[Podcast] Ryan Corry on Authentic Donor Relations


The newest episode of The Modern Nonprofit Fundraiser Podcast features Ryan Corry, Director of Development at St. Vincent de Paul. Ryan offers personal stories and specific examples of what inspires generosity in all donors: your own generosity. He talks about building authentic donor relations and how to create a vision for the future of your nonprofit.

Find out more about Ryan and St. Vincent de Paul on their website.

Here are some highlights from the episode, and action items your team can start thinking about today: 

  1. Generosity begets more generosity. You can’t take from donors without giving of yourself and your nonprofit first. 
  2. Create relationships with organizations to build a network that can help people holistically. 
  3. Understand your donors as much as possible. Learn their past experiences and their passions to drive generosity they’re excited about. Ask for specific giving based on what people are passionate about. 
  4. Find your vision for the future. Don’t focus on surviving the day-to-day because that won’t scale. Work with your donors that want to be your partner in future programs to expand the possibilities for your nonprofit. 
  5. You have to be digital. Don’t be afraid to test new ideas and forget the way it’s always been done. If you spend money to do more good, it is not a “waste” of resources. 
  6. Build trust, inspire and develop your team first. Great stories and community connections start with your internal culture. 

Full Transcript

Gabe Cooper: Hey everybody. Welcome to the Modern Fundraiser Podcast. Today I’m so excited to have Ryan Corry with us. Ryan is the Director of Development at St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix. 

If you’re not familiar with St. Vincent, I know many of you are, but they’re an international organization founded in 1833. The Phoenix chapter here happens to be the biggest in the world. They’re deploying more than $15 million a year to feed, clothe, and heal folks in our Phoenix community. So Ryan, thanks so much for joining us.

Ryan Corry: Yeah, thanks for the opportunity. Happy to do it.

GC: Yeah, absolutely. So Ryan, you and I have known one another for a while. So, I’m excited to have this conversation but I’d love for you to talk a little bit about how the heck you got into fundraising to begin with.

RC: Yeah. Well, truthfully I graduated into a really bad economy and the first person I could talk to about a job was in charge of fundraising at my Alma Mater. And so, I kind of tripped into it like a lot of fundraisers. But found that my really heart and passion was in journeying with people to find their purpose. 

And, that could be the folks who the nonprofit is helping, or in my case it’s really with donors. A lot of times folks have an idea of how they want to create impact in the world but they don’t know how to get there. They don’t know the most efficient ways to get there, they don’t know the organizations to partner with to get there. And I just love working through that with people. It’s been just a great career thus far. And truthfully, I don’t think I’ll ever leave it.

Generosity Begets More Generosity in Donor Relations

GC: Yeah, that’s great. Now, I’ve loved even just hearing from you over time about the importance of connecting the hearts and passions with donors with causes that make them come alive and really how that’s it’s really giving more to the donor than anything else. I love your passion for that.

RC: Yeah. Yeah. I just feel like as you, and this is something I admire in you and everything that you do, but you just lead with bringing value to the table before you want anything, ask for anything. It’s like, “What can I bring today to these folks or to this organization?” It’s something that you’re really good at, it’s something that I work at every day, but something that donors really appreciate.

GC: Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, not to get off track here, but I think you’re absolutely right. It’s missed in generosity so much as nonprofits want people to give but they’re not always giving first. They’re surprised when people don’t want to give to them when all they do is take. And so, just really having that mindset of giving first and generosity first, it always begets more generosity. So, I just think that’s a great principle in general.

RC: Yeah.

GC: Okay. So, I want you to talk a little bit about St. Vincent’s and you guys are doing some amazing stuff. You have some really cool programs. I know one of the things I know you’re doing is this food box thing. So, can you talk a little bit about that or maybe some of the other programs you guys are doing, but I knew the food box thing is so cool so I’d love to hear you talk about that a little bit.

The History of St. Vincent de Paul

RC: Yeah. So, you said it in the lead off, our mission is to feed, clothe, house, and heal people in need. One of the big principles that St. Vincent de Paul was founded on in the 1830s by essentially a 21 year old named Frederic Ozanam. He would meet people where they are and he would do it in the streets of Paris and he would bring them food or blankets in the winter and really ask two things, “How are you and how can I help?” And that’s still how we approach our business, our service.

You mentioned the food boxes. We have, in addition to our main campus we have five dining rooms throughout the valley. So that means wherever you are in central and northern Arizona we have volunteers and a food pantry that can reach you if you’re in need. 

I liken it to … I have three kids. I know you’ve got a clan at home too. There are those nights when I just pick up my phone and I’m like, you know, UberEats is going to work tonight. Things are crazy. Well UberEats has just been developed in the last five years, four years, something like that. St. Vincent De Paul was doing that work for people in need before any of us had cell phones. 

Folks would call in to their local food pantry and say, “I’m hungry. I need help. My family needs help.” And we would deploy our volunteers with a food box custom made for that family. If they have kids we’re putting different stuff in it than if they were elderly folks. Volunteers two by two would go to that house, they would deliver a food box, and it’s literally and figuratively the entree into our ability to help them holistically.

Help People In a Holistic Way

RC: So if we saw that grandma had a medical or dental need, we’d say, “You know, we have a medical and dental clinic downtown, can we refer you there?” Or if dad needed some equipment or clothes to get back into the workforce, we’d help provide that. If a kid was sleeping on the floor we’d make sure he had a mattress by the end of the night. And so, we were UberEats before UberEats and we were doing it for the most vulnerable people in our community. I just think that’s such beautiful work that we still meet people where they are. We still go two by two and we still say, “How are you and how can we help?”

In addition to that work, we’re doing cutting edge work in our dental clinic, the same equipment, maybe even more or better equipment then your dentist or my dentist has in their office. We have it here at St. Vincent de Paul for people in need. We also have three urban farms throughout the community and we think this year they’re going to produce about 80,000 pounds of fresh produce so that we can put it directly into our dining rooms. We’re feeding kids kale, right? This isn’t slop on a plate. This is fresh food that was harvested this morning right onto that kid’s plate. And so, I think St. Vincent de Paul is evolving beautifully but staying really true to our foundational mission from the 1830s.

GC: That amazing stuff. I mean just the heart for what you guys do but then just the logistics to be able to pull off UberEats before UberEats is not trivial. It’s pretty impressive. So, back on the fundraising side, because I know you think about fundraising in some innovative ways. Can you talk about some of the more innovative stuff you feel like you’ve done around fundraising and gathering support over your time at St. Vincent?

Donor-Specific Fundraising 

RC: Sure. You know, I think what we’re really good at, and we talked about it a little is understanding where donors are, where they’re coming from, what they want to impact, the experiences that made them who they are. So, you know, for instance, we have some folks who are donors who have grown their own business. Anytime that they had part of their business that was very, very successful, they’d double down. They’d borrow money, they’d put their own money back in and say, “If this was successful with x. We’re going to go at it with 2x.”

And that’s not a real typical nonprofit thought process but we go to those donors and we say, “We saw what you did with your business and we want to model that. Would you, our fundraising department has grown in revenue for the last three years, would you invest in our fundraising department? And we think that $1 that you put into fundraising or marketing we think we can turn that into $5. So for every one you put in, we can produce five.” 

They get really excited about that because they’re then not only mimicking what they did to make their business successful, but they’re part of the team. We get to report to them about what their investments doing. Are we hitting 5x? I mean they’re investors. They’re different than check writers. They’re now investors and so we talk to them like investors and we report to them. We have honest conversations when things aren’t hitting 5x. Luckily we haven’t had to have too many of those, but you know really speak to their experiences. So, I think that investment in our infrastructure is kind of unique.

I also think that in terms of human services organizations, most organizations who have a focus like ours are just trying to make it day by day, month by month, year by year. We’re really thinking forward. We’re thinking about having an endowment. You know when you see there’s some universities that have what, $30 billion endowments back east and that just makes so much possible for what the university is able to do. 

We have a unique set of social challenges that we are addressing and addressing really well with a highly competent team and great money managers. Why would we not be considered for a significant endowment gift like that? We’re really looking forward to growing our endowment and making sure that even if we had a blip on the economic radar we wouldn’t have to retract services.

Building Donor Relations With Those Who Think About Giving Differently

RC: Our endowment keeps us at a place where we can maintain or even expand services when the community needs it most. I think that’s a little bit unique in what we’re doing. So, I think the future is bright here. We’re looking more and more to meet with donors who think about giving differently, who want to be investors and partners in what we’re doing not just a check writer. We need those too. We need everybody but we’re looking more and more at people who want to really be on the daily journey with us.

GC: Yeah, that’s great. I know one of those things that you, in that same vein that you kicked off a few years ago was your Vinnies program. I don’t even know if that thing’s still around anymore but it was such a cool example of thinking about people as so much more than check writers. Just for the benefit of our listeners can you talk a little bit about why you had initially run that Vinnies program?

Changing the Approach to the Board

RC: Thanks for asking about that. We just had our annual retreat last week, so we’re up to 35 Vinnies or advisory board members, and it runs a little bit different than a normal board. You know your normal board has a governance committee and a finance Committee and you’re doing Robert’s Rules of Order and this and that. And typically if you’re in the financial services industry, someone comes and says, “Oh, will you serve on our finance committee?” Without even thinking that person in the financial services industry, they do that all day, every day. But what they’re really passionate about is cooking. You know, they’re really an aspiring amateur chef.

And so, we look at folks and say, “What are you passionate about? What’s going to keep you engaged?” We’d take that financial services professional and we’d say, “We have a food program that puts out 4,300 meals a day. We want your help thinking about that. I want to show you our kitchen. I want to introduce you to our chef. I want to ask for your help and your passion around food service.” And by the way, we still get his or her financial expertise too that doesn’t disappear. 

We really engage people with what they’re passionate about and they have provided some really incredible impact for us. They’re great network connectors because they’re so passionate and I’m just really excited about those folks. They’ve really been transformational in how we’re able to think about our business, and our service, and our partnerships. They’re still rocking and rolling.

GC: Yeah. I’m so used to walking into board meetings or even just advisor kind of meetings like that and it’s primarily 70 year olds who can write big checks and they’re worried a lot about governance. But with this traunch that you pulled out for Vinnies, I walk in the room and it’s, you know, like 30 years old that are, and they’re hustling and they’re like, “Let’s start a new community garden or let’s go do it.” And they’re just like on it like rolling up their sleeves. 

Just the energy around that and the innovation is just amazing. So, I know one of the things you’re really passionate about, and I am too, is nonprofits sometimes getting content to trail behind the rest of the world a little bit, being content with doing things a level lower than their for-profit counterparts. Talk a little bit about how you’ve seen some of that happen and where nonprofits should maybe be operating more like a for-profit.

Test Ideas Like a For-Profit

RC: Yeah. Well, I don’t have to look farther than my email and I got an email from the place where I shop for some clothes. And they immediately hit me this morning with something about, “Your cart is about to expire.” And it had the exact shirt, and size, and everything ready for me to just click go. “Yeah, yeah, yeah purchase that.” 

That store speaks to me on an individual level. And I think that nonprofits, typically, have not had the expertise, or the resources, or the latitude to do some kind of R&D, I guess that’s what they’d call it in the for-profit world. Are nonprofits allowed to test? Are nonprofits allowed to fail in those tests? And, typically the answers have been no. Because sometimes that costs a little money and we don’t want to “waste” money.

Now, we’re a wonderfully run organization financially, 91 cents of every dollar goes straight to our mission which is really high for an organization with 200+ staff members. I don’t mean to say that we’re just running around testing things all the time. But where we can, we’re trying to apply the same tactics and opportunities that our for-profit friends would be able to do with exactly that shirt example that I described earlier. 

We’re trying to speak to people on a one on one level. We’re trying to engage them with things that, historically, we know that they might be interested in. What we’ve found, just like I saw it on my phone this morning, is you’ve got to be in people’s hand. You gotta be digital. You have to let people click and pick their volunteer experience. You have to let people give online. And we’re seeing that play out even in our “food drives”.

Going Digital for Better Donor Relations

RC: You and I are probably used to putting something in our office and and saying, “Oh yeah, I’ll throw in a bag of canned goods because they need peanut butter, or tuna, or whatever, water especially in Arizona in the summer.” And, we’ll drop this physical case of water that we bought from a store, lugged it through the parking lot, lugged it into our office, dropped it in this box. Now, St. Vincent de Paul has to pick it up. Some of those things still have to happen but I think that’s dissipating. And what we’re seeing is people want to engage virtually. We have way more people telling me now. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll participate in your peanut butter drive. Is there a link where I can go to buy some?”

We’re having to develop a whole new process that our online shopping friends have known for a long time. You let people buy and get what they need from their phone and they can still have an impact. So, an Amazon wishlist that just sends peanut butter directly to us and bills your Amazon credit card on file. We’re turning digital, we’re turning much more like our for-profit friends who hit you with emails that speak to you, although not with the aggressiveness or frequency because that’s not our style. 

But you know, it is, we do have to test things. We do have to go digital. We do have to be bold and smart with our marketing choices. I think that is where nonprofits will, the ones that are going to be sustainable and lead the charge, that’s a real inflection point. The nonprofits that are going to be really strong 10 years from now are understanding that inflection point and doing something about it right now.

GC: So nodding my head to everything you just said. The digital innovation piece is huge. And you know, you talked a little bit about that clothing experience with that personalized email that is so much my love language. I just think if nonprofits could provide, like the great shopping companies. 

I’m the same way. I’m wearing a shirt right now that I got suckered into from this place I like to shop online because they could say, “Hey, we know you bought this shirt last time. You would like this shirt this time. By the way it’s 30% off.” And they send the email at exactly the right time because know exactly who I am and exactly what I’m going to buy. And it doesn’t feel like marketing or a push at all because it’s hyper-relevant and it’s hyper-personal so it feels more much more like a value add. 

And so if nonprofits could really lean into that to create personalized experiences with donors that are hyper relevant to them around their own passions and that moves the needle so much. I hope our nonprofit listeners are really leaning into what you said there.

RC: Yeah, yeah, that’s a great example.

Always Be Learning More

GC: Let me finish up with this. I’d love to hear you kind of riff a little bit. I know your reader and a lot of what you do at St. Vincent has been influenced by books. We usually ask our guests what books and podcasts they’re listening to but I know you’ve got a couple of books in particular that have influenced you. So, can you talk a little bit about what you’ve been reading and how that’s influenced what you’re doing at St. Vincent?

RC: Yes. So to the podcast angle, I’ve really been listening to a lot of Adam Grant. He’s an organizational psychologist and really talks about building strong teams and cultures. One of the things that, you know it’s not surprising, but it’s surprising how much I hear it, is that folks invest in St. Vincent de Paul at really significant amounts. Those folks all say that one of the leading reasons, yes our mission, they love the work, but they trust our leadership team. They trust our team because they know us. They know we’re going to be great stewards of their money. And that starts internally, right? That’s not a marketing campaign. You can’t fake that. You can’t just create a story around it.

Our executive director has been here 22 years. Our CFO has been here I think 14 years. I’ve been really encouraged by Adam Grant to say, “Hey look, if you want to scale, if you want to grow, if you want to have a great marketing campaign or a great story that starts internally. That starts with the people you hire, how you develop those folks, the opportunities that you give those folks, the trust that you put in those folks.” And so, that’s been really inspiring for me to listen to and I’m seeing that pay off in our work in the community. So that’s the podcast lane the long drive to work.

And then, in terms of books I’ve been reading a lot of Moneyball-type books, sports analytics, because I think it’s so fascinating how Billy Bean, in one decade, and then the Houston Astros front office in another decade, how they looked ahead and looked at opportunities within their market and said, “Ah, we’re going to be the first there. We’re gonna speak to people on an individual level because they’re not used to that from nonprofits. And we’re going to do it better than anyone. So that after three years of developing that system, we’re going to win the proverbial World Series, just like the Astros.” And so, it’s just understanding how to think about those things, how to build, continue doing great work, but angle yourself and your team to slowly grow into the team of the future or the team that you want to be day by day. 

I think reading those books has really helped me and encouraged me in thinking that way. Because when you’re trying to alleviate hunger, and you’re trying to put people through the medical clinic, and you’re trying to pay for the 83 food pantries to all be filled with food. You could spend a lot of time just putting out fires unless you think to the future and angle your teams to where you should be going. It’s just, it’s not going to, your today is just going to be today, it’s not going to be a sustainable model. So, those are kind of the things that I’m looking at. It’s a lot building culture, and team, and process internally more so than you know how to “sell” or how to do any of that.

GC: Yeah, and one of the things I love about that, particularly the Moneyball example with Billy Bean is the way he was able to get so much leverage as is the baseball for the last 90 years has done stuff by their gut because that’s always how it’s always been done. And so, rather than take that approach Billy Bean just didn’t guess at what might be a better way, he used numbers and analytics to tell him what would be a better way. 

I think that’s just such a perfect metaphor for fundraising and that there’s a bunch of traditional approaches that have just always been that way. So my gut tells me sending this appeal or throwing this gala are going to get my best results. So we’re going to go with my gut because that’s what tradition says. You don’t want to be reckless and throw the baby out with the bath water but at the same time running to numbers and analytics to tell you what the most effective things are that create the highest ROI, the most impact for your organization. So I love that as a metaphor, kind of that Moneyball metaphor for nonprofits. I think it’s, it’s spot on.

RC: Yeah. And I think that just in our culture, the time that we live in, the environment that we live in, if you could put a Moneyball equation together to quantify and market belonging. People want to belong, people want to be known, people want to be a part of a community. Whoever figures out that equation, I want to know ’em. I want them to be on our team at St. Vincent de Paul because I think that is so important right now.

GC: Yeah, that’s great. Well, that’s a great, a great sentiment to end on. So Ryan, it has been a pleasure having you on today. I love your insights. I love the work you’re doing at St. Vincent De Paul. So, thanks again for joining us and I’m looking forward to chatting again soon.

RC: All right. Thanks, Gabe.

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