Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Learnings from RPD

Every four years, Rural Philanthropy Days (RPD) brings Front Range-based funders to rural Southwest Colorado to connect with nonprofits. The event culminates with the Funder Roundtables, where representatives from governmental agencies and private foundations sit at tables with 8 empty chairs. When the whistle blows - a train whistle in Southwest Colorado to celebrate our Narrow Gauge Railroad - over 200 nonprofit leaders dash to grab an empty chair next to a funder they want to meet. Each nonprofit has 2 minutes to make a pitch and gets immediate feedback about whether their program is a good fit for the funder. The Train Whistle blows, and the nonprofit directors elbow their way to their next table. It’s a mad scramble to make important connections that could lead to money for their needy nonprofit.

This June, I found myself at my second RPD, supporting the Violence Prevention Coalition in its quest for additional support to prevent domestic and sexual violence. I was also there to learn about successful rural philanthropy to highlight on my blog, Rooting Nonprofits. Here are the highlights of what I learned.

Lesson 1: RPD is Not All About the Funder Roundtables.

It’s easy for busy nonprofit directors to say, “I can’t be gone at RPD for 2 ½ days! I’ll go to the Funder Roundtables, and skip the rest.” This year, I watched how some of the best fundraisers in our community approached RPD. For them, the Funder Roundtables are a small part of a larger strategy. They know that the best ways to connect with funders are much more personal and part of an ongoing relationship. These folks join the RPD Planning Committee, serve on boards of statewide organizations, and build long-lasting connections over shared interests that appear to have little to do with the nonprofit they lead.

Lesson 2: Funders are People, Not Piles of Money.

Connecting with funders can backfire when you focus more on your nonprofit than on building the relationship. I watched people angle to sit by a funder at lunch so they could have 15 minutes to talk about the amazing work of their nonprofit instead of just 2. It’s hard – all of us are passionate about the work we do. But funders are people, not piles of money. I observed how they appreciated a real conversation, the kindness of someone getting a chair for them at the cocktail reception, shared laughter. The most successful fundraisers connected as people first, nonprofit leaders second.

Lesson 3: Do Your Homework. Do It Early.

Like most folks, I was juggling other obligations in between sessions of RPD. Life doesn’t grind to a halt when RPD comes to town, and I was glad I’d done my homework early. The Making the Most of RPD Pre-Session was a great kick-start to develop my pitch to funders. While I’d wanted to ditch the session (I’ve got so much to do! I can work on this later!), I’m glad I stayed. It’s always awkward to practice the first chicken-scratch version of a pitch with someone else. My first pitch was pretty terrible – half-formed, way too long, and overly detailed. However, there were gems that came out of that process: a clear way to talk about the broad work of the coalition; positive feedback on how meaningful it is to work with youth to end the cycles of violence; a reminder to demonstrate with stories rather than description. I was thankful I practiced my terrible first pitch on a colleague, rather than a funder.

Lesson 4: Connect. Connect. Connect.

At the evening reception, a colleague said, “RPD is the one event that everyone shows up for.” She was right - RPD is pretty special for a rural community. The lure of funds for our cause means that everyone puts aside their grant applications, mandatory meetings, and life emergencies to make sure they can be there. While we come to meet funders, we also get to know each other better. We are extraordinarily fortunate in Southwest Colorado to have so many dedicated, passionate, caring, and fun people committed to philanthropy. While it can sometimes feel like everyone knows each other, there are always new connections to be made. I sat at one Funder Roundtable that finished a few minutes early. The table burst into a set of conversations. Two nonprofit leaders discussed their shared vision to expand programs with Southern Ute youth. I connected with a school administrator about looming changes in state fiscal policy. I was proud to be part of a community so committed to making connections, not only to funders but also to each other. Rural Philanthropy Days helped Southwest Colorado nonprofits sow our seeds widely, achieving its intention to “Grow Partnerships & Harvest Success.”


Dawn Haney is a community organizer, social justice activist, and nonprofit consultant. She’s currently working with a range of folks, from sexual violence advocates and circus freaks, to meditators and fiscal policy geeks. She brings playfulness and piercing analysis to every situation, seeking to reframe the problems we face into grand opportunities to bring about the change we wish to see in the world. Follow her on Twitter: @dawnmarissa and at her blog, Rooting Nonprofits.

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