[Podcast] Taylor Shanklin Reveals Nonprofit Growth Strategies You Need to Know


On the newest episode of The Modern Nonprofit Fundraiser Podcast, we feature Taylor Shanklin, the V.P. of Marketing at Pursuant. Taylor offers practical advice for nonprofits who want to use the same growth hacking strategies that make startups successful. She provides tips for successful growth, how to grow a stronger team at your nonprofit and more. Listen to the whole episode below. 

Key Takeaways 

This episode is packed with helpful information including: 

  • Startups and nonprofits function in a very similar way. From reaching revenue goals to securing important funding, nonprofits can learn a lot from studying startup strategies. 
  • If you embody a sense of agility and adaptability in your team, you will achieve the growth you want at the rate you want. 
  • Break down the silos in your nonprofit so that you can solve complex problems together. 
  • Shifting your perspective to create a superior donor experience will ignite better donor relationships and increased generosity. 
  • Encourage your teams to use radical candor and the lean canvas method to tackle problems creatively. 

Full Transcript 

Gabe Cooper: Hey everybody, welcome to the podcast. Today, I’m so excited to have Taylor Shanklin with us. Taylor is the VP of Marketing at Pursuant. Taylor has a long history in nonprofits and nonprofit marketing, including a stint at Convio and Kimbia, and has seen a lot, especially in sort of digital innovation. And so Taylor, thanks so much for joining us today.

Taylor Shanklin: Yeah, hey Gabe. It’s awesome to be here. Thanks for having me.

GC: Yeah, absolutely. So, I know, and we’ve talked about this before, but I know you’re really into kind of the idea of growth hacking and the growth mindset. You spend a lot of your time sort of talking and thinking about this.

Me as sort of a tech guy, I come out of a space where people talk about it a lot, but it’s not applied to the nonprofit space very often. So, I’d love to hear you kind of talk about what growth hacking is, and when you say the word growth mindset, what you mean by that.

The Growth Mindset for Nonprofits

TS: Yeah, sure. Well, it is something that is not really familiar in the nonprofit space. I started really chewing on this notion of growth hacking and the growth mindset for nonprofits a few years ago when I launched myself into the startup world, which you are well familiar with, Gabe. I started learning about growth hacking, how when you have a tiny team and very limited resources, do you find opportunities for growth and to scale up, right?

So I started reading books on growth hacking, listening to growth hacking podcasts, reading a bunch of blogs. And then I started seeing this parallel between startups and nonprofits, right? 

We all have limited time to do things. We’re all wearing a lot of hats, limited resources, and high expectations for growth. That’s a big thing that I notice. In the nonprofit sector, despite our limited resources, the expectations can be really, really high, and that can get people to feel the weight on their shoulders. Similar in the startup world, where it’s like, you hear terms like, “Well, we’ve got six months of runway,” right? That means you’ve maybe got six months of cash in the bank to pay people and to keep this thing going.

So I started looking at kind of the growth hacking model and really thinking about the growth mindset. When you look at the growth hacking model, what a lot of these companies in Silicon Valley are doing, these unicorns that are rising up and just creating these amazing companies, they’re doing something pretty special. They’re taking the elements of creative marketing, software engineering and product, and data analysis and testing, and they’re really kind of molding those things together. They’re building out these teams, often now referred to as growth teams, where they’re like in these little pods where they’re all talking to each other all the time and they are solving the problem together.

Elements of Growth Teams in Nonprofits

TS: That’s different than what we see happen in our space a lot of time where it’s like, marketing is doing one thing, development’s doing one thing, there is a CRM team doing another thing, and a lot of times, they’re not really talking and solving the problem together, but it’s a very similar problem.

And so, when looking at adopting that methodology and that way of working in the nonprofit space, it’s marketing communications. It’s your CRM, your data team, and maybe it’s your fundraising teams. Those teams all need to be working together in this little pod to actually solve the problem together.

What I mean by the growth mindset most is really embodying a sense of agility and adaptability. It’s one of the things that these startups who are successful do best. They’re incredibly agile. They’re incredibly adaptable, and they’re breaking down the silos. Silo isn’t even a vocabulary. Silo is a vocabulary in our dictionary, and we have to talk about breaking them down because they happen so much. On a growth team, there’s no silo. People are just working together and solving the problem in a more holistic fashion.

GC: Oh, it’s that great. That’s definitely the cloth that I’m cut from. I know you’re in Austin right now, right, so Austin’s kind of this weird intersection of a little bit of nonprofit, like places like Convio were in Austin, but at the same time, you’re literally right down the street from really high growth startups that just have this growth mindset beat into them from the very beginning. And so it’s kind of fun from where you come from. You’re melding these two worlds together.

So, one of the questions I have is, it’s kind of easier to imagine this in a high growth startup. Sometimes it’s harder to imagine it in an established nonprofit. So I’d love you to give us some specifics, some handles that our listeners can grab onto to say, “Okay, I want to start thinking this way. I’d love to break down the silos in my organization and start hacking growth, start finding seams to grow really fast.” So, what does that look like on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis? Are there meetings? Is there some special graph we use? How do we do it?

3 Ways to Act Like a Growth Team At Your Nonprofit

TS: Yeah. So, I’ve got three core tips on this for nonprofits who want to start thinking about this, and I’ll kind of walk through them one-by-one. The first tip is before we even talk about meetings and collaboration tools and how to break down those silos, we need to talk about the mind shift that we need to have and the kind of mindset that these successful startups have is it is all about the user experience, right? Everything’s about the user experience, how to make the best user experience in whatever app you’re building or software product you’re developing or new delivery service you’re coming up with, right, what’s the best customer experience?

So when I think about the growth mindset and growth hacking at a nonprofit organization, I think first and foremost, we need to be focused on the donor experience, the supporter experience, whatever that constituent experience is, and really highlighting your value prop for those interacting with your organization, right?

So what I mean by that is in every interaction a constituent has with your organization, what can you do to make that experience stellar? And if you’re approaching things from that high level sort of macro perspective of the ultimate experience for your constituents, then I think you can start to figure out, okay, how do you build that experience? So tip number one, first and foremost, is have it in your mind that the most important thing is that constituent experience.

Break Down Silos

TS: A second thing that I will say is on how to disrupt the silos, right? So, you just have to break down walls, and this starts with getting people talking to each other. To your point, Gabe, and your question, yeah, it could start as simple as a meeting. There is something that the team at Pursuant and I … Actually, my boss has been a huge advocate of it this year, and we’ve been really working to practice internally … and that’s this concept of breakthrough and radical candor. That’s the idea of, “Hey, let’s put our cards on the table and have a real discussion being open and honest with each other, all because we actually care very deeply about each other and the mission that we’re trying to do.”

And so some ways you can start to disrupt those silos are to, yeah, get everyone in a room together and start talking about, “This is the problem we’re trying to solve. Let’s get our best minds from different departments together to start solving them collectively.” 

Of course, there’s collaboration tools you can use. If people are in different offices, using things like video phone calls where you can see people and actually feel like you’re having a conversation like you would be in an office, that can help. There are project management tools, collaboration tools, like Trello is a great one that I love to use for project management and collaboration with my team. Slack for communications, for sort of getting out of your inbox and creating more of a dialogue. So I think there’s both technologies and there’s principles when it comes to kind of thinking about breaking down the silos.

GC: That’s great. Yeah. I love that idea, and I love the idea of radical candor. I think the more nonprofits can practice that, just open, honest and data-driven, too, like, “Hey, this is the problem,” and then it’s me and you against the problem, gosh, it would move the ball so much, and especially across departments. So I love those ideas.

And so, okay, let’s say now we have somebody from marketing and fundraising, somebody maybe even from program and ops, and we’re all in a room thinking about how to break through and grow quickly. 

And people start throwing around ideas, and so somebody says, “Gosh, our event worked really well. I think we should do four more events this year. This is our path to growth.” And somebody else is like, “I think bots and AI are super cool. I think we should be doing more of that to personalize donor experiences.” Then somebody else is like, “We need to do peer-to-peer fundraising,” and it’s just random ideas going around the room.

So how do you, as a growth team, how do you begin to make sense of all those ideas and figure out which ones have value for growth and you’re not just flailing around?

Finding Your Growth Strategies

TS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s a great question. And back to your point real quick, too, about the radical candor, you said something and I want to dig into that a little bit, too. It’s not about pointing fingers at different departments. It truly is about coming together and saying, “We each play a different role in this and we each have a different perspective and a different lens on it.” Only if we work together and throw all those ideas up on the wall, as you were just talking about, Gabe, are we going to actually come up with what is the best constituent experience.

So, a couple of tips on that is one, there are analog ways to start doing this and to start working through it. Two, there are technologies that can help you begin to throw all of those ideas up on a virtual wall and start talking through the benefits, the pros and cons of each idea. Because it can become quickly overwhelming if you do have all of these ideas and people aren’t necessarily aligned on the idea that’s going to be the best for growth.

Using A Lean Canvas

TS: So, one thing that you can do, and there’s this methodology that a lot of startups use, which is called a lean canvas. So, first, get everyone into the room. Start throwing up all of those ideas about what’s going to be the best program or new idea for growth, and then start thinking through a lean canvas model on each of those ideas.

So, let’s break that down a little bit. If you have an idea for building out a new peer-to-peer program, let’s say everyone’s talking about DIY these days still and you don’t have DIY, and that’s a do it yourself, peer-to-peer program. Then okay, cool! Let’s create this thing called a lean canvas. Let’s start understanding the why behind that in a lean canvas. A lean canvas is kind of like a business model for a new product that you’re trying to develop where you’re kind of starting to think about, “Okay, what’s the positioning? How could this benefit us? How could this benefit constituents? What kind of resources do we need?” And it’s essentially, you’re coming up with a business plan on a page, on a single page, for this idea.

I think if you have several ideas that come out of one maybe team offsite or brainstorm session together, then each of those people who had those ideas could go out and start creating that lean canvas business model on a single page, and then present it back to the team. Then, the team can start talking through, “Oh, okay. Well, that’s a lot of work, and we actually don’t have the time for that idea, Jordan. But Tina, your idea, that one seems like it’s got some legs to it. We can actually achieve that. Let’s start talking more about that.”

So those are just some initial ideas on how to start mapping through the process, and then prioritizing what’s the most doable with your resources, with the time that you have, and what actually will bring you the most value.

GC: Yeah, that’s great. I love the lean canvas idea. It’s funny that you should say. I don’t know if we’ve talked about this before, but I teach a workshop on innovation, basically how to bring startup practices into the nonprofit. One of the things we do is we have a lean canvas that’s specifically sort of rearchitected for a nonprofit, so it’s like a lean canvas that you’ve seen before but with more sort of donor-centric instead of customer-centric boxes to fill in. So we’ll point to that in the show notes. I think it might be really helpful for people to be able to use that.

Just a second, what you said, I highly recommend that model, because a couple things. It forces you into the human-centered design stuff. It forces you to think about it from a donor point-of-view if you use that canvas. And it really forces you to think through things like ROI, like how much work is it going to take? What is the return on that work? Does it make sense? And so I just, yeah, highly, highly recommend following Taylor’s advice on that one.

Journey Mapping Can Reveal Your Donor Experience

TS: Yeah. It’s a great model. And then an additional way to map it out, I’ve got one other idea. If you don’t go the lean canvas route, then one of the things that we do a lot with our clients at Pursuant is we work through a journey mapping exercise, and that journey mapping exercise is looking at what is every interaction point that we are currently having with a constituent, and different kinds of constituents, right? You’re looking at people who are coming in through your peer-to-peer program or your newsletter or who’s a donor or who’s a sustaining donor? And then you go through an exercise to start actually mapping out, what are the interactions and the ideal experience that we want to have? You first have to understand and be honest with yourself in the current reality and plot out what’s currently happening, and then you can start to chart out in a journey, but what do we want to happen?

So that’s just a different approach to ideally creating the ultimate donor experience, right? Or the ultimate constituent experience, is looking at, what’s the journey I would want someone to even have with my organization based on these different types of interactions that bring them in through that first time experience, and then where do I want them to go from there?

GC: Yeah, I love that idea. It’s fantastic. And so much of that is taken from the sort of customer journey mapping of the startup world and kind of product marketing world. But I think applying that to donors, it’s a little bit different because your relationship and your nature of your relationship with your donors is a little bit different. It’s much more of a two way conversation and a long-term conversation, but I think that kind of exercise is so valuable. So yeah, I love that.

Think Like A Product Marketer

TS: Yeah. I like to tell nonprofits, “Think like a product marketer,” and then I often have to break that down, “What does that mean?” But it really means think of your mission like a product, and think about every interaction that someone’s going to have with your mission and your cause in the way that a company would think about their face cream or their online buying experience for new concealer. Whatever it is, think about your mission like a product, and that will help you get into this growth mindset of thinking about the interactions that constituents are having with your product.

GC: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, and you hear nonprofits push back on that and say, “Hey, well, we’re not a product. We’re not selling stuff to people. We’re creating good in the world.” As if sort of marketing or product are kind of the lesser thing and they’re way above that kind of deal. But it’s actually very much the opposite where if you care deeply about your donor, you want to tell your story really, really, really well, and you want to treat your donors like co-conspirators in your cause. And the only way you can do that is by really thinking through their experience in the story you’re telling to implicate them in what you’re doing in a meaningful way, which increases your impact.

I think it’s a cop out to say, “Well, we don’t do product stuff.” It’s when you truly execute with excellence and give people a sort of Nordstrom, Ritz Carlton kind of experience do you really pull people into your story in a meaningful way and increase your impact. So, I just think, yeah, it’s incredible advice, especially around the product marketing side.

TS: Yeah. I think it’s important to think about it that way. I agree. People are resistant to thinking about it that way, but it’s so important because I actually think it’s harder these days to sell your cause than it is to sell face cream, right? So I need face cream because I’m getting up there, and right, I want supple skin. I have to have that, and I buy it and I get a tangible product.

What’s the tangible product in the consumer’s mind when they’re giving to your cause? We have to go above and beyond in our “sale”, right, because people aren’t actually getting this tangible product. So we have to be really good storytellers and product marketers.

GC: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, this has been just incredibly, incredibly helpful. Really, this is one of those ones where I want everybody listening to sort of go out and start implementing this stuff right away if you’re not already. It makes such a big difference.

So for our listeners that want to learn more, is there a good place for them to kind of go and check out?

TS: Yeah, totally. So my team and I at Pursuant actually just this past year wrote an ebook on this topic, so we’ve got an ebook up on our website. If you go to, it’s P-U-R-S-U-A-N-T, dot com, type into the search Fast Nonprofit Growth. That’s the name of the ebook, and we really outline these principles of growth hacking and the growth mindset for nonprofits.

TS: And then, if you ever want to get in touch, I mean, we’re on LinkedIn. I’m on LinkedIn all the time, so find me, Taylor Shanklin on LinkedIn, and I’m happy to connect and answer any additional questions on this, as well.

GC: That’s great. That sounds awesome, and yeah, highly recommend you guys go download the ebook, really dive into this and try to make it work at your organization. So Taylor, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure, and hope you come back and join us sometime soon.

TS: Yeah, sure thing. Thanks for having me.

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