Walking a Mile in Someone Else's Shoes

It’s not often life hands us the chance to experience things from both sides of the fence. Lucky for me, joining the M&C team offered just that.

Prior to working at M&C, I spent more than a decade in nonprofit fundraising and marketing. Working primarily for major organizations like the University of Missouri (go Tigers!), the American Cancer Society and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, I’ve gained valuable experience, insight and knowledge.

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As the saying goes, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and you gain even more insight, along with a healthy dose of empathy too.

In my role at the Nelson-Atkins, I was charged with raising more than $1 million annually for the museum. But, what most may not know is that I was also a client. 

I remember all too well being the champion for hiring a consulting firm. They specialized in museum membership acquisition and retention and worked with some of the biggest and best museums in the country. Internally, it was a tough sell. Previous experiences with less than stellar consultants shaped opinions. Fears surfaced that they would never “get us” and it would be more work than if we just did this in-house. Relevant concerns? Yes. Did they turn out to be unfounded? Yes. I had done my homework. I knew this relationship would result in our gain. Additionally, our in-house team needed to be troops on the ground, building relationships and implementing strategies to deepen engagement with existing members and convert museum visitors into members. We already had our work cut out for us. Plus, we were not direct mail experts, nor did we have the capacity to become experts.

Fast forward to a year after hiring the consulting team, and membership was growing by leaps and bounds. In addition to focusing on acquisition, they recommended we ask existing members to increase their support (something that hadn’t happened in quite some time). All told, during my time working with this consulting team, the museum not only grew membership, it also generated meaningful revenue by acquiring new members and upgrading existing donors. It is important to note acquisition donors don’t generate revenue in their first year. Yet, we did for countless campaigns, year after year.

If you’re considering a similar partnership, here are several factors to consider.

  • Does it take time to develop a strong working relationship between your team and the team of consultants? Yes. But, that’s to be expected. Building trust and adapting to organization-specific branding guidelines, practices and communication styles takes time.

  • Is it valuable to have an extension of your team, who can bring years of industry knowledge and case studies from other clients to the table? Yes. In the case of the consultants I worked with at the museum, having a team of experts willing and ready to offer sound advice and serve as a sounding board, in addition to successfully executing campaigns, was invaluable.

  • Will the consultants work dilute your role? Not in the least. In my experience, it only served to increase my fundraising results and generate even more support for the museum.  

Today, I am incredibly grateful for the chance to have been a client for all of those years. This experience guides me in my role at M&C. Every. Single. Day. I don’t underestimate what it takes to build a good working relationship with clients, nor do I take for granted the trust they place in us to do amazing work on their behalf. I also have a deeper understanding of the challenges nonprofit colleagues face. After all, I’ve walked a mile in their shoes too.

Good News/Bad News

The 2019 M+R Benchmark Report is out and, like most assessments of 2018, it offers a mixed perspective.


“Another way of looking at 2018 online revenue: nonprofits were poised, with nearly perfect balance, between growth and decline.”

So, how you see the year may depend which side of that fence you were on!

Overall, online revenue was up by 1%, virtually flat, compared to last year’s 23% increase.

The report points out some bright spots.

  • Revenue from recurring monthly gifts grew 17% and now accounts for 16% of online revenue.

  • Social media has experienced growth, with Facebook Fundraisers providing a sizable boost for some organizations.

Both of these trends underscore the importance of engaged, committed donors.

It notes some areas for concern as well.

  • Email, while still the “workhorse” of online fundraising saw declines open and click-through rates and an 8% fall-off in revenue. Meanwhile, lists continue to grow (up 5%) as do the number of messages per subscriber (up 8%).

  • Retention is falling. Only 25% of donors who made a first time gift in 2017 gave again in 2018. For the smallest givers ($25 or less) that drops to 10%.

And there are some areas in which the jury is still out.

  • Digital ad budgets grew by 144%, with just over half (55%) committed to direct fundraising, and the balance to lead generation (23%) or awareness and education (21%). Return on that investment is difficult to measure; it’s often not immediate or directly attributable.

  • Mobile web traffic continues to grow, currently accounting for 48% of visitors compared to 44% for desktop users. However, desktop users account for 63% of gifts and 71% of revenue. Again there are a number of possible reasons, from demographic changes to privacy concerns.

So, what does it mean to you?

It likely depends. The report is based on multi-year data provided by 135 non-profit organizations. There’s a lot of good information to be distilled, including dramatic variance among some sectors. You may need to dig into the details to figure out what applies to you.

Applying Guiding Principles to Organizational Change

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Chad Harris and Stephanie Sheldon, from Cornerstones of Care, were our March podcast guests. The conversation focused largely on re-branding and merging five organizations into one —Cornerstones of Care.

Our conversation with Chad and Stephanie offered something wonderfully unique and brilliant about their approach. Their use of a trauma-informed care model with their clients led them to also apply this method to their reorganization process. We were so intrigued and asked them to expand further by writing this blog post. Thank you to Stephanie Sheldon and the Cornerstones of Care Sanctuary Circle for sharing their insight below.

What does it mean to be trauma-informed? Tell us more about that concept.

To us, being trauma-informed is the commitment to understanding, recognizing and responding to the effects of trauma. We believe recovery from extreme stress and adversity requires an environment that promotes healing among all of its members.

It’s a personalized approached practiced with our children and families and each other. Whether we’re engaging with a child in our care, an executive leadership member or community volunteer, we know everyone has a story. Even if we don’t know the details of their story, we believe it is important to consider how that story, and any trauma attached to it, may impact their behaviors and choices.

Here’s how a few of our team members internalize the philosophy: 

  • “It’s creating a safe space for someone to be who they are— not who you need them to be.” 

  • “It’s an invitation to hold space for someone’s complexity.”

  • “Trauma is complex and so are people. Hurt people, hurt people.”

  • “It’s reshaping the question from ‘What is wrong with you?’ to ‘What has happened to you?’”

For the children we work with, we’re especially mindful of the way trauma is shaping the brain. When a child’s mind is stressed or in crisis, it cannot learn. We first must create a safe physical and emotional space that allows the child to feel valued and allows us to meet them where they are. Sometimes that means stepping out of “our language” to speak theirs. One of the most important things to remember is that unsafe or unhealthy behaviors are reflections of untreated trauma. These behaviors often serve children and teens as survival skills. It’s not until the child is physically, psychologically, socially and morally safe that the brain can rewire to create safe, healthy reactions to its surroundings.

Cornerstones of Care is different than many other organizations as not only does it embrace trauma-informed care, but it is certified in The Sanctuary Model® of trauma-informed by the Sanctuary Institute®.

What made your team think this would be an effective way to manage the difficulties around change? Describe some examples of how those principles were applied.

The Sanctuary Model® of trauma-informed care is built to scale from one-on-one to complete organizational change. We utilize the S.E.L.F. Framework regularly with children and families and recognized its power to engage staff during a time of transition.

  • Safety

    • Are we physically, psychologically, socially and morally safe right now?

  • Emotion Management

    • Is the way we’re expressing our emotions harmful to others? How can the safety plans we created help deescalate our emotions to benefit ourselves and those around us?

  • Loss

    • With all change comes loss. Let’s develop practices for individuals and groups to process loss.

  • Future

    • Growth and change may be difficult when stuck in the pain of the past. Setting goals, seeking assistance and celebrating successes are part of building the future.

“The merger [of Cornerstones of Care, Marillac, Gillis, Healthy Families, Ozanam and Spofford] was not as overwhelming as it could have been because we had our safety plan and context surrounding our trauma-informed philosophy.” – Cornerstones of Care team member

Did you face resistance to the approach? If yes, why? How was that resistance managed?

There was little resistance to the execution of the trauma-informed care philosophy as a model of change as each organization had been practicing the approach for years before the merger. Staff and teams were accustomed to the framework, tools, and language. It was a matter of elevating the approach from one-on-one or individual organizations to our complete network of agencies, supporting communities and peers. Together, we created larger spaces to reflect on our emotional management, process loss and prepare for the future. 

How did it all work out?

Every day our team grows stronger as Cornerstones of Care. The community-impact and awareness of our organization have increased substantially in the last 18 months. Our commitment to the trauma-informed philosophy continues to drive our decisions as our staff, leadership team, supporters, and community further align to improve the safety and health of children and families.