I frequently get asked, “Erica, how exactly does Follow the Sun work?” referring to claims that mimicking Nature’s processes drives an improved business mentality and bottom line. “Does this mean we have to go out into the woods and find ourselves?” Well yes at some point I recommend that you do just that, but today let’s talk about brainstorming. The finding yourself blog post comes later.

Let’s look at a fund development strategy session with The Teaching Well, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland that supports the health and well-being of educators to transform school sites.

The initial question the team had when creating their fund development strategy was “What’s the best way to create a prospect list?” The answer, “By thinking of your nonprofit as an organism that’s thriving in a biodiverse ecosystem.” When a nonprofit can do this, they begin asking the right questions for sustained growth.

Some nonprofits look at fundraising through one-way relationships. They create programs to engage donors and use those funds to fulfill cause based actions. This linear thinking can be resource draining for a nonprofit; It drives a never-ending hunger for funds that can often feel insatiable.

But if we look to Nature, we can learn how to create a thriving ecosystem for our organization. Take for example the mutualistic relationship between the Giant Redwood tree and the mushroom. In this relationship, the redwood, with its ability to reach the sunlight, provides the mushroom with simple sugars and vitamins made during the photosynthesis process while the mushroom, with its far-reaching root system, provides the redwood tree with water and minerals. Without this exchange, the redwood would lack its necessary height, and the mushroom would miss the required nutrients to survive. This mutualistic relationship is pervasive throughout the forest where the resource exchange brings life to young trees, serves as a communication tool warning of pests or fires, and functions as a nutrient storage bank for tough times like droughts. The forest couldn’t exist without it.

The primary goal in Nature is that each relationship exists for the benefit of the entire ecosystem. Nature knows the goal is survival, but it’s not the self-imposed greedy type of survival for only one party in the ecosystem; it’s the survival of the entire system. When a nonprofit embraces this idea, fund development carries an air of abundance and satiation as opposed to the never-ending hamster wheel of fundraising.

When developing a prospect list, you may ask yourself the following questions to create your organization’s biodiverse ecosystem:

1. What specific resources does the nonprofit need?

Even with donations, there is still a tremendous amount of activity required to allocate and utilize funds. Why not get specific about needs and in turn get clear about asks so that donations aren’t the only mode of contribution? Nonprofits frequently need real-time administrative, marketing, and social media support. Volunteers with experience in these categories come in handy. Additionally, spaces for events, offices, and training or administrative needs like printing services and office supplies are also needed.

2. Who can supply these specific resources to the nonprofit?

Identifying individuals or organizations that can provide the needed resources allows a nonprofit to think beyond a current state of potential donors. This step begins the creation of an ecosystem (or network) primed for personal connections and clear asks. Clear asks attuned to an individual’s or organization’s value outweigh what may be an initial impersonal ask for donations.

3. What resources can the nonprofit provide (beyond the stated cause)?

Here is where some of the best design thinking occurs. Many nonprofits view themselves solely as providers to the direct cause, but they can also be providers and educators throughout the community. Nonprofits can utilize their educational capital to benefit others and create additional funding.

4. Who would be interested in receiving these resources from the nonprofit?

Take for example The Teaching Well, this organization provides mindfulness and wellness education to educators but is also capable of delivering programs to parents, health practitioners, companies, or unions. Implementation of these programs could create an additional fee-for-service revenue stream for their organization.

During a brainstorm session with The Teaching Well, the application of these techniques more than doubled the number of ideas generated in the room. “Follow the Sun’s unique direction allowed our organization to see all the natural resources currently in our ecosystem which made fundraising seem much less about stretching but more about bringing our community together.” Kelly Knoche, Executive Director, The Teaching Well.

The photo series from that workshop shows from left to right 1) Linear Thinking: Who will donate to our cause? 2) Reframing Fund Development with Mutualism: Who could use our resources as a nonprofit? And 3) Who has resources that we need as a nonprofit?

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The purpose of a Nature-inspired brainstorming session is to optimize the creative flow in the room by allowing an organization to reframe the opportunity. Mutualism or reciprocal partnerships identify opportunities where the success of one party supports the other. There is a tremendous amount of benefit in the form of positive feedback loops waiting to happen. Now isn’t that a better way to approach fund development?

If you are interested in learning more about Nature-inspired techniques for your organization, connect with me at [email protected] or visit me at Learn how to build resilient teams, transform your processes, and make a difference for you and your organization.

DONATE to the Teaching Well and transform a school site today.

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