Many people who work in social change hate fundraising. It can feel like the one component of the work that’s fraught with complexity and discomfort.
According to Acumen Fellow and Solstice co-founder and CEO Steph Speirs, she feels your pain.
Growing up, Steph had a strained, yet also common, relationship with money. She understood its ability to provide power in choice and to unlock one’s dreams, but she didn’t know how to interact with it because she didn’t grow up with it around.
While working on the Obama campaign in 2007, she quickly learned the power of asking for help. “We asked people to lend us cars for volunteers, to lend us homes for volunteers to sleep in,” Steph recalled. “We couldn’t achieve anything alone. We got comfortable asking people to spend their time volunteering with us on the weekends and in the snowy evenings. Then it occurred to me that asking people for money was the same thing as that. It's just a way to organize resources in pursuit of a mission.”
Today, Steph has experience in both for-profit and nonprofit fundraising with Solstice, and she’s also involved in fellowships like Echoing Green, The Global Good Fund, and accelerators like TechStars and MIT Delta V. To date, she has raised over a million dollars.
Steph generously shares practical tips on how to embrace an empowering mindset for fundraising, the best ways to prepare your story and make an ask, and how to deal with rejection.
A relationship with money
Reframing the story you’re telling yourself about money enables you to get unstuck.
Steph’s big ah-ha moment was when she met B.Cole, an Echoing Green Fellow, speaking to a room of diverse entrepreneurs of color at the Echoing Green annual conference. She admonished, “Do not let your anxiety about asking for money prevent you from liberating your people.”
This reframing about asking for money helped Steph realize that the opportunity cost of not asking would completely undermine the possibilities of bringing her mission to life. This shift in mindset changed everything.
She recommends the following actions:
- Think about your struggles with money, in your jobs or milestones throughout your life.
- Write down your earliest memory of money.
- How does it connect to your feelings around fundraising?
“Asking for money was something that I thought was really uncomfortable because it raised this question on power dynamics,” Steph said. “Someone else has the resources and I need the resources from them. There's inherently a common anxiety about asking people for money because it feels demeaning to oneself and it glorifies the person’s resources.”
But Steph quickly realized this wasn’t true; it was merely a fraction of the big picture. She started seeing fundraising as a two-way street.
The two-way street notion seems counterintuitive when it comes to fundraising, because we often don’t feel like we’re giving anything in return.
That's not true.
You are giving organizations and investors a way to create change that they can't do on their own. You are opening a path for foundations to do their jobs (which is to give away money because they have money to give). You are giving them hope that there is a better way to create social change.
Telling your story
Steph encourages folks to start with purpose and to always remember that people remember the why, not the what. As Simon Sinek said in his popular TED talk, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
“Fundraising is just a chance for you to talk about the thing that you love, the thing you stay up all night thinking about, the thing you're always talking about anyway, but this time with new people,” says Steph. By nature we’re all storytellers — from the clothes we wear to how we communicate — and each time you meet someone new it’s a chance to awaken their interest in solving a big social problem with you.
According to Steph’s mentors, telling your story has three core components:
- Why am I the right person to be doing this work (right now)?
- Why is this important (right now)?
- Why is this important to me (right now)?
Here’s how Steph tells her story:
“For the first time in the history of America, solar is cheap enough that it can help everyone in this room save money on your electricity bills. There's just one problem, though. Eighty percent of us are locked out of the solar market because we can't put solar on our own rooftops. Maybe we're renters. Maybe we're low income. Maybe there's a tree covering our roof, and that means we're locked out of solar savings. The good news is Solstice helps folks tap into a solution called “community solar.” Community solar means you don't have to worry about installing anything on your rooftop. You can buy a portion of a neighborhood shared solar farm and switch to solar that way. There's no upfront cost, and you save 10% off your electricity bill every single month.
The reason why we started this organization is actually pretty personal to me. I was raised by a single mom who raised three kids on a salary below the poverty line. I watched her struggle my whole life to pay the electricity bills. For the first time, we can get people like my mom, the people who need solar savings the most, access to affordable solar. This isn't hypothetical, either. We've worked on 9 projects throughout Massachusetts, 2 nationwide projects, and we’re expanding to New York. We have a wait list of 1,500 customers that want to sign up for community solar. We're imagining an America that's filled with solar panels. It doesn't matter what type of roof you have or what income you make. With your help, every American can be powered by solar.”
The nitty gritty: how to ask
According to Steph, your first million will likely come from individuals that are directly or indirectly connected to your network, not foundations or institutional funds. In other words, founders may already have all the connections they need to launch their startup, if they only know to engage their network and ask.
As relationships and new connections begin to grow, when is the right time to ask someone? According to Steph, “Fundraising is akin to sales, where data shows most successful asks come after the fifth meeting. Knowing when to make the ask is generally when you feel like you have a connection and you see they're interested.”
She shares three practical tips on how to approach asking for funds:
- Do your homework
- Practice your pitch:
- Show gratitude: “Once a week at Solstice, the whole staff will sit down together and write handwritten thank-you notes to someone external to the organization who has helped us. The handwritten thank-you note is an extension of our gratitude for our funders because that's a huge part of why we're even able to operate. We like to send little random gifts to our funders that show that we're thinking of them and that we're grateful to them. Incidentally, we realized continuously engaging your funder is the best way to stay fresh in their mind. It's both the practical and the principled thing to do.”
- Expect rejection, and don’t give up
“Hearing no is actually a gift. The quicker someone says no to you, the more time you have to go and find someone that will say yes."
Steph reflects, “Sometimes it feels like funders don't care about you until someone they respect cares about you. It really is one of the big lessons I've learned. The first investor is the hardest. Once you get that in, then it's so much easier.” She continues, “Hearing no is actually a gift. The quicker someone says no to you, the more time you have to go and find someone that will say yes. The worst that can happen is dragging it out without getting a definitive answer,” Steph said.
Rejection is part of the journey in doing work that matters, and learning from rejection can build momentum for your cause. Before Solstice's first funding from Echoing Green, Steph’s pitch was rejected by over two dozen grant and business plan competitions. Competitions and speaking engagements are time well-invested during the early stages, however, because they also help you hone your storytelling, meet new people, and spread your idea; they teach you resilience, grit, and the openness to taking feedback and hearing no.
Through these rejections, she was able to sharpen her storytelling by clearly defining the work she was doing. She looked at old applications and realized they were more pie-in-the-sky visions that sounded way too complicated. By leveraging customer feedback on what was and wasn’t working well, she was able to focus on the parts of the story that reflected the work and impact she was seeking to make.
Fundraising may always have elements of self-doubt and fear, but we’re sure Steph Speirs’ advice can take the edge off a bit. Getting comfortable with talking about your ideas and enrolling allies may be the catalyst to achieve your mission. You just need to embrace the opportunity.