Watch the Interview

Russell DennisRussell Dennis is a SynerVision WayFinder assisting leaders of nonprofit in running a high performing charity generating enough income to achieve their mission.

When you decide to make a difference in the world on your own terms, Russell Dennis is someone it is worthwhile to have a conversation with before you start. His unique blend of experiences coupled with the business an personal challenges he has overcome can help you avoid pitfalls that set you back. Focusing on nonprofit difference makers, he provides easy to access, understand and implement tools that get you results and move you and your organization in the direction you want to go.


Read the Interview

Hugh Ballou: Greetings to this episode of The Nonprofit Exchange. It’s Hugh and Russell, and we are joined by our colleague Flo Lattery in Denver, who has great experience in a number of areas. I am surprised by her experience every day. Today we are going to talk about some programs that are just getting launched. I don’t know when you are listening to this, but you can find at We will post some links in the copy once we get some clarity. They are just so new right now the ink is still wet.

Russell, you are on this podcast as a regular co-host. I am not sure if people know a whole lot about you and your background. Tell us a little bit about you here and your background and what led you to this area of expertise you are going to share here with us today.

Russell Dennis: Thanks, Hugh. Hello, everybody. Happy New Year. We are back at it here for 2018. My employment career in earnest, the biggest part of it started with market research services in 1980. I started working there, doing interviews, and participating in focus groups and that type of thing. Before, I joined the U.S. Air Force, where I served for 11 years. After my Air Force career, I sold advertising for television commercial spots. I did a stint with print advertising. After college, I was economic and community development director for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, a recognized Indian tribe. I spent a year at child development services in northern Maine as the business director for the Aroostook County site. From there, I proceeded to Denver, Colorado, where I spent five years as an auditor in the Small Business/Self-Employed Division of the IRS. That is the journey in a nutshell.

From there, after some health problems that I recovered from nicely, I decided that beating people up for money was no fun. I looked at real estate and a few other things that didn’t really excite me. I went back to what brought passion in me, and that was actually going out and helping people. I got a chance to do that with the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and Child Development Services in operation with nonprofit type operations. That was an interesting education on the ground. If I had known what I didn’t know when I started, I might have run for the exit screaming. But I did not. I just had to roll up my sleeves and try, and I did a lot of things by trial and error. Today, I like to try and help organizations that are helping people avoid some of those holes I fell into so they can go out and make a difference without feeling like they are under the gun all the time.

Hugh: Sweet. You had two programs that we are going to talk about today. What are the names of them? Why did you create them? What is the benefit of people looking at these programs?

Russell: The first program I created was Four Steps to Building a High Performance Nonprofit. What I found out in people that I work with, I work with some agencies that didn’t have any support, and I worked in organizations I named before. We didn’t have a systematic process for going out and getting the people that we needed or connecting with people or to come up with sustainable funding. We didn’t have any systems for any of that. As a result of that, we were working in emergency, where chaos was the order of the day. We got a lot of things done, but it could have been a lot easier if we’d had the right systems and stand back and got clear on what it is we were about from the get-go and had a systematic plan to reach out to people who would be most likely to support what we’re doing. That is the first course.

Our newest course, which will be ready within two weeks, is Building Successful Fundraising Plans. This addresses what is popularly known as the elephant in the room. It addresses money. How do we go about getting money? There are a lot of revenue streams in there. This course is designed to show nonprofit leaders what all of their options are and how they can go about doing this in a systematic manner that will actually serve them so that they can create a sustainable plan and not raise money in emergency mode.

Hugh: Not in emergency mode. With your work inside of a charity, what are some of the biggest challenges that you’re addressing with these two programs?

Russell: One of the things that is really critical is to have a team of people out there doing the work so that everything is not left in the lap of one person. Fundraising is something that has to become part of the culture where you are doing it across the board. Everybody needs the tools to talk about your organization in the way that engages people. You need to be able to go out and find the people who will support you. You need to be doing things that are really centered on what you’re good at. A lot of people waste time trying to fix weaknesses and invest a lot more time trying to fill gaps, trying to deal with weaknesses rather than working to their strengths.

One area that I saw that was really problematic was getting people to collaborate with other agencies. You can even have that problem within your own organization if it’s big enough, getting people on the same page to collaborate. It’s working to your strengths and finding out what you don’t have. Maybe looking at some alternative ways to go out and get them.

Some organizations rely on grant funding exclusively, or one other source of funding, and they have most of their eggs in one basket. They don’t have enough different streams of revenue to take care of the tough periods. Some sources of funding are better than others depending on your situation. That is something we look at. What type of funding is right for you? What are some of the things that are out there? What is good about them? What is bad about them? Everything has advantages and disadvantages. You have to really take a long look, and it’s important to have all of those tools out there.

That is why I created the Building Successful Fundraising Plans course because it’s a very broad field, and there are a lot of options out there. Understanding what is going to work for you, what some of the advantages are is really helpful. To get those building blocks to actually put a plan together, and that is what that course is designed to do. You won’t necessarily be an expert, but you will definitely understand how to identify what it is that you’re doing, who you serve, what you’re best at, who the people are who will most likely support you, how to reach them, and how to go about getting some of those resources.

Hugh: Did you stop talking?

Russell: I had to come up for air. Like the fundraising course, this is the new one, this is something that is difficult for people. The Four Steps to Building a High Performance Nonprofit, I put together because there are a lot of people that may not necessarily be in alignment and clear on their goals. They are out there doing a lot of different things when they haven’t defined what it is they are really all about. You have to get clear on what is most important to you so that you’re working from those strengths and you get all of the resources you need and create systems within the organization that will support your work going forward.

First, you start by building a solid foundation. That’s getting clear on your DNA. Why should you support us? Who are we? You want to get that as succinct and clear as you can. Who are the people that will go with you? You build your leadership team, and you decide what your core values are.

Once you get people on the same page with that, the second step is to create effective action plans. You eat an elephant one bit at a time. You look at all the things you want to do, and most organizations are set up with the idea of creating massive impact. To do that, you have to reverse engineer everything. In the module on building effective action plans, we look at ways to do that, break things down into manageable chunks and look at what is most important first. Then we build the step by step plan to actually accomplish that and to break things down in a way that you’re able to look at what it is that I need to do day to day.

The third module is to stay on track. You have to measure everything you do, both as an organization and with your programs that you put out there. Staying on track talks about the evaluation of your programs, how to design programs to make sure you get measurable results, and how to measure whether your organization is effective in its primary areas. That is what staying on track is about.

The fourth module, communicating the value that you bring, is how to talk to your various audiences, where you are doing analyses on the people that get your services or donors. You look at potential funding sources. Break down what it is that is important for them so that you can talk to them in the language that is relevant to them because it’s about these people we are serving, not about us. The language we use has to resonate with them. Communicating value, I don’t hear a conversation about value when you talk with nonprofits. People talk about impact, but what it is is value. People are looking for value. Where are people that you serve starting? Where are you going to bring them? How important is that? Everybody has different views on what the value is. But you have it. That is why we spend a lot of time on the front end looking at who you are and getting that DNA down so that you can communicate that effectively. That is what that fourth module is about.

It is a course you could really do as you are getting ready to start an organization. I think it’s easier to start with the right building blocks. If you are an established organization and you are having some difficulty, it is still useful to go through all of these processes in the Four Steps to Building a High Performance Nonprofit course to help right the ship as it were. Maybe you lost sight of some things, suffered because you looked for grant money or something that wasn’t exactly in your wheelhouse. Hey, it sounds like good money, so let’s go for it. We don’t want you to do that. You’re less effective that way. This is a course that can help people.

Hugh: They both will. You have given us a whole lot of data here. I want to unpack some of it. Before I go there, Russell is one of the certified what we call WayFinders with SynerVision Leadership Foundation. Why don’t you explain a little bit about the difference between a consultant and a WayFinder?

Russell: A WayFinder is somebody that actually doesn’t come in with the answers for you because there are so many organizations, everybody is unique, and that is why you need to spend time really figuring out what your DNA is. Everybody is different. You have different personalities. You have different ways of approaching people. WayFinders are people that walk in and ask all the right questions. It’s asking the right questions that is important, not coming in and saying, “We have a prescription for you.” You have unique resources, unique talents, and unique genius. It’s important to build from your strengths and work in the way that resonates with you. That is what WayFinders do.

Hugh: I really resonate, and this is part of what we teach together on this. Let’s not spend time on all of those skills that we have that will never be a 10 on a scale of 1-10. Why not spend time on 6, 7, and 8, getting them to a 9 or 10, and then delegate things that are 5 and below to somebody that already has a high number in that skillset? I think we spend a lot of time majoring in minor things, as the old saying goes, in any kind of leadership.

As we stay focused, stay on track, what do you see are some of the challenges that people have on staying on track? I think you’re right. The DNA, the grounding, who we are, what we are doing, why we are doing it, what the impact of our work is, all of that foundational stuff, is really critical. Otherwise, we are not going to track any funding. We have a good cause. We know it, but we can’t communicate it. Part of what I’m hearing is the exercise of going through and clarifying all of those elements then gives you a clear idea. There is a scripting piece there. How do people equip themselves with a script about what’s important? The other question I asked and didn’t give you a chance to answer was: What are the biggest

of time that want to get us off track? Focusing on staying on track is one of the things you help people do.

Russell: Part of the difficulty of staying on track is we don’t always know what to measure. That really starts with program design, when you actually create your programs, it’s important to know what it is that you want to give people. Where do they start? Where do you want to go ultimately? You may have to do that in stages, which means you have to do multiple programs. That is a really important thing to look at. If you design these programs and you have your measures built in, then it will work. But in order for your evaluation program to be effective, it has to be easy for the people who are working directly with your clients to keep the data that you need and to measure those results. If it’s too difficult or too complicated, they are not going to use it. This is important as far as looking at what people are doing. For communicating that value, you have to be able to relate with your clients very closely and pull those stories out of them so that you can tell those stories to people who are supporting you. Storytelling is really important for nonprofits.

Hugh: Let’s deal with that scripting piece that you are talking about now. A lot of people have a lot of good ideas. They are not able to put them into an articulate script that is not too long. It’s like they want to tell everybody everything about every thought they would be doing. It has a negative impact on the person they’re talking to as far as vying interest and making a commitment for making a donation or any other kind of funding. Deal with how do you take all of this foundational discovery that we create, which sometimes can be more words than we want to use in making a presentation. You are a gifted writer, I know. I have seen lots of your good stuff. How do you transition, or how do you help people transition from all of the content ideas into what is the appropriate script for the appropriate audience?

Russell: It’s breaking that language down. We really have to get to a core message, which is okay. Why would you support us, or why should I give you money? It’s boiling it down. There are a lot of things people do. But we have to boil it down to those basic things because it resonates with people everywhere. If you can do that in a sentence, that is the key. That is why throughout the four steps, there is a lot of reflective exercises in there, a lot of discussion that you’ll have with your team because you are going to have to boil it down to the most critical thing. There are a lot of things in there that you are. Once you got that DNA statement, then it spills over into everything you do. It’s a very smooth transition from why we should support you to why should I make a donation to why should I fund your grant? That transition gets to be smooth. Why would I come to your event? When your DNA is boiled into that, it becomes clear so that you can translate that for every different audience that you have. Why would we use your programs? What’s different about your nonprofit versus this other one? The idea is to look for where, through this process, you are working in an area but maybe there are some gaps in the services that are available. This is where you want to try to move and operate. It’s no different than in a business per se because if you got a lot of nonprofits working in the same area and duplicating the same services, and people are not coming to a place where you want to get them, the question is: What’s missing? The piece where we look at analyzing who these customers are, we do that with the people who are getting your services. You are going to have to talk to a lot of these folks to find out, Okay, where are you going, who are you working with, what’s working for you, what’s not working for you? You’re filling the gap. You might be solving the same problem, whether that’s hunger or housing. But there are a lot of other people doing it. In order to track support, you want to find a unique angle on that that you can fill with what you got in-house or to collaborate with people to solve. It’s a process. It’s definitely a process.

Hugh: You have spoken before about finding out what other people are interested in. If you want to recruit board members, what are they interested in? It could be the same for donors, right? How do you have that dialogue?

Russell: Well, we keep that dialogue going between people who are in the organization. That is a dialogue that is ongoing with everybody internally. We go out and talk to people that we are going to serve, but we also look at who these prospective donors are going to be or get a sense of who is in the community that we are serving. In this process, we analyze customers from every angle. They may be grant writers. They may be individual donors. They may be people who are using the services. We do an analysis on people who may be coming as volunteers. What are we looking for in a servant leader or volunteer? What are we looking for in prospective board members? What is it they want from this process? Why are they supporting your organization? It is important to know why these different multitudes of people are using and supporting your agency so you can communicate that to others who might be interested. It may become your champions. You get testimonials for everything you do. It’s a constant process of connecting, communicating, and staying in touch. Talk to the people in the language that matters to them. Donors are going to have different motivations than people who get your services.

Hugh: That would require building relationship, having a conversation, and learning more about them. Sometimes they say they don’t have time for that.

Russell: You have to make time to build those relationships. People are finding out, no matter what sort of industry you’re in, whether that’s for-profit or nonprofit, that it’s all about the relationships you have.

Hugh: Flo has been listening actively to what you’re saying. Flo, what kind of questions do you have? Give him a hard question. Let’s stump Russell. He normally gives out the hard questions; let’s give him some.

Flo Lattery: I am thinking in terms of people who are just starting their nonprofits, and you have people who are established. What are you seeing as the struggles and the difficulties between those two groups? Are they common issues? Are they common approaches to solving those problems? Do they have different approaches? How do you approach those two groups?

Russell: One common issue is leader overfunctioning. You have a handful of leaders who have started off, maybe the founders themselves that are starting off the organization that is built on their DNA. They may be really phenomenal and able to do a lot of things, but they can’t step away, they can’t take a vacation. They run the organization with an iron hand. As a result, people don’t stay. So that’s a situation that is pretty common: to have a few people that can do a few things and they are trying to do everything and are burning out and not really taking the time to recruit the right volunteers, the right board members. That is something that happens for both groups of organizations. If you start out on the wrong foot, there are people who want to support you, but do they bring the skills, knowledge, connections, and other things that you need to grow to the table? If not, or what is it they want out of it? A lot of times, people aren’t clear on what they want out of the experience. Those are pretty common problems. Money is always an issue. With the established organizations, they typically will hit a place where they plateaued. They don’t seem to be growing or attracting new support. The biggest thing is donor retention. They get people, but they are not keeping the ones that they get.

Flo: For those owners that are the ones you just described, they are the head cook and bottom washer. They think they have to do everything themselves; they really haven’t taken the time to build an organization. Sometimes I think it’s just that the intention is there, they just never got around to doing it. They are in the hamster wheel. They are doing what they’re doing over and over again. They haven’t taken the pause to say, “How do I get the help I need? How do I get the structure I need?” How do you achieve that mindset?

Russell: It takes a lot of effort, especially if you get somebody who has been effective and a power driver and great at making some connections, but has just done everything her/himself. It’s what that book The Founder’s Dilemma talks about. They get ahold of it. This is my baby. I want this done. Maybe I need some help, but who can I trust? It would be quicker for me just to do it myself than to show somebody how to do it or to bring somebody in. Often, it’s an issue of saving money, saving time, which over the long haul after a while leads to that burnout. You just can’t do everything.

When everything looks like an opportunity, there are people that are serial entrepreneurs who just go out and grab it. Yes, it might be something that fits, but you really got to have an idea of what your big picture looks like and decide what needs to be done first. If you do too many things at once, if you don’t have that infrastructure, you are bound to crash. You have to take that step back and do the most important things first. Once you get a system built for how you put these things in the can, it becomes like clockwork. You got the right people. Then you can draw that support and expand.

Growth is a problem for a lot of organizations. You have to have those right people and put people in places so that you as an executive director or CEO are doing only the things that nobody else can do. You are handing everything else off to your team.

Flo: Thank you.

Hugh: Well, that’s a good piece of wisdom. Russ, you and I both have seen executives doing way too much. They are trying to do it all, and they are robbing team members of an opportunity to do some meaningful work. They are thinking they’re being helpful, but they’re really not. They are getting burned out, and the team is frustrated. It’s a downward spiral. You talked about other streams of revenue earlier. The saying is, If you have one stream of revenue, you have a 100% chance of going broke. Speak about diversifying those income streams.

Russell: There are a lot of different types of revenue out there that people may or may not have thought about. You can over-rely on one specific stream to your detriment. You don’t necessarily have to have 12 or 14. The idea is to have a number of streams. You can come to a place where you’ve got so many different streams that you’re not handling any of them effectively. It’s really looking at the industry you’re in and what opportunities you have to bring value. Some nonprofits by their nature or by their structure or by the business they’re in, they will be able to generate what’s called mission-based income, which is where you are charging fees for services or programs that you’re running. You can do that as part of your mission. There are nonprofits that have businesses completely unrelated, and the advantage to that is you can focus on profits more so than missions. That is a different revenue stream.

A lot of nonprofits rely on grant funding. Grants come from a number of places. Government agencies, different foundations. We have a detailed chart that comes in the course that talks about advantages and disadvantages of different funding sources and revenue streams. A lot of times, your biggest stream of funds will come from donations from individuals. Those come in a lot of different flavors, both short- and long-term. The key advantage of having individuals donate is your largest source of giving is an ongoing source that you can build. Volunteers are also a good source of money. Developing these relationships can be costly, and you may need to have a lot of small donors. It takes time to build up. If you don’t have a broad base of service appeal, it could be hard to build. It’s tricky if you’re not experienced at doing it. You’ll need significant assistance from your board of directors and supporters. Those are some of the pros and cons. You have to build those relationships. It starts by turning small donors into big donors. We cover corporations, churches, and community foundations of different sizes in the course. Those are just some of the things that we talk about as far as different sources of revenue. We have some information in there on where to look and do some of that research and how to measure how effective you are at keeping donors.

Hugh: Keeping donors. I’ve heard of that before. People get complacent, and donors lose interest because we don’t continue with that relationship that we started out with. Are there other reasons that donors fall off the map or charities get complacent?

Russell: Sometimes people support more than one cause, and if you don’t keep hold of their interest or cultivate things or talk about things they are interested in, they won’t stay with you. It’s educating them and recognizing them. Every time you reach out to them, you shouldn’t necessarily be asking them for money. You should spend a lot of time thanking them and showing them how their money is creating the impact that they signed on with you for. Look at growing the donors to get them to come back. That’s why it’s important to stay in touch with them: to keep them coming back and to ask them to do more to support you. Donors are a good source of volunteers or servant leaders. Servant leaders are a good source of donations. If they will roll up their sleeves and invest their time, they will probably write you a check as well. Depends on what you’re doing.

Hugh: Whoa. That’s right. Flo, you have another question, I can tell.

Flo: What are some of the aspects of motivating your donors and contributors? How do you keep them motivated?

Russell: It’s that staying in touch and finding different ways to thank them. If you feature these folks in your programs and events, you talk to others about how their work is supporting the organization so that they know that they are appreciated. It’s important to do donor appreciation events where you are not asking for money, but you are just recognizing some of your donors and making a big deal about how their contributions are contributing to your work. It’s always staying in touch.

Part of staying on track, the knowledge we talked about there, is finding ways to measure what you’re doing. That involves some conversation. Maybe surveys, find different reasons to reach out and ask what it is they think about what you’re doing, what you can do better, what they’d like to see more of. They are passionate about your cause. Why not actually leverage this brain power from people that support you, whether they are your clients or your donors? They are all willing to share their opinions if you reach out and ask.

Flo: We just went through year-end, and there is always a big push at year-end to donate and get matching or tax-deductibility. Do you know if there is going to be negative impacts to contributors and donors based on the new tax bill?

Russell: I’m not very familiar with that. I have started looking at that. It definitely favors the higher income givers. I think we could see a little bit of a downturn because after this year, donors who don’t itemize will not be able to take those deductions. I don’t know how many people that is going to impact, but it is possible that that will impact the amount that comes in.

Flo: How do organizations compensate for that?

Russell: It’s important to communicate that value that you’re bringing and stating to those audiences. That is going to be the key: the power of relationships that you have is going to determine whether people continue to support and the support at the same levels. Other things like the estate tax can have an impact. That’s huge. That’s doubled what’s exempt now. Estates of up to $11 million for singles and $22 million for couples, you don’t see any tax until you exceed those levels. A lot of people set up the planned giving and bequests on the basis of avoiding some of those taxes. I don’t know how that is going to impact higher-income folks, what they donate.

Flo: It will be interesting to see how that fleshes out.

Hugh: Yeah. A lot of needed changes in the tax law, but I’m not sure that was one of them.

Russell: We just have to wait and see. It doesn’t look like it will have a very good impact, just on the surface, but a lot will depend on whether donor-advised funds can continue to garner the type of support they have. They can continue to garner the support they have been getting. Just keeping people engaged in solving all of these problems. Government funding is being pulled away from that. The private sector and the government are not really structured to handle the type of problems we have going in our society. Nonprofits and social enterprises are that third sector and that fourth sector that are getting out there and trying to leverage impact-based investments to try to solve these problems.

Hugh: As we are doing the wrap here, Russ, let’s go back to your programs and remind people.

Russell: The introduction to fundraising course looks at why you should have one. Some of the things that you’ll get out of that course will be an understanding of how to apply the ingredients that you need to create a comprehensive fundraising plan. You will gain clarity on who you serve. You’ll gain focus on the most important activities you engage in and the results you want to get. You’ll have a complete and thorough inventory of the resources that you currently have on hand and understanding what you need next. You’ll get a solid foundation for calculating the costs you need to fulfill your mission. That includes analyzing where your revenues are currently coming from. You will get tools for gathering information and understanding things outside your organization that can impact the way that you operate. Then you have a list of resources that help you gather some of the most important information that you need.

We created a Facebook group: The Fundraising Success for Social Profits. That will be a private Facebook group. That is included with the course for dialogue, live Q&As, a place to connect with other nonprofit leaders, and a community where we can answer questions that are more detailed. As we go along, we will just continue to answer those questions and make sure that you get what you need here in the SynerVision community to continue to stay on top of fundraising as a plan to build a great plan. We will be talking about different resources on that page, doing Facebook live. We will talk about other resources. There will be updates on the impact of the income tax and other things. We will be making sure that you get all of this information. This is a high-value package that will help you put together a fundraising plan and give you a look at the landscape.

As for Four Steps to Building a High Performance Nonprofit, you will get that clarity you need, but you will be able to build a solid action plan and put your work together in a way that is manageable, not overwhelming. You will do a good customer analysis to understand what really drives the audiences that you’re reaching out to. You’ll have a good way to analyze that so that you can focus on them. You will understand your strengths. You will actually build a shopping list by the time you’re done with that to get people that are aligned with you so that you can go reach out to people to collaborate with. That is really very important, too: to do the things that other people are not doing out there so that you stand out and you’re not doing the same thing that everybody else is doing. You bring unique value to the table in your own way that is aligned with who you are.

Hugh: Russell, you bring a lot of value to leaders in many worlds, especially the nonprofit world. Thank you for sharing about these. You have done a lot of research and put a lot of effort into creating these programs. We will have this transcribed. If you are listening to it on the video, you can go to The Nonprofit Exchange on iTunes or Stitcher and get the podcast. You can go to, and you can find them there. Or you can go to and it will take you to the page where there is a replay of this video. Links where you can sign up for the podcast. The transcript will be in the podcast, so you have to subscribe to the podcast to be able to get the transcripts. We will put some of the links on page. Russell, thank you for spending this time with such wonderful, intense, useful content.

Russell: Thank you very much. I am looking forward to 2018 because we will be here every week. I am very excited about actually ramping up some of our discussion boards on the SynerVision site as we look at covering other areas of nonprofit operations so that we got stuff that people are looking for week in and week out. I would encourage anybody that is watching this broadcast to send us a message or contact us by email. Let us know what things that you’re very interested in and what you’d like to hear more about because we are always putting quality products together. But we want to serve you in ways that you want to be served. That is really what is most important out here: serving people the way they want to be served so that we can bring them the most valuable information and help them. You’re out in the trenches, and you are serving people in need and solving some big problems. The climate has shifted a little bit from a tax perspective and from a government perspective. The government just won’t do it. As I said, private business isn’t necessarily structured to tackle some of these social problems. We are in a new frontier, Hugh. We have all sorts of benefit corporations and socially responsible businesses. We have got impact investors who are not just looking for the bottom line dollar, but are looking to make a difference. It’s a changing landscape. We want to be in the middle of that. We will bring that to you so you can get out there and do what you do best.

Hugh: Wise words indeed. Russell, thank you for being on the hot seat today. Flo, thanks for hanging out with us.

Flo: Absolutely.

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