Grassroots to Grasstops: Investing in your mission to land in a nonprofit field of dreams

Grassroots to Grasstops: Investing in your mission to land in a nonprofit field of dreams

February 18, 2021
29 minutes
EPISODE SUMMERY

Michele Sullivan · President, Caterpillar Foundation | Michele Sullivan, a social impact powerhouse, TED speaker, and author of Looking Up, espouses a leadership philosophy that promotes taking an elevated view of others. Michele spent her 30-year career at Caterpillar, retiring as President of Caterpillar Foundation and Caterpillar's Director of Corporate Social Innovation—and her story is beyond inspiring.

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EPISODE NOTES

As an avid advocate of advocacy-based causes (say that 3 times fast!), Michele's advice for nonprofits looking for funding is to lead by example: invest the resources you have available in the same way that you're asking funders to invest in your mission. Rather than stretching your own programming budget, find a counterpart in advocating for your cause and strike up a collaboration. And Michele's number-one must-have is a healthy link between your theory of change and your programs.

Michele's story hits differently than most—being born with metatrophic dysplasia, a rare form of dwarfism, she's had every reason to be thrown off course by life's obstacles. But instead of being knocked down, Michele has looked up and treated every experience as an opportunity, smashing through that glass ceiling and becoming the first female president of the Caterpillar Foundation.

Michele and Justin Wheeler, CEO and Co-founder of Funraise, touch on the things that foundations like Caterpillar look for in investment-worthy nonprofits, ways to communicate the value of your cause, and the best way to present a nonprofit story that resonates with both donors and funders. So, dive with us into grassroots strategies and then come up for a birds-eye view of grasstops results, as we weave the two into a nonprofit field of dreams.

And if you want to hear more from Michele, go to LookingUp.com!

TRANSCRIPT

Hello, I'm Justin Wheeler, and welcome to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

Today, I'm talking with Michele Sullivan, a social impact powerhouse, TED speaker, and author of Looking Up, a leadership philosophy that promotes taking an elevated view of others. Michele spent her 30-year career at Caterpillar, retiring as President of Caterpillar Foundation and Caterpillar's Director of Corporate Social Innovation—and her story is beyond inspiring.

As an avid advocate of advocacy-based causes (say that 3 times fast!), Michele's advice for nonprofits looking for funding is to lead by example: invest the resources you have available in the same way that you're asking funders to invest in your mission. Rather than stretching your own programming budget, find a counterpart in advocating for your cause and strike up a collaboration. And Michele's number-one must-have is a healthy link between your theory of change and your programs.

Michele's story hits differently than most—being born with metatrophic dysplasia, a rare form of dwarfism, she's had every reason to be thrown off course by life's obstacles. But instead of being knocked down, Michele has looked up and treated every experience as an opportunity.

My conversation with Michele touches on the things that foundations like Caterpillar look for in investment-worthy nonprofits, ways to communicate the value of your cause, and the best way to present a nonprofit story that resonates with both donors and funders. So, dive with us into grassroots strategies and then come up for a birds-eye view of grasstops results, as we weave the two into a nonprofit field of dreams.

Justin Wheeler Michelle, thank you so much for joining the podcast today, it's great to have you on the show.

Michele Sullivan Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure.

Justin Wheeler So there's so much to talk about in a short amount of time. And so I want to jump right into it. You have such an inspiring story. You have been a huge influencer in the philanthropic space. And so I'd love this to kind of start with, tell us a little about yourself, your story and what got you eventually into working in the nonprofit sector.

Michele Sullivan Thank you so much. So back decades ago, I was born with a rare form of dwarfism, and so I've only been among the shortest person wherever I go and my parents always taught me that I could do whatever I wanted, that it really didn't matter about the size. And so education was really stressed and I clearly understood that education was my pathway going forward for me to be successful. And so I went on to school and ended up with a master's degree and my dad worked at Caterpillar and I knew that that's what I wanted to work with the global company. And I recently retired after 30 years and my sister still works there today. And I had quite a career in different areas, parts, marketing, new product introduction, etc.. But luckily, the last seven years I was the president of The Caterpillar Foundation and the first woman to hold that position. And it was quite a pleasure because it opened up a world for me that I thought I knew about people in poverty, etc.. But when you really go around the globe and see poverty and especially extreme poverty, it gives you a whole new understanding of what our challenges are in the world. And so I really have worked, even in my retirement, to continue the social impact side. But, you know, I give all the credit to The Caterpillar Foundation for really giving me an opportunity and teaching me things and meeting the people that I would have never met and been inspired by had I not held that position.

Justin Wheeler What took you down the pathway of getting into the foundation aspect? It seemed like you were on the corporate side for a while and then the last seven years you spent on the foundation side. So what was the sort of journey into that part of operations?

Michele Sullivan Well, you know, I've always loved business. And so you're right. The first twenty-three years I was clearly on the business side, but I kept finding myself going down to the first floor of my world headquarters where the foundation folks were when I had free time. And keep in mind, I've been in the philanthropic world since I was a teenager. I was in an organization and still called The Little People of America and did some other work with some other organizations. So the non-for-profit world's always been in my life and I loved it. But Caterpillar was also a love of mine. So, you know, when the foundation job came open, which it rarely did, I was maybe the fifth person since 1952 to have the position. Once you get in there, people would have it for 20 years. Yeah. And when I was with the company 23yrs I thought I had missed my shot to be honest. But it came up and in it I thought, you know this really brings my two passions together, Caterpillar and the philanthropic side. So it's probably the most wanted position at Caterpillar next to the CEO. So one hundred thousand people applied and I thought about it for a long time. So I went in knowing that I had a strategy of what I would do. I would involve... You know, with our brand, we could really bring recognition to a lot of these challenges. And of course, we have dealers all over the world as well that we could lean on and really help them with our work. And so when I went in and talked about the strategy and that I really thought we should do it from an ROI perspective, you know, like a business. What organizations do we invest in that, make the biggest impact? Kind of like the Shark Tank. If 50 water organizations came in, how do you differentiate? And so for me, it was very clear, you know, when you narrow down the regions that you want to work in etc., and then you start looking at organizations and what their impact is, then you could clearly start to decipher which organizations you wanted to narrow it down to. And so it really brought together two passions for me. And it was a bit of a risk, to be honest, because I was going off the beaten path, leaving the corporate side and going into very much a bucket... you know, the foundation is just a small piece. There was eight employees on the team, you know, out of 90,000. So it was a risk. But to me it was not even risky because I thought if I get this position, I knew that I would finish out my career in this position, and if not, I would still continue to work with the team and go down and visit and see what they're working on, et cetera, and fortunately for me, it worked out.

Justin Wheeler That's amazing. And congratulations on being the first woman president of the foundation. I mean, it's such a prestigious foundation and so setting sort of the bar for more female leaders to take leadership in that. And so congratulations on that.

Michele Sullivan Thank you!

Justin Wheeler That's a huge achievement. I'd love to double click on that comment you talked about regarding the Shark Tank. So I think a lot of questions nonprofits have when going to foundations for funding, It's how do we stand out? How do we, against all the noise, know there's lots of organizations competing for foundation dollars, so what advice do you give? What were the things that your foundation looked at to really help differentiate one nonprofit over the other? I know you talked about focusing on region, but was there anything in the organization's financials the way they conveyed impact? What were the sort of important indicators that you looked at as a foundation?

Michele Sullivan Sure. You know, most important, when a grant request would come in and we get thousands of them, as you can imagine, Caterpiller is very global. And a lot of people know the Caterpillar is. So the first question is, do you fit within the organization's mission? So was water in our mission. And the answer clearly was, yes, it was. And all the information was on our website. And so when an organization is looking, you can't really fit a square into a round hole or vice versa. You really have to study and make sure that you fit within their boundaries that they're looking for. So if you do, then you can proceed and really look at several things. How is your financial performance? We look heavily at that because, you know, we don't have unlimited money, even the people that we don't know, everybody has limited money. So we're going to spend it where we feel that we can get the best return and really the organization will perform and not have financial issues. Second, is we do not want to be more than maybe 25% of any particular large grant, because if we decided in a couple of years to go in a different direction, we didn't want to put that program under names. So we did not want to be the main carrier of a program. Typically there were exceptions, but not very often. And then also, are you running it like a business? Are you continuing to strive? Is your accounting up to par? Do you have your audits? We would not contribute if you did not have an audit. Just like any business, you should be audited. Now, this was an issue for very small organizations, but one solution is you can go and see if one of your funders would donate the audit. In other words, go to an accountant or something and say, would you help support us by doing an audit?

Justin Wheeler Right.

Michele Sullivan So we use that organization's talents to help you. They don't necessarily have to do it in money, but they can do it in other ways, such as an audit. So when I counsel people about is this a good organization, when they come to me? You really have to look at those type of things. And there's a lot of websites out there, you know, where they post their IRS financials up to the web and you can actually see their financials and then do some math and figure out is this really a healthy organization, financial wise? And so the other pieces, when I look at, with the team, the water organizations, for example, how many people could we impact? And you can't compare something like water that or who gives out small loans so they can hook up to the water. You can impact a lot more people as opposed to charity: water that's digging a well, which will serve just a village, which is wonderful. But you can't compare the number of people in those two instances because there are two different types of groups of people that you're trying to serve. And yet the charity: water may be definitely in the region where you can hook up to water because there's nothing hook up to. You have to dig.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Michele Sullivan And that was a priority for us as well as water.org, where we did the loans. So you can't just do the number of people. So it's really not black and white. You really have to look at the different areas within the grant to see which ones you want to invest in.

Justin Wheeler That makes sense. There's this, I'll say, growing movement. I don't think it's huge yet, but it's this term being thrown around called pragmatic philanthropy. And it addresses like, hey, if you're going to be a philanthropist and you really want to make a difference in the world, then you need to be pragmatic about it and you need to invest in the things that will help the most amount of people or whatever the... choose whatever the causes. And so some nonprofits feel that their impact is very like. So, for example, when I was at liberty in North Korea, it cost $3,000 to fund one rescue. One person. That's expensive. And then whereas, you know, $3,000 can provide mosquito nets for an entire village in Africa, whatever it might be. And so you get into this sort of game of like how much dollars will help the most amount of people? And how do you how do you balance that? Because I think that, as you said, that that's not always the best way to measure the efficacy of a nonprofit because it costs different organizations, different impact costs different things. So how do you quantify that in terms of measuring whether or not we should invest in a nonprofit?

Michele Sullivan That's a very, very complicated question isn't it? You know, one of the changes we made when I came in, we started investing in advocacy, which we called the grasstops. And then what you were talking about with rescuing one person that is the grassroots. And you really need both to make sustainable change. But not everybody is involved from the grassroots to the grasstops. And that's OK. A group like Caterpillar can do that because we have the... First of all to invest in advocacy, from a corporate foundation, we really had to get legal involved so that we didn't cross the line into policy or anything like that. So when you think about it, though, once you can get a country, for instance, and I'm just speaking in generalities here, to think about the advocacy of girls should that be married at age 10. Even if they were to address that, it would take a long time to filter through the culture, right. Probably multi-generational type of time. But when you think about it, that's also going to produce mass change in the distant future, hopefully the near future. But to make large change, in cultural change through advocacy, it does take a long time.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Michele Sullivan So it depends on what your time frame is and it depends on what is your preference, what's your preference in terms of that $3,000 saved one person as a rescue. Well that can go on and impact their family in the future, et cetera. So it also balloons out.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Michele Sullivan But, you know, $3,000 in the advocacy world, you're talking millions of dollars in advocacy if you're talking about child marriage or education reform or something like that.

Justin Wheeler Right.

Michele Sullivan So there's many things that go into each type of grant in the area. But advocacy is definitely more long term, but exponentially impactful.

Justin Wheeler Impactful. Yeah, I think that's such an important message for nonprofits. I think we're so obsessed with how much impact can we make in this fiscal year. Exactly. Whereas sometimes some years there will just be less impact. But for the return in year four or five or whatever it might be. And so I think I love that that Caterpillar thinks that way, thinks about sort of the long term impact of what an organization can do, whether it's through advocacy or direct programs.

Michele Sullivan But also that we've been taught where you want the immediate number, right. Like we want impact people right now. And most people don't have the understanding or the means to work on advocacy, but there are groups where you absolutely can. For example, The One Campaign, you know,advocates for preventable diseases and extreme poverty, and they have ambassadors where you can sign up as an ambassador and help go to your government officials to advocate for certain things. So the common person can absolutely impact advocacy very quickly, as we've seen in the United States, right? A group of people can change a lot, which I think is wonderful. And so also, Global Citizen, they call their groups Global Citizens that come in and around the world they have advocates that go in and make radical change quickly. So it used to be long term that it takes. And still the change to trickle down, I would argue, does take a while in some cases. But, you know, advocacy can also happen very quickly. Just make sure that when you're advocating for is really where you want to go, because once you do it, it's hard to turn it back.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. That makes total sense. Oh, go ahead.

Michele Sullivan I want people to go out and be advocates. I mean, and there's many organizations where you can.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Michele Sullivan Especially with social media now.

Justin Wheeler Totally. Yeah. That's what actually, back when I was in college, there's this quote by Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." That's what inspired me to get into philanthropy. And it's exactly the message you just shared. And I wanted to talk a little bit more about advocacy here. At Liberty in North Korea. We had a multipronged approach. We both had... we did advocacy and we did direct program relief where we looked at the relief work where we are like, this is not going to change what's happening inside North Korea, but this is more of the humanitarian imperative of our people suffering that need help. We have the resources. Let's help them. But we had a long term game and it was on the advocacy side of how do we help the North Korean people achieve their own freedom in their country? And so we did all sorts of advocacy. Do you think that more nonprofits should be focused on advocacy? Because if you think about a lot of the issues and social challenges that we're fighting against, policy could have an impact on the outcome of what they're doing. And so do you think more organizations that need to be working on advocacy or is there a good balance? What's your thought on that?

Michele Sullivan I do think that advocacy plays a role in almost every social challenge that we have, but a lot of organizations don't have the depth or sometimes the desire to go into advocacy. Because it can be quite heavy of a lift depending on where you are. However, we were big proponents of collaboration. And so what I've encouraged organizations to do, and it started when I was with the foundation and I continue to do it, is their strength in collaboration. So find the organizations that are working on advocacy in the area that you're focused on. And when you team up, you have a much more powerful impact because you may be delivering on the ground while you're also feeding information and advice to the advocacy group. And also the people that you're working with can be advocates for the advocacy organization. Because remember, there's power in numbers like Margaret Mead said, right? Yeah. So if you don't have the wherewithal or the desire or the means to work directly in advocacy, I definitely would encourage you to get with the organizations that you can collaborate with to get to work on advocacy, because it really does dovetail and you will see that your impact for both organizations will increase.

Justin Wheeler Got it. So one more question on the foundations. I know I do want to jump into your book and TED talk. So when when you're looking at an organization, because I think this is important. A lot of times I feel like an organization, it has you know, they create their theory of change, they create their programs and sometimes their programs just don't really connect to their theory of change, or aren't can actually prove it out. So how important is it for you as someone who is deploying a lot of capital to charity, to nonprofits, how important were the program, like the impact, the efficacy of the program, as it related back to sort of maybe their theory of change is this actually going to end the problem that you're trying to address? Or were you more concerned about, how many people are you actually helping? Is it helping bring people out of poverty? I feel like there's, sometimes there can be a disconnect in sort of the humanitarian efforts that are being done and the long term change that also needs to be focused on. So how would you look at that from a foundation perspective when deploying capital.

Michele Sullivan In the foundation we required an annual impact report? And the reason for that is we wanted to make sure that that truly connected to their theory of change. And for instance, if they were going into the classroom with a certain program and working on maybe 30% change in knowledge or behavior. And remember, there's a difference between output, and output is how many kids went through the class. When you talk about change, it's what was the change in knowledge or behavior. We focused on the change in knowledge and behavior. Because the word, sometimes not very often, where when they turned on the impact report, it did not even come close to meeting what their metric was. Remember, it's their metric.

Justin Wheeler Right.

Michele Sullivan Now that does not mean that we quit funding them. To the contrary, you know, obviously, either the program wasn't on target or for the audience that they have brought in, or you need to change the audience so that they meet, you know, the program dynamics. But if you didn't meet your change by a large measure, then something isn't right. And so you really needed to go back and look at, let's look at the students that we had in the class. And what is it they needed or was it the program material that we needed to change for the students that are in the class? So it doesn't mean that we were going to stop the grant. We would let it go forward if they could find out what change could they make to try it again?

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Michele Sullivan And then it really did perform. So what's interesting is how some organizations didn't like the impact report, it actually helped them because their program became even stronger and then more people were interested in funding.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Michele Sullivan So you really, just like in business, you know if something doesn't meet the customer requirements because they don't buy it.

Justin Wheeler Right.

Michele Sullivan So you change something right? So the nonprofits the same you have to perform. Is it hitting the targets that you were wanting or you need to go back and look at what's wrong. And we did that through the impact reports and then working with the organizations to make sure that they were performing up to their theory of change.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, I love that. That's you know, I think that a really powerful takeaway from that message there is for nonprofits looking for funding, especially from foundations like Caterpillar. It's insurer ensure that you have a monitoring and evaluation mechanism in place on your programs, right? Especially to deliver sort of the impact on the program. So that's that's really helpful.

Michele Sullivan Because remember, we have to meet... the IRS watches the dollars very closely as they should. And so does Caterpiller, because you know, I felt a huge responsibility on behalf of the employees, the company, the dealers and the customers that we, you know, spend and invest the money wisely and the organizations that we're going to get that will really benefit the folks that we're targeting. And so we have the same responsibility on our side. We have to roll up our numbers to show the number of people or the how we change it in terms of advocacy. How did we make a difference on our side as well? So we have to do the same.

Justin Wheeler Absolutely. Absolutely. All right. So let's let's transition here in the next couple of minutes and then we'll wrap it up. So you are... outside of your inspiring work at the Caterpillar Foundation, have gone on and gave a very inspiring speech on the TED stage, which has been viewed millions of times, you've written a book, talk to us about your speaking and your writing. It's such an inspiration and so would love to touch on that a bit here.

Michele Sullivan Thank you. It really did start with the TED talk and the premise behind the TED talk was you really can't walk in my shoes, you know, being four feet tall and other challenges that I have. And most challenges you can't see from someone. And yet we're very quick to judge people by what you say, especially in today's world. Look at the politics. I mean, families aren't talking to each other just because you support a candidate. Imagine that. So when you think about the world today, we need to come together more than ever. And so don't judge people as quickly as you, we have a tendency to do because you don't know what they're going through on any given day. And so while you can't walk in my shoes maybe or understand about being four feet tall, you can still walk beside me and I can walk beside you as well and we really can make a difference in the world. And that's what the TED talk is all about and so a lot of people have always said, Michele, you need to write a book about your life. And, you know, everybody has a story. And most people think just being small is my biggest story where I believe in making an impact on the world. I definitely believe in servant leadership. I believe that we're supposed to make a difference in the world, everybody, however, that is using your talent, your resources or your finances or all of the above. And so the book is called Looking Up. Even when I look up, everybody actually all the time, all day, being four feet tall it also taught me the greatest gift, which is to look up to everybody because we all have value. And so in the book, I talk about the people who I've looked up to in my life that made a profound impact on me. And then also I talk about the people, especially the people I met in the foundation, who are living in poverty. And they've influenced my life more than they will ever know. And here we... they don't have near what we have. And yet they're so inspirational. And there are stories in there about the people and how they have inspired me and others is a big part of the book as well.

Justin Wheeler Hmm. And for those listening, I highly recommend it. I ordered it... I first talked to Michelle several weeks ago, ordered the book ahead of time. My wife and I have read it, and it's a perfect book for the time that we're in today. It's such an inspiring story. So, Michelle, thank you for being on the podcast. Thank you for sharing. Where can where can people pick up the book? I assume Amazon is probably the easiest?

Michele Sullivan Right, right. Target, Amazon. And then also if to know more about where I'm speaking, etc., lookingup.com.

Justin Wheeler OK, well, make sure that we'll link your website in the comments are as part of this podcast that people have access to that. But thank you so much Michele for joining. For sharing your story, sharing your expertize. We really appreciate it.

Michele Sullivan Thank you. Keep looking up because the view is great.

Justin Wheeler Awesome! Thank you.

Michele Sullivan Bye-bye.

Justin Wheeler Bye.

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