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Podcast | The Great Pivot of 2020: Lessons from the Center for Development & Learning


Welcome to another installment in our series exploring how nonprofits made the Big Pivot in 2020 as in-person fundraising became inoperable. 

The Center for Development and Learning is a Louisiana-based nonprofit organization that provides practical knowledge and strategies devised and delivered by teachers to assist in those critical classroom moments when teachers are faced with the reality of failing students.

In this episode, Daniel Ross, Director, Client Solutions at Pursuant, interviewed Sarah Cortell Vandersypen, CFRE, Vice President of Advancement and Strategy for the Center for Development and Learning. Sarah and Daniel discussed how CDL continued to resource its incredibly vital mission despite the challenges all organizations had to confront last year.

Connect with Daniel: www.linkedin.com/in/daniel-w-ross/
Connect with Sarah: www.linkedin.com/in/cortellvandersypen/

Pursuant’s GivingDNA Platform can empower your organization to make bold, confident, data-driven decisions. Visit gdna.pursuant.com to learn more.


The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing our industry in 2021? I am very famous for saying I hate events. I think a lot of fundraisers can probably relate to that because special events are time-consuming. They often take away resources from higher ROI fundraising mechanisms, like special major gift development. With the pandemic, we’ve cut a lot of our events or have gone virtual. And so what I hope that nonprofits do is really look at what they were doing pre-pandemic compared to what they’ve been doing during the pandemic that has been effective at connecting with donors.

And whenever we do get back to some normalcy and are able to meet in person and hold events again that we try to reinvent and use the lessons learned through 2020 and 2021. It’s to say that, “Maybe there’s a better way of fundraising.” It doesn’t have to be golf tournaments and galas and wine tastings and everything else that takes us away from connecting with donors and connecting our donors with our mission. Events have a role to play in that, so I’m not saying scrap all events, but really take a critical eye to events and other things that we’ve been doing in the past and ask, “Is that really how we want you to engage as fundraisers, as ambassadors of our nonprofits?”

Do you have any examples of events that shifted in the wake of the pandemic?

We host a national literacy and learning conference in New Orleans every year. We’ve been doing it since ’95. We actually snuck in the last one in February of 2020 before the pandemic hit. We had over 1600 people in person, which was the largest attendance ever. We netted about a quarter-million dollars, which was terrific. This year, we went fully virtual. We had over 1200 people, and we actually netted $100,000 more than last year.

There’s a real opportunity when we think about virtual events because it was significantly lower in cost to attend. There’s no travel, and attendees are getting more content because everything was recorded. But it’s ultimately a balancing act because I’m definitely Zoomed out, just like most of us. However, it’s worth it to ask, “Is there a more effective way to provide our services and get our messages across to beneficiaries or donors through virtual means?” It may be more profitable that way. And then it’s about figuring out how do you do what you do best in person.

What new strategies are you testing right now currently or would you like to test?

I started my current role in January of 2020. So three months in, all our programming stops, we shut down our offices. It was a little bit of an organizational shock, but what it allowed us to do was to step back and reflect on what we had wanted to do programmatically and what we wanted to do fundraising-wise. And so we were able, as an organization, to go through a strategic planning process this year and lay out some really big dreams for the next three years. We established a 10-year vision to say, “This is what we want to accomplish in this early literacy space.” And that included building some more critical partnerships on the programmatic level that would make us more competitive for larger multi-year grants.

Grants are an area that, as an organization, we hadn’t really focused on. And so, as we start to build those programmatic partnerships, we can, as an organization, build our internal capacity and start having deeper conversations with our current funders as well as new funders. Build some of those relationships via Zoom or Ring meeting and have those conversations about, “Okay, this is where we are, this is our vision, and we need you to come on board.” But we have a ton of work, we had a ton of work before COVID, and we have a ton of work because of COVID to do in this education space.

It’s having those conversations and having really honest conversations, right? We don’t have to sugar coat what we’re doing because when I tell a funder that only 26% of Louisiana’s fourth-graders are proficient readers, I mean, that’s shocking. And it’s only going to go down because of COVID. We’re calling it the COVID slide. It’s not just the Louisiana problem. It’s a US problem. Only 33% of American fourth-graders are proficient readers. We’re leaving behind two-thirds of our students. So, when we can have honest conversations about what is happening in our country and our state, and then we can start to brainstorm what the big solutions are. If anything, the pandemic has allowed us to talk about these big ideas.

Because of the challenges posed by the pandemic, funders have had to step up in a lot of ways. I’m proud to be in one of the vaccine clinical trials. And people have stepped up with big ideas to advance medical research so that we can hopefully get back to normal. There have been ripple effects, right? Not just in education, but housing, employment, tons of things. Here’s an opportunity to really lay it out to our funders, whether they’re institutional funders or individuals, to say, “Here’s what’s happening. Here’s what it was before. This is what has been exaggerated by COVID, or maybe highlighted, brought to the surface. And here’s how with, your help, we can change the story.”

Did you see an influx of new donors in 2020? And if you did, how are you looking at retaining those donors, stewarding those donors, or upgrading them?

We did see a small increase in donors in 2020. Traditionally this organization has been highly fee for service because we primarily make contracts with schools and school districts for professional development and other support for educators. When the pandemic hit, our programs all shut down, and our income shut down. I had come on staff right before the pandemic, knowing, “Hey, we need to diversify our funding,” and saying that out loud. And now the board and leadership have seen that, yeah, you can’t just rely on a national conference, a successful national conference, and your fee for service. I think most nonprofits would be over the moon if they had an 80% fee for service and a conference bringing new revenue. But when something like the pandemic happens, and your income stops, it’s a problem, right?

That’s why diversification of revenue is so important in our nonprofits. So with those new donors, we actually saw some of our educators step up. We were approached to do a statewide chapter for a national nonprofit. So we started a membership program around that. And so there’s some consistent communication and programming for that membership. I’m actually sending out welcome packets this week.

Stewardship had never really been a focus before the pandemic because it was such a small percent of the nonprofit’s revenue base. But now, we see potential in stewardship. Especially coming from higher ed major gift fundraising, I’m saying, “Hey, there’s people with capacity. There’s a huge need here that we can articulate.” And who doesn’t want to help children read, right? It’s one of the easiest things, in my opinion, behind maybe homelessness or hunger to fundraise for, right? Because they’re children, they didn’t do anything to deserve this loss of learning to happen to them. It’s the system failing them, right? And we have really good research to show the solutions. We know the solutions that can help to raise that 26% reading proficiency rate.

We also want to focus on welcoming donors, especially our new members. We want to deliver consistent communication with impactful storytelling. Storytelling has been really important for us because, during this time, I have definitely felt disconnected from my community of people, whether it’s my AFP chapter, family, or donors. And so, being able to tell stories to show each other’s humanity is just so critical. We’re really focusing more on blogging and sharing videos and trying to connect better with our donors so that they can see the impact of their dollars. Because we’re in a space where often they’re not public events, right? We’re training teachers, doing conferences, literacy coaching. They’re not big public events where donors might be able to come and experience it themselves. And so telling those stories is really, really critical.

Anything else you’d like to add as we wrap up? 

Currently, it’s women’s history month, so I have to do a plug for AFP, Women’s Impact Initiative (WII), and the work that we’re doing there. If any of your listeners or readers are not familiar with what we’re doing, as far as the research that’s coming out of Ohio State, they’re wonderful partners with us, especially on sexual harassment in the fundraising profession. We work with AAUW on a free salary negotiation training, which you can use those negotiation strategies, even with your donors, right? If you’re trying to close a gift. So it’s one of those things I want to just push out there. The other thing is AFP Global last year required all their job postings to have salaries posted.

I’m a former global board member, and I’m so proud that we did that. And I hope that more organizations will commit to that because it promotes racial and gender equity. And it’s so important that we start to close that pay gap that exists because, especially as a working mom, we’re some of the hardest fundraisers, and we have to advocate for ourselves. And organizations need to come to the table in authentic ways. And that starts with disclosing salary ranges. So just a little plug for AFP, WII, and all the AFP resources that are out there.