By Ashley Sharp, executive director at Dwell with Dignity.
Our nonprofit, Dwell with Dignity, just exited the latest cohort of the Social Innovation Accelerator, a game-changing program of the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. The accelerator runs each year from late summer to early spring, culminating in a two-stage pitch competition (a la ABC’s Shark Tank) with well over a quarter of a million investment dollars at stake for North Texas-area nonprofits and for-profits focused on social good.
The Pitch, as it’s known locally, is an opportunity for those of us who see ourselves as social entrepreneurs to flex that promise, much as an inventor or founder in the for-profit space pitches angel investors, venture capitalists or private equity professionals. While I’m still processing the many ways the accelerator itself — packed with training on all aspects of running a business, intense networking and access to a variety of industry-leading mentors — is impacting me and my organization, I’m left with an abiding sense that we did a few things right when presenting our mission to the judges. While we missed out in favor of the eventual competition winner, I’m proud to say that we were among the five finalists who each received a $25,000 investment from United Way donors across North Texas.
Here are some important takeaways we learned from the process.
If you’re asking others to invest in your vision, you should invest first. Before entering the pitch phase of the accelerator, we made the conscious decision to hire a pitching coach. We benefitted from this relationship in multiple ways. The firm we hired, first and foremost, helped me craft our message verbally and visually, testing multiple concepts along the way.
Having someone on your team that’s just an arm’s length away can give you an intimate change of perspective on your value proposition — both on its own and within the context of your competition. We especially benefitted from our coaches never letting any detail slip through the mental cracks. While many of us in the nonprofit world get the significance of our mission, we often lose sight or fail to see how special our work is on a day-to-day basis, because there’s so much of it to do! Having that layperson’s perspective will ensure that your message is textured and multifaceted, rather than one-dimensional.
If you’re really approaching these pitches with a “no stone unturned” approach, you’ll be testing a lot of messages, all authentic, to see what resonates most with your potential investors. The accelerator format provides many opportunities for mentoring and networking. It’s important to message test not only with the people you meet during these experiences or as you’re shaping ideas, but also with people who are tried-and-true sounding boards who have never failed to give you the truth along your professional journey.
The power of getting a lot of feedback can diminish, however, if you can’t curate it properly. You’re bound to get feedback that’s conflicting, as well as some that’s just not constructive (usually, it’s just too darn positive). If you stay true to yourself, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, you’ll often be able to recognize the feedback that shows the holes in an argument, the lack of clarity in your vision or an idea within it, or any other piece of information that’ll help you get that competitive edge.
Choose to win.
None of us are competing simply for the joy and personal growth of the exercise. Rather, we’re competing for investment dollars, whether it’s in the context of an accelerator competition or for a share of an angel investor’s, charitable foundation’s or corporate sponsor’s finite amount of cash. The reason you’re pitching in the first place is that you have ideas that you and others believe are worth pursuing. And if you really believe that, then will yourself to win that investment.
It’s important to note that you’re not going to win them all. I knew all along who my most formidable competitor would likely be in The Pitch, and indeed, she nearly swept all the final round prize money. But I believe in the ideas we presented, so much so that we are already launching our proposed programs and initiatives to advance diversity in design and our area’s first community-based social impact marketplace. I am choosing to win, whether it’s with the United Way’s money, someone else’s, or in this case, both.
Our accelerator program and pitch process created real capital — the capital of great ideas — and we intend to move those ideas forward with passion.