Nonprofit Leader Spotlight: Sterrin Bird of March of Dimes

Sterrin BirdWe're pleased to continue the Nonprofit Leader Spotlight with today's guest, Sterrin Bird. Sterrin serves as Senior Vice President, Chief Development Officer at March of Dimes. We had the rare opportunity to go behind the scenes at March of Dimes and interview both Sterrin and Kimberly Haywood, Vice President, Direct Response Fundraising & CRM Insight. Look for a deep dive with Kim next week in this exclusive two-part series. Now, meet Sterrin.

Nonprofit Leader Spotlight: Sterrin Bird of March of Dimes

HS: Sterrin, can you share with us a bit about your career trajectory?

SB: I’ve been in development my entire career – more than 25 years. I often describe having started in this business "backwards." I began my career in service to philanthropy as a consultant and only moved on the other side of the desk ten years in. A byproduct of this "reverse trajectory" is that I have an innate sense of urgency – I am a campaigner at heart.  Some might suggest that I manage my life like a capital campaign. I suppose it is just how I’m wired – timelines, deliverables, benchmarks and constant evaluation. Of course, that can be a blessing and also a curse –but we all do the best we can!

In this work, however, it is indeed a blessing to have this internal system that keeps me moving forward, not slowing down, constantly asking questions about "how can we do this better?" It’s a curse because after making the switch from consultant to being behind the desk on the "inside,” it can be very hard for me to understand the slow roll of academic medicine or how a big organization operates and is slow to change.  The expression "how many miles does it take to turn the Queen Mary?" has all new meaning for me lately. When people slow down or are afraid of risk and change it can be very frustrating for me as it is truly against my nature not to push for more to challenge the status quo. Funny enough, my daughter is the exact same way – I’m sure that will come back to haunt me when she is a teenager!

HS: What is it like to be tasked with building a major donor program in an organization that has survived thus far on direct mail and special events? What are your biggest opportunities and challenges?

SB: Why does it take that long? It takes that long because we have not related to our constituents and donors in this way at all, ever. So, yes it’s about the first meeting, and it’s about building relationships with people who have only ever interacted with us in the mail but it is also about building a new kind of donor base that engages with us differently upon entry that we can build upon. The challenge with infusing major gifts into a culture that seems to be in a "fixed" mindset is moving the donors to a place where they see the organization differently – and in our case, the age of the donor base represents a challenge.  Some will evolve with us, others will prefer to continue as they were. As an organization we are grateful for the support of both and respect that it’s human nature – and perhaps more than any other kind of fundraising, major gifts is a very HUMAN endeavor which means we have to do our best, follow the cues, and build a base of supporters that can and WANT to invest in us this way. And the fallacy and difficulty in setting expectations around creating a new program like this is that even though a lot of these people have capacity to make major gifts and already give them to their churches, hospitals, and alma maters, we have never related to them in that way or engaged with them in a manner that inspires them to think of the March of Dimes in that way… something we are working to change. 

The challenge for any leader in this situation is to have the courage to start, stay the course, constantly review the timelines, deliverables, benchmarks and evaluate progress while at the same time continuing to be transparent and manage expectation of the board and organization. I would suggest that every organization who looks to survive as the next generation comes into its wealth needs to focus – at least in part, on relationship based major gifts fundraising to partner with their supporters.  It doesn’t matter if your major gift level is $1,000 or $100,000 – the deeper the connection with your supporters the better chance you have to survive the ebbs and flows of the other kinds of fundraising that balance a portfolio.  I often describe major gifts, when fully realized, like a marriage – "in good times and in bad" you can count on your greatest supporters to stick with you – the same can’t be said of the mail, events, or peer-to-peer fundraising.

HS: I’d love to hear from your perspective, how Pursuant has challenged March of Dimes to fundraise intelligently? And how is Pursuant helping March of Dimes foster relationship fundraising?

SB: First, the big gift that Pursuant has brought to me personally and professionally in this role is the ability to see the organization’s entire landscape – including its points of intersection - from a data perspective, to use the data to inform tactics, decision-making and strategy. Last summer, in partnership with Pursuant, we looked at the entire donor file across all channels of giving, levels of support and programs/initiatives, and finally understood where the gaps were in our work over a seven year trajectory. That information was very powerful as we determined where to focus our efforts in the near term and also has continued to inform how we need to make major course corrections for the long term.  Absent data, we couldn’t make sound strategic decisions about how to invest money and time and effort to engage our donors more deeply.  The comprehensive analysis Pursuant did of our whole data base of donors and constituents was invaluable. Now my team and I are able to make informed decisions grounded in a true understanding of where we have been, where we are and where we need to go in order to make it – in order to turn the Queen Mary.  It’s not an easy conversation and can be truly uncomfortable – especially for those who have lived their entire careers in one place, in one paradigm. But as I said before, the only way to achieve excellence is to question, to push and to evaluate – perhaps that’s why I’ve earned the nickname “General Disruption" – who knows!? Nothing inside March of Dimes is going to be easy, but then nothing in life worth doing is. The opportunity ahead for March of Dimes is to embrace change, to dare to be different and to truly help the American public and all of our supporters understand who we are, why we are doing what we are doing and how they can help. We have to – the babies and moms deserve it – FDR’s legacy deserves that.

"Now my team and I are able to make informed decisions grounded in a true understanding of where we have been, where we are and where we need to go in order to make it – in order to turn the Queen Mary."

HS: In closing, if you could share one piece of advice with a fundraiser early on in their career, what would you offer?

SB: The best way to learn this business and figure out which pieces you love is to work in the smallest possible office where you have to do absolutely everything and where your ego can’t get in the way of sweeping the floor after an event, licking envelopes or asking for a big gift in the same day. I often tell young fundraisers not to be seduced into the big organizations early in their careers. The opportunity for growth and learning is most prevalent when you wear many hats – when you have to learn the WHOLE business. It gives you a perspective that is invaluable. You see the entire landscape of how the entire machine works. It’s all of those pieces that make things happen – it’s not one big gift, just direct response or events that make a good development operation flourish – it’s when those pieces work together and actually are integrated – they are greater than the sum of their parts, truly.  In order to do this work well, you have to love it. People who don’t love this work usually aren’t good at it – and it shows, or they don’t have longevity or the relationships to close and make a difference for the organization.

Finally, I would say – approach this work like a good campaign – push, evaluate, ask questions, stick to a timeline, benchmark yourself against the BEST organizations and ask yourself every day, did I advance the mission today?  Did I make a difference?

Our thanks to Sterrin and Kimberly at March of Dimes for taking the time to share their experience and insight with us. Learn more about March of Dimes at marchofdimes.orgAnd if you'd like to read more from Sterrin, visit her blog here

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