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 17
How a Nonprofit Increases Impact Through Innovation with Sarah Lee
In this Episode:
What role should innovation play in fulfilling your nonprofit’s mission? How do you justify allocating precious resources to technology and moonshots versus on-the-ground work?
Sarah Lee, COO of New Story, joins Boris to talk about how nonprofits can leverage technology and innovation to create a great impact on the world.
Whether you’re a small community-based organization or a Silicon-Valley-based Y-Combinator graduate like New Story, this episode is guaranteed to inspire some conversations at your organization.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:18.580] – 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!
[00:00:20.450] – Boris
Hi, everybody, welcome back to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. We’ve got a fascinating guest today who is part of an amazing nonprofit that I only recently discovered and came across. But I love what they’re doing and I love how they’re doing it. Her name is Sarah Lee. She is the New Story COO and Sarah’s bio is kind of impressive. She is the Chief Operating Officer at New Story, the organization pioneer solutions to end global homelessness. Since joining the team five years ago, New Story has built more than 2500 homes, raised more than 50 million dollars, 3D printed a community for families in Mexico and has been recognized by Fast Company as a “Most Innovative Company” in the nonprofit space three years in a row.
[00:01:06.080] – Boris
Sarah is a curious, creative who finds joy in improving, building and shaping ideas. She strives to find the unlikely solution, celebrates unique concepts and brings diverse ideas to a number of brands. Sarah describes her superpower as connecting dots through the organizations— I’m sorry, connecting dots through the organization and our networks for maximum impact.
[00:01:27.830] – Boris
So let me bring Sarah onto the show to tell us a little bit more about her and her story.
[00:01:32.750] – Boris
[00:01:35.420] – Sarah Lee
Hi Boris, excited to be here.
[00:01:35.420] – Boris
Welcome to the show.
[00:01:36.410] – Boris
Thank you. Thank you so much for joining us today. As we were talking earlier, I told you, I’m a huge fan of what you guys have been doing and how you’re doing it. I’m excited to break it down and get as much for our audience that they can incorporate into their own work as possible. But before we even do that, tell me a little bit about you. What’s your story besides what I read in your bio?
[00:01:58.400] – Sarah Lee
Yeah, absolutely. So I’ve been on the New Story team for almost five years now. And prior to joining New Story, I worked in digital marketing. So I had been in digital marketing for about seven years and was a partner at a digital marketing agency here in Atlanta, where I am based. And really got to the point in my career where I was looking for what was the next challenge. Right? I spent seven years really trying to understand how to influence different brands through branding and digital marketing practices, and wanted to devote more time to one singular brand instead of touching so many.
[00:02:34.670] – Sarah Lee
But I didn’t necessarily think I want to go to nonprofit space. Right? I did know that I was working a lot of hours and really burnt out. And I knew that ultimately I didn’t care if the shipping logistics company that I was doing digital marketing for succeeded or not. I wanted something that I felt more connected to and felt like I really would care if it existed or didn’t exist. And I had followed along New Story since the beginning. I had known one of our co-founders and our CEO, Brett.
[00:03:09.440] – Sarah Lee
We had gotten to work together just a little bit while I was at that digital marketing agency and really respected his leadership and his thought process and so, I had seen New Story when it was just an idea. I saw New Story when they were accepted into Y Combinator. And so at about a year and a half, two years into the organization, I was at that same point in my career where I was looking for what was next. And I reached out to Brett, the CEO and said, “Hey, would you ever hire someone in Atlanta?” They were based in San Francisco at the time and we started the conversations. And so, I joined to really kind of oversee and rethink the donor experience.
[00:03:44.840] – Sarah Lee
Until that point, there were only five people on the team and they were all thinking more about our on-the-ground work or how we were using technology. And so I came in and was really able to think about how are our donors experiencing what we were doing and the impact that we were able to have by them partnering with us? And since then, I have bounced around to quite a few different roles from donor experience, then I started overseeing the brand as a whole.
[00:04:12.920] – Sarah Lee
So think events, press, marketing, design, video, growing our team and our brand team, which has been a really important part of our growth and really our ethos as an organization. And then I stepped into overseeing what we call growth as a whole. Right? Which is everything I just talked about, as well as our fundraising. And then just in January, like you mentioned, I stepped into the COO role. So really, as the organization has grown, I have been super fortunate in being able to help grow the team, grow our systems and processes and programs.
[00:04:48.230] – Sarah Lee
And I focus really mostly on kind of everything stateside. Right? So all of the kind of fundraising and programmatic and how we’re building our brand and how people engage with us has really been my sweet spot and is what I know and love.
[00:05:04.460] – Boris
And that’s all of the things that we love to talk about on this show.
[00:05:08.840] – Sarah Lee
[00:05:08.840] – Boris
I love that you have a marketing background, but you were looking for something that had some deeper meaning, some deeper fulfillment, rather than just going to any company. Recently, I had Matthew Quint, who is the director of the center, the Center for Global Brand Strategy at Columbia University, and one of the things that we talked about was, nonprofits kind of have this advantage where they’re able to recruit talent based on the fact that there is an affinity for the work. There’s a feeling that I’m doing something more than just getting a paycheck.
[00:05:44.640] – Boris
These days, though, a lot of companies are aligning themselves more and more with social causes in one way or another. And that competition is kind of increasing. What I love, one of the things that I love about New Story, is that it seems like you guys are not just competing with nonprofits. You’re out there actively competing with any other type of company to do great work, to get donations, to make an impact.
[00:06:09.420] – Boris
Is that part of your vision of how nonprofits should work, that you should be competing for talent, for money, for everything else with for profit corporations as well?
[00:06:21.120] – Sarah Lee
It really is. And a lot of it comes down to frustrations that I think all of us have experienced with the nonprofit space. Right? And I think that a lot of those frustrations boil down to the fact that often nonprofits are held to totally different standards. Right? It’s “The oh, well, I didn’t get what I expected or the website looks terrible or, or…” Right? There’s all of these different things and we think, “Oh, well, it’s OK because they’re nonprofit.”
[00:06:48.390] – Sarah Lee
And so from day one and it’s true still today, New Story really does try to think, “what would anyone expect from an excellent brand and how can we do that same thing even though we’re a nonprofit?” Right? And so you’re absolutely right.
[00:07:08.970] – Sarah Lee
We try to compete with startups for the team and the people on our team. We try to compete with events that our donors would go to, whether they are nonprofit events or not, and really having that lens of excellence through everything we do. And then, of course, pairing that with the impact that we have is the ultimate combination and is what gets people really excited and keeps them around for a long time.
[00:07:30.050] – Boris
That’s so awesome. So you guys started out—I watched the video on your website and it’s a great story, by the way, your origin story, as we call it. And in there, it talks about how the founders got accepted into Y Combinator, which is very unusual for a nonprofit. First of all, very few nonprofits have ever even attempted to enter Y Combinator, or much less be accepted. But very few nonprofits would even think, “oh, you know what, let’s go to a tech startup accelerator.”
[00:08:01.520] – Boris
What’s behind that? And how has that been baked into your DNA?
[00:08:08.240] – Sarah Lee
Yeah, you’re absolutely right, there are not a lot of nonprofits that are thinking that way, and a lot of it does come down to the kind of standards or how you’re thinking about the types of people that your organization is attracting, whether those types are donors, the people that you’re serving, team, any of the above. And so, New Story from day one very much was how are we setting ourselves apart? And so as the co-founders got accepted into Y Combinator, I think one of the things that really cemented our ethos as an organization that has benefited us greatly even to today, is this idea of the same or higher standards.
[00:08:46.940] – Sarah Lee
And so at Y Combinator, for example, you have insane goals that you have to hit during this really short period of time. Right? And so the goals that Airbnb had during their cohort of Y Combinator, it was the same thought process for the goals that our team had. It wasn’t, “Oh, they’re a nonprofit, so they can have half the goals. They don’t have to think about these things.” It was the exact same standards that the team had to rise to and figure out how to make it work.
[00:09:14.720] – Sarah Lee
And so you’re absolutely right. I think a lot of how our team thinks about the problems we’re solving thinks about how we’re growing the organization is from this lens of just like anybody else, just like any other company. It just so happens that our profit, revenue, whatever you want to call it, is our impact that we’re able to have around the globe.
[00:09:35.210] – Sarah Lee
And we think that ultimately we’re able to have more of an impact by having this ethos to the organization and having this value for how we think about our brand and our impact and how our solving problems and making sure that that is aligned with best-in-class business principles and practices, not just best in class, nonprofit principles and practices.
[00:09:58.190] – Boris
And just be totally clear, you guys are not, like, a software company. You’re not, because I’m sure there are nonprofit organizations that are not just tech-enabled or tech-empowered, but they they’re focused on building software or providing online services. That’s not you guys. You guys do actual physical, you know, dirty, hands dirty on the ground, work, building homes. And yet you are starting with or a lot of times focused on the technology that’s going to help you get there. Is that right?
[00:10:32.000] – Sarah Lee
I will say that is true, but it is actually both. So we do have a software team that is building software, right? They are building software for our impact on the ground. Right? So let me let me give you an example. So in the homes that we built—we build—early on, we realized, “How are we measuring this impact more than just a number of homes built on a wall?” Right? We really wanted to understand what was the impact of a home.
[00:10:59.810] – Sarah Lee
But the communities and locations where we work are very remote, right? There’s rarely cell service, definitely not Wi-Fi on our phones that we can easily collect that information. And so our local partners, were taking a stack of paper. They were walking home to home, collecting all the information, and then they were getting back to the office. Hopefully it didn’t rain or a big gust of wind come in between because if, so those papers were done for. Getting back to their office, taking that information, converting it to be digital. But all of the information is in a different language, which then is being translated into English, and then we’re getting it to be able to analyze it.
[00:11:39.500] – Sarah Lee
And so our team saw, there’s a huge problem. It’s taking a ton of time, but it’s super important that we understand what is the impact, good or bad, so we can improve. And so our tech team was able to build a data collection tool that worked online and offline, and it was reducing the time it took to collect that information and get it into the correct hands by like, a hundred plus percent.
[00:12:03.740] – Sarah Lee
Right? Like, it was just cutting everything into fractions of time. And so we look at that go, “OK, great.” What can what can our on the ground teams, what can our teams be doing when they’re not having to spend time on that? So you’re correct. There is the like very manual taking a cinder block, moving it, paying the people on the ground, everything that happens with actually constructing homes. And we’re consistently looking at that process going how can we improve this process with technology, hardware, software, processes for how it’s being done?
[00:12:39.950] – Sarah Lee
And that is really what gets our team excited, is how are we figuring out a wide variety of tools that we can put against this problem that we’re solving to try to improve it at every step?
[00:12:52.250] – Boris
That’s amazing that you guys think of it that way and look at the ROI on investing into technology to help you do even more of the actual on the ground kind of work. When you create these kinds of tools, is it, do you consider it your secret sauce or is it something that you try to disseminate out to as many other organizations or government agencies or whatever it might be.
[00:13:14.980] – Sarah Lee
It’s a really great question. So for the first four years of New Story—let me actually say something before that…
[00:13:25.030] – Sarah Lee
It is never a “keep it for ourselves.” Like we very much believe that nonprofits should not have intellectual property. If you have intellectual property as a nonprofit, you actually don’t care about the problem as much as you say you do because you should be trying to help anyone you can who’s also working on this problem. I say that because that really is our lens that we’re looking at this issue that we’re working to solve homelessness. Right? And we believe anyone who’s working towards that… we’re all going to have to come together and share every best practice and every secret sauce we have, because otherwise we’re never going to come close to impacting this one point six billion people.
So with that lens, our first four years, we thought that was going to be the answer. We thought the answer was going to be, “we’ll figure it out by being practitioners, by building these communities. We’ll see what the biggest problems are, we’ll create solutions for them, and then we’ll share them with every nonprofit, every government, anyone who wants to use it so that their work can be improved as well.”
[00:14:28.900] – Sarah Lee
What we found was that the adoption just wasn’t as simple as that. Right? Everyone has their own things they’re already using processes for. And so for for somebody to come from the outside and say, “hey, use this. Here’s why!” It’s pushing a boulder up a hill. Right? It’s really, really hard to engage in that way, especially when it’s like “We’re another nonprofit and we do this.” So that does add credibility, but it can also be really challenging.
[00:14:53.590] – Sarah Lee
And so it’s still very much something that we believe in and something that we’re consistently looking for.… What solutions are we using that others can use and utilize with as little friction as possible? But it’s not the number one goal like it, transparently has been previously with the organization. So I would say it’s like it’s a mindset, but it’s not the driving force and the leading force for us. Does that make sense?
[00:15:22.330] – Boris
Yeah, no, it absolutely makes sense. And I think that’s a great way of looking at it. To be totally honest. I think that sometimes nonprofits can use IP, for example, if that becomes a great way for them to not have to constantly be soliciting donations. If they put up an online course, for example, I think it’s OK to charge for that if they have certain tools that they develop that can actually save another organization a lot of cost and time to develop, and they do have some sort of licensing agreement so that they could keep innovating and keep iterating on those tools. Personally, I think that’s OK, but I see your perspective as well.
[00:16:02.230] – Sarah Lee
I’m actually totally with you. I don’t have an issue with them charging for it. I have an issue with them closing the doors to it. Right? So I’m totally with you. If they have figured that out, definitely charge other people for it. Right? If it’s still impacting the problem. The concern is when people start saying, “Oh, gosh, we figured out this tool allows us to build way more homes faster, allows us to do this thing with our donors that is just so amazing.” And then they’re saying, like, “I have to hide this from everybody else, because if they find out, they’ll be able to do more than us or steal our donors or whatever that looks like.” So that’s a great clarification, because you’re absolutely right.
[00:16:38.860] – Sarah Lee
People can and should be able to charge for it and get the revenue right and really grow the organization in that way, because that can be more sustainable for them as an organization to have that earned revenue component.
[00:16:50.890] – Boris
Absolutely. And I’m glad we could still be friends now. So, as I mentioned in your bio, you guys have been on Fast Company’s 10 Most Innovative Nonprofit Organizations. Actually, I guess one time even before you, because four out of the six years that you guys have been around, including 2021. And I’m wondering how much is innovation a necessity? How much is it a tool for you guys? How do you approach innovation and how do you constantly keep innovating as an organization?
[00:17:23.980] – Sarah Lee
Yeah, it’s a good question and it’s a challenging one right now because I think that everyone loves the word innovation. Right? Everyone from the most boring company you can think about to the sexiest one alive. They’re all wanting to take the word innovation, stamp it on their website and say, “We’re doing this.” And we’ve had to ask ourselves questions around, like, why does it matter? Right? And how does it fit within our organization? And what we consistently come back to is, for people trying to solve the world’s biggest problems, you have to consistently be thinking about it in different ways. Right?
[00:17:58.840] – Sarah Lee
And that’s ultimately what innovation is. Sometimes it’s really, really sexy. You said at the beginning, 3D printing homes, that’s really sexy and sure, everyone can look at it and say “Yeah, innovation.” And sometimes it’s small changes to processes or programs or systems that do not nearly have the same sex appeal, but they actually maybe have more impact in how those innovations are used. And so it is definitely an ethos of the organization and something that we are continually looking at.
[00:18:30.230] – Sarah Lee
Where can we inject more innovation and what does that actually look like? But the reason for that is because we know ultimately it’s going to drive more impact. It’s going to allow us to impact more families because the problem is so complex and it’s so, so hard. Right? And so it kind of goes back to that quote that I’m sure you heard around. What is it? “Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity or stupid?”
[00:18:58.900] – Boris
Yeah, it’s often attributed to Einstein.
[00:19:01.100] – Sarah Lee
Yes. And so it’s how are we continually looking at what we’re doing and thinking, how can this get better and how can we ensure that there’s nothing sacred? Right? I’m sure you know, many nonprofits and businesses as a whole where there are things that are sacred, “We’ll change everything, but we won’t change this.” And we’ve really said, outside of our mission and what we’re trying to do, nothing else is sacred and we’re willing to reinvent and rethink about anything else that’s getting us closer to that mission.
[00:19:31.040] – Boris
I’m so glad you said that outside of your mission. Right? There’s this core. There’s this is, at the heart of your mission is your heart, essentially, and that doesn’t waver. But the way that it gets expressed, the way that it develops and is affecting the world can change from year to year. For example, this last year, you guys who have been innovating ways to build homes better, cheaper, faster, suddenly got recognized for doing something completely different, which was figuring out what was it, collecting data on rent?
[00:20:06.740] – Sarah Lee
[00:20:07.610] – Boris
What was that pivoted up and how did that come out?
[00:20:10.370] – Sarah Lee
I know you’re looking at it going, Sarah, explain this to me because you just said mission, but where does it fit in and how? So, you know, March of 2020. We, like everyone else in the world, were looking around going, “suddenly, everything is different.” Right? All of our on the ground construction and community builds were completely paused, couldn’t be constructing in any of the countries where we were working. We were pausing, soliciting our donors during this time that was very volatile for everyone.
[00:20:40.280] – Sarah Lee
And so pretty much our whole organization had about a week and a half, two weeks where we’re all looking at each other going like, where do we point this? Right? What are we doing during the season? And we asked ourselves the question. Whenever we get out of this season, whether the season is three weeks, like we all thought it would be in the beginning or three months or three years, what are we going to look back on and be really proud that we use this time for something that was meaningful and went within our mission and our team skill set?
[00:21:14.180] – Sarah Lee
Right? And so really quickly, we started seeing and hearing reports of and making sense that we were going to be having a major issue in the States of people falling into homelessness. Right? People were losing their income. Families who were already very vulnerable, now were in a whole different category. And so we said, what if we collectively could shift our focus and we can’t focus internationally right now and keep families in their homes? Right?
[00:21:44.850] – Sarah Lee
Pioneering solutions to end global homelessness, part of ending global homelessness is making sure that number does not grow.
[00:21:51.360] – Sarah Lee
And so we really quickly focused on a rent relief program. We spun it up and about 10 days from the initial concept to it being public. And we were able to fund rent for, gosh, it’s been a long time since I have thought about this, number. I think about two hundred and thirty families. We covered the rent for them for three months, which really was that tension point of losing their income and being able to figure out how they were going to take care of their family from there.
[00:22:19.800] – Sarah Lee
And so during that, to qualify those families, we used our impact data tool that we were already using internationally to measure impact. And it allowed—that’s part of why we’re able to spin this up and deploy it so quickly is because we really quickly could validate families. We could validate their income pre-covid. We could validate that they had lost that income. We could validate the size of their family and some of these other criteria that we had for the support that we were providing.
[00:22:47.880] – Sarah Lee
And I don’t know how the last year has been for you, but I think it’s been challenging for a lot of people. And it really gave our team an opportunity to rally around something that was really beautiful and really, really did impact so many families during one of the hardest seasons of many of their lives.
[00:23:08.670] – Boris
I think that’s incredible that you guys were able to do that. It’s what in nonprofits and not in nonprofits and startups is often called a pivot, right. Where you can’t keep going the direction that you’re going for one reason or another. Hopefully, you guys are going to be pivoting back as we hope covid dies down around the world. And so one of the technologies that you are famous for is 3D printing. Now, my nephew has a 3D printer and he’s great with it. He’s amazing with CAD and everything else technological. But what made you guys think you could 3D print an entire house?
[00:23:46.010] – Sarah Lee
Right? How does anyone think such a thing? So we try to get our whole team together at least once or twice a year for an all-team-summit. We have offices in Atlanta, San Francisco and Mexico City. And so it’s really important that we’re together once a year to really be able to collaborate and grow together. I promise that’s relevant for the question that I’m answering here. And so at those, often we do moonshot sessions. That, essentially, we think about what are our greatest obstacles in the problem that we’re trying to solve and what are just the most outlandish ideas for solving those?
[00:24:20.860] – Sarah Lee
Right? And one of the biggest issues we face is, cost and the speed of building at home. Homes are really, really expensive intervention. Right? I’m often very jealous of water and food and these things that they’re ongoing, but they are much cheaper cost for intervention. Right? And so as we were looking at that challenge, one of the ideas that somebody threw out was what if we could 3D print homes, right?
[00:24:47.120] – Sarah Lee
We would cut down on waste. We would cut down on the amount of labor that’s taken for the homes, would cut down on all of these different things. And it should be a whole lot faster. Right? Because you don’t have the same issues. You don’t have the same complexities. And so we really liked that idea and we were all really drawn to it. And so we’re like, let’s just explore what it could possibly look like.
[00:25:08.990] – Sarah Lee
And about that time, our CEO got connected with a company out of Austin, Texas, who was just an idea at that point. But they really had reason to believe that they could pull off 3D printing homes. Right? The technology behind it. And so we met with them and said, what would it look like to try to do this together? Right? To try to take this technology, this innovation, that could shape the world and every socioeconomic status and type of person—like homes impact everyone. And what if we could take that technology instead of it benefiting the lower socioeconomic last, we were impacting them first. Right?
[00:25:51.650] – Sarah Lee
And so we partnered with ICON out of Austin and we did the first home in Austin, Texas, to prove it was possible. And that was the first permitted 3D printed home in the world. And then we took the machine and the teams down to Tabasco, Mexico, where we completed a community. And it is… It’s really, really something that I think both the teams are so proud of because it was so hard, because it is so outlandish to think that that could actually become a reality.
[00:26:25.590] – Sarah Lee
Right? And it’s something that so often we get at New Story. People are like, oh, yeah, you’re the 3D printing company. And it’s hard to not fall into that because it is a fraction of what we do. Right? It’s a it’s a piece of the puzzle, but it’s definitely not the whole thing. But ultimately, this technology now has greatly impacted families’ lives and in a way that it never would have otherwise. The last thing I’ll say there, Boris, have you actually, I don’t think I sent you a link for it. Have you haven’t seen the Apple TV docu series on it yet, right?
[00:26:57.720] – Boris
[00:26:58.590] – Sarah Lee
So Apple TV actually has a series called “Home” and each episode they follow an interesting home. Right? So it is the most beautiful, lavish homes you could ever imagine. And they also followed the journey in this 3D printed community. And so they followed it for about two years through many obstacles and many learnings. And they followed some of the families who are actually going to be moving into those homes.
[00:27:26.370] – Sarah Lee
And so if anyone is interested, if they’re having a hard time wrapping their head around, what the heck is 3-D printing a home even look like? How does that happen? The series is called “Home” and it’s the season finale of that series is New Story and ICON in this 3D printing community.
[00:27:42.330] – Boris
So that actually dovetails perfectly into what I wanted to ask you about next, which is it almost feels like this, or does it feel like this innovation strategy is actually leading to press coverage? It’s certainly getting your attention in plenty of online publications. I didn’t realize that you were also featured in that series, the docu series. Is that part of your strategy? Is that something that you guys rely on and shoot for?
[00:28:12.390] – Sarah Lee
Boris, I wish I had a better answer for you that was like, yeah, when we started we were like, “Oh, and imagine the exposure we could get and we’re going to get all these donors and all of these things.” That was, I think, something we knew people would care about, but we definitely did not expect, just how much people would care about it and how much attention it would garner for us. Right? And it is something that has been massive for our organization.
[00:28:38.100] – Sarah Lee
We often say now if we were to look back and say it was a complete failure. Right? And “We could never do it again, it wasn’t going to work,” like anything. That’s not the case but even if that was true, it still would have been worth it because of the connections we were able to make from it, from just the inbound amazing new donors who are partnering with us in this journey. And so it absolutely has been an incredible benefit and is how so many people—I’m consistently surprised on people like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of you.” “Really?” They’re like, “Yeah, the 3D printing.” I’m like, “Oh yes.”
[00:29:12.930] – Sarah Lee
And so, yeah, it’s been hugely, hugely beneficial, but was not the ultimate driver. But I will say now we have seen how much people care about nonprofits thinking about issues differently, and it has really proven how hungry the world is for impact and innovation really coming together. Right? And so I think that’s a great encouragement for anyone who’s watching or listening to know that it’s often easy to think like, will anybody care and will it be worth it?
[00:29:47.640] – Sarah Lee
And so, you know, I’m sure you have experiences in different organizations that you work with. That, yeah, people are hungry, hungry for how to utilize innovation to drive a greater impact. And ultimately, that’s what they care about and that’s what they want to get behind.
[00:30:04.230] – Boris
So, yeah, absolutely. There’s a constant struggle with nonprofits who are, look, I don’t think it’s a secret that most people consider nonprofits behind on technology, not leading the way in technology, not leading the way of innovation. And there’s also this concern about, you know, if we’re spending money on that, then we’re not spending money effectively on our programs right now, today. And there’s you know, there’s a scarcity mentality which is largely historically justified.
[00:30:36.180] – Boris
If a nonprofit doesn’t get all the donations that it needs, then it can’t do the work on the ground. And if it doesn’t allocate enough of its resources, then it looks bad on them. And so they get fewer donations and it’s this scary potential cycle that they are worried about falling into.
[00:30:52.170] – Sarah Lee
Boris, I want to say I think you’re absolutely spot on. It’s like such a fear as an organization. And I want to share two things that have been really helpful for New Story as we have wrestled with those same questions. Right? The first one is as we were vetting this 3D printing project. Right? And we were looking at a scope of work and what it was going to take to do this. And we’re going, “Can we spend this money on this?” Right?
And ultimately the question or philosophy that we used in making that decision is that it felt irresponsible not to try. And that sometimes these big risks that nonprofits are faced with, there is definitely risk. But if it works. You have a responsibility to try it, right? And of course, there’s balancing how risky it is and all of that kind of stuff, but ultimately that that philosophy of it feeling irresponsible not to try is what helped get us over the hump to, like, we have to try this now.
[00:31:54.230] – Sarah Lee
And part of the reason we were able to do that is how our organization is set up. And it is a benefit that we’ve had thus far in being able to invest in or in innovation that not all organizations have, and that is that we have a hundred percent promise. Which means when anyone donates with New Story, a hundred percent of that either goes to homes or to our overhead and operational expenses, which includes our innovation. And a lot of people ask me about that hundred percent model. Right?
[00:32:25.790] – Sarah Lee
And is it harder to fundraise? Is it easier to fundraise? How in the world do you get people to care about covering the cost of your operations? Is that a question you get often?
[00:32:34.820] – Boris
All the time. All the time.
[00:32:36.560] – Sarah Lee
Exactly. So and one of the ways we’ve been able to make it sexy and get people excited about covering the operations is that “That’s where the innovation lives.” Right? We can’t have our donors who, hundred percent of their donation is going to build a home, pay for the R&D on a 3D printer.
[00:32:57.290] – Sarah Lee
Right? And so it has allowed us to attract a type of donor who is excited about those risks. And they understand that they’re not all going to work. But if you invest in the correct ones, you are going to find ones that do have an outsized impact. And that’s been really important because it allows us to attract a type of donor that is excited about that and not a type of donor that’s going to say, no, you can’t spend that money on that.
[00:33:23.990] – Sarah Lee
It has to, you know… Ninety eight cents have to go to the home. And it is just a different thought process. Right? I think I’m curious where you land on it, because I think a lot of people are kind of like one path or the other. Right? Hundred percent model. Or you should keep it all together. And donors should just start to expect that nonprofits need to invest more in marketing and all of these other things. But it has been hugely beneficial for us.
[00:33:49.700] – Sarah Lee
Where do you stand on it?
[00:33:51.260] – Boris
I don’t know that there’s one right way or the other. I know that personally. I don’t think nonprofits should be embarrassed by their overhead or apologetic about it, as long as enough of the funds do go towards actual services. So if you’re spending a lot of money on talent and marketing to get the best folks in, but that is producing a certain return that you wouldn’t get otherwise, I think it’s totally justified and fantastic. On the other hand, what you’re talking about is a slightly different model that I also love, which is, you’ve got different donor avatars.
[00:34:26.150] – Boris
There are different people who will support you for different things, and both in your case, especially both are true to the mission. So if you can sell them on—and it doesn’t need to be salesy, of course, but if you could give them a vision of—a better future by investing in your team and your development of technology, I think that’s fantastic. And there are a lot of people who are excited by that about really not just helping one person, which is, we know, super effective when it comes to marketing and driving donations, putting a face, but actually creating something that’s going to outlast generations, perhaps because it’s an investment in technology or a vision.
[00:35:09.920] – Boris
It’s similar to a capital campaign that a lot of organizations will run to get a new space. Right? You sell people on the vision of what that’s going to look like. And that is often separate. So I think an innovation campaign and an innovation fund within an organization—and maybe that starts with your board, maybe there’s one or two people on your board who are specifically innovation oriented that can bring others in as well. I think that’s super powerful and a great recipe for success.
[00:35:37.640] – Sarah Lee
I’m with you and I think you’re spot on in that there is no right or wrong. Right? It’s what works best for your organization and how can you take that path and really utilize it for your mission the best.
[00:35:50.360] – Boris
So I wonder, I have so many things that I want to ask you about Sarah, but you mentioned these moonshots, which I love Peter Diamandis’ book “Bold”, which talks a lot about moonshots and X Prizes and all those kinds of things. A lot of times moonshots, well, they missed the moon. And unlike that expression, what is it? “If you aim for the moon and you still wind up among the stars,” no, you actually wind up drifting endlessly in space and die.”
[00:36:18.500] – Boris
So how do you guys handle that? Have you had projects that failed? Do you have an MVP process that you take them through? What’s your thinking behind that?
[00:36:29.150] – Sarah Lee
Yeah, for sure. I would say the biggest driver for thinking behind that is we know. Everything is not going to work, so nobody coming into it has the expectation that everything is going to work. Now, that said, we really try to drive our team in the thought process of act as if this has to work right. I do think it’s easy for people to hear not everything is going to work, which then makes them think it’s OK if it doesn’t work. Right?
[00:37:00.820] – Sarah Lee
And so it is an interesting balance between knowing that not all of the experiments you try are going to work and making sure you are doing everything possible as if it had to work. So that is somewhat of the lens for how we think about that, how we invest in different things, how we try to set our team up for some of those things. And we definitely have had things not work. Right? So one great example is a little bit of what we started out in the conversation, this idea that we were going to be able to take our software and tools and get adoption from governments and other non-profits.
[00:37:36.130] – Sarah Lee
And we were like, of course, this is going to work. Right? And so we had a team. You could think of them as a sales team. Right? Who was just focused on adoption, government, nonprofits and where all these people were. And ultimately, it didn’t work. Right? And we had to look at it and say this is no longer worth the organizational effort that it’s taking. It is not in alignment with the results that we’re getting.
[00:38:00.270] – Sarah Lee
Right? And so maybe two principles or philosophies that have been helpful for us in making some of those decisions is, number one, have in mind, “What are you trying to get out of this idea?” Right? You have an experiment that you’re running. What is the goal, of course, to help everyone starting with a goal, with any experiment. But step one, make sure you have the goal and step two, have a lot of clarity around when you will stop working on it.
[00:38:29.920] – Sarah Lee
When I think about some of the mistakes New Story has made, I think a lot of them have been centered around trying to force things for too long, when if we have had more clarity in the beginning—when will we stop? Right? Or if we can’t reach this by this time, we’re going to know that it’s not worth it or that we shouldn’t keep investing time, money, energy into it—has been something that we have learned the hard way in spending too much time, energy on things, and I think is something we’ve gotten a lot better at now as we think about what does experimentation look like as we move forward.
[00:39:08.830] – Boris
So essentially you’re setting expectations and you’re setting milestones perhaps with clear targets of you’d like to reach this by this time. And then if you’re not reaching them, then you have a basically an easy out rather than. Oh, well, maybe if you just try a little further, a little harder and getting into the whole sunk cost fallacy where it’s essentially good bandwidth after bad or good, good resource after bad.
[00:39:33.070] – Sarah Lee
And it’s so hard to know. Right? We often talk about, everyone says “You’re just right on the brink of having a breakthrough and you just got to keep going no matter what.” And so especially as a nonprofit, when you taking longer to decide about something is directly impacting the families that you work with, right, or whatever your intervention is. So for us, those decisions are really hard, right? Are we right on the brink of something? And we just need to have more patience and keep pushing? Or do we need to totally stop it? And what is at risk or what is the opportunity with that decision? It can be really hard, right.
[00:40:10.370] – Sarah Lee
And so I think that knowing that it’s really hard and being comfortable and OK with knowing there is no perfect answer can be really free for people, because I think a lot of times we look at it and think there is a perfect answer. I just have to find it when a lot of times there’s not. You just have to make a decision
[00:40:29.050] – Boris
Right on. So speaking of bandwidth and resources, not a lot of nonprofits are in your fortunate position to in this case, of course, be centered in Silicon Valley and to have the tech and the resources around you to incorporate into your everyday lives as an organization. For those nonprofits that don’t have that at their core or from their founding moments. What? Would you advise if you were to tomorrow go to another organization, that is doing amazing work and very important that you would still feel equally fulfilled by but doesn’t have that technology background?
[00:41:15.120] – Boris
How would you start? You’re a COO… How would you start them on the path towards innovation? What could they be thinking about and looking at today in terms of that and adopting new technology?
[00:41:26.910] – Sarah Lee
So there’s two things I think I would primarily advise people to think about or really use for how they are getting themselves on that path to utilizing more technology, innovation, whatever you want to call it. The first one is that you don’t have to overcomplicate it. I think a lot of times as a nonprofit, it’s hard to think about technology, new innovation, any of those things, because it feels like a total uphill battle. It feels like we’re going to have to stop everything we’re currently doing and do things that are totally new and different.
[00:42:01.470] – Sarah Lee
Let me give you an example of that to make it really practical. So Bitcoin and cryptocurrency is obviously something that tech space in the world as a whole is very interested in and talking more and more about increasingly over the years. And so in the beginning, what it looked like as a nonprofit to think about cryptocurrency was like accepting it as a donation. And that was like, all right, we’re having innovation because we’re accepting cryptocurrency donations. Right? OK, that’s something that is relatively simple to set up. Doesn’t require anything crazy.
[00:42:33.390] – Sarah Lee
But taking that to the next level, Charity Water does a great job of this. In the last week, they unveiled this what are they calling it, like a Bitcoin trust where they thought about how can we really adopt Bitcoin in drawing a new audiences in our work and think about this in a really innovative way. And so I think most of our brains, my brain goes to, OK, innovation, bitcoin, cryptocurrency, you’re going to accept the donations and then you’re going to pay your vendors and then you’re going to track via the block chain every single step of building, whatever it is you’re building.
[00:43:06.750] – Sarah Lee
And of course, anyone is paralyzed by that because it feels like a ton of work. And so what Charity Water did is they said, “OK, how we’re going to be innovative with cryptocurrency is that we are going to take and ask for / solicit Bitcoin donations and we’re going to hold them for five years.” Because what is the cryptocurrency community care about? They care about that currency staying in the market. Right? And so just immediately selling it is not interesting to them.
[00:43:33.120] – Sarah Lee
And so to me, that’s a great example of that. Didn’t require a whole new team or 10 months of vetting it on the ground. They were able to quickly adopt an innovative solution for how to use cryptocurrency in their organization in a way that was simple but very unique in the market.
[00:43:56.280] – Sarah Lee
And so one thing I would encourage people that—the too long didn’t listen summary, there—would be to think about things simply. Don’t overcomplicate it and feel like you have to take it to the furthest element from step one.
[00:44:09.840] – Sarah Lee
The second thing I would really encourage people to do, and I think is something that has been one of, if not the greatest asset New Story had and that is asking other people for help. We are the very first people to cold email somebody who should never be talking to us and saying, “Hey, we’re a nonprofit, we’re trying to do X, Y and Z. Will you give us advice?” Right? And that has opened the doors to some of the top CEOs, venture capitalists, private equity people that we never would have had access to otherwise and wouldn’t have been on our team.
[00:44:47.070] – Sarah Lee
Right? And so utilizing other people’s knowledge, I think also it both de-risks that and it takes some of the pressure off your team having to be the ones to do everything and figure everything out. I’m sure you can think of times in your career that other people’s advice has actually been what’s really turned a corner for you and changed things.
[00:45:08.050] – Boris
Oh, absolutely. And also asking someone for their advice, which I think you may have even talked about earlier in this very conversation, actually makes them feel like they’re involved, makes them feel invested in it, in whatever it is that you’re doing. Hopefully they already have an affinity for your mission. And may result in a whole lot more than just advice. It may result in investment, of course, connections and everything else. So I think that’s a great strategy.
[00:45:34.020] – Sarah Lee
Boris, I want to add something there. You’re spot on. And what we often say is people love what they helped create. So if I can cold email somebody and get them to give me advice and then I can follow up a month later and say, hey, look, we did what you said, they are much more likely to be lifelong fans and want to continue to help you.
[00:45:52.690] – Boris
Absolutely. So I want to be respectful of time and this is—every single second of this episode has been so helpful and so amazing, I think we could do another five. And maybe we can have you back on, that would be great. But for today, are there any tools or resources? And we’ll share all these in the show notes that you would recommend organizations check out to get started on their own journeys.
[00:46:17.960] – Sarah Lee
Gosh, I’m sure there are, I will say, a plug for something we did that I think will also help other people as we created a podcast last year called Founder’s Lab. And it really goes through the ins and outs of a lot of our founding journey in our first five years. And I point out that not because New Story is the exemplar that everybody should be looking at and doing exactly what we do. We made plenty of mistakes, but in that we talk about a lot of kind of the specific resources and really practical things that have been helpful for us.
[00:46:49.030] – Sarah Lee
So that’s probably the best one-stop-shop for people to get some of that advice and learnings and roadblocks and obstacles we’ve had along our journey.
[00:46:57.550] – Boris
You also mentioned a few books that I personally love, actually all of them. So I want to be sure that they get plugged as well and we will have them again in the show notes. “The One Thing”…
[00:47:07.090] – Sarah Lee
[00:47:08.170] – Boris
“Atomic Habits” and those two are not that common in the nonprofit space that I think it’ll be great for people to open up and look what those are about. But one that is popular and deserves to be even more popular is “Start with Why”, Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why”.
[00:47:24.578] – Sarah Lee
[00:47:25.100] – Boris
So I want to I want to give clear plugs for those. So I always like to wrap up with as every story should every chapter break anyway, have a call to action. What call to action do you have for folks that may be watching or listening to this episode? What should they do besides go listen to your podcast and check out New Story? How can they connect with you? What next steps should they take?
[00:47:51.880] – Sarah Lee
I’m going to answer that in two ways. The first next step I think people should take is really personal, and that is really challenging themselves for what is the bold idea that they need to push forward with their organization. Right? Bold ideas attract bold people, and I think we need more bold nonprofits trying to solve these really hard problems. So that’s more of the billboard I would put out there for everybody watching or listening. And then if anyone is interested in connecting newstorycharity.org is our website at @NewStoryCharity on all social handles.
[00:48:24.210] – Sarah Lee
And I love to chat with people. So if there’s any places that somebody listening feels like they want to hear a little bit more or chat a little bit more about, I would love for people to reach out as well.
[00:48:34.560] – Boris
That’s awesome. And we’ll have some of your contact info and definitely your website on our show notes page. Sarah, thank you so much for all your time today. I’m so glad we could do this. And I love the work that you’re doing and the way that you’re approaching it. So thank you for making the world a better place for all of us.
[00:48:50.790] – Sarah Lee
Listen, thank you for letting me join. Hopefully people got some valuable information here and yeah, keep up the good work.
[00:48:56.820] – Boris
Thank you. Thank you, everybody, for joining us today. We’ll see you again really soon. So please subscribe so you get notified when there is a new episode out. And if you love this kind of content from amazing people like Sarah, please do give us a rating, give us a review, because that will help more people discover us online. Have a great day.
[00:49:17.550] – Sarah Lee
[00:49:38.010] – 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:
- 7:08 — Nonprofits should have higher standards, not lower. Having a lens of excellence in everything you do and pairing it with impact helps nonprofits compete and have an advantage when it comes to recruiting.
- 11:39 — Necessity is often the mother of invention. Investing in a technological solution can have great effects on your ability to deliver services more efficiently, saving resources.
- 13:25 — What is your responsibility when it comes to your intellectual property versus your mission? Should you keep it as your unfair advantage or share it with others?
- 17:30 — Innovation doesn’t have to be as sexy as 3D printing homes. It’s all about what will drive greater impact.
- 19:31 — Sometimes nonprofits face unforeseen circumstances that prevent them from continuing with business as usual. These “pivot” points are opportunities to reevaluate your mission in the lens of the current situation and come up with new initiatives.
- 27:42 — Innovation can fuel publicity, which can fuel donations. Although exposure is not the ultimate driver, it is highly beneficial.
- 33:51 — Nonprofits should not be embarrassed by their overhead or be apologetic about it as long as enough of the funds do go towards actual services.
- 36:29 — Everything is not going to work, so nobody coming into it has the expectation that everything is going to work. But when starting a project, the New Story team acts as if this has to work.
- 37:59 — Two principles for helping decide which ideas to pursue and when to abandon them: First, think of what are you trying to get out of this idea? Make sure that you have a goal. Second, have a lot of clarity about when you will stop working on that idea, such as a performance target or milestone that needs to be hit by a specific date.
- 43:56 — Don’t overcomplicate things and feel like you have to take it to the furthest element from step one. Start small and test.
- 44:46 — People love what they help create. Utilizing other people’s knowledge can de-risk your processes or ideas and take some pressure off your team having to be the ones to figure everything out. It can also create long-term advisors and supporters.
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Sarah LeeCOO of New Story
Sarah is the Chief Operating Officer at New Story. The organization pioneers solutions to end global homelessness. Since joining the team five years ago, New Story has built more than 2500 homes, raised more than $50M, 3D printed a community for families in Mexico, and has been recognized by Fast Company as a Most Innovative Company (nonprofit) three years in a row.
Sarah is a curious creative who finds joy in improving, building, and shaping ideas. She strives to find the unlikely solution, celebrates unique concepts, and brings diverse ideas to a number of brands.