Encourage your team to forget any preconceptions about a “nonprofit,” starting with yourself.
What does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders and executives of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Harrell-Edge.
Greg is a second-generation nonprofit executive from Virginia. He was previously the Development Director of Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco and has consulted for nonprofits in the arts, environment, LGBT, and education sectors to optimize their online fundraising. Prior to his nonprofit work, Greg served on the staff of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and created monologue content for seasons 3 through 6 of Jimmy Kimmel Live. Greg was also a walk-on member of the basketball team at the University of Virginia, where he earned a degree in Politics.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
Absolutely, and thank you for having me. I’m always grateful for an opportunity to tell CoachArt’s story.
For my own story, I think a formative experience was watching my dad’s career in nonprofit as a kid. Throughout my childhood, he was a Development Director and Executive Director for several organizations in our area, ranging from a mental health facility to our local chapter of Boys and Girls Club, and the United Negro College Fund. My dad was a man with a big vision. I saw first-hand how fulfilling he found the work overall, as well as some of the roadblocks he was up against trying to get his visions adopted by his boards and other stakeholders. My dad passed away when I was in college, so I never had a chance to talk to him about my own nonprofit career and choices, but those early impressions have guided a lot of my journey influencing which organizations I get involved with.
Another formative experience has been watching friends build and scale their businesses in the for-profit sector, that I’m constantly in awe of. My friend Geoff has launched several biotech companies that are changing the world, one of which was #1 on CNBC’s Disruptor 50 list. My friend Danny has launched several restaurants that have scaled quickly and garnered significant acclaim. My partner Sunny has launched new technology at several companies and built and grown her own app on the side. I constantly feel fortunate to travel in the wake of the successes of those around me.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
Like my father, I’ve always enjoyed imagining what might be possible. In my first interview with CoachArt six years ago, I got excited about the idea of building an app to make our model scalable to grow and expand the program nationwide.
Then, and I think most importantly, there is also my trait of empowering people who self-select that they want to be a meaningful part of our journey and removing as many barriers to their growth and professional development as possible. That has been true for every member of our leadership team. Molly, our Associate Executive Director and de facto Product Owner of our CoachArt Connect app, started at CoachArt as a program team member who was doing the exact manual matching that the app she oversees now does at a scale that was unimaginable when she was doing it by hand. Colton, our Development Director, started at CoachArt as our Volunteer Coordinator, using the same skillset to inspire folks to give six hours of their time that he now uses to inspire folks to give six-figure gifts. Sarah started at CoachArt as an Operations Associate and is now our Operations Director. Erick was a Program Associate who had a knack for group programming and now is our first-ever Group Program Director, overseeing a team of three.
A third trait I value is a growth mindset. The smartest people I know all seem much more focused on the vast, endless universe of things they are not knowledgeable about, rather than overly reliant on the small sliver of things they do know. I think the most interesting way to lead is more akin to leading a search party of people trying to discover and implement tools and techniques that might be helpful for getting where we’re going.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
I’ve been amazed that when you can articulate a big vision for what you’re trying to accomplish, the number of people who step up to be part of making that vision happen.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
Since its inception, CoachArt has leveraged technology to solve a traditional nonprofit problem — how to bring joy and fulfillment to kids impacted by chronic illness. Founded by Zander Lurie, CEO of Momentive, and Leah Bernthal, Chief Strategy Officer of Instil, CoachArt matches kids impacted by chronic illness who want to learn a skill with volunteers who can teach the skill. We are fortunate to have tremendous leadership from our advisory board of tech and digital media industry innovators dedicated to ever-evolving growth. It is because of this passionate team that we’ve achieved milestones like the launch of CoachArt Connect, our app that seamlessly allows our coaches and students to schedule lessons based on location or interest, taking that time down from seven hours to seven minutes.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
When we look back, so many of us had an arts or athletics activity that played a formative role in our lives. For me, it was basketball. I played basketball throughout my formative years and developed a lot of views on teamwork and goal-setting from this. It became a core part of my identity — “a basketball player.” Young people are in a constant process of figuring out who they are, and the kids we serve get this label that they didn’t ask for — “a sick kid.” It is inspiring to see all the different ways that arts and athletics have a positive impact on our kids, but I think that one is one of the most powerful — it gives them the chance to try on new labels as an artist or an athlete.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
When CoachArt expanded to New York City last year, one of the first kids to sign up was a 9-year-old named Erick (I have permission from him and his mom to name him!) Over the course of about a year, Erick participated in dozens of different one-on-one and group arts and athletics activities with CoachArt, ranging from cooking, coding, martial arts, puppet making, jazz dance, creative writing and macrame knitting.
Earlier this month CoachArt visited Nasdaq to announce the news of the national launch and we invited Erick to ring the closing bell.
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
- Volunteer — Sign up to work with a CoachArt kid yourself!
- Join our Impact Investment Club — For 18 dollars per month, you can fund the arts & athletics for a different student each month, and we’ll send you a report about the specific activities you made possible.
- Become a Tech Ambassador — if you work in the tech sector, we invite you to become a Tech Ambassador and help drive our journey of innovation and scale.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Encourage your team to forget any preconceptions about a “nonprofit,” starting with yourself.
- I learn so much that is applicable to our growth from others who have built a successful business, or movement, or community, regardless of the tax status.
2. Craft a big vision.
- Sometimes people ask if it is hard to raise money for such a lofty ambition as increasing our programs by 10x. To me, it would be much harder to raise money for such a small ambition as increasing our programs by 5% each year.
3. Every company needs to be a tech company.
- This expression became popular in the business world a few years ago, and I think it applies just as much to nonprofits as for-profits.
4. Then every company needs to be a media company.
- This expression has become popular more recently, and I think this one applies even more to nonprofits than for-profits. Our stories are much more powerful than most brands selling a product.
5. But first, it all starts with culture.
One of the most common regrets I’ve heard from successful entrepreneurs is that they prioritized growth over culture, in either big or small ways, even when they knew they shouldn’t. And that it came from a place of fear — “what if we don’t get where we’re trying to go?” It’s easy to make your culture a top third or top fifth priority for your organization, but truly making culture the single top priority seems to be something that many people agree is smart but find the hardest to do. I still constantly try to remind myself to live up to that.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
When the pandemic hit, we pivoted to video lessons. Within three months, the quality scores for those lessons were the same as they had been for the in-person lessons. Demand was through the roof. The pandemic has led to even more rapid growth for us and a more ambitious version of success. We expanded to six new cities in 2020, and then expanded the programs nationwide in 2021.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
In the immediate aftermath of a setback, I actively try to remember that my response is one of the most defining elements of leadership, and those first moments are usually what people remember most.
I get inspired by the opportunity to hone my leadership skills and try to grow into the type of leader that I want to be in those moments.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Everything CoachArt does is based in Salesforce. It’s our CRM, and our platform and app are built directly in Salesforce. His technology has been critical to CoachArt creating a scalable model and rapidly growing. And his commitment to philanthropy is inspiring throughout the tech sector. He has personally supported CoachArt for years through some of our board connections, and I’d be thrilled for him to know more about how important Salesforce has been to the CoachArt story.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
Visit www.coachart.org or follow us @coachartorg.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.