What would happen if nonprofits stopped defining themselves in the negative and instead focused on the impact their organizations have?
In this video, Amy Eisenstein sits down with Nick Fellers, co-founder of For Impact and President of The Suddes Group, to discuss the importance of focusing on the impact nonprofits make.
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Amy: Hi, I’m Amy Eisenstein. I’m really excited today because I have a friend and colleague here with me today, Nick Fellers. Nick is the co-founder of For Impact and the president of The Suddes Group. And he has raised millions of dollars all over the world and brings impact to nonprofits all over the world. So, hi, Nick, welcome.
Nick: Good to be here.
Amy: Thanks for coming. Let’s talk about For Impact. It’s such an amazing concept. So, tell me where it comes from.
Nick: It started off as a change in vocabulary. I was very lucky to be mentored by a guy named Toms Suddes who founded our organization in ’83. And we raise money, help different organizations. But in doing this, we were always trying to transform the culture of the organization so they could continue to do this again and again. And he had this vocabulary change, and it was about changing our mindset.
And one of the things in there was changing from the words, “Not-for-profit,” to “For impact.” And there’s a lot of implications behind that and reasons, it’s about changing our story, changing our words and everything else. And that really kind of took off and it’s really become an umbrella for a lot of everything we’re trying to teach.
Amy: I mean, I’m actually surprised it hasn’t caught on even more. It is the most amazing mind shift, I think, when you’re talking about a not-for-profit because I’m constantly telling boards it’s not about for-profit or not-for-profit, you have to operate in the black. The goal is not to operate in the negative or not for, nonprofit, no profit, right? What you’re really trying to do is make an impact, have an impact.
So, it’s brilliant and I want to help you spread the word and really change the vocabulary in our sector.
Nick: Well, and I would say that I actually think it has caught on. Now, whether or not the actual semantic words of not-for-profit for impact, I’d say that whether those are caught on or not, what we’ve seen in the last 10 years is an enormous conversation open up about vocabulary. And so, I think I’m impartial to whether or not someone calls it for-impact, but you see a lot of these conversations around social benefit. And all we really want people to do is stop defining themselves in the negative, stop thinking of themselves in the negative and then begin to focus on the impact.
What’s really caught on is there’s a napkin, and I should have brought it here today. But just this really simple napkin you can picture of not-for-profit crossed out and For Impact. And that sets up an entire conversation around all the different things that we do because we’re a not-for-profit. And how did we get into it? Well, it really just started taking off, people started saying at the AFP sessions, at the seminars, “That really helps me to communicate the way I need to think to my board, to everybody else.” And so, we really started to put some . . . that, frankly, was wind in our sails. We said, “We got something here.”
Amy: So, let’s talk about how nonprofits are using this For Impact to improve and work towards their mission.
Nick: Sure. Several threads come to mind and I’ll give a couple you can do follow-up, if you will. But I think one of the things that we’re trying to do with this is really promote that people begin to think about why they exist, let’s just start there. Do we exist to not make any money? Well, clearly not. And we begin to think about our impact, think about how many times we’ve all seen a strategic plan that looks at goals and a plan. But we never stop in the process and really ask, “What are we really trying to do here?” So, we also use this as a way to set up that conversation. What are we really trying to do, what impact are we trying to have?
So, we’ve seen boards take this as an idea and organizations and I can think of one organization, they got rid of many of their different committees, they were doing a strategic plan. And they said, “We’re going to have an impact committee and we’re going to ask, does this program work?” Because every year they were just trying to grow the program and add more programs, and that’s what happens.
And as we talk about this, one of things we always talk about is this whole not-for-profit, it’s actually a storyline. We have to overcome that. Too many nonprofits, they exist to exist and that’s harsh, but it allows us, by setting that up, to break out of that, be intentional, and we begin to think about message, we begin to think about operations and so many things that flow from that.
Amy: Yeah. I think those are such good points. I mean, first of all, the sector is defined by the money or the lack of money . . .
Nick: By the IRS. And why would we let the IRS define us, right?
Amy: Right, right. So, it’s such a good point just to start off with. But I think that you’re right, people have to get back to mission, and why we exist, and figure out, “Do we still need to exist, is there a reason to exist, and what are we going to do, and what are we accomplishing?”
I think, you know, we were talking throughout the conference, somebody brought up the issue of overhead and operating costs, and how they were so proud that they had low operating costs. And I thought, “That doesn’t have anything to do with results. I’m not going to give to an organization that has low operating costs if they have no impact, if they’re not making a difference,” and they don’t know if they’re making any difference if they’re not evaluating their programs and services which is what you’re talking about.
Nick: Well, and then that whole thing goes towards being able also to communicate that impact. So, I think, so many organizations do, and frankly, I think a lot of times we’re picking the wrong fight, having the wrong dialogue. I mean, it’s not really about overhead. If you look at a lot of those cases, these are organizations that typically are not messaging around their impact. So, they’re trying to message efficiency around their income.
Amy: Yeah. So, if nonprofits wanted to take one or two or three concrete steps in the next weeks, months, or year, what would you have them do to be able to communicate that more effectively?
Nick: Well, the first thing I would do is to do a simple audit of everything and saying, “What messaging are we putting out there? Is it about a table sponsorship or is it about . . .” You know, one of the organizations that we worked with, they took this idea on their own and they said, “We’re not going to sell a table sponsorship. We’re going to sell that this helps to impact two kids and give you a table.” So, begin to look at all of your messaging and say, “Are we really messaging and communicating the impact?” The second thing, as I said, would be to just look at your own messaging and ask your reason for existence and say, “Toward what end?”
And I think the third thing is really be deliberate around . . . by the way, this sounds so simple but we don’t do it which is why I think the napkin message is so effective. Always think about how we can begin with the impact that might be in your letter, it might be . . . we had someone who had a board meeting and he said, “I begin my board meetings with review of minutes and financials.” And they all do, I’ve seen 100 of them, maybe 1,000, they all do that.
So, it was just a simple thing for him to take at the beginning of the meeting, he had somebody stand up who had been impacted by the work and all of a sudden you have an engaged board. Everybody remembers why they’re there. And these are simple things but we don’t do them.
Amy: Yeah, a lot of people call them a mission moment.
Nick: I think that’s right, that’s right.
Amy: By putting it right at the beginning of the board meeting, whether it’s a testimonial or reading a letter or having the client come speak, but reminding the board members why they’re there. And it’s not just about minutes and financials which board meetings turn to so often, but having that theme throughout, we need to provide them, the board members, volunteers, donors, with stories about the work and why we’re making a difference. Yeah, good. What else?
Nick: Well, I mean, around this whole idea of For Impact, I think there’s a lot of different things that if you think about impact and then driving income, there’s a visual that goes with that. You can begin to take that out, I call it kind of the Golden Rule for business, if you think about the Golden Rule.
We’ve looked at for-profits, nonprofits, and you’re starting to see that organizations that really embrace the principle of impact or purpose or meaning, we hear that a lot as well, it helps them focus their messaging, it helps them also recruit talent, keep talent. So, we got into this around the money side of things, helping people with fundraising, but after they seem to develop what I might call a fundraising model, the next thing we always hear about is talent, talent.
And then there it again, so it’s like impact drives talent. And beginning to ask why are we doing this, we have so many people that come into our organizations because of their heart and a purpose, and then they end up measuring on the money side. And while we need that, this just allows us to be deliberate about going back to the impact side.
So, I find that this visual is, whether it’s mental or it’s in front of you, it’s just centering. Somebody said, “That’s very grounding.” Someone once said to me, “Trying to find your purpose in life, that’s like a life’s journey. How many of us are seeking that every day? We still can’t find it.” But the decision to wake up in the morning and be For Impact is something that you can do every day.
Amy: I love that.
Nick: That started to take on, you know, that personal development end of it. So, if we look at this and you unfold it, it’s got so many dimensions and I think that’s where it allows us to go with the messaging.
Amy: Yeah, great. Any final thoughts in terms of what nonprofits can do to start taking action on this?
Nick: No, I think we’ve covered a lot of it and I’d say at the end of the day, it’s just keeping it simple. Impact drives income no matter who you’re talking to, you want to get them engaged around the impact, you want to share the story around your impact, and then we want to present them the opportunity to help. And that’s the simplest process in the world.
Amy: Yeah, that’s the important message, though, impact drives fundraising. I love that because sometimes we go get it backwards, right? We’re so focused on the fundraising, like you said, a table sponsorship or whatever it is, and we forget about the impact. And I love that, wake up every day and say, “What impact am I going to make?” Can be posted above your bed, on the ceiling, above your desk. Impact, that’s what it’s all about. You go back to that, everything else will fall into place. Great. Well, thanks for being here.
Nick: Great to be here.