Beth Fisher joined us to discuss the lessons nonprofits can glean from how for-profit businesses approach growth, the importance and primary characteristics of good leaders, and how vulnerability at work can help unlock your team’s full potential.
Following a career in the for-profit sector, Beth is currently the VP of Advancement & Communications at Mel Trotter Ministries and is a sought-after speaker and life coach who knows how to get through life’s decisions & challenges, as she herself has persisted and persevered amidst a sea of uncertainty and life-changing seasonal transitions.
4 Keys to Nonprofit Leadership from a VP of Advancement & Communications
During times of uncertainty, leading can be incredibly difficult. Beth generously offered 4 keys to effective leadership and growth for your organization.
1. Know Yourself
“You have to be clear about who you are,” Beth says. “I think we all know from a very young age who we are at our core.” When you accept yourself, you don’t spend time trying to be someone else and missing out on your own strengths. “Be clear about who you are, and then be unwavering, and unapologetic in that,” Beth counsels. From there, you can figure out how best to lead, asking yourself, “If this is how I am, I’m good with that. Now, what does that mean? How do I then take that clarity into my role at work?”
This self-awareness can help you understand your present moment. “It’s almost like we are conditioned societally to say, ‘Where are we going?’ which, by default, makes us forget where we are,” Beth says, “and that’s not helpful.” Balance planning for the future with connecting to what’s happening right now.
2. Embrace Vulnerability
Beth recommends Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability as essential reading for leaders. “If you’re not transparent and vulnerable, on some level, one could argue that equals a little bit of inauthenticity,” Beth says. “Leaders who are vulnerable and say, ‘You know what, I have no idea. And man, did I mess that up, and I am so sorry, but we will figure this out together.’ To me, that is always much more encouraging, and real than to have somebody say, ‘You’re going to do it this way because I told you and I’m right.’”
No one has everything figured out, and leaders don’t have to pretend that they do. “We all learn as we go and as we grow. And growth and transformation happen through taking risks, and through walking through doors that we never expected to open, but when they’re open, we have to walk through them,” Beth says.
Vulnerable and authentic leaders empower their teams to be equally honest with themselves. Defer to your team members who have more expertise than you on a subject. Invite them to teach you what you don’t know. When you work together to fill in your collective knowledge and skill gaps, the whole team grows.
3. Clarity Leads to Consistency
“Clarity leads to consistency, and in terms of leadership in any organization, that’s a must,” says Beth. It starts with setting clear expectations, explaining to team members what their job is, how that role fits into the team and gets you toward your goals.
Clear expectations don’t just avoid confusion, they create an environment of safety. When people know what’s expected, they understand their role and what needs to be done. “People can say, ‘I’m good here because I feel safe, and I feel inspired to do the work that this team needs to do,’” Beth says.
4. Don’t Fear Disruption
After a career as a consultant, helping businesses make their processes more efficient, Beth has embraced the power of disruption. No matter what kind of organization she was working with, “One of the things that I think I heard more than any other phrase in that process of change, and growth, and transition was, ‘Well, I don’t know. We’ve always done it that way. I don’t know. We’ve always done it that way,’” Beth says.
In her new role as VP of Communications and Advancement at Mel Trotter, she heard the same thing when she asked about processes. “It really fueled my inner passion, and my former 25 years of practice, if you will, to say, ‘All right, we’re going to figure this out. There’s got to be a better way.’” She quickly switched CRMs and pivoted to a responsive fundraising approach–big changes that served Mel Trotter’s mission.
Beth advises leaders who are uncomfortable with disruption to stay the course. “You can deal with the emotion. You can deal with the fear of uncertainty. And also, simultaneously, be cathartic in that and say, ‘Okay, I don’t have control right now, but I’m also learning something.’ And you just say, ‘I’m going to find that balance to couple my fear with the space of learning, and come out on the other side of this when it does pass,’ and it always does.”
Beth Fisher: And so, clarity leads to consistency, and in terms of leadership in any organization, that’s a must. I always tell people the analogy, leading a team is like parenting. It’s very difficult, but if you are clear, and you set those expectations, which I’m not a fan of expectations, but they’re necessary in terms of a team.
“This is your job. This is what I expect you to do because this is your role, and we are a team. And as a role player, if you don’t, as an example, this is my analogy, because I play basketball. If you don’t bring the ball up the court, we’re not going to score. If you don’t get rebounds and dish it, it’s not coming back the other way.” So, that is what makes a team.
Noah Barnett: From Virtuous, I’m Noah Barnett. And this is the Responsive Fundraising Podcast, a show where we talk with fundraising leaders, and thinkers to uncover how today’s top nonprofits, craft remarkable donor experiences, and build lasting relationships at scale. On this episode, I’m joined by Beth Fisher.
She’s the VP of Communications and Advancement at Mel Trotter and recently made the transition from 20-plus-year career in corporate sales and consulting to fundraising leadership. This lens that she brings to the fundraising world has provided her great advantages as she’s helped Mel Trotter navigate and pivot throughout the COVID-19 crisis. But also, she shares how she’s run into hurdles, and the lessons she’s learned on how the task of fundraising and connecting our supporters with our stories require specific types of leadership.
Beth is a brilliant communicator, an insightful leader who talks about the elements of how you lead your team well, and how that ends up driving and growing generosity. I can’t wait for you to hear her insights. Let’s dive in.
So, Beth, you recently just made a pretty big transition from corporate sales and consulting to now being a fundraising leader at Mel Trotter. But what’s interesting as I was digging into your story is that you’ve navigated many hurdles throughout your life, and career, and have this squiggly path to how you’ve even gotten to this point or this transition.
And so, I would love for you to share some of those experiences, but also, more importantly, how those experiences have now shaped your approach as a fundraising leader, and how you lead your team.
BF: Sure. Well, that’s an open-ended question, and a lot of backstory because you’re right, it has been squiggly, it has been interesting, it has been nothing at all like what was on my one-time giant to-do list. I am, I guess, a self-described, although I hate labels, doer, Type A, all of the things that we are all used to labeling others who go out into the world and say, “I’m going to accomplish all of these things,” and then none of those things happen.
At least not the vision that you have crafted for yourself. So, that of course is exactly my story, and many others that I’ve spoken to. So, yes, I did make one giant career transition, and change recently. So, effective January 6th of this year. So, I’ve been here at Mel Trotter for just over four or five months. And what’s interesting is that I’ve known about Mel Trotter for three years, though prior.
So, I grew up in a very small town in Northeast Ohio, and went to Ohio State for undergrad, which is not something you say frequently here in Michigan, but often, I will leave with that as well.
NB: I’m sure we’ll get hate mail for that comment.
BF: Right? And people go, “Do I hang my blue and yellow flag or my green and white?” That’s the question here they asked in Michigan. I’m like, “Well, I have an answer. How about neither?” But anyway, I did move to Grand Rapids, Michigan three years ago. And the first place I came to was Mel Trotter. I knew that I needed to plug into an entity and a mission greater than myself.
And that is really what I have learned on that squiggly journey and path is that it’s not at all ever about us. As much as we are conditioned to think that we have acceptance-based performance, like you go out and you say, “I’m going to do these things so people will recognize me. I’m going to have performance-based acceptance and love.” And really, the older that you get, the longer you’re on your own journey.
You realize none of that matters. It’s not about that at all. And wow, did I miss that sign, and those multiple signs, but the interesting thing is we all need those signs. We all need that course correction to become the leaders that we’re meant to be. And in my case, after undergrad, I got right into sales, and loved it, and didn’t know a thing about business.
So, it was all about automating business process improvement. So, I would go into organizations and say, “Wow, you’re not really doing this correctly.” Now, my job is 22, and I would walk into organizations and say, “Man, your accounts payable process, it’s not going well.” And I didn’t know accounts payable was. So, I started somewhere, which was there.
And I really leaned on people who were ahead of me on their own journeys to say, “Well, let me tell you, this is where we pay invoices. Okay, got it.” And I kept learning. I am a big believer that we all learn by going through experiences. We can say we’ve got degrees, and we have done these things. But until you go out and apply them, you really don’t know. And the same is true for leadership too.
So, I became enmeshed in all sorts of vertical industries, from manufacturing to higher ed, to finance. It really didn’t matter because the products and services that I sold to help automate business processes were industry agnostic. And I loved it because every day was different. Every person I encountered was different on their journeys, and also where they held space in terms of their organization, and that organizational leadership.
And what’s interesting in retrospect, as I look back in my early to mid-20s, and even early 30s, and I say, “Now, wow, I wasn’t only learning about how to help businesses improve their processes and structure. I was really learning how to help individuals on their own personal and professional development journeys,” just by sharing.
Just by holding space with somebody and saying, “Man, this has been my experience here, what has been your experience?” So, in my early 20s, as well, I was diagnosed with leukemia, and I wasn’t supposed to make it. I was 24, 25, and I was in the middle of a divorce, which again, was not on my giant to-do list. Failure is not something that I do or likes to ever see on the to-do list and the other column.
Like, “Wow, didn’t check that off. And also, didn’t hit that goal.” In fact, how the antithesis happened. So, in the middle of a divorce, and my daughter, who’s now 23, was not quite two years old. And it was just the two of us. And I thought I can do this, I’ll get through this, I’ll keep working hard at this job, and automate business processes for organizations.
And that is when they said, “PS, you have leukemia, and there’s no cure, and you’re probably not going to live very long.” So, transitions. For me, in my life, that was the first giant hurdle I had to overcome. It’s something for which we are all worldwide going through right now. Something very similar, which is a situation that’s out of our control that was not on any of our to-do list.
We never saw it coming, and once it’s here, you don’t know how to navigate it because you haven’t been through it before. I’ve never been through a cancer. I’ve never had anybody my family go through it. I couldn’t even spell leukemia. And I thought, “How did this happen?” And you go through all the immediate stages of grief, from anger to just this overwhelming sense of why me, and sadness.
And then you say, “I have a choice to make.” And that has really shaped me in so many profound leadership ways because as I continue to help people in their own journeys, and whether it’s from a writing a book perspective, or coaching perspective, or right now at Mel Trotter leading a team of nine or 10 people. It’s all about remembering that they’re not at the same point on the journey as I am today. And oftentimes, we get so just hung up, I would say.
Maybe singularly focused in our own narratives, in our own days, in our own time, in our own to-do list that we don’t hold that space for others, and give them the allowance to be where they are on their journeys. So, I’m going to pause a second because I could go on with this for a while, but I’m trying to just paint that picture, and then maybe lead into some more leadership here at Mel Trotter if that is where we were going with that.
How do I lead my nonprofit through transitions?
NB: Yeah, absolutely. And I think you hit on so many different things that are tough. And obviously, you went through tremendous and undesirable circumstances to learn those lessons. But you talked about this idea of transitions, and in those moments of transitions, we have the opportunity to learn if we’re listening. And if we’re looking for those ways that we can learn within those moments.
And that seems like a big part of your story, and it pulls us forward. Because now, like you said, you’re in the midst of another transition that happened pre-COVID. And we’re all as a world admits to transition. So, as we’re going through transitions, what are some of the things that you would encourage people to process?
Because I think even right now, as I’m thinking about, we’re coming out of the response phase, and the emergency’s response phase of the current global pandemic. But I don’t want to lose this moment, even personally, and as a company here at Virtuous that we don’t note, and learn the lessons that we were given during that transition.
So, I guess how would you advise someone knowing you’ve gone through many transitions, and you’ve learned through those, what are the things that we should be doing to make sure that we hear those amidst this transition that we’re going through, or others that maybe others are going through?
BF: Yeah. First and foremost, ask questions. And that is always what I do no matter what situation we’re in. Because none of us have all of the answers all of the time. And there’re always different perspectives to be had. So, one of my most favorite pieces of being a salesperson and consultant back in the day was just literally going in and saying, “Why do you like your job? What do you like about this?”
As I was trying to automate and provide more efficiencies, I needed to understand how they did it currently, and then lead them to what it could look like instead. And really, the only way to uncover that is by asking questions. And it’s not dissimilar at all, when we are all in the midst of a transition, or a situation that we had no control over, didn’t see coming, et cetera.
We have to ask those questions of ourselves and say, “What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What am I learning? What am I concerned about? How do I navigate where I am right now today?” Part of my issue growing up was that I always wanted the next thing. I was never satisfied. I say growing up, part of I guess my ongoing issue with that. But I always wanted more.
It’s like when I first started to run, I thought, “Oh, 5K sounds nice.” And now, I run marathons because three miles wasn’t enough. And it’s one of those things where if we continue to open our minds to the question and our ears, like you said, to listen, then that informs our next step. It’s always about doing the next right thing in the moment.
And again, oftentimes, we get so carried away with what we’re going to be doing. And that question, “What do you see yourself doing in five years?” It’s almost like we are conditioned societally to say, “Where are we going?” Which by default, makes us forget where we are. And that’s not helpful. You have to have a happy medium of both of those things.
Yes. Goal setting, and planning, and where do we want to be, all necessary things, but not at the expense of where are we now. That’s how I would answer that.
How can I be an authentic nonprofit leader?
NB: Yeah. And so, you mentioned two strategies. One is being clear where you are right now, and what happened, and having this reflective mindset. And even almost keeping a sketch plan in pencil, and having a pink eraser next to you, as you plan ahead. But also, making sure that you’re focused on right now. And I think the other thing you mentioned, was asking questions.
And there’s so much power in asking questions, and there’s a lot of socialization around this. And the framework I found because sometimes it’s like, “Well, what is the right question? Personally, what’s the right question for my role? What’s the right question for our organizations to be asking?” And a while back, someone that introduced me to this four-question approach to anything, and how you can circumvent an issue.
It was asking the questions, what is right, what is wrong, what is missing, and what is confusing. And the answers to those four questions, really helps you circumvent a circumstance, whether it’s your personal life, or your work, or like we’re all right now. In this moment of transition through COVID into what we’re calling the next normal or the new normal. Those are some important questions that I always go back to.
BF: Yeah. Those are great questions. And the thing that I heard you say that really landed for me is clarity. And that especially takes heed when you are leading an organization or just yourself. So, you have to be clear about who you are. And that is really what I am passionate about. And I often say be who you were created to be. I think we all know from a very young age who we are at our core.
And I think a lot of the experiences that we go through shape how we show up in the world, and then our next actions. And oftentimes, it’s through those painful experiences that tell us we are off course because we are not showing up as we were created to be as our authentic selves in the roles that were meant for us. Our passions, our gifts, everything aligning, and so forth.
And the book I wrote actually is just about that. It’s about that journey. It’s called Remorseless, Learning To Lose Labels, Expectations and Assumptions Without Losing Yourself. For me, the labeling of, “Wow, you’re a doer, you’re a Type A, you were this, you were that,” leads to all of the expectations and assumptions. And it led to my decision-making, oftentimes incorrectly.
And so, if we have that undergirding, and that confidence in I am this way, and then we accept that, so there’s that whole level of acceptance around the clarity. Who am I? Be clear about who you are, and then be unwavering, and unapologetic in that. So, if this is how I am, I’m good with that. And now, what does that mean? How do I then take that clarity into my role at work?
And so, it’s interesting here among our team, so I lead the communication development areas. And the team here is as you can imagine, as a team anywhere is filled with multiple personalities, and multiple experiences, and histories, and outlooks, and so forth. So, I had them all do an enneagram, which is always helpful to me.
I like to know how people’s personalities inform how they do their work. And I had them guess the enneagram number of the teammates, and it was funny, they all were all over the place with one another. But when they got mine, they’re like, “You’re an eight.” I am an eight. I am a challenger, and disrupter because I asked questions.
And knowing that, coupled with the fact that it took me all those years to unravel, and get rid of just basically ditch all of the labels, incorrect labels, and wrong narratives in my head, and just show up with the clarity of who I am. That actually helps the team understand that there is consistency. And so, clarity leads to consistency, and in terms of leadership in any organization, that’s a must.
I always tell people the analogy, leading a team is like parenting. It’s very difficult, but if you were clear, and you set those expectations, which I’m not a fan of expectations, but they’re necessary in terms of a team, “This is your job. This is what I expect you to do because this is your role. And we are a team. And as a role player, if you don’t, as an example, this is my analogy because I play basketball.
If you don’t bring the ball up the court, we’re not going to score. If you don’t get rebounds and dish it, it’s not coming back the other way.” So, that is what makes a team. And I want people to have the permission, and the faith in the fact that there are no repercussions for showing up as yourself. There are no repercussions for saying, “This is my true self. This is my role on this team, and I know that I’m safe and secure here”
Just like you do with teenagers, right? You say, “Hey, you need to be home by midnight.” They come home, “Well, you say I’m sorry, you made that choice.” We were clear about it. The clarity was there. And then, here’s what it looks like on the other side. That to me is leading, and it’s leading by example, and it’s also leading by clear direction.
And part of that is when you do it that way, you instill a sense of safety and confidence, and inspiration that people can say, “I’m good here because I feel safe, and I feel inspired to do the work that this team needs to do.”
How do I bring my whole self to leading my nonprofit?
NB: And now more than ever, that feeling of safety amidst an environment that has a lot of uncertainty seems more important than ever, as a leader that you can give to your team, or in our case as fundraisers, even to our donors that there is a lot of uncertainty. But being clear, and providing a level of certainty, or clarity through how we communicate, and how we posture is of utmost importance.
And I also want to touch on something else you just said because we talked about this idea of how you want to lose labels, but you don’t want to lose yourself. And then, you talked about bringing that into the workplace, and even understanding the whole self of your teams. And it touches on a trend that I’ve been seeing, at least socialized in various commentaries about how to build teams.
And it’s that before, we almost had our work selves and our personal selves. And there was starting to be a bridge. But now more than ever, there’s this integration of like, we want the whole self to show up. And as we all are living in a circumstance where we’re working from home, we’re educating kids, or taking care of parents, or even just living in situations that aren’t ideal.
It’s even more obvious who our whole selves are in our work, and how important that balance is. And so, for other leaders that maybe don’t feel as comfortable with that approach, how would you advise them to at least bridge that gap with their teams on like, “Hey, you should show up, you should show up fully. We understand that you’re in the midst of balancing six balls at home in the midst of work?” What advice do you have for those leaders that are maybe navigating some of this for the first time?
BF: Well, first and foremost, I would point them to anything written by Brené Brown on leading. Daring Greatly, and all of the work that she has written because she speaks about vulnerability. And that’s exactly the essence of what you’re getting at is how do we be vulnerable with one another? Because if you’re not transparent and vulnerable, on some level, one could argue that equals a little bit of inauthenticity.
So, to me, it’s very endearing to know that somebody else doesn’t get it right, especially as a leader. Leaders who are vulnerable and say, “You know what, I have no idea. And man, did I mess that up, and I am so sorry, but we will figure this out together.’ To me, that is always much more encouraging, and real than to have somebody say, “You’re going to do it this way because I told you and I’m right.”
That’s old school, and just as we know, not right. Because there’s not one person walking any organization or on the planet that has it all figured out. We all learn as we go and as we grow. And growth and transformation happen through taking risks, and through walking through doors that we never expected to open, but when they’re open, we have to walk through them.
Because status quo, the only way to break free of that is to do something differently. So, people can get very comfortable in the way that they lead, or the way that they show up. But comfortable does not equal growth and change. Comfortable equals I’m good, and I often argue that’s selfish. Because comfortable can really lead to a selfishness in terms of people stopping their ability to show up.
I’m comfortable in this relationship so I’m just going to sit here in this chair, at home at night. I’m not going to engage with my significant other because I’m comfortable. I’m good sitting right here, or I’m comfortable at work by not interacting with my team because it’s quieter in my office. Whatever that looks like, and whatever lens that comes through to an individual.
I would just encourage somebody who’s perhaps not comfortable doing this with making the first step, and trying something to disrupt their level of comfort. That’s the way to bring true authenticity to a team, and especially as a leader. I’ve seen people on Zoom calls with leading large organizations in the background.
They’re in, what they think is a private bedroom, and one individual had his wife’s garments hanging up, and somebody said, “I don’t think she’d be happy if she knew those were on the screen right now.” And he’s like, “I’m so sorry.” But that is endearing. That’s vulnerable. We can’t expect a leader to say you’re going to do what I tell you to do. And then, the rest of us have no idea or insight, a view into normalcy. It’s normal. That was a normal thing to see.
How do I balance vulnerable leadership with excellence?
NB: I’m sure there’s so many of those mishaps now that we all live on Zoom and video. And I think what you’re talking about right now is this idea of being a vulnerable leader. And I feel like some might feel that’s uncomfortable or too squishy, but what I don’t want to miss in what you said earlier, is that there’s this level of vulnerability in bringing your whole self, and encouraging people to do the same with a balance of clarity around what still needs to be done and the goal.
So, it’s not like, “Oh, we’re all going to show up, and we’re going to be vulnerable, and we’re cheerleading on.” It’s balanced with this idea of expectations. And I know we’ve talked about this a little bit before, Beth, but you’ve expressed this balance between vulnerability, showing up, being your true self, with this idea of making sure that it’s very clear with everyone in your team, what the expectations are you’re empowering them to execute.
And then, you’re evaluating their delivery, and that leads to excellence. So, it’s expectations, empowerment, execution, evaluating that, and then that’s what drives excellence. And it’s a balance between maybe the more squishy soft skills and the actual execution, and delivery on goals. Because you’re in fundraising, you have goals that you have to hit because it matters.
There are people depending on the work that you do to serve your donors, and to bring them together to fund the work Mel Trotter doing, and that still needs to be present and clear.
BF: That is exactly right. Yes. We are all those things. But certainly, I love the analogy of a rah, rah cheering every day, and we’re being vulnerable, but yet no work gets done. And again, it is that absolute balance that has to happen. So, we pick one another up as teammates, but at the same time, we are always working towards a collective goal.
And those have to be established, those have to be clear, like you said, and executed, and we have to always drive excellence. And if we’re only just showing up, and sharing, and being vulnerable, but the work doesn’t get done, then there’s no excellence to be had at the end of that. Everybody feels good, but no work is getting done.
So, I think being vulnerable, and showing up with that clarity, and communicating the expectations, and goals very clearly perpetuates that feeling of team safety. And then, that actually, again perpetuates the excellence at the end of that. That helps us rise everybody’s game. And then, we say, “Wow, look what we accomplished together. And we did it through varying personalities, and different approaches.” And that’s all well and good, we need that. The world would be very boring if everybody operated the same way.
BF: Yeah. I’m very grateful to be here. That squiggly path and journey, it’s not always easy. In fact, it is rarely easy to go through that. But again, to our earlier bringing this full circle, how do you show up and stay present? That is key because we’re always learning, and it’s such a wasted opportunity in any opportunity that any of us go through to just muddle our way through it with closed ears, closed hearts, closed minds.
Because this too shall pass is a very cliché and very real sane. We are not always going to be where we are right now today, just like I can look back on my life when I was 25 and say, ‘I have no idea how am I going to get through this.” And I did, and so have many others. And it’s not the easiest thing to do. But I was in that moment, there’s a way to be absolutely present such that you can deal with the pain.
You can deal with the emotion. You can deal with the fear of uncertainty. And also, simultaneously, be cathartic in that and say, “Okay, I don’t have control right now, but I’m also learning something.” And you just say, “I’m going to find that balance to couple my fear with the space of learning, and come out on the other side of this when it does pass,” and it always does.
And say, “Wow, I’m a transformed person. This feels pretty great.” Doesn’t mean that there’s pressure to do it on the next day, but eventually, all of those experiences on all of our journeys are cumulative and finally, we say, “All right, this is making sense to me.” But we have to keep showing up in order for that to happen.
How do I start a new role at a new organization?
NB: And all of this reminds me of, to reference Brené Brown again, her FFT framework that she promotes. This idea of reframing the circumstances we’re in, and setting the expectations that this should feel hard, or this should feel different because it’s your first time, and all of that. So, definitely relatable on that point.
And I want to zoom back in, zooming back in on the work that you’re doing at Mel Trotter because so much of what we’re talking about from a leadership standpoint, and how we lead teams, is what you’re bringing into the work that you’re now doing with Mel Trotter. And you joined Mel Trotter, obviously, from corporate sales consulting background, coming from for-profit to nonprofit.
But you also stepped into this role right before COVID hit. And so, I’m curious as someone that’s transitioned from for-profit and nonprofit, what you found most helpful from your old work, and what have you had to relearn or reprogram because what you’re doing today is different than maybe the work that you were doing in your prior role?
BF: Yeah. Good question. Well, the first thing is you’re absolutely right. I often joke here with Dennis, who’s our president and CEO. So, this was one heck of an onboarding over here. I feel like somebody threw me into the lion’s den, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are going to pop out at any given moment. That’s what I feel like is going to happen. So, it’s been a whirlwind.
But honestly, I love that. I’m very much a person who enjoys different every day, and going, “You know what, I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out.’ So, I think perhaps that was the most helpful thing. I would go into organizations. And I would say, “I don’t know what you’ve been doing because I haven’t worked here. I came in in a consultancy role.
But I know we’ll figure it out, how to get through this season of where you are, and come out on the other side with a more efficient process that makes sense to your team that will be able to then take you into the future in ways that you’ve been stuck to date.” Because one of the things that I think I heard more than any other phrase in that process of change, and growth, and transition was, “Well, I don’t know. We’ve always done it that way. I don’t know. We’ve always done it that way.”
And when I came here to Mel Trotter, I asked those questions.” So, why are receipts being done like this? Why are donors being contacted like this? Why are things happening such as they are? I don’t know. This is how it was when I got here. I don’t know. This is how they’ve always done it.” And that was endearing, but also, for me, very just inspiring.
It really fueled my inner passion, and my former 25 years of practice, if you will, to say, “All right, we’re going to figure this out. There’s got to be a better way.” And as you know, one of the things that I did pretty quickly was remove a CRM that had been here for many, many years, and nobody was very happy with it. But they said, I don’t know it’s just always been here. I said, “Well, it doesn’t need to be here. And in fact, it’s going to go.” It’s going to go quickly because Virtuous is awesome and it has the UI that everybody needs.
And from a donor perspective, we are going to have responsive fundraising, and we’re going to be able to relate to donors in a way that they will appreciate, and ultimately, to meet our mission goals. That our guests, our homeless population here in West Michigan, will be so much better served because we will have insight to our donor base that really connects them with our guests and our mission.
So, that helped me tremendously. Had I not come from 25 years of disrupting other organizations’ business processes, I don’t know that I would have been comfortable disrupting Mel Trotter’s, but I’ve loved every second of it.
How is leading a nonprofit different than leading a for-profit business?
NB: And in some ways, in the midst of the crisis moment because obviously, you guys are on the frontlines, you’re serving people every day, and you’re very active. And obviously, COVID disrupted not only from a fundraising standpoint, likely from an operation standpoint. And I think it’s also, what I found is that transition moments as we’ve been referring to create an environment that’s ripe for change.
So much of the time, like inertia wins, but in the midst of transition, I think there’s a greater willingness to adopt new things. And your process of discovery through curiosity, which then leaded to disruption really helped position you all well. Because I know things have been difficult, but you guys are making changes, and striving, and moving forward.
And I want to get back to the latter half of the other question is that, obviously, you brought a ton of value, but you’re in a new role. You’re in a new organization, you’re on a different tab, what have you had to learn in the midst of that as someone that maybe comes from, like” I ask questions, and discovery, I’m doing all this, I have this background?” But coming into the nonprofit space, I guess what has been surprising or things that you didn’t realize until you really got into the role?
BF: Yeah. Wow. So many things. Yeah. It’s like where do you start? So, the translation was definitely there. And I’m a big advocate, and just, I will continue to speak this to anybody that will listen. I think it does nonprofits a disservice to say, “Well, we’re just a nonprofit, and we’re not for profit, and therefore we don’t to function like a business.” I think that’s wrong.
This is a business as is every other organization out there, whatever the label that has doors open that is serving for the greater good. And whether that serving looks like, “Hey, we’re manufacturing a product, or we are curing cancer, or we are feeding hungry people, and housing people who have no homes,” whatever that looks like, there’s a business skeleton within that.
So, that translate it, but the things to your question that I didn’t know were many. It was a lengthy list. I have always been a communicator. Talking is not a problem, writing is not a problem. But to lead a communication department is very different. I’ve never done that before. And so, I had to learn how the media functions. I have to learn how PR functions.
And a lot of it was understood, but never, in my case, put into practice. So, I leaned very heavily on my team, and the staff that has been doing this, and they’ve been fantastic. It’s that vulnerability to say, “I have no idea what I’m doing here. How have you guys handled this in the past? And please help me from avoiding any of the pitfalls that lay up ahead.” And they’ve been great.
So, it’s the transparency to say, “I have never really worked with this litany of vendors before. How do you deal with them?” Because I was a volunteer here, I taught devotions at Mel Trotter for three years. I understood on some level, the guest interaction. So, I had that as well to lean on and just to draw from. But the rest of it, I had to learn on the fly, and I enjoy that.
So, lucky in that regard, but for people that I think maybe that provides some angst, “I don’t know, how am I going to figure this out?” Again, I go back to my earlier answer of ask the questions, and depend on your team, and say, “You know what, I trust and value you enough to ask these questions. And I really am going to defer to you in helping teach me on this journey, and then I can reciprocate and teach you with the things and fill in those collective gaps.”
NB: Yeah. And that just ability as a leader to admit when you don’t know is such a powerful lesson. I think it takes way too long to learn as a leader, because so much, and especially as a doer, and I am also an eight. And so, it’s being able to know when you don’t know, and when it’s okay to admit that, and to let other people lead is a challenging lesson. That takes a lot of experience, as we said before, there’s some things that experience is what’s going to help you drive forward in those moments.
BF: Right, right. And there’s no substitute for it. And again, in my early 20s, I look back and I feel like I should go around, and apologize to everybody that knew me growing up until about age 30. I am so sorry, I thought I knew every single thing, and that you knew nothing. I’m so sorry for that approach. And some of it is self-defense mechanisms.
And again, the wrong narratives that we have in our heads that we need to outperform everybody else to feel value. So, there’s some level of… a big level, I should say, ongoing level of deep introspection, and it takes a while to be honest with yourself. But once that happens, and you tear down that internal wall, then that narrative gets corrected.
And then, that can go out into the world and project onto teams in a way that you don’t lose yourself and your ability to lead, or your drive, or your eight-esqueness, but what you are able to do with that is to come alongside it, and have a softer tone. And say, “It’s okay. I don’t know everything.” And it’s freeing as well.
So, we’re empowering other people to be equally as honest with themselves. And people will say, “Yes, I am a graphic designer, but I don’t know how to do this piece of that, or I am a marketing specialist, and I don’t know how to do that piece of it, or I’m a donor relations officer, and I’m really good at calling on these folks. But I’m not great over here.” That’s how we build, and that’s how we fill in gaps.
How do nonprofit communications and advancement relate?
NB: Absolutely. And I think you’ve shared so many just key lessons as leaders, and regardless of whether for-profit or nonprofit, but especially as we’re in the midst of a transition time, just being able to lead with vulnerability, but also clarity, and confidence is just so important. And a skill that fundraising leaders or nonprofit leaders can grow through adopting, and being open and honest.
And I think those are the ones that are going to thrive, and not get tangled up in our current moments. It has been super helpful. And you might not even know this is strange, because I know you’re obviously new to the nonprofit space. But when I was looking at your new role at Mel Trotter, you’re the VP of Communications and Advancement.
And the interesting thing is for my experience, those two things don’t tend to be under one roof or one leader, nor do they… there’s conflict sometimes between those two areas. Communication is one thing, and advancement is another thing, and the development process, and the communications process are different.
So, was that something that was already established at Mel Trotter, or how did those two functions interact? And are there lessons that you could share around those two things?
BF: Oh, yeah, I’m laughing, but I’m also editing as I go before I even say the words. Because yes, you nailed it. And so, I should have led with that as an answer when you said what didn’t you know about nonprofit. So, I had no idea, and here’s how this went down. I will share this completely transparently. The role initially was director of development. And as a born and bred salesperson, of course, I can do that.
Of course, I can raise money. I love raising money. I love talking to people. I’m a salesperson through and through. Yes. And at the door, we talked about doors opening. When we went on through the process of me coming onboard, there was a former VP of Communication, who took a different role at another organization. So, somebody said, “Well, you know what, we’ll just combine those two.”
And I was a little bit on the fence to say, “Do I want to…” the translation for me was VP of Sales, I had a VP sales in corporate, so director of development, you’re directing the development officers who are “bringing in money and selling,” if you will. So, I thought, “Is this what I want to do? I don’t know, but I will figure it out. I’m sure the next meeting will uncover some of my uncertainty, and there’ll be clarity around this.”
And so, when I had the conversation, it was, “Okay, let me ask these questions, I’ll get those answers.” And PS, it’s no longer just a Director of Development position as the Vice President advancement. We’ve combined the Communication Department and Development. And to me, as an eight, as a doer, I’m like, “Well, there’s my sign, I can do two things. Yes, I’m in.”
And the overlap is inarguable. There’s absolutely, between these two departments, I have such an amazing staff. And we have a digital marketing specialist, digital marketing communications specialists, and we have a brand manager, and somebody who handles direct mail within our direct mail third-party company.
All of that messaging is what our community needs to understand is serving, “What do we do? What do we care about?” And obviously, that’s what our donor officers. So, the overlap is there. Now, there are pieces with leaving the Communication Department, i.e., media, public writing that are not necessarily an overlap with fundraising.
But that I thrive on as a writer, as a communicator, I love those pieces. So, if somebody said to me, “You’re going to have to give up one of those roles, which will it be?” And I’ll say, “I can’t decide.” So, I love the role. Is it typically segregated as you mentioned? Absolutely. I understand why. It’s a lot of work. Each has its role unto itself. So, that’s how it shook out. And that’s what we do.
And because we have just a great advancement team, it’s working. And it’s working as well as it can work, and everybody is open, honest, transparent, and sometimes I just say, “Guys, I’m done. So, this is going to wait until tomorrow.” That’s been hard for me personally, because I like to check off my list. I got all these things done. And when the list keeps growing, I’m like, “Okay, I’m one person, 24 hours in a day, remind myself.” So, then I recollect my own narrative, you can’t do it all.
NB: And I think there’s so many challenges in how we present to the donor holistically. That by integrating these two functions, you actually have an opportunity to course-correct some of the disconnect that has existed, maybe in prior organizational structures. And so, even though it seems like it was circumstantial, how they came together.
I know from personal experience, having them together is actually a huge opportunity and differentiator as you continue to move forward. Even though it is a lot of work, I just think having those two functions together. So, I was curious how they came together because I know that’s something that when we talk to development teams, or we talk to marketing, or comms teams.
They’re like, “Well, how do we integrate these two things because we don’t necessarily cooperate in the same way?” But at the end of the day, we’re both communicating and connecting with the same people. And one thing we promote here at Virtuous a lot, which I know you’re on board with, is how do we actually have a single conversation through multiple channels with our donors, or with our donor. A single person, how do we do that well? And it does require that integration. So, I’m sure you’ll see the benefits of that even though, like you said, it is a lot of work.
BF: Yeah, yeah. The consistency in messaging, and responsive fundraising. We know this well, that that is what we need to do. So, it’s no longer let’s just spray direct mail everywhere, and hope something sticks. And certainly, direct mail companies don’t do that at all. It’s not what I’m intimating. But what I’m saying is, even internally, we can’t just say, ‘Well, let me just throw out a message and see if it sticks.”
It has to be intentional, strategic, and we have to say to our donor base, this is how we are growing. This is what we have learned coming out of COVID. And we have learned so many lessons here at Mel Trotter. How do we care for the homeless population in the midst of a crisis when the folks whom we serve are already in crisis? What does that mean? What does that look like?
How do we house people in flu season? Not just a COVID virus, but flu, and whatever else. So, what do we take away from this? And so, that communication piece is huge. You’re exactly right. It has to be consistent. And the opportunity is, I think what I don’t want to walk away from. So, if somebody said give one of these up, I’m like, “No, thanks.” I’d go down kicking and screaming, I think.
NB: Well, Beth, this has been wonderful. We’ve talked about everything from how you can run discovery through curiosity, which obviously is leading with questions. We’ve also talked about what a new leader looks like, and this idea of, you’re leading with vulnerability, but also clarity around expectations, and the execution, and excellence that your team delivers.
And we also dove into the weeds a little bit about what we do in the for-profit, nonprofit world is relatively similar. And by understanding that, and almost elevating our position as a nonprofit and saying, “We are doing something good just like anybody else and not labeling ourselves.” We’re almost losing that label while also just pre-owning what we do can be a powerful growth lever.
How do I fundraise during a crisis?
NB: And so, we’ve talked about all these different concepts, but I want to zoom in and get super practical. And as we close out today and say we’re obviously emerging from the response efforts, fundraisers are dealing with a level of uncertainty, donors are dealing with a level of uncertainty. What would you encourage fundraising leaders to be one thing? If they have one thing written at the top of their list, what should they be focus on right now?
BF: When you say one thing to me, I prefer both. So, it’s like asking me to tie my hands behind my back, say one thing, Beth. But-
NB: Beth, you only get one thing. I’m going to cut you off. No, I’m just kidding.
BF: So, I hear you and it’s an important question. And honestly, I don’t mean this to sound trite, but I would say, perseverance. That is what I would say. You need to persevere through this because we know that crisis giving has occurred, and it’s probably almost, there’s a fatigue that goes on in any season of giving.
I think we are in that, or about to hit that if we’re not fully in it already. And so, I would say persevere through this to insulate going forward so that we can come out the other side in a way that feels normalized, if that ever is to exist again. But in a way that continues to serve your mission.
We all have a mission that we are funding for. And so, whatever your mission is, I would say you have to continue to persevere through this time to lead you to where you need to be on the other side of that. And so, there’s no other way through it, except to show up every day and do the work.
NB: Absolutely. And a good friend of ours here at Virtuous, Barbara O’Reilly, who’s a fundraising consultant, framed it as we went through response. Now, we’re in recovery, but the next phase is really this idea of resilience building to strengthen our position, and your call for perseverance, and showing up is such a good reminder of that same similar concept.
That’s what we’re here, we’re doing important work, and that work matters pre-COVID, post-COVID. And so, we need to continue to show up, and be competent in that. So, Beth, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for your time and your insight.
BF: Yeah. Thank you, Noah. Appreciate it.
NB: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Responsive Fundraising Podcast by Virtuous. Each episode we’ve designed to really give you the insights into the philosophy process, and playbook of leading nonprofits so that you can grow giving and build deeper relationships with the people who matter most, your donors.
And if you want to dig further into responsive fundraising, we’ve actually put together an exclusive elusive content pack just for listeners of this podcast. If you go to virtuouscrm.com/podcast, that’s virtuouscrm.com/podcast, you can download a content kit that includes The Responsive Fundraising Blueprint, which outlines all of the strategies that are involved in implementing responsive fundraising.