As president of Kiva, the world’s first and largest nonprofit microlending platform, Premal Shah is a master of building radical ideas into world-wide institutions. Kiva’s innovative approach to alleviating global poverty reflects its founder’s own innovative approach to running an organization. It was particularly special to host Premal at our BlackRock accelerator, as Premal is a long-time friend of Fast Forward, and Kiva is also a BlackRock grantee. After more than ten years in the sector, Premal has been through the tech nonprofit trenches, and last week he graciously shared some of the most valuable lessons he has learned about fundraising, company culture, and resource leveraging with Fast Forward’s 2017 cohort.
When seeking grants, nonprofits need to make sure that the new program initiative passes the mission/market/and money tests. Only start fundraising when you can confidently answer “yes” to the following three questions:
- Does it fit with the mission?
Restricted grants can be, “like barnacles on the side of a speedboat.” Don’t let the allure of new funding allow you to lose sight of your mission.
- Is there a big enough market need?
If we secure funding for this, is the market should be large enough to achieve impact at scale.
- Will you be able to cover your costs and make your work sustainable beyond any initial grants?
Funders want to know that their money is going to a sustainable operation with lasting impact.
Put Research Time on The Clock
Have you been contemplating doing a project, but are unsure of its potential impact? You don’t always have to commit to a new initiative and then seek funding for it. Instead, don’t be afraid to ask for funding toward research that you can perform to assess the relative effectiveness of different initiatives. Researching a new program or approach first ensures that any subsequent grants you receive have the greatest possible impact.
Leverage Existing Donor Networks
Find creative ways to get your past and current donors to find you new ones. Premal established an Advisory Council in addition to his board. The primary contribution of each council member is introduces Kiva to three relevant foundations or funders each year. By minimizing the resource investment demanded of members, it makes it easier to fill the council with the highest caliber individuals.
Use Annual Reports as Prospects
See where other similar nonprofits have been getting money from and target those sources. Ask grantees to share their contacts with you, or draw on your existing networks to reach those funders.
BUILDING COMPANY CULTURE
Premal’s guiding framework for building company culture can be seen in his hiring philosophy, where he values character, will, and competence—in that order. He argues that sacrificing will and character for competence is the best way to tarnish a company’s culture.
Build “Mission Moments & Storytelling” Into your Organizational Framework
Give employees opportunities to experience their impact first hand. Introduce them to your target population, or take them on trips to see the communities your organization impacts. This may require appreciable upfront costs, but it is well worth it. These experiences help ground people in the true purpose of your organization. Employees will work much harder when they have a deeper appreciation for the importance of the work they are doing.
Invest in Coaching
Consider bringing on a leadership coach who works with the entire management team. Kiva’s leadership coach increased productivity and reduced conflict in the workplace by teaching managers to recognize how different people approach and react to stressful situations.
Trust What Employees are Doing When No One is Watching
You don’t want a team that is motivated by fear of their superiors. Instead, build horizontal accountability mechanisms. Peers often provide best support and motivation. To harness this, Premal established a practice he calls “Kiva Love.” Every month, employees convene and take turns talking about the great things their coworkers are contributing.
Invest in Your Volunteers
Tech nonprofits must learn to be scrappy and maximize their pool of resources and relationships. For example, invest in and demand more of volunteers. Taking the time to invest in workflow management and training for volunteers allowed Kiva to scale much faster and get the most out of its volunteers.
Crowdfunding is a great way to quickly raise capital, and crowd-vetting can be just as useful. Call upon volunteer business school students and investment professionals to review grant and loan proposals, and to promote your organization as a wise investment.
Find ways to strategically leverage people’s group identities to promote healthy competition. For instance, Kiva displays a donation board that tracks and displays donor activity. The top two donating groups, amusingly, are a Christian group and an Atheist group that regularly compete to be that month’s top donor.
Premal’s frameworks for fundraising, culture, and resource development are fantastic foundations for early-stage tech nonprofits. Prioritizing these initial investment will allow you to efficiently maximize the scale of your impact further down the road. We are truly grateful to him for taking the time to share this wisdom with us!