What I Learned Working with a Nonprofit

Written by Dan Callahan

I am a Senior Technical Advisor to CGNET. Formerly, I managed our Cybersecurity and Cloud Services businesses, and provided consulting to many clients over the years. I wear a lot of hats. Professionally, I'm a builder of businesses. Outside of work, I'm a hobby farmer, chef, skier, dog walker, jokester, woodworker, structuralist, husband and father.

December 8, 2022

I spend a lot of my time working with foundations. These foundations make grants to local nonprofits, providing the financing for organizations trying to improve their communities. We talk about these nonprofits— “grantees” —but what do we really know about them? What could I learn by working with a nonprofit?

The Power of One Giving Tree

Before you come at me, I will say that my main motivation for working with a nonprofit was to help my wife. She belongs to a local Rotary organization, and they were looking for volunteers who could help wrestle Christmas trees. Trees? Power tools? Count me in! Plus, I was looking for an activity that would give back to my community during this holiday season. So, I drove over to the parking lot of a local trucking company to do something (I was not sure what) with Christmas trees. Before we started working with One Giving Tree, we heard their origin story.

The ”Chief Kid at Heart” at One Giving Tree told us how he came across a few leftover Christmas trees. They were going to be discarded, but he asked, “what good could come from one giving tree?” He then told us about dressing up a tree and giving it to a grade schooler who was depressed over being passed over at Christmas. His grandparents (who were caring for him) related that, when he received his tree, he danced around it and took it for a walk in his neighborhood. What is more, he went back to school (he had been skipping class) to tell his classmates about his Christmas tree. If one tree could have this kind of impact, surely more trees would multiply that impact. As the founders told us their story, they began to cry.

Working with a Nonprofit. In the Rain.

What did we do while working with this nonprofit? Here is clue. The founder asked me, “do you feel comfortable using a chain saw?” We set up an assembly line of sorts. At the beginning of the line, we cut the tree trunks so that the tree would stand straight when we attached a stand. In some cases, we trimmed the lower part of the tree to get a straight bit of trunk to work with. Next, we drilled a pilot hole in the tree’s trunk and then attached a tree stand.

OK, now repeat the process 449 more times.

Was it hard work? Absolutely. Was it rewarding? Without a doubt.

What Did I Learn About Nonprofits?

Because of my background working in startups, I view nonprofits and foundations with a startup/venture capital lens. I will not claim that the metaphor is perfect. However, it does help frame the relationship between the people that provide the capital and the people that deliver the service.

What did I learn? Here are a few things.

Passion is Purpose.

Seeing the founders tear up telling their origin story, I really felt their depth of commitment. People like this are consumed by their purpose. When I suggested recycling one of the trees because we could not get it to stand up straight, a Board member scowled and took it from me. “I can make it work!” she said. For me, this was just one more tree. For the Board member, she saw one more child whose Christmas could be brightened.

Passion is Not Organizing

Our first job as the chain saw crew was to cut off the plastic tree stands that came with the trees. Then, we trimmed the trees and made another cut so we could… attach a tree stand. I had to wonder. Why were we cutting off one tree stand, only so we could work to attach another?

There is probably a good reason for this decision. Working with this nonprofit, the Operations part of me dwelled on the inefficiency of these steps.

At a later point in the day (as the rain came down and our pop-up shelters sported waterfalls on all sides) we had to stop working because the lag screws we were using in the tree stands were too long. Not only did someone make a trip to the hardware store, they had to ask, “say, do you have 450 of these?”

Nonprofits are Well-Connected

We did our work in the parking lot of a local trucking company. Why there? Because the founder knew the owner of the trucking company. One Giving Tree needed more volunteers, as they wanted to increase their Christmas tree giveaway from 300 trees to 450 trees. So, the nonprofit went to local service organizations, like Rotary, to ask for help. These organizations activated their networks to get a robust volunteer turnout. The nonprofit went to the local high schools to let students know they could log their community service hours by working with One Giving Tree.

If you look at their website, you will see that One Giving Tree has got social media figured out. They have a story to tell, and they know how to use media to tell that story.

Nonprofits also know that fundraising is a big part of their work. (“No margin, no mission” is something we say at CGNET.) Again, they can leverage their on-the-ground networks to tap into volunteers, political support, and financial support.

Closing the Circle with Foundations

Some foundations are hesitant to get involved with their grantees, not wanting to show any kind of favoritism. I get that. Some VCs are that way as well.

What is more common, though, is to see VCs contribute expertise and their networks to the startups they fund. For a VC the goal is to see the startup win in a big way. Going beyond funding to help that happen makes sense for them.

The same can be true for foundations. In a recent diversity, equity and inclusion meeting we talked about involving the groups being served in the decision-making process. That idea applies here, right?

If we can ask, “how can I help?” more, we might find that we can contribute to nonprofit success even more than when we limit our help to a grant. I am no expert here. But that is how I saw it, working with this nonprofit.

Nonprofits know what they need. We can put ourselves in a position to meet that need.

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