Muroff's Memo: From A Cryptic Email To A Reason To RISE

Editor’s note: Today we introduce a new feature from the desk of United Way Suncoast CEO Jessica Muroff

Imagine getting a cryptic email from someone you do not know representing a donor who wants to make a significant contribution to your organization. Many of us have experienced an email of this kind, offering funding without a lot of details. Of course, it heightens your fraud or phishing sensors, but you know you cannot simply ignore.

As you might imagine, I was very skeptical. So much so that I was slow to respond to the email and even checked in with my chief advancement officer before responding. The mysterious donor was quick to reply and set a call over the weekend as they mentioned it was urgent. My fraud antenna raised even higher with the urgency.

You all know how the story turns out. It wasn’t a scam; it was a major philanthropist changing the face of philanthropy. Never in a million years would I imagine that I would experience a donor giving us an unrestricted $20 million gift out of the blue. No timeframes, no requirements, and very little oversight. Nonprofit CEO’s dream come true.

My first priority was communications and transparency. This was hard because we were bound to confidentiality agreements until our donor wanted to share she made this gift. She stipulated we could share the news only after six months had passed, but it had to remain anonymous. I was relieved because it would give us time to plan, and when we were able to share, we could do so comprehensively.

Well, that six months shortened to one week when Ms. Scott made the decision to share through her blog post on Medium. We went right to work to communicate this with the public because to us, this was a community gift and we were stewards charged with ensuring maximum impact. I was steadfast that we had to embrace radical transparency to ensure our community was kept informed on the impact of this generosity.

We knew the process would have to be engaging to guide decision making and strategies for implementation. We knew we needed to be thoughtful and intentional. We were in the middle of a strategic planning process, and we wanted to land that effort before making big decisions about how to invest the dollars in our community.

We built a taskforce to help us plan and engage partners and experts across all five of our counties. We called it the RISE Taskforce to connect it to our mission. RISE stands for: Reach, Invest, Support, and Empower our community. We emphasized our most important values of partnership and collaboration. Meaningful change does not occur in a vacuum, and we do our work in partnership with others.

The intention behind this gift was for transformational work that invests in the community. Although there were technically no gift restrictions, we intended to maximize the impact of this generosity.

We committed to a process of discovery, collaboration and documentation. We wrote a case study about the work of the RISE Taskforce that you can find here.

I want to share my reflections on this incredible moment as a leader of a regional nonprofit organization. These are the days we only dream of. There are many things I have reflected on a year later in this work:

  • Be prepared when the call comes. You never know. Not that I would say build a plan for a $20 million gift, but do you have something you could activate if a seven-figure gift fell into your lap? Are you prepared when a big call like this comes in? If not, you should be. It is my sincere hope that you are next to get the call. We were able to mobilize quickly because of our strategic planning process. Even if you have a strategic plan in place, you should still nurture a culture where you can continue to ideate and create. This allows for an unexpected gift to align with the strategic plan and vision for your organization.
  • Embrace radical transparency. There were 384 organizations who received a total of $4.1 billion in funding the same time we received our gift. That included 46 local United Ways. It was intriguing that some recipients did not feel comfortable being transparent about this gift for fear that it would adversely impact donations. While I understand the fear, for us it was unfounded. We did not experience any donor resistance. In fact, we have interest and commitments in leveraging the gift. Our radical transparency continues with a section on our website to share the good work being done. Everything from the strategy to the specific initiatives, to the annual reports can be found here.
  • Freedom to focus on the “but for.” This was a gift to not just dream but to do! We have big goals outlined in our strategic plan including human service navigation and solutioning, capacity building in our nonprofit sector, and investing in innovation. Have you had the “but for” conversations with your team and your board? Take the time to identify those “but for” items and be prepared for how you might be able to mobilize the work.
  • We must invest in our organizations infrastructure to do big and important work. We have big and bold goals with this gift. This cannot be accomplished without the leadership and support of a talented team and tools. It was important for the RISE Taskforce and our board that we invest in our organization’s infrastructure to ensure we were successful in our endeavors. I know overhead is often treated like a bad word, but in our work, to serve well we need to invest in ourselves, too.
  • Be like MacKenzie in giving. The open, non-restricted and limited reporting requirements is a gift of freedom (if you look at our required maximum three-page annual report we packed A LOT in those pages!). This flexibility frees us to make decisions that are in the best interest of these initiatives to move our mission forward and serve our community. The limited reporting requirements reduces staff time spent on administrative work and maximizes how we can focus on getting things done in our community. I highly valued the approach Ms. Scott and her team took by doing research on United Way Suncoast ahead of time and giving us the freedom to execute, they trusted their process and decision to invest in us.
  • Leverage and scale. Although $20 million is jaw-dropping, it only goes so far when serving a five-county region and tackling big issues. We are working hard to create solid plans to pilot and share so that we may bring on new partners and investors to grow and sustain this exciting work.

There is so much good that comes from sharing and lifting each other up. That’s the purpose behind these posts and all the effort that United Way Suncoast puts forth. I hope that this can be a space where we can collectively live, learn, and lift together. As we say every day at United Way Suncoast: United We Rise, United We Win.

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