What a Silicon Valley startup can learn about leadership, fundraising and communication from a Baltimore non-profit
Most people view nonprofits as a very special breed. They have their own set of rules. They face very specific challenges and, of course, they pursue very different goals to a for-profit business. Here’s my (unpopular) opinion about them: for-profit companies can learn a lot from using some of the strategy tips and tactics typically reserved for social impact organizations.
As a branding agency, we take pride in working with very diverse clients, including social impact organizations. Over a year ago, we landed our first nonprofit client. Dent Education – an education nonprofit launched by my classmates and friends Rajan Patel and Jackie Bello, based in Baltimore, Maryland. Dent Education helps middle-school kids from underprivileged families to “make a dent in the Universe”. Working with Dent, we’ve learnt quite a few useful insights about branding for social impact. We also learnt a few tricks about running a nonprofit organization that turned out to be useful to our for profit sector clients as well.
Advocacy is essential
If nonprofits don’t tell their stories, fight for the issues they challenge, no one else will. Dent has a place at the table in every single room their issues are talked about. They had to work hard to be in a position to talk about the economic vitality and leadership of the Baltimore community. Being assertive is often the most effective way to get attention and resources – and gain advocacy. People who need the most resources and attention often times aren’t the loudest – judging by my VC experience. The genius founders of the most promising startups are pretty damn introverted. But those of them who got out of their comfort zone, ultimately gain the resources and attention they need. Take advantage of every opportunity you get to talk about your work. You never know who might be willing to help or share some good contacts or resources.
Don’t be an Askhole
The most honest of all strategy tips: If no one is listening to you, it’s probably because you’re not not paying attention to them either. Listening is a two-way street. Denters were phenomenal at maintaining a feedback loop – with kids, their parents, the city, partners, and funders. Most importantly, they listened and were proactive in implementing the feedback they’ve collected. It worked great for them as Dent Education supported a community that was tired of being “listened to” without actually being listened to. This is strikingly similar to many startup founders who have a “perfect idea” in their mind. They want it to happen so much, they push for it even if the user testing results tell them otherwise. Don’t be an Ask-hole: listen to your user.
Fundraise effectively by pitching from your heart
All of humanity’s issues, all solutions, all challenges and barriers to entry have been thought of before you were born. Funders, VC’s and journalists have seen and heard pretty much everything that there is to hear. Instead of targeting everyone, Dent targeted specific funders whose interests and values aligned with theirs. It helped them preserve their founder’s energy and focus on nailing one pitch (rather than re-writing it for every new funder). Shared values are foundational to all great brands. As social impact organizations often pay a lot more attention to their core values, their brands help them pitch more effectively. This is one of strategy tips many startups are still overlooking in the fundraising race.
Treat yourself sometimes (just a little)
You have to pay your organization, not just your people. Startups that live like they are suffering from abject poverty do not succeed and neither do nonprofits. Stop bragging about all those hungry months on ramen and start educating your VC’s on why it’s important to accomplish your mission by properly supporting your startup. Your team needs peace of mind (and a piece of cake) to have breakthroughs and achieve results.
It’s not enough to have a great mission
…or a great story. In the social impact segment, all missions are great and hardly disputable. Their key differentiation metric is actual traction.A great idea is key, but execution matters more, everywhere. Dent had over 100 pages in the appendix of their pitch deck describing their programs, events, grants they have received and other quantifiable results they had achieved in just two years. They also had their most passionate advocates: the young people whose lives they had changed. Knowing what’s important isn’t enough: you have to be able to prove it. Passionate mission moves people for only so long. One of great strategy tips is learn how to show that what you do works.
…and my favorite insight: Communication empowers
What impressed me most about working with Dent and other social impact organizations, was how well they all understood the value of communication. For us, as a branding agency, this is akin to a Christmas miracle. When Dent started promoting their students’ work and successes, many of them expressed how important they felt because their story was being shared. They felt special, empowered, and ready to achieve more.
It is interesting that in a world where so many young for-profit companies are still convinced that “a good product or service will sell itself” without any particular communication strategy. So many nonprofits prove that communication not only shares, it empowers – our community, our employees, our investors and ultimately, ourselves.