Venture Capital and Fundraising

Regulars readers know that words motivate me more than music, which is why I listen to podcasts at the gym. And, like most of the rest of the world, one that I listen to regularly is This American Life. On September 5, 2014, they did a show called It’s Not the Product, It’s the Person,ostensibly about starting your own business. The first act was about Alex Blumberg and his quest for venture capital. Or maybe more accurately, his quest for a pitch that would get him venture capital. And as I listened I thought, Fundraising. Transactional fundraising. “If you give this, you’ll get that.” And like most things that involve quid pro quo, Alex needed to sell Chris Sacca—the venture capitalist—on his program with the idea that this will make Chris money.

So the pitch is all about Alex’s idea and what he brings to it—his “unfair advantage.”

And like too many fundraisers, Alex gets caught up in his pitch and doesn’t think about the person to whom he is pitching. He is so busy trying to tell his story—the one he crafted with a “pitch deck” (read powerpoint—shoot me now)—that when he can’t use his crutch, he is dead in the water.

Dead because he is so focused on wanting Chris to invest he forgets about his passion, his talents, his values.

If, instead of focusing on that pitch, he talked about why he wants to start this business, why he believes it is a needed business, and what he thinks will change because of his business, I suspect Chris might have been interested in what he had to say. Instead, Chris focuses on how he can help Alex create a perfect pitch—and in doing so, gets Alex’s hopes up.

But then Chris speaks to the other side and ends up saying, “and so I don't know. I don't-- I don't know if this is a fit for us.”

So Alex is deflated. Chris, he thinks, has said no. But for me—someone who wants to get people to invest in a cause and a community—to me this would be simply the start of the conversation.

I’d want to know what he is looking for—what HIS hopes and dreams and aspirations are. I’d want to tie what our organization does with what he cares about.

And that leads me to the second difference. In business, the potential investor only cares about how much money will flow into his hands. For nonprofits, our focus is mission, change—a belief that we can make a better for everyone, not just those who have the cash to make more cash.

Not that this means they—investors—are bad people. Just people looking for different things.

Why that matters is that when you ask someone to invest in your nonprofit, you won’t get far by pitching. Your prospects will all want different things, be motivated for different reasons, care about different kinds of recognition. You can only learn that by conversation, by building a relationship.

With Alex and Chris, at bottom the biggest issue turned out to be that they wanted to end up in different places. Alex wants a business; Chris wants a lot of money. So while Alex is thinking about something he can do for the foreseeable future, Chris is thinking about how in three to five years he can grow his investment exponentially. In short, they are not on the same page, and they aren’t sharing goals, values, dreams.

And that’s were venture capital and fundraising converge. Success hinges on both of you wanting the same things—and on the investor or donor believing that you or your organization can and will deliver.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising capacity and build stronger boards.  Learn more at