Gravyty co-founder and CEO, Adam Martel, recently sat down with Julie Helmes, co-founder and Partner at Development Strategy Consultants (DSC), a Boston-based nonprofit consultancy dedicated to helping mid-size nonprofits.
Together, Adam and Julie covered everything from building relationships, deploying technology, and emerging trends in the nonprofit space.
Adam Martel: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. I think that what you guys do is super important in our space. I’m interested to learn more from your perspective. Can you start by tell me more about DSC?
Julie Helmes: Thanks for connecting, Adam – excited to speak with you. Development Strategy Consultants (DSC) started organically with a former colleague and mentor, Wendy Jacobs Dodson. After working together for almost five years, we identified this niche market supporting the needs and challenges of small to mid-sized nonprofits. DSC’s goal is to strengthen organizations to reach the full potential of their mission. We do that through our services which range from generating sustainable, long-term fundraising strategies, designing annual fundraising programs, cultivating infrastructure for development departments and leading campaigns and events. We cover a lot of the traditional parameters of a development team.
Adam: Can you highlight the client success stories and the impact DSC has made?
Julie: DSC has made an impact for clients in a variety of ways, we’ve helped organizations set up fundraising infrastructures, onboard new hires, execute successful fundraising events, organize and manage capital campaigns, research and manage funding opportunities and relationships. I’ll share two recent success stories:
We began working with The McCourt Foundation in January 2017. They didn’t have a donor database and lacked the development infrastructure to support their growth. We started by implementing a database that led to organizing and implementing new tools, developing a communication plan, improving event fundraising and creating a strategy for future growth. After a year and half, the foundation has an entirely new look and hired two fulltime staff. DSC helped to support and launch the foundation into their next phase and to see this growth is hugely rewarding.
Another example is Quincy After School Childcare Full Child Care (QCARE). They wanted to host their first fundraising gala – a big undertaking, especially for a small organization. I’ve learned to caution clients on the work it involves to take on an event. QCARE had clear goals and the support from their board. Two critical components. With our management and support we helped QCARE execute a fun, successful event. The event exceeded the fundraising goal and gave the organization the exposure they were looking for. Success like that makes my day – when we’re able to help organizations reach and exceed their goals and accomplish something new.
Adam: What are the biggest challenges for the organizations you work with? Is it people, technology, strategy?
Julie: It all depends….
For older organizations technology can be a challenge. Organizations find themselves stuck using old systems because implementing new technologies requires a lot of time and effort. The process involves taking people away from their daily responsibilities and asking them to learn a new system. It’s important to think about the most strategic tool that is both valuable in the long run and worth implementing in the short-term. Planning in stages and including all relevant team members will also make for a more seamless process.
Another challenge is board engagement. A board of directors is an organization’s biggest asset and they should be the biggest champions behind the mission. Sometimes, board members don’t feel engaged with an organization, don’t know how they can help, and they fall off the radar. Sometimes a disconnect emerges when there is staff turnover. As relationships change, it’s important to have a personal engagement strategy – get to know each board member, how they like to communicate and how they want to participate (or not!). There’s no one-size-fits-all.
Adam: It always amazes me. I’m thinking about the executive director at a small organization. She has to split her time between programmatics, the technology and all the fundraising, stewardship, and then board management, and then all of the donor management – you have one poor person doing 25 jobs. It’s just amazing.
In the grand scheme of things. What trends are you seeing for small organizations? Everyone’s trying to raise more money. But, are they getting lean? What are they doing? What do you see emerging in the next three to five years?
Julie: Everyone is picking up on their storytelling. There are so many different channels for reaching donors and it takes a more creative strategy to stand out among many other great causes. At DSC, we see a lot of organizations rebranding and redefining how they tell their and why they need support. A lot of investment has gone into communications.
From a staffing perspective, consultants are becoming a more attractive resource. Traditionally development teams were assembled and tasked to identify the funding opportunities within their area. I see a shift happening now where we look at what opportunities exist for that organization and then organize the team. In a way, build the teams to fit the opportunities. Consultants are a great solution, because we can help identify the opportunities and take on pieces or whole projects that will generate funding without the organization needing to onboard and commit to a full-time hire. This can make a huge impact for the organizations that we serve and help them to grow at a steady comfortable level.
Adam: What other work are you doing at DSC?
Julie: DSC has identified a new challenge that we’re beginning to explore. We see a disconnect between nonprofit and corporate relationships. Nonprofits are seeking corporate partnerships to diversify and grow their funding and corporations are seeking nonprofit partners that give back to the company and fit within their strategic mission. The challenge is communicating each other’s needs without damaging the relationship and managing expectations.
We believe there’s a better way to foster these relationships and make them mutually beneficial more quickly. DSC is still very focused on our nonprofit services, but we see this as a new opportunity to grow.
Adam: Let’s talk about technology – how are you using automation and workflow tools to do more for your clients? What are your thoughts on artificial intelligence?
Julie: We use tools like Trello, Slack and Google Drive to organize and share items with our teams. These tools help streamline our workflow. AI is interesting. It’s new and I think has a natural fit in the nonprofit space for learning the behaviors of both funders and donors. AI has the ability to help us fundraise more effectively by understanding how we communicate, with whom, when and how. The AI technology like Gravyty can help turn prospects into donors, improve the effectiveness of our communication, and make better use of the time spent at our desks.