WHAT THE FUNDRAISING
32: Giving Moments: Creating a Strong Monthly Giving Program Through Education & Storytelling with Becky Straw
“How can you really get to know people so that they feel like they’re part of this collective, they’re not just passively donating every month along with their Netflix subscription…” – Becky Straw
In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…
I interviewed Becky Straw, the Co-Founder of The Adventure Project, and a true believer in the ability to build community through entrepreneurship and move people out of poverty for good. Becky might have grown up down the street from me, but since our childhood days she has gone on to accomplish amazing things, before launching The Adventure Project, she spent three years helping to launch the nonprofit, charity: water, where she was the Program Director for their water portfolio and consulted for UNICEF’s Division of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene.
We love the way The Adventure Project partners with local organizations who are experts in the field, and recognizes that they have come alongside to help with technology, marketing support and (most-importantly) funding so the local organizations can scale to create more jobs throughout Africa.
There are so many amazing elements of The Adventure Project but in this episode, we look into their monthly giving program because it uses some innovative strategies to create strong memory peaks with the members of The Collective (both when donors are first inspired to join and throughout their time in The Collective). Becky has worked really hard to make monthly giving become a sustaining force for The Adventure Project throughout the pandemic and she shares one of the keys to that achievement: the power of storytelling.
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This episode touches on the virtues of personalization and the importance of empathy-based initiatives. As Becky reminds us, positive impact in the world is not only worth sharing, it also creates a sense of collectivism that can attract thousands of change makers.
Join in and listen to this nonprofit leader that is creating a new partnership and international development model that we can all learn from.
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A few pillars of a strong monthly giving program:
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NON PROFIT SHOUTOUT
Get to know The Adventure Project.
The Adventure Project is a nonprofit adding venture capital to create jobs in developing countries. Jobs transform everything. It’s what people want most. Jobs multiply opportunity, hope, education, peace, and prosperity for everyone. When people have good jobs, they invest in their future. They open bank accounts, send their kids to school, and lead healthier lives.
Aid is always appreciated, but a job has the power to lift people out of poverty forever. On average, every $1,200 raised trains one person to become a profitable entrepreneur – serving at least 500 people in their community with access to clean water, health care, nutritious food, and a safer environment.
Mallory: Hello everyone, and welcome! I’m so thrilled to be here today with Becky straw. I’m going to let Becky introduce herself in a moment, but this is just a very funny and amazing reconnection. I’m pretty sure Becky, you were my swim coach when I was four.
Mallory: (laughs) But we’re together in this, I was one year older. You taught me how to swim and we’d known each other for a really long time and then just reconnected. I got to learn about your amazing work, so I’m so thrilled to have you on the show today. Thanks for coming!
Becky: Thank you for having me!
Mallory: So tell everyone a little bit about you and what you’re doing right now, and a little bit about your history and what brings you here.
Becky: It’s great to be connected. It’s so funny. I’ll try not to make every story a swimming analogy. But that was a big part of my life. And I think for you too, we really carried that forward and really enjoyed it. I felt very blessed and very lucky to grow up where we live and to have the opportunities I had.
I traveled a lot and really became passionate about international development and human rights. I went to grad school at Columbia to study Social Impact and Social Enterprise Administration. So how do you run a nonprofit really effectively? That was something I really cared about and I really felt strongly passionate about.
It’s great to have a caring heart, but if you don’t know actually how to integrate the work in a way that’s going to be uplifting and empowering and have longevity, then why do it? So that’s always been a focus of mine from there. I was interning at UNICEF’s division of water and sanitation, which is how I got connected to a crazy guy who was starting a nonprofit by the name of Scott Harrison.
And people were like “This guy’s incredible”. He’s like working on a couch, doing all this stuff, raising a million… And I basically hounded him until he let me volunteer after I graduated. So you can imagine my parents were very proud of me start at Columbia and then be like “I’m going to work on this guy’s couch for free!”, but I felt so strongly about my convictions towards what he was doing and his leadership, just how they were innovating charity: water and the water space.
It was super fun. I was the third employee and I got to really see how you grow a unicorn of an organization really quickly. I was working long hours and feeling really fortunate that I was a program director there managing all of the work. So I got to go. It was my third time in Africa, actually seeing what was working, who we were working with, the local partners, making sure that we were really delivering high quality water and sanitation services.
It was a dream job. It was awesome. I love that. Thanks. So that was the first three years that I was there. And from that I spun off with my co-founder Jodie. She was actually charity: water’s largest fundraiser. Interestingly, she was a mom in Iowa who had six kids and she was like an early vlogger, now everyone has TikTok. She was basically just blogging about her life because who doesn’t want to follow a mom with six kids?
Her bottom two were twins that were adopted from Sierra Leone. So that opened their eyes to international issues and wanting to give back. So through that, she started raising money just in her free time. And I think she raised like a hundred thousand dollars in six months. For anyone who knows, that’s not easy to do as a mom of six.
She is just somebody that people gravitate towards for transparency and being such an authentic person that I sometimes was charged with meeting donors and taking them to see the work. That’s how we got connected as we were in Liberia together and became fast friends and shared this belief that neither I have Bill Gates wealth, and we’re never going to be rich and that’s not the purpose of our lives, but we want to know that we’re doing something impactful and that it’s making a difference in a really transparent and uplifting way.
I think we both have this commitment that there are people out there who work so hard and just need that opportunity. We’re so blessed to live here in the US and there’s so many moms and dads out there who are struggling to earn $2 to be able to buy the uniform for their kids to go to school, but being able to get access to that money to do that is pretty impactful. So our philosophy has always been: let’s start an organization called the adventure project. We’re adding venture. Let’s support ventures that are adding something positive to the world. Helping to uplift people by solving these social problems while also creating jobs in the process.
As I said, one of the social problems is water. We have all these great organizations that are coming in and drilling wells and installing new water systems, but there’s not necessarily the framework to keep those systems working. So right now, a third of all Wells in Africa are broken. Over $400 million in assets that are just defunct right now. So we’re the organization that’s training people to become well mechanics, fixing them.
We’re often called the unsexy nonprofit because it’s so beautiful to see water gushing out but I think there’s millions of people out there, like me who are like “That’s great, but is that well still working next year? Or is it working in two years or five years?” I want to know that my donation today is going to solve a problem long-term and that’s what we care about. And that’s all we do is “How can we think about financial models that end up empowering communities with good jobs and parents who now have tangible job skills?”. They’re locally employed. They’ve been supported by local organizations, which is the most culturally appropriate way to do this work, but that there’s a financial mechanism to make sure that your work goes on and your donation ends up rippling to help thousands of years.
Mallory: I love that. And I think what’s really amazing and awesome about your model is that it also is a different skill set and super power for an organization to do what you’re doing than perhaps to drill the well the first time. And so I think, in all sectors there are hard partnerships in the nonprofit sector, I think are particularly hard, but when they work, they’re so powerful when there’s a strong organization like yours, that can partner with other organizations who are either starting the project, or now it sounds like there’s a fair amount of upkeep and fixing to do, but I think there’s incredible possibilities in that partnership model.
But I hear you around the fact that what your programs are might have less of the immediate feel good stories than some of the initiation projects that we often see. You’ve done an incredible job building a monthly giving program, in particular, and really identifying with who are the right and core power partners for you.
So talk to me a little bit about your journey. Who are your funders? What are they looking for? And how have you really built a culture of engaging and retaining them?
Becky: For us. I hear time and time again “I like that it’s a sustainable solution and that it’s effective”. I’m actually seeing stories of people who are being lifted out of poverty. It’s not just a story about a kid in torn clothes that needed food and I gave him food, even though that feels good at the end of the day, it feels better knowing my 20 bucks actually created this woman’s business that helped her then hire this many people.
So I think we tend to target people who are a little bit more interested and educated about international development. They’re optimistic and hopeful. They understand too that we’ve made extraordinary strides in ending extreme poverty. I don’t mean me, myself or my organization, but just globally. We’ve really done a phenomenal job. Before COVID hit, extreme poverty was being reduced for the last 20 years on a massive scale. So I’m hopeful.
I’m hopeful that we can end extreme poverty in our lifetime. And I think we can do that by having a groundswell of people who also feel the same way and also want to channel their giving to the right places that will create the most bang for the buck. So I don’t want to be painting in broad strokes about who our demographic is because it’s college kids and it’s a lot of moms and tech entrepreneurs.
We segment and bucketize who those donors are. The tech entrepreneur might want more numbers and more figures in terms of the data, of how his or her donation is going to a certain place. And the mom really resonates with being able to help another mom send her kid to school. So I think there’s all different ways that you’re putting on your hat and being like “Okay, what does everybody value? And how can we make sure we’re providing that?”, and touching on that with our reporting in our stories.
Mallory: Yeah, actually, you answered it perfectly because I think what I meant to be asking is what are the values of your donors? Like, how did they identify? What did they believe in? And you said all of those things, which I think is really interesting. And I know in addition to them coming in, perhaps with a higher level of education around some of the problems that are happening, you also provide education in this area.
And you were telling me a little bit about the quiz that you have. So will you talk to me about that and what it is? What it’s like and what it means for your donor pipeline and engagement quarterly?
Becky: We started it last year on International Women’s Day, and we just said “Let’s do a quiz”. We touched on each of our four verticals, health, hunger, the environment and water.
And then we said, let’s ask a compelling question and through the process of taking the quiz, you’re becoming really passionate and almost upset about some of these issues that are happening around the world. So what percentage of women are responsible for collecting water every day in developing countries? Like 80% of all households rely on women. Women that die every year in childbirth? 99% of them die of preventable causes in developing countries.
So I think there’s just different topics and facts that you start to go “Wait a second, I need to be part of the solution”. And so that’s the call to action at the end is “Thank you for taking this quiz! I should add that something that’s really interesting about the quiz is that by taking it, we have an anonymous donor who is donating $2 and 40 cents, which is our current costs to help lift somebody out of poverty and to help somebody”.
You don’t have to give any money, but the more people take the quiz, the more people we’re helping. And I believe we’re getting close to 7,000 people who have taken that quiz so far. So then that enables us to turn more dollars and help more people that way. I would say it’s like a low hanging fruit where people are like “Yeah, I’ll give them two minutes. I’m helping this charity get $2 and 40 cents. Why not?”. At the end, what we found is a lot of those people are also saying “Oh, I want to do more. How can I get more involved?”. And a lot of them are going straight to giving monthly and joining monthly, and that’s really exciting to us.
Mallory: I love it. And so before we hit record, you were telling me a little bit about how monthly giving really was such a sustaining force for you throughout COVID. In general, it really sounds like that’s sort of your flagship fundraising program and how you have figured out relates the best modality for the folks who are really interested in the work that you do. Talk to me a little bit about that and how you even arrived there.
Becky: A lot of the good ideas are Jodie ideas. There’s so many giving programs that are sponsored like ‘child’, ‘world vision’ or ‘compassion’. There’s so many that have really seen their revenue grow by investing in monthly giving because people tend to stay, once they’re giving.
Our giving program is six or seven years old, but we predict that it’s going to be a lifetime value of five to eight years by just getting somebody to give $5 a month or whatever they choose to give. So it ends up being really transformational to us because it also helps us predict where we are going to be next month.
How much money can we get into the field right now? How about in three months? It’s a really great indicator that also provides stability for our organization and helps us share better results with our supporters, because you can then focus on saying “Okay, let’s get them a really good story.
Last month, they supported Charlotte, who’s an incredible entrepreneur in Kenya and they helped her open a second stroke production factory so that she can hire 350 more people. So trying to make it very tangible and real. Every month there’s a different way that you are ‘putting adventure on autopilot’, as we say, and you don’t really have to think about it because I think at least for me, it was COVID, it’s like the more things I can just subscribe to, the better. So I am trying to find people who are also like “I want to give, but I don’t want to think about it. I just want to be able to plug it in and I’ll get a great monthly update.” That’s where we’ve seen a lot of growth from our audiences.
Entering 2020, we saw really exciting campaigns. We had some MOU that we were really excited about, like a retail coffee shop partnership and we were looking forward to these national campaigns. But then everything fell. I was also eight months pregnant. I’m like inside, with my two-year-old, trying to talk to somebody in Togo about how there’s no ventilators in the country… And then meanwhile, our corporate partnerships were like “We’re going to put this on hold. Like we gotta do some blah, blah, blah…”, all things that were valid excuses. And to us, we had to really rally and pivot and shift to digital marketing and shift to counting on most of our monthly donors, who ended up also giving one-time gifts, which is incredible.
I think 80% of our monthly donors made a one-time gift on Giving Tuesday or December. So those are just people that we love and can count on and really try our best to show that we love them. It really took a lot of hustle and brain power to be like “Okay, where can we shift here to ensure that we’re able to still grow and stay open in this crazy time that we’re in?”.
Mallory: Yeah. So you touched on so many things there that I think are super important.
And one of the pieces around, what is the experience of someone being a part of a monthly giving program or a monthly membership program? What I’m hearing from you is that there is this collective feeling that they’re being treated both as a group and as individuals in certain ways as well.
There’s this real deep component of belonging and understanding, and that close-knit group, even if they don’t know each other at all, but you are a part of this thing that did this and I’m curious, what other experiences do your monthly donors have? In terms of when you’re inviting them to become a part of the monthly program.
I love the quiz. I think that’s brilliant. I have not heard anyone else create a problem awareness quiz. It’s so smart, but I’m curious, in addition to that, what are the other feelings that you try to elicit when you’re inviting people to be a part of the monthly giving program? And then what are the other touch points? Individual and personal or collective during their time in the monthly giving.
Becky: Actually, our giving program is called The Collective, so that’s a good way to use that word. But what we’re mainly trying to highlight is the shared values. There are people all over the world, but they all share the same values of effectiveness and empowerment and opportunity.
I think we try really hard to make sure people know how valued they are. We’re able to do so much good. I calculated it yesterday and I think just where we are at now, our collective is set to create 200 jobs. To hire 200 people in the next 12 months who will go on to help serve over 300,000. And a lot of those donors, some of them get $5 a month. Some of them get more, but it’s just really inspiring to know and actually see all that change happening in terms of what they get. They get the monthly email and we’re trying to welcome them. And I think we can do a much better job.
Vik Harrison said it in our last podcast, the view was like “What are the rituals we’re creating? What’s a great way we’re onboarding people and making them feel part of it?”. I think we try to automate so much as nonprofits, especially small ones, but what can we do? I found all of our growth has come from personalization and people don’t want to hear that.
You know what? I love talking about the quiz because it flows and happens. But I think at the same time, our biggest wins have come from personally calling, emailing, asking about people’s kids, and finding out more about them. So that becoming a friend on Facebook -without sounding too much like a stalker- it’s how you can really get to know people so that they feel like they’re part of this collective. They’re not just passively donating every month along with their Netflix subscription.
Mallory: And I’m sure that has a huge impact on what you say about 80% of them giving one-time donations as well. So I’m curious about that because I get a lot of questions from folks about, okay, how do I treat my monthly donor list at the end of the year? Or how do I treat folks that I think could be large donors? In terms of cultivating them, they’re on this monthly donor list, but at a level that’s much lower than I know they have the capacity to give. What do you think about that? And do you have some sort of systems or ways of engaging folks and help them figuring out they have the appetite for further engagement?
Becky: Yeah. I feel like I’m wrong all the time. I think they shouldn’t email them and ask them for money because they already get it monthly. That’s like the common mindset, right? “Oh, my gosh, they’re already giving, don’t touch them. Don’t remind them that they’re giving”, but thank God we sent them that email because when you really dive into our data, most of those donations came from monthly givers, which makes sense.
I have to step back and think of my own giving. I give monthly to a lot of things, but when there’s something special that comes up and people personally ask me in a really genuine way, I love to be part of that. I want to be part of making sure that the organization is thriving, that I support. And I think it’s already part of somebody’s ethos. They’re already committed and they’re already showing you that they care about these issues. And they could always just say no.
Mallory: I think that’s the fear that so many people have. And so I think even just a look at your numbers is a really clear indicator that those are the folks that definitely want to know when there’s something new or needed.
My guess is, programmatically, your organization invests in a lot of innovation, right? And a lot of different types of models. And especially in the ways that you support entrepreneurs. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you either talk with your donors or your community and what some of your messaging is around the need to invest in different models of programs?
Becky: And I think nonprofits are scared of risk, right? People are pretty risk-averse. They’re like “That’s working, don’t change it. Whatever is working, let’s keep it the same”. And I think quite honestly, as I mentioned back to the water issue, everybody loves to fund wells.I’ve seen organizations that have been like “We have money to drill more wells. We’re not going to fix any, we’re just going to keep drilling them”. And I’m like “Are you servicing the donor? Or are you servicing the people on the ground that you’re trying to help?”. So for me, I think there’s a lot of supporters out there who actually want to make sure that people on the ground are the ones that benefit.
And so for me, I think sometimes I over-communicate the why. So a perfect example of risk is this one mechanic training program we helped support 10 years ago. It was an idea of a recent grad student who ended up working for Water for People in Uganda.
She’s Ugandan. When she was four years old the only well in her village broke. She said she remembered nobody knew how to fix it. She just remembered watching her dad and all the other men just standing there going “What are we going to do?”, and that inspired her to say “I need to figure out how to systematically fix these wells”. And she pitched Water for People on starting a pilot program in a district in Uganda to keep wells working. And now every single well in that entire district is functional. There’s not one broken. And we’re now helping them install new water systems where the lenders don’t have any water source.
I think that is the only well mechanic training program that is on the continent right now, which is phenomenal. I know there are others, but this is a formalized organization. And I think our supporters, I commend them so much because they knew the problem and understood the problem and understood the potential and the solution and were willing to invest in that, which I think is really phenomenal.
I think that’s really special. I think it’s so easy for Bill Gates or Melinda to have all this data and all these analytical people. I just think it’s so commendable. The mom in Colorado reads the story and they’re like “Yep, totally get it. If I was a mom and the wells were broken, I would want a mechanic there to fix it. So I think that’s really making your supporters understand and feel part of the story and seeing where they can fit in and how they can fit.
Mallory: It really sounds to me like you do such a phenomenal job with the education component for your supporters and prospectors.
I think the fact is that given your monthly donor retention rate, given how many of them give a one-time donation later in the year to meet, is a clear indicator that they understand what they’re giving to. They’re not like “Oh, I signed up for this thing. What was that again?”.
In a different episode in this series, we’re going to talk a little bit about the different parts of the brain that are stimulated by different types of giving actions and that serotonin in particular is really linked to memory. And what I think is so important about that is I think we all give donations all the time that we don’t remember. Maybe not all of us. I give donations all the time that I don’t remember giving to.
There was maybe a dopamine hit, but there was no memory associated with it, no identity associated with it. And I think the storytelling that you do, even in the last 30 minutes, the storytelling that you’ve been able to do, I’ve been able to visually understand it. So many different people that you’ve talked about, relate to them, see themes across the board. I think you’ve already been able to really demonstrate the way that storytelling and that education moves people to see something so beautiful and powerful.
Even if the logistics of the implementation aren’t sexy in the same way that water shooting out of the well is. And so I just want to recognize that, and I hope that the listeners are tracking that too, because I think it’s a real demonstration of something you’re doing incredibly
Becky: Well, thank you. And I think learning from Scott and charity: water has been a huge benefit to me. I was fortunate to tell a few of the stories and seeing storytelling is powerful. You can do a lot with data, but I think donors want both. I think you lead with a good story and then you put some facts behind it that gives people confidence to say “Okay, my money is going to do the most good here”. It’s really powerful.
Mallory: Yeah, so I want to do a big shift, but it’s all very related because you’ve talked about women and moms a few times, and I know that you all have a new initiative around the women’s fund. And so I want to talk about that a little bit. And just for you as a mom -I’m a mom too- congratulations on your second little one. And the pandemic has been so hard in so many ways on women and on moms in particular.
I was hoping we weren’t going to be saying this with already two years into this, but we’re seeing this whole second huge wave of childcare closing in the US and Canada schools, all closing, going back to at home. All of a sudden it feels like a second huge wave of sort of burden and pressure and hardship. And there are certain things that the US society is supporting. But I think that perhaps empathy and awareness that women in general are starting to have around what this might mean in other places is growing. And so tell me, as collective education is increasing in this space, what has that meant for all of you and how does that relate to the women’s fund?
Becky: Yeah, the women’s fund is a long time coming. We’d always been supporting organizations that empower women. And then when we really stepped back for a second, we realized “Wait, a lot of these are actually male funders”. We thought “Okay, we need to support organizations that have a little more meat on them”. Maybe they’re operating on a million dollar revenue. I’m talking locally about local organizations in Africa. And we realized we’re excluding a lot of incredible women organizations.
Much like the VC world, women-led organizations aren’t getting the same level of support as venture capital supports women founded businesses or tech companies. So there are actually incredible women who are running remarkable organizations in Africa that deserve the same level of funding and mentorship and support to help get their organizations, not only off the ground, but then scaling across countries
So we wanted to be part of making sure that we’re doing that, especially as a female founded organization ourselves. So that was before COVID. And I had shared that idea with one of the foundations that supports us called Catbird. They’re an incredible jeweler in Brooklyn, and they’re also female founded.
And we just thought it would be really incredible if a lot of female founded organizations or organizations that really care about equality came together and said “Let’s really make sure that we’re empowering women and helping women who run local organizations in Africa get the funding they need”.
And she came back to me and said “This is a remarkable idea”. This is me in development. Not pitching it up. I had asked for $10,000, I think, because that’s what she had given the year before. They said “We love this idea, but we actually want to do it for the next 10 years, and we want to give you half a million dollars”.
I of course was crying, but it gave us the idea, “Okay, there are a lot of other organizations and women and people out there who share that same belief. How can we bring people together collectively and do the most good by helping local organizations?”. So at least for us as an organization, little over half of the organizations we fund are female founded. So we think that’s really important. We have equity across our portfolio, and I would love for other organizations and foundations to do the same, to also say “Let’s look at who we’re supporting locally, and let’s make sure that we’re letting local women in”.
Mallory: I love that. I will make sure that with this episode, we include a link to the quiz that everyone can take and check out more information about The Adventure Project. Sometimes I invite you to highlight a nonprofit that they love and care about. I think we know which one this is, so we’ll make sure that everyone gets to learn more about the work that you do. Any final words that you want to send folks?
Becky: No, I think, for people listening to this, if it resonates, please join our email list, get more involved. We’re going to be hiring for more people. We’re looking for really remarkable people to join our team, but also join our adventure and become monthly members too. That would be really phenomenal if this resonated.
Mallory: Absolutely. Okay. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me today.
Becky: Thanks Mallory.