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Fundraising

Let's do it together.

Let's do it together.

The first three months of Plenty have been a whirlwind. It is hard for me to believe that we've only been around since the end of November, because in only a few short months I've learned so much from the fantastic team here.

It wasn't easy leaving Event 360, the company I helped found eleven years ago. Event 360 specializes in event fundraising. Through our work we raised nearly a billion dollars for charity. As the CEO, I was responsible for strategy, for presenting a great deal of our client-facing work, and more than anything, for helping drive the values of the company. Event 360 was (and will always be) my baby, and I'm tremendously proud of what I helped accomplish there.

And yet over the last few years I found my goals and aspirations changing. In particular I became increasingly interested in the philanthropic mechanics behind events -- a mechanic we call peer-to-peer fundraising. As my time and attention steadily turned towards constituent analytics. multi-channel approaches, and overall nonprofit strategy, it was harder for me to devote time to large-scale events.

When I finally talked to my partners at Event 360 about leaving, I found willing friends. They saw my evolving interests and supported my desire to do something new.

To say that I started Plenty from the ground-up would be a complete fabrication, because of course no one does anything worth doing by themselves. And in my case I was very fortunate to have six compatriots join me in the launch. From the beginning, we have tried to put as much emphasis on the foundations of our young firm as we have on the compelling work we do with our clients. We wrote Plenty's values together; we picked the brand together; we assess our performance together. 

I was reflecting on all of this while I was at the Run-Walk-Ride Conference in Atlanta last week. In a lot of ways, RWR was our coming-out party. Run-Walk-Ride is a tremendously important conference for the peer-to-peer space, and I've been lucky enough to present there for many years. But this year was the first time I attended with a business card that said, "Plenty."

It was fantastic to see the Plenty team share their expertise and energy throughout the sessions. Our group contributed in so many ways, and it was hard not to be struck by the sheer amount of competence and commitment the team brings to the table. But they bring something else, too. They bring a spirit of inclusiveness -- an eagerness to enlist others to create something bigger than themselves.

In the lead-up to the conference, our team was talking about something we could do at our conference booth. If you've ever staffed a sales conference, you know that "the booth" can fill even the most hard-core salespeople with dread. Working at the booth can be tiring; it can be nerve-wracking; it can be mind-numbingly boring. And so coming up with "something for the booth" is the trap of every trade show. It is easy to talk so much about SWAG and tchotchkes that you miss the core purpose of the booth, which of course is to engage with others.

In any case, we were kicking around ideas and a steadily escalating array of giveaways. Finally, someone on the team suggested we do something very basic: Hand out Post-It notes and ask passersby to write down what they are "Happy to have plenty of." It seemed like a corny idea, but no one had a better one, so we went with it.

You know what happened? People walking by the booth were interested to be asked to contribute. They stopped what they were doing and turned towards us. They would laugh and write a silly thought, then pick up another slip of paper and write something more meaningful. It's funny -- often in our desire to connect with others we forget to ask them to engage with us. We forget that they are the most important part of the conversation.

By the end of the conference, our board was covered with notes about abundance and reflections of gratitude.

I can't think of a better metaphor for my first three months at Plenty. We decided, "let's do something meaningful, together," and that was the most important step. 

 

 

Different from the world.

Different from the world.

I'm writing after four days at the Fourth Estate Leadership Summit, the youth leadership conference of Invisible Children. It is hard to describe the amount of concentrated purity and light that filled the auditorium during the final session last night. Suffice it to say that I'm infused with so much residual passion and energy that I'm writing this from the ceiling of my hotel room, where I've been floating for the last 12 hours.

I've made no secret about my admiration and support for Invisible Children, not despite of but because of their willingness to embrace creative, nontraditional, and sometimes plain wacky methods to illustrate the radical idea that we each can make change in the world, and so we each should.

Occasionally when I talk to people about my relationship with Invisible Children there's a pause from the other person and then a veiled criticism: "Oh, yeah, wow they try some different things. That must be interesting." I push the bait aside and rush right into the breach. The fact is, I say, that innovation by definition looks different from the norm, and aren't we filled with gratitude for the innovators among us for showing us a better way? When this comment is lost on the other person I know I can move on in search of more inspired conversation. 

In any case, because of what I do I attend a lot of nonprofit events, and while there are better ones and weaker ones, many events feel like they were designed by someone who assumes the audience understands and cares. What I love about Invisible Children is that they turn this around – they show you why they themselves understand and care, and then they create something inspired and joyful and poignant that invites you into a deeper understanding. In other words, they don't assume you get it. They assume you don't  but also, importantly, assume you will if you are just shown why. 

Their conference had some speeches and break-out sessions like all conferences. In fact, their "traditional" content was some of the best I've ever seen, including the speech from Samantha Power, newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, pictured above. But the Fourth Estate also had dance and musical performances and dozens of incredibly well-done movies and choreography and audience interaction. I felt engaged and part of the event: a participant, not an attendee. The Fourth Estate was inspiring and engaging and emotional, and more than anything, fun. When was the last time you went to a conference that you described as "fun"?

Reverend John Jenkins, the President of Notre Dame University, said in his inaugural address, "If we are afraid to be different from the world, how can we make a difference in the world?" 

The fact is that all of us are trying to create change, and change by definition means DIFFERENT. It is hard to cure cancer, create literacy, build schools, fight injustice, reclaim green space, or [insert your cause here] by doing the same things that everyone else does. 

The next time you are planning an event or program or initiative and you hear people around you telling you "That's not the way we're supposed to do it," keep pushing, because you might be on to something groundbreaking. Invisible Children is not afraid to be different, and that more than anything is the reason that they are moving the needle of change. More, please!

Will you click here to help Invisible Children in our efforts to end the LRA conflict and create a world free of injustice? 

Increasing share of heart.

Increasing share of heart.

I returned home yesterday from the annual Nonprofit Technology Conference in my usual state: Head and heart full, exhausted but invigorated.

Well, something's not right here.

This year's conference sparked a number of thoughts that I'll tackle in the coming weeks, but top of mind is the idea that I shared at my session yesterday: That despite all of our innovation, invention, energy, talent, and passion, the amount of charitable giving as a percentage of overall GDP has remained flat at 2% for the last forty years. I call this percentage our "share of heart."

On the face this data point seems rather mundane but it is quite striking -- and sobering -- when you stop and think about it. What this tells you is that charitable giving is essentially a function of economic growth. In good times, people give more; in bad times, people give less. This total overall giving is irrespective of the level of need, or the number of nonprofits, or the messages we send, or the hard work you do, or anything really. While certain nonprofits may surge ahead or fall behind, the most important factor to overall generosity does not seem to be generosity at all. It is the inscrutably complex black box called the economy.

The public has a heart, for certain, but only a small share of it goes to the nonprofit space. And over forty years we haven't increased our share of heart at all. As the number of nonprofits grows, the only thing that keeps nonprofits from directly stealing or losing share from one another is economic growth -- growth that, as we've seen over the last five years, might hard to predict, or worse yet, small, or worse still,  actually negative.

To truly realize transformative change we need to come to grips with this mathematical reality and have a hard conversation about why our share of heart has stayed constant. Perhaps we need better salaries, relaxed overhead restrictions, and more advocacy, and all of those might help. But my sense is there's something deeper going on here. Either the general public is hard-hearted and there isn't much share of heart to be had; or what we do isn't perceived as the most effective way to effect social change. Since I do not believe the public's sympathies are tapped out, for my part I've concluded that the impact we're making just isn't compelling enough to elicit more donations. 

And that conclusion led me to my other 2013 NTC sound bite: The fundraising silver bullet is impact. The best fundraising strategy is not to persuade people that we could make a difference. We have to actually show people that we are making a difference. A longer road, to be sure.

I have a fair idea I'll be talking about this more in the coming weeks, but for some background reading I'd direct you to a few previous posts from the last couple of years here and here and here.

More to come.