Future of Volunteering with Nicole Sdao

On this episode of the Thinker What Works Podcast:
Why nonprofits need to rethink how they find volunteers.
How to use data to make informed decisions.
What is our bleeping policy?

Jason: You’re listening to Thinker’s What Works Podcast. I’m Jason Todd with my co-host, Alex Gary, and today’s special guest, Nicole Sdao from NonProfitThrive.com. You’ll hear why not for profits need to embrace a digital strategy, how they can utilize data to make more informed decisions and a brilliant marketing tactic. First, the soundcheck.

Alex: What is our bleeping policy?

Jason: Our bleeping policy?

Alex: Yeah.

Jason: I don’t know that we have one.

Alex: It hasn’t come up yet.

Nicole: I feel really proud that you guys are actually talking about a bleeping policy, and it’s the first time you’ve talked about it, and I’m here. That’s awesome.

Alex: Well good. Well see Seneal’s coming in next week and he lets a few of those go.

Jason: It seems like it came up organically but really what we want to tell you is there’s no swearing on the podcast. Just kidding. You can swear if you need to. For emphasis. I actually read a story once that says that the people who swear are more truthful because they’re more ready and willing to give you just the raw facts.  

Nicole: The raw thing, yep, I’ve actually heard the same thing, and it’s a stress reliever. As long as they’re not literally peppering the whole conversation with it.

Jason: Right, not gratuitous swearing.

Nicole: Yes.

Jason: Yeah it’s like a pressure cooker.

Nicole: Yep and that’s what we kind of tell our kids is, “Yes, you’re going to hear it but it’s usually because -[crosstalk 00:01:22]”

Jason: “Because we’re so angry at you child.”

Nicole: Just cut me off, that’s all.

Alex: See, oh sorry did I miss that one.

Nicole: Yes you did.

Jason: So Nicole Sdao, the founder of Non-Profit Thrive and rage driver, is that what you’re trying to tell us?

Nicole: I’m just saying if there’s purgatory I’m definitely going to be in traffic and I have to make it through the first five, ten minutes without.

Jason: Traffic purgatory?

Nicole: Yeah that’s gonna be my version of purgatory until I can master that with patience. Any who.

Jason: Well Nicole, we’re super happy that you’re with us. Nicole Sdao from NonProfitThrive.com. Which if you wouldn’t mind, give our listeners an overview, what is NonProfitThrive.com?

Nicole: Sure. Nonprofitthrive.com in it’s simplest looking form is a site where volunteers can go to find opportunities to volunteer for different non-profits throughout their community. The kind of amazing part with Non-Profit Thrive though is it’s so much more; especially for non-profits. Hence the name, Non-Profit Thrive. It allows non-profits to actually have data collection, manage their volunteers, all under one system. It really has a lot of capabilities and is a true resource for non-profits.

Jason: What sparked this idea?

Nicole: Oh boy, it came about quite a few years ago just to start helping all non-profits. It seemed like a big task and it was one of those, “Okay then that means that it has to happen through the internet.” It’s the only way you can get to everyone. The website actually started off by looking very different than what it does now so it’s been an interesting process as an entrepreneur. Going from what that was to what it is now. The genesis of Non-Profit Thrive, what it has evolved into actually had a lot to do with our local JC chapter and Freeport had to shut down.

If you’re familiar with the JC’s, they are a 40 and under group that is a service organization. Basically they couldn’t find any in that age range to step up and take over the reigns to be leadership and keep the chapter going. And so I went, “Oh my gosh, that’s because non-profits have to be where these millennials, and really everybody, is.” Which is in the digital space. That’s how Non-Profit Thrive truly evolved.

Jason: And you found then that with your experience with the JC’s, they were dying because they could not engage a younger audience because they weren’t communicating with that younger audience in ways that the younger audience understood, or?

Nicole: Correct. And I don’t want to just shine light on the JC’s. That’s pretty much every non-profit’s issue. The United Way actually just came out with a study last October that after following millennials for five years they’re take away statement was basically, “Millennials are the up and coming force and if you don’t change to what they want and expect and what their preferences are, you as a non-profit will die out.” Paraphrasing that but that’s the geest of their take away statement and that’s pretty powerful. And one of the six preferences that they listed, that they kind of discovered with the millennial generation is, they truly find out about and donate to cause digitally. Period.

Jason: So they find out about the causes they are interested in, essentially only digitally now? Is that the trend that you’re seeing?

Nicole: That was the take away statement, or one of the six listed items for the preferences of millennials, and they donate, both of them. Not only discover but donate. I think that’s even a huge take away.

Jason: Yeah, right. Yeah and that was one of the things I wanted to get to. We were talking earlier, I think before our recording, that people’s tendency or preference towards donating are towards donating to things that are more specific. Rather than just a broad general fund type of donation. They want to see a specific opportunity that they can donate to that makes a difference in their community. Is that what you’re saying as well?

Nicole: Correct. Yep.

Alex: That’s concerning I guess if you’re a United Way person, which for years has kind of been an umbrella organization. “Give to us and we’ll make the decision.” One thing that I want to bring up. You talked about the JC’s, that’s not the only one. Over the fourth of July I drove up to Minneapolis, my sister and I, she recruited me to go to a rotary meeting because she’s involved in the rotary.

Nicole: Sure.

Alex: And there were 18 people there. That was 90% of their club, so they only have 20 and I was the youngest person there and I’m 48. One of the discussions was, “How do we update the Facebook page?” Only two people in the room use Facebook. So if you’re a rotary club and you’re trying to get people who are in there 20’s and 30’s, you have to start rethinking how you do things.

Nicole: Absolutely because again that’s how they’re discovering you is in the digital space. It can’t be ignored. You have to switch there.

Alex: That’s fascinating too because I think I pair that with the statistic that charitable giving is growing by 4.8% this year and another 4.9%. So even though there’s a change in how people are finding out about information or opportunities, it’s not that they’re not donating, it’s not that they’re not volunteering their time. I think there’s something like 63 millions volunteers in the United States. So there’s a particularly large number of people volunteering and they’re giving more money statistically. So we have to move towards that digital age to be able to engage that audience and then for non-profits to be able to take advantage of the people who are volunteering and want to give their time and money.

Nicole: Right. And you brought up the stat about volunteerism in America, that’s at about 25% and that percentage really hasn’t changed much. It’s pretty consistent.

Alex: Actually last year when we were working on this with you, it’s been declining. It’s gone from 29%, to 28%, to 27%, to 26%, to 25%.

Nicole: Yeah it kind of piggy backs.

Alex: And again people who want to volunteer, they’re not the types to drive to places and call. They look on the phone and if you’re not out there they don’t really know that you exist.

Nicole: Right. So yeah, it’s interesting. One of the preferences that the United Way report had for millennials and is a huge change for non-profits and something that they’re going to have to work at, I call it the dating model, because millennials give to and donate their time and money to multiple causes early in engagement. So they’re dating, they are not your commit right now, first time through the door, phone call kind of person. It’s interesting because that is a total switch from what non-profits are used to. They’re used to a long term committed, you walk through the door and your ours for the next three years answering the phones volunteering. That’s not going to happen.

Alex: They used to be kind of a corporate thing, right? You would go to work for a certain company and this company is committed there and is expecting their employees to be committed there.

Nicole: Correct.

Alex: But those kind of ties have fried and changed over the years.

Nicole: Some. I know there’s certain ones where it’s kind of corporate. America has kinda of corporate non-profits they deal with because it makes sense. So like Whirlpool and Habitat for Humanity. Their employees are expected to work or volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. And that makes sense, you’re making the washers and dryers, they’re the ones going in the home, it’s good. I get the connection. But you’re right, there’s somewhere it drops off because they can’t find the places easy enough for their employees.

Jason: So the Non-Profit Thrive platform is designed to kind of intercept this change in volunteerism and how people are interacting with their volunteer opportunities and how they donate by doing what? What is this specifically? What are the elements that NonProfitThrive.com platform?

Nicole: Actually one of the most important elements is that it’s actually designed around the volunteer. As far as the look of it, it’s a very simple looking website, non-threatening. We’re not trying to bombard anybody with sale pitches or anything like that. It’s there for the volunteer. We’re trying to take down all the barriers, as many as possible, for those volunteers to be able to start the process of volunteering. So I think that’s really important. But then under the hood of Non-Profit Thrive it’s really a powerful engine for non-profits because we gather the information they need, we help them manage their volunteers with volunteer lists. There’s a donate button so they can increase their donations right then and there while that potential volunteer has a heart and is looking for something to be involved in.

Then you take that piece, and all of a sudden we also connect that piece with the schools and businesses. That’s an element that’s never been even looked at before and yet you have these businesses and schools who are trying to cultivate a giving back culture and there’s been no way, until now with Non-Profit Thrive to actually truly connect them with these organizations. Because every platform, if there are matching platforms, they are siloed for just that organization and that means the volunteer then has to figure out and has to re-apply their information for every version of that. Where Non-Profit Thrive, everybody’s using one version, they’ve already got their account, all they have to do is fill out the paperwork for that particular non-profit. Which that would be no surprise, everybody does things differently once you’re a part of the organization.

So yeah it’s a complete system and the biggest reason is because it comes from the perspective of the volunteer, which is me.

Jason: So you built this platform really for yourself and how you interact with non-profits, along with the trends you’ve been seeing in how non-profits acquire their volunteers and how their volunteers donate. And then you also mentioned this element of how non-profits are managing their volunteers and the information that they need to have?

Nicole: Yeah. A non-profit is designated non-profit just because of tax codes. That doesn’t mean that they don’t need to bring in some money. They have to in order to continue their mission, in order to pay their staff. They still need to be able to function as a business in the sense of having good data to make good decisions for the future so there is a future. So Non-Profit Thrive helps them collect this data.

For example, once people start donating on Non-Profit Thrive and they get their list, they can start sorting that data to see the trends. Is this person volunteering as well as donating? What is the percentage of our volunteers that donate or don’t donate? You know, why would that be? Are they donating only in December, are they donating other times of the year? They can start looking at that and really making some forward thinking decisions on, “When would be the best time to do a capital campaign?” For example. If they’ve got one month in there that seems to be a high month of donation, I would say that would be a good time to start a capital campaign.

Jason: You’re seeing that, from your experience, non-profits many of them don’t utilize data in the best fashion.

Nicole: Right.

Alex: From my experience with non-profits, and I’ve been on a few boards, they do use data but it takes forever and a staffer has to compile it because it’s usually paper or in a computer where you’ve got to run a report. And one of the statistics was that 71% of non-profit professionals site staff shortage as a challenge in the face of planning new digital strategy. With your system it’s push button.

Nicole: Right. Exactly and again part of the passion behind Non-Profit Thrive is I really want non-profits to stop having to do the minutia. It’s not that they don’t have good intentions, it’s not that they don’t know they need the data, it’s that they don’t have the staff or they’re just dealing with so much other things that sometimes just getting to their own mission is hard to do. You know they’re trying to just keep the doors open. So it has become a big issue and I created NonProfitThrive.com, hence the name Non-Profit Thrive, to truly free them up to be able to do mission driven items.

Alex: Most of it’s [inaudible 00:15:33] non-profits are not filled with experts, right? Large non-profits like United Way, they have data analysts and things like that.

Nicole: Correct.

Alex: But most of them are just people who were in the organization and they just kind of worked their way up the later. They don’t know how to use the digital programs and they don’t have the money to bring somebody in with that kind of expertise.

Nicole: Correct.

Alex: So in this case, well let’s talk a little more about the kiosk system because one of the things you talked about was tracking. Tracking time automatically. So how does that work and how does that help?

Nicole: Sure. So the kiosk is actually, we call it the kiosk mode, because the platforms has the ability to go into a mode where it replaces a paper sign in. So instead of somebody having to actually take that piece of paper, do the data entry, figure out where it goes and then figure out where it goes from there; what Non-Profit Thrive does, the volunteer just signs in using a phone number. They’ve got their account, if they don’t it just prompts them to quickly do an account, and once the event is done, because it’s already in the system, the hours are instantly recorded to that non-profit’s dashboard so they can start using that data to the volunteer’s dashboard, so if they want it for their records. Then if there is a third party, school or business, that wants to have those hours because again they are requiring them, those hours can actually be sent directly to them as well. So there is no more trying to hunt down any hours and trying to call six months after the fact and again non-profit dealing with the minutia of trying to find that piece of paper.

Jason: Right. We were at the food bank several months ago and one of the sign in process there was on a pad of paper you write down your name and your phone number and that proves that you were there. And then they take all that information and enter it in by hand into an excel spreadsheet, from what I saw, and then information is derived from that of which they get the reporting. So you’re saying, that your platform eliminates all of that paperwork shuffling back and forth and the time consuming process of running your own reports?

Nicole: Correct.

Jason: Okay, got ya.

Nicole: Yep and because it’s instant you’re not waiting for someone to do that data entry. Right? Again it’s a business, a school. You know if somebody did their hours and it’s a week before graduation, they’ve got those numbers right away. So yeah, you’re taking away that piece of it. Again you’re freeing up that staff persons time to do something much more valuable.

Jason: Right. I would guess that many of our listeners really have no idea what happens behind the scenes at non-profits. I think it’s been eye opening for me to go with you and meet many of these folks and understand, “Boy these folks are really overworked.”

Nicole: Oh yeah.

Jason: I mean there’s one person managing ten different things at a time and to try to do good in a community and then answer to a board. And everybody who takes advantage of these services, many of them are unwilling to give their time and then there’s a lot of other people who would be willing but they don’t even know that there are opportunities. So it’s been very eye opening to me, to see that there is such a gap in technology and a gap in the ability for volunteers to find the opportunities when they are in fact interested and then the necessity that manages; reduces the workload and manages a lot of the volunteering for the directors. I think that’s great.

Alex: So this is not something that you stumbled upon. What happened here? You woke up one day and you’re like, “Here’s how all of these things are going to connect. It’s just an amazing thing and wrote it all down.”

Nicole: Of course. Absolutely, that’s the entrepreneur story right there.

Jason: Our podcasts is always about what works and then by definition what doesn’t work. So tell us what, from your experience, what works? What are the key things in your journey? What’s kept you going? And then maybe on the flip side, if anything comes to mind, you know what have been the challenges? What hasn’t worked?

Nicole: So I am actually a chiropractor by degree and my husband and I own our own chiropractor office. This really was for my situation, me stepping out in faith. I felt a calling that this was something I needed to do and I had no idea what it would look like. I just kept taking a step. That’s the analogy, “How do you eat the elephant?” Right? All that. The picture, the vision that I have for Non-Profit Thrive is ginormous so I have to just keep taking a step and be patient with it, otherwise I wouldn’t probably keep going because it – but I know that it’s there because I see it so firmly.

Jason: So you see a completed vision in your head.

Nicole: Absolutely.

Jason: You see how it all comes together. Our listeners don’t have the luxury of seeing you now but you can feel it. You can feel it in your soul, can’t you?

Nicole: Yeah absolutely. And what’s interesting, is the first version of the site had a different name than the whole thing. It’s not that I didn’t feel it then, I just knew that it wasn’t quite right and yet I still knew I needed to keep going to find that piece. I’ll never forget, I was talking to a gentleman and I give my joke that God doesn’t read resumes after I say that I’m a chiropractor by degree cause I usually get a good smile or smirk out of it and the gentleman that I was talking to, and I truly was at a point where I was like, “I don’t know if I am supposed to keep going,” and the gentlemen turned to me, looked me square in my eyes and said, “God has you exactly where you’re supposed to be. You’re supposed to right here, right now, doing this.” And it was one of those that had anyone else said that to me I would have been, “Oh thanks.” But here’s a gentleman that I didn’t know other than his name and what he did, because I’d met him once before and I was like, “Alright, let’s do this.”

Jason: So connect them then. How does work in your mind and your experience? How does you being in the right place, exactly where you need to be, how does that work when things are working and then maybe when things aren’t working? How do you process that and move through it?

Nicole: Because I know it’s a process, it’s all good even when things don’t work. It’s truly all good because I know it’s a process, again I see the big vision. So whatever I need to do along the way, and the bumps and bruises that come along with that, it’s going to get me to that vision so I’m cool.

Jason: Do you have any specific examples of something that has really worked [inaudible 00:22:53] and then maybe a specific example of the opposite of that, when it feels like you’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

Nicole: You got me on the spot with that one. It’s the quietness, that’s when you get nervous as an entrepreneur.

Jason: How so?

Nicole: Well because you don’t know yet. Everybody’s a “No” if you never ask the question. So if you ask the question and they haven’t given you the answer yet, that’s when you’re on the pins and needles like, “Come on, come on, come on.” And you have to realize that they have other things to do themselves. You know this is my life, my dream, my vision.

Jason: It sounds like your talking specifically about when you’re going to talk to people about the platform.

Nicole: Yeah.

Jason: And back comes nothing and you’re just holding out there. Waiting for something out of your control.

Nicole: Here I am. Yep. That’s the hardest part but in all honestly it then teaches patience. This isn’t a race, this is a process. Everything is being done in a timely fashion, whether I think so or not.

Alex: Well the interesting challenge you face is like the chicken and the egg. If I open a retail business, I have decided on what the product is, it’s my job to go find customers, right? In your case, you’re trying to build two audiences simultaneously. I mean Facebook didn’t even do that. You just opened it up and they started talking to each other. In this case you have to get non-profits who are a little bit technology phobic to get their events on there, at the same time trying to get your name out to the volunteers to connect them with.

Nicole: Yep.

Alex: How much of a challenge has that been? You know, which group to go after? Are you trying to get both at the same time?

Nicole: This might sound odd but I try not to think about it too much because if I do then I get into that vicious cycle of, “Which one should I be focusing on?” And the answers both. And learning not to spend time on those that truly don’t get it yet. And that’s okay. They’ll get it eventually. So I talk to both groups, somebody’s going to come along and they have, to bring it to the surface but I don’t necessarily target one or the other because they both do have to come along at the same time. And I make sure that I focus on the ones that are interested, that truly get it and want, whether it’s the non-profit that truly wants their non-profit to stay around for a few more years, and or the volunteer groups. You know, the schools etc, that are truly honest about their giving back culture, that they want to have that easy platform for their population to utilize. So yeah, it’s patience, just a lot of patience.

Alex: How about messaging? In this journey of yours what have you learned about maybe your pitch or your message? Have you shortened it, changed it, sharpened it? What are the things that you’ve learned through these meetings with these different groups?

Nicole: Yeah absolutely. Every pitch is different, it gets tweaked a little bit because of who you are speaking with and I have to be prepared for an out of the box comment to come my way. Like I had one that said, “Oh my gosh, we just purchased something just like this and they do everything just like this.” And in my mind I’m screaming, “No they don’t, I’m telling you they don’t because you haven’t seen the rest of the pitch yet. I’m telling you they don’t.” So I let her talk and I said, “Okay.” She asked about the tracking and I told her how and I said, “Well we do ours a little bit differently so you might want to bear with me.” So we get to that point and I could see her eyes get really big and I could see her body language probably a little upset that they had purchased anything. Especially when I said, “It’s free.” So that’s where my pitches, I scream in my head a lot and I pray my face doesn’t show it.

Alex: Then suddenly comes your task to continue with the message, which through some of the barriers by lowering them or communicating through them more clearly, what your value proposition is?

Nicole: Right. Yep and it’s interesting too because I’m going to your point earlier of the chicken and the egg. I’ve got two different groups that I’m going after that I want to show value with my pitch on how we effect all the groups. So that’s been interesting too because some care to hear about that and some don’t. They just want to know how to fix them personally. That’s kind of been interesting too.

Alex: So one of the characteristics that we talked about was patience. What has been another characteristic of pushing beyond in this entrepreneurial journey?

Nicole: Stay away from the self doubt because that creeps in cause you’re going to have your good days and your bad days. So when the self doubt starts creeping in you’ve got to wipe it away and look at that vision again. And it’s okay to change. That’s what I did. I did a huge pivot to get to where we are right now and that’s okay. I’ve heard others who knew me from the very beginning who have said, “I’m so proud of you. You listened to your audience, you listened to your audience and you changed. You didn’t complain about it.” And I don’t because it’s not about me. This is a greater vision, this is a greater goal.

Jason: How do you merge those two things? A vision you see so clearly, feel it in your soul, and then merge that with some things work, some things don’t work and then you pivot with the needs of your audience. How do those things work together, holding the vision and then pivoting with the needs of your audience?

Nicole: Because the vision is the needs of my audience, ultimately. Now I am the audience as far as it comes from my eyes as why it was created, as a volunteer being on the board of directors, around profits et cetera. But I certainly don’t know all the ends and outs of every non-profit or every volunteer need and all that. So I absolutely want to hear from all those entities and what their needs are. So that’s honestly the easiest part because it is all about them, so the vision can sustain itself very easily because of that.

Jason: Let’s talk a little bit about the fun of being an entrepreneur because it’s a totally different thing than what you were doing before.

Nicole: Yeah.

Jason: One of our favorite little things is the pen.

Alex: Yeah, tell us about that pen.

Nicole: No, I don’t want to tell anybody about the pen. The pen is awesome.

Alex: Well then don’t tell us about the pen.

Nicole: I can’t give away my secrets, jeepers. When I’d gone to different events, where I’ve been a vendor, you know I’ve been the person at vendor shows where you’re walking by really fast cause you don’t want to talk to the vendors. So I came up with a little stick to make them come over to my table and it was, “Did you get your coffee scented pen?” And they were laser focused to walk by me until those words hit their brain and then it was, “I’m sorry my what?” So it’s quite a phenomenon. Yeah they came over and got at least to introduce them to Non-Profit Thrive and most of the people were so happy that I called them over for a coffee scented pen.

Alex: Yeah it’s been quite the door opener for you.

Nicole: Yeah because they were like really, “Man I wondered what you did.”

Alex: So what I’d like to do, I’d like to make a recommendation to our audience that if they want to know anything about coffee scented pens and how they can use those to their advantage then they should probably contact you.

Nicole: Absolutely.

Alex: So Nicole, what would you say to yourself looking back on the hand full of years you’ve been doing this NonProfitThrive.com thing. Knowing what you know now, what would you say to yourself if you were first starting out if you could talk to that person?

Nicole: I wouldn’t want to.

Alex: Why is that?

Nicole: Because the process of learning it has gotten me here. If I went back and said anything to myself I might have screwed it up. I’m good. The goods and bad, I’m good. It’s been a great experience, yeah. So I wouldn’t. I’d shut myself up.

Jason: Well on that note, saying nothing to your former self.

Nicole: Saying nothing.

Jason: Because you’re good. We’d like to thank you for being on this podcast. It’s always a pleasure to see you. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you, learn more about your life and where you’re headed. Thanks Nicole and NonProfitThrive.com.

Nicole: Yeah, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.