Blog by Paul Ginsberg
“This year’s story has been panic, pause and pivot!”
Patience and Persistence
“People tend to overestimate what can be done in one year and to underestimate what can be done in five or 10 years” famously attributed to Bill Gates (but credited to quite a few others too).
Towards the end of the year, we tend to make resolutions on what we will achieve in the next year. I’m writing this piece to share some of my experience and give you encouragement for what’s to come if you need it! It also shows the work that goes on behind the scenes, helping charitable aims come together and be turned into reality.
There are endless articles highlighting overnight successes, but this hides the fact that most businesses aren’t overnight successes; they’re the result of lots of hard, consistent, work. Sometimes it’s important to look through the marketing, ignore the exceptions, and to see what the necessary practical steps are, to get you to your destination!
For today’s example, I’m going to take you into the world of a charity I volunteer for. For what it’s worth, I find principles are exactly the same in any small business (I work in both sectors).
The Together Plan (TTP) began in 2009 when now-CEO Debra Brunner found that there were whole communities with potential, but disenfranchised, in the former USSR. After four years’ worth of projects, from running student exchanges to fundraising, it was only in 2013 that it became logistically necessary to become incorporated as a charity.
In 2014, I first encountered TTP at an awareness-raising event (actually it was a film screening, which of course highlights that how you market your activities is very important). It was only at the third event, the following year, that I sat down with Debra for a personal conversation.
We introduced ourselves and had a chat. I volunteered my support although I had no idea what form that could take. “I could do with a database,” said Debra, once she discovered my line of work.
So a few weeks later I went to Debra’s home to see what I could do, and thus began my own journey with TTP.
“Debra, you don’t need a database, you need to be able to save files to your hard disk – it’s out of space!” was my initial appraisal once I started digging.
It took about 6 months to sort out some very basic, but time-consuming, IT issues and get Debra’s mobile phone address book extracted, uploaded and onto Salesforce, our chosen database (licenses kindly provided by Salesforce.org’s donation program).
I would like to say that progress since then has been slow and steady, but this isn’t the truth. In 2015, when I really started volunteering, TTP “just” had two passionate founders (Debra and her counterpart in Belarus, Artur Livshyts), together with a team of six young adult volunteers.
Now it has six paid members of staff and 35 volunteers. TTP is largely run by volunteers so there have been hiccups as the volunteers have got permanent jobs elsewhere and are no longer available, taking organisational knowledge with them. We’ve tried various activities (a dining club pyramid scheme was briefly considered!), trying to work out what is successful and sustainable, and what isn’t. We’ve also had distractions on route such as money-making projects, which take up leadership time with activities which don’t contribute to our strategic aims. All these are challenges which we’ve encountered and learned from. And you’ll note that I say “we” now because I feel very much part of the family.
Getting the Fundamentals Right
But one thing – it turns out – we’ve done correctly. Ever since Debra’s realisation, in 2014, that TTP needed tools to help it grow, we’ve been a technology-aware charity. The question has always been “Where does Salesforce, our single source of truth, fit into this?”
With limited staff and funds, we’re all about automation. We’ve learnt to try a new concept using pen, paper and Excel spreadsheets for a few weeks, to see if the idea takes off (some don’t!) and then we transfer to Salesforce.
These days, we use Asperato to manage our regular-donors scheme. When looking into this option, we realised that once it was set up, we could use it for all our event attendances and one-off donations too. Set up once, benefit forevermore (minus the inevitable on-going annual charges).
We use Campaign Monitor for Salesforce to manage our mailing list. People get automatically added and removed, its fully GDPR compliant, and our office staff can get on with more useful and interesting things, rather than manually add and remove email addresses, unlike our previous system.
The same team has just launched their all-new Eventbrite integration, so we’re looking into that too (with much excitement at TTP that it is on the horizon)
Lastly, we use FormTitan for collecting data from our volunteers, capturing the hours that they are donating to us; keeping records of how many people attend our more informal activities. This is crucial to us, as it gives us the metrics to show our funders the impact we are having, year-on-year, and to help with grant applications, so we can do even more.
All of these tools are either Salesforce-native or tightly integrate into Salesforce, meaning that all our volunteers and staff just have to learn the one main system to benefit from all the information that we have.
Enter the Pandemic
To quote Debra “This year’s story has been panic, pause and pivot!”
I have spent a lot of time working over the years with TTP, but this year slightly less. In the meantime, because the foundations have been laid in place, the charity has been able to grow. They focused on their mission statement and ensured that all the activities added value to that.
This year’s summer camp became a virtual event, with our Salesforce-powered mailing list (Campaign Monitor) being able to communicate with everyone in a timely fashion. Donations were taken via the website (and again into Salesforce) for events, actually raising more money than for traditional in-person activities. Sadly the mother of one of our better-known backers passed away and we were able to have an “in memoriam” donation page up on the same day.
Another example. Our volunteers also had the space to reset and think about the enquiries that have come into our charity over the years. One of the main lines is about genealogical research in Belarus, for which we have access to unique resources. It contributes to our mission both financially and logistically, many of the stories are contributing to the creation of a heritage trail and facilitates connections between current communities in Belarus and the diaspora.
This work really took off this year, when one family shared their story within a Facebook group which led to explosive growth in enquiries. A call was placed with me, and these inquiries became Opportunities on Salesforce very quickly. All the relevant fields were created, with drop-down options so that our volunteers could ask the right questions. This way we also ensured that funds were paid before we started any work!
In Debra’s words “Salesforce stopped us from becoming overwhelmed, and we can now keep a track of all our genealogical research programs, working with our paid researchers in Belarus, with ease.” Or to put it another way, putting the right strategy in at the beginning has really paid off (it can also be thought of as the domino effect).
The hard work pays off
This year feels hugely successful but Debra recently told me “None of it would have been possible without all the effort that has been put into getting the best out of Salesforce, especially the regular training. It is immensely rewarding to see that The Together Plan is achieving more than ever before. We couldn’t do it without Salesforce underpinning everything we do. It just rocks!”