[Podcast] Nate Hughes on Turning Donors into Partners through Intentional Relationships


Today on The Modern Nonprofit Fundraiser podcast, we’re talking to Nate Hughes, VP of Partnerships at 1Mission. When we heard about Nate’s title, and his philosophy on donor relationships, we knew we had to sit him down to explain his approach to fundraising. The conversation did not disappoint. 

Learn how Nate, and the entire 1Mission team, leverage donor programs to inspire loyalty, community and drive generosity. If you’d like to know more, follow Nate on Twitter or check out the 1Mission website

Here are the most important insights that Nate offered to us: 

  1. Changing the name of their fundraising department from “development” to “partnerships” helped solidify the vision for Nate’s entire team. They are focused on building genuine partnerships that are more than just transactions. 
  2. Developing a variety of fundraising programs allows donors to choose what they’re most interested in. When they are getting what they want from your nonprofit, they are driven to loyalty, advocacy and generosity. 
  3. Don’t approach donor relationships as a “set it and forget it” program. Think about new ways that you can reignite their passion and give them goals to look forward to. 
  4. Cultivating a culture of transparency, especially around impact, helps maintain relationships with major donors. 
  5. Focus on internal communications and operations to make fundraising and personalization of the donor experience the best it can be. 

Full Transcript

Gabe Cooper: Hey, everybody. Today, we have Nate Hughes with us. Nate is the VP of Partnerships at 1MISSION. Nate has a degree from Arizona State. He went to Phoenix Seminary and has a master’s in biblical studies and spent several years actually doing work in the Czech Republic for an organization that we work with, actually, called Josiah Venture. 

He has had a great time using some of that field experience with 1MISSION. Does some really, really unique stuff around partnerships that I think you’ll find really valuable today. So, Nate, welcome to the podcast.

Nate Hughes: Yeah. Thanks, Gabe. It’s good to be here.

GC: Yeah. Absolutely. So, I’d love to hear a little bit about how you ended up at 1MISSION and even just kind of tell us a little bit of 1MISSION story.

NH: Yeah. So, I’ve been at 1MISSION for three-and-a-half years. 1MISSION’s been around for nine. 1MISSION was really born out of our founder seeing house building done in a way that was damaging and not really helping communities. He’d been a part of numerous building projects in Mexico, and eventually said, “There’s got to be a better way.” 

Got connected to people that helped him understand holistic community development, understanding the importance of dignity and worth and earning your house. And so, that’s essentially what we do is we give people the opportunity to earn a house by serving their community.

Strong Donor Relationships Create Partners, Not Transactions

GC: That’s amazing. I’ve been so excited just learning about 1MISSION and how you guys are even kind of disrupting this house-building space by giving people back their dignity and super, super innovative on the program side. 

I’d say your fundraising is probably equally innovative. You guys have done some super interesting stuff, and so, I know we’re going to talk about your partner program in a minute, but can you talk a little bit about your kind of overall fundraising marketing program, your monthly giving program, kind of give us a picture of what that looks like for you?

NH: Yeah. So, even before we jump into that, you described my title, right, VP of Partnerships, and essentially, it’s fundraising. It’s what other people call development, whatever you want to call it. We’ve intentionally called it partnerships, not to have some clever name to mask what we’re doing, but to really describe what our team’s about. 

So, we’re about creating real, genuine partnerships, and genuine partnerships mean that there’s a relationship, and there’s give and take, right? You’ll even hear that as maybe we talk about some of our other programs, but we want to add value to our partners. Some of that value comes from just donating to something that someone believes in. But sometimes, people want something to tell the story, to engage with the people that they’re working with, the people they’re around. So, it’s a really key phrase for us. It’s something that I talk about with my team, with our whole team. We’re about partnerships, genuine partnerships that are about building relationships that are more than just a transaction.

Building Donor Relationships Through Intentional Generosity

GC: That’s great. I love to hear that. And so, how’s that working out? I know you guys have a unique … Well, there’s some bigger partner programs, but then, you have a monthly giving program. So, what does that look like technically?

NH: Yeah. So, our monthly giving program, I mean, it’s pretty basic. Everyone has a monthly giving program. So, there’s nothing special about that. Probably what’s unique is the fact that we just give a couple little incentives throughout the process. So, our monthly giving program’s called The Supply Yard, and we’ve created these giving handbooks. So, $10 a month buys a bag of concrete. $30 a month buys a window. $50 a month buys a door for a house. Give people kind of a visual about, “Oh, this is what I’m providing to help put a family in a house.” 

But within that, whenever someone joins the supply yard, we give them a T-shirt. Again, it’s nothing fancy, but just saying, “Hey, you’re a part of something bigger, and you’re a part of this specific part of our tribe who’s giving monthly. And then, we’ve begun rolling out an anniversary program. So, after a year of being in the supply yard, we’ll just send you a note, “Hey, we’re so grateful you’ve contributed for a year.  Actually a year of $10 a month, that’s enough concrete to pour a foundation for a home.” And that just lifts their eyes up like, “Oh, wow. $10 a month may feel small, but it’s actually super significant, right?”

NH: At three years, we’re going to send them a new shirt. I say “going to send them” because our monthly program is so short that we actually have few people that have done that, but it’s like, “Hey, after three years, it’s probably time for a new shirt.” It’s just a reminder like, “Hey, we know you’re there,” because I think a lot of organizations set it and forget it, and that’s something that we just don’t want to be about.

GC: No. I love that people talk about growing generosity, and one of the first questions we like to ask is, “So, how are you being generous?” So, generosity begets generosity, and so, all the great organizations have learned to give to their donors in extravagant and interesting and creative ways because it turns out, when you’re generous, it inspires generosity, and so, I love that. 

The other thing I’ll tell you is I’ll shut up because I want you to talk, but I’m scrolling through Facebook ads this week, and a buddy of mine has a video, a good friend that owns a wine bar down the street from us, and he’s sitting there mixing his newest wine cocktail for his Facebook ad in his 1MISSION shirt.

NH: Nicely done.

GC: So, I cannot escape the 1MISSION shirt. So, whatever you’re doing around the T-shirts, it is working. It’s amazing. So, I’m assuming the response has been great from these folks. I’m assuming people like being a part of something like that.

NH: People love it, and I think probably we’ll get people who probably sign up because they want the shirt, right? And that’s the other thing. You can only get this exclusive shirt by being a monthly donor, and we’ve had people who are like, “I have every other 1MISSION shirt, but I can’t get that one,” and so, they signed up. But it shows their buying is much bigger, right? They’ve been on trips with us. They’ve bought all our other shirts, and they’re just saying, “Oh, okay. Well, I’ll buy into that to get this shirt.”

Picking The Right Donor Partnerships

GC: That’s great. Yeah, I love that. So, you guys are looking at partnerships stuff all the time. So, in thinking about how to treat your donor, so, as you look at opportunities like these innovative opportunities, how do you decide which ones to take, which ones not to take? Because you can only handle so much, right?

NH: Yeah. That’s right. So, we kind of operate off of what we call a 10X principle that essentially we’ll say, “We’ll invest a certain amount of money if we believe it will net a 10X result.” So, for instance, we’ve just now partnered with Music Festival up in Prescott, Arizona. It’s going to be in a couple weeks. It was a $7000 sponsorship. We’re the title sponsor of this event, and basically, we said, “If we’re going to invest $7000, then we need to net, what, 70, right? Somehow.” 

And so, went through a really quick … and the big call to action at that event is going to be the monthly giving program. It’s easy for people to buy in. It’s proven successful. Lots of organizations try and get people to buy into their monthly giving program at concerts. We’ve tested this out a little bit, and so, basically, to do quick math, what I did is I said, “There’s supposed to be 6000 people at this event. The previous concerts we’ve sponsored, we’ve converted at about seven percent of the concert-goers that signed up for our monthly giving program. Average donation is $30 a month, and that would net us 250 people at $30 a month. That’s $7500 a month, times that by 12. That’s well over 70,000.”

GC: That’s great.

NH: So, that was our aggressive goal because I don’t actually know. We’ve never sponsored a festival before, right? So, that’s best case scenario. We get 250 people to join our monthly giving program at $30 a month. So then, I said what happens if half the people show up that the organizers say are going to be there, so 3000, and what if we only convert three-and-a-half percent? So, ran the same algorithm. That’s 105 people sign up at $30 a month. That’s $3000 a month. Well, the average giver gives for two years. So, there’s my 70,000 back. 

So, again, it’s a risk, but we’re willing to take those risks calculated that are based on previous factors and say, “Okay. We’ll take this risk in an effort to move a program forward,” and a program that we think is excellent. We believe in what we do as an organization, and we’ve got some previous factors that we’re able to rely upon to say this should work. So, you can call me back for another podcast, and I’m like, “Hey, I lost our organization $7000 because it failed.”

Taking Risks to Grow Your Nonprofit

GC: Yeah. One of the things we talk about, so, in the agile sort of startup space, you’re always looking for the ability to test a hypothesis. You want an innovative culture where you can try stuff and test it. There’s this idea of a minimum viable product like, “What can I try out there to see if the results stick or not?” And I think in the nonprofit space, especially … No, it’s the same with our space, but I think there’s this idea of, we’ll maybe call it, a minimum excellent product. 

And so, what is a minimum thing that I get there that really honors my brand, that I’m proud of, that I’m stoked about? So, even if I don’t do it next year, I’ll look back and say, “That was really fun,” but then, you learn something, and you know what works and what doesn’t work. So, that’s great.

NH: Yeah, and I’m really thankful. The culture within 1MISSION is definitely a risk-taking culture, and it’s easier to take risks when you’re hitting your goals for the year. So, we’re at the end of the year. We seem to be on track for what our goals are for the year. So, we’re a bit more risky now, and if it pays off, then we’ll know what to invest in in the future.

GC: Oh, that’s great. Okay. So, one of the big risks and probably the most innovative things I’ve seen done across all the nonprofits that we talk to is you guys’ house to house program. So, I mean, out of all the partnerships stuff I’ve seen, that was probably the most amazing. So, I’d love you to talk about how you ended up getting that in place out of all things, and tell everybody what it is.

Letting Donors Lead Your Partnerships

NH: Yeah. So, our house to house program is our partnership with people in that real estate industry, primarily real estate agents, but we have mortgage lenders. We have title agents. We have different people. We have a solar salesman who’s participating. So, can kind of hit the whole spectrum, but really, the sweet spot’s real estate agents. And they came about in a really organic way. 

We had a real estate agent who was down on a trip, built a house, came back, called our VP of Operations and was like, “Hey. I want to figure out a way to make a bigger difference in our industry. I want to figure out a way to give back.” So, I met with him, and we went on this kind of year-and-a-half long journey, me learning a lot about the real estate industry, him helping me learn, and kind of working together to craft and create this program, which we just launched in April, giving real estate agents an opportunity to give a portion of their commission to put a family in a house. So, I mean, it’s the best of all the social marketing world, right? The best ones are the ones that tie the industries together, right?

NH: Toms is the most famous, right? You buy a pair of shoes. He gives a pair of shoes away. The worst are the weird “buy a candle, and we donate five cents to some food.” I don’t understand where the connect is. So, this obviously easy for us. Agents are helping families buy homes. They’re helping people get into homes. We’re helping people get into homes. So, it’s super exciting.

GC: There’s so many great things about the program, but real estate agents are connectors anyway. They’re sitting with this family telling them that their commissions are going here. So, automatically, you’re reaching two families with every single one. You do it at this moment where they get this windfall of passion in the form of their commission. So, they’re capable of giving at that moment. Everything about that program, I thought, “Man, that’s ingenious.”

NH: There’s so much money in the housing industry, and that was some of what my friend was kind of upset about. He’s like, “This industry is so greedy.” He’s like, “We have so much potential to do good, and we’re seeing such great fruit from it.” It’s really exciting.

Cultivating Major Donor Relationships

GC: Yeah. That’s amazing. Okay. So, one thing I know. You guys still have a portion of your gifts come from major donors, and with all this crazy, innovative stuff going on, you’re still having to sort of cultivate this major donor strategy, too. So, how do you think about that, and how do you work this in with everything else you’re doing? How do they fit in the overall scheme?

NH: Yeah. So, well, it’s interesting. I think because, and we may get into this later, but because, really, what pushed 1MISSION forward was some of our peer-to-peer stuff. A lot of our demographic has been geared very much to the younger side. So, I don’t know what our average age donor is, but it’s probably like 35 or 40. It’s parents of teenage girls who gave up their birthday. It’s the cyclists who go on our bike rides. I mean, the 30 to 50 age range is, for sure, our sweet spot, but that’s very different than a lot of organizations. 

When you say major gifts, there’s a few major gift donors because a lot of times, if you’ve got a growing family, people are still starting to hit their stride in those ages. So, we do have a few major gift donors who are professional athletes. So, it makes it kind of unique in one sense in that they have a short window where they’re making a crazy amount of money, and their accessibility is a bit different. It’s really one of those situations that came up for us that was just a really beautiful thing that happened that we haven’t had to put a lot of work in. We still cultivate, so it’s very important to us that we report back to all of our donors where their money’s gone.

NH: So, we operate off 100% principle where all public donations, 100% go to projects and programs on the field, and all of the money is tied directly to a family. And so, we’re able to report back to everyone, “Hey, here’s the family your money went to, and here’s a picture of them standing in front of their house when it’s finished.” 

So, in the same way we want to value all of our donors, whether it’s the $10 a month person who we give a T-shirt to, or it’s this $150,000 donations from major league baseball players. We want to report back. So, we’ve done different things with them where we’ve created a picture book that tells the story of every family. So, they’re funding 25 families at a time, and we create a book for them that they get to put on their coffee table and sort of read through. Again, it’s about the partnership. We have three baseball players, have only met one of them because their accessibility’s a bit different, right? But I’m still reporting back to them and making sure they know, “Hey, you’re a valuable part of our organization and moving the needle forward for us.”

GC: Man, I think that’s critical for organizations, a couple things you said there, but one of the biggest ones is just creating transparency, particularly around impact. And so, there’s a couple of big shifts that I really appreciate you guys have done. One is just the culture of transparency. We tell our donors what’s being accomplished and sometimes even telling them bad stuff. It’s like, “Man, that didn’t go so well.” That’s huge. 

But then, it’s also having some of the infrastructure, the diligence to get the infrastructure in place to where your program team’s actually talking to your fundraising team. So, they actually have access to that information. So, it’s a big deal.

NH: Yeah. That happened today, actually. Well, actually, the realtor who helped us start this program, he … don’t want to muddle it with all the details, but we allowed him to choose the family that he wanted his donation to go to because he was going to fund a whole house for a family. He sent me this link saying, “Here’s the family I want to fund,” and I went into our system and looked, and I was like, “Oh, this family’s actually already funded.” And so, I contacted our operations team and say, “Hey, how fluid is this? Are we able to move this money to a different family so that he can fund this family?” And because we have this relationship, and I know where to get the information, it was easy. Yep, we haven’t communicated with this other donor yet. So, Chris can have this family.

Quick Fire Questions

GC: Yeah. That’s amazing. Oh, that’s great. That’s probably good. I kind of want to finish things off here today by doing what we typically do at the end, which is a bet of a lightning round, and so just kind of ask you a couple of quick questions and let you shoot from the hip and see how it goes. Is that all right?

NH: Yeah. Let’s do it.

GC: Okay. So, first one is a book that you’ve read this year or the last couple years that had the biggest impact on you.

NH: I read a lot of books. Probably The Emotionally Healthy Church, very good. Peter Scazzero, pastor who ran himself and his family into the ground, and they had to learn the hard way. I think probably more than anything because as pastors, elders, church leaders, we forget the importance of the emotional side of our lives. It’s the spiritual or the tactile things that we do that matter, and we get disconnected from our emotions, and it’s happening internally. So, we either shut those things off, and they die, or we learn how to listen to our emotions. And so, I don’t know what I’m doing yet with that, but I’m trying to learn, and that’s why it’s had such a big impact.

GC: I love it. I love it. Favorite podcast right now?

NH: I’m not a huge podcast listener, but The Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell, that’s probably one of the only ones I’ve listened to recently.

GC: That’s great. And then, favorite kind of habit you use to stay sane in your life right now, exercise, diet, do yoga? What have you got to kind of keep sane? I know you’ve got a new little kid at home and a crazy job. So, what’s your favorite habit?

NH: I like to get up early in the morning. So, even with a little infant at home, even if I get to bed late, I kind of need those early morning hours to just calibrate my life. So, pretty much up at 5:00AM every morning. I have my boys get up early. So, I have to beat my family to the punch where I can kind of calibrate, pray, think through my day, and get myself right so that when the craziness hits, the boys run out of the room, baby starts crying. My wife gets up. I’m ready to love and serve them.

GC: Yeah. Dude, that’s amazing. I love it. Well, hey, Nate, thanks again for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. So glad you stopped by.

NH: Yeah. So glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

GC: Absolutely.

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