Episode 15: The Truth About Belonging and Network Building with Hilary Doe

15. The Truth About Belonging and Network Building with Hilary Doe

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“I think other people recognizing who you are, growing, speaking your language, and telling your story is the best path to impact. In which case you won’t have any trouble fundraising.”

Hilary Doe
Episode #15


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

I talk to the amazing Hilary Doe, a technology and nonprofit leader with a long successful career at the Roosevelt Institute, going from Campus Network Director to Senior Advisor of the Institute’s President. Today, she is the Founder of The Scout Institute and Chief Strategy Officer at NationBuilder. If there is someone who knows how to build community and create a network, it’s her! 

In this episode, Hilary and I talk about a key topic for any organization: building community and a sense of belonging. Hilary shares her experience creating long-standing connections with others around a mission, how to let go of perfectionism, and some tips and tricks on how to maintain a nonprofit balanced, united, and alive! 

One of the things I absolutely loved in this conversation is the piece around the snowflake model and being confident enough to let others become a spokesperson for your organization and make your mission their own. Join in!

15. The Truth About Belonging and Network Building with Hilary Doe
15. The Truth About Belonging and Network Building with Hilary Doe

Hilary Doe is a technology and nonprofit leader Founder of The Scout Institute and Chief Strategy Officer at NationBuilder. She and I go way back to our college years, and in this episode we talk about our experiences in the nonprofit space since then. If there is anyone who knows how to build a thriving and alive community it is Hilary. Here she shares her experiences building a cross country network at the Roosevelt Institute, plus some tips and tricks on how to help people make your organization’s mission their own and on creating a strong sense of belonging.
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Hilary Doe


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15. The Truth About Belonging and Network Building with Hilary Doe
15. The Truth About Belonging and Network Building with Hilary Doe
15. The Truth About Belonging and Network Building with Hilary Doe

Tips and Tools to Implement Today

Susan Fisk’s Five Core Social Motivations (BUC(k)ET) for the nonprofit space:

Hilary’s pillars to create a sense of belonging:

Story of self for mission building:

Favorite quotes

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15. The Truth About Belonging and Network Building with Hilary Doe


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episode transcript

Mallory: Welcome everyone to this amazing conversation. I am thrilled to be joined today by Hilary Doe. This is a hilarious coincidence that we find ourselves here.  Hillary and I go back, I don’t know, 15 years or16 years now. As undergraduates at the University of Michigan, we were involved in some work that she’s going to talk more about there together as a chapter of the Roosevelt Institute was starting on campus. And we got connected by, I don’t know, divine intervention, PR people, all the right things. 

I saw her name pop up in an email that came to me and was just like, “Oh my gosh!”. And then learning about what you have been up to, which I’m so excited for you to share, I was just thrilled to have this conversation and to dig into some of this with you. So thanks for being here today.

Hilary: It’ll be so fun. Thank you for having me. I always love a blast from the past, even if it is from longer ago than you and I would care to admit. 

Mallory: So do I say it?

Hilary: Further away than I would like to talk about!

But yeah, I know it’s going to be so fun to talk about this. And I think one of the fun findings when we reconnected was just the role that fundraising in general and the process of figuring out how to do that and the freedom that it can open up for serving the missions that we both care about has played in our career since college. Which was, I think also, completely unexpected, not something that I knew was going to be true for me when I was in college, hanging out with you at The Michigan Union or wherever. So yeah. It’s gonna be so fun.

Mallory:  Yeah. I love that. I know. Gosh, I would have never predicted I would be here right now talking about fundraising even in general. 

All right, so let’s just kick it off. What brings you to this moment in time? Tell folks sort of your journey to this.

Hilary: Sure. Yeah. I’m happy to. Well from the Michigan Union to now. It’s funny because we did meet in this context where we were in, as you said, a chapter of the Roosevelt Institution at the time, now called the Roosevelt Institute Network. And that affiliation I didn’t know would play such a big role in my life, but turned out to. 

So at the time it was a student group on campus. The idea was that we were a distributed think tank with a handful of chapters at different universities, essentially tasked with trying to write public policy and get engaged locally. And the thing that was interesting to me about it at the time was that we often ask young people to engage in campaigns like knocking doors and registering voters, but we don’t actually ask for their involvement in the process of governing and policymaking. And that was really compelling to me at the time. 

And I got hooked frankly, on Roosevelt in general, because I think I’ve always just really been in pursuit of that. I had that moment at Roosevelt where you realize you are personally capable of addressing your agency and changing the world around you in a way that was not obvious to me before that experience.

I didn’t show up at college feeling like the world was my oyster or something like that. In fact, I think I remember feeling like I was lucky to be there. I was only a student from my high school that went to the University of Michigan. I thought that was pretty incredible because I went to school in Michigan itself.

And then I remember thinking that if you’re successful, you’re maybe a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher, and that’s like the scope of my universe. And having that realization that it’s not just for other people or certain strata or of society or what have you that can be involved and really shaping our community, but that we can do that together.

And that it’s really critical to listen, that it’s critical to build things in unison in community, not independently. And then you can accomplish these incredible things was really a realization for me as naive as that sounds today. And I was really struck by that bug, of wanting to be in it with other folks. It’s really contagious and exciting to be in a community that’s accomplishing really incredible things and shaping their own destiny.

And we did that a lot at Roosevelt. We did work in New Orleans. We did some work with folks in Detroit, and then I was on the road helping to start chapters at a bunch of other campuses and try to share that model with other folks. 

Then I went to grad school, I kinda got back on a more normal track. Iwas working for a consulting firm for a bit. And the opportunity came around that someone really had to go run Roosevelt as a real nonprofit and take it on. If we all just graduated and left, it would have been a flash in the pan kind of student group that, maybe disappeared. And there were other folks stewarding that effort at the time, but still super tiny, really small.

And I had to make the choice basically. Do I stay at this kind of cushy consulting firm gig or do I quit my life, load everything up into a U haul drive to DC and raise my salary and that of everyone else’s? I hadn’t ever raised a dollar, and try to make this thing a real thing?

And I took that on. Thank God we were all super young, one because I was willing to do that at the time. It was such a gift and such a formative experience for me. I was there for a long time, we were able to grow the organization to over a hundred chapters across the United States, and created some formative programming. We had Think 2040, which was a program to help young people design the sort of future that they wanted to inherit and try to implement that.

And chapters we’re pulling off incredible things passing revolving loan funds to ensure folks could go K through 12 and to college for free, doing incredible work on environmental policy, just accomplishing incredible things. And I think all having that experience, which I think is pretty life changing, that you have agency and capacity, and that if we work together and organize and build community together, we can shape the world around us. 

And, again, it sounds like a trait or something to say that, but I think it can be really critical and formative. And I was having that experience as an executive director as well, the national director of this network, realizing that it was possible for me, who’d never raised a dollar to figure out how to scale this thing and grow it and support all of our dreams.

Basically whatever program we could think of, it could be supported. And it was just really beautiful to see how that’s continued to grow and evolve. They went on to win the MacArthur Award for Creative Infections Institutions on the back of having built this really incredible network model of chapters across the country who were pulling off these incredible things.

And I think even more importantly, demonstrating how powerful a network model like that can be for building identity and an organization for getting to scale, which can be a really hard thing for a nonprofit to do. And really for equipping, not just the staff that you have in the main office, but people across the country who are ardent supporters of yours to be your best fundraisers, recruiters, advocates out in the world to spread the message. 

And it was really on the back of that success that I got to experience this really incredible formative executive director experience. I went on from there to try to study that more formally. I ended up in a PhD program briefly at Princeton studying political movements and actually motivation, so what underpins our motivation to do basically anything as humans, these motivations to belong and understand that I was applying that specifically to why folks join movements and whether those are, nonprofit organizations or political movements.

 And I’m really trying to get at how to build networks that produce long term engagement,not like one-time clicktivism, but that sort of long-term committed identification with a movement so that they want to be, like I said, supporters, recruiters,and advocates. It was really an incredible experience because I felt like it validated for me that these principles of organizing that have been applied in political campaigns and political contexts for a long time, Marshall Ganz work which we can talk about, if that’s useful, Susan Fisk’s work that sort of principles of engagement ladder and the snowflake model, all of those things really work. 

And worked at the core of the network that we built, but are very rarely applied outside of community organizing and politics to nonprofits or the task of fundraising. There was incredible learning, rich learning there for us to be able to apply in that nonprofit context. Hence the fact that I left, I ended up at a tech company building tech to help nonprofits do that. And I recently started a nonprofit myself here in Detroit where I am now and we’re attempting to do the same thing.

So that was very long-winded. But that’s the last 15 years.

Mallory: And your mom of two kids, like you just have nothing on your plate. 

Hilary: That’s one thing, I bumped into someone, we got married. We had a couple of kids. I randomly got into interior decoration. I bought a miter saw during the pandemic and built a fireplace. We can go there too, if you want Mallory. But I tried to keep it on topic. 

Mallory: No, I love it. Okay. So I want to talk about this motivation piece. I studied motivation from the perspective of habit and behavior change. So I’m really excited to hear your perspective and learning and research on that sort of larger level.

And one of the themes that I think is already coming up is how you find new donors and engage them, convert them to give, and then hang on to them. And I don’t actually mean that in the recurring giving lapse donor, but in how do they, without so many individual touch points and maybe even with a mistake once in a while, like their name being wrong in that email coming out from your organization….

I think about all the things that hold them back from feeling like they have these donors on board and as a part of their network and they can then show up and not get so overwhelmed with individual touch points because everyone who’s really there is there to do this thing together and they get it. 

Hilary: There is so much in there. I feel like we could take it in pieces because the motivation piece I think really has a lot of parts. It was really helpful for me as a fundraiser myself. And then I would love to talk about networks. I would just talk about them for weeks on end. So we’ll try to keep it tight for this.

So to zoom out, I suppose some of the work on motivation is probably really relevant to the work that you do as well. And I already mentioned Susan Fisk, but she’s at Princeton and  I really love her work. She did this theory of the five core social moptivations I think that the acronym for them is BUCKET if people are looking it up. 

The first two and the one that’s at the root, those sort of propose root of all, the reason that we do anything, like all core human, social motivation is belonging. People want to belong to a group, something that they all can all identify with, that they want to be a part of something they want to know who else they belong with.That’s like this fundamental sort of core root motivation. 

And I think it’s helpful because if you know that and think about that, we need to give people something to belong to. And I think that a lot of times I hear folks in the nonprofit space say, I already made one ask and so I don’t want to ask anyone again for awhile, I don’t want to be a bother. I want to be respectful of that. What a donation is in part, is an invitation. They want to participate and if we’re asking once and saying thank you so much, I’m not going to bother you for a year, we missed the opportunity to give them something to belong to.

They gave a few dollars, they could have done that by buying a Coke. We know they’re asking to be invited into the good work that they think that you’re doing. And so just like holding at the core that there’s this desire to belong and giving people really something to belong to, I think is really critical.

And you can extend that, I suppose you could say “I have a membership program”. That’s something they can belong to. But then I would ask the question, is it just one unidirectional? Is it you sending them information as a member? You sending them a t-shirt once in a while? Cause that’s not replicating the human experience of belonging. 

When you think of something that you feel like you really belong to your church community, or your local civic organization, or your bachelor watch party on Monday nights or whatever it is like, it wouldn’t scratch the itch for you to just receive an email about that once in a while, or like you want to be in a multi-directional kind of relationship.

And so this is where some of those principles of organizing come in and become really critical. I think about stagnation, basically as one way, to put it as the enemy of a healthy nonprofit, or a healthy fundraising environment. You don’t want people to be stagnant, non-moving, like just sitting on your email list and passively receiving your email, waiting for the chance to give again in a year, or they’re not really in a belonging, kind of relationship with you.

You want to create opportunities for movement, all the time for them to take the next step and the next step, move up an engagement ladder with you and give you feedback at each rung of that ladder. If that makes. 

So that’s and belonging. That’s the core root center can really inform the way that we structure these programs. Like I said, one test for yourself. If you thought this through well, what is your engagement ladder? What’s your ideal donor path? So if you met someone and they gave you 20 bucks, what’s the next thing you want them to do? And the next thing, what’s the next best possible way they could engage with you and assume that you want them to engage with you every month for the next three years.

To really force yourself to do that exercise. I think very few folks do. Then you’ll start to create a picture of what it looks like for an ideal member to belong in your group, to  identify with as the primary way in which they’re doing their philanthropy or their community engagement. 

The second core motivation is understanding, and this one’s also really fascinating. So people are motivated to understand the things that their core group understands. So once they belong to something they want to learn about and know what everyone else in their group learns about and knows. There was some incredible research on this. 

I remember I was doing some of my early PhD work studies where basically they would add political messages about registering to vote and how cool voting is and things like that to the Facebook feed of some folks in a school. And then all their friends would see that was occurring. It would seem as if they were interested in that content and it triggered this information, seeking behavior in all their friend groups. We need to learn about that, we need to know more about that political issue or whatever, because we belong in this group. And my group now cares about that. 

It really triggers that information seeking behavior. And again, I think that’s a really interesting thing to apply to our organizations. We build belonging, how are we really letting people express to us that they understand the issues we care about? Not just tell them about our issue, but let them provide a feedback loop.

And I think a great way to do that is to equip our supporters with all the tools that they need to, again, be your best fundraisers, recruiters out in the world, telling your message and spreading the word because they’re communicating in their own language to the people who know and trust them. 

They are saying exactly what you are about and they’re expressing their understanding of your mission and your purpose, and that just cements their identification with you and their belonging in your group. If that makes sense. So they’re in the in-group, others I think become more and more peripheral, but those two core motivations, I think are so helpful and things that we don’t think about enough when we’re just trying to hit our sort of target number for the year.

Mallory: I love the way you’re sharing those things. And I wonder if part of it is that we don’t think about it enough because we’re in the grind and there’s this other part of me that goes back to what you were saying before, around what is fundraising really? And that is actually like my mantra for my course and for everything is: great fundraising is not an ask, it’s an offer.

And we have totally internalized this old incorrect story about the purpose of money movement and who it serves and why it’s happening. When we actually can underwrite that story, we’re going to show up to everything differently. And so I think about the things you’re talking about around the movement of the folks on your list and their engagement, and then their understanding.

And I can hear my clients itching and being like, “Oh, we’ve already asked them for money and now we’re going to go ask them to go out there and talk about our organization”. And I remember that feeling so well, like I think you showed up to your early fundraising with so much more confidence than I did.

I really was like, “This feels so uncomfortable and I don’t know how to do this”. And I think what you’re hitting on is so important that belonging piece is like, not just that we’re missing it because we’re in the grind, but we’re missing it because we fundamentally believe we’re bothering them. Instead of giving them opportunities of belonging.

Hilary: I completely agree with that. And I’m getting the benefit of us talking about this a decade after I had to do this in the first place. So I don’t think it’s true, actually, that I came to it with that. It’s perhaps a different topic, but I think pretty related actually that now I am bullied by having had those experiences, knowing what I know.

And also frankly, by having a network to support me in that I wasn’t alone completely. I knew that there were folks I could engage, who could help. It’s a gift. It’s freedom to have a network that you’ve figured out how to engage with deeply, that has its own momentum, that you can count on because they’re identifying with you to bring in more donors to provide general fund support.

Yeah, we didn’t always have that just to say, because most of our people were in college. They didn’t have any money, they could give us ramen noodles, but we didn’t always have that, but if you can get that’s freedom.

I’m so curious about your experience actually, cause you work with clients in this space all the time. My experience is more working with organizations, but my experience is that it can be very lonely fundraising. And when I started it was very lonely. I had folks around me I could go to, but I really felt the pressure personally. Yeah. I felt like I was bothering folks, but also I didn’t have the confidence to know I have this network that’s very clear about what we’re going to do. So no, I won’t engage in mission drift just to get you this grant or around something that’s peripheral to my purpose, because that will be a way to bring in dollars. 

I didn’t always have such a clear sense of that. I saw other people fall into the trap of a kind of charismatic fundraising, where they built a fundraising base around the relationship with them personally, but that was never going to be transferable to their organization.

I didn’t really know how to differentiate between that early on. And just to speak vulnerably, when I started doing this, I was really young. I took that network over, I think when I was 23. And when you don’t realize it’s an offer for someone to participate in the beautiful thing that you’re doing, there’s a crazy power and balance.

And for me as a young 23 year old woman, fundraising from folks who had money, especially in individual fundraising situations, it was often really uncomfortable. And just once in a while, more than that really experiences that have followed me around.I think it’s important to speak to that too, if you don’t believe deeply that it is an offer to participate in what you’re doing and you know clearly what you’re doing, and again, having a network to buoy that and validate it. Yes, this is what we want to be doing. So you can’t willy-nilly, pivot and go follow the money or what have you.

I think it gives you a lot more confidence to say, “Hey, this is an offer. You’re welcome to join” and say, “Hey, want to help us with XYZ or join again”, or like really inviting belonging as opposed to walking in feeling like you actually don’t have power at all.

For anyone giving they’re giving one of a couple of reasons, they’re giving because they really believe in what you’re doing and they want to participate. They’re giving because someone they love or trust is suggesting that they should, and that relationship is being honored in the gift. But no matter what, or in a piece of foundation or something, they think you’re doing something incredible as a part of their strategic priority. 

But no matter what there’s a real gift and invitation, in the opportunity to accept donations and in the gifts, it’s a request. And I really think the power dynamic changes flips on its head as soon as that’s true and we can be in an equal relationship trying to find each other, those of us who want to give, and those of us who have something to give to are on equal footing, looking for the match that makes sense. The thing to belong to, that we both equally belong to, that we can identify with. And that’s when it’s beautiful.  

Mallory: Yes, exactly. Finding that alignment. How I think this also goes back to this belonging piece and the understanding piece is like, when you can build that community, who are your people, who do have your back, who are aligned, it’s also so much easier to say no. To say, “Actually that doesn’t work for me and our community. Those aren’t the types of donors we have here” and that you really take care of each other in that way. So I love that so much. 

And I feel like that understanding piece is also really interesting because I feel like there is this kind of reckoning happening around. We as a society are starting to talk about all of these issues that deeply impact the nonprofit sector and fundraisers just like they impact other people. But I think sometimes the nonprofit sector gets siloed in “Okay. The work we’re doing is impact work so we’re probably not being racist because we’re trying to help this community, or we’re a women empowerment organization. So of course our female fundraisers aren’t being bullied to do things for money.”

We don’t often look under the hood where these systematic issues are happening inside of our organizations. And if we’re really going to build community and meet our donors and community members and our staff and our volunteers and all of those things… If we’re going to build these movements, these communities rooted and belonging, we need to create some ground rules for what it looks like to belong here.

Hilary: Yeah, totally. No, I think that’s beautiful. And what you’re getting at basically is that it doesn’t matter the sector you’re in, we’re all humans. And so we have human bonds and we also have the capacity to come together and organize. And I think that’s actually at the core of my philosophy about how to approach all of this work, that even then the motivation stuff that we were talking about, it’s fundamentally about humanity.

So the fact that we have a bunch of work around community organizing, that’s generally applied to campaigns doesn’t make it any less relevant to nonprofits or the way that we think about fundraising or engaging people or growing a community, it’s just about our fundamental humanity, our flaws and our fundamental motivations and who we want to be together and where we all want to belong. And we all want to understand the things that each other understands. 

Just acknowledging that I think lets us look our flaws in the face, lets us stand in our strength more effectively and in our community more effectively and build community more effectively. And I think let’s us scale organizations and accomplish incredible things that we certainly couldn’t accomplish by ourselves. So yeah, recognizing that this is just a human endeavor is a really helpful takeaway. Yeah. I love 

Mallory: Yeah. I love that. Okay. I want to ask you a question. You are going to start a new initiative. What are some of the core principles related to belonging that you are sure to build into the framework from the get-go?

Hilary: There’s a couple ways to answer that question, so I’ll try to hit both. One I think probably pretty well understood at this point, but I do notice some folks skipping it and I think it’s really leaning into the mission work early and often basically repeating it, putting it everywhere. I really believe in mission statements, because if you care about belonging, you need to know what you all believe in and belong to.

And that is a living document. That’s just constantly going to be evolving and changing. And if you say it all the time and it starts not to feel true anymore, that’s an important moment to look that in the face. I got to the point at Roosevelt, for example, where folks would show up to our conferences, having made their own t-shirts with our mission statement on them. That’s the choice our people are making to belong has to be resonant and alive and in the air, set all the time.

People will definitely imbue that with some of their own meaning and that makes it better and helps it grow and change and evolve. That’s the beauty of networks. We should talk about that, this balance between chaos and a shared vision, that’s really beautiful. It allows it to be a living organism that evolves. But I would say that, really lean into the mission work. That ‘s critical. 

And the second thing I think is to build the structural supports that allow belonging to a group. So again, make sure that things are as multi-directional as possible, that we’re creating feedback loops for people to talk back to you and not just to broadcast out.

One thing that I always make sure to do is that my structure supports the most human interaction possible. So what I mean by that is if you send an email from an organization name, the odds that you get anyone to read it and respond are very low relative to whether you tell your supporters to tell their friends something or you send something from a human, you have a human conversation, a human interaction, you use text message instead of email, just all these ways.

If you think about what would I do if I was sitting in a room with this person, how close can you get to replicating that in your structure? Because that builds identification and belonging. And then I think the third thing is building into your structure expectation that you’re going to let go. We suffocate the potential for folks to belong with us when we control things too much. 

If you hold on too tight, you will suffocate that sense of belonging. You will suffocate and network. You tried to build the community and you tried to build together because it’s an equal relationship. If someone repeats what you’re about, but changes the words a little bit and you freak out, they will not do it again. You know what I mean? You have to be clear and repeat that mission all the time, be clear about what you’re about, and then let people make it their own and speak their own stories into it and create and evolve with you and striking that balance from the beginning, like just experimenting with it and playing in that from the beginning is critical. 

It’s the thing that I think made Roosevelt successful, that we had a clear mission that we all believed in core programming that anyone could pick up and replicate. So we were providing some structure. Chapters are Petri dishes. Folks are taking those poor programming and evolving them a little bit. And we’d see one chapter explode and have 300 members and then lean into it. What are you doing? What’s different? Oh, you tried this? like that’s super interesting. Come back to the mission. Does that align? Let’s tell everyone else to do the same thing!

Use those sorts of natural evolutions. Let people talk back to you and create beautiful things and then share them across the network. But that’s one of the things that I think folks struggle with the most, having to let go in order for belonging to occur.

Mallory: Okay. So why do you think that is? Where do you think people are getting caught in letting go? Is that perfectionism? Is that their boards coming down hard on them around things? What’s the barrier to that?

Hilary: One part of it that I totally get by the way, having run a network for a long time is fear.

You imagine the worst case scenario. So what could someone do if they took our logo and put it on a t-shirt that they wrote the slogan on and it’s just completely antithetical to what we believe? Like I think it’s fear. It’s rooted in the extremes and that happens so rarely. And it’s generally very clear to people that someone has gone rogue.

It’s just so unusual for something like that to occur. And if you solve for that, and that’s the main thing that you’re concerned about, you’ll hold on really tight. You’ll ensure you’re the only person that can post anything on the website. Your people can never talk directly to each other, things only come through blast, email. 

You’ll hold on real tight and you’ll lose all the things in between your idea of perfection and this crazy extreme that will probably never happen. You’ll lose someone iterating on the way you talk about your pitch, your organization, that’s way better than yours, and would have worked better for you to raise money.

You’ll lose someone who has an incredible network telling everyone they know, and bringing you your new top donor or lose on an innovative new program idea that you never had that’s right in the pocket that you’re going to use to fundraise for the entire next year. You’ll miss all these opportunities because of fear of some extreme.

So I think figuring out how to strike that balance is really important. For example, give people tools so that they have in hand things that you want them to have. For example, your logo and things that you want to be consistent, give them those tools so they haven’t, they don’t try and make their own and go totally rogue.

And you give them that page to throw up user submitted events. Provide structure for them to pour into so that you don’t get so much rogue-ness. But that allows for creativity and beauty and all of that. So I don’t know, that’s my recommendation. And I think that’s the primary thing that I see even big organizations that want to build more belonging, like a real fear of letting go.

Mallory: Something that you’re saying and I’m curious what you think of is this piece around the connection between that and the mission statement piece. I think it is really interesting. 

I ran an organization that had a network model for a little while, and I do think that actually, one of the things that made that complicated, I think we gave them a fair amount of freedom I don’t think that was our problem, but I don’t think that the mission was clear or clarified in the way that you’re talking about. I think we actually did lead to a certain amount of iteration there at a chapter level that actually ultimately didn’t serve that goal around belonging. So there were these really strong chapters, but not necessarily identity with the overarching organization.

And I’m thinking now, as I’m hearing you talk, that’s actually probably not about how much freedom we gave them, but it’s actually probably about the mission statement piece.

Hilary: Yep. There’s things that are, that’s another way. This can go much less common, so kudos to you for being willing to give up control. But that’s another route that it can go. You need a center of gravity. You need the sun around which everything can grow and spin and be beautiful. And if we lose the center, then you actually just have some loose affiliations and not some core thing that we all identify with.

One of the jokes that we started to tell about Roosevelt is I feel like I can sleep on a couch in any city in the world because there’s someone from Roosevelt who lives there and we all feel like a family. We know that we believe in some of the same core principles and that’s enough to build deep identification.

And I truly have no idea what their experience Roosevelt looks like on their campus. Like they could have done something really different than we did, but we were all trying to move in the same direction together. And so just this constant assessment of letting beautiful things happen that you’re not in control over, identifying what of those innovations are things you should scale through the network that helps you grow and then always coming back to the mission. I think that whatever the center is, whatever the core is, I think that’s what we’re all trying to accomplish together. 

Mallory: Sure. This ties in with the living organism. I love what you said, the balance between chaos and structure.

So talk to me a little bit about that. How do people find that balance? And maybe even one step further, my guess is in finding that sweet spot you’re going to mess up. And so how do you come back from that and continue to play in this space? 

Hilary: I think the first thing I’d say to give folks encouragement, it’s like carrots or sticks.

I guess the word of caution maybe first is that I think for a lot of folks, this feels like a nice to have, like maybe we could try a network. I think what I would say is just again I called it freedom earlier so I’m using pretty expressive language around what a network can provide. 

But I think a lot of times folks feel like they have to choose, do I get foundation money or do I go after small dollar donors and build a small dollar program? Who has time for that? It can be really onerous and taxing to figure out how to do that. And then you get a little donation. And a  year later, you get another little donation and you can get to scale this volume. Isn’t worth it. 

I just think there’s a lot of decisions that we feel like we have to make and oftentimes folks break in the direction of not worrying about that small donor program. I get that calculus and maybe you shouldn’t, but I think what we should worry about is not just a small donor program, but a small group of donors or supporters who can spread the message for you and build a small donor program on your behalf. And I think ignoring that opportunity is a real risk because they are representing freedom. They identify with you. They’re not going to change their minds every grant cycle, they’re not going to change their foundation priorities, they’re with you. 

All the studies on trust and all of that tell us that you believe in what your friends believe in that motivation to again, belong and understand what your people understand and if they care about it passionately, you might too.

And this gets us back to the principles of organizing and Marshall Ganz and all these incredible structures that he’s put out into the world and that we’re on display, obviously in the 2008 Obama campaign. But the snowflake model of organizing is exactly what I’m describing here and really not ignoring how critical it is to equip a small group of people to build a small group of their people who support you. One of whom might be inspired to build a small group of people who support you and allow it to grow and scale and build its own momentum until that’s covering your budget and everything else is a cherry on top. 

I really think we sometimes make that totally logical calculus, foundation grants and big dollar donors versus turning away from the small dollar donor program. And again, I think that makes sense if you’re collecting one time, $20 contributions, but I really don’t think it makes sense to turn away from that snowflake model that has this capacity to buoy your mission today and what it will be in 15 years. So that is something that I think is worth leaning into and experimenting around. 

To your point, you will make mistakes completely. But if that’s what is at stake, it’s harder to run away and you feel more committed to figuring out how to make it work. And I think the Cast and Control bit, which is what you had asked about originally comes into play because you don’t start with a whole snowflake.

You just start with the center, which are a few folks, that’s all you need to start, who really believe in you. And you get to experiment with just them on the cast and control part. So I would think about it like that. Just experiment with just them so the risk isn’t very high. Give them tools that they’re telling you that they need to represent your organization well. Do education and training with that small group, about how you talk about it, pitch back and forth to each other a little bit. Give them a program to go out and tell their community about it. Doesn’t have to be just fundraising. 

Donors have higher lifetime values if they volunteer or come to events, it could be anything. Give them something to tell their people about, to be proud of, to share with their community.

Create that information seeking behavior in their community, that they want to know everything about you, come to your events, what have you. And that small group, maybe somebody does something weird and then you learn, “Oh, next time I should do a different bit of education or I should ask for a different kind of feedback” or “That wouldn’t have happened if I had them all in the same database”, just allow yourself to experiment as your snowflake continues to grow and you’re minimizing risk at the start and still allowing yourself the opportunity to play a little bit. 

Mallory: Okay. So I really love a number of different things that you were just talking about and really around thinking about who are these folks who are a part of it with you, like this sort of foundational group of people.

And something came to me when you were talking. And I’m curious what you think about this is that sometimes I feel like, back to the mission statement thing and the clarity piece, I think there is this identity challenge with nonprofits a lot of the time that happens because we write a grant proposal for this organization and we shift to make it work.

And then we write this for this donor and we shift to make it work. And when we get into that shape-shifting mode, it feels easier because we feel like we know how to turn our organization into a mirror of what the founder wants, but what we actually lose in that is this really clear self identity.

And I think what you’re talking about, which is like, how do you create belonging and how do you create understanding and how do you really create this core group of people who are going to ultimately really help your organization thrive. That requires something very different than what you’re doing to write those grants.

It requires you to really know yourself and your work and your mission and your purpose and your values so deeply. And to be so clear that those people can both identify themselves with you and identify that they’re not your people, so they don’t become a part of that group and you don’t get the wrong people in there.

What do you think? Does that feel true to you?

Hilary: It’s completely true. And the lived experience, I think all of us would have had that like shape shifting sort of thing, you can really lose yourself pretty quickly or lose your center. Not to be a broken record, but another one of those like four principles of organizing that works so well for campaigns and just to say, think about something people identify with, a candidate, a Hillary person or a Bernie person or whatever, right? Like they have built a deep identity on the back of these tactics. And again, they’re just about being human. There’s nothing to do with politics specifically. So I think there’s a lot to learn there.

And one of those principles is the story of self, story of us, story of now. You have to do deep work. Who are you? And what are you about? And what are we about together? Doing that deep work and staying really rooted in that and reminding ourselves that all the time is a beautiful part of this practice. And I think it’s a really short-term long-term thing.

What are you giving up in the short term to change your teams, to engage in mission drift? Versus what can you get in the long-term by staying really rooted and really clear? That’s the word that I use all the time. It just feels so true to me that I know when I’m rooted, when I can feel my feet in the ground and I’m very clear about what we’re up to versus when I’m a little bit off balance.

 I think building is engaging and recognizing the primacy of building belonging with your people and that those are the people that are going to get you to scale, and their people, and their people.

People are such a wonderful backstop to any sliding around that you might be prone to do because they need to keep recognizing you. It’s just a beautiful accountability mechanism. And again, y’all will evolve together. This could change. You’ll discover things together. You might not be different than you were in five years, but you won’t be accidentally different.

And that’s pretty critical. You don’t want to wake up and say what happened here? That is intentional and we’re doing it together is really a critical backstop. What ended up happening for me was that when I would write a foundation grant or something it’s totally possible that I’m doing a program that’s about something that’s really relevant to this foundation. 

It doesn’t change who I am though. There’s a part of that grant that it says who we are, that is who we are, period. And that is immutable and what we’re doing right now appeals to you and that’s great. But if you have this backstop of your network or just a really deep practice in, your mission and evaluating that all the time, ultimately opens up more opportunity.

People know who you are, and even if they aren’t the same kind of thunder or you got last year, they might be able to see themselves in who you are and what you’re up to. And nothing is a better fundraiser for you than impact. So I think other people recognizing who you are and growing and speaking your language and telling your story is the best path to impact.

In which case you won’t have any trouble fundraising, folks will be coming to you. So there is this early appeal to being a shapeshifter and I think it can be a challenge in the long-term. 

Mallory: Yeah. It’s interesting. I feel like it’s one of those things that we’ve decided we’re fighters.

Like we think about fight or flight. We’re like, “Yeah, we’re fighters. We’re going to make this grant work”. And I’m like, you know what? That’s actually a flight response. It’s, you’re fleeing anxiety, the anxiety of not having money in the bank next month, you were fleeing that anxiety by doing the short-term win.

And actually the fight is to deal with that anxiety, to process it and to stay true to yourself and to stay rooted and all of those things. So I love that. 

Hilary: Yeah, I’m feeling that all the way through in my just totally. Yes, because when I’ve done that or felt inclined to do that, it’s not rootedness that I’m feeling. No, you say no when you’re routed it’s a moment of anxiety. No, you’re absolutely right. And I’m going to come to therapy with you once a week!

Mallory: It was a coach many years ago. I was 24 years old, I was working with a coach and my relationship was coming up along with some of the professional stuff I was working around. I kept driving two hours to go see my boyfriend at the time when we would be getting into an argument on the phone and she would be like , “So do you think that’s fight or flight?” And I was like, “I’m fighting for the relationship”. She was like, “No, you are fleeing your anxiety around the relationship by just driving right up there”.

 And that was really, for me, the beginning of how we think so often about terms like that in terms of our external behavior, instead of what’s happening internally for us. And I see this so often and I get it like you, and I know you get this too, right? Having bills to pay and taking care of people in your organization like that anxiety is real. But I think as leaders, the more we can be honest about that and reflect on it and have awareness around “Yes. I feel the deep desire to close $50,000 like this month. But I also know that we are safe without it, and so I’m going to make the harder decision to stay true and to not drift”.

I had someone inside my program a few months ago tell our group coaching call that she had turned down a million dollar grant opportunity. And I was like, there is nothing, there is no amount of money she could have raised that is better evidence to me that she is standing fully in her identity as an organization, what they’re there to do and what they’re not there to do. 

Hilary: It’s actually near the end of my tenure at an organization, it was so validating and empowering to your point about fight or flight to stand in the truth and be able to say, “That’s actually not it. And we’re okay”. 

The reason that we’re doing this stuff is to share some mission. And I think it can be that desire to do good, it can be the thing that sort of leads us to believe we’ll take whatever we can get, but have we achieved the mission at all? I think that’s gotta be the check for me.

At least that was really helpful learning. Is this getting me closer to that mission or further away? It’s going to be closer to the goal right now, but is that what we’re here to do together? So really that can be the check.

I love that fight or flight thing. Just one more vignette. I wonder when you talk to folks who are doing coaching, I notice in people when they’re speaking and things like that, maybe in the pitch or doing a talk or what have you nerves and that anxiety can show up in lots of fast talking and I’m certainly a fast talker myself, so I get it, I’m very sympathetic. But I remember some advice I got once on public speaking was to just make them wait to stand there and wait for everyone to get quiet. And that’s the most powerful thing you can do.

And even in a kind of one-on-one conversation when things get awkward, just being able to sit in it reminds me of what you’re saying about fight or flight. That’s the strength, like that’s the fight response versus this chatter basically that we do to fill space. And I think there’s so much power in noticing that in ourselves. So anyway, I love this fight or flight analogy. 

Mallory: Yeah,100%. That moment after you make the invitation for someone to give and you sit there silently, that is the moment where all of your strength is being tested. Okay. 

There’s something that I can imagine people are wondering. So I want to ask it, which is like, how do you lose it? Let’s say that some organization is okay, I think we’ve really built a lot of belonging here. What are the things we need to be really careful about so that we don’t dampen the magic? 

Hilary: We talked earlier about holding too tight and that fear and that threat of suffocation, I think that always exists.

I also think as your organization gets bigger and bigger, which I think it will. And if you engage in this well, you become farther and farther away, or you can from the last person to have heard about you, most recent person to have heard about you, you might be quite far away at some point from that person.

And so I think the risk becomes creating central programming. We talked about control, like providing people with some central programming, some things that they can do. Don’t make it so hard that everyone has to create from scratch the thing that they need to do. You need to provide some centralized structure that can begin to be created in an environment that’s so far away from the person that most recently heard about you. It’s actually not that interesting to them. You can lose touch, I think a little bit with your network or the newest folks in it.

 And so it requires listening which is I  think a core component of any good leader in this area, era in particular, but specially in a network you need to be, this is about that multi-directional communication, right?

You need to be as good of a listener as you are at broadcasting your message because your message can get less and less relevant, less and less interesting if you don’t know your people. This is a real challenge for folks. It’s so common even for those who have built a membership base, that’s all over or chapters, or having to hear from that network only via a monthly spreadsheet that they send in at the end of every month, updating that we had three meetings and 20 people came or what have you. 

And you can’t hear. You can’t operate blind and you can’t hear what they’re saying to you. That risk gets higher and higher. So I think the onus on you to figure out mechanisms for listening are really critical as you become more successful, actually, and you get farther and farther away.

How are you seeing what they’re up to? How are you noticing fluctuations and memberships? So you can intervene when someone is struggling, but more importantly, so that you can learn when people are doing really well and share those learnings. Again, if we’re using the kind of live living organism analogy here, this thing is growing and shifting and changing, and you need to be learning all the time or you don’t have a network, you have this loose affiliation. 

It’s an opportunity to experiment and learn from each other and then share those best practices with everybody. But the flip side of that is you’re not relevant, you’re creating programming that’s not interesting, or people don’t want to do it. And many of your chapters disappear. I think that’s the risk. 

Mallory: Yeah. I love that. And I think just another theme I feel like that you’re hitting on is just this idea that ego really needs to be removed from this. Ego is a natural thing that we all deal with in different ways. But I think what you’re talking about is trust has to go both ways.

I think we talk so often about how we get our donors to trust us more. And then we behave in ways that demonstrate no trust of our donors. And I think that movement, that back and forth that we are showing up in the way for our donors. Like even in terms of trust, not just in terms of communication that we want them to show up to us, I think is such an important theme that I feel like you’re really highlighting.

Hilary: Yeah. And we talked about that snowflake model and it implies the engagement ladder, it implies there’s always a next way for someone to lean into their participation with you, to deepen their participation and that conveys trust. It’s a way you can structurally let folks know that you want them to participate as much as they want to participate and that there’s room for them to pour their own vision and like learning into this with you.

So there are ways for us to put our money where our mouth is , which is just act in a way that conveys that trust and let people keep shaping this thing that we’re making together. 

Mallory: I love that. Okay. I know that we could talk forever. I like to wrap up with one inviting you to share about a nonprofit that you’d want people to go check out and give if they can, and to share all the ways that folks can find you and get in touch with you.

But before we do that, is there anything else related to this theme that you want to make sure is a part of this?

Hilary: Yeah. I’m just excited that folks are interested in leaning into this model because I think it just is so enriching. It’s good for our missions. I think it can be really effective or I wouldn’t be talking about it, but I think it also really enriches the experience of running a nonprofit because it is not lonely, it’s the antithesis of that and all those experiences that can be scary and lonely, you get to do together. 

I mean for me, maybe this is just a tip or something, but when fundraising was new and it was awkward sometimes, and it felt scary and weird to make an ask and all of that, it was a lot easier i f you knew that you were making it at the behalf of tons of people that you love that are like out in the world, sharing your mission and doing this good work than it was to say “Could you please give me however much money”. It was just so much easier to stand in unison with folks. 

I’m just eager for folks to try it on. There are lots of lovely ways to experiment and also eager for us to think in ways that are less siloed about our industry, because I think there’s so much that we can learn from other folks that are doing an incredible job at creating this belonging These incredible union organizers and political campaigns globally that are really building identity. And when you see folks who have done that successfully learning everything that we can about it, I think it is just our obligation to our mission. 

Mallory: Yeah. I love that. And I agree, there’s so much wisdom surrounding us in areas we don’t typically look in. It’s interesting to me that you’re right. I don’t think folks are looking at this engagement ladder or they’re thinking about the donor vortex. And there’s probably a lot of alignment even there in some of those principles. But I think what you’re saying is like what hasn’t been brought over yet, what haven’t we tried? And so I really, I love that.

Okay. All right. First let’s highlight a nonprofit and then tell us all the ways that folks can find you. 

Hilary: Okay. I love this. I highlight that I’m on the board of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. And if anyone doesn’t know them yet, it’s definitely worth a look. 

We talked a little bit about how the nonprofit sector and fundraisers are predominant women. And I think there’s just no better place to go and learn about the extent of the leadership gap, the impact of the wage gap and incredible ways that we can lean in and keep really moving closer and closer to equity. 

So they’re incredible, I would encourage everybody to check them out. And then in terms of meeting me, I started a think tank myself recently based here in Detroit, where I am, this is my home, I moved back recently. It’s called the Scout Institute, anyone can look them up. We actually just launched a big piece at scoutinstitute.org that really walks through the history over the last 50 years of the investments we’re making in our communities and in each other and our education systems and our infrastructure and the implications of not making those investments.

So folks can check all of that out. That would be lovely. I appreciate everybody’s support and I’m on Instagram at Hillary Doe. 

Mallory: Awesome. And we’ll link to everything below as well.

Thank you so much for having this conversation with me today and for sharing so much of your wisdom and experience. I think it’s so important for early fundraisers to see the light and to know that we’ve been there, but that there’s also a community of people who are here for you and we know how lonely it feels, and we don’t want you to see all alone anymore. 

So thanks for being a part of that. 


Hilary: Thank you. Such a great opportunity. Thanks so much.

15. The Truth About Belonging and Network Building with Hilary Doe
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