Demystifying Fundraising and Philanthropy with Karen Cochran

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Welcome to another episode of The Widest Net Podcast. I am your host, Pamela Slim, and I am joined today by my guest Karen Cochran, a sought after expert on higher education and nonprofit fundraising, leadership, development, and inclusion, and equity in advancement. Karen Cochran, CFRE, is fond of saying that fundraising isn’t about the dollars, but rather what the dollars can do. Fundraisers don’t just show people how to give, she says. They help them see why it matters.        


Previously the interim vice president for advancement at the University of Central Florida and CEO of the UCF Foundation, Karen led UCF to its two highest fundraising years. A seasoned philanthropic strategist, she brings experience from the nation’s largest well known research universities to help nonprofit fundraising and advancement teams transform their operations and significantly increase results. A strong advocate for professional development, mentorship, and workplace well being, Karen has completed the internationally renowned Marshall Goldsmith stakeholder centered coaching curriculum. Known for her organizational acumen, forward thinking, vision, and commitment to inclusion, Karen helps build cultures that encourage everyone to be their very best in service to their mission. Welcome to the podcast.        


Thank you, Pam. It’s my pleasure to be with you. Well, I was blown away the first time that you casually mentioned that you have helped raise over $1 billion, that’s with a B, in your career. And so, for those of us who are unfamiliar with the world of fundraising and philanthropy, can you just paint a picture of that world?        


Sure. Well, you alluded to it in my intro. I believe that the most successful fundraisers know that it’s not about the dollars. It’s about what those dollars can do. And in a world in which we have donors like Mackenzie Scott, who is giving billions away, I think her latest total is about 14 billion, and she’s helped more than 1600 nonprofits.        


It’s really easy to get caught up in the zeros. But the reality about fundraising is it’s about the impact and that organizations come in all sizes and gifts come in all different kinds. You may be getting gifts from a corporation, you could be getting gifts from a foundation, you could be getting gifts from a government entity. But what we know as fundraisers is year in and year out, the majority of philanthropic dollars flow from individuals. And that means the essence of fundraising is about relationship building.        


Yeah, I wonder, because I know there are people who either have nonprofits that they’re affiliated with on the side of their business, some people have their own nonprofits or partner with others. In the broadest sense, is it possible to raise money for businesses, like without being a nonprofit? So I think that mission driven businesses share similarities with nonprofits. And when I think about the most philanthropy model, which I put together as I launched my own business, it stands for M money follows mission. You have to be clear about your message.        


You have to be clear in articulating how you can utilize, whether it’s philanthropy or other sources of revenue, O is organizational alignment. Do you have things in alignment that actually support the mission? And the most important things that you want to accomplish? S is share your stories and your statistics. Because what you really want to do is much like what you’ve done right with The Widest Net, is to build a community.        


You want other people to tell your story, and for that to happen, you need to make those stories really come alive, and you need to back them up with statistics. So it’s not just about telling the story, but it’s then showing the impact through the statistics or the metrics that really illustrate the impact that you’re having. And then T, I believe again that this just doesn’t apply to nonprofits. It applies to the best businesses. You have to take care of your talent because regardless of your budget size, regardless of your mission, regardless of how inspiring it all is, if you don’t take care of your talent, it doesn’t matter how many dollars are in the budget, because you can’t deliver the product or the change that you want to create.        


Yeah, it’s really helpful. And I see we run a community lab here that’s not a nonprofit by design. We didn’t want to create a nonprofit structure, but we do partner with a lot of people. So part of what I hear is you’re describing the MOST Method is also in order to have statistics, you have to track them, which is one thing I’ve learned. You have to be clear as to what you’re doing.        


You have to be capturing stories, you have to be clear about what kind of data is important, because that’s the way that you can really use it to capture the information, which is really helpful. I’m curious. Go ahead. Well, I was going to say and you want to do that on the front end because it’s virtually impossible to pull it out and make it make sense on the back end. So you want to be strategic enough that you think through, how am I going to illustrate my impact before you launch into whatever that phase may be.        


That’s really helpful. I have tried the other way before seeing some opportunities to write a grant that did apply for a for profit business, given our community work. But it was so painful to try to go back and track exactly what we had done, because I tend to just enjoy the fact that there’s not a huge amount of structure. We can be flexible with how we do things. But it really did teach me a good lesson about putting those things in place, where you see that engaging with folks, communicating about it, and doing fundraising is in your future.        


Absolutely. So what is your philosophy about philanthropy? We know it’s been laden historically with sometimes good motives and not so good motives. I’m just curious after so many decades in the field. What’s your perspective on it?        


Yeah, to your point, a lot of things have changed. In my 30 plus year career, I started as a fundraiser on the phones. So as a telemarketer, in the most general sense of the word, reaching out to alumni for my future alma mater. Back then, that was the way we engaged people. Using a student to reach out to talk about the life of the institution could be a very engaging conversation.        


It was in the days when we all had message machines, right? So if you actually picked up the phone, you usually engaged, you didn’t have a way to block the caller and you didn’t have a way of kind of screening who was on the other end. But that today has been taken over by AI, and oftentimes AI is being used to craft that custom message for outreach, whether it’s via text or email to that potential donor or alumnus. But the one tenet that has not changed is if you want to see change in the world, philanthropy is one of the best ways to do it. And I think that is something that won’t change going forward because it is caring individuals in all socioeconomic strata who can actually have that change and make that impact.        


Yeah, I love to see that. I am a huge fan of some crowdfunding or crowdsourcing for new products and things like that. It feels good to contribute, even if it’s just a little bit of money, to individual initiatives. It’s one of the reasons that I tell young people considering fundraising as a profession, if you like asking for the order, you go into sales. If you want to change the world, you become a fundraiser.


Oh, that’s a good line. That would be a good thing to say at a college recruiting fair. I think you’d have the salespeople glaring at you because it’s hard to beat that. That’s really wonderful. So bring us into the process behind a fundraising campaign. What do you do, in what order? So from a philosophical perspective, you have to start with the end in mind.        


You have to start with the impact those dollars can make and how you as an organization are uniquely positioned to change the world in that respect. And once you get what we refer to in the business as your case for support, then you begin to layer in your philanthropic priorities. How are you going to move towards that objective? What are the most critical component pieces that are going to bring that vision to reality in the quickest amount of time? Obviously, you have to do an assessment of what your donor population is.        


You have to look carefully at what you think they can contribute and you’ve got to get your team aligned. So in many ways it goes back to the MOST Model right mission, organizational alignment. What stories and statistics are you going to use to demonstrate that you’re making progress and how are you going to recruit and sustain that team during this high intensity period that we often refer to as campaigns? Yeah. And that could be for larger organizations.        


They would have an actual fundraising team of people on staff. It could also be, I imagine, where you have volunteers who are passionate about a project that would still need to be organized and in alignment, as you said, with the overall picture. I love that, just thinking about it myself.        


I love sales. I love having conversations with people. Certainly it’s easier to do when you’re in business and you feel really confident about what it is that you’re selling. I have learned to get as passionate with either doing support for political candidates here locally or for fundraising initiatives. When I do really get that picture, I think, is the way you described it, where you’re really getting clear from the beginning about what the mission is and then where you know the components of how you’re going to deliver it.        


Because even for something like putting together a crowdfunding campaign, if folks have ever done it on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, as I have a couple of times and lots of people who I’ve worked with have, you do need all of those pieces in order to tell the story. And we tend to just go directly to, well, what are the different levels of giving and what am I going to give? Do they want a T-shirt or a cup or something like that? And often miss the most important part, which is really how it is that you are communicating that bigger change. Does it happen as much for seasoned teams of fundraisers as it does for people who are like pulling together a volunteer initiative?        


I’m curious just what you see with clients. It does, I think to your point, volunteers can be just as effective as a team of professional fundraisers, but they need the infrastructure around them and they need clear vision and objectives as to what you’re going to accomplish together. Yeah. And is that something that is written down and or talked about? How do people get their arms around that information?        


There are a number of sources out there on the web that will give you the basics of campaign management and they’re easily accessible and it’s a matter of taking that and customizing it for your organization as opposed to making your organization fit within the rubric. Yeah, I like that because it has to feel natural and organic. Are there any common misconceptions about philanthropy? Oh, absolutely. I think too often people think that you have to be rich to be a philanthropist and in reality, anyone can be a philanthropist.        


It’s like we’ve been talking here. Nonprofits come in all stages, sizes and levels of impact. So it really is about individuals finding their passion with particular organizations and aligning their resources behind it. Whether those resources are monetary, whether they’re their time, which oftentimes in studies we see it’s perceived as even more valuable than their assets. Yeah, I think that is a big one.        


And what I’ve noticed a lot, just being in community and making things happen is how important it can be also just to share, to be sharing campaigns and giving your own personal twist or making connections behind the scenes. I remember I forgot if I told you the story before, but I was walking with a colleague of mine who has done lots of work in fundraising, and we were, like, walking in New York. And he was, you know, I just know a whole bunch of extremely rich people who are just looking for places to invest their know. And I was cracking up with him and I said, well, that’s really funny because I just know people who don’t have a lot of money, who are looking for money. And that often is one of those connective tissues.        


I think that can be so important when you see a local initiative that you’re passionate about. I’ll give a plug for Palabras, which is our local Arizona’s only bilingual bookstore that happens to also be run by my I call her my daughter in law, but the partner of our son Jeff. But I know just in that in spreading the word and making connections with people, that that can be a really important part. And I think sometimes people miss that, thinking that the only way that they could be supporting something is by contributing money. Although money is great.        


Absolutely. People give to people. And one of my favorite questions to ask a donor is, what is your most meaningful gift? And what I’m struck by time and time again is almost without exception, it’s not their largest gift. I think back to a volunteer I worked with at UCF, actually, who gave what he called Completion Grants.        


There were $500 to $1,000 in emergency aid, largely for first generation college students who were so close to finishing but had had a financial emergency. And those grants enabled those students to finish. And what he understood was impact was generational. That when you actually help someone graduate from college, they go on, and their children are much more likely to pursue higher education. And so you think of the impact of higher education being one of the most tangible, measurable ways people tend to measure it is in income over a lifetime.        


Right. There’s a differential of more than a million dollars. And you think of that not just impacting one family, but all of the generations to come. I love that. And I can sense and see, right, emotion in your voice around that.        


And it is such a beautiful example, I think one of a donor really looking and seeing what are some of the barriers that people have in real life to getting an education. You might see we love big checks, so we always want people to be writing big checks. But sometimes you could see a huge initiative and just a smiling high school student, for example, that’s excited about going to college. But for what we know about the life and experience of people once they get there, as you said, that is not the end of the road until it is all done. So I love the fact that there is a thoughtfulness about the reality of what happens, where unexpected things can happen and somebody can just be all the way close to the end and miss the opportunity or get off track.        


And also that they were recognizing what a valuable thing that they were contributing. Not only just a big check, I’ve heard from folks in the past that have done fundraising that that is something that donors can maybe get a little frustrated by sometimes just feeling like they are seen as a gigantic checkbook. Is there anything that we should know about donors to avoid that feeling and to really make sure that they’re engaged and excited about the process? Absolutely. It’s about relationships and that relationship isn’t just about money flowing or energy flowing one way.        


The stories and statistics need to be part of a comprehensive stewardship plan. And as a nonprofit, what you need to be doing is telling your stories and your statistics and sharing your statistics, but also making sure that you are reinforcing the impact of those gifts for donors throughout the lifecycle. Yeah, not just hitting folks up when you’re doing your annual campaign or quarterly campaign of really maintaining that relationship and that connection and sharing. It goes back to our earlier point of making sure that you’re capturing stories, that you’re sharing them. And part of what I’ve seen anecdotally just for things that I’ve contributed to is where it doesn’t have to be a big, fancy professionally produced video.        


It can be forwarding on an email from somebody that is sharing, who’s been impacted positively by money, talking about what it’s meant for them. So I love that. It’s really important to keep in mind. Well, and with the devices that we all carry around. Now, to your point, it doesn’t have to be professionally polished and slick.        


It can be as simple as an iPhone video from a student or from a recipient who’s benefited from the services that the nonprofit provides, saying, I just want to say thank you because of you and the food bank. Right. I was able to feed my kids this month. Yeah, that makes a difference. We’ll call it a TPA, a tiny philanthropy action.        


There you go. To expand on Tiny Marketing Actions. So where do people get stuck or miss opportunities when fundraising? That’s a great question. I think we’ve already talked about one of them, and it’s the power of human connection.        


So not just why do you give, but who else can you tell about your philanthropy, right? So who else can you help inspire to give? That doesn’t have to be a direct ask. It could be you holding up a charity or a nonprofit and saying, I choose to support this nonprofit because it does x, Y, and Z, and it has this impact in our community. Right.        


So oftentimes I think people are really focused in on the goal or the project, when in fact, it’s all about people. The other place that I think especially fundraisers, as they come up through the profession, tend to get stuck or can get stuck is a fear of failure, a feeling that I have to know everything before I engage in the conversation, when, in fact, if you engage in an authentic way with a donor or a potential donor, you will learn so much about their passions and about how to match their passions with your organization. So I would just say it doesn’t have to be perfect for you to start the conversation. I would think I know a fear I have had in the past, and many people have, is just making the ask in a clear way, even where you know that somebody may be passionate about your mission. What kind of mentoring advice do you give to folks who might be newer with making a big ask?        


Because you have made a lot of asks in your career. I imagine it’s something you’re pretty experienced with. It’s a great question, and I think part of the reason I founded Philanthropy Innovators was to try to demystify fundraising and philanthropy, right? Because this is a relationship business. It’s very rare that you ask on the first visit.        


I won’t say never, because never tends to get violated at times, but it’s very rare that you ask on the first visit. And so when you’re working with a major donor or a prospective major donor, you’re really having a conversation about your needs and inspiration of the organization and how they might want to engage with you. And as those conversations build, you learn more and more about each other. And so one of the first things I would say to any fundraiser, whether you’re a volunteer or a professional, is the ask shouldn’t come as a surprise.        


And if you’ve listened carefully, what you’ve done along the way, whether that’s two, three, or four visits, is that you have built trust with that individual, and you’ve also checked in with them about what you thought you heard. So you’re further honing their affiliation with the organization, and you’re bringing examples about the ways that they could impact positively the lives of others. So when you get to the dollars, you’ve usually had a general qualifying conversation about a range that they would be comfortable with or they would consider and a list of projects where, you know they’re particularly passionate. So when you do those steps throughout the process, then by the end of the process, the ask is never a surprise. You always let them know, right?        


Yeah. I’d really like to bring you a proposal. Are we at a point in the relationship where that makes the most sense to you?        


I like that. It’s very similar to a good sales conversation. They always say, by the time you put everything in a proposal, it’s just a summary of things that you’ve talked about and explored. But I love that it definitely aligns with things that I talk about, about taking time to build the relationship, make sure there’s a good fit, really probe for the true interests and motivations of somebody who you’re working with, and then to not be afraid to really make the case in a strong way. And that’s where, again, in business or in fundraising, I can see the alignment, because you have to always go back to why it is important.        


Why is it that you’re putting this in front of somebody? How much do you believe in the work, and how much do you personally understand before you go to make that case? I think, to me, that’s where the courage draws from, and then it can be helped by having a process, having a way to say something. And one of the things I’ve learned through the years and coach people around is when you do say something very clear, let’s say you were having it as a verbal summary in a conversation with Karen. Based on what we talked about, it looks like this could be a million dollar opportunity.        


And then to stop and not say, but if you want to give $50, that would be okay too. Which is what can happen if you don’t allow yourself to be quiet after the ask. Absolutely. That is a tenet of fundraising. She or he who speaks first loses.        


So if you come in and second guess yourself, then you’ve just helped the donor second guess the ask. I love that. Okay. I will remember that next time I’m making a big ask. Well, you talk a lot about innovation in your work.        


What do you think needs to be updated or even overhauled in the world of philanthropy? So I think one of the opportunities we have at this pivotal moment is being driven by somebody I named earlier, Mackenzie Scott. As nonprofits, I think we have fallen short of educating our donors and our potential donors on the importance of unrestricted gifts. And it’s not just the dollars and the impact that make her gifts significant. It is the fact that she is giving them.        


She does her homework up front, and everyone knows that. But she also trusts the organizations that she chooses to use the money in the best way possible for them. And then on the back end, at least with my personal experience, which I had with her at University of Central Florida. Her requirement was as simple as three years in a row, no more than three pages in terms of impact. So you had an impact report, but it wasn’t a huge volume.        


You get three pages to articulate the impact of the gift and I’m asking you to do that on the anniversary of the gift for three years in a row. And after that, that’s the end of the relationship in terms of being obligated to continue that reporting relationship. So I do think in terms of things that need to be fixed or opportunities where we can grow as a profession. It’s in helping people understand that nonprofits are businesses and that the flexibility that is provided by what has been referred to customarily as unrestricted support means that you can take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself. And as long as the nonprofit is stewarding and reporting on the way those funds are spent, those can be the most meaningful and transformational gifts.        


Yeah, that’s definitely something that I’ve heard from other folks in this space of just evaluating sometimes what can just be a tremendous burden on organizations. And I’ve seen it locally with some of the fantastic partners that I work with here in downtown Mesa where they do really transformational work. It’s needed, there’s an urgency in it. And sometimes when it comes to reporting, it’s just this absolutely overbearing kind of requirement. And it is the kind of thing, I think that erodes trust when you think about it from a partnership perspective.        


And what we know historically has been a very imbalanced sense of power, right? That he or she or they who hold the funds are the ones that hold all the power. And I personally feel like that’s fundamentally wrong, especially when we look sometimes at the ways money gets in the hands of those who have much of it. It hasn’t always been in the most ethical terms. So I really love that you’re seeing that and concrete examples and things like unrestricted funds because we’ve seen sometimes the nonprofits who are struggling to have any administrative support at all.        


I don’t know if it’s still talked about as much as a number of years ago when I looked at it, but it was people who were donors, were often saying I want to give to an organization where 100% of my donation always just goes directly to those impacted. And I’m thinking, what about the people who work in the nonprofit who already are stressed, like underpaid, scrambling then to deliver services to survive themselves and then too often have these overburdened processes of reporting, having to prove every last cent and how it was used? Yeah. So given that, knowing that you’re on your own now and you’re out working with a lot of different organizations, what are you excited about in this next chapter of your body of work? So one of the things I’m most excited about is sharing my knowledge.        


And for me, that really means the mistakes as well as the wins.        


And I’ve talked about this with a number of colleagues. I think all too often we focus on the wins. And the wins are important. But if they’re just presented in the context of wins and people don’t understand the effort or the number of attempts or the failures that went into that success, it’s really easy for people to think, oh, my gosh, that was so easy for her. Why can’t I do that?        


And I think that lends itself to burnout. I think it lends itself to this cycle we tend to have in fundraising of people lasting less than two years in their positions. And that’s not serving the nonprofit sector well. It’s not serving individuals well, because we’ve talked all along that this is about relationships, and relationships are built over time and over multiple interactions with one another. So investing in your talent, developing your talent, and really supporting your talent lead to the long term success of a nonprofit organization.        


And I believe in the future of this profession. It’s been a fabulous opportunity. It’s provided me with growth, it’s enabled me to provide for my family. But I really believe in the power of coaching and mentoring and sharing knowledge to help one another and to help individuals excel. I appreciate that so much, and I look forward to seeing where you’re speaking and sharing that kind of information and knowledge and writing.        


And I agree with you in being able to be in the role of a mentor and to support people who are coming up in the field and support often the amazing innovation that they’re creating because they can often see things that we don’t see when we’ve been in the field for so many years. So I’m just excited to watch that journey, and I really appreciate you sharing your time and your insight with us today. Well, thank you. I really appreciate all that you bring to so many of us. Pam, it was my pleasure.        


Wonderful. Well, we will put all of the links in the show notes for where it is that you can connect with Karen on LinkedIn and also on her website. For those of you that are listening, all those notes are at under the podcast link. And I’d like to thank my own 31 Marketplace production team, La’Vista Jones, Tanika Lothery, Jose Arboleda, and the award winning narrator for our intro and outro Andia Winslow. Until next time, be sure to subscribe to the show and enjoy.        


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