Scarlet Fu, co-host of Bloomberg Television’s morning news program, Bloomberg Surveillance, and a correspondent for Bloomberg Television and Radio, just so happens to be one of my neighborhood friends. A few months ago, she was experimenting with a project idea and asked if I would be willing to share with her the most memorable pitch of my nonprofit career.
I’ve made many successful and unsuccessful pitches over the years to secure funding for iMentor, but the one I chose to talk about with Fu was the one I made alongside iMentor’s staff and board members to a group called 100 Women in Hedge Funds (100WHF) in 2007. We were pitching for iMentor (at the time, a small nonprofit mentoring organization in New York City that was serving about 400 new students a year) to become the sole beneficiary of an annual fundraising event that 100WIHF hosts each year. We asked to use the funds — expected to be over $1,000,000 — to start a national program that would help other nonprofit organizations start and improve their own mentoring programs using our technology platform and mentoring resources.
Running late and plagued by an eye infection (that’s a story for another day!), I was feeling especially frumpy when I arrived to Bloomberg’s offices in Manhattan to speak with Fu. She still greeted me like I was a VIP, showing me around and chatting me up about our work and our kids, all between recording promos every few minutes, fielding calls, writing scripts and helping me choose words I wouldn’t trip over on tape.
Here are some nuggets Fu expertly pulled out from that “pitch” I gave long ago. I am writing this up in case you find it useful as you plan your “pitch of the year” for your program, organization or cause. For this post, I’ve condensed the content into just a few questions and answers. Fu had a lot more to say than I’ve written below, and I definitely rambled a lot more. I’ve also kept it in the Q&A style, so it makes me feel like I was on Bloomberg. Ha!
Scarlet Fu: Why was this pitch so memorable?
Caroline Kim Oh: Three reasons. Firstly, we were pitching to 100 Women in Hedge Funds, a group of very smart, powerful women. We were asking to be the beneficiary of the group’s fundraising event. These were ladies used to putting businesses through a thorough due diligence process, asking tough questions and looking for holes. It was intimidating!
Secondly, iMentor at the time had an annual operating budget of just over one million dollars. We were basically asking to double our budget so that we could launch a national program to help other nonprofit organizations run effective mentoring programs.
SF: You were asking to double down! What was the last reason it was so memorable?
CKO: That year was my first back from maternity leave after giving birth to my son. I consider iMentor to be my first baby, and there I was, with my first human baby. Between commuting, dealing with childcare and breastfeeding, it felt like all I could do was get through each day. At the same time, the organization was at a turning point with so many exciting things happening, including this grant opportunity. It was exhilarating, but it was also a tough time for me personally.
SF: Was 100WHF excited or worried about funding such a small organization with such a large request?
I think they were very much interested in funding us, but also worried about giving such a large amount of money to such a small organization. I think the concern was that we wouldn’t want, or know how, to spend all that money if it was given. Perhaps we would keep all of it in the bank for rainy days. Or we might really want to spend down the fund, but maybe wouldn’t have the capacity to spend all that money to launch a national program.
SF: How did you prepare yourself for such an ask?
CKO: Well, we knew we really needed that money. With the help of the Robin Hood Foundation and pro bono volunteer consultants from McKinsey, we were already working on the business plan to launch the national program. So we knew we needed the money to carry out our vision. That conviction helps.
And actually, our board chair used to ask us, “If you had a million dollars for iMentor, what would you do?” This started when we had something like $300,000 in our budget. I think that helped the key staff to think big over the years, even with small resources.
SF: Wow. Mental gymnastics. So you said this was your first year back from your maternity leave. What was that like for you?
CKO: It was tough. I needed to be “on” my game because it was a transformational opportunity for the organization, but for the first time in my life, I needed to leave work at a certain time to relieve my babysitter, and leave meetings to pump so I could continue to breastfeed my kid. This pressure also helped me, or forced me, to “let go” and really highlight our best people and their work in this pitch, as well as in all our important projects that year. Our director of development at the time, who worked on this pitch with me and really knocked it out of the park, is now the CEO of the organization, a fact I’m so proud of.
SF: So what happened?
CKO: We got it! That year, 100WHF raised more than $1.8M for iMentor to start a national program, rebuild its website, increase staff and move its offices, setting up the organization for continued growth. iMentor now works with 5,000 mentor-mentee pairs each year, with an annual budget of over $11M.
SF: That is amazing! Congratulations! So…how would you say a nonprofit pitch is different from a for-profit one?
CKO: I think that the biggest difference is that in nonprofit, the person receiving the benefit of the work and the person paying for the work are usually different people. So the nonprofit has to appeal to the donors’ motivations for giving, which obviously vary. There’s also the challenge of making sure that you don’t end up doing the work for the donor; you have to be sure you are doing it for the people you are serving. Ultimately, you have to deliver a program that works for the people who need it. You have to make it work for them.
SF: What would you tell other folks preparing for a pitch?
CKO: You should really believe in what you are pitching, of course. You should feel sure that this is what the world needs, and know why you feel that way.
And this seems obvious, but you should have succinct talking points for what you do and what the organization does. Whenever we nonprofiteers start talking about what we do, everyone seems to tune out after about 5 seconds.
SF: Why is that?
CKO: We all care so much about our work that we often say too much. Unless you are an exceptional communicator, it seems best to start with a little less than you want to say, and invite more questions.
SF: Leaving them wanting more. I like that. What else?
CKO: Highlight your best people whenever you can. To be able to do that in these high-pressure, high stakes situations, of course you first have to find them! Then you have to work with them and build them up way before you can show them off.
I think I would also let the funder know that your ideas or programs are not perfect. You could say, “These are all our strengths and why you should fund us. Here are also the areas that still need to be worked out. We’ve thought about them, so here they are, and this is what we are going to do about them. I hope you can help us figure this out.”