Want to Build Your Startup Skills? Pitch and Pitch In

If you’re looking to develop your startup leadership skills, try volunteering for a non-profit or attending a pitch conference. 


Having spent most of my career in the corporate and nonprofit worlds, I can tell you that there isn’t much reward for risk-taking. Two of the smartest things I ever did to build my leadership were: go to a pitch conference and volunteer.

Six months ago, I attended Launch. It changed my perspective on everything about my work. Specifically, it made me more focused on profitability and more fearless about playing with the boys. (Sorry to admit it, but seeing them get up there and struggle with pitches made it seem a lot more accessible to someone like me, a working woman new to startup culture.)

Last weekend, I got to walk the talk. I pitched an idea at SF Startup Weekend Women’s Edition. Out of 41 pitches and 14 finalists, our team came in third (with a product to offer impact investing to young professionals). The experience was crazy and awesome – totally out of my comfort zone. I went into it not really knowing anything about the process; at Launch I’d only seen the final result of what happens when you join a team of strangers for 36 hours to make a dream tangible.

What was so special about this Startup Weekend? For one, it focused on women entrepreneurs. And, it created a space where we could be in the majority, doing something that we do so well naturally – collaborate and problem-solve. It also made me think about another ecosystem that has been central to my career success: nonprofits.

Nonprofits offer a safe place for women to build leadership skills. The U.S. Dept. of Labor says that in 2012, “women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than did men across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics.”

Let’s face it, we like to roll up our sleeves, get involved, and give back. Yet there’s another, more personal, reason for women to volunteer – it builds leadership skills that can launch our careers, especially in male-dominated professions.

No one tries to solve big problems on limited resources like a nonprofit. Volunteering – especially on a committee or board – is a great training ground for public speaking, budgeting, project management, and sales and relationship building (skills key to fundraising). Points of Light Foundation (which also has a Civic Incubator – how cool is that?) and VolunteerMatch list thousands of opportunities to get involved.

Women bring unique skills to the table. We knew that even before Lean In. If you’re not getting the leadership opportunities you want at work, get them by volunteering. And then bring them back to your company.

Your success may depend on it.

By Melanie Hamburger (CEO & Founder, Catalytic Women)


This article was originally posted on Women 2.0 on September 20, 2013.


Gender Lens Investing: Newcomers’ Webinars

It’s confession time and I’m coming clean.  I am completely new to the work of Gender Lens Investing.  (A moment please while I hide my face in shame.)  At this point you may be wondering why I’m suddenly interested and the answer may surprise you.

I recently overheard women discussing hand bags.  Hand bags! Ever wondered who makes these beautiful essentials carried by women everywhere?  I learned that, ironically, something universally used by women (and any number of other consumer goods) can be produced in conditions that are detrimental to women’s well-being.  And I learned that I can choose to spend my consumer (and investment) dollars in a way that supports women. This conversation, and those I been involved in since becoming part of Catalytic Women, has inspired me to want to learn more.


Jennifer John

I’ve recently had the pleasure of hearing Jennifer John, Project Manager of Criterion Institute, speak on this topic during our monthly collaborative webinars on gender lens investing.  What’s even better, these webinars focus on newcomers (like myself) and are meant as an entry point into dialogue.  During May’s webinar Jennifer was joined by panelists Siiri Morely, Director of Prosperity Catalyst, and Becky Bailey, Senior Portfolio Manager and Acting Director of Operations of Agora Partnerships.  These three dynamic women provided such a vibrant and informative discussion that I couldn’t help but be inspired.  Below are a few excerpts from May’s discussion.

Jennifer began by defining gender and explaining what it means to invest with a gender lens.  According to Criterion Institute, “Gender is term that refers to your gendered life experience in the social construct that you live.  It is thought more of as ‘gender identity,’ and varies over time and from place to place. Investing with a gender lens involves making investment decisions that support gender equality while seeking positive financial return.” I sensed a definitive message forming here.  Investing with a gender lens -with gender equality as a focus-  makes you a smarter investor.  More importantly, it means “moving trillions versus millions,” of dollars (quoted from Jackie Zehner, Chief Engagement Officer and President of Women Moving Millions).  Wow! Trillions versus millions? Tell me more…

Siiri Morley

Siiri Morley

Siiri Morley then went on to speak about her non-profit organization Prosperity Catalyst, and its for-profit social enterprise partner Prosperity Candle.  Their focus is to help women take control of their own economic agency.  Prosperity Catalyst provides an environment where women from poverty can become self-sustaining entrepreneurs.  Prosperity Candle “empowers women to rebuild their lives through candle making.”  Providing women with the resources and tools to take control of their own lives is profound.

Becky Bailey

Becky Bailey

Siiri’s dialogue was an excellent segue into Becky Bailey’s work with Agora Partnerships.  Agora strives to “unleash the potential” of impact entrepreneurs.  To do this Agora provides entrepreneurs with the necessary knowledge, networks and capital so they have the tools to solve critical problems in their focus area.   Agora works with entrepreneurs on the ground through accelerator programs in order to affect, and scale, positive change. Genius!

What did I take away from this event?

That I want to invite others to the dialogue, to bring women to the table and most importantly, to think outside the box myself when I consider my own purchasing and investing decisions .  And, of course, to continue my quest for more knowledge on the work of gender lens investing and women funding social impact.

Educational Equity

educational equity

Last month I listened in on a Catalytic Women Strategies & Solutions discussion, and had the pleasure of hearing how three organizations are working with disadvantaged youth to provide educational equity. Many might feel daunted by the task of how best to ensure access to, and success in, college for these kids. Not true! Our expert panelists, Denni Brusseau, Kim Cook and Traci Lanier, spoke about being a step ahead of the shifting needs of students and ,most importantly, about their success in mentoring students through the completion of college.

DenniDenni Brusseau is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Bridge the Gap College Prep (BTGCP). This organization pairs caring adults with disadvantaged youth in Marin City, California. Doing so allows BTGCP to provide comprehensive educational support enabling students to both complete high school and graduate from college. Their message – their belief – resonated loud and clear. “Education is the greatest equalizer between bridging the gap between poverty and the affluent.”

Traci Lanier, Vice President of 10,000 Degrees, believes providing exposure, accurate T.Lanierinformation, guidance and support creates change. The goal at 10,000 Degrees is to create college graduates who change the world. In order to encourage their students to give back, they provide a platform for students to pair their stories of need with stories of success. They’ve found that being a catalyst for this exchange, and giving students the chance to tell their story, provides hope.

K.CookKim Cook is Executive Director of the Washington, DC based National College Access Network. NCAN is an umbrella organization with the goal of providing their members with tools and resources to ensure their programs’ success – and their students’ college completion. In order to do this NCAN stays up to date on the evolving needs of students and, in turn, trains others in best practices. NCAN’s members are those organizations serving first generation college graduate students.

What can you do to bridge the gap of educational disparity? How can a modest investment help these programs’ effectiveness? I’ll let the panelists’ suggestions speak for themselves:

Denni – Students are in a stage of fright or flight. Help lower stress and provide a supportive learning environment. This organization provides academic after school program support and pairs caring adults with disadvantaged youth in Marin City, slide010California. Doing so allows BTGCP to provide comprehensive educational support enabling students to both complete high school and graduate from college. Their message – their belief – resonated loud and clear. “Education is the greatest equalizer in bridging the gap between poverty and the affluent.” Here’s what you can make possible: $135 provides one week of after school support for a child; $500 provides one month; $5000 supports a student’s needs for an entire year. For more information go to http://www.btgcollegeprep.org.

Traci – Did you know that students are required to submit a deposit to colleges upon logo-1 being accepted? State Universities in California require a $650 deposit to secure an accepted student’s space. A gift to cover that cost has a very tangible impact. More information is at www.10000degrees.org.

Kim – Many organizations doing this good work of empowering communities and logoproviding educational support do not have it in their budget to become a NCAN member! Help underwrite a membership for as little as $250 by going to NCAN’s website www.collegeaccess.org.

Tools & Tactics: Understanding Nonprofit 990s

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Jessica Prue’s vast knowledge on reviewingcw_eventLogo_02262013 nonprofit financial statements to understand and interpret indicators of fiscal health, including the IRS Form 990, annual reports, balance sheets, and online tools for evaluation. In short, appearances (in dollars) may be misleading.

cw_picJPrue_03Jessica works with the Nonprofit Finance Fund, a community development lender, and is a wealth of information on a topic that few master. Her discussion was part of Catalytic Women’s Tool & Tactics programs, focused on hands-on learning to help us make more effective choices in giving for social impact; members may download the program webcast from our online library. While Guidestar has much of the information she discussed, assuming you have time to review and evaluate, Jessica made a very generous offer forCatalytic Women members to subscribe to their FinancialSCAN at a discount of 20%. This is a terrific resource. (Email us if you’d like more information about the discount, this program, or an introduction to Jessica.)

Jessica is quick to point out the complexities involved. Nonprofit financials are different from corporate financials. (Wondering why? Read on.) And financial data only helps us understand one piece of the pie in assessing the effectiveness of a nonprofit. Specifically, she walked us through some of the primary differences between nonprofit and for-profit finance, and the benefits and drawbacks of using 990 data. Her insights really helped me begin to understand an organization’s sustainability and capacity for growth using financial statements. Lastly, she shared some great tools, besides the publicly available IRS Form 990, that can help a funder analyze data and compare organizations. If you’re interested in financial due diligence in your grantmaking process, or simply wish to learn how to simplify fiscal analysis and hold productive conversations with potential grantees, then you’ll learn a lot from Jessica’s expertise, which is also available in this video.

Before I launch into details, let’s see the world through the eyes of Jessica Prue.

Jessica works with both funders and nonprofits across the Western U.S. as part of the Advisory Services team at the Nonprofit Finance Fund. Grounding her work in rigorous financial analysis, she works with nonprofits across sectors to help management teams understand the implications of strategic decisions such as expansion, facilities projects, hiring new staff, and scaling back programs. This expertise gives her valuable insight into understanding an organization’s financial stability and capacity for program growth. She is also involved in NFF’s national work with Financial SCAN, an online platform for nonprofit financial health analysis. She has experience working with an artisans’ cooperative in Paraguay, a microfinance organization in Bangladesh, and a refugee resettlement agency in Syracuse, New York, and a foundation in Washington DC. Outside of her work at NFF, she serves on the boards of The One Percent Foundation, a foundation I admire greatly that engages next gen philanthropists, and At the Crossroads, a homeless youth organization in San Francisco. For fun, she completed her first Iron(wo)Man triathlon in 2012. This Renaissance Woman has a BS in Applied Economics and Management from Cornell University and a MPA from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

So here are highlights on what I learned about nonprofit financials…

  • Reviewing financials is not an end-all. It should be the beginning of a healthy dialogue with a nonprofit that you admire and support.
  • Big budgets and fundraising success don’t mean financial stability. Jessica told a “fundraising success” story that went bad. More money raised doesn’t necessarily mean it can be spent well. Reviewing financials helps us understand: What is the right amount of money for an organization?
  • Audits are the most in-depth financials, but 990s are the most accessible. It’s practical to start there, but understand there are limitations.
  • Some for-profit best practices don’t translate to the nonprofit world. Take economies of scale: more isn’t necessarily better in social service; and growth for a nonprofit doesn’t often generate additional revenue, but rather requires subsidies since clients usually don’t pay for cost of service.
  • Not all nonprofits are required to file the annual 990 tax form (e.g., religious organizations, new groups not yet granted tax-exempt status, state institutions like universities, and organizations with less than $250,000 annual revenue). If filed, 990s are public documents and available for free from Guidestar and the Foundation Center.
  • Understanding all the components of financial health takes a 4-hour workshop at the Nonprofit Financial Fund! Key elements of this 45-minute conversation included operating performance (Do they bring in unrestricted operating revenue that is in excess of expenses?), balance sheets (Does an organization have the ability to handle risk and pursue opportunity? And why is the distinction so important among unrestricted assets, temporarily restricted assets for specific programs, permanently restricted assets held in an endowment, and any property owned).
  • Net worth looks different in the nonprofit sector because of restricted funds. Revenue-less-expenses does not give an accurate reflection because unrestricted, restricted and endowment revenue are all lumped together, yet are not equally accessible. “Temporarily restricted assets” must, by law, be held earmarked for the specific project they support. Beware of Line 19 on the 990, which is not a true reflection of surplus revenue!
  • Rankings of program/admin/fundraising ratios are misleading. Effective organizations need to invest in infrastructure.
  • There are no magic ratios for earned (fee for service) vs. contributed revenue (donations) because the nature of nonprofit service delivery models can vary so dramatically. The more relevant comparison would be looking at an organization’s ratios vis a vis others doing similar work, and over time.
  • Using all the above, we can calculate nonprofit liquidity. Yet an organization with two weeks of cash may not be ready to double in size, but it may be fiscally well-managed. Having two to four weeks of cash is typical of nonprofits operating in low income communities. Nonprofit Finance Fund surveys over 5,000 organizations a year and in the last survey, 60% had less than three months of liquidity! (Typically, only universities with large endowments have over six months’.)

In Jessica’s words, “You should never, ever make a grant based solely on financial health. Doing your due diligence will inform how you can make a grant and what type of grant an organization is ready to absorb.”

Besides Jessica and her organization, I wanted to share a few other resources related to this issue:

  • Make use of GiveSmart’s online donor due diligence tool.
  • Listen to another perspective. To Jessica’s point about being cautious about overhead ratios and how effective nonprofits use financial resources differently than for-profit business, Dan Pallotta also makes the case in his TED .

My biggest takeaway? The best thing we can do as donors is to learn about the nonprofits we support — by trying to understand nonprofit financials in all their messiness and, especially, by having conversations with program staff or leaders of the organization — is to satisfy ourselves that they do effective, valuable work and are well-managed, and then to make unrestricted contributions in support of their work. This is especially true of organizations with less than three months of unrestricted cash on hand: they can most use your unrestricted operating support if you believe in their work and how they do it.

Just my two cents, which you may see if you look really closely at the financials.