesome. Well, I really appreciate your time and expertise today. Are there any resources or tools that you recommend organizations check out if they want to look into this further, look into behavioral science or how to apply it to their own work?
[00:34:54.830] – Sarah Welch
Absolutely. I’ll list them out for you. I will also mention that the ideas42 website has a bunch of them on there, so you can always find like… you’ll find them there. So there is the Danny Kahneman seminal book on behavioral science, Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you want to get all of it downloaded into your brain, you can read that book.
[00:35:18.750] – Sarah Welch
I will say if you’re in a nonprofit and you’re working with people who are in any sort of scarce resource situation, maybe you’re working with families in poverty. There’s a book called Scarcity that I found that has been again foundational to ideas42’s work and others about how that in and of itself has like a psychological effect that’s important to understand.
[00:35:41.190] – Sarah Welch
But then back to philanthropy, getting more specific here. There are a couple of resources that I found really interesting recently. Earlier, I was talking about all the different ways that people give and want to make sure I give a shout out to Lucy Bernholz has a new book out called How We Give Now that gets into some of that and the different ways that people have been giving and how important it is to count those as well. Right. Those are important, too.
[00:36:07.580] – Sarah Welch
And then if you’re curious in learning more a little bit about some of what Boris you’re talking about about the dynamic of having super wealthy people dictating the direction of philanthropy. There is Anand… What’s his last name? Giridharadas. I’m bad too with last names.
[00:36:36.760] – Boris
Giridharadas, I want to say.
[00:36:37.450] – Sarah Welch
Yes, thank you. Giridharadas. His book Winners Take All, which is a few years old, but it has a pretty good summary of that. And there was actually… I’ll just even if you don’t have time to read the whole book, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but there is a New Yorker summary of the book from 2018 that I found super helpful that also gives some of the sort of history of the philanthropic movement and where it comes from and sort of the challenges there, because I think before I came into this, I was like, great, just make all the wealthiest people give away all their money. Why are we worried about everyday givers and everyday donors? But as I think you so eloquently covered, right. It’s the democratization aspect of it. So it’s actually quite important to have the voices of many people dictating that, where the money goes, especially because philanthropy is so personal. As I talked about earlier.
[00:37:28.410] – Boris
Yeah, we’ll link to all of those resources in our show notes, and we’ll link to both; the full book and the New Yorker article.
[00:37:34.240] – Sarah Welch
[00:37:34.690] – Boris
I won’t judge which one people read. I will try to read both honestly, but time is one of the most precious resources we have these days, and I totally understand why people might not have time to read an entire book and would prefer an article. So assuming that people are interested in this stuff, which I really hope they are, because it’s super important. Where can they follow up with you? What’s your call to action for our heroes at home?
[00:37:59.620] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. So I encourage you to go to the ideas42.org website. Boris, I can give you a link to our actual giving space. We’ve been doing this work for about five or six years, so we’ve published a fair amount of research and pieces covering all the things we talked about today. And we are continuing to do this work going forward, at least for the next few years and excited to kind of explore some of these new areas that have emerged and focus more on volunteering and some of the sort of new ways of giving that we see today.
[00:38:34.830] – Boris
Awesome. I look forward to checking those out. This episode will air after the holidays already, but this is going to give me some fun holiday reading in the meantime. Sarah, thank you so much for coming on the show today and sharing your ideas, your questions. Even if we can’t solve all the problems, even knowing which questions to ask and how we should be thinking about things, I think is critical to ever making a difference in the world.
[00:38:59.670] – Sarah Welch
Absolutely. I fully agree. Again, fully drink the Kool-Aid. I love that type of thinking, so important.
[00:39:08.430] – Boris
Well, thanks again for joining us and thank you everybody for tuning in today, spending some time with Sarah and I learning about behavioral science and how we should be thinking about it and applying it to our work in the nonprofit world so that we can create more heroes for our cause. If you enjoyed this interview or any of the others that we’ve put out, and I hope you check out a lot more, including the one with New Story Charity with Sarah Lee, or another one about behavioral science that I had with Beth Karlin or Doug White talking about philanthropy.
[00:39:38.560] – Boris
I’m loving putting all of these episodes out. I’m learning a lot. I’m hoping you are too. If you’re enjoying them, please share it with your friends. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or on your favorite platform. We try to be everywhere. And if there’s something you want covered, let us know. I’m happy to reach out and find guests that will talk specifically about whatever you’re interested in so that we can help you create more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Thanks, everybody. Bye bye.
[00:40:05.850] – Sarah Welch
[00:40:06.570] – 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:
- One of the key tenets of behavioral science is that our context and environment influences our behavior and our biases. (3:13)
- Stories are the way that we organize information in our brains, and they’re often developed after we’ve taken action, to justify and make sense of the actions we’ve taken. (5:42)
- Over the past decade, average household giving has been going down. Bigger philanthropists are having an outsized voice, giving them greater power over the nonprofit sector. (7:25)
- Since the pandemic started, a lot has changed in terms of philanthropy and equity. The questions that Sarah is concerned with today are: (8:57)
- Who has the power to give and why do they have it? And how do we shift that power if we need to?
- What does it mean to be part of a community today? How can we interact with people virtually?
- And even, what counts as giving?
- As most people give less, larger donors can dictate the nonprofit programs that get to be funded to help the community. (10:30)
- Digital tools have made giving a lot easier, but the decline of in-person asks actually has a negative effect because it’s much harder to say no to someone in person. (12:22)
- Research studies have shown that people will literally go out of their way to avoid being asked for donations because of guilt. Because we are social creatures, there’s a level of guilt that we feel when we say “no” to someone asking for help. And, whenever we do give, we feel good because we know that in a way, we have helped someone in need. (13:32)
- Taking away that social pressure has shown to lead to a decrease in giving.
- Getting people to react to or share something on social media that they feel is a positive message or a cause that their friends should consider is relatively easy. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll actually donate. (19:04)
- The real question now is how to get people to be involved virtually and get them to donate.
- How do we reintroduce some of the social pressure into virtual events? (21:19)
- One of the disadvantages to everyone being online is that often the best marketing efforts will win out, not the org with the greatest impact. At the same time, we have the potential to connect with more people around the world who would respond to our cause and our stories. (23:31)
- It’s easier for people to connect with and feel like they can have an impact on helping a child in need than battling climate change, so they are more likely to support it. So we need to figure out how to bring urgency and specific stories to big issues like climate change and poverty into smaller, more tangible steps that people will take action on. (26:52)
- In episode 17, Sarah Lee of New Story talks about how they are tackling the problem of global homelessness in part by asking individuals to support building a home for one family.
- We don’t need to tell sad narratives of victimhood to engender empathy and support. Telling positive stories of empowerment can actually yield better results. (29:30)
- There was an experiment conducted around energy conservation (Opower) where a letter was sent out from a power company comparing a household’s energy consumption habits to their neighbors. This actually created social pressure and a frame of reference that encouraged savings. (33:12)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Sarah WelchVice President, ideas42
Sarah Welch is a Vice President at ideas42, where she helps lead behavioral innovations in two focus areas: improving the way donors at all levels give to charity, and tackling climate change. Prior to joining ideas42, Sarah completed a three-year dual degree program at Yale’s School of Management and School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where she focused on urban resource management and planning. In her past life, Sarah was an ecological designer restoring natural habitats in and around New York City. Sarah holds an MBA and an MEM from Yale and received her BA in Environmental Science & Public Policy from Harvard. She’d take cheese over cake any day. (Pronouns – she/her)
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.
Read the Transcript
[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
[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 www.coachart.org, 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 email@example.com. 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?
About this week’s guest
Greg Harrell-EdgeExecutive 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.
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 38
Adapting and Scaling In-Person Programs Online, with Constanza Roeder
In this Episode:
When Covid shut down non-essential access to hospitals, it effectively shut down all of Hearts Need Art’s programming, as it did for so many other service-based nonprofits. Artists were no longer able to perform for patients, patients were no longer able to get much-needed emotional support, and they couldn’t deliver on their promise to donors.
This easily could have been the end of the line for the arts in health nonprofit that Constanza Roeder created just a few years prior, based on her first-hand experience of being a cancer patient and the support that got her through it.
Instead, the young non-technical, resource-strapped organization took on the challenge with their greatest asset: creativity. They developed new programs to meet the new constraints and, in the process, created a significantly more scalable system for delivering their programming that creates stronger connections between their work and their donors, provides a greater continuity of care for their clients, and allows them to reach exponentially more people in need… without over-taxing their resources.
Hearts Need Art founder Constanza Roeder joins the show to share her story and break down how any organization can do the same.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:06.050] – Intro
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.
[00:00:22.890] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to The Nonprofit Hero Factory. Thank you for joining us. As the intro says, we are here to share advice from nonprofit leaders on how you can activate more heroes for your cause, primarily through technology, storytelling… but it really cuts across all topics.
[00:00:40.650] – Boris
And today we’ve got a slightly different topic than usual, which is, we’re profiling a specific nonprofit leader. Her name is Constanza Roeder and trying to work out what it is that she was able to do during the pivot that many of us had to take during the pandemic in order to not only retain her donor base and her volunteer base, but also to expand it and see how her organization was able to make some pivots and what have been the implications of those pivots.
[00:01:11.100] – Boris
Let me tell you a little bit about her. Constanza is the founder and CEO of Hearts Need Art: Creative Support for Patients and Caregivers and the host of a podcast of her own, which is Arts for the Health of It. Ms. Roeder was selected as one of the top 100 Healthcare Visionaries by the International Forum on Advancements in HealthCare for 2021. As a singer, adolescent leukemia survivor, speaker, and thought leader in the field of arts and health, Constanza is on a mission to humanize healthcare through the arts.
[00:01:40.680] – Boris
When I asked Constanza her superpower, she said it’s using technology and automation to help our donors serve clients so they feel more connected to the cause. Obviously, those are all things that I am very passionate about myself, so I was excited to have her on the show. Let’s bring her on.
[00:01:59.070] – Constanza Roeder
[00:01:59.440] – Boris
[00:02:00.990] – Constanza Roeder
Hey. Thanks for having me.
[00:02:02.380] – Boris
Thank you for joining me today. I’m really happy to have you. I’m excited to learn from you and what you guys have been doing at Hearts Need Art. First, I’ve read your impressive bio. Congratulations on the impressive achievements. And now I’d love to just hear a little bit. What’s your story? How did you get to this point?
[00:02:20.310] – Constanza Roeder
Sure, I will try to keep it short. So in my bio, you mentioned that I’m an adolescent leukemia survivor, which was really an inciting incident in my story. I’ve had several, but that was one of the big ones. I had 130 weeks of chemotherapy when I was going through that ordeal. So most of my high school experience, I was in and out of hospitals and experienced a lot of isolation and frustration and grief and all of the things that you might imagine anyone dealing with cancer might experience, but especially as a young person, there’s a lot of added, like just add being a teenager on top of that. Becomes very complicated.
[00:03:03.090] – Constanza Roeder
But I was really fortunate to still be classified as a pediatric cancer patient because I had access to pediatric services, which included the arts. The arts were really essential piece of how I was able to cope with not just my treatments, but really kind of rebuild my life after I finished that whole process. And I went on to study music and psychology in college. And I moved from my hometown in California to San Antonio, Texas, where I live now. And I started volunteering on an adult oncology unit.
[00:03:42.030] – Constanza Roeder
And I’ve never been in an adult hospital before. So I was in the unit, I was like, “Whoa, this is really different from what I’m used to.” Where are the activities and where is the arts? And where are all the visitors who want to come and make the patients feel better? And there was like none of that. And so many of the patients I worked with were much older than I was when I finished treatment. It’s not like we magically become a completely different species when we turn 18. We still need connection and love and beauty and expression. These are all things that we need throughout our lifetime.
[00:04:17.260] – Constanza Roeder
And so I did the only thing I knew how to do. I just started going room to room and singing for patients. I would bring music to the bedside, and that grew into starting my nonprofit in 2016, where we could bring in other musicians and visual artists and writers to come and bring… to help really… to help keep people from languishing. I guess I’ll use that word because there’s this languishing that can happen when people are left isolated and in their anxiety and depression just because they’re in this healthcare environment, which is kind of an artificial environment we’ve created.
[00:05:01.350] – Constanza Roeder
And so we use the arts to like I said in my bio, to humanize that healthcare experience, to restore some of that. So we’re about to hit our five year mark and I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished. We have an amazing team and they do awesome work.
[00:05:16.270] – Boris
That sounds great. And I can picture everything that you’re talking about. I’m fortunate that I did not go through quite similar experiences as yours. And I commend you on how you came through it and were able to turn it into a lifelong passion. When we talk about storytelling and you the term inciting incident. And I was actually really interested to hear that you say you’ve had several. I think we all do. And it’s part of how we choose to tell our story, which ones we tend to focus on, which ones we take action on and allow it to lead us down the path of the life that we want to live.
[00:05:52.090] – Constanza Roeder
[00:05:53.420] – Boris
So kudos to you for acting upon it. And now turning it into something…
[00:05:58.490] – Constanza Roeder
I responded to the call.
[00:06:00.790] – Boris
You did. You took up the call to action. I talk about those all the time. And oftentimes it’s not the first call to action someone responds to. It might be the second or third or sometimes fifth. In marketing, they say you have to have at least seven touch points. So you had a long end and harrowing, it sounds, unfortunate experience. But you let that become the call to action and motivation as often we do. We turn our greatest weaknesses and suffering into our greatest strengths and prosperity.
[00:06:34.160] – Boris
So personally, I commend you for doing all that and creating an important organization, I think, because I love arts as most people who have ever listened to the show know. I’m a recovering actor and filmmaker. I did a lot of theater and there’s nothing like that artistic collaboration, that artistic communication. And I say collaboration, I don’t mean between two different artists, I mean between an artist and an audience. To transport them, to get them into a different time and place, which honestly, if you’re suffering from cancer and going through treatment, wow. How valuable…
[00:07:12.320] – Constanza Roeder
You get it!
[00:07:13.630] – Boris
Absolutely. I can easily understand how your work has been impactful and important. And then we had a little something happen around two years ago now, a little less than two years ago in the healthcare space that I would imagine made your work a little bit difficult.
[00:07:34.200] – Constanza Roeder
What? No. That? No. Yes, it did. Yeah, the pandemic— So, all of our programming is in person or was in person. Clue there. And then March of 2020, all of our programs were suspended in the hospital. And so we had to figure out, “Okay, what are we going to do?” Because our patient population, our stakeholders are even more isolated. They’re experiencing even more of the reasons that we’re there in the first place, because now they can’t have any family visitors and they couldn’t leave their rooms like so bad, so bad. Like we have to find a way and we have to find a way to support during this time.
[00:08:21.510] – Constanza Roeder
And so we spent two weeks and we completely overhauled our whole program and put it online so that people could access that. We started live streaming a lot of content, which is a really cool way, because really cool thing is a lot of our donors follow our social media and a lot of our clients follow social media. So we did these live interactive art sessions on social media and they could interact with each other, which is really kind of a special thing that we can’t usually bring a lot of donors into the hospital to kind of see our work. So they got to kind of interact with each other on this virtual platform. And we’ve kept some of those elements that we built in our programming because we found it’s helped us provide a better continuum of care for our patients now as well. So that’s it. Yeah. Interesting time.
[00:09:13.170] – Boris
No doubt, stressful two weeks there that you guys spent overhauling everything. But I hear the outcomes were pretty good. So can you tell us what did you guys come up with and how did it change what you’re doing?
[00:09:26.850] – Constanza Roeder
Sure. So it was kind of on all fronts. Right? So there’s the programming front, but also the fundraising front, which, of course, is common to all nonprofits. So on the programming front, we put together a platform where our clients could schedule sessions directly with their favorite artist or musician or writer, someone on our team, and then they would meet through Zoom. We also did, like I said, the live streaming, we did some group sessions as well. We also kind of put the word out in some of the communication channels that we were connected with in the healthcare community on the national level.
[00:10:08.150] – Constanza Roeder
And so we were able to support groups from around the country. And we still are actually because there’s a lot of groups that have had to shift completely online. We serve a lot of high-risk people that face isolation because they’re immunocompromised. So they’re living pandemic times all the time. So a lot of the social workers we partnered with were having trouble keeping people engaged virtually… the Zoom fatigue is a real thing. So they’ve been bringing us in as like little special fun event things to help keep people engaged so they’re continuing to connect with each other and not just retreating into isolation. Because, yes, virtual is not ideal, but when it’s the only way we can connect, we’ve got to find fun ways—ways to make it fun so people continue to engage. So that’s kind of on the program side of things.
[00:11:05.490] – Constanza Roeder
And then we also built a new program that specifically is supporting healthcare workers. And it’s called… we call it our Gratitude Grams program because the burnout rates are just ridiculous right now. And there’s kind of this mass exodus from the healthcare field because people are tired and they’re burned out. But the data also shows that there’s a 40% decrease in the incidence of burnout when healthcare providers feel valued and when they feel appreciated.
[00:11:40.310] – Constanza Roeder
So we built this program around showing gratitude through the arts. So we put up a platform where people could submit letters of thanks in gratitude to healthcare workers, and they just fill out a simple form on our website. And then we combine those messages with a video from one of our artist, musicians or writers that has an uplifting song or a poem or a prompt or some sort of simple art activity people could do, like on a pad of paper, to shift—take a moment to shift their mindset and help them feel seen and really feel that someone else is holding them in their heart and is really thinking of them and has put some energy into making them feel appreciated.
[00:12:27.550] – Constanza Roeder
And that’s been a really cool program. We have healthcare providers from 30 different healthcare institutions around the country that are enrolled in that program. And we’ve received letters from people all around the country expressing thanks to healthcare workers.
[00:12:41.450] – Constanza Roeder
And that’s been a really cool intersection of the fundraising—like engaging supporters directly in a program that we didn’t really have a mechanism for before. And now it’s been this really beautiful partnership. And people in our community really do genuinely feel grateful for healthcare workers. And now they have kind of an outlet to express that gratitude, even really on a regular basis.
[00:13:12.690] – Constanza Roeder
And we’ve had groups reach out to us and wanting to do something to help. And it’s been a really easy thing that we’ve been able to say, hey, you guys can do this X, Y or Z, and it has this impact, and then they can run with it. It doesn’t require any extra time on our staff, which I know in nonprofit, like when people offer to help, it takes time. There’s an internal cost of that of like, okay, now we have to figure out what they can do and we have to help them do the thing and all that. So this was a repeatable system that helped people feel engaged and supported our clients.
[00:13:51.510] – Boris
There are so many things that I love about that. One, the first, is that you found a way within your mission to create a new program that was entirely… well at this end of it, anyway, entirely digital. That doesn’t require a lot of ongoing cost, a lot of ongoing resources like people power, man hours, woman hours, people hours, and that at the same time, helps achieve your mission by connecting people to the healthcare providers by creating a better atmosphere for everyone involved in that system.
[00:14:30.080] – Constanza Roeder
[00:14:33.310] – Boris
What did it take for you to get that program up? If I’m a nonprofit or a nonprofit program leader and I’m thinking about doing something like this, it may sound resource intensive just to get that going. Can you talk a little bit about what it took for you guys to get that going? What some of the tools that you’re using to make it happen?
[00:14:57.240] – Constanza Roeder
Sure. It’s very simple. It just takes a little bit on the front end to kind of think through what outputs you need, what data does our team need access to in order to make this happen? But we’re using a Google Sheet, and we’re using a mail merge, and that’s it. We also use a Google form that’s connected to the spreadsheet. That’s where kind of the automation comes in. There’s a lot of ways to integrate, especially Google products, which is great, and they’re really accessible. And Zapier has been really useful. We haven’t used Zapier…No, we do use Zapier to send automatic emails when people sign up for the program. So that automates that whole “welcome to the program” part of the program. We built it and then it runs. And as a name shows up and our program coordinator assigns them to an artist, and then they go from there. And the great thing about the format… each person gets assigned a particular artist, but we can scale up as much as we want with very minimal additional costs. So it was a very scalable initiative, which was great.
[00:16:23.960] – Boris
Yeah. I love how simple that is. I mean, I use all of those things all the time. When someone signs up to be on The Nonprofit Hero Factory, for example, they fill out a form, it then get Zapped to an email, to a spreadsheet, all those things. And they’re fairly simple, like plug and play things to set up Zap being Zapier or Zapier implementation. And then what happens once that note is delivered? Do you collect any sort of a feedback? Is that the end of the journey when the note is delivered? Or is that the beginning of the next step? How does it work with you guys?
[00:16:59.260] – Constanza Roeder
Sure. So when a healthcare provider enrolls in the program, they’re enrolled until they say they don’t want to receive messages anymore. So they get regular messages from us, mostly weekly, sometimes every other week. So they get—it’s ongoing. And then we have a survey because, of course, data is really important. Right? We have a survey after they watch their video, they watch their Gratitude Gram. We have a quick survey they can fill out just giving a little bit of feedback how it impacted them in certain areas.
[00:17:33.950] – Constanza Roeder
We’re specifically looking for how it impacted some of the symptoms of burnout, since that’s the real issue right now, and it’s really cool. The data shows that it does. And we’ve actually recently won an award for this program from the National Organization for Arts in Health, a national award in the category of caregiver resilience for the specific purpose. And so they’re reporting that they feel more hopeful, that they feel appreciated, that they feel more energized, that they just appreciate…
[00:18:06.860] – Constanza Roeder
And then we get qualitative data as well, stories about why they signed up, which are so like, Boris, they’re so heartbreaking. Some of them are like, I signed up because I’m looking for a reason to stay in this job. Like I need to remember why I’m doing this or I’ve been in this pandemic for two years and I just want to give up and I need something to lift my spirits. Like just the most heartbreaking stories and we’re not getting all the way to… getting them all the way there. But if we can at least move the needle a little bit and help them feel that their sacrifice that they make every day is seen and it’s important and we value them. That’s the one.
[00:18:55.310] – Boris
Absolutely. It’s that human connectivity, especially at a time when human connectivity is so difficult. And for healthcare workers specifically, the overwhelm that a lot of them have gone through in the past year and a half, two years now is exhausting, so human touch.
[00:19:18.420] – Constanza Roeder
Yeah. And we felt it was really important to have some sort of interactive element as well, because, like, okay, I’m on a mailing list where I get an email, that feels kind of impersonal. So regularly we ask, like, “Hey, if you have any requests like special song requests or types of activities you might want to do, let us know.” And then we make them and give them a call out and all these things. So we do try to have touch points.
[00:19:48.160] – Constanza Roeder
The first iteration of the program, which my team like, they nixed—we were creating personalized videos for each person. We would say their name. We would do the song, we would do this whole thing and it was so beautiful. But then we had too many people enrolling, and we’re like, we can’t scale this. So we had to kind of go back to the drawing board. Like how can we keep some of the touch points but also make it scalable? So that’s what we came to.
[00:20:14.820] – Boris
Until you guys get access to the AI and deep-fake technology where you could just mail merge somebody name into a video and you get them to actually say it. It’s already available. I’m not saying you need to jump on it. But it’s doable now.
[00:20:29.130] – Constanza Roeder
Next iteration of the program.
[00:20:31.600] – Boris
Absolutely. And I want to talk about how you guys iterated and how you were able to come up with this stuff. But before we even get there, you talk about the impact that it’s had on the healthcare workers, which, of course, is key to your mission. Have you seen any impact on your donors and your donor base as a whole as well?
[00:20:48.630] – Constanza Roeder
Yeah. It’s a really good question. When we were in 2020 going into 2021, we kind of had to rack our brains of, like how do we communicate to our donors that we’re still making an impact, but also we can’t do the work that, like the original work that we said that we were doing? We had to communicate all this new stuff. And so getting people involved in the process of actually engaging with the program, they got to see on the inside, like what the program was. And they got a touch point of actually engaging with it.
[00:21:33.270] – Constanza Roeder
And we expected a lot of… a much higher loss last year from donor support. And we… we may, let’s see… Last year, we were on par, if not a little bit more from individual donors last year. And I think that’s like a huge one because we didn’t have any in-person programs. We couldn’t have any in-person fundraising events. And that meant we were able to keep all of our staff employed, that we were able to keep all of our artists employed at a time when musicians, artists, all of those people that rely on the gig economy had no… we were their only paycheck for months and months at a time until things started opening up.
[00:22:22.920] – Constanza Roeder
And so at a time when our organizations around the country were having to lay people off, we were able to keep everyone employed. And that was our goal. As soon as we were shut down and everything was not looking good, we’re like, “We’re going to do whatever we need to do to find work for you all to do to keep everyone employed.” So that’s a huge win in my book.
[00:22:44.450] – Boris
Congratulations. That is a huge win. And the fact that you were able to keep everybody connected didn’t have a large drop off rate. Which, look, donor retention, regardless of your efforts, is never 100%. But if you could keep on that even scale when everything’s in turmoil or maybe even grow it, then that’s an incredible win. And hopefully it’ll only put you in a place where you could grow a lot more.
[00:23:11.300] – Constanza Roeder
Yeah. And we’ve seen, like the digital stuff that we’ve created and the digital platform that we’ve created has created a lot of momentum for us going into 2021, creating our podcast, all like the virtual offerings that we have now. It makes the work that we’re doing more visible, which is imperative for getting people to be like, “Oh, wow. This is cool. I want to support this.” So we’ve seen even more growth this year than… we kind of held steady last year, and we’ve seen a lot of growth and especially those individual donors this year.
[00:23:50.100] – Boris
I think that’s common where when you make a pivot, you first kind of plateau or even dip down a little bit before you can hit that hockey curve that everybody likes to aim for. Once the pandemic is over, which, let’s say in a couple of months, we’re going to be fairly back to normal. Let’s hope.
[00:24:11.910] – Constanza Roeder
[00:24:14.130] – Boris
I’m assuming you guys are going to start… if you haven’t already. Actually, maybe I should ask you that first. Have you restarted in-person programming with artists?
[00:24:23.630] – Constanza Roeder
Yes. We were out of the hospitals from March 2020 through April 2021. We were able to go back into the hospitals. And whereas before we were only serving one oncology floor in one hospital, which is still a lot, it was still like 60 beds that we were serving on a daily basis. But because we kept shifting to meet the needs that we were seeing in our healthcare space, the hospitals really took notice. And by the end of the year, we’re going to be in eight facilities. So we went from like one floor before the pandemic to now being in eight different hospitals, serving healthcare workers, playing concerts for them at the nurses stations and serving high-needs patients and stuff like that. So hold on. I got off on a tangent. What was the original question?
[00:25:23.860] – Boris
No, it’s a good tangent.
[00:25:27.020] – Constanza Roeder
Oh, we’re back in person.
[00:25:27.960] – Boris
Yeah. You’re back in person. Are you still continuing the digital programming as well?
[00:25:30.430] – Constanza Roeder
Okay. Yes. So the pieces that we’re keeping are those that are helping us provide that continuum of care. Like I mentioned earlier. So before, especially when we were working with oncology patients, they often have several admissions that they have throughout their course of treatment. So they might be in for a month, and then they’re home for a couple of weeks, and they’re in for another month and home for a couple of weeks. And during those times when they were home, they didn’t have access to the arts because they can’t go to an art class or go to a concert.
[00:26:04.530] – Constanza Roeder
And for a lot of the adults that we’re working with, they’re engaging with us in the arts for the first time. The last time they may have picked up a paintbrush was elementary school. And we kind of reawakened this expressive, creative spirit in them, and they want to keep doing it. And even before the pandemic we’re like, “How do we connect these dots?” Because we want to help them continue to create when they go home.
[00:26:32.860] – Constanza Roeder
So now, they can meet our artist Hannah in the hospital and build a great rapport with her and then schedule Zoom sessions to continue to work with her while they’re at home. And then pick right back up with Hannah when they come back into the hospital with us. So it’s allowing us to provide not just a continuum of care, but a level of accessibility to arts and health that we didn’t have before.
[00:27:00.630] – Boris
That’s wonderful. And this trend, this movement to digital—pandemic or not—it’s inevitable. It will only grow. I don’t think it’ll ever replace live theater. Hopefully not live performance.
[00:27:12.810] – Constanza Roeder
[00:27:14.970] – Boris
But it is a way for you guys specifically, but for all organizations to reach more people to be able to have an impact that’s more scalable than the one-to-one that you are offering or the in person real time, if you will, synchronous time that most organizations have relied on especially in the arts, but in all kinds of services.
[00:27:40.050] – Constanza Roeder
And one of the great things because we do surveys with our patients as well, and we were using kind of the same survey. We adjusted a little bit for the specific—some specific questions about the tech side of things that were… anyway, that wouldn’t be applicable in the hospital, but all of the measures held pretty strongly. So still, they were rating really highly that the activity helped reduce their pain levels, that their anxiety went down, that their depressive symptoms went down. The only one that was significantly different was isolation, that it was still beneficial, but not as beneficial. The numbers weren’t as good as when we were in the hospital. We expected that, but it was great to be able to see that it still was having good impact even though it was digital.
[00:28:30.420] – Boris
And that totally makes sense. We don’t want technology to replace humanity. We wanted to amplify it. We want it to be able to reach more people. And it sounds like the way that you’ve got things set up, it’s scalable. And as you were talking, I was thinking, I hope that you keep improving on the scalability factor, on the systemization and technology of it, because eight facilities is great. But what if another organization wants to or another group wants to start this up in California where you’re from, or on the East Coast or in the middle of the country somewhere in Chicago or someplace else? Can you start now basically almost franchising this model so that more organizations can start up doing it or your organization can grow out and reach just a whole lot more people that really need the service?
[00:29:18.090] – Constanza Roeder
Yeah. And that’s a question we ask ourselves all the time. We’re in this real emerging field. Well, it’s kind of beyond emerging. It’s really popping up all over Arts in Health. And the National Organization for Arts in Health has done a great job of helping to get organizations like ours together so we can see different program models and collaborate. And there are organizations around the country that are doing similar work. But there’s such a huge need.
[00:29:47.970] – Constanza Roeder
We’re always asking ourselves that question: what is our role here with the people in front of us? And then what is our role in the larger mission of arts in health? This should be standard of care. The arts have always been a part of our healing practices and rituals throughout human history. It’s what we instinctively go to when we’re feeling dysregulated and it’s because it is the ultimate regulator. We express those hard emotions. We stay grounded in our bodies while we’re doing that, when we’re moving, when we’re speaking all these things that we do in the arts, these actions that we do in the arts are the trauma research that’s happening around the power of arts engagement is really pretty amazing. And it’s kind of like, duh, like duh, this is why we have the arts, right?
[00:30:43.350] – Constanza Roeder
Anyway, like I said, we’re always asking ourselves, what kind of role can we play? And so that’s where we went into. Okay, we want to elevate these stories. We wanted to start our podcast. I’m interested in learning more about this field of arts and health and how different people apply the arts to tackle different problems in the world.
[00:31:07.390] – Constanza Roeder
You might be interested in our podcast. It’s called Arts for the Health of It. We talk to people all over the world that are doing just the most amazing work with all kinds of different populations. So that’s one way that we saw that we could elevate the work that’s happening throughout the field. But, yes, that’s kind of our next thought is, okay, how do we continue to activate and equip people to do this work, too?
[00:31:33.510] – Boris
Very cool. I’m looking forward to seeing what you guys come up with. I wanted to ask you, though, a lot of organizations are facing similar issues, have been facing them for a couple of years, have found their own solutions. Yours, we could certainly say, considering everything that you’ve told us about it has been successful. To what do you attribute your success, your ability to come up with programs like this and implement things like this? What might other organizations look at and try to mimic in your processes or in your infrastructure so that they can do more of this as well.
[00:32:06.680] – Constanza Roeder
Yeah, that’s a good question. So there’s been a lot of emphasis over the past several decades on STEM and technical skills, but because technology is so accessible now and is also changing so quickly, creativity is a much more important skill in the emerging economy. So none of the people on our team, we’re all millennials Gen Zers. So we’re a fairly young group which hugely work to our benefit, but we’re also creative and so we could learn different pieces of technology and come up with creative applications for that technology.
[00:32:49.450] – Constanza Roeder
So you don’t necessarily need special skills, but you need people who can think creatively and problem solve creatively with the tools that are accessible and you can do it for much lower cost than you might think. There are so many resources out there for free techs for nonprofits, for discounted tech for nonprofits that are really easy to use. Whenever there’s like a new tech thing that I want, like a new software I want to use, I always email them and say, “Hey, we’re a nonprofit, we do blah, blah, blah.” And not once have I gotten someone that’s like, “No, we don’t have a nonprofit discount or no.” They’ve always been like, “Oh, yeah, we can do something special for you.”
[00:33:28.990] – Constanza Roeder
So that’s what I’d say is get creative. If you don’t have young people on your team, we got to lean into our young people right now. Find some interns back in because they have a good pulse on where things are going and we need to pay attention to that.
[00:33:49.870] – Boris
Absolutely. Are there any tools that you recommend to organizations that you guys like that have been working for you at this time? I always like to ask for tools or resources.
[00:34:01.060] – Constanza Roeder
Sure. I’ll give a shout out to Qgiv, which is our donation platform. We’ve had it the whole time we’ve been an organization and they’re amazing. They’re constantly taking feedback from their clients and adjusting to their offerings to support changes in the economy, in the pandemic. One of the great things that they started doing is their peer to peer campaigns now connects with Facebook fundraisers. So we had Readathon at the beginning of this year. It was an all online peer to peer campaign. Seven days. People could create stuff and post it with the hashtag and raise money for our cause.
[00:34:46.920] – Constanza Roeder
And we made more than we expected to make, which is great. But that connection between the Qgiv platform and Facebook fundraisers was really helpful, but on top of that, they provide great and really relevant training around their tools and ways. They had all kinds of support to help their clients shift from in-person fundraisers to virtual fundraisers. And they’ve just been really great partners along the journey.
[00:35:19.100] – Boris
Wonderful. There are a lot of great giving platforms out there. Glad to hear that Qgiv is doing such great work. I’m actually going to be working with them a little bit next year. So I’m excited that people are supporting or appreciating the work that they’re putting out there.
[00:35:32.771] – Constanza Roeder
[00:35:33.230] – Boris
So I really appreciate your times and I want to be respectful of yours and our audience, but I don’t want to let you go before I ask you, what’s your call to action for anyone who’s been listening to this episode or watching us or even reading it online? Now that we’re primed and ready to dig further, what’s your call to action to learn more about you and the work that you guys are doing?
[00:35:57.230] – Constanza Roeder
Yeah. Go to our website, heartsneedart.org. There’s not a person listening to this that hasn’t been affected by the pandemic, that hasn’t been helped by people in healthcare. And if you want to get involved in helping us show appreciation for people in healthcare, you can go to our website and click on the Gratitude Grams tab, and you can write a note to healthcare providers, and that will go out in this week’s group of emails that we send to them and messages that we give to them when we’re in the hospital.
[00:36:26.750] – Constanza Roeder
And then, like I said earlier, you can follow us on our podcast Arts for the Health of It to learn more about this type of work and how you can use the arts to tackle important problems in the world. And you might be surprised. There might be people that you relate to that are doing work with the population you’re working with and maybe are using the arts in a way you haven’t thought of. So I’d encourage you to check out the resource too.
[00:36:51.860] – Boris
Wonderful. We’re going to of course link to those, to Qgiv, to your podcast and to the Gratitude Grams. I do recommend that anybody listening. If you’re not sure how this works or how easy or difficult it is to set up, go check out their page. They did a great job of laying it out, of telling a story, and then making it super easy for someone to jump in and get involved. So do it. Send a message to a healthcare worker that will only be a good thing, and at the same time steal from their playbook, see how they’re doing it so that you can also incorporate some sort of process similar to this, a new program or an adaptation to your current program that will help you reach more people regardless of pandemics or no pandemics by using technology to leverage and amplify your work.
[00:37:36.170] – Constanza Roeder
The best artists riff off of other artists. So you have my permission.
[00:37:40.610] – Boris
Yeah. Is it Picasso or somebody said that good artists borrow great artists steal or something like that?
[00:37:48.690] – Constanza Roeder
Yes, I think that is the Picasso quote.
[00:37:51.890] – Boris
I apologize if I misquoted Picasso. No disrespect to him and all of his admirers myself being one of them. Anyway, Constanza, thank you so much for joining us today and telling us all about this program and what you guys have been up to over at Hearts Need Art.
[00:38:07.430] – Constanza Roeder
Thank you for having me. This was great.
[00:38:09.710] – Boris
And thank you everybody for joining us and listening in today or watching. However you subscribe or consume this content, I hope you’re enjoying it. I hope you’re learning, getting lessons from people like Constanza that you can implement in your own organization to create more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us.
[00:38:27.010] – Boris
And if you do like this show, please, please, give us a rating. Leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite platform so that more nonprofit professionals like yourself can discover it and get advice to improve their own programming as well. Thank you, everybody. We’ll see you next week.
[00:38:44.630] – Outro
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:
- Constanza’s story began with her own health struggles as an adolescent leukemia patient. But it wasn’t until she volunteered in a hospital as an adult that she realized that there was something lacking in the system. This was the call to action in her hero’s journey, which led to the formation of Hearts Need Art. (2:20)
- We don’t always respond to the first call to action in life. Sometimes it takes many calls before we answer the call. Often, when that call relates to our greatest weaknesses, we find our greatest strengths. (5:53)
- Hearts Need Art was serving patients in hospitals, in person. The pandemic upended their ability to provide their services and they had to get creative. (7:21)
- In response, they took two weeks to overhaul their programming and create new, digital-first programs that served their community and had additional benefits.
- They designed an online system for clients to schedule sessions with their favorite artists through Zoom. They also invited supporters in on the livestreams, allowing them unprecedented access to the work being done. (9:26)
- Using the online tools, they’re now able to scale that program on a national level even as they’re returning to in-person work at hospitals.
- They created “Gratitude Grams” — an entirely new online program supporting healthcare workers, who needed moral and emotional support as they were dealing with the crisis on the frontlines. (11:05)
- The program allows anyone to submit a thank you note to healthcare workers that would get delivered digitally by Hearts Need Art, along with creative content from musicians, writers or artists.
- Healthcare workers from over 30 institutions have signed up to receive these messages.
- Without any geographical constraints, Gratitude Grams has allowed people all over the country to participate, and for the program to scale at practically no additional resource cost to Hearts Need Art. (13:12)
- Creating online programs like these doesn’t have to be an extensive or expensive endeavor. In their case, Hearts Need Art used off-the-shelf, free and nearly free tools like Google Forms, Google Sheets and Zapier to automate most of the processes. (14:33)
- Opting to participate in the program is just the beginning. Hearts Need Art includes data collection tools in the process to continually get feedback that they can take right back to their program managers for adjustments, and their supporters for validation. (16:45)
- They determine ahead of time what areas of impact they want to measure, and then include a quick survey with every message that allows them to collect the data and stories they need.
- The program has won an award from the National Organization for Arts in Health
- With the feedback they collect, they’re able to keep the experience personal while also iterating for scalability. (19:18)
- The inability to deliver on their original promise to donors (of in-person programming), they were naturally worried that most donors would drop off. Through careful communication and setting new expectations, Hearts Need Art was actually able to retain and grow their overall donor base in 2020 and has grown even more in 2021. (20:48)
- They were also, therefore, keep their artists employed at a time when artists were struggling.
- Even though they are now able to provide their programming in person, they are keeping a lot of the digital programs in place because it has helped them reach more patients with a greater continuum of care, and more supporters at the same time. (25:27)
- While it doesn’t replicate the in-person benefits completely, the scalability has allowed Hearts Need Art to reach more people and has put them on a path to potentially expanding well beyond what they were able to do prior to the pandemic. (29:22)
- Constanza attributes much of their success to a few factors, including having a young, creative team around her that is always looking for new, creative ways to do things. Technology is available and can be outsourced, and can often be found for free or at a discount for nonprofits. (31:37)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Constanza RoederFounder and CEO, Hearts Need Art
Constanza Roeder is the founder and CEO of Hearts Need Art: Creative Support for Patients and Caregivers and host of the podcast “Arts for the Health of It.” Ms. Roeder was selected as one of the Top 100 Healthcare Visionaries by the International Forum on Advancements in Healthcare for 2021. As a singer, adolescent leukemia survivor, speaker, and thought leader in the field of Arts in Health, Constanza is on a mission to humanize healthcare through the arts.
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 36
Tapping the Power of Online Volunteers to Deliver ROI for Your Nonprofit, with Dana Litwin
In this Episode:
Nonprofit volunteer time across the U.S. in 2021 is now $28.54/hr on average. They are often your greatest investors and champions… and that’s not even counting the donations that they make on top of their time. But with COVID and other challenges, too many organizations just don’t know how to capitalize on this opportunity.
Even for nonprofits who understand the tremendous value of their volunteer force, COVID-19 presented seemingly insurmountable challenges. Many halted or completely abandoned their volunteer programs, breaking the connection with their biggest supporters or worse, breaking their trust at the worst time possible.
Dana Litwin is a Certified Volunteer Administrator (CVA) who specializes in helping nonprofits create more volunteer opportunities online. She joins us on the show this week to share her insights on the ROI of volunteers and how we can help them help us regardless of pandemics, geographical and time constraints.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:05.270] – 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!
[00:00:22.110] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome to another episode of the Nonprofit Hero Factory. Thank you for joining us today. Taking some time out of your schedules, on your walk, on your drive, or maybe you’re at work and watching something for a little bit of inspiration. That’s exactly my hope here, is to inspire you and all the nonprofit professionals that enjoy the show, ways to activate more heroes for your cause.
[00:00:44.970] – Boris
Today, I am joined by Dana Litwin, who is a principal consultant at Dana Litwin Consulting. Dana is a CVA—which I’m going to ask her what that is—and a globally recognized strategic advisor, keynote speaker, and thought leader in volunteerism tech trends and civic service.
[00:01:02.190] – Boris
Since 2002, she has guided organizations in California, Silicon Valley, and nationwide to produce breakthrough volunteer and community engagement programs. Dana is the creator of the YouTube series “Priceless Advice for Leaders of Volunteers” and serves as President of the Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement, known as AL!VE. When I asked Dana what her superpower is, she said it was building volunteer and community engagement, and that’s exactly what I want to talk to her about today. With that, let’s bring her on to the show.
[00:01:33.330] – Dana Litwin
Hi, Boris. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:35.310] – Boris
Hi, Dana. It’s really a pleasure to have you on the show. I am excited to talk to you about all of these things. But first, as I like to ask everyone, tell us what’s your story.
[00:01:46.170] – Dana Litwin
My story is, like most people who become leaders of volunteers or get into this profession in this sector, you kind of come in sideways. You know, no little kid who’s five or six years old sits and dreams about their future profession of, “I’m going to design volunteer programs and run community engagement.” But I started entry-level with Project Open Hand, which is kind of a food/critically ill charity here in San Francisco around 2002 and did that for about five years. And really found that the combination of creativity, and people skills, and systems, and structures, and as we’re going to talk about, use of technology.
[00:02:29.730] – Dana Litwin
All of that combined really just is so appealing to me in that it’s kind of a constant challenge, and it’s a constant science and art and craft to develop volunteer engagement. And not enough people are really doing it as a career, seeing it as a career path. So in the 20 something years that I’ve been doing this, at least the last ten years, I’ve been really involved in kind of advocating for the profession and helping other people achieve things like the CVA.
[00:03:03.510] – Boris
[00:03:04.890] – Dana Litwin
Which is Certification in Volunteer Administration, and it’s the only global certification for our profession. There’s a little bit over 1,000 people with the CVA around the world, and it’s existed for some decades, and it’s not a class that you take and then get a certificate or a degree that you study for.
[00:03:28.710] – Dana Litwin
It really tests your professional experience and judgment, and it takes about a year. Are you accepted as a candidate to even take the test? Then you take the test. And again, it’s kind of real world scenarios that aren’t specific to any region around the world, or it’s not like California laws or something. It’s kind of general best practices. So it’s not an easy test to take or pass, and you need to professionally renew it and kind of do constant professional development units and renew your certification every five years. So if someone has CVA, you know that they’re going to be really good at volunteer engagement and program design and everything that’s related to it.
[00:04:12.030] – Boris
So this is definitely, you’ve decided, your calling and you’re pursuing it to the most professional standards you possibly can.
[00:04:19.350] – Dana Litwin
Absolutely, yeah. For myself and just for the profession as well.
[00:04:24.750] – Boris
Very cool. So let’s talk then, about your profession and about the things that you are most expert at, because I’m here to learn from you and I’m excited to do so. What is going on today in the nonprofit sector in terms of volunteering? I’m sure that the pandemic has, like every other area, upended so many programs when it comes to volunteering. What’s going on and how are nonprofits responding?
[00:04:53.910] – Dana Litwin
Nonprofits, overall, did not respond well. There was kind of a panic at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there has been actually a lot of great research by volunteermatch.org has done studies about once a year, every six months and surveys. And volunteerpro.net has done some as well, in the independent sector. So what we found early in 2020 was about 90… a little more than 90% of nonprofits or government agencies did the worst possible thing they could in response to the pandemic, which is to completely shut down all of their volunteer programs and in many cases, did not check with their volunteer administrator, program director, and in many cases didn’t communicate properly to the volunteers themselves.
[00:05:46.410] – Dana Litwin
So that was a really serious mistake. That was also a good data point to study of like, why was the volunteer program either undervalued by the leaders in that organization—certainly not the directors of the programs who are running it day-to-day—and why aren’t the leaders, the directors of volunteers, at the decision table with the rest of the c-suite leadership team? So I happened to be doing some other research on, kind of, that subject of how can we communicate to different organizations—both funders and leaders like executive directors, CEOs—the value of their volunteer program so that things like this don’t happen when there’s a panic moment? And particularly hard hit was health care, and human services, and food banks and things.
[00:06:36.630] – Dana Litwin
So some of the, you know, safety nets that we rely on—particularly in the United States, but this happened around the world —immediately were, didn’t have the personnel, to do all those things. And so that caused a really bad impact and ripple effect throughout communities that suddenly lost access to food or health care, certain health care services, or in-home services and things like that.
[00:07:00.450] – Dana Litwin
Now, what we’ve learned in the last year and a half is that—the agencies who kept their volunteers engaged, either shifting to virtual things, or figuring out how to safely have volunteers still do client contact, or work together in the same work site, or something like that—they’ve been the most resilient, and they’ve still been fine even throughout the other economic impacts of the pandemic in the last year and half, almost two years.
[00:07:28.890] – Dana Litwin
And those… I’ve had a lot of calls as a consultant from agencies like, “Well, we immediately shut down our volunteer things, and we didn’t really tell our volunteers until it was too late, and how do we get them all back?” It’s like, well, you’ve broken trust… so you probably can’t. Is the answer that you don’t want to hear, but is the truth.
[00:07:48.930] – Dana Litwin
And so how can we learn these lessons and help convince leadership of these many organizations—tiny nonprofits, medium sized, giant, global or national entities—that pretending that the volunteers that you have, which are probably the biggest department or the most headcount of your whole agency, and they’re probably having the most client or community-facing contact representing your agency, you can’t treat that as a nice to have, or an add on, or someone, something, that’s on a shelf or in a refrigerator where you can just take it out and put it back, and take it out and put it back.
[00:08:25.230] – Dana Litwin
It has to be built on relationships, and trust, and a connection to the people who are doing the work. And when we saw that not happening, that’s been the organizations that didn’t keep their volunteers engaged and didn’t communicate honestly with when they needed people, and what they could do and all that, are really really struggling.
[00:08:48.750] – Boris
So, the breaking of the trust is so critical and so upsetting in so many ways, because that’s one of the big currencies that we have, that we really establish with our supporters. Whether they’re donors or they’re volunteers, whatever… or they’re just sharing their voice, whatever it might be. I classify things into three different types of resources: time, money and voice. So I can vote on your behalf, I could do something on your behalf, speak up, or I could volunteer my time or my money, volunteer my money towards your cause.
[00:09:27.270] – Boris
And anytime a nonprofit can’t sustain that trust, can’t deliver on what is promised, or can’t keep treating you as a valuable member of the community… it really just breaks everything. And it’s very hard to build back, as you were just saying.
[00:09:46.770] – Dana Litwin
Yeah, and I think about it—I like your framing of it—and I think about it as the three C’s of a happy team or happy volunteers. Which is comfort, convenience, and connection. And what we found was that organizations broke that connection, and under connection you can think about it as trust, which you’ve talked about, and the sense that we’re all in this together. That good or bad, whatever we have to do, if we’re transparent and honest about, like, “Well, we have to shut down some of our services, but here’s other ways that you can still stay connected or volunteer.” Or at least, “Here’s how we can still be social with each other. Virtually, as a team of people working for this agency, even if there isn’t a volunteer task to do.”
[00:10:27.390] – Dana Litwin
That agency suggested social things, actually, have been better at bringing those original team members, those volunteers, advocates, donors, everyone back. And when you break, someone has to feel comfortable and safe and supported in their role. It has to be convenient for them to do, either with or without technology. But really, that connection is what was… that was where people kind of dropped off the cliff and the pandemic, was breaking that connection.
[00:10:57.990] – Boris
And I wonder, too, if the donation rates also dropped. And I wanted to ask you about this. Last week, I put out an article and a podcast about the IKEA Effect, which I think you’re familiar with. What that basically says, for those that aren’t in the know, is that when people assembled their own piece of furniture from IKEA, or a Lego set, or origami… they weren’t experts at it, they just assembled it as best they could, and it wasn’t perfect. They still valued it a lot higher than if someone came in, a professional came in, and did that same, assembled that same object, that same piece of furniture or something else, sometimes by as much as 63% more.
[00:11:39.270] – Boris
And so what it’s got me thinking about is that, the more you can engage your supporters—your potential supporters, whomever they might be, volunteers or donors—in the creation of your work, then the more they’re going to value it, the more they’re going to support it. And so I was wondering, do you know what the overlap is between volunteers and donors? What percentage of volunteers maybe become donors as well?
[00:12:06.810] – Dana Litwin
Extremely high overlapping, Venn Diagram. Consistently, there’s a ton of research about this over the last several years, and it very consistently shows that someone who’s volunteering, who’s giving their time and their talent to an organization, is at least ten times as likely to be a donor in addition to volunteering. As, you know, trying to chase fundraising or donor leads in warm or cold calls who aren’t already connected to the mission of the agency. So every director of development knows that information. I think very few executive directors, or CEOs, or general managers of organizations understand that overlap. And I think we may not have had that break of that connection and trust if leadership-level decision makers got that, “Oh, your donors are probably also your volunteers”.
[00:13:02.490] – Dana Litwin
And there was a very specific example, unfortunately recently, with the Chicago Art Institute. Which fired all of their docents all at the same time. Not for cause, but because not exclusively, they considered the population of docents to be too old, too white and too wealthy to represent Chicago. And they said it was as part of a diversity, equity, inclusion, access, justice measure, and all of us in the consulting space from all of those topics screamed that was the exact wrong way to do that, because it hurts DEIAJ efforts that are more legitimate that get woven strategically, you know, and change… the change is managed gently over time for people to get buy-in and build the IKEA piece of furniture of trust and diversity in the community themselves.
[00:13:56.010] – Dana Litwin
But it also just showed that there’s been like, a just off the charts toxic relationship, apparently, between staff and the docents and volunteers, and that’s just sad to see. And too late, the institution realized that, “Oh, most of those docents were our highest donors, and we’ve just lost them, too”. And there was, I think, a Guardian article and some articles about it a few weeks ago—recording this November 5th, so it was in October—but that’s a prime example of what not to do. The worst possible way to try to handle updating or diversifying your volunteer teams.
[00:14:38.850] – Boris
Yeah. So, you know, they had all the best intentions, but completely the wrong execution and didn’t realize just how valuable volunteers are. So, I’m assuming at this point that if whoever is watching or listening didn’t realize the value of volunteers and how important they are, they do now. Let’s get into, it is still the pandemic, some organizations are able to bring volunteers back in-person, but many still cannot, for one reason or another. How do we engage them online? Which, I think actually even opens up the number of people that can be volunteering from different places around the world, right. So what do we need to be thinking about? And what do we need to be doing to start engaging volunteers online and creating those opportunities?
[00:15:23.910] – Dana Litwin
Well, the thing to remember about virtual volunteering, or online, or remote opportunities is overall, it does actually improve access and equity for people who couldn’t… You know, usually a big barrier to volunteering is time, transportation, which is economic, or technology can be its own barrier. So if people have access to technology—but it’s harder for them to afford to drive, or park, or get physically to where previously they would volunteer—that opens up a lot more opportunities. And it opens up a lot of opportunities potentially for anyone around the world, as you mentioned, or from any other location, to do something to support the agency.
[00:16:04.410] – Dana Litwin
So in remote, the things that succeeded with virtual volunteering or moving online was, again, kind of keeping up honest communication and being consistent with the people you already have. And then being open minded about —we may not be able to have somebody in the hospital cuddling preemie newborn babies because of COVID, but we can still have people on iPads, doing home checks with patients, or playing music for them, or doing some other kind of virtual thing that’s supportive—so starting to think outside the box of what other ways can we use remote volunteer opportunities to support the overall mission of an agency that aren’t the usual volunteer roles, to keep people engaged and to engage new people, and then to keep those online opportunities going, to not stop them when you come back in person to volunteer.And so, to kind of keep building your engagement on both those platforms.
[00:17:01.950] – Dana Litwin
And the second point for virtual volunteering is, you still need to do safety and risk management measures. You know, the internet is a big, vast place with a whole lot of bad actors on it, and I’m not talking about, like, showbiz actors. So some of the same safety measures or even more that you would have for people doing things in-person with clients, or working with minors, or families with young kids, or vulnerable populations, elders, things like that. You still want to keep a lot of the same safety measures in place for the online world as well.
[00:17:38.970] – Boris
Those are really important to keep in mind, and I actually hadn’t thought about that. So I appreciate you bringing that up. Is there a way—maybe it’s part of the process that you guide clients through—but how do we ideate? How do we come up with the ideas for volunteer opportunities? Because, as you said, not everything translates directly to, “Oh, well, we could just do this virtually now.” You can’t deliver food virtually, for example. But there are additional things, I’m sure, that most organizations can come up with that can be done on a virtual level and still in-line with their mission and their overall goals. So how do you help clients figure out what that is, that they could be doing?
[00:18:23.190] – Dana Litwin
Well, it’s a great brainstorming session. And, you know, any kind of evaluation or assessment of a volunteer program, or potentially building one or adding things to it starts with just a very basic needs assessment. And that’s kind of some check boxes, and what can be done, what priority should it be done, and who can do it, and what skills do they have? So that’s a good start. And then my favorite category that I always recommend to clients, if they don’t already have it, is have a special project volunteer category that’s a catch-all. And it can be suggested by volunteers or potential volunteers themselves.
[00:18:57.330] – Dana Litwin
Say, kind of like, you have a wish list online of things you’d like donated. It’s like, “Hey, these are some special projects that we don’t quite have the bandwidth to cover with the people we have now, but is this a fit for you and your skills and your experience?” And then like, “Yeah, I can grab that project for six weeks or six months.” And that also empowers volunteers to, again, that two-way communication, building that connection, that trust that we’re in this together, even if it’s a brand new person saying, “Oh, actually, I do have great database organizational skills, and you can’t afford an additional IT person but here’s my certification and you can do a background check, whatever you want to do. But I can work with your IT as a part-time project to clean up your database and have it talk to your CRM or whatever is necessary”.
[00:19:42.630] – Dana Litwin
And that’s been, kind of, the best solution that I’ve seen. Is, you know, in your absolute pie in the sky wish list, what would you wish that you could get done? And there’s… you can find someone to do anything, quite frankly, in the world of volunteering. If you describe it correctly and you get the recruitment message in front of the right kind of audience, whether that’s targeted or a general big wide net cast out, then you’ll find somebody to do it.
[00:20:11.070] – Boris
That’s awesome, and I love the idea of the virtual suggestion box and having it actually suggestions from your volunteers of, “Hey, how about this, or do you need help with that, or I could take this on.” Talking about the IKEA Effect, they’re literally helping you build the volunteer program. Helping you build the organization as a whole and strengthen it. That’s got to be really powerful and impactful.
[00:20:31.710] – Dana Litwin
Yeah, and you’re not going to need an Allen wrench, and there won’t be a leftover screw when you’re done with it.
[00:20:39.330] – Boris
I have so many Allen wrenches.
[00:20:40.650] – Dana Litwin
I know, I have so many. I have a drawer full of Allen wrenches.
[00:20:42.630] – Boris
I feel guilty throwing them out, and I don’t know what to do with them. Somebody should start a project of just IKEA leftover volunteer wrenches.
[00:20:50.550] – Dana Litwin
That’s our next volunteer special project.
[00:20:53.010] – Boris
Perfect. So, what’s the biggest challenge that organizations are facing when it comes to creating programs like this? Is there some particular bottleneck? Is it technology itself? What is holding them back? And if you have any possible solutions to that.
[00:21:10.410] – Dana Litwin
Yeah. I mean the biggest bottleneck, we’ve kind of touched on before, is usually just a lack of valuing or understanding the volunteer services or the community engagement, and really, a tendency in organizations to really underpay or under-resource that capacity-building mechanism that they have. So, very often, there’s an entry-level or close to entry-level, an underpaid volunteer coordinator who’s a department of one. And again, that one person might be in charge of the most personnel or the most headcount of any other department. It’s just that they’re volunteers and they’re not paid.
[00:21:48.810] – Dana Litwin
So there’s a disconnect at an executive level and sometimes at a funder level, that volunteers are free, and they absolutely aren’t. It has to be resourced just like anything else, it has to be a line item. It should be someone with, you know, a CVA who’s an expert or has the proper experience to design these programs and do these levels of engagement with the community and build that connection, and comfort, trust. But that’s really, it’s usually the bottleneck is the culture within the organization, not understanding and undervaluing the contribution—literal—with money, and with time, and skills that volunteers offer.
[00:22:28.890] – Boris
You know, I was doing a little bit of homework before we started talking—that’s one of the things I love about doing the show, is I get to learn about all kinds of subjects—and I saw that nationally the average value, hourly value, of volunteering is something around $26 an hour.
[00:22:45.570] – Dana Litwin
Yeah, that’s run by independentsector.org, and they actually do a lot of great data collection on volunteering and, kind of, the big product or output that they do every year is the average hourly value of volunteers. And the sector itself actually has to move even further beyond that. That’s kind of your baseline metric for—and in California, I think it’s up to almost $30 an hour—I think they’re 2020 numbers were like $29.36. I’ll have to look it up, but you’re right about the national average.
[00:23:16.950] – Dana Litwin
But that’s actually, that can be a barrier in itself—of only thinking someone’s worth their hourly wage—when what they’re really worth is like you said, a voter, an advocate, an ambassador, advertising, a donor. I always approach it as, you never know who someone is or who else they’re connected to. So, if a teenager has to do their 10 hours to graduate this year and they just need a quick drop-in weekend opportunity at a food bank, if they have a great experience, maybe that becomes their career.
[00:23:47.310] – Dana Litwin
Maybe they circle back and they’re the executive director of that food bank in 10, or 15, or 20 years. So really treating, I think of it as—each interaction with a volunteer or potential volunteer is an invitation to stay engaged or an invitation to go and not talk well about that organization or that experience—so there’s a lot more value, and there’s a great actual, our return on investment for volunteering that is done by Sterling Volunteers. If you go to sterlingvolunteers.com, they run software products, but they have a free ROI volunteer calculator.
[00:24:23.190] – Dana Litwin
So, any organization can punch in some pretty basic numbers of who they’re working with and what. And a calculation I did recently for a client who is a major Zoo, was that for every dollar that they invest in volunteer services/ resources, they get $8.39 back in a variety of ways. So for people who need to do numbers, that’s a great way to start, but think about it in a more holistic way—as an advocate, a voter, a supporter—in the community.
[00:24:53.910] – Boris
It’s a great resource, we’re going to be sure to link to that in our show notes. And that’s exactly the reason why I was trying to bring it up is, as you said, you need to pay someone to manage the volunteers to be… I’m sorry, what is the title called, the position?
[00:25:11.130] – Dana Litwin
Usually we like to do leader of volunteers, because sometimes people are volunteers themselves, and sometimes it’s a paid staff position. But it can be director of volunteers, volunteer coordinator, but usually it’s whoever’s leading the volunteer programs.
[00:25:23.310] – Boris
So oftentimes that leader of volunteers will be a paid person. Or you need to invest, as you said, in your volunteer programs. So I was trying to get to, that there is an ROI—if you’re going to pay someone X amount of dollars an hour, but they’re helping you in terms of volunteer hours bring in, even if we go with the national average of $26, without thinking about all the donations that they’re responsible for, all the extra connections that they have—because they are, even at $26 an hour, are probably your biggest investors.
[00:25:53.790] – Dana Litwin
Yeah, for sure.
[00:25:55.170] – Boris
And if you think about it that way, they’re your strongest supporters. They want what’s best for your organization. They are going to be your biggest champions. And also, if you do break that trust, they’re going to be some of your bigger detractors as well. They’re going to take it personally.
[00:26:08.190] – Dana Litwin
And the hit of losing volunteers, and just kind of the sudden cut off that happened in the pandemic—again, as Chicago Art Institute is learning the hard way—it’s like, you lose donors, you lose voters, you lose advocates, you lose trust with the wider community when that happens. And no one wants to do that, no one should set out to do that as a goal. That should not be your goal.
[00:26:32.610] – Boris
So I want to be respectful of your time and our listeners time, we’ve already learned a lot. What should nonprofits do, in terms of creating virtual programs or in terms of taking their online volunteerism to the next level? What advice do you have for them, that they could at the end of this interview, go and start doing either on their own or talking about with their team?
[00:26:56.310] – Dana Litwin
Yeah, I have one of my most popular webinars, or speaking topics, is called High Tech High Touch and it’s really about finding that balance. So that’s an evaluation of if you decide that you can, and want to, and it will serve the needs of the agency to do online or remote or virtual volunteering, you can actually get that resource. Not just from the people that are already working in your department who might have expertise, but if there isn’t expertise, you don’t have to be an expert in technology to find other volunteers or other agencies like TechSoup, Tech for Good, Code for America, National Nonprofit Technology Center.
[00:27:38.850] – Dana Litwin
So there’s actually already entities that can help you make that connection and do it correctly with virtual volunteers. And then my favorite kind of one-stop shopping API and website for any kind of volunteer recruitment is volunteermatch.org, which I’ve mentioned before. And their, again, their API gets used in a lot of other different apps, but their original site is really great at honing in on those specific skills that you’re looking for.
[00:28:07.830] – Boris
Perfect, and again, we’ll link to all those. Are there any other tools or resources that you recommend nonprofits check out, whether they be digital, or something that they should read, or whatever it might be?
[00:28:21.570] – Dana Litwin
I mean I think a good, another overall resource website, is the Engage Journal. So there’s, you know, professional associations like AL!VE. I was the President of AL!VE through, I was on the board for six years, but President through 2019, and Engaged Journal—which again, you can just look up in the search engine of your choice, ask Jeeves whichever one you’re using—and they have a lot of articles, they have a lot of research, they have a lot of resources. It’s very well organized, and I think if you’re not sure where to start, that’s a really good place to start, wherever you are in the world. It’s primarily in English but, you know, it really serves kind of that worldwide audience for resources for leaders of volunteers or program design.
[00:29:07.830] – Boris
What about in terms of actually managing your volunteers?
[00:29:12.690] – Dana Litwin
Well, the biggest tool that you should have in your toolbox is a VMS, a Volunteer Management Software System. And as I talk about in High Tech High Touch, that it’s not that VMS companies are competing with each other, they’re actually competing with the idea that people don’t know that they need that software to manage their volunteer programs. That they might be using paper files, or an Excel spreadsheet, or you know, you can get a certain amount done using the Google Suite or some free things. But there is very specific database CRM software that usually, depending on the company, plays well with whatever other CRM module software that you might be using. And a lot of them have both volunteer and donor management modes and modules that again, either work with what you’ve already got going on or, you know, play very well together.
[00:30:07.230] – Dana Litwin
My favorites are really—I think the most robust and best kind of customization, and you can do almost anything you want it to do—is Bespoke Software’s VSys One Suite. That’s built on a, kind of a salesforce platform, but the company VSys has done all of the kind of customization that you need to, and they’re very responsive to customer feedback. My second favorite that’s a little more in an affordable category, is Better Impact. And again, just because it’s got a great customer feedback response to it, but I’m going to steer people.
[00:30:44.550] – Dana Litwin
We’re giving people a lot of links in this interview towards… there should be, within that Engage Journal, there should be an article or tool listed that should be pretty easy to find that’s comparing VMS. And it’s a little checklist of, what do you need it to do for your programs? And these are the ones that do it best, and here’s the price range for that. So, I’ll send some other links of some other kind of neutral, compare your VMS sites together, that aren’t a sales pitch from any one of the companies. It’s genuinely, you know, we want to find the best fit for the company. But using software at all is going to be extremely helpful and save a lot of time.
[00:31:26.910] – Boris
That’s awesome, and speaking of saving a lot of time, we’re going to do all that research for people in terms of finding all those links. So they don’t have to ask Jeeves, or hit up Yahoo, or wherever they’re searching these days. They can just come see our show notes and all these links will be laid out, courtesy of Dana and our team here. So Dana, I really appreciate your time. If viewers are interested in getting to know more about you and your work, what’s the call to action that you have for them today?
[00:31:56.490] – Dana Litwin
They can pop by my website danalitwinconsulting.com, and I also have a YouTube channel called “Priceless Advice for Leaders and Volunteers”, which you mentioned at the top of the show, and that’s a great way to get in touch with me. I am happy to respond to email questions that are following up on this podcast, and you can also probably find a lot of answers to your questions within the videos—both short Tuesday tips and longer interviews with other experts in the field—on the Priceless Advice channel.
[00:32:26.490] – Boris
Fantastic. Dana, thank you again so much for joining us today. It’s been great having you on the show.
[00:32:31.710] – Dana Litwin
Thank you so much, Boris, my pleasure.
[00:32:34.290] – Boris
And thank you everybody for joining us for the Nonprofit Hero Factory. If you enjoyed this show and want to help more people discover our interviews, our experts that are helping people create more heroes for their cause. Please subscribe on iTunes and leave us a review, subscribe on YouTube and give us a thumbs up. Wherever you are consuming this content—and we try to be everywhere that you are—please let us know that you’re enjoying it, and let others know so that they can also learn from experts like Dana. Thank you, everybody. We’ll see you next week.
[00:33:06.150] – 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:
- An individual obtaining a CVA is well-educated in subjects related to volunteer engagement and program design. (3:04)
- Unfortunately, the actions of many nonprofits and government agencies in response to the pandemic served as an example of what not to do. (5:16)
- An organization’s resiliency during the pandemic has been largely dependent on continued volunteer engagement and participation. (7:00)
- The three Cs of creating a happy and engaged volunteer team (9:51)
- A volunteer giving their time and talent to an organization is 10x as likely to become a donor. (12:17)
- Creating opportunities for volunteers to service your organization virtually, allows a broader population who could not have volunteered due to time, physical or geographic constraints to support your org and your work. (15:23)
- Whether volunteers are donating their time in-person or virtually, safety and risk management measures should be maintained to ensure security for all involved. (17:01)
- If you’re unsure how to best utilize volunteers virtually, start with a brainstorming session, but also ask them! (17:39)
- Consider creating special projects to empower volunteers by encouraging them to feel included in the building of the volunteer program and strengthening of the organization (The IKEA Effect). (19:00)
- The biggest misunderstanding nonprofits have is that volunteers are free. It does take resources to organize and manage volunteers, but it’s an investment with tremendous ROI. (21:10)
- Nationally, the average value of volunteer time is around $26/hour, and much more in some parts of the country.
- There are ROI calculators you can use to determine your return on investment in volunteers. One of Dana’s clients calculated their ROI to be $8.39 for every $1 invested.
- Consider each interaction with a volunteer an invitation to remain an active participant in, or to remove themselves from your organization. (23:52)
- An organization’s volunteers can be your biggest investors and strongest supporters, but because they are so invested, they could become your biggest detractors, should you break their trust. (25:49)
- In terms of managing your volunteers, a VMS (Volunteer Management Software System) is considered an essential tool by Dana. (29:12)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Dana LitwinPrincipal Consultant, Dana Litwin Consulting
Dana Litwin, CVA, is a globally recognized strategic advisor, keynote speaker, and thought leader in volunteerism-tech-trends and civic service. Since 2002 she has guided organizations in California’s Silicon Valley and nationwide to produce breakthrough volunteer and community engagement programs. Dana is the creator of the YouTube series “Priceless Advice for Leaders of Volunteers”, and served as President of the Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement (AL!VE).
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 35
What Nonprofits Can Learn from IKEA to Increase Support & Impact, with Boris Kievsky
In this Episode:
Can asking your supporters for their help and input actually raise the amount they’re willing to support your nonprofit’s work?
There’s a phenomenon in psychology, studied and demonstrated by behavioral economists, in which people consider something they’ve taken part in creating to be worth more than the same thing made by a professional. This cognitive bias is called the IKEA Effect
In this episode, Boris discusses strategies for nonprofits to capitalize on the power of the IKEA Effect to form a stronger connection with supporters, increasing your perceived value and raising more money for your work.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:07.250] – 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!
[00:00:24.210] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Nonprofit Hero Factory. On today’s show, I’m going to dig into a cognitive bias — a known, seemingly illogical bit of human psychology — that nonprofits have to understand and take advantage of if they want to grow their community and their support base. Many are already doing it, are taking advantage of it without realizing it (including probably your organization one way or another) but they’re not using it nearly to its potential. And today, I really want to dive into all the ways that you can do that to maximize your support base and create more heroes for your cause.
[00:01:02.730] – Boris
Before I do, though, I’d like to tell a little story — and bear with me for a couple of minutes — because I promise, it is actually relevant to what we want to talk about. This weekend, as most people in the U.S. were celebrating Halloween, I attempted to assemble and hang an IKEA set of cabinets for the fourth time. It’s the KALLAX, if you guys are familiar with all the different IKEA ones, where you could configure it into different, kind of, arrangements of drawers and shelves with doors and knock doors.
[00:01:33.570] – Boris
And I’ve assembled dozens probably, by now, of pieces of IKEA furniture over the years. This one didn’t seemingly present a challenge either, to put together at least. I put the two KALLAX boxes together, and then it was time to attach the mounting rails on the wall. If you’re familiar with the system and relates, okay. If you’re not, I’m not trying to advertise IKEA here, but they have these special metal rails that you attach to the wall, and then you can just hang the cabinets onto the rails.
[00:02:04.710] – Boris
Easy enough in theory. Of course, good practice says you should find studs to drill into and to screw the mounting rails into. And I did try to find those… but this wall, as it turns out, doesn’t seem to have studs, at least not in the area that I wanted to hang. The wall is actually adjacent to the garage, so the other side of the wall is inside our garage, the outside is leading towards our den. And it’s a long wall where we wanted to have two, kind of, cabinets on the bottom with large doors and drawers; and then up top, we wanted to have hanging, these additional cabinets to put stuff away out of view. Because, you know, when you have three kids in the house, there’s always things everywhere, and you want to find ways to stow them nicely and hopefully in an organized fashion.
[00:02:51.510] – Boris
Anyway, maybe because it’s the other side of the garage door — the garage wall – but this wall was clearly built differently somehow, and there were no studs for me to screw into. So, I went back out to the hardware store and bought toggle bolts. Which when you push into a wall, there’s a little butterfly thing, or a plastic thing that you could pull back, and it really presses against the back of the wall, keeping anything from pulling through or ripping down. I bought the bolts, drilled the hole, and pushed the toggle bolt in… and hit the garage wall instead.
[00:03:27.990] – Boris
So, apparently there’s a gap between our den wall and the garage wall, and it’s not long enough for the toggle bolt to actually go in and be able to spring open. I tried a couple of different types of bolts, none of them worked. Go back to the hardware store again. This time I buy plastic anchors and metal anchors to screw into the drywall that will hopefully hold a lot of weight. They’re rated 75 pounds each, there’s four per cabinet, two cabinets, but each one would then, theoretically, be able to support 300 pounds —which we have no intention of actually testing — but, should do.
[00:04:08.010] – Boris
So I got those in, and using them, was able to attach the rails to the wall about an inch lower than the ceiling, or actually, where the cabinets would hang about an inch lower than the ceiling. I got the cabinets up with a little bit of heft and some assistance. I was able to actually get them onto the rails and then noticed something a little odd again. Whereas the back of the cabinet was about an inch down from the ceiling, the front of the cabinet was actually literally touching — pressed up against — the ceiling.
[00:04:46.230] – Boris
Now, this would not have necessarily been a problem. I could have let it go, if not for the fact that we want doors on these cabinets and the doors swing out. Which I tried, just to confirm, but makes them actually bump into the ceiling and can’t even open. So unless I’m willing to cut open a section of ceiling, which I’m not prepared to do, I had to think of something else. Either lower the cabinets— which might make them look even stranger, hanging off the wall lower down — or find a way to, kind of, make them vertically level.
[00:05:19.170] – Boris
So I wound up coming up with a solution, which was to use washers. I put washers in as spacers between the wall and the railing, in order to try to get it flush, level with the… Well, 90 degrees to the floor and ceiling, and so the top of the cabinets will be more parallel with the ceiling. That meant, of course, going back out to the hardware store, buying longer screws, buying all kinds of washers because oh yeah, of course, the wall is not consistent to itself. I need a different number of washers in different parts of the wall… quality construction I live in. And after multiple experiments, was actually able to get the rail up relatively straight, relatively vertically straight, and mount the cabinets onto it, in such a way that they were parallel to the ceiling, and parallel and lined up with each other.
[00:06:15.510] – Boris
And the final test… was I able to put the doors on? And voila, hallelujah, they finally opened. Now, you might listen to this story and either think, “why in the world, A) is he telling this story? But B) why didn’t he just call a professional, either to put them up in the first place or when it didn’t work the first time, call someone who knows how to do these things… a handyman, a carpenter, a drywall person, I don’t know. Somebody who actually understands the principles of these types of construction and can do it quicker and probably better in the long run?”
[00:06:52.950] – Boris
Or you might be thinking of a similar experience that you had. Whether it was like me, putting together some piece of IKEA and maybe having extra parts at the end. Or having a Lego set that was incredibly challenging to put together, like the one that one of my kids loves to do. And the interesting thing is that whatever you undertook, as long as you were able to complete it, you’re probably looking back on it with pride. As I do, now every time I walk through that room, basically to the den, I look at those cabinets and I think “there’s something that I was able to do, there’s something that I achieved”.
[00:07:34.230] – Boris
And it actually makes me value them more than if I’d had someone else assemble them and put them up. Which is a little bit odd, but luckily, this is not evidence that I’m crazy (nor is it evidence to the contrary, of course). But luckily for me, this is a phenomenon that has been studied and actually aptly named The IKEA Effect, and this is the cognitive bias that I want to focus on today.
[00:08:03.750] – Boris
A litte over ten years ago, behavioral economists Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely set out to examine this phenomenon that had actually been observed and used by marketers and companies, like IKEA, for decades. In their experiments, they had individuals who were not particularly skilled at assembling furniture or other tasks, to assemble IKEA furniture or build a Lego set that was complicated or fold origami for the first time. They were then asked how much they would pay for the resulting creation, the product of their efforts, and how much they would pay for the same item created by a professional.
[00:08:40.770] – Boris
So if you’ve got some work of origami that you created versus someone else created that is a professional that clearly looks better and more structured, more well-built, whatever it might be, in case of furniture. Overwhelmingly, the participants agreed to pay more — as much as 63% more — for the one that they created, even though their final product was not as well done as the professionally created one, and they were able to see that and admit it. Then they took people who were not part of the creation process and brought them in and asked them the same question about the value of the object. They were asked the value they would assign to someone, to an object, that was professionally assembled versus one that an amateur was assembling.
[00:09:30.750] – Boris
And guess what? They didn’t have the same bias, they preferred the professional one. It seemed to them worth more and more valuable. Well, this is perhaps a strange phenomenon, but if we think about it in a few different ways, we can actually understand it. And nonprofits can harness that same cognitive bias, as it’s called in behavioral science, to create stronger connections and raise more money. The fact is that once someone has participated, as the study shows, in the creation of something — and in your case, the furthering of your mission or the creation of a program — their personal narrative, their identity, expands to include that they are now someone who supports your cause.
[00:10:13.830] – Boris
And with that new identity, they’re more likely to keep supporting through volunteering, amplifying and donating, and raise their support level as they feel more invested and a stronger connection to the results. Positive changes that they want to see in the world. So the more you can make them a part of the process, the more you could involve them in helping you understand what people want and deliver on those things, the more they’re going to take ownership of it, the more — there’s another effect called The Endowment Effect — the more they’re going to endow your work with value and therefore feel it’s more valuable to support.
[00:10:54.450] – Boris
So here are a few ideas that I put together that will hopefully get you thinking about how you can capitalize on the power of the IKEA Effect to create more heroes for your cause. If you will, ways to engage your current and possible new supporters in the work that you’re doing and get them more and more invested in it. The first way is to simply offer more volunteer opportunities. Even in a time like a pandemic that we’re going through now, where not everybody is able to, or interested in, getting together to do something in person, to volunteer.
[00:11:27.630] – Boris
There are ways to get them to volunteer online, to do certain things on your behalf. It will somehow forward your mission. This is a good time to point out that next week, when we get back to our regular type of interview show, we’re going to have on the show Dana Litwin, who is a volunteer engagement expert and will be talking to us about some of the ways that we can activate more volunteers online to get them more connected with our work.
[00:11:56.010] – Boris
The second way is to create behind-the-curtain experiences. If you’ve ever gone to see a Broadway show or any kind of theater, really, and then gone backstage to see how it all works, there’s a certain level of mystery to it. But when you get back there, it doesn’t just go away. It’s not “oh, it’s a trick.” There are no illusions, per se. There are ways that we make things happen in theater and are actually fascinating to see. “Oh, wow. That’s how that puzzle came together. That’s how Mary Poppins was able to fly.” Right? Those are the behind-the-curtain experiences or meet the cast.
[00:12:31.230] – Boris
Well, in your world, you can invite them — physically or virtually — to see how their support is helping further the cause. Helping to create certain results in the world and let them participate in that feel-good moment of service delivery. There was an organization, it still exists — the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization — that I was a part of when I was in high school. And every year, they probably still do this, they have a Passover food drive where they will assemble care packages for folks who cannot go out and buy their own Passover goods, whether they are not able to leave their house or they can’t afford all of the different things that it takes to have a proper Seder, which is the celebratory meal on Passover.
[00:13:20.370] – Boris
So they would invite high school students, like myself and my friends, to come and put the packages together. And then for those of us that had cars, which in my last year of doing it I did, actually go out and drive these packages, deliver these packages to the folks who needed them. Let me tell you, that was an amazing experience that I will never forget. I still recall knocking on doors and elderly people opening the door and seeing this package and the gratitude in their eyes and in their voices was just so incredible for me to experience that, it probably laid a strong foundation for all the other volunteer work that I’ve done since then.
[00:14:04.230] – Boris
It is an incredibly powerful thing to be able to firsthand witness the accomplishment of a mission in some small way. Which, by the way, you could also do virtually. I didn’t have to necessarily go there to drive. If you are delivering goods like that, for example, maybe you can have a camera and have that moment captured on camera. When someone receives the benefit of a donation or some kind of support. Right? Then you could share that out with the people who helped make it happen.
[00:14:38.130] – Boris
The next thing that you could do is a variation on the behind-the-curtain experience, which is invite them to Town Halls. There, supporters can get an inside view and possibly the opportunity to play a part in anything, from the planning of a new program, to the direction of the entire organization. So if you think about your board, for example, they take part in a lot of the decision making and setting the direction for your organization.
[00:15:05.070] – Boris
They are also the most invested supporters for your cause and for your nonprofit. Well, what if you could offer, basically another level of that, to other supporters. To people who do care about the success of your mission. Maybe they’re part of the community, and you can poll them on what services they want, or how they want something delivered, or how something’s working for them, and let them then have that voice that gets incorporated. Now, the danger is, of course, ignoring them if you do ask for suggestions, because then they’ll feel disenfranchised. But this is essentially enfranchisement. Where you’re drawing them in, making them feel like part of the process and the solution. Again, more invested. They will be more likely to want to support it going forward.
[00:15:52.590] – Boris
The next idea is to help connect your supporters to beneficiaries. Now again, in the case of the deliveries that I was doing, it was a very direct experience where I could interact with one of the beneficiaries, and it doesn’t have to be that person-to-person. Although by the way, that could also be done online, where you could set up calls between beneficiaries and benefactors, where there could be some sort of interaction and some sort of personal connection.
[00:16:20.430] – Boris
There’s another organization that I volunteer with, where I get to work hands on with a beneficiary and see their transformation over time — which I can’t take full credit for, but I do feel a sense of pride in — and want to keep supporting. So whether it’s through in-person or indirect through digital means, connectivity, or just through great storytelling, where you could tell the story of the impact that my work or my support has been responsible for, in a way. Then you’re going to once again make me feel more invested in the work that you’re doing.
[00:16:59.070] – Boris
Similar to how every time I walk by the IKEA shelves or there’s a project in the basement where… required some creative plumbing after certain contractors left things, let’s just say, not done. It took me several trips to Home Depot, but I was able to get it done. And every time I go down to the basement, even though most people can’t see it, and to be honest, it’s crude and not pretty, I still feel a sense of pride and accomplishment every time I go down there. So connecting someone to the results of your work and in this case specifically to beneficiaries, forges a really strong bond and makes them want to keep supporting you and donating more.
[00:17:37.290] – Boris
The next one is to give people more agency. What do I mean by that? I like to say that good storytelling, especially on websites and in digital media in general, is a choose your own adventure. Not a linear novel or movie that you can’t touch. Similarly, when we’re talking about trying to engage our supporters, if we give them options of how they want to proceed on their hero’s journey with us and how they want to support the work that we’re doing, which might be, of course, asking them if they would prefer to volunteer or to donate or both.
[00:18:15.810] – Boris
And oftentimes we ask them to donate after they’ve volunteered and to volunteer after they’ve donated. Right? Both of those are, one can easily lead to, or trigger the other. So that’s one way to give them more agency. Another way is even when just asking for donations, which program do they want to support or which result do they want to see? One of the ways that you can really boost your donations is to just simply tie specific numbers, so $50, for example, to specific results. Like supply school supplies for an entire classroom of kids for a year, or a month, or whatever it might be. $50 might not be realistic for a whole year.
[00:18:59.890] – Boris
So if you can tie that, and then show me that my donation has had that impact. Hopefully even connect me in one way or another, and again, it doesn’t have to be direct one-to-one or in-person. It could just be through video or other types of content, storytelling. Connect me to the beneficiaries and the results that, the impact that it’s had on their lives. Well, now I feel like I decided what to do. I.E. Support this particular program or make this particular donation and it had this result, something that I could feel good about and creates reinforcement for me going forward.
[00:19:41.710] – Boris
The last one that I want to share today is, well, if you know me and this show, then I’m all about storytelling. And as I mentioned, the choose your own adventure stories. You have to tell the right kinds of stories, better. As much as possible, use stories to connect your supporters actions to visible, tangible (as much as possible), results in the world.
[00:20:04.210] – Boris
Tell them the stories of impact that their time, their money, their support, whatever way it came in helped make possible. And whatever you do, don’t say, “hey, we did this”. Don’t even just say, “we couldn’t have done it without you”. Be direct. Say, “you did this. You achieved this. You donated this and it created this result” as much as you possibly can. There is a caveat that I want to touch on real quick, which is, don’t ask for too much. Whether you’re creating a volunteer opportunity or you’re asking for a donation.
[00:20:37.870] – Boris
If you ask for too much and/or promise a result that won’t necessarily be achieved, then you’re going to have the opposite effect — the Disenfranchisement Effect — where I’m going to, let’s say I wasn’t able to put together those shelves and hang them, those cabinets. Then every time I walk by there, I’m going to feel like, “oh, this was a failure”. It’s a negative association with the entire process, with IKEA, with mounting things, with my house, whatever it might be. Right? All the opposite effects from what you want to have with your organization’s supporters.
[00:21:11.470] – Boris
So make sure that it’s a donor size problem or a volunteer size problem, that can be achieved. And then, of course, tell them how much their work was able to do, how much change it was able to create in the world. You don’t have to remember all of this and you don’t have to take extensive notes. Of course, we have show notes for everything that I’m talking about in this episode. I also have a blog post called The IKEA Effect on the dotOrg Strategy website that you could check out. Again, it’ll be linked in the show notes for this.
[00:21:46.270] – Boris
If you’re interested in learning more about how to incorporate behavioral science in your organization, in your work, I highly recommend that you check out Episode 19 with Dr. Beth Karlin, where we talked about several different cognitive biases and elements of behavioral science, psychology, behavioral economics that you can use and should be, at least, aware of in your communications and your work as an organization.
[00:22:13.870] – Boris
Be sure, of course, to check back next week where we’re going to have our interview with Dana Littwin, talking about the ways that you could do the first thing that I talked about today in terms of increasing supporter investment, which is more volunteer opportunities online during times of pandemic or all year round.
[00:22:32.590] – Boris
In the meantime, if you enjoyed this episode and I really hope you did, please be sure to subscribe to the show on YouTube or your favorite podcast app so you can know when new episodes come out and please leave a review on iTunes, so that more people can discover this program and we can help them activate more heroes for their cause as well. As always, thank you so much for all the work that you do to make the world a better place for all of us, and I look forward to seeing you again next week. Bye bye.
[00:23:02.410] – 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:
- Boris shares a recent personal example of the IKEA Effect. (1:12)
- Placing a higher value and attachment on items that someone has built themselves is known as the IKEA Effect. (7:45)
- Once someone has participated in the furthering of your mission, their narrative expands to include that they now support your cause. (9:56)
- Invite your supporters to participate in the feel-good moment of seeing how their support is helping further the cause. (12:30)
- It’s powerful to experience the accomplishment that comes from a mission being completed in some way. (14:04)
- An example of this being seeing someone receive a donation, whether it’s in-person or digitally through a camera.
- Allow your supporters to have a voice. Taking part in processes and solutions for your organization leads to greater investment. (14:45)
- Connecting someone to the results of their work creates a bond and leads to continued support and donations. (16:20)
- Provide supporters with options regarding how they want to proceed on their hero’s journey and how they want to support the work being done. (17:55)
- Connect your supporters’ actions to visible and tangible results in the world using stories about the impact that their time, money and support made possible. (19:55)
- Asking for too much or promising a result that is not likely to be achieved results in a negative effect. (20:37)
- Cognitive biases and elements of behavioral science, psychology, and behavioral economics you should be aware of as an organization are discussed in Episode 19 with Dr. Beth Karlin. (21:56)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Boris KievskyChief Storyteller and Nerd for Good at dotOrgStrategy
Boris is an entrepreneur, recovering filmmaker, and relapsed geek. As the the Chief Storyteller and Nerd for Good at dotOrgStrategy, Boris helps nonprofits harness the power of great stories amplified through the right technology to reach the right audiences, create meaningful connections, and activate the inner hero in each of them.
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 34
Nonprofit Storytelling the Hollywood Way (part 3 of 3), with Boris Kievsky
In this Episode:
The power of storytelling lies in its ability to connect people and share experiences. Regardless of how great a story you tell in the middle of the forest, if no one’s there to hear it, it doesn’t make an impact.
In this third and final part of our exploration of Nonprofit Storytelling the Hollywood Way, we’re going to focus on elements of story craft that make stories more impactful, give them greater reach, and keep people coming back for more.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:16.190] – 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 word for all of us. Da-Ding!
[00:00:20.150] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. Thank you for joining me once again. Unlike most episodes, this one is going to be a solo show, so you just get to hear from me today. Most of the time, you get to hear from amazing experts in all manners of nonprofit fields like fundraising, marketing, technology and, of course, storytelling, which is what I wanna focus on today.
[00:00:40.970] – Boris
This is actually Part Three of our exploration of nonprofit storytelling lessons from Hollywood and beyond. Whether you’re new to nonprofit, new to storytelling or been working with both for years, my hope is that these concepts can help you refine your strategy and spark ideas for new ways to share your important work with the people who need to hear it.
[00:01:00.110] – Boris
Now to get the full story, so to speak, go watch or listen to part one, which is Episode 22, which focused on the questions and elements you have to have in place before you even begin to tell your story, such as establishing all the different characters and voices in your story and the goals that you have for all of them because you can’t have heroes if they don’t have calls to action and goals.
[00:01:22.490] – Boris
And then Part Two, which was Episode 29, there we covered the story style, structure and layout tips. I think there were 16 or 17 of those just in there. All of the little aspects that you could use to tweak how you tell your story to keep it more engaging, captivate your audience, maintain their attention and get them to do the things that you want to do so they become heroes for your mutual cause.
[00:01:47.210] – Boris
This installment, Part Three, is the final installment where we’re gonna cover the tools and tricks of the craft that will help you polish your story, really get it ready for mass consumption. At least we hope it will be mass consumption. And then the packaging or the elements you need to get your story out to the world, get people interested in it, get them to click that link, get them to scroll down, read it, and get enraptured in enough to take the actions you want them to take.
[00:02:14.810] – Boris
The first of the two parts that we’re gonna be talking about, of course, is craft. And storytelling, a lot of people tend to think of as an art, which there are many artistic aspects to it. But there’s also the craft side of it. And that is that a great screenwriter or novelist or nonprofit writer has to know how to use the tools that can make the movie or, in your case, your story more believable, more focused, more sticky, and keep people coming back for more. And there’s a set of tools that I learned from my time in Hollywood that I want to share with you.
[00:02:50.270] – Boris
And the first one is that you’ve got to establish credibility. Now, whenever you’re telling a story, hopefully the people who are listening to you take you at face value and know that you are the expert that you are.
[00:03:03.650] – Boris
Some of them may have already used your services or donated to your cause. They’re already members of your community in one way or another. But your goal is to, of course, bring in new people all the time. And those people may not know of the work that you do, of the impact that you have, right? Or of why they should trust you really.
[00:03:26.090] – Boris
So you wanna establish why we as first time visitors or relatively new visitors should trust you with our time, our money, et cetera, our resources, really our voice.
[00:03:37.730] – Boris
So how do we do that? Well, on any given page, depending on what it is that you’re trying to share, you can have various types of social proof. And essentially, that comes down to either testimonials or logos or some sort of endorsement, third party endorsement that might even be a guide star rating that you include on the bottom of your homepage or even your URL. Your website address could have the name of the cause right there.
[00:04:06.770] – Boris
There are little quick shortcuts and signals for us to understand that you are nonprofit, that you deserve our attention, and hopefully that you know what you’re talking about. Maybe it’s numbers like, how many people you’ve already impacted, what past successes you’ve had that people can attest to. Those are all types of social proof.
[00:04:27.830] – Boris
Movies use stars on their posters, right? To establish credibility. There might be certain stars that when you see in a movie, you’re nearly automatically gonna go see because you really like their work, at least until they disappoint you, which I hope your stories never disappoint your listeners. Similarly, what does your organization, what does your story offer as social proof, as a way to establish credibility?
[00:04:52.790] – Boris
Then this is a tactic that I borrow from Shakespeare, which is, “Say it thrice” aka three times. Now, in Shakespeare’s time, any important lines that their characters have to say, in one way or another, they would say them three times. I don’t mean they repeat “here ye, hear ye, hear ye,” which of course they did. But they would actually repeat the same concept multiple times in a given speech or certainly throughout the scene in order to be sure that the audience got it.
[00:05:22.010] – Boris
Now, Shakespeare was at a couple of disadvantages to us in that he couldn’t really control the way that the audience would respond to things, including, of course, throwing tomatoes if they didn’t like a speech. He also couldn’t control whether or not they’d be noisy or rowdy. So for him, it was necessary to have characters repeat things multiple times.
[00:05:42.530] – Boris
There’s also a theory that they said it three times because the stage was a thrust. I got to do a monologue on Shakespeare—on the Shakespeare Globe stage in London, and I can attest to it. It does have audience on three sides. So people said, you’d have to turn to one side, then walk to the front, and to the other side in order to be sure that everybody heard you.
[00:06:02.810] – Boris
Today, of course, we don’t have those same challenges, but let’s think about the challenges we do have. We have a million distractions. We have people multitasking whether they want to or not. They might be watching your video or reading your story, but also getting things on their phones or their kids might be coming in. Their dog might be barking, or an alert might be coming in from one of their emails or social media apps or something, right? There’s endless distractions.
[00:06:26.570] – Boris
So while I’m not saying repeat yourself verbatim at least, do introduce a concept multiple times and define it in different ways so that people really get a chance to absorb what you’re saying throughout your story.
[00:06:39.950] – Boris
And then the next tactic I advise is to kill your darlings. This is an odd one, and it’s difficult for most writers, including myself still to this day, but especially when I was first starting to write. It essentially means that there’s often times when we will include something that we think is just so poignant, so witty, so on the nose that it’s gonna make the show, make the episode, make the—in our case, blog post or whatever video so much more salient.
[00:07:13.790] – Boris
Unfortunately, we are often too close to the text, to the subject, to understand that from an outside perspective, it may not really be as resonant. Every line, every moment in your content needs to be filled with things that are going to engage and further the character, the reader as a character in your story.
[00:07:35.810] – Boris
I remember the first play I wrote. I was working with a playwriting teacher. He was actually a great playwright and screenwriter. And I had a line in there that I just loved. I thought it was hilarious and it was witty and it was poignant, and he read it and very politely looked at me and said, “Would the character actually say this, or is this Boris trying to sound intelligent?”
[00:07:59.450] – Boris
Now, you may not have the same problem as I had at the time, but you may have certain terms. You may have certain inside language that really makes sense to you. How many times have I read mission statements or vision statements that are just full of jargon and rhetoric that sounds so refined, and it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense to someone who’s reading it for the first time.
[00:08:22.850] – Boris
So take a look, take a close look at whatever language or fascinating or witty things you may be including in your content, and think a couple of times about whether or not you should actually remove it to make it more interesting and relevant to your audience.
[00:08:42.530] – Boris
The next is to introduce spin offs. So if you follow any of the Dick Wolf TV series, for example, Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, Chicago PD, all of those launched sequentially. I’m not sure of the exact order, but they were introduced first in one show and then they would have it in another show. They would have—mention of another show before it actually launched. They would bring the characters in, establish them in that world.
[00:09:12.830] – Boris
So spin offs, in your case, might be if you’re telling one type of story and you have another piece of content or another place where you want people to follow you for more content, you can introduce it in the story that you’re currently telling, sort of as a spin off or a new series that you’re going to be sharing somewhere else down the line.
[00:09:37.050] – Boris
In that same vein, we wanna tease what’s to come. Now, in a previous episode, I talked about cliffhangers, where you come to a point and stop in the middle of your story at the most exciting climax portion of the story. And you want people to tune back in next week or in the next reel in the case of the double feature. “If you like this, you should really tune in next time because we’re going to do this and this and this.”
[00:10:05.370] – Boris
Similarly to how when I ended the first episode or the second episode of this series of Hollywood storytelling for nonprofits. I also said, “Tune in next time or be sure to check in with us for the next episode, which is coming in a few weeks.” At least, I think I said that. I hope I said that. So tease what’s to come in your own storytelling to keep your audiences coming back for more.
[00:10:29.910] – Boris
And then pick your shots. You know, in actual filmmaking, we pick our shots long before we ever even cast an actor. We actually storyboard the entire thing as best we can to see exactly what we’re gonna show in any given shot. In this case, I’m talking more about your visuals, right? What is it that you’re going to show in the context of your article or your blog—or your blog post or your video?
[00:10:58.350] – Boris
However, you’re going to share this content except, of course, in the case of podcast like this one. What are the visuals that you’re going to include to make people instantly transport into the world that you are trying to establish for them, to engage with the story in a way that pulls them in and helps them resonate with the character, feel for the characters that are going to be in it, and perhaps picture themselves as one of those characters?
[00:11:28.650] – Boris
Remember the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It may actually also be worth thousands of dollars if you’re able to help people connect with the cause, connect with the world and the problems in the world that you’re establishing that they likewise want to solve.
[00:11:46.590] – Boris
And then the last part of the craft before your story is ready to go public, is to do a private screening. Now, I’ve been fortunate to work in a couple of movies that had larger premieres, let’s just say. But even before they had that, long before they had that, they had multiple private screenings where first, just the director and the producer or even just the director and a few close friends would come in and watch and see: Is this movie working? Is there anything extra? Is there anything we could do to tweak, to tighten, to really make it more powerful and engaging at any given point?
[00:12:22.230] – Boris
So if possible, run your story by some trusted advisors. Now, maybe it’s somebody else on your team. Maybe it’s your board of directors or board of advisers that you could send out. If it’s an email, send it out to them first. Let them take a look at it and give you any feedback possible.
[00:12:39.630] – Boris
Or maybe it’s even a group of superheroes to misuse the term. But people who are so entrenched and engaged with your community that they’re happy to be the first eyes and ears for your content and let you—give you feedback if there’s anything that they think doesn’t quite work for them, and therefore audience members like them. So test and refine your content before widely distributing it.
[00:13:10.290] – Boris
Now that we’ve established who our characters are, what questions we need to answer before we even start writing our story, how a plot works and how we can apply it to our own storytelling? All of those in parts one and two. And then what are all the devices that we could use? And what are all of the different elements of craft that we could incorporate in order to—or take advantage of in order to make our story as great as we can.
[00:13:36.810] – Boris
Let’s talk about the packaging. And this is really going to the idea of how we’re going to market our story. But before you can even market it, you have to have what in marketing we call the collateral, which in movies might be the posters, the trailers, the billboards, right? All of those things are packaging or originally, of course, in the terms of DVDs, it would be the package on the DVD. What is the—What does the cover look like?
[00:14:04.890] – Boris
As much as we like to say, we don’t judge books by their covers, we really do. And we do judge movies and your own stories by the initial presentation that we’re given of it. It helps us decide whether or not we’re going to dive any further, give it any more of our attention, spend any more time to engage with your content in the first place.
[00:14:28.350] – Boris
So the first thing you wanna do, is actually give it a great visual. That visual, like we were talking about before, needs to really speak to the audience that you want to reach, and it needs to tease the story that’s going to be there. We absorb visuals 60,000 times faster than we do text.
[00:14:47.970] – Boris
So even if you think the text is the most important thing there and you’ve got great text, if there’s not a visual you’re missing out. And if the visual isn’t impactful in engaging, if it doesn’t pique my curiosity or start transporting me into the world of the story, then you’re actually losing me.
[00:15:05.070] – Boris
There are studies that show we have about 8 seconds to engage someone when they reach a piece of content. If you don’t, they’re going to hit that back button or they’re gonna tune out and move on to something else. Again, we’re all multitasking these days, and there’s no shortage of things trying to grab at our attention all the time. So you’ve got to use every resource you can.
[00:15:26.130] – Boris
Then once you have your visual picked, yes, the next most important thing is the title. The title of the movie goes a long way. The title of your article goes at least as far. Your title is the first thing people will really use to frame and contextualize your story.
[00:15:42.570] – Boris
Even if your visual is very clear, the title can direct things in a different direction or really point us into what we’re going to be talking about. And it should be in some ways exciting or informative, so that we know that again, this is a story that we want to go on with you.
[00:16:00.750] – Boris
Then, once you have your title, you want to give it a tempting tagline. In the world of movies, again, a tagline might be something like. “in space no one can hear you scream.” Which was the tagline for Aliens. In Alien, there was—the poster really just had a dark space cape, I guess you would call it. And there was something coming through it. There was something a little different there, but really just the title of the movie Alien.
[00:16:29.590] – Boris
It could have been about anything, including at that time it could have been about the show, Alf. But it clearly wasn’t. It was a suspenseful thriller and the tagline, “in space no one can hear you scream,” really made it powerful and showed what it’s going to be about.
[00:16:46.570] – Boris
Similarly, in your own work, if you could add a tagline that helps explain what the story is going to be about, that might be catchy, that might capture some interest or pique some curiosity, but also inform, maybe even strike an emotion. You want to get that oxytocin released as early as possible, but without really trying to press those buttons because people will feel if it’s artificial.
[00:17:11.290] – Boris
Anything you can do in those senses to create—to create those elements in a tagline is going to really serve you well. So it could clarify the title, but it has to build interest and pique some curiosity to get people really excited to consume the content.
[00:17:30.790] – Boris
And now that you have all those three things—all those—yeah, those three things, you want to put them together into a poster, which is going to be combining your title, your tagline, and your visual into some sort of configuration. Now, I understand we’re limited in a lot of places where we might have a template that we can’t superimpose one thing on top of another.
[00:17:53.230] – Boris
The most important thing to bring first is usually the title and the visual. There are studies that show that the title should be first, but I prefer combining one over the other any way that both can be seen quickly within the first 8 seconds. And hopefully the tagline is going to be the most powerful combination that you can make. So whether it’s a photo for your post, the thumbnail for your video or your podcast like this one, it has to work with the other elements combined to make an irresistible poster for your audience.
[00:18:24.370] – Boris
Think about if you’re driving down a highway and you see a billboard. Now in Hollywood, all the billboards pretty much—unless Apple is releasing a new product—are for a movie or a TV show that’s about to come out. This is a unique thing in the world of Los Angeles that every single billboard pretty much is about a show or a movie.
[00:18:46.210] – Boris
And its goal is as you’re driving by to capture your attention long enough to make an impression in your mind. Hopefully when you’ve seen those a few times, so the marketing agencies of the Hollywood Studios hope, you’re going to want to check out the website or find the trailer on YouTube or open the email that might be coming to you about that show.
[00:19:10.450] – Boris
If you’re subscribing to Netflix, for example, they’ll send you, you know, new things on Netflix or HBO to watch, right? So you want that poster to make an impression that’s somewhat sticky so that we are excited to consume the content. And when we see it on social media, we’re gonna want to click through to learn more. That’s your poster.
[00:19:33.190] – Boris
So those are the—those are the packaging elements, the marketing elements that you need to have for every single piece of content you have. If you think about a social media post, it is entirely a poster. You don’t have usually a lot of time and space in a social media post to give an entire article, for example.
[00:19:52.670] – Boris
But you do have the room to put an interesting title to put a visual together with it, which every piece of content you share from your website should have a visual. If not, then you could just share a photo or share something else on social media that will stop the scroll, which is a common expression now in marketing, and you want them to click through.
[00:20:12.590] – Boris
So you have to have your call to action in there as well, which in social media is often implied. It’s “go ahead and click on this poster because we’re going to take you to the website.” It’s also what that text right below your visual is going to say “here’s what the website is really about” and tease a little more content there.
[00:20:30.090] – Boris
Now you have your three different parts to this series. With the three of them, I’m hoping that we’ve given you enough elements that will help you think about how to tell your story in every manner of media so that you can capture the attention and actually activate heroes. Remember, you have to have a call to action every piece of content you have.
[00:20:53.370] – Boris
I hope you enjoyed this show. I hope if you haven’t yet, you go back and view or listen to parts one and two. See all the takeaways which we’re going to have for this one as well on our show notes at nphf.show. I think this is going to be Episode 34. Don’t hold me to this. I can’t remember right now, but it’ll be in the show notes and it’ll be in the links on this YouTube on any place that you discover it.
[00:21:19.110] – Boris
You can also download the full entire eBook that I’ve assembled with all of these tips and more. If you visit the website, there’s a quick little form that you can fill out there. That’s my call to action to you is, go ahead and fill out that little email space to download your own eBook and then you’re going to be on our newsletter list, which means you’re going to get notifications when we have new articles, new free programs, and new podcasts like this one which coming back next week we’ll have a guest talking about their expertise.
[00:21:52.050] – Boris
Thank you so much. Please, if you do enjoy the show, give us a rating. Give us some sort of a review on iTunes or follow us on Spotify on any of the major podcast platforms and most of the minor ones. We’re there on all of them. And please, please, please, share it with others who can benefit from content like this so that I and the guests that come on the show can reach more folks. And as we like to say, activate more heroes for their cause. Bye bye, everybody.
[00:22:42.630] – 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:
- Storytelling is as much craft as it is art, and there are tools of the craft that anyone can learn and use (2:19)
- Establish credibility and trust through social proof with testimonials and endorsements, as well as seals of approval or accreditation from third parties (2:50)
- Repeat your most important points three times, in three different ways, to make sure it sticks. (4:52)
- Avoid language that sounds lofty or uses insider terms that may alienate people unfamiliar with your work. (6:39)
- Use one story or medium to introduce others. When launching something new, share it organically with the people who already like your work. Give them the chance to discover new work or new other places that they can interact with you (like social media channels, newsletters, etc.). (8:42)
- Tease future content that may be of interest to someone interested in this story, so that they are eagerly awaiting your next installment. (9:37)
- Choose your visuals wisely to draw people deeper into the story. (10:29)
- Test your story before you share it widely. Have trusted staff, board, or supporters review it and share with you any feedback on how to make it stronger. (11:46)
- We do judge books by their covers and movies by their posters, so choose a great cover visual that will quickly tell people something about the world of the story and get their attention long enough to check the title. (13:36)
- The next thing that we notice is the title, which should tell us what this story is going to be about. (15:26)
- The tagline (often called a subheading or subtitle) should then give more clarity and context to the title, and tease the story to increase curiosity. Bonus if you can start to set the emotional stakes in there as well. (16:00)
- Combine the title, tagline and visual into a poster that will resonate with your intended audience and make them excited to dive in or to take the next step in learning about your work. (17:30)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Boris KievskyChief Storyteller and Nerd for Good at dotOrgStrategy
Boris is an entrepreneur, recovering filmmaker, and relapsed geek. As the the Chief Storyteller and Nerd for Good at dotOrgStrategy, Boris helps nonprofits harness the power of great stories amplified through the right technology to reach the right audiences, create meaningful connections, and activate the inner hero in each of them.
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 30
A Systematic Approach to Asking for Money for Nonprofits, with Andrew Frank
In this Episode:
Whether you’re a nonprofit development professional, a staff member, or an individual with a passion for making the world a better place, asking for money is often a dreaded necessity. The only thing worse is the possibility of not being able to provide the service that your community needs.
How can we overcome our fears and roadblocks to ask for funding with confidence and increase the number of yeses we get?
Andrew Frank has been fundraising for projects and organizations his entire professional life. Now the Executive Director of NYC Children’s Theater and consultant to numerous organizations, Andrew teaches his step-by-step approach to nonprofit execs, development professionals, board members and even individual artists. He joins us to share his process for overcoming fears, approaching prospective donors, crafting a four-part pitch, and making the ask in a way that is most likely to get a “yes.”
Read the Transcript
[00:00:17.040] – 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 word for all of us. Da-Ding!
[00:00:19.860] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Nonprofit Hero Factory. Today, I’ve got to give you a little bit of a full disclosure, if you will. Our guest today is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We’ve actually known each other for over 20 years now, because we are getting that old. Luckily, though, he also happens to be a nonprofit leader and a teacher. He teaches people how to actually ask people for money. A topic that I think is particularly critical at this time of year for organizations of all sizes, whether you have a large development staff or none at all, and you do everything yourself.
[00:00:55.870] – Boris
Really knowing how to talk to people, how to do that ask. How to properly seal the deal, if you will, or even start the conversation, I think it can be really intimidating to people. So I’m having my friend, Andrew Frank, on today to talk to us about all of that. Andrew is currently the Executive Director of the New York City Children’s Theater. I met him, like I said over 20 years ago in another theater company in another life. So previously, though, Andrew was the director of the Cultural Institutions Unit at the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, where he oversaw relationships between the city and arts institutions.
[00:01:31.030] – Boris
He was also the Interim Executive Director of the Queen Symphony Orchestra and the President of TYA/USA, a national service organization that serves the field of theater for young audiences. And he now sits on the board of the Dramatic Question Theater Company, as well. As a commercial producer, in addition to a number of Off-Broadway projects, Andrew was an Associate Producer on Broadway with “Lombardi, a New American Play.” Andrew is also a personal coach with a certificate in coaching from NYU, and he describes his superpower as helping nonprofit fundraisers and artists remove obstacles, increase confidence, and increase success rates when asking for money.
[00:02:08.920] – Boris
With that, let’s bring Andrew on to tell us more of his story. Hey, Andrew.
[00:02:14.230] – Andrew Frank
Hey, Boris, good to see you.
[00:02:17.020] – Boris
Good to see you. We talk all the time, but we actually rarely get to talk on video like this.
[00:02:21.560] – Andrew Frank
No, very rarely. That’s right. We’re phone-people.
[00:02:25.690] – Boris
We are phone-people. We’re from that age. Oh, my goodness.
[00:02:29.060] – Andrew Frank
[00:02:30.250] – Boris
We don’t even FaceTime.
[00:02:31.520] – Andrew Frank
That’s true. No Zoom or FaceTime. Just good, old fashioned phone.
[00:02:36.930] – Boris
Amazing that that technology still works. It’s over a hundred and thirty years old now or something like that. I hate to misquote technology. All right, Andrew, so I’ve obviously talked you up a good bit over here, but why don’t you tell us what’s your story? How do you come to doing this?
[00:02:52.990] – Andrew Frank
Thanks, Boris. Well, I started in New York City. I came all the way from Long Island to be a theater director. And one of the things that happens when you’re 20-something and you want to direct a play in New York is you have to raise money to do it because no one’s going to hire you. So, before I even knew what I was doing, I was raising money to produce plays so I could direct them. After a while, when my circle got bigger, we started Manhattan Theater Source, which is where you and I met.
[00:03:23.450] – Andrew Frank
And I was raising money and building a board and putting that together. And then from there, I went to the Department of Cultural Affairs, where I really started to see how big institutions—my job really was covering a lot of board meetings. And so I was sitting around at boards, listening to how they were fundraising and asking for money. And then from there, I wanted to run my own organization again. So I took over New York City Children’s Theater about eleven years ago and have run a number of different organizations, as you’ve mentioned.
[00:03:58.170] – Andrew Frank
All during that time, my love of theater and individual artists stayed strong, and I kept working with them. And I got so tired of having to watch them struggle, so that I created a course on how to help people ask for money. And I started that with individual artists and then realized that the boards that I joined didn’t understand how to ask people for money, and staff didn’t know how to ask for money. So I wound up presenting that course, and it evolved over really the last 15 years.
[00:04:30.460] – Andrew Frank
Basically a primer, an outline, on helping you ask people for money. Yeah. So that’s my story. Here I am with you. That’s the latest greatest achievement is being on the Nonprofit Hero Factory.
[00:04:46.320] – Boris
I notice your eyes go up to read that to make sure you . . .
[00:04:49.380] – Andrew Frank
I want to make sure I get the branding right. Yeah.
[00:04:52.510] – Boris
Excellent. I do appreciate that. So, in that story that you just told you mentioned that you codified this into a course, which, by the way, I should say, you and I recorded a version of this course a few years ago now, and it is on the dotOrgStrategy courses, courses.dotOrgStrategy website. But, this is not just about directing people to that or trying to make money off of them.
[00:05:17.770] – Boris
We’re really just trying to share as much information as possible and as much value as possible. And we’ll talk about a few other ways that people can learn more. But let’s start with why even make a course? What makes it so challenging that people need to learn how to ask people for money?
[00:05:33.800] – Andrew Frank
Yeah. What’s amazing, I think over the years is the anxiety and the emotional barriers that people have about asking for money. Most people have a problem just asking someone. Frequently, it’s because they’re starting with friends or family. But even when it’s not somebody that they know, they feel like by asking it means something bad about them or that they’re weak or that, you know, that they’re going to get a “no” and they’re afraid of rejection. I mean, none of us like rejection. No one likes to ask somebody out and be rejected and ask somebody for money and being rejected.
[00:06:11.480] – Andrew Frank
We just don’t like that. And so I think at the end, what’s happened is that people dream about asking people for money, but they don’t actually do it because they’re afraid of taking that step. Over the years, I’ve collected all kinds of reasons on why it sucks. You know, and it’s funny, you see where people say, “Well, I’m going to get a no”, or some people say “I’m going to get a yes and then I’ll have to deliver.” But at the end of the day, really, what it comes down to, I think, is that the sort of anxiety that we have around money and this misconception that it means something is wrong.
[00:06:49.800] – Andrew Frank
It means that we are not successful, or it means that I haven’t achieved the right thing, and I’m asking you for money because I haven’t made it on my own already, or I haven’t gotten there some other way. And I think that’s the headline that goes in our heads that it means that we’re weak, we’re unsuccessful, and we have to get over that. We have to.
[00:07:14.570] – Boris
So are some people just innately better at this than others? Are all of us born with this issue, or are there just some natural born winners, if you will, that can go out there and raise money anytime?
[00:07:27.220] – Andrew Frank
You know, I have to say, throughout my years in the nonprofit sector, maybe I bumped into a few people who say, “Oh, yeah, asking people for money is fun.” It’s the “fun” in fundraising. But I would say 99% of people do not like to ask other people for money. But that being said, I think it’s a skillset. I think it’s something that you can learn. I think it’s something you can get very good at. And I think it’s something that at least you can polish and create… I think it’s a skill set. That’s the best way to describe it.
[00:08:02.140] – Andrew Frank
It’s a skill you can learn and get better at. And really what you can do is you can raise money for your nonprofit or your project that you’re working on. And I have seen many people get much better at it and become successful fundraisers. I don’t think it’s something that you either have to be naturally good at it or not good at it. I think it’s something that’s absolutely learnable.
[00:08:28.980] – Boris
So then what do you tell those folks, like myself to be honest, who are afraid for one reason or ten reasons to ask other people for money? How do we overcome that mindset?
[00:08:42.510] – Andrew Frank
Yeah. So let me just start by saying, I think the first thing to do is to challenge this idea that asking people for money means something is wrong or that you’re not successful. And I would actually ask people to go look out in the world and see who successful people are. And when you look at very successful people, whether they’re political candidates, or CEOs, or philanthropists, even the ones that give away money, they raise money. They raise money, and they’re very successful at it.
[00:09:19.250] – Andrew Frank
And actually, people who raise money become successful. And it’s like, “Oh, my God, look at that amazing person. They’ve raised so much money for this charity.” Or “they’ve raised so much money for this political movement or for this project.” I mean, when have you ever heard somebody say, “Oh, my God, that horrible person who raised $10 million to support backpacks for people in homeless shelters.” You wouldn’t. You’d be like, “Oh, my God, that person is amazing.” So the first thing I think we have to sort of say, is asking people for money is a sign of success.
[00:10:02.900] – Boris
Just the act of it on its own communicates commitment, communicates belief in yourself, communicates the value that you bring to the world about the project that you’re talking about. So I think the very, very first thing to do is to challenge the idea of why we think it’s wrong and to get over that. The second piece that I think is a big deal is practice. We don’t do it a lot. And if there’s anything in your life that you just don’t do a lot, I mean, it’s hard to do. If you don’t cook, and then like three times a year you want to sit down and cook a really nice meal, it’s hard to do. If you cook every night, you get really good at it.
[00:10:48.790] – Andrew Frank
And I don’t care what skillset that you have—you read, you watch, you get better at it. So the other part of asking people for money is practicing and doing it, and doing it regularly. I would even say for myself, as an Executive Director, I have to make a lot of phone calls to foundations. And when I procrastinate, and I put it off, and I don’t do it on a regular basis, my own anxiety, even after all these years, goes up.
[00:11:12.750] – Andrew Frank
But when I do it every week and I make it part of my routine, it’s easier to do. And so I think those are the top two. I mean, we can go deeper at other times, but those are the top two, mental and a practice.
[00:11:29.090] – Boris
Awesome, I would also add to that mental part of it. One shift that I’ve seen really helpful both to myself and to others is rather than thinking about it as asking for money, it’s offering someone an opportunity to become a part of something. To become a part of, whether it’s an organization or a project or whatever it is that’s going to do good for the world. And hopefully they already believe in the outcomes that you’re shooting for your vision, right?
[00:11:56.000] – Andrew Frank
Yeah, for sure. And I think we can talk about this more later. But when you’re asking for money, you’re asking for a specific amount of money to have a certain thing happen. A certain outcome. Would you give $5,000 so we can run an arts and education program in a homeless shelter and you’re not asking for $5,000. You’re asking to run an arts and education program at a homeless shelter. The money is the conduit, but that is definitely a good point, Boris, in terms of the mental shift.
[00:12:28.620] – Andrew Frank
But it also speaks to your belief that the program is valuable. That’s part of why we’re asking in the first place, because we believe in what we’re doing.
[00:12:38.800] – Boris
So since we’re jumping into that already anyway. Let’s talk about this. What’s the greatest challenge that people asking for money are facing today? Obviously, things are always changing in the world, but certain things also stay the same. So has asking for money changed?
[00:12:57.940] – Andrew Frank
I think, you know, it really has. I wish it hasn’t changed as much, but it has changed for a lot of reasons. One reason is that in our COVID world, there’s so much noise. So to get your message through, to get people to respond to an email, or pick up the phone, or to meet you in person, is obviously so much harder. And that particular piece, meeting in person is by far the most effective way to ask somebody for money. In-person direct ask is the best way to do it.
[00:13:35.150] – Andrew Frank
And so that being taken off the table is certainly a challenge. And then also, there’s so much need right now in the world. There’s so much competing interest in terms of need, and they’re all relevant, and they’re all, you know… from homes being destroyed by floods and wildfires, and people being homeless, and all kinds of real specific things that are going on. It’s harder to make your case. But, that being said, it’s even that more important that we’re good at it and that we practice it and that we take it on, right?
[00:14:11.700] – Andrew Frank
Because we can’t get overwhelmed and say, “Oh, well, too bad, there’s lots of people in need. My project is just going to disappear.” That would be horrible. We have to dig in deeper, I think, and overcome the challenges.
[00:14:28.820] – Boris
So ultimately, as you were saying before, we have to believe that our mission and the work that we’re trying to do is still vital to the community. And if we don’t do this, and if we don’t find ways to rise above the noise or breakthrough and make these connections, then we won’t be able to do what we do. And people are relying on us. Just because it’s not the most pressing in some ways, the sexiest thing at the moment or the most in-the-headlines thing at the moment, doesn’t mean that our mission’s not important, and that communities don’t rely on us, right?
[00:15:03.360] – Andrew Frank
Yeah. I always say to people in a workshop that the world, the world literally is counting on those people, counting on you to go out there and make these really important projects in the nonprofit sector, and the art section, the cultural sector, happen. They have to happen. Our society is not going to just automatically support these causes without the energies of the people that are making them happen. And it’s crucial for us to keep doing it.
[00:15:41.400] – Andrew Frank
Yeah. So I feel like it’s an imperative that we work at it. We get better at it and we make our nonprofit survive.
[00:15:48.520] – Boris
So then how do we do it today? Especially in this COVID, hybrid, whatever world that we’re living in, where meeting in person is so much tougher. What do we do to overcome that challenge?
[00:16:01.760] – Andrew Frank
Yeah. So the first thing I would say to people is don’t be afraid of the phone. You and I were talking about this at the beginning. I make a lot of phone calls. I talk to people on the phone. In fact, many foundations are run by people of an older generation, and they don’t like Zoom, and so they pick up the phone. Obviously for people who are comfortable on video, Zoom is great, or FaceTime, or whatever video it is. But video meetings are wonderful, and I think they’re great.
[00:16:36.240] – Andrew Frank
And then also obviously email and texting. Actually, I was thinking about this before coming on. How many people I’ve actually started to text rather than email, because I feel like email is actually getting just so clogged. But if I have somebody’s personal phone number and I can text them and get them on the phone with me and talk to them about what we’re doing, it feels more personal and it pushes through the noise. Obviously, I have to have their phone number, but I think the key is personalizing what the outreach is.
[00:17:14.460] – Andrew Frank
I think if you send a general email to 50 people that that’s not going to cut it. I think you have to take the time to individually reach out to people and then meet them where they are. If they can meet you on the street for a cup of coffee and they’re comfortable in our Covid times, do it. Always meet in person. If not, and they’re willing to Zoom, or meet with you on video, do that. If not, call them. But I think you have to find them where they are and go to them and not expect them to come to you. I think that’s a big piece of it.
[00:17:50.920] – Boris
I think that’s right on and absolutely critical. Whether it’s because the person is an older generation and there’s almost a double-edged sword to it, or double whammy maybe is a better expression. Because with COVID, people are less likely to be out in the first place, and older generation folks are more in danger of adverse effects of COVID, so they might not want to be out as much. And at the same time, a lot of them are also the ones who are less comfortable with technology, and so can’t necessarily hop on a Zoom link real quick.
[00:18:29.240] – Boris
I mean, I’ve experienced this. I’m sure we all have so many times over the last a couple of years now, that it just doesn’t happen. And many of us today don’t think, wait, I can just pick up the phone and still use this computer as a telephone that’s been in my pocket all these years.
[00:18:48.120] – Andrew Frank
Yeah. I have to tell you, we’re in the beginning of our year at New York City Children’s theater, and we do cold calls to foundations. I will call a foundation, I will leave a message, and we talk to people. And, you’d actually be surprised by how many responses we get from an actual phone call and a message. I think we get more of a response than we do when we send an email because the email is being filtered through somebody. I think reaching out and… I feel like me saying, “Hi, I’m Andrew Frank. Can I talk to you about blah, blah, blah” gets a better response than the email.
[00:19:28.420] – Boris
Everybody talks about the oversaturation, the noise, the crowdedness of spaces. But there are continually spaces that are less crowded, that if you can utilize, why not? And sometimes it is going retro, if you will, to a technology that’s older than all of us combined, that still works.
[00:19:48.120] – Andrew Frank
Yeah, absolutely. I’m a huge believer in making a phone call. If you can’t show up in person, make a phone call.
[00:19:55.460] – Boris
Right. And sometimes people are on the other side of the country or even on the other side of the world, and you can’t necessarily meet in person. It’d be great if we all have the budgets to just fly anywhere that we want. But obviously, that’s not the most effective use of our funds. So let’s assume that we’ve overcome our fears and our obstacles to fundraising, and we have figured out the best way that we can meet with someone, whether it be in person or through video or the phone or email. Or, as you correctly pointed out, text is actually growing rapidly as a personal communications method, and you want your asks to be personal.
[00:20:35.890] – Boris
So let’s assume that we’ve set aside or overcome those challenges for now. How do you teach someone? How do you actually personally teach someone to ask for money? If every ask is supposed to be personal, right? It should be crafted to the individual. Is there something that you could actually teach?
[00:20:54.460] – Andrew Frank
Yes. Well, I’ve been doing it, so I think so. I think the answer is yes. You can teach it. At least I’ve been trying. And hopefully it’s not been in vain. But yes, everything is specific. And yes, every individual, you ideally want to know what the individual cares about. But that being said, when you ask somebody for money, I think there is a basic structure that you can hold on to, especially when you’re learning and you’re doing it for the first time. And it’s simple, but if you follow it, it’s helpful.
[00:21:29.670] – Andrew Frank
First, there’s an opening, there’s an intro. “Hi, I’m Andrew. I’m Executive Director of New York City Children’s Theater. I want to talk to you about supporting some programs that we’re doing in homeless shelters,” or free tickets or something. Then that’s the first section. And then the second section is a story where you’re telling some version of why you’re here. How you’ve come here. Why is it relevant? Why is it important? “We were asked by the city to start a program in homeless shelters. We’ve been doing it for five years, blah, blah, blah.” But there’s a story that is communicated so that’s the second section.
[00:22:08.440] – Andrew Frank
The third section is an ask. And you’re asking. And some good ideas are to be very specific. “Will you give us money?” is not a great ask. “Will you give us $5,000 so that we can support X program or pay for X expense?” is a better ask. And if there’s anything that you can give in exchange for that, that’s always good. So there’s an ask, potentially an exchange. And then there’s a closing where you say “thank you very much,” and thank them for their time, whether they’ve said yes or they said no.
[00:22:46.530] – Andrew Frank
So I think if you look at that sort of anatomy of an ask, where there’s an opening, there’s a story, there’s an ask, and there’s a closing. It gives you a format to hold on to. Especially when you’re doing it for the first time. But I still think about it, and I’ve been doing it for a very long time. I still think to myself, “make sure you’re introducing yourself. Make sure you’re telling why you’re here. And make sure that you’re asking for something specific.” It’s always so hard.
[00:23:16.370] – Andrew Frank
People always ask me, how do you pick a number? How do you know how much money to ask somebody? I mean, there are tricks to that. Another time when we have more time we could figure that out, but being specific is helpful. And I also just want to say, when people give you money, whether they give you money or not, the thank you is such a big deal. I’ve heard from philanthropists and from donors how often people don’t write really warm thank you emails or call and say thank you and don’t follow up.
[00:23:50.930] – Andrew Frank
Even major institutions struggle with this. I don’t understand why that is, but it’s a big deal because getting money and keeping someone as a donor is just as important.
[00:24:02.400] – Boris
So the pitch, and I’ve had several guests talk about this particular thing that you were just mentioning. The pitch is one thing. Getting a donation though, that’s the start of a relationship. Keeping that relationship, making it feel like a bidirectional, mutually beneficial relationship is absolutely critical. Otherwise, it takes so much effort to get that donor in the first place, that why would you want to repeat that process more than you have to. Rather than the genuine connective upkeep that you could do?
[00:24:35.930] – Andrew Frank
Yeah, absolutely. When we start getting past the once you’ve asked for money and they’ve said, yes, the ongoing relationship management is really important. You really want to avoid the situation where you’re asking somebody for money once a year, and that’s the only time you connect with them. That’s generally not good.
[00:24:52.690] – Boris
And I want to tell you, yeah. There’s one organization that I’ve donated to. I don’t even mind calling them out. I use Wikipedia a lot. And so I actually am one of the few people, apparently on this planet who donates to Wikipedia. And I’ve donated different amounts over the years, and I got basically no communication with them year-round. And then just now I had an email saying, “Hey, Boris, you donated to us.” I don’t even remember if it was last year or two years ago that I donated last. “And we really appreciate it. And can you please donate again?”
[00:25:25.530] – Boris
Seriously, no sort of upkeep and no staying in touch with me over this entire time period of, “Hey, here’s how your money is working. Here’s what we’ve been able to do. Here’s how we’ve grown.” Nothing! It just comes back to me. And this is Wikipedia. Surely they know digital.
[00:25:44.100] – Andrew Frank
Yeah. Who raised these people? Don’t they know how to say thank you and then invite you to the party in the middle? I’ve heard horror stories. People give money to pay for events and then not be invited to the event. I mean, it’s not great. But the… coming back to our structure in terms of what it is when you’re asking people for money. Being gracious as part of that ask, whether they say no or they say yes, I think is really important. And I just want to add something here, which is that, when I ask somebody for money or even write up a grant or whatever, and we get a no, I always say every no is one step closer to a yes.
[00:26:32.160] – Andrew Frank
If you ask ten people, you’re not going to get ten yeses. You’re going to have to get nos. It’s just the way it goes. So whenever I get a no, I’m like, great, I’m that much closer to a yes. I mean, I think celebrating that is part of the mental and the practice in terms of getting good at it.
[00:26:51.080] – Boris
Celebrating the fact that you asked is an achievement in and of itself. That you had the chance to practice, that you’ve actually gotten some time in front of somebody. They may eventually develop into a better relationship anyway. Over time, we develop relationships that are stronger and truer and people are more likely to support you later on.
[00:27:11.140] – Andrew Frank
Absolutely. I’ve had many people say no in the moment, and then a year later or two years later, give money. Because they weren’t ready at that moment or their priorities changed, or it was a new project, and then they wanted the project to be more established. So sometimes the “no” that you get early on—in fact, one of the things that I always say is that when someone says no, one thing that you can ask them is, “I totally understand. Thank you for your time. Can I follow up with you in the future and just update you on the project? Would that be okay?” And often they say yes.
[00:27:47.430] – Andrew Frank
And then you just send updates on the project. And then you’d be surprised how often, six months later or a year later, they’re like: “Oh, wow. You’re actually doing this. I’ll give you some money.”
[00:27:56.300] – Boris
Andrew, could you also ask them if there are other types of projects that they might be interested in? So if you pitch them on one thing right now, maybe in six months, you could come back to them with something else?
[00:28:05.850] – Andrew Frank
Yeah. I think that goes to, like, trying to understand better what somebody is interested in. And, you know, there’s a classic version of people are interested in the mission, they’re interested in access, they’re interested in status, they’re interested in different things. And so sometimes when you ask somebody about a certain project, hopefully, before you’ve asked them, you have some inkling that they like, what you’re talking about. But it does happen, especially with foundations, but with individuals, too, where you say, you know… homeless shelters, and they say, no, I’m actually more interested in diversifying audiences or something. And then there’s another program that you can bring back to them. Yeah.
[00:28:52.630] – Boris
So we’ve got the intro. We got the story. We’ve got the ask. We’ve got the closing. Are there any pitfalls that we want to try to be aware of when we’re making the four sections, the four parts of a pitch.
[00:29:05.420] – Andrew Frank
I would say one thing, don’t skip the intro and the closing. It’s really annoying to get a letter from somebody or to have somebody call you on the phone and talk to you about something and then ask you for money. It feels like you’ve been hoodwinked. It’s not great. So, if you ever read a letter you get and then at the end, it’s like, oh, will you support us? It’s like, “oh, this is a fundraising letter.” It’s not nice. So it’s really important at the beginning to say, “Hi. I’m calling and I want to talk to you about supporting this organization.” So I think that’s really important.
[00:29:37.400] – Andrew Frank
The other thing that I would say is the biggest pitfall is to assume that the person understands the relevancy of the work that you’re doing or the project that you’re creating. I think we get so wrapped up in our own sense of how important it is [what] we do, that we forget that the rest of the world out there isn’t living in our office, in our head, in our programs. And we just think, of course, people would give this money, right? Because it’s so important.
[00:30:08.820] – Andrew Frank
And I think you need to make sure you don’t fall into that trap. And that you explain every time why the work is important, at least in the first ask. But reiterating it, reiterating it over and over and over again, why what you’re doing is important, why your story is unique, why the service you’re delivering is crucial, especially in this time where so many are in need. That would be the biggest thing to make sure. That’s the biggest mistake that I see is people just assuming, “Of course, people will support this, because it’s important, right? Doesn’t the world need this?” There’s a lot going on.
[00:30:46.890] – Boris
Absolutely. So if someone is just getting started, are there any tools or resources that you recommend? Or maybe someone has been doing this for a long time like yourself. Are there any resources that you recommend that they go check out?
[00:31:02.050] – Andrew Frank
Well, to start off, I’m doing the workshop with Candid on October 25th. It’s a free workshop, “How to Ask People for Money for Artists.” Feel free to join me for that. It will be an interactive webinar for a couple of hours, and it’s free. There are a few books that I like, and I’ve got them next to me because I knew this was coming. So I think I got “Fascinate”, which is all about making things attractive to people. “Positivity”, there we go. Being positive about it.
[00:31:44.520] – Andrew Frank
And I think this is one of the best books for leadership that anybody could ever look at. Leadership and Self-Deception”, and it’s all about mindset and getting yourself able to do it. It kind of addresses the issues about relevancy, and being positive, and getting out of your own head, which I think are some of the main topics that we’ve covered today.
[00:32:07.100] – Boris
Awesome. We’ll be sure to link all of those in the show notes for this episode. And of course, we’re going to link to your free course that you’re doing your free webinar at Candid. That’s coming up on October 25th. As you said. It’s specifically for artists, or is it for anyone?
[00:32:24.740] – Andrew Frank
It’s mostly for artists. But the topic is general enough. If you’re not an artist, I think you would get a lot out of it. I think Candid wanted to be specific about it, but I’ve done this workshop for board members and for development people, really for anyone that’s thinking about raising money for something that they care about. Yeah. And we shouldn’t forget that we have a great version of the course on dotOrgStrategy. So if you want to check that out, too.
[00:32:54.220] – Boris
Yeah, we’ll have that linked up as well. It’s called “How to Ask People for Money” and it really covers all of these things in detail with worksheets and step-by-step processes. So if people want to follow up with you, Andrew, what should they do if they want to get in touch and learn more about what you’re doing?
[00:33:12.640] – Andrew Frank
Yeah. The easiest thing is to email me at New York City Children’s Theater. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And because I am a coach and I work with individuals and leaders and nonprofits, I really do enjoy helping people pursue their dreams and make these projects happen. I sincerely believe like you, Boris, and why this work that you’re doing is so important, is that if we don’t help nonprofit entrepreneurs and nonprofit people succeed, then the world becomes not as nice a place and we need to help.
[00:33:57.760] – Andrew Frank
So feel free to email me and I’ll get back to you because it’s important.
[00:34:03.400] – Boris
Awesome. Thank you, Andrew, for being so generous with your time with us and with anybody listening, who wants to follow up.
[00:34:09.640] – Andrew Frank
Yeah, thanks, Boris, this is really great work that you’re doing.
[00:34:13.140] – Boris
I appreciate that. All right. And thank you everybody for joining us today. I hope you found this conversation with Andrew Frank around fundraising and crafting a great pitch helpful to you and the work that you’re doing. Feel free to follow up with him. Feel free to follow up with me on any questions that you might have. Including if you want something specific featured on a future episode, a specific part of the work that nonprofits do. You know, I love everything at the intersection of storytelling and technology and how that can be applied to everything. And certainly a lot of storytelling is applied to fundraising and the work that Andrew does.
[00:34:46.650] – Andrew Frank
So thank you all for joining us. We’ll see you again next week. And if you like the show, please, please, please like, comment, leave a review so that more people can discover people like Andrew and the work that we’re doing here to help you create more heroes for your cause. Bye bye.
[00:35:21.200] – 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:
- Andrew shares his story: how he learned about fundraising, why he decided to teach others, and whom his techniques designed to help. Andrew believes that anyone looking to make a contribution to the world, whether through nonprofit work or through the arts, owes it to the world to make their project or their mission a reality. (2:52)
- Most people have a tough time asking people for money. They feel that asking means something bad about them or that they’re weak, or they’re just afraid that they’re going to get a “no,” and feel rejected. (5:44)
- Asking people for money is a skillset. It’s something that most people can learn and get very good at. (7:46)
- Asking for money is actually a sign of success. All successful people raise money. We need to challenge the idea of why we think it’s wrong and get over that. (8:42)
- Asking for money is like most skills; the more you do it, the better you become. (10:21)
- One mind shift that is really helpful is rather than thinking about it as asking for money, thinking of it as offering someone an opportunity to become a part of something. Everyone wants to be a part of something that makes a difference. Asking for money is also indicative of your own belief that what you and/or your organization is doing is valuable and deserves support. (11:29)
- Meeting in person is the most effective way to ask for— and receive— donations. But it has become harder over time. Especially with Covid. (12:55)
- When the work you’re doing is vital to the community, you need to find a way to continue to educate and break through the noise to make real connections. (14:42)
- What’s working today? Phone calls, email, and texting. Find potential donors where they are, and personalize your outreach as best you can. (15:48)
- Andrew breaks down the “pitch” into a four-part structure: Intro, Story, Ask, and Closing. In each, there are specific elements that should be communicated to whomever you’re meeting with. (21:19)
- Keeping someone as a donor is just as important as getting the donation, if not more so. This is the start of a relationship. Make sure to keep connected with them throughout the year. And always say “thank you.” (23:57)
- In some ways, asking for money is a numbers game. Whenever you get a no, it means you are that much closer to a yes. And you never know when that connection you made might turn into something great further down the road. (26:39)
- Before you ask somebody about supporting certain project, make sure you have some inkling as to what they like to support. (28:05)
- The biggest mistake to avoid is skipping the intro or the closing. This is where you establish what the donor would be giving to, which is absolutely critical. (29:05)
- We often get so wrapped up in our own sense of how important our work is, that we forget that the rest of the world out there isn’t living in our office, in our head, or in our programs day in and day out. (29:37)
- Make sure to state and reiterate why your work is important, why your story is unique and why your service is crucial—especially at this time when so many are in need.
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Andrew FrankExecutive Director, New York City Children's Theater
Andrew Frank is the Executive Director of New York City Children’s Theater.
Previously, Andrew was the Director of the Cultural Institutions Unit at the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs where he oversaw relationships between the city and arts institutions, the Interim Executive Director of Queens Symphony Orchestra and the President of TYA/USA – a national service organization that serves the field of Theater for Young Audiences. And sits on the Board of Dramatic Question Theater company.
As a commercial producer, in addition to a number of Off-Broadway projects Andrew was an Associate Producer on Broadway with “Lombardi, A New American Play.”
Andrew is also a personal coach, with a certificate from NYU.
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 29
Nonprofit Storytelling the Hollywood Way (part 2 of 3), with Boris Kievsky
In this Episode:
Welcome to part 2 of our exploration of nonprofit storytelling lessons from Hollywood and beyond. This installment covers 15 elements of style and structure, and another 6 tips for laying out your action. Each concept can be directly applied to better telling your nonprofit’s stories.
When most people think of storytelling, they tend to think of it as a freeform art. While that’s true to some extent, most every great story relies on specific structural elements and clear stylistic decisions. Of course, within that structure and those guidelines, there is endless room for creativity.
Whether you’re new to nonprofit, new to storytelling or have been working with both for years, these concepts can help you refine your strategy and spark ideas for new ways to share your important work with the people who need to hear it.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:04.720] – 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.
[00:00:21.930] – Boris
Hey, everybody, welcome back to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. This is another episode in our series on Hollywood Storytelling Tips for nonprofits. I began the series about a month ago now helping organizations figure out some of the key storytelling elements that every great story should have. I’m basing everything, of course, on the Hollywood formula because it is one of the most successful formulas of all time, arguably the most successful and certainly in terms of revenue. You know, if you’ve ever enjoyed a movie, been inspired or moved by a movie by what you saw or even just greatly entertained and appreciated that entertainment, then you’ve experienced the power of a great story, specifically in the way that Hollywood has put it together.
[00:01:05.390] – Boris
It doesn’t mean that those stories have to be on video, that they have to be big budget. In fact, so many of the great Hollywood stories are not on a big budget. They’re told with low budget cameras and actors who may not even be at the top of their game yet. And yet they can come together and create a story that’s really exciting and fun to watch. I don’t want the term Hollywood to make people think that this has got to be big budget blockbuster, superheroes fighting with special effects.
[00:01:35.820] – Boris
Sure, that’s one type of story, but there are so many different ones. And in the first part of the series, I covered how to set up your stories by first framing your goals and then really understanding your audience and the characters involved. Once you know what you want to achieve and whom you’re speaking to, who you want to step up and become the hero of the story. Now it’s time to take a good look at how you’re going to tell it. This is where that “do we need a blockbuster?” part comes in.
[00:02:03.940] – Boris
In the end, you see, all stories work on similar principles, and any story can theoretically be told in countless different ways. Today, let’s look at what story structure looks like and the elements that we want to include to capture and keep attention as well as to inspire our audience to hopefully become heroes for our cause by taking the actions we need them to take. And that starts by thinking about what style you’re going to be telling your story in.
[00:02:31.730] – Boris
Now again, it doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. There are rom-coms, there are documentaries, there are thrillers, there are action movies. All of them have their place, and all of them can tell a story in a different way. In fact, you could theoretically take the same story and frame it differently, tell it a little bit differently, using different dialogue, different staging, whatever it might be, and suddenly turn it into a different genre. Some of my favorite clips on YouTube are actually taking known movies and remixing them into something that looks and sounds completely different, oftentimes adding a different sound track, which is also an important part of the Hollywood storytelling system, which you can use sometimes in your own productions. Obviously, music plays a role.
[00:03:16.010] – Boris
But what’s key is to first start by picking your style and shifting styles midway through is often disorienting. If you’ve ever watched a movie that started out as a comedy but then shifted into a horror film, I don’t think that he has happened and have been made that way, but if you’ve ever seen a movie that starts with one thing and then turns into another and you feel kind of lost in the story or it’s trying to mix too many styles, right?
[00:03:43.100] – Boris
Oftentimes that happens at the risk of actually keeping an audience focused and following along because it’s very disorienting. First start by choosing your style and then choose your genre. Right? Your genre is specifically whether it’s a Rom. Com or a sitcom, if it’s a TV series. Think about, is this a feel good story? Is it a tragedy? Is it a romantic comedy, a documentary or a cautionary tale? Right? Those are all valid genres, and you want to be really careful because you never want to seem like you’re telling a tragedy in the sense that this is bleak and this is how things are.
[00:04:27.090] – Boris
You always want to be, including some element of hope, some element of progress. That people are not just going to always be in this situation, but that with my help or with the audience’s, the heroes’ help. People are going to be in an improved state of life. They’re going to either be more educated or they’re going to have more food and not worry about where their next meal is coming from or have shelter or have arts, whatever it might be. You want to have that kind of hope in every single story that you tell, especially if it’s the story of one of your beneficiaries so that you don’t feel like you’re just trying to tug at heart strings, but also to inspire people that change is real.
[00:05:17.160] – Boris
And then you want to be true to your medium. So as I said before, not every story has to be on video. It doesn’t have to be a big movie. It could be a podcast, it could be a video series, a webinar, it could be in a sequence of emails or a single email. It could be a blog post. Any of those things and all of the different other media types that are available and increasingly becoming available to all of us as consumers and as creators, they all have their own elements of structure and their own constraints.
[00:05:50.890] – Boris
Remember? One of my favorite expressions is, creativity loves constraints. So embrace the limitations of whatever medium you are telling your story in and then feel free to play with them and see how you can use them to your advantage. Every weakness is actually a strength, if looked at the right way. So be true to your medium, but then also know when to break the rules. So you don’t always have to follow proper etiquette when it comes to storytelling, because sometimes breaking with that etiquette will get the attention you want.
[00:06:27.560] – Boris
You always, of course, want to be careful that you don’t break etiquette for the sake of breaking etiquette, and you don’t offend people whom you definitely don’t want to offend. Often, certain politicians and organizations might—I don’t see this very often with nonprofits, but they might actually vilify somebody and put other organizations for other people down in order to make their point. That’s not the kind of etiquette that I’m talking about, you should break. I don’t personally believe in that. I believe in uplifting people instead of putting them down.
[00:07:00.900] – Boris
But you do want to break out of norms sometimes. Whether it’s your voice… So if an organization has a particular voice that they usually tell their stories, and sometimes a change of voice might be just the thing you need to start attracting new attention or to sort of dislodge people from the groove that they’ve already been in with your organization, get them to pay attention to anew. And then you want to know your POV. Now POV is a common term. It comes from—I believe it comes from Hollywood, where there’s a POV shot. Maybe I’m wrong there maybe actually came to Hollywood from somewhere else.
[00:07:37.800] – Boris
But the point of view is often decided before a movie is ever shot. Every movie has what’s called a shot list where they’re going to talk about… Okay, first, we’re going to have a third-person point of view where we’re going to have a medium shot. Let’s say then we’re going to have an over the shoulder POV shot, and that’s going to be approximately through the character’s eyes through one of the characters eyes looking at the action or looking at another character.
[00:08:01.700] – Boris
Similarly, in your own stories, it’s never an objective third party person that is just watching and relating a story. That person has a point of view. They have their perspective on things, and it’s totally valid. Whomever your narrator is, should have an opinion. Maybe they’re happy about something that’s going on, or maybe they’re disappointed with the state of the world today. Or maybe they’re excited by the possibilities. Right? But either way, they have a perspective. And oftentimes if it’s someone who is on your staff, that perspective is one of authority because you are an expert in your field. You are someone who knows—or the staff-person speaking knows—something that the majority of people don’t know. So that’s a valid and important point of view that they could be taking. And that instructs how that story might be told.
[00:08:53.440] – Boris
So once you have those elements now, we could really look at how a story is structured. So what do I mean by that? Every Hollywood movie follows a formula. Now they don’t all do it perfectly. In fact, they often times will break with the norm on purpose.
[00:09:10.830] – Boris
And we’ll talk about that a little bit more. But there’s a reason why they do it. Because within that structure, they can do a whole lot of different things, including even improvisation. Movies aren’t always completely scripted, and that’s okay. But knowing it well helps you organize your thoughts in order to then change them around in any way that you want to make the story more interesting and more compelling. So let’s talk a little bit about that. Of course, the classic story structure is simply a beginning, a middle and an end.
[00:09:43.680] – Boris
Every story must have those three things in order to really feel like a story to us. If it’s something that doesn’t have an end, then we feel kind of left wanting and a little disenchanted with the storyteller. If it doesn’t have a beginning, we might start off confused, which sometimes is intentional. And if it doesn’t have a middle, if it just jumps from the beginning to the end, then we’re often left unmoved because we’re not sure how the transformation took place. And that’s another thing that every story must have.
[00:10:13.650] – Boris
So people often don’t have the patience, for example, for a slow start. So don’t feel like you have to go all the way back. You can begin anywhere you want to begin. In fact, some of my favorite movies and plays don’t begin at the story’s beginning. But the plot, the action starts somewhere later on, maybe even at the end. In the case of one of my favorite places, Betrayal by Harold Pinter or the movie Memento, where it’s actually being told in reverse chronological order in a really interesting way.
[00:10:42.890] – Boris
Those are all great devices, but within those stories, if you were to take them apart, you could actually reshuffle them back into an order of beginning, middle and end, because all those parts don’t need to be covered. That said, you want to tell a complete story or a complete part of a story. So whatever point you start at and order you choose to go in, make sure to paint a complete picture by the time you’re finished, or give the audience a quick way to learn the rest, for example.
[00:11:12.810] – Boris
So if you’re doing short form storytelling on social media, you’ll often have that link to deeper content that they could find on your website or on YouTube or wherever else you create your content. You’re essentially telling a short version of the story, a teaser for the story and saying, hey, you want the full thing? Great. Go find it over here. We’re happy to share it with you. Right?
[00:11:32.960] – Boris
And then one thing that I advise people to do when telling stories because there’s a lot of different stories you could tell, and sometimes it’s hard to think of all of them is to celebrate victories. So, whenever you’re watching a movie that does have any sort of action, and that could include romantic action, there are ups and downs. There are highs and lows. Those ups are victories. The characters have experienced something that has made them feel better, made their world better, has somehow been a success. You want to be sure to celebrate those because they might not happen every day. But that’s even the more reason why they’re so important to show people that victory is possible, that there is hope for the future. And together we can get there, right? Every step forward is a step toward achieving your mission.
[00:12:22.200] – Boris
But you do want to acknowledge setbacks, and this is the next tip. Movies and their heroes don’t have a straight path to victory. In fact, if you could see my hand, it kind of goes up and down, up and down. New highs, new lows, new highs, new lows. Because stakes are constantly being increased. If a character knew everything that they had to do at the end in order to succeed, they would probably be too scared to do it in the first place so they wouldn’t get started.
[00:12:52.370] – Boris
They would never become a hero. The world would never change. There are setbacks along the way, and that’s okay because you’re going to then show people how you help them overcome those setbacks. One of the quotes I like is that the measure of a hero or a person, a man—I think it was originally said, I don’t like to use those gender specific terms—is not how many times he or she falls down, but how many times they get back up, right? So that’s acknowledging your setbacks.
[00:13:21.860] – Boris
One other thing I want to say about that is that failures are normal. We all fail. We all have setbacks in our lives. And when you’re telling specific stories of a specific person’s journey, hopefully it is a journey that leads them through transformation and gets them to a better place in life. But if you don’t show along the way the challenges that they have or the challenges where they started or along the journey. If you’re not able to show those, then the people are not going to feel three dimensional and they’re not going to feel relatable.
[00:13:56.070] – Boris
There are scientific studies that show that when someone opens up and shows their vulnerability, they actually elicit a response in—a neurochemical response in our brains. That is the release of oxytocin. That oxytocin is the chemical that helps us feel trust and compassion both at the same time. And aren’t those the very things that you want people to feel when they’re thinking about your organization? So when you’re opening up feeling vulnerable, talking about the vulnerability, people will relate. They’ll feel like you’re a human being, right? No one wants to give money to Nike, but people do want to feel something based on the shoes and the experience around the clothing.
[00:14:42.140] – Boris
No one wants to give money to an organization that is just some umbrella name. They want to give money to people working in an organization for a cause that we all believe in and want to succeed. So acknowledging those setbacks helps us feel like you’re a human being and this is human to human, which is ultimately everything that we want to achieve.
[00:15:06.740] – Boris
The next thing you want to do in storytelling, and this is a fun device is foreshadowing. So if you are telling a story that may take a little bit longer, let’s say to get to the end, you want to maybe hint at what’s coming down the road that opens up a loop in our brains. We naturally want to close that loop, and we will be much more likely to stay tuned to the end to get that loop closed, to feel that piece of information filled in.
[00:15:36.860] – Boris
We don’t like having these question marks hanging in our minds. So it might be like something along the lines of now, before we tell you how this person did this, let’s start at the beginning. Oh, wow. This person was able to do this, and you’re going to tell me how that opens up that loop. You’re foreshadowing what’s going to happen later. That’s just one example or you could say, “but more on that later,” in some way, at some point in your story. And I do that oftentimes, even in my interviews, they say, hey, you know what? We’re going to come back to that later. But first, let’s expand on the issue that we’re talking about, right? So it gives people an incentive to stay tuned and stay focused on your story.
[00:16:18.350] – Boris
The next tip that I find very difficult to do, to be honest, is to take the time to make it short. So Mark Twain once signed a long letter of his in which the PS, I believe, was, I apologize, and I’m paraphrasing this, But Mark Twain said, “Please forgive me for the length of this letter that this letter is so lengthy, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” And that’s kind of funny. It sort of in Mark Twain’s way, makes you think and put some question marks up in your brain. Why does it take longer to write something that’s shorter? The truth is, it’s easy to ramble.
[00:17:04.760] – Boris
It’s easy to go on and on. It’s easy to include much more than someone needs in a story. But everything that’s not critical, that’s not serving a very specific purpose in your story—that is an opportunity for someone to become distracted, to tune out. To… as one of my theater director teachers used to say, that gives them the chance to start counting the lights in the theater, and as soon as they’re counting the lights, you’ve lost them. Movies are often made in the editing process. They are edited and reedited and condensed and re-condensed in order to make them as efficient as possible.
[00:17:44.380] – Boris
Every little scene. Basically, every word has to contribute to the objective, the super objective and the plot of the movie otherwise is cut on the editing room floor. So take the time to edit it down to the essentials. But of course, not so much that you’re removing the human factor.
[00:18:05.650] – Boris
The next tip that I have is to feed them elephants. Now, of course, I don’t advise anyone ever actually elephants. I love them. They’re beautiful creatures, and they should be protected as they often are. So what do I mean by feeding elephants?
[00:18:21.080] – Boris
There’s a quote that says, “how do you eat an elephant one bite at a time?” It’s by Creighton W. Abrams, Jr. And I confess I don’t know anything else that Creighton Abrams said or wrote, but that one has really stuck with me. The story of our organization, of our work, of our lives… it’s long. It’s very long, and that if you’re trying to boil it down and just get it to one small thing in the way of making it short, you might miss out on a lot of different things.
[00:18:55.620] – Boris
So instead of trying to boil down someone’s life into a sentence or into a two minute video, you may just want to focus on one specific element and then have people come back for the next installment… the next element of the next tale from their lives. So feel free to focus in on one particular part of a journey or one particular transformation that your programming has had on a particular person or your own experience with your organization. Zoom in on one thing and tell that story in a short, compelling way. Then people are much more likely to come back for the next bite of that elephant. The proverbial elephant.
[00:19:38.440] – Boris
One more device to add to that in the realm of keeping people coming back, is throwing in some cliff-hangers. Now, cliff-hangers—some of us that are old enough to remember these types of movies now—are actually the end of a movie. The end of a double feature… the first part of a double feature, oftentimes where the hero is literally left hanging on a cliff. That’s why it’s called a cliff-hanger.
[00:20:03.630] – Boris
And you want to know what’s going to happen to that hero. You’re excited, you’re scared, you’re angry, perhaps even that the hero is there in that position. And so you’re much more likely to stay for the second half of the double feature, past the other reels that might come in between the commercials, whatever it might be, go out and buy some more popcorn. Really, that’s what the theater wants you to do, right? You want to know what’s going to happen to this person. So a cliff-hanger is the term for stopping a story at a very exciting point and saying, I’m not ready to tell you the rest of it just yet. You’re going to have to come back later.
Very effective advice. Don’t overuse it, because when you do people will stop tuning in. I’ll give you an example. When The Lord of the Rings movies came out, I hadn’t read the books. My mistake. And I saw the first movie and I loved it. I watched it. And when it got to the end, it didn’t end. It just stopped. And that was upsetting to me because I wanted some sort of conclusion, some sort of wrapping, some sort of bow on that present that they had given me. And I didn’t get that experience.
[00:21:13.720] – Boris
I was upset. I didn’t go see movie number two in theaters. I waited ’til three came out, and then I watched one and two back to back and then went to go see number three. Don’t overuse Cliffhangers and make sure that they are exciting and that you’re not going to leave me waiting for much too long because chances are I’ll forget. And then I’m not sure if I’m going to tune back in for the second part. So that’s on cliff-hangers.
[00:21:37.200] – Boris
Then, cross promote. So this is something that TV shows will do often times if you watch any of the Chicago series, Chicago PD, Chicago Med, right? And Chicago Fire. They’ll often cross promote each other. They’re all part of one television universe. Similarly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will do the same thing where they’ll cross promote each other’s movies. It different movies in the universe. That’s a great thing to do. And in your stories, you could do something similar where, when your audience is enjoying a story, be sure to tell them another way to get similar content. Now that could just be telling them: if you sign up for my newsletter, then you’re gonna get more of this type of content really soon.
[00:22:24.970] – Boris
Or if you like this story, you’ll really love this other one that we shared just recently or one that we’re going to have soon. Right? Cross promoting. And sometimes it could go even beyond just from story to story. You could cross promote programs. You could cross promote all kinds of things as long as they are relevant to the audience that you’re working with. And remember, we talked a lot about keeping things relevant to the specific audience in the first installment of the series. I encourage you to go back and listen to that again, if you need to or haven’t heard it yet.
[00:22:57.700] – Boris
So, if you’ve told your story well, and we’re going to talk more about the action of a story in every movie, we’ve got the end of the movie, the credits, right? Don’t forget that your movie, your story has credits as well. So the show your audience that this is a team effort. The credit belongs to your heroes. Now that might be the narrator of the story, or it might be whom the story was about, or it might be that the donors who made this possible, or the volunteers who slaved day after day to make this actually happen.
[00:23:37.120] – Boris
They deserve the credit. And you want to share that credit because it’s going to help us all feel like we can be heroes as well. Because if people like us are in the credits, then we could also be heroes in this world. Speaking of supporting credits and giving credit where credit is due, see this series and everything that I talk about wouldn’t be possible without some of the great storytellers throughout the ages, including people like JJ Abrams and Shakespeare and Robert McKee and Crayton Abrams and my favorite theater, film and writing teachers. All of them were heroes in one way or another in my life, and I’d like to give them credit.
I give credit actually oftentimes to my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Krupitsky, who taught me so much about writing and about storytelling in fourth and fifth grade. She actually was my teacher for both of those. Right… give that credit. It makes you look humble. It actually encourages you to be humble and grateful to the people who make things possible. So now that we’ve established the style and some of the structure of storytelling, let’s look at the action.
[00:24:51.350] – Boris
So the action of a movie is all about the conflict to save the world of the protagonist. Again, that doesn’t have to actually be planet Earth. It could just be a marriage. It could be a relationship. It could be a child coming into their own and having their transformation in one way or another. But for their mission to be successful, a hero has to rise up in the face of all obstacles and win the day. Sometimes begrudgingly. But they do have to. Right? And we talk about calls to action a lot.
[00:25:21.340] – Boris
Before we have those calls to action, we have to establish the back story. And that is what is this world like? How have things been up to this point? What is the history of the problem problem? Chances are, if you are running a nonprofit, you are focusing on one or two specific problems in the world. Now that might include a bunch of different programs that you’re running. But there should be an overarching mission that unifies all of the things that you focus on. That is the big picture problem.
[00:25:53.480] – Boris
If you are familiar with old movie trailers, they all used to start with in a world where there’s certain kind of injustice, there is a man or a woman or a child who has to take on the seed of power, overcoming… Right? That dramatic voice talking about the world that we live in. Similarly, in the first few minutes of a movie or any story in the beginning of it, you establish that this is the world, but there’s something wrong. If there’s not something wrong then, frankly, no one needs to do anything, everything is fine, and we can all move on.
[00:26:28.470] – Boris
That’s not the case for your organization or your mission. So what is the back story for this particular story for this particular segment of your storytelling, novel or whatever we want to call it series?
[00:26:42.120] – Boris
Then you want to go ahead and map out the journey. If your heroes take action, if your potential heroes take action and stuff up to become heroes, what will that journey look like? What are they going to have to do? How long will it take? How many paths can they take? Right?
[00:27:00.780] – Boris
So you might have multiple programs. They all should help with your overall mission and goals. Well, they are different paths to success, and I might want to take one path versus another, depending on how you’ve described it and what resonates best with me. This is the part of storytelling that really differs from Hollywood in the case of your organization. In this case, you want to make the potential hero their own agent of change and turn this into a choose your own adventure rather than a prewritten story.
[00:27:33.970] – Boris
So map out the journey, perhaps telling me how long this might take, what I’ll have to bring, what I should be prepared for so that I don’t feel like I’m turning a blind corner and unsure what’s going to happen to me. If I go ahead and volunteer or go ahead and donate, you want to make it super clear for me. The next thing to do is to set the stakes. So what will happen if in this world that you’ve established, the hero doesn’t take action? The potential hero doesn’t become a hero.
[00:28:07.720] – Boris
What’s at risk are more people going to fall to prey to a certain pandemic or phenomena? Are fewer kids going to grow up having a certain opportunity or be able to do something with their own lives? Are future heroes not going to be able to realize their own potential, essentially, right? So make it clear why this is a battle that really must be won. What’s at stake? And then create a clear call to action.
[00:28:38.810] – Boris
So I talk about this a lot. A lot of organizations that I’ve worked with, they assume that people will know what to do or that the best call to action is to donate money. That’s not always the best thing. Depending on where you are in your journey, where I am as a potential supporter or an existing supporter, there are different actions that I might want to take. But if you don’t tell me clearly that this is the next best step. Or here are one, two or three. I really wouldn’t go over three possible steps that you could take next to become a hero. That would be fantastic.
[00:29:16.660] – Boris
Ideally, I recommend making those steps a scale, a ladder, if you will, where someone can do one thing that takes almost no personal commitment. Like, for example, signing up for a newsletter, or they can donate their time or teir voice or their money. And different calls to action will have a different level of commitment. So if I’m already well-invested in the stories that you’re telling and in the organization, the work that your organization is doing, then a greater call to action might suit me just fine. Whereas if this is the first time I’m meeting you, don’t ask me to marry you before first date. Go ahead and ask for my number or ask for my email address.
[00:30:01.700] – Boris
Actually, either one these days people will ask for, if you want to run an SMS campaign or an email. Usually email is easier. Or maybe even it’s just join you on face group for something or sign up for an event. Any of those are perfectly valid and it gives me the sense of control that I can decide what to do next. But don’t assume that I’m going to automatically start looking on your website or on your social media wherever I find your story for what can I do now? Don’t count on me to be that moved and inspired, making as easy and frictionless for me as possible.
[00:30:36.640] – Boris
Then you want to slowly build to a finale as I was motioning before, for those of you watching this on video… the stakes get higher and higher. The successes and failures will feel higher and deeper. Ultimately, there is supposed to be in every story a final battle. Now, again, this doesn’t have to be a superhero movie. It could be a rom-com. It could be a buddy comedy, it could be a documentary, but it comes to a head to a climax and the battle for the fate of that world—whatever, however you define the world—will be at stake. So you want to slowly build to it.
[00:31:21.640] – Boris
As I was saying a minute ago, your calls to a should rev up over time, depending on my engagement and affinity for your work. But you do want to keep raising them on me over time. Give me the opportunity to do more and more. Hopefully, if I’ve already taken action in the past with you, I have seen that action pay off. You have kept me informed. You have told me what my actions have yielded in the world that we both see has an issue in it, so that next time you could say, you know what doing that achieved this, right?
[00:31:56.500] – Boris
X achieved Y. If you do X + 2, we’re gonna achieve Y x 3. Great. Your return on investment is going to be even greater. So slowly keep building to that final battle.
[00:32:08.720] – Boris
But do, and this is the next step, make it a winnable fight. There’s a concept of a donor-size problem where you don’t want to ask for somebody from somebody who can’t afford to give you a million dollars. You don’t want to ask them for a million dollars because they’ll feel like, oh, well, I can’t actually solve this problem.
[00:32:25.700] – Boris
You want to make this a winnable fight by giving your audience something that they could do that’s going to have an impact that’s going to pay off. And that the culmination of the support that I’m going to give, plus this community that you’re building around your cause is going to give, the culmination of those is going to make this a winnable fight and we can achieve our mission and the vision of the world that we want to see, together. So make it a winnable fight before you ask me to actually jump in.
[00:32:59.610] – Boris
Those are the elements that I want to talk to you guys about today that will really help you set up your narrative, your structure and the style in which you’re going to tell the story. Combined with the audience and understanding how they work and what types of characters you should have in your story, you should now have a great foundation and even a structure with the beginnin- middle-end, whatever order you want to put it in, that’s going to engage your audience. That’s going to attract new audiences, hopefully, because you’re going to resonate with them specifically and you’re going to tell it in a way that’s going to keep them interested and wanting to hear more from you and keep coming back for your content.
[00:33:41.240] – Boris
Whether that’s on social media, on email, on your website, however, you want to serve it to them, including, of course, on a podcast. I hope you enjoy this show. I hope if, you haven’t yet go back and view or listen to part one, see all the takeaways which we’re going to have for this one as well on our Show Notes page at NPHF.show. And you’re going to then want to come back for more. That’s my hope, because if you don’t, then I’m not going to be able to give you more value and I’m going to lose the ability to help you do even more.
[00:34:13.790] – Boris
So hopefully I’ve done a good job of teasing that this is part of a series and that in the next part of the series we’re going to talk about specific elements that you could introduce to really make your audience pay attention and take action, make sure not to lose along the way. And all combined, you’re going to have a great idea of how to tell a great story, the Hollywood Way, but specifically for nonprofits. Thank you for joining me.
[00:34:39.210] – Boris
Next week. We’re going to have another guest on the show as we do most of the time. This is part of a special series of Hollywood storytelling tips for nonprofits, and I look forward to seeing you with a guest next week. Bye bye.
[00:34:51.510] – 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:
- Start by picking your style and genre and be careful not to change part-way through. (2:10)
- The dangers of making the story a tragedy. (4:14)
- Staying true to your medium and knowing when and how to break the rules. (5:17)
- Understanding and acknowledging your own point(s) of view. (7:25)
- How stories are structured. (8:53)
- Telling complete stories, whatever the length. (10:57)
- The vital importance of celebrating victories and acknowledging setbacks publicly. (11:32)
- Use devices like foreshadowing to keep attention through longer stories. (15:06)
- There should be nothing extra in a story. Work hard to remove everything that doesn’t serve the story arc. (16:18)
- How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Don’t try to tell people everything you think they should know in one story. Break long stories into shorter installments whenever possible. (18:05)
- Use cliffhangers to get people to come back for the conclusion. (19:38)
- Take the opportunity within or at the end of a story to pique interest in other stories (21:37)
- Give credit where credit is due. This is your chance to demonstrate community and gratitude to the people who make your work possible. (22:57)
- In some way, every movie is about saving the world. And so is your organization. What’s wrong with the world today that you need others to step up and become heroes? (24:51)
- Tell your audience how you’re going to help them succeed and make the world a better place. What can they do? What options do they have? (26:42)
- Make it clear why this is an important battle by letting people know what’s at stake. (27:54)
- Call your heroes to action explicitly. Make it clear what you want people to do, and make it easy to do it. Offer options if appropriate. (28:38)
- Don’t make the challenge too great or ask for too much at once. Give people the chance to take a small risk and get an easy win first. Increase the stakes and investment slowly. (30:36)
- Make it clear that this is a fight that you can win, together. (32:08)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Boris KievskyChief Storyteller and Nerd for Good at dotOrgStrategy
Boris is an entrepreneur, recovering filmmaker, and relapsed geek. As the the Chief Storyteller and Nerd for Good at dotOrgStrategy, Boris helps nonprofits harness the power of great stories amplified through the right technology to reach the right audiences, create meaningful connections, and activate the inner hero in each of them.