[Podcast] Jon Burgess on Celebrating Failure and Innovation in Nonprofits


We’re featuring Jon Burgess on The Modern Nonprofit Fundraiser podcast. Jon has worked as a JAG in the Air Force, an Air Force lawyer and a marketing professional at Apple during some of the most important years of the company. Now, he’s using his knowledge as the Chief Publishing Officer at David C. Cook. 

Jon offers insights on how to create a culture where your employees know that failing is not only safe, it’s encouraged. He talks about reaching today’s younger donor and what it means to change the culture of your nonprofit. Hear all of that and more on today’s episode. 

Here are a few insights you can’t miss from our episode with Jon. 

  1. Tell the truth in your marketing. Use examples from your work, the good and the bad. Don’t search for the best you can find, tell the truth to your audience. 
  2. If you’re struggling with growth and impact, that is exactly the right time to lean into change. Don’t move away from big ideas, move towards them. 
  3. Clear focus on the impact your organization is making helps you grow, despite any trends in the industry. You can’t change the entire world all at one time. 
  4. Create a culture that proves to your team that you are ok with failure. That’s how you get the big ideas. 
  5. Prepare a change management plan when you want to implement big ideas. Your people need to see the vision of your changes. 

Full Transcript

Gabe Cooper: Hey everybody. It’s my joy today to have Jon Burgess talking with us. Jon is a good friend. He’s a former JAG in the Air Force, Air Force lawyer, which is an amazing start from a nonprofit fundraising people. 

Jon worked for awhile in the marketing department at Apple, which is another just great background point for somebody in his position. He served as marketing director at Compassion International for awhile, did some really cool stuff. And he’s currently the Chief Publishing Officer at David C. Cook.

So Jon, thanks so much for joining us today.

Jon Burgess: Oh, it’s my pleasure Gabe. Absolutely.

GC: So given your background, which is just amazing, JAG to Apple to Compassion to Chief Publishing Officer, you’ve had a crazy journey. So give us a little background on how the heck you ended up going from JAG to nonprofit leader and then how you ended up at Cook.

JB: Yeah. I wish I could tell you, GC, that it was part of my 10, 20 year plan, but if I’m only being honest, I didn’t have one. What I wanted, as I look back, I realize what’s really driving me. It’s just opportunities where I can make unique impact in places that I really care about. I continue to be an Air Force Reserve Officer because I just really enjoy the mission and I like contributing to it.

Then as I moved on from Apple and the time that I was at Apple, it was really the time when Steve Jobs said, “We are 90 days away from just closing this thing down.” Not many people remember that there was a time like that. I stayed at apple through about the second iPhone. So it was really just this incredible opportunity to see one of the biggest comeback stories in American history, in the history of the world really. To see what Apple was turning into, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I absolutely thought it was kind of the place that makes careers. And then towards the end of my time at Apple, I really felt like, also it was time to leave Apple and it was time to press in, in the nonprofit space in some way.

GC: Wow, that’s great. Yeah. That’s incredible. I’ve read stories from Apple of that time are legendary, obviously. So getting to be there and be a part of it are just crazy. So Apple and then Compassion and now to David C. Cook. How did that come about? You just kind of flipping through the want ads and Compassion showed up.

JB: Yeah. Well I kind of identified three or four nonprofits that I just thought were doing great work. It’s not that there aren’t a lot more out there, there certainly are. It’s just that these were the ones that bubbled onto my radar. Compassion was one of them. And I really didn’t know anybody at Compassion. I just got to be really intrigued by the fact that people that know Compassion understand the main product, if you want to call it that, is a child sponsorship product. So you sponsor a child for roughly 36 hours a month. Then you provide some benefit to that child in the form of prayer and letters and just really affirm them.

But what I was really intrigued by Compassion was they approached it a little bit the way that Apple did. When I was at Apple, I worked in the education division and we had people on staff that really didn’t focus on Apple products so much as what it meant to be a leader in education. Where was education going? What are the thought leaders saying about that? It really made a huge impact on how Apple could approach partners and customers and that sort of thing. I really appreciated that about Compassion, because Compassion is absolutely an expert in child development. One of the ways that they attack that is through their sponsorship program.

GC: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, I love that about Compassion. So there was a bunch of really cool stuff that you’re doing at Cook right now that I really want to get into. But before I do that, kind of opened the door there for talking about a little bit about education and innovation at Compassion. One of the things that I got to see you do there up close and personal was kind of your immersive experience. That you did for having people experience what it was like to be a part of a child’s life in one of your programs. So, kind of walk me through, and for our listeners that have seen it and been a part of it, they know that it’s amazing, but for those that haven’t even describe a little bit about what it is and sort of the creative juices that went into that program.

Creating an Immersive Donor Experience

JB: Yeah, sure, sure. And you know, Gabe, you’re being very humble because certainly I have the utmost respect for you, for the team at Virtuous, for the team of Brushfire, that worked alongside us and doing something that was truly remarkable. Really the only thing that makes me suspect your capabilities is the fact that you would have me on this podcast. I’m sure that the rest of your lineup for the rest of the year will be much more impressive.

I got to Compassion and one of the things that they said was, and this first part is not really rocket science, they said that we know when people go overseas and they see children living in poverty, they’re changed. I think that that’s absolutely true. It’s part of how we’re built as humans. You just can’t see that and then come back to the United States and sort of go Starbucks and Bath and Body Works and do the things that you normally do. There’s something that goes on in your heart. We also knew that there were really two reasons why people didn’t go overseas for that experience. And one is finances. It can be expensive, that kind of a trip. And the second one is fear. There’s just some people that will not leave the West to go to the developing world. That’s not a judgment, it’s just a fact.

And so it had been knocking around Compassion for awhile, probably about nine years of what does it mean to bring the experience that people get overseas to your local church, to your local university or someplace that is more accessible? So that’s really what was the impetus, what kind of got us started.

Tell The Truth In Your Marketing

GC: Oh, that’s great. And then describe even that, what it was like, experience was like, to transform a truck, like the thing without radius in terms of what a typical nonprofit would reach for. But talk a little bit about the actual experience.

JB: Yeah, it was, and thanks for asking. You know, we really were just blessed with the right people at the right time who could really see this vision. And the vision was after going through several different models, including kind of a Disney approach where you’d sit in a bus and instead of a window there’d be a high-definition screen. It would show as you drove by kind of the story of children living in poverty. We really, what we landed on was these two 18-wheelers that would pull up into a church parking lot and unpack into 3,500 square feet of poverty. What drove it home and what was really successful in the end was that we would feature actual stories of actual children. The pluses and the minuses. This wasn’t sort of the best that Compassion marketing could put together. This was the actual kids.

And we partnered with this group in Hollywood that was able to set it up like a movie set with that level of authenticity. They were able to have the voice speaking through your ears be the voice of a child that was that age, telling the story. And as you walked through, you were just absolutely immersed in this child’s world. In fact, one of the most stressful times I’ve ever had in my professional life was when a group of Ugandan kids, they were between 18 and 21, who were graduates of the Compassion program, came to the original Compassion Experience to walk on the track that featured a girl from Uganda. And boy, we were really sweating it. Yeah. We were really thinking, you know, was the poster of the president the right poster at the time? Did we fairly and accurately show people what poverty looks like but also doing it in a respectful way?

Compassion is very big and I think rightly so about maintaining dignity through this sort of thing. And we were really sweating beads. I have to tell you, they came out of that track, some of them in tears, some of them with just so proud that they could be part of an organization that represented it that well. And certainly we saw some analytics on the backside of that, that we’re very pleasing as well.

GC: That’s amazing. Yeah. I love that. I love that story. I love stories in the nonprofit space. And that’s one of the biggest ones I’ve ever seen. So, let’s flip over to Cook for a minute. So you don’t have to say this. I will. The publishing industry is going through transitions. Cook, a faith-based Christian publisher, that has been around for a little while and so I’m sure they’re facing the exact same things that other publishers are facing here. They’re also at a publisher who happens to be a nonprofit and raises money for a lot of their initiatives, which has a whole other set of challenges being at a big traditional fundraising nonprofit.

You’re walking into two segments that aren’t historically known for creativity and innovation. And one of your biggest things has been, I’m taking… Honestly, I know a lot of the folks at Cook. They’re an amazing, talented, bright team. But injecting innovation and creativity in a way that really pushes them forward into the next 50 years. I’d love for you to just talk about what that’s been like. The catalyst recreating that creative team culture there, and leveraging your existing team to do that. So, and I’ll just kind of let you go at it.

JB: Okay. Well yeah, that’s very kind and I thank you for the nice introduction there. I will go ahead and say it. Generally publishing is what our CEO calls is on a toboggan slide down the slope. Right. I mean if you look at book sales and curriculum sales over the last 10 years, there was this little blip where we thought ebooks was going to take over the world. That turned out to not be true. But, generally at Cook as a nonprofit ministry, what we’ve been doing for about 140 years is equipping the church with content, and then to the extent that we can make a bit of a profit off that content, we use it to equip the churches in the developing world with a much different financial model, as I’m sure you can imagine.

So right now we have about 8 million children worldwide that are using, in cooperation with the local church, their local content that’s sourced locally. Meaning it’s not a bunch of folks on my team in Colorado Springs that are making up the stuff that Ugandan children are reading. We go alongside the Ugandans and we create it locally. That’s super important for us. But really, I think what your question is getting at is what am I doing at Cook, and there’s really two lines if you look at a chart. One line towards the bottom, which is slowly declining on the right hand side and has been for some time, is the amount of people that are getting impacted by traditional publishing worldwide. That’s generally going down. About 25% of Americans will not read one single book this year. Mostly, if you look at any sort of app usage statistics, it’s not long form reading. People generally aren’t reading long form books on their Kindles or their iPads. It’s just not happening the way we thought it was going to.

The other line is aligned at the top of that. And for a faith-based nonprofit like us, we look at our addressable market as generally people that self-identify themselves as Christians. That’s the market that we’re mostly interested in. And generally that line isn’t going up. When you look at the difference between those two lines, the message is we’re reaching fewer people with less relevant products in a less remarkable way all the time.

GC: That is encouraging.

Take Smart Risks

JB: All right, so normally the question is, well, how are we possibly gonna tackle that? But I like to paint that picture because to me it’s about impact, right? It’s about courage at this point, and taking understandable, smart risks, knowing that those two lines are diverging more and more every day, and now’s the time. Now’s the time to lean in, jump in with both feet, and make a go at it. Because if the worst happens and nothing works, those lines are still diverging, right? And you never know what you can come up with. I love that kind of urgency around the passion of reaching people.

I’d like to point out since we’re on your podcast that with our Life on Life products that we feature around the world that we develop in concert with the local people, it really features three things in that product. One is spiritual development, the second is character development, and the third is life skills. And so in one village in Uganda, the life skill may be washing your hands, why that’s important. And just down the road, the life skill may be debunking myths about certain that people think can keep you from getting AIDS and what that means to a family dynamic.

And so we use that because it’s important to the local folks, but we also wrap it into lessons on what does a healthy marriage look like, and how do you develop great kids? And it’s a good way to broach those topics as well.

GC: That’s great. No, I love that. So the product side is incredibly interesting, especially how you guys push out content in the developing world, where I would argue that there’s even sort of more complexity if you’re talking about a mix of faiths and changes in the publishing industry in long form content. 

Pushing Your Team to Be Creative

Pushing out interesting stuff in Uganda, there’s a whole other set of variables. So with all of that, with a relatively bleak outlook from some perspectives and a very dynamic daily-changing space, what have you done specifically on your team to kind of get them thinking creatively, and out of the box? You said now is the time for change. So what are you doing in your team to kind of get breaking them as a mold of what’s always been done and having them learn to take risks and be creative?

JB: Yeah. Yeah, and I think this has been really important and in some ways kind of hard for Cook as well, because we are really good at publishing, and we understand that. It’s just the culture and the world is changing around us. I really try to focus my team on three things. And the first one is really clear focus on what it is, the impact that we think that we’re going to make. Really understand what that is. 

I think a lot of times nonprofits get into this a mentality of changing the world. And that part I think is good. But without focus, this idea of changing the entire world all at one time and you ended up just spreading resources. You know, I always say the peanut butter is super thin on the toast so that you can’t even taste it. We want to glop our peanut butter in one place so it makes sense. So we really work hard on focus.

The second thing that I think is absolutely crucial and most nonprofits should struggle with this as well, is creating a culture where it’s okay to fail. So what we say in American business, not just nonprofits, is we say, we want you to be innovative, but we want all of your ideas to work. What happens is you create this mentality of mediocrity, because the only ideas that really see the light of day are those ideas where everybody can agree that there’s some value there. 

That’s just the road to sort of creating only those things that everybody agrees on right out of the gate and they’re, over time and time again, not the great ideas. It’s not the stuff you should be focusing on. So if your company, your business, your nonprofit has the ability to have fail-okay culture, then that’s a huge step in the right direction.

So we work on things around here, like we spun up an innovation lab. Not a meeting room that’s called Innovation Lab. This is one where we use sort of best practices on brainstorming, best practices on idea generation, and we put our folks through there and we invite customers to participate. But when you come out of those labs, we like to reward people whose ideas don’t see the light of day.

 We like to give them the gift cards and give them the notoriety and say, look, it’s the process that’s as important as anything else. Not the fact that you came up with the winning idea. We’ll get to the winning ideas, but we want to reward you for coming in and doing things the right way. So we’re working really hard on that. I can’t say that we’re all the way there, but I think we’re taking some steps that really haven’t been seen in the publishing industry before.

The last thing that I would say is we do need to remember the lessons of Apple and Netflix and like companies. Whether we like it or not, we’re living in this age where customer expectations are ramped up really high because of the work that some of these companies are doing. And so immersive experiences, like the Compassion Experience, are backed by incredible technology that are simple to the end user, but complex on the back end. And all of that wraps up to surprise and delight for your customer, no matter what that is. 

I’m not telling you it has to be technology-based, but I firmly believe that at the end of the day, if you’re not surprising and delighting your customers to create loyalty, you’re going to lose them because these expectations have been set by other companies and other industries. It’s just that we’re saddled with living up to them right now. So let me pause and see if Gabe has left the room to go get a cup of coffee or if he’s still here.

Learning to Celebrate Failure and Change

GC: That’s great. There’s a few things, but number one, that last thing.  Man, it’s like you’re beating our ground because that’s something that we talk about. And the thing that I want to really put on though is agile development and failing fast. 

We talk a lot about even using sort of startup practices within a nonprofit. So even agile software development and doing sprint planning and releasing a minimum viable product so that you can get validation from donors or on the program side, whoever you’re serving, and then begin to iterate on that. Everything about the agile software development process assumes that you’re going to fail. In fact, most great companies now from the startup phase to the time you create growth. They learn through failure and then they use that failure to get better. And I would argue that that culture is almost entirely lost in most nonprofits.

So, that’s so good to hear you guys are doing that. And I would say if there was anything in here that you guys can take away, or that our listeners can take away, that piece is that embrace failure. Learn quickly, failure’s not failed. And so what we’re going to do is we’re going to iterate and get better. The other part there, the second part really was out of our playbook was the Googles and the Facebooks and the Hubspots or the whoever of the world have created a world where people have beautiful, delightful brand experiences that are completely and totally personalized for them. 

And yeah, we’re living in a world where nonprofits don’t delight and surprise and they don’t create personalized experiences. All one do many broadcast style, 1980s approach, which is just the chasms going wider and wider between the two. And so I think a lot of nonprofits, are facing an existential crisis where the donors expect one thing because they’re getting it from every other brand and then they can’t deliver. And so-

JB: That’s right. That’s right.

GC: Yeah. I’m not [repeating] what you said, but my gosh, that’s sort of exactly what we preach every day. And as soon as you can get it, it’s game-changing.

JB: Yeah. Well I’ll carry that drum with you Virtuous guys. And I just want to say that I get that in the nonprofit space, it’s hard to look at donors and board members and say we spent $100 on something that we weren’t sure was going to fail, but we thought it kind of would. I get that it’s hard to look at donors and say that. So you do have to work on how you’re going to present that.That’s a detriment. 

The benefit that we get in the nonprofit space is you really are trying to do something that changes the world. While people have these higher expectations, and you should absolutely drive to meet those expectations, there’s a little bit of grace out there for knowing that you’re a nonprofit. It doesn’t mean that you can fall far short all the time, but if you fall a little bit short and you continue to improve, the market’s going to be okay with that. But not with a wholesale miss.

How To Reach Younger Donors

GC: Yeah. You know what’s great too I think is that, it’s turning into more of a conversation than a podcast at this point, but especially with younger donors, they appreciate transparency so much and that the way you actually demonstrate transparency is being transparent with your failures. Being transparent with everything you did right is not transparency. And so it’s unbelievable when you say, man, we tried this and that was a train wreck. That you become so much more believable at that point because they know not everybody’s perfect.

So at the point where you’re even speaking honestly with your donors, hey, we’re giving this our best shot. At best on a good day, we’re working 80% of the time. Sometimes less. And that’s just the reality. I think especially younger donors resonate with that because they know it’s true.

JB: Yeah. Yeah. And you know what? There’s a great… This is a different podcast, but there’s a great social play in validating your social marketing through that kind of stuff. People really need to see that. And the bottom line is, for me, is, I just don’t know how to solve world-changing problems without creativity and innovation. And I don’t think anybody’s going to get there without it. People will appreciate that drive.

Changing Your Team’s Culture

GC: Yup, that’s right. No, I love that. Okay. So let’s say I’m a nonprofit leader out there, somebody listening to this podcast, and I think, man, I want that kind of creativity and innovation coming from my team. What are some tips that you can give somebody, I know this innovation lab has been a big deal for you guys, but what are other steps you could give to someone trying to start a creative team?

JB: Yeah, well certainly you need to hire or create the right kind of people, right? And a lot of this for me was just change management. And there’s a million great tips on change management that I won’t go through on this podcast, but you need to prep people with this vision that we really are going to tackle this. And the right kind of folks are going to be those creatives that can think about this in a new way. And then honestly, Gabe, I go back to really focus them in on exactly what it is, the problem you want to tackle. It can’t be enough to say we’re going to solve water in the world. It has to be, we’re going to do it this way and in this place and by this time.

Really focus on, make sure that you reward people for failing. There’s a great a TedTalk I think on celebrating failure. And you really need to make that not… The first time that you say we’re going to have a fail safe culture because you read a book, and you don’t reward the failures, you’ll never get there with the existing team because they’ll just see straight through it. And honestly, everybody has been told forever, “I want you to innovate. I just don’t want you to ever not succeed with your innovations.” And so we already talked about that. And then just remember the Apple, Netflix lessons, which is there really is no detail that’s not worth sweating. You got to sweat it all.

GC: Yup. Oh that’s great. I love that. And I think even just implementing rewarding failures, some of those are reinforced in the culture. Because you do, you walk into organizations and that team’s been doing it the same old way for the last 20 years. And so yeah, you would have to do some pretty great things in order to break some of those cultural norms.

JB: You do. Yeah.

Quick Fire Questions

GC: So let me, let’s do this because I don’t want to keep you on here all day. You got a world to change out ahead of you. So we usually at the end of the thing give a bit of a lightning round and ask you a couple quick questions to finish out our time together because I always thinking it’s fun to see how people answer these. So the first the question is, what’s the book that you’ve read this year, or I’ll give you maybe the last two years, that’s had the greatest impact on you?

JB: Yeah, well I’ll give you a two. I’ll start with The Road to Character by David Brooks. Fantastic book and I cannot recommend it enough to everybody. It’s not a leader-focused book. It’s for everybody. The Road to Character by David Brooks. And he talks about kind of-

GC: He’s a bright guy.

JB: He really is. He really is. I appreciate his writing no matter where it is, but this is really a seminal book. This is a book that will change the way that you look at your life. And honestly, if you’re a nonprofit, this is the kind of language that I think we need to be talking about as just your peer in the nonprofit world. These are the kind of things that our donors should be talking about, the kind of things our employees should be pointing out. I actually got it in here at Cook. Of course, we don’t publish that book. So I got it in and I’m having my entire team read it on their own. I think it’s that important.

And the second is I just enjoy a little bit more closer to faith-based nonprofit work. I enjoy basically anything that John Ortberg has written. His last book, which actually we don’t publish at all… I should probably have thought us some books we do. But honestly we’re trying… Gabe, you’ll appreciate this. To a publisher, every solution is a book, right? So I keep telling my team, “Don’t start with the book, start with the message, the thing that’s on people’s hearts that they think people need to hear that will change the world. And if we get the book, I’m fine. But take me through every conceivable possible vehicle to communicate that before we get the book.” So that’s my free advice. That’s the bonus item for this podcast, right? You always get one bonus.

So his last book is I Would Like You More If You Were More Like Me by John Ortberg. I Would Like You More If You Were More Like Me. Good read.

GC: That’s great. It’s so readable, so entertaining, so insightful. That’s a good choice.

JB: Indeed.

GC: So next one, podcasts. You got any podcasts you listen to? With podcasts on your phone, you can always go-to some called streaming TV show or something you looked into? But do you have any podcasts you really like?

JB: Well, other than the Virtuous podcast, which clearly I’m a huge fan of now. I like that one very much. I go to… I have a couple podcasts that I listened to but not regularly enough to recommend them to you or anybody who’s listening to this, which is probably at this point, just my mother and my wife and my two daughters.

GC: That’d be great. And then kind of personal habits. You got a lot going on, you’ve got a family, you have military responsibilities, you’re running publishing at a large nonprofit. It’s a lot to take on. So what are kind of your personal patterns, journaling, writing, exercise, diet, sleep, crossfit, jumping jacks at two in the morning, what do you do?

JB: Sure, sure. Well that’s nice of you to ask. So because I’m a military reservist, I get a military physical training test every year. It’s the same one the active duty runs. I workout scared because I don’t want to be the out of shape reservist that’s showing up for duty. I maintain a pretty strict workout regimen so that I don’t have to worry about that. It’s really the way that I deal with stress. And I just have to tell you, as a leader, the first thing I say to all my folks that I say, “If you think about the entire world, no matter where you were born, what your religion is, what your job is, what kind of family you have, no matter what, no matter who that person is, on their deathbed, they never say ever I wish that I would have worked more and later on Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays when I was in my prime. They never say that.”

And I think because I work at a faith-based nonprofit that God is trying to tell us something. But even if you don’t work at a faith-based nonprofit, I think you can look at humanity and say, if that’s never said, then we need to be really, really particular as leaders into how we’re reinforcing that. Unfortunately in nonprofits, we’re really bad at that in general, because we are trying to save the world and we’re trying to do it with as little money as possible. Now John Burgess and Gabe have told you that there’s high standards because customer… So there’s all this pressure, but at the end of the day, I make sure that people are taking their vacation. And if they’re not, we have a discussion about that where they take it. Because I don’t want to be the kind of guy that, whether or not we can figure this out for Cook, in 10 or 15 or 20 years, has caused people to give up that valuable time in their life.

So I’m not saying anything that’s new to anybody who’s listening to this, but if I can be a reminder that says, “Take it really seriously where you prioritize your life. Make sure you’re living that out.”

GC: Yeah, yeah, that’s… I love that. Yeah. And sort of, yeah, you want to change the world, but the most important world that you can change and you have care over is your friends and family and yourself. And so if you can’t steward those right to begin with and the rest of it’s sort of irrelevant. So I love that.

Well hey, that is it. That’s the last question I had for you. Thank you so much for coming on today. It was a joy. I love hearing you talk about sort of the creativity that you brought to these organizations. It’s so much fun. So we appreciate it. And you’ll have to come back again sometime.

JB: All right. Thank you Gabe. It’s an honor.

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