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fundraising through an empathetic lens with Kyle Empringham

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One of the biggest tenets of empathy is just listening and doing an act of deep listening. So understanding where people are at. You know how to be able to engage with them in a way that makes sense. If you have the patience and ability to just be in a moment with people, understand what they do. I think that can, that can work wonders. - Kyle Empringham


In today’s episode, we have Kyle Empringham from Starfish Canada to discuss building connections and empathy’s power in making small nonprofits stand out in their fundraising.


  • Why fundraising is like selling (the good and the bad)

  • Applying an empathetic lens to fundraising

  • Tools and tips for fundraising in a small organization where everyone can get involved

Links and Resources:



[00:00:00] Cindy: So every now and then I will have someone say to me, Ugh, fundraising is so icky. It's like selling. And I always agree with part of that statement in that fundraising can be like selling. It can be like sales, but I think what most people think about when they think of sales and fundraising, Is bad sales and bad fundraising.

[00:00:30] Cindy: And that's true. Both of those things can feel really icky. I hate buying a new car because the way that sales process is, is demoralizing and just really frustrating. But on the other side of that, good fundraising and good sales make me feel really good. It allows me to invest in something that I know will achieve my goals or make my life better.

[00:01:03] Cindy: And, you know, building relationships with salespeople, or fundraisers who get you, is, you know, a really uplifting experience. And that's what we're going to be talking about today.

[00:01:19] Cindy: I'm your host, Cindy Wagman. And you're listening to the small nonprofit podcast where we bring you practical down-to-earth advice for your small nonprofit, because you are going to change world, and we're here to help. And today I'm really excited to welcome my guest, Kyle Empringham. Kyle is the director of finance and fundraising at the Starfish Canada. He also supports the ESG partnerships at ThoughtExchange. and has been doing fundraising and social impact work for over a decade. And these I'm gonna add a couple things that he hasn't shared with me.

[00:01:54] Cindy: One is that he's a former student of, of mine, I guess, has taken our Flipside fundraising [00:02:00] program, which is now known as the Race It accelerator and even won an award for fundraising through charity village, which makes me so proud. Kyle, welcome to the podcast.

[00:02:12] Kyle: Thanks, Cindy. Happy to be here.

[00:02:14] Cindy: I love, love this conversation. You're actually one of, two of our sort of past clients. Who've nudged me to say, like, I wanna be on the podcast. I wanna share what you taught me with other people. So I'm really grateful that you reached out. Tell us, just give us a little bit of background. You've been doing this for this work for a while, but you took our flip side program. What was sort of the instigator of wanting to invest in your fundraising development?

[00:02:45] Kyle: Yeah, I think for us, it was certainly a piece of, well, it was a couple things. One is that we're, a youth-led environmental charity. And so in this space, we always know that the young folks that we're bringing to the organization want to learn, they want be mentored and coached. They want you, yeah, they want that experience, that piece of education and to have that, empower them, to be able to see how they're, what they're doing is creating change. And so by being able to take flip side fundraising now and known as the Race It accelerator, we were able to give some of our youngest folks, just the tools, and skills that they need to now be able to leverage and which many of them did. And so, you know, we actually raised our revenues by 280% in one year, just by the ability to, to learn and grow and then to take it and implement those things. And so, of course, we had an organizational goal, I think, you know, we wanted to make sure that we were doing better by the nature of our impact and a part of that is having the resources to do so, but a part of it was also learning while we grow. And that was a big pieces that you accelerated for us.

[00:03:46] Cindy: Amazing. So you liken. I would say, like, when you put your fundraising hat on, I, you, you sort of put your sales hat on, and that sort of sales framework I think has, has helped you think about, or put structure behind how you think about fundraising.

[00:04:03] Cindy: So talk to me a little bit about why you think fundraising is like selling and what are you selling?

[00:04:11] Kyle: Yeah, absolutely. I, I do have to say that, you know, as you said, there is a version of selling that's good and there's a version that's not so good. And so a lot of what I've been able to do, through my work at the Starfish Canada and through my work at ThoughtExchange where I actually was an account manager and did sales-like things for a while is I learned how to be an empathy-based salesman. I think that's actually one of the things that I love the most cause you're right. I've certainly had sales, and actually, salespeople reach out to me all the time and some of them, do it really well. And I find that I just don't, I don't understand anything that they're trying to do or the process that they're going through and so sales is a wide range of things. And when I think about how, how to sell, especially in, the social impact and nonprofit space, it's about just creating the opportunity to connect and grow and engage with people in the way that they want to be engaged. And for many people that is through their dollars and through them being able to share that with you and, and to create impact. And so if you're able to navigate through a sales process where it doesn't really feel too much like a sales process, but it feels like you're building relationships and a part of the end outcome, is that there are donors and funders and partners that want to be able to contribute to your cause.

[00:05:24] Cindy: Mm-hmm

[00:05:24] Kyle: That's, that's the sweet spot, I think.

[00:05:26] Cindy: Yeah. As you were talking, I had this like flashback too. I took a door-to-door sales job, or I interviewed for a door-to-door sales job when I was probably in high school or university. And one of the things that stood out our like interview was basically we had to work a shift and no one, they just threw us in.

[00:05:48] Cindy: They were just like, just go do this. And I think that again, like when it when we talk about good versus, you know, bad sales and fundraising. Part of that is building structure, training the people around you. I think what you've done a really good job at is engaging and training all the people across your organization and the youth that you work with so that everyone has the skills that we are, I think we are born with the skills to fundraise, but we're often, like, taught out of them. And so tell me a little bit about that for you. We'll talk about what we'll dive more into the, the process of fundraising. But I wanna hear from you a little bit about getting buy-in and you know, not, this is not a solo sport, so to speak.

[00:06:36]Kyle: Yeah, absolutely. It certainly is not a solo sport. And especially in the space that we work in. From almost every place it's about building community. So to me, it would feel really funny if, you know, you have any form of even a department off in a silo just to raise money over there. It doesn't quite, in my opinion, doesn't quite work that way.

[00:06:56] Kyle: I've seen places, you know, of course, have fundraising departments, but, the best places I've seen do this, bring everyone into the fold in some shape or form and give them at least a little bit of training. So that they understand, you know, when we are talking this way through our emails or through other things that there's just a bit more common knowledge that's sort of there.

[00:07:12] Kyle: For us it was, yeah, I think it, a lot of it was not so different than how we do other things. I think also that piece was really, important. As you said there, like sometimes we were trained out of how to be a fundraiser because we think we don't know how to do it when really it's often just about connecting with people.

[00:07:30] Kyle: And when you start putting up too many walls around what fundraising is or what should be, then it feels like it is a, I'm a fundraiser or I'm a not a fundraiser like this. It's so dichotomous that you don't actually feel like you can do it if you haven't been trained. And that's not quite the truth, I think.

[00:07:46] Kyle: And even we do this with our board. We engage them one on one, actually, if, if they would like to fundraise, I don't think all boards need to fundraise or every individual needs to. And if they do, how would they like to do it? What, how's that gonna show up for them? And so there are some that have, like, a more strategic partnerships lens.

[00:08:01] Kyle: They actually know that there are people they would like to connect us with for, for their conversations. And there are some other people where they would prefer to hold those conversations and, and find different ways to bring in monthly donors. And so all of it works. And I think a big part of what our learning was is that, you know, because fundraising is personal, you have to make it personal.

[00:08:20] Kyle: You can't, you can't just assume, one size fits all for every single person that might be engaging in that

[00:08:26] Cindy: Mm-hmm. So let's dive into that sort of empathy and how do we, I think, how are we even looking to be empathetic when it comes to this idea of a transaction? Right. I think that that is new for a lot of people. So tell me about how you think about that sort of empathy lens to sales or fundraising.

[00:08:49] Kyle: I'll start with a really crass and unfortunate story that kind of relates to the door-to-door job that you mentioned. I had a, I had a friend who worked at a call center when we were in university. And so she was trained on how to run calls and they're, it is scripted really and a lot of call centers they tell you what to do. There's like a, like a decision tree, basically, based on what you say, they will say something back to you. And so here's where, how this empathy doesn't show up. One person got on a call with someone and was asking for a donation for the university and the person, their first response back was actually, I think it, it was a close family member might have been their husband or someone very close to them was like, actually he died of cancer actually.

[00:09:32] Kyle: And so we're not in a position to donate the decision tree said to them that they need to ask two more times.

[00:09:39] Cindy: Oh, my goodness. oh my goodness.

[00:09:42] Kyle: And so they were like,

[00:09:43] Cindy: It's so cringe!

[00:09:45] Kyle: It is very cringe. And to me, that's the, the most stark example that's lived in my brain rent-free for decades now, for, because of the fact that how in the world could you possibly think that that person ever might want to donate again after, you know, Not either telling you that, but like, you should just take them off your phone list at this point.

[00:10:04] Cindy: Yeah. Yeah. That's the car sales experience like?

[00:10:08] Kyle: Yes.

[00:10:09] Cindy: Oh my goodness. Yeah.

[00:10:12] Kyle: So there that's, that's the way that, that shows up for me about when I think about what not to do. And of course, I think the biggest part of empathy, and one of the biggest tenets of empathy is just listening and doing an act of deep listening.

[00:10:25] Kyle: So understanding where people are at. You know how to be able to engage with them in a way that makes sense. In fundraising, I also don't think like every time the end means needs to be by the end of a conversation, you need to think about like the dollars that are coming through the door. Cause I think when you, I think in that case specifically, that's what that sounds like. And if you have the patience and ability to just be in a moment with people, understand what they do. I think that can, that can work wonders. Another really cool example on the other end of this is that I heard a story last month about a fundraiser was talking with a potential donor and they were just talking about things and she needed a fridge moved.

[00:11:05] Kyle: And so the fundraiser went and helped her move her fridge because that's what she needed. And that was the thing, the way that she could help and build a community and a relationship. And so eventually months down the line, a donation came through. But in that moment, it was just about helping people.

[00:11:19] Cindy: Yeah. You will know this, that I've always said, like the number one quality that makes someone a great fundraiser, as opposed to mediocre good or even bad fundraisers curiosity. And to me, that curiosity of getting to know people like we put this label of donors on them, but they're people, and finding those connections are, is, is the number one secret to fundraising success.

[00:11:47] Cindy: That feels good, which is what we're talking about. I'd love for you to, you know, very often and again, you know, this, like I always say, go meet with your donors, get to know your donors. Don't ask for money in those meetings. But then the question a lot of people have is how do I take that information and scale our fundraising, right? Because most of the time we're not asking donors face to face are one to one for support. We're taking this Intel and we're building fundraising programs with that or we're communicating and building relationships at scale and balancing those one-to-one with one-to-many. So I'd love for you to talk a little bit about your experience, leveraging those relationships to broaden the number of people you're having relationships with. That sounded weird, but the number of people you're engaging in fundraising.

[00:12:40] Kyle: Yeah. I think a part of our strategy has been yeah. To this. Well, I'll start by saying actually this stuff tends to build momentum. And so when you start fundraising, there's sort of like, it's sort of, kind of build on itself. And especially if you can find the, the sweet spots that can help you with that building, I think those are always really important.

[00:13:44] Kyle: So finding that the space to be able to make your different and diverse part pockets of your fundraising, be able to help you, I think is certainly essential. And to the point, maybe more clearly it's, it is definitely feels a little bit like marketing oriented approaches, like understanding what, what is it gonna work and what isn't going to work and being able to double down on the things that, you think are gonna, gonna help you get there.

[00:14:10] Cindy: Awesome. Thank you. I wanna dive into some of the let's call them logistics or some of the tips that you found helpful in structuring your approach to fundraising. You know, whether it's, you know, managing a prospect list or research, which I know you've told me about before. So tell me some of, talk to me about some of those tools that you find yourself leaning on to do fundraising from a place of empathy.

[00:14:39] Kyle: Yeah, absolutely. I think a big part of it, which a lot of people have heard Brene Brown say is about clarity being a form of kindness. So I think more than anything, you should know what you're you're selling or what you're like, what your opportunities are.

[00:14:53] Kyle: And so creating that list of whatever it could be making cases of support, whatever things you need to do in order to sort of give it a little bit of clarity so that when that time comes and when you really wanna dig into the details with, with someone that you have the structure there and the most and the commercial way you can think of it like dragons, then the people who do best on dragons and are often the people who come, who know their numbers, who are well-prepared. It's very similar in, in that space being prepared, and doing your research just helps people feel like you've got what it takes in order to, to do the best with their, with their donation or with their money.

[00:15:26] Cindy: I love that. And just as an aside for American listeners, your version is shark tank. But I love that show, but anyways, continue. So having that clarity, I. is so, so critical. What are the other tools that you find help you, men, like help you provide structure to your ongoing fundraising work?

[00:15:50] Kyle: So there's two that I, I think are really important, at least for the, yeah, to help manage exactly things or manage things internally. So one is, what I've often called like a targeted account list, which sounds that's a very sales-y term, but basically, as you called it a prospect list.

[00:16:06] Kyle: So understanding generally, who you think would be a good value aligned partner with you, or so that could be a list of donors that could be a list of companies. It could be, again, depends on what your strategy and your approach is, but creating a generative list, of ones that you would be able to email or connect with probably most of them in some sense, or at least you'll attempt to. And one thing I'll say right off the bat with that is that it should be generative because like an engagement spectrum in a lot of different ways in which people think about these things, you're gonna start with the biggest list. And eventually, by the time you get to sign seal delivered, you're gonna have a few

[00:16:44] Cindy: mm-hmm

[00:16:45] Kyle: You, so you need to start really generative at the top. And that is, and so be generous with that list, but also make it manageable so don't go for a thousand people if you don't have the capacity to engage with a thousand people, or if you only have 10 businesses, that could be, that could be okay too, but make it manageable in respect to your team.

[00:17:03] Cindy: Yeah. What qualifies someone to be on that list or a company to be on that list?

[00:17:09] Kyle: Yeah, it can, it can, it can vary a lot, but I think what I would say are some of the keys that we've worked with is first off that their values aligns. Like we can recognize we're an environmental charity so there are some groups that clearly probably should not be on that list. And so, you know, we have a, we actually have a decision-making matrix roughly on, whether or not we think someone could qualify or we should like embark down a road, a partnership with them and a lot of that is basically how they show up in the world, what's on their websites, have they had negative press? And if so, what is it about and how did they react? And those sorts of things that I think is really certainly important.

[00:17:46] Kyle: And then a lot of there are other pieces of the puzzle. So, you know, whether or not we know we have a, a contact or someone that we reasonably think we could get in touch with. Reasonable is always subjective. So it could be that, you know, someone is connected with them on LinkedIn, that could be a pause that could be enough sometimes, or it could be that we actually have a direct email or phone number and that we've ideally had a conversation with them before.

[00:18:08] Kyle: But again, it kind of it's relative to how maybe new your organization is or how big the network is around you. So, again, I set up parameters, as you create a prospect list to be able to help you navigate through who should be on that list.

[00:18:22] Cindy: Amazing. I know one of the others is research and I think that that is something that can feel very intimidating to organizations like sure you can find, you know, some information on things like grant connect if there's foundations or connections with foundations. But, I think a lot of people don't know how to find the right information and the information they think they need to know. So tell me about your research process. What do you, what queries are you asking of things like Google and other places to help you prepare to build those relationships?

[00:19:02] Kyle: Yeah, absolutely. I think there's a lot of different ways you can go about it. And I think. My bigger piece of the puzzle is that, of course, there's so much that can be said online and through research. And I think that's important and you certainly think everyone should make sure that they do their research. So you show up to a conversation and you're able to demonstrate that you've done your research. I think actually that sometimes that can feel a little slick depending on what you're talking about, I think, but when you do it in an empathetic way and a way of like trying to build connection, that actually can be impressive and that can be.

[00:19:35] Kyle: Again, showing people that, you know, you're, you're doing your homework. You're, you're really in this too, for the, good intentions. So I think you can't be important.

[00:19:42] Cindy: Yeah. I always find like, Like you can use research to like spark a conversation. So, you know, when you're having small talk, if you know, they have five kids, you can talk about your own kids and kind of find that way to connect with them if the, it fits an individual, but you don't wanna be like, oh, so I was looking you up online and I saw that this, that, and the other, like that is a turn off. But companies research is different. Right? Where you can actually say, Hey, I noticed like they want to know that you did look at their website and you've created questions. Like you've you have had a thoughtful approach. So just, For, for one's benefit know the difference between totally talking to individuals and researching individuals.

[00:20:35] Cindy: You don't wanna be like a stalker, but for companies, it actually, is really helpful and can help you guide the conversation to really focus on, meaningful questions. So there you go.

[00:20:50] Kyle: Absolutely. And I saw a really good example of this. The owner of fatso peanut butter, which is actually Vancouver island, based company.

[00:20:57] Cindy: Cool.

[00:20:57] Kyle: She posted on LinkedIn the other day that someone found out the name of her cat and she was like, I don't talk about my cat online. Why, how do you know this? And so I ended up being for her creepy. Like she was like, how do you, what is this

[00:21:10] Cindy: Why you stalking me?

[00:21:11] Kyle: Yeah.

[00:21:11] Cindy: Yeah.

[00:21:11] Kyle: So maybe like, you know, especially on those, especially for individuals, like, don't try to go like into the depths of the internet to find something creative.

[00:21:18] Cindy: Yeah. But if you're on a zoom call with her let and your cat walks by the screen, not a bad thing. Right.

[00:21:25] Kyle: Right.

[00:21:25] Cindy: So it's finding points of connection and being authentic with it instead of like, yeah, no one wants to know that you've been like snooping. It's just awkward. So,

[00:21:37] Kyle: Absolutely.

[00:21:38] Cindy: Yeah. That's a great example.