[Podcast] Francis Tao on Investing in the Right Tools for Nonprofits


On this episode of The Modern Nonprofit Fundraiser podcast, we feature Francis Tao, founder of SAWA. We were excited to talk to Francis about his passion for improving processes to make all nonprofits more efficient. He was able to identify a major pain point for nonprofits and develop a tool that helps in a specific way. We believe the principles he shares in this episode can be repeated by your team to help your nonprofit. Take a listen to hear his advice!

Here are some of our favorite insights from the episode. Try sharing these with your teammates as discussion points to make your organization more efficient.

  1. Branding is not something that can be compromised as you grow your nonprofit. People need to recognize they are talking to the same people at each touch point.
  2. You don’t have to choose between doing good and executing excellent marketing and communications. Push to make sure your nonprofit does both.
  3. If you’re experiencing pain, it’s not an indication that you’re doing anything wrong. You might just not have the right tools for your nonprofit.
  4. Improved process leads to improved capacity. When you adopt new tools for your nonprofit, make sure you evaluate the habits and processes that surround the tool to make those better.
  5. Only invest in tools that take tasks off your team’s plate. Don’t choose a tool unless you know how it can help your capacity. Otherwise, it’s just another thing to learn.

Full Transcript

Gabe Cooper: Hey, welcome to the podcast, everybody. Today, I am so pleased to have Francis Tao with us. Francis is the CEO/Founder of SAWA.

We’ll talk a little bit more about that in a minute. He’s also the former marketing traffic manager at International Justice Mission, an organization that we’re huge fans of here. He’s a good friend, and he has come amazing insights on marketing and communication in nonprofits. So, hey, Francis, thanks for joining us today.

Francis Tao: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me.

GC: Yeah, for sure. So, SAWA. SAWA’s your newest deal. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about kind of the SAWA story and the problem you guys are trying to solve.

FT: Yeah, yeah. SAWA is actually a Swahili word. It means no worries. And for the last three years, I’ve been working on a solution to a problem I actually came across while on the communications team at International Justice Mission.

In brief, it’s essentially a solution to too many design requests and not enough time. When I was on the communications team, I was basically the air traffic controller for all of the communications materials. Things would come across my desk to triage.

Most nonprofits have a role like that, whether it’s a project manager role or a coordinator role. We used to have this, or I used to have this slogan to describe the tension that kind of was my everyday reality trying to get these designs done and out the door. I used to call it this thing called taxation without representation where, as a communications team, people would be coming to us, oftentimes, just really desperate for some simple, straightforward, beautiful collateral to assist them with their fundraising or programs or events.

And a lot of times, we would have to say things like, “You’re not allowed to create this stuff on your own because if you do, it’ll be off brand and inconsistent, but we also don’t have any time to help you.” And so, that was the tension that was kind of our every day. We got more design requests than we could ever, as an in-house agency or even with our agency partners, ever hope to be able to complete. Yeah, and so, that was just kind of an everyday struggle, and I was just trying to kind of solve my own problem, selfishly.

GC: So, what does, then, SAWA do? Because I’m with you. I’ve seen that issue over and over again and been in nonprofits where the tension of that frustration of, “Hey, don’t do that on your own, but we can’t do it for you,” and it’s hard to let somebody own something. So, how is SAWA solving that problem?

FT: Yeah. So, SAWA solves that problem by being a virtual graphic designer that designs beautiful designs for the user. But the key there is not only does it do it for you and deliver fully completed, beautiful designs, but it only ever generates designs that follow brand guidelines.

So, that’s kind of the tension that we’re trying to solve. There’s kind of two camps. There’s the program fundraising side that wants agility, and there’s the side that wants brand conformity and professionalism in the materials, and so, SAWA seeks to kind of bring those two together.

GC: That’s great. I love it. I love what you’re doing. I love that it comes out of this sort of real world experience working within nonprofits. Anybody that’s been around nonprofits has felt that tension before. And either you end up with a very slow moving fundraising and development side that just can’t get new assets out, or you end up with an organization that has marketing assets all over the place that are so far off brand and so far off messaging that it’s just a hot mess. So, I love that it’s coming from a place of you’ve sort of been there in the weeds dealing with the issue.

So, let’s back up a little bit. Tell me a little bit about how you got involved in sort of the nonprofit fundraising communication marketing world to begin with and kind of how that evolved.

FT: Yeah. I’m originally from Mountain View, California. That’s like an hour south of San Francisco. I used to not be able describe where it was. I’m very … have a lot of pride in my hometown. I just expect everyone to know where I … what California cities are what.

GC: Google has helped with that one, by the way.

FT: Yes, yes. That’s true. There’s a lot of ethnocentrism, ethnocentricism going on, however you pronounce that. So, I started out doing a startup in my late teens in Silicon Valley. I mean, if you’re 19, and you haven’t started a startup yet, you’re kind of a failure. So, I tried my hand in that. It didn’t work out so well. Surprise, surprise, 19 years old, I didn’t know how to start a company.

I had a personal faith experience, and that really was the catalyst for feeling a calling towards wanting my work to go towards the charitable end. It’s not necessarily needs to be the case for everybody, but for me, that was important, and so, I just kind of started searching for that right fit. I started out with a manager position at Goodwill Industries in San Francisco.

I worked for two years at my local church in a faith-based nonprofit and just didn’t really find my niche until a friend of mine invited me to a benefit dinner at International Justice Mission in the city. And I was just blown away by how IJM brought the two things together of doing excellent, loving work, but also being really professional and efficient at the same time.

Sometimes, and this is a stereotype, and this is not always true, but sometimes, it just feels like when you’re in the nonprofit world, you kind of have to choose between being a do-gooder and producing things with excellence. I just don’t think that’s true. It doesn’t have to be that way. I think you guys are a great example of that in your software and how that conversation is shifting away from that. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s kind of how I got into the nonprofit space.

Making Your Nonprofit More Efficient Every Day

GC:That’s great. Yeah, I love that, and obviously, I think everybody has that feeling about IJM when they first visit. It’s like, “These guys are really smart for real.” They do things with excellence. At the same time, there’s no lack of doing good in the world, and so, that’s great.

So, talk to me a little bit about your role at IJM’s kind of once you got started there. I said your title was marketing traffic manager, and I think that’s the right title but sounds completely made up. So, I’d love to hear you connect that to what you are actually doing there.

FT: Yeah. Yeah, first of all, it was funny because I had never heard of that title before either, and for an organization that combats human trafficking and the word “traffic” to be in my title, it was just all really confusing. But yeah, marketing traffic manager was essentially … I was essentially the air traffic controller for all the projects.

I took on the role having never done a position like that before. I mean, I found out later that this is like a whole career path of you have internal clients, fundraisers, program managers. You have that camp. You have all the people who do the work, the designers, the coders, the copywriters. Then, on occasion, you have a third camp, like marketing professionals, strategists.

And then, I guess this career is just kind of the person between all there of those who needs to make the capacity work, who needs to make the process painless, and basically needs to prevent processes and bottleneck from hampering revenue and growth for the organization. So, that was kind of what that role was about, and I took it. I’m a communications background originally, and I took it with a lot of enthusiasm because I had heard that this was a big pain point for IJM.

You hear about their stories. They’re doing so much good, engaging in so much rescue and structural transformation overseas. But in reality … not in reality, but one of the pain points was that you have all these program teams who are ready to hit their goals. They felt kind of like they’re running in molasses because they don’t have the creative resources and collateral to kind of give them the momentum that they would like to have. Yeah, so, that was my capacity, processes and capacity and helping to get things done and out the door.

GC: So, I mean, I think this is really where the rubber hits the road for our listeners right here is that I think everybody’s felt that pain. I don’t think that pain is unique to IJM. IJM grew fast, and so, maybe the pain was a little bit more amplified, but that role of sort of connecting marketing or even development design to the actual mission in a way where capacities are aligned, priorities are set right, it’s always hard, and it’s always painful.

So, I’d love to hear you talk about things you did at IJM, kind of your top five list or whatever it is of things that you put in place there that righted the ship or that made it more efficient. Because I really think our listeners are going to be able to sort of grab onto those as handles and apply them with their own orgs.

FT: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think the first thing I would say, just right out the gate, is that if you are experiencing this pain, even if you’re experiencing it acutely, this is not an indication that you are doing necessarily anything wrong. It’s kind of like catching a cold. It’s just part of the pain of any organization, really, but especially a nonprofit organization. It just comes with the territory.

It’s a naturally occurring tension and pain, and in a very organic way, and I say this very genuinely, not just to try to find talking points or whatever about this new project I have, but in a very genuine, from-the-heart way, that’s why I pursued SAWA. Because everything that I did at IJM I feel like made a difference and made progress, but it didn’t get at the root of the problem.

So, and I’ll circle back to that later, but some of the things that I did at IJM to kind of mitigate and soothe that very naturally occurring tension was improve processes that ultimately led to improved capacity. And so, some examples of that were I rolled out an entirely new project management software, but along with that software came a process for project planning and for project execution.

And so, for example, project planning needed to be a certain amount of time in advance. It needed to include these creative briefs that have been thought out and approved by the client and the creative team. The processes allowed us to start doing these things we call creative concept presentations where after we got the logistics of a project down.

Before we did anything, before we even started, we would just kick off with this creative concept presentation where our creative team was allowed to present two, three, four different design or creative options for the problem that this client is requesting our work to help with and just allowing the space for that.

It was so energizing to the client to be able to see multiple options and be a part of that creative process and say, “I kind of want to move in a direction of halfway option A and option C.” And for our team as well, they’re weren’t dressmakers anymore. They were designers. They could have the time to get the creative juices flowing and really put their best foot forward. It did really well for employee satisfaction and retention. So, I mean, there’s a long list of those things.

I rolled out a digital asset library so that people could easily access really key visuals that were compelling. There’s a number of things. I’ll let you kind of guide the conversations if you want me to keep going, but there was just a lot of those process elements that created space and planning and kind of ironed out those kind of day-to-day pain points.

GC: Yeah. The two things, well, one in particular that I was never able to figure out, and to this day, I haven’t quite figured, and I’d love to hear you talk to it is your fast track request system. So, inevitably in nonprofits, there will actually be urgent things that need to be turned around quickly. The problem is on one side of the fence, the people that are maybe trying to raise money to everything is an urgent thing that needs to be turned around quickly. To the design and development team, nothing’s actually that urgent. Everything has to go through a normal process, right? But the reality is somewhere in the middle there where there are a handful of things that are actually urgent, and they do need a fast turnaround.

So, how do you determine which ones are actually urgent, and then, how do you execute on those as a design development team without completely derailing what you’re doing? And I know you put a system in place like that at IJM. I’d love to hear you talk about that a little bit.

FT: Sure. Yeah. So, there was a shell for this type of plan already when I arrived, but we kind of fleshed it out. We had this inbox called fast track where we committed to a three business day turnaround. But it had very clear stipulations for what is a fast track. I think not only is it important to be very clear about what those are in the process, but also, you kind of just need to enforce it for a couple of weeks really firmly, and then, it kind of just moves out from there.

But a fast track would be we would define it not in terms of how fast it would take or whether we thought it was easy or whether they thought it was easy. It was a very concrete definition. So, it would be categorized by a media fast track or a design fast track or a development fast track. For example, “I need you to pull this file,” or it’s a date change on an event flyer, and it was done in Adobe, and they don’t have Adobe, and even if they did, they wouldn’t know how to export it into a format that’s great for the printer, those types of things. “Hey, we had this asset from four years ago. I need you to pull it from the database for me,” those types of things that are straightforward, not necessarily based on whoever’s perception.

Because a lot of times, people will come to you, as you know, and they’ll say, “Hey, this is super easy,” when in reality, it’s not. So, it’s really clearly defined, communicated, and these are things that we would hand out and make sure everyone pinned them to everybody’s cubicle. “This is what a fast track is. This is when you would … ” And I think it’s also worth mentioning that for the non-fast track projects, I built very, very specific schedules for every single project that was on the roadmap.

The roadmap was detailed like a year in advance, and I had a lot of help with this obviously. It wasn’t just me, but the roadmap was built a year in advance, and then, we would use the fast track to kind of plug the cracks along the way.

GC: Yeah. That’s great. It makes a ton of sense, and I think one important lesson there is when you do build out your roadmap or your plan, it’s leaving enough margin. It’s kind of admitting to yourself and your team, “Look, some stuff is going to come up unexpected.” In IJM’s case, it’s like, “We just rescued, were part of a rescue of 20 people out of a brothel. IJM played a key role. We need to let our donors know in an email right away.” Well, okay, that wasn’t on the roadmap, and so, it’s kind of admitting those things will come up and leaving margin. I really like that idea.

The Right Leadership Process for Your Nonprofit

FT: Yeah. And even with this system, it wasn’t foolproof because what if you have something come up that isn’t necessarily a fast track, but it has a high payout, and it might need to push something else out of the roadmap. So, our leaders are really great about that, things like that, when they would come up, it would be decided in the leadership. They would get together.

The VPs would discuss what the priorities should be, and then, they would bring that down to kind of the manager and the coordinator level. That’s really them serving us well so that we’re not having to battle it out at the execution level and trying to decide, “Well, what’s more important? A government relations build that’s coming through or this new high-worth individual who’s throwing a cheese and wine party for all of his friends?” So, that leadership support is really key in allowing that to trickle down so that we can do our job.

GC: That’s great. And not everybody has that, but man, when it works all the way to the top, it’s a huge blessing. So, let’s transition here. I kind of want to hear you talk a little bit more about SAWA as you guys have tried to solve this problem of how do you equip, theoretically, somebody in communications and development that just needs a quick Facebook ad, or they just need something designed, and SAWA’s the thing in between that allows them to do that without having to do bespoke work from a designer.

But I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about some of the wins you’ve seen and some of the benefits you’ve seen when you do have something like that in place.

FT: Yeah, sure. I was working with, recently, a nonprofit in DC called DV LEAP, and I think that they are kind of … I don’t know. I hesitate to say, quintessential-most representative of the most common type of nonprofit right now. They say the average church is 50 people. I think that they were kind of the poster child for a lot of the nonprofits out there.

I was doing some work for them, and they do free legal help for victims of domestic violence when the lower court has ruled against them unfairly. This was a organization that was coming up on their 15-year anniversary. It was a very small team. Everyone wore multiple hats. Everyone’s running a million miles an hour, and the work that they’re doing in the field is excellent. But the communications side hasn’t kept up just because of how busy they are and all those things. And so, now, they’re kind of, “We’ve got to tell our story. We’ve got to increase fundraising. We have to kind of put money in the piggy bank of our brand.” And so, with the budget that they had, I was kind of helping them kind of get going with the rebrand a first version of a website, but there was just so much more that they needed to engage their members.

I told them about SAWA, and this was in beta mode. We weren’t even really selling it yet, and they were able to take SAWA. They were really excited that SAWA created the designs for you, right? I mean, number one, that’s one thing that I noticed is that no matter how simple the design tool you create, ultimately, it ends up as another to-do list on somebody’s plate. What people really need, in my opinion, is something that genuinely takes something off somebody’s plate. They need somebody to help them do something, not another tool to learn to do another thing on their to-do list, if that makes sense.

GC: Yeah, absolutely.

FT: And so, they were really excited about that. They have one, kind of part-time intern/admin type person who really loved their mission, came in for a couple of hours. And just with her, giving her SAWA, she was able to create an entire design bank on their new website for people to — basically a catalog where people who support them or like them can grab design assets from them and share them with their friends on social media, beautiful blog designs, beautiful email header designs, any digital size that they would need for an event, Evite, Classy, you name it, Eventbrite. Whatever design they needed, they could just pull it out of this kind of toolkit library, and they were able to create all those designs in like a day or two with their part-time admin.

GC: That’s great.

FT: So, that was, I think, kind of really encouraging for me and my team as well, just to kind of see our theory kind of work out in the way that we had hoped.

GC: That’s great. I love that. I mean, the other thing is I actually like design agencies. Design agencies are great, but when you have something like that in place, it allows you to use your design agencies for actual green field design work and not just sort of production. So, now, you’re not overpaying for this production work with long lead times. You let your design agency do what they do best, which is from-scratch bespoke design, and then, you leave everything else to production. And just get stuff done. So, man, I love it. I think it’s great. Well,, is that where we can kind of find out more, or what’s the URL?


GC: Okay. That’s great.

FT: Yeah., you can learn a little bit more and start using it, try it, use it for free, download some designs, see how you like it. Yeah, I mean, quickly, I think your last point is a good one to make. SAWA is for simple, straightforward designs.

I started SAWA with a graphic designer friend of mine. We don’t really believe that a software can ever replace a real graphic designer. That’s not our goal. But it allows the creative team to just kind of drill down and do the kind of work that they would eventually put in their portfolio. That’s kind of how I would describe it.

GC: That’s great. I love that concept, and I think it’s spot on, and there’s a massive need for it. So, really excited about it.

So, hey, we usually spend the last couple seconds here just kind of with a lightning round of questions just to kind of see how you stay sane, somebody that’s involved in the nonprofit space that’s also an entrepreneur. It’s always interesting to hear kind of what you’re listening to and how you stay sane. So, I’m just going to hit you with a few quick questions. Is that okay?

FT: Sure. Yeah.

GC: All right. So, first one is how do you kind of stave off burnout. I know you’re going a million miles an hour. You’ve got a kiddo. You’re running all over the place. So, what do you do to kind of stay sane?

FT: I would say the most consistent joy in my life is just spending time with my daughter. She’s 17 months, and basically, every break I take is just trying to make her laugh. Taking her around the house and teasing my family members with her and trying to get other people to laugh, try to get her to hit people with things, things like that. That’s basically where my free time goes.

GC: That’s great. I love it. I love it. Okay. First hour of every day, how do you kick you day off every day?

FT: Yeah, yeah. If the morning goes to plan, I start out by I read two books. I read the Bible, and then, I read Imitation of Christ. It’s been a lifesaver for me in the mornings. Usually, my first inclination when I wake up is I want to go to my smartphone, and I want to think about all the things that I didn’t finish yesterday and how I can screw up the least amount today and just kind of fail forward and keep going. So, that’s been my way to just kind of align my perspective every morning that that’s not where my value is tied in.

Rapid Fire Questions

GC: And that’s great. One of the things I’ve seen, and I know this is true of me, is you just get in the thick of things, and you roll right over in bed, and you pick up your phone, and you hit your inbox, right? And so, then, immediately, your stress level goes to 11.

You have no time to just kind of stand back and get perspective. I think the more you can sort of set down your phone, get a 10,000-foot view, remember what’s really important in life, I love that as a concept, especially first thing in the morning.

So, okay, what are some of your favorite … I don’t know if you’re a podcast guy, but what are some of your favorite podcasts? What’s the top book that you’ve read in the last year? What’s kind of your go-to content consumption stuff?

FT: I mean, right now, to be honest, most of my content consumption is faith-based. It’s just been a crazy season the last couple of years. I started SAWA almost three years ago, and doing the startup, doing the agency, serving nonprofits at the same time, having a child, moving.

So, just really trying to stay grounded. So, I really love listening to John Piper podcast or videos, Tim Keller podcast, videos. On the kind of business side, I like listening to Paul Graham. He is a founder of Y Combinator, which is a startup, an incubator. The last thing, actually, the majority of my media consumption has been watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood with my daughter on Amazon. Amazon has a lot of good life lessons in that, too.

GC: Man, that’s fantastic. I think your life is a lot like my life in a lot of ways. So, I mean, a lot of faith-based stuff and nonprofit-based stuff, and then, I read a lot of the startups, so like Paul Graham and that kind of … or listen to podcasts, but then, yes, the majority of my time is spent in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or Paw Patrol or whatever it is that we’re watching that day.

And Daniel Tiger’s … This has nothing to do with the podcast, totally. I grew up with Mister Rogers, and so, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is just an extension of Mister Rogers. And so, it just feels so familiar to me anyway that I got no problems sitting on the couch with a three-year-old watching that. It’s a lot of fun.

FT: Yeah. I got all defensive the first time I saw it. I was like, “Oh, my gosh. They are totally ripping off Mister Rogers,” and then, I found out it’s the same company. So, I guess that’s okay.

GC: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, hey, thank you so much, Francis. It’s been a joy to chat with you for a little while. Love your insights. I think you’re tapping into some really important problems here that we’ve seen over and over again in nonprofits. So, I appreciate you taking the time to come on and talk a little bit with us.

FT: Yeah. Thanks so much. I really appreciate it, Gabe.GC: Yeah, absolutely.

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