How can we bring radical honesty to communications?
Farra Trompeter, co-director, chats with Marisa DeSalles, founder of Good Tilth LLC, and Michelle Flores Vryn, chief development officer with OneStar, about radical honesty and the power of rooting truth and trust throughout your communications.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to The Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to ask the question, “How can we bring radical honesty to communications?” And I am delighted to have here two wonderful people I’ve met through the wonderful world of Community-Centric Fundraising. If you’re not familiar with the Community-Centric Fundraising movement, I encourage you to check it out at CommunityCentricFundraising.org. I met Marisa and Michelle, our guests today, I can’t remember if I met you all through LinkedIn, Slack, the content hub, but some way the Community-Centric Fundraising communicates, we came in touch, we’ve been talking, and I’m really excited to have you both here with us today.
Farra Trompeter: Let me tell you a little bit about both of them. Marisa DeSalles, she/her, is based in Sacramento, California, and has been reimagining fundraising through a community-centric lens for many years. She started her career in marketing and branding during the heyday of the San Francisco Bay Area in the 90s, moved over to the nonprofit world in the early 2000s, and then shortly after the Racial Reckoning forced by George Floyd’s Murder, Marisa formed a consultancy focused on DEI issues in the nonprofit space. She was immediately inspired by the launch of the Community-Centric Fundraising movement and contributed one of the earliest essays to their content hub, “12 Years a Fly in the Milk,” which examines her experience in the nonprofit world as a fundraiser of color. She has since authored or co-authored several articles on the Community-Centric Fundraising hub and speaks regularly to AFP, Association of Fundraising Professionals, chapters, and other groups of fundraisers about implementing CCF principles into their work.
Farra Trompeter: Marisa prefers to work with small and emerging organizations, especially those led by people of color. She’s currently mentoring a cohort of BIPOC-led organizations through their regional Giving Day campaigns. She also keeps bees and chickens, maintains a small urban garden, and lives for road trips to beaches and forests in Northern California. Marisa, welcome to the show.
Marisa DeSalles: Thanks so much, Farra.
Farra Trompeter: And Michelle Flores Vryn, she/her, is a fundraising and communications strategist, a curator of social good, and a DEI advocate that co-creates the best innovation for nonprofits. Michelle has worked in almost every area of fundraising for nonprofits: major gifts, institutional giving, capital campaigns, consulting, special events, and annual giving. Before joining https://onestarfoundation.org/ as the Chief Development Officer, she worked in international fundraising, led the communications and development team at a nature center in Houston, and as a board member, helped launch Exploration Green, a 200-acre green space for conservation, recreation, and flood detention in Greater Houston. She’s also passionate about mentoring Black, Indigenous, and people of color nonprofit professionals and creating better workplace cultures where they can thrive. Michelle currently serves on the boards of AFP Global and Mission Capital, and she previously served as the director of institutional giving for one of our former clients, Bat Conservation International. Michelle, welcome to the show.
Michelle Flores Vryn: Thank you so much, Farra.
Farra Trompeter: All right, well let’s buckle up for this conversation. So if you’ve listened to other episodes, attended one of Big Duck’s talks, read our blogs, again, you probably know that we are really engaged with and eager to amplify the principles and ideas of the Community-Centric Fundraising movement. As readers of their content hub, I was intrigued by a post from a few years ago, back in late 2021, that Marisa and Michelle co-authored titled “The Annual Report That Never Was.”
Farra Trompeter: Now, before we rant about annual reports, I want to lift up your points about messaging, which is something we talk a lot about at Big Duck. You advise nonprofit staff to “consider whether you’re perpetrating a tone of toxic positivity in your external messaging.” I’m curious, how do you define toxic positivity? How do you see it showing up in nonprofits, messaging their annual reports, their updates, et cetera? Let’s hear about it. Michelle, start us off.
Michelle Flores Vryn: Yeah, so for us, toxic positivity is really defined as, like, hiding or covering up the true details of a scenario in order to, you know, craft this more forced like positive outlook to make people feel better, right? That could be at a personal level, but also at an organizational level. And as we say, like in the article, there very much is a dark side to doing this, we believe, and I think that one thing it really masks at an organizational level, particularly for nonprofits, is it really makes very unclear how much help you really need, where you’re actually having progress, and where you’re not. And also, you know, maybe most importantly too, the true cost of the work. And we mean both from a financial lens, like how much it costs to carry out work, but also energetic costs, right? I think we’re all feeling a lot of pressure on nonprofit staff nowadays to maintain current levels of doing work, and I think that energetic cost is also very much key here.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, those are some great points. Marisa, anything you want to add to this?
Marisa DeSalles: Yeah, it’s really true what Michelle says, that we tend to engage in a practice of storytelling to benefit our organizations and you know, to impel people to act, right, to ask people to give or to support our organizations or our missions. But it’s important to consider whether we’re telling the whole story. Whether we’re glossing over important deficits that if our listener, our reader, had a chance to know about them, they might actually be empowered to help solve the problems. I think that because of the history of our relationship between fundraisers and funders or philanthropists, we tend to get into a space of, “Well, we’ve got to just give them what they want to hear, give ’em what they want to hear, right? Keep ’em listening, got to give ’em what they want to hear.” Well, what they want is the truth, right? And they deserve the truth. We’re speaking about, you know, the greater audiences for our missions and we want to empower them to support us, right? And I think that in our tendency to want to conceal the struggle and publicize the success, right? We may be doing our own selves a bit of a disservice.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I really appreciate everything you both said, and there was a podcast I did a few months ago with Rusty Stahl from Fund the People where we talked a lot about The Overhead Myth and the challenges that creates. And again, everyone, “I want 98 cents of all my dollars to go to programs,” and everything that people, we’ve almost conditioned donors to think that there can be no money that goes toward staff, that goes to general operating costs, that goes to communications, and that is part of the lies that we tell our donors. We figure out how else to move the money around to tell that story that we think they want to hear, to your point. So, thank you for sharing that.
Farra Trompeter: Now, as we prepared for this conversation, we discussed that the antidote to toxic positivity is radical honesty, and I’m curious what you mean by that idea, what does that actually look like in practice? How can nonprofits communicate with donors and funders in the spirit of this radical honesty? How does this show up in communications with staff and board members too? I mean, again, I think we talked before, this isn’t just about donor communications. That’s where we see it a lot, but it also can happen in internal communications. So, Marisa, I know that this was a phrase you in fact used when we were talking about this idea of radical honesty. How do you see it out in the world with the organizations you’ve worked with and for?
Marisa DeSalles: Well, it’s kind of a unicorn. I don’t see it too often, but I have a client that is undergoing now an executive director transition, and they had been involved in a relationship with a trust-based funder for some years now, and the ED knew, well, basically she was getting burnt out and she was going to be looking for work elsewhere, and she wanted to alert this funder, this foundation, you know, ahead of public notice because she felt it was the right and honest thing to do. And I agreed with her. Well, on the other end of the table, we have the board of directors, right? And we all know that boards tend to be risk averse and generally conservative and, you know, tend to want to act slowly and thoughtfully, and all of that came up to, they didn’t want to tell the funder and the executive director, and I argued very strongly that the relationship would die, literally, if they were not completely honest with the funder. And in the end, we were able to prevail, although they were afraid that, you know, their funding would be cut, and the outcome of it was their funding was not cut. They were kept as part of the foundation’s spend-down commitment, actually, to the tune of six figures, Multi-Year General Operating Dollars, or MYGOD, as some folks like to call it, right? And, you know, very reluctantly they told the funder, you know, what was going to happen, and the funder you know, like I said, did not cut their funding. What they did was they restricted it to the first year so that they would have an opportunity to meet the new executive director and form a relationship with that person and make sure that under new leadership, the organization was still affiliated enough with the foundation’s goals that they should continue this year over year funding.
Marisa DeSalles: And then the flip side of that, when they were determining the job description posting, again, in the spirit of absolute transparency and honesty, we advocated for showing the salary, and the board disagreed and this time they got their way. Now imagine, right, we’re in California, there are a lot of nonprofits here and a ton of qualified candidates. They got six qualified applications for their job posting, and all I could do was shrug my shoulders because we told them so. It just was an illustration to me of how much bravery it takes to trod the path of radical honesty and how difficult it is for boards, for EDs, for organizations in general, but the cost of not being honest should be plain to see for anybody. So it worries me because I really question how we get there given our history of, let’s say, fraught relationships or at worst abusive relationships with funders. How do we get to a point where we can even begin to walk in a path of radical honesty?
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, these are some good questions. And also I do appreciate the first story did have a happy ending. The unicorn of radical honesty can lead to joy and unicorns prancing in the meadows, and I also want to underscore, if folks aren’t already familiar, showthesalary.com, I think it’s based in the UK, has a lot of great compelling arguments for why sharing the salary. I think there’s also Show the Pay. There’s some other initiatives out there. I know here in New York, they are, I think, have passed or are about to pass legislation where employers are required to include salary in listings, and this is really, for organizations who talk about really centering DEI in their work, this is in fact part of that, not, you know, making it clear, “This is what we’ve budgeted for the position. This is what the role costs and it’s not based on what you’ve done before. It’s based on what we’re asking you to do.” So I just want to elevate that part of your story, and thank you for sharing that.
Marisa DeSalles: Well, the worst part is, that same law was passed here in California, but the board’s reasoning was that I think because of the size of the organization, they were exempt from it. So rather than doing the right thing, even though you’re not required to, they chose to kind of go, what I feel is, a cowardly route, and it hurt them.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, clearly they had a negative result from that.
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Farra Trompeter: So much of what I think I’ve been thinking about as I read and push myself and challenge myself with the ideas of Community-Centric Fundraising, versus what I’ve been trained for 30 years in nonprofit fundraising and communications, is the difference between doing what’s required, what’s been proven, versus doing what’s right. And sometimes doing what’s right hasn’t been proven, feels scary, feels risky, but again, if we’re trying to act with justice, act with love, act with honesty, sometimes it does mean we need to try some things and take some risks into doing things we haven’t done before. Michelle, we just went off on a tangent. Was there anything you wanted to add to this conversation?
Michelle Flores Vryn: Yeah, there actually is on the radical honesty topic. I think for me, I take it to maybe an unexpected area. So I think radical honesty is a key ingredient for the next frontier of systems change for our sector. And I think this could be like an hour-long conversation, so I’ll simplify this, but I feel like we’re all looking for ways to collaborate more within the sector and the way we’re currently collaborating or seeing each other as partners in the sector or not seeing each other as partners is really not helping us solve the social and environmental problems we’re all trying to solve together here. And I think to get more radical outcomes, we need more radical ways of working together. But I think to work better together, we really need that key ingredient of radical honesty, and what I mean by that is each organization has to really look at themselves and ask tough questions like, “Are we the ones doing this aspect of the work in the best way, or is there a community partner who is more specialized in this area?” I think we need to ask more questions like, “Are we the best person to apply for this grant, or should we pass this along to someone else?” The more that we can really get clear on what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well and be honest with each other, I think we’ll make more authentic partners for everyone else in the sector, and we should all look at each other as co-conspirators and partners in this sector. So, I think it’s kind of as simple and as hard as that, and radical honesty can’t be circumvented in that process of collaborating better.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I appreciate you taking it to that other place. And I know that one of the principles of CCF, and I don’t have it at the tip of my tongue, maybe one of you do, is even things like, “Does our mission still need to exist?” And not thinking about our mission in isolation, but thinking about ourselves as part of a bigger world, a bigger movement, and again, seeing our peers as partners, not competitors. And so I appreciate you factoring that in.
Farra Trompeter: I’m curious, you know, one of the things, Marisa, you said, you mentioned trust-based, and I know there’s been a lot of buzz the past few years about “Trust-Based Philanthropy,” and I’m curious, we’ll start with you Michelle, have you seen any examples of organizations who are doing trust-based philanthropy or doing radical honesty in ways that you think people out there listening could learn from?
Michelle Flores Vryn: Yeah, I mean, I’ll say similar to one of Marisa’s responses, I think that, you know, there’s not tons of great examples. Like, I’m not going to be able to rattle off, like, seven,eight examples right now. Two organizations that I look to just to see what they’re doing, I feel like they’re a little more progressive, are the San Diego Community Foundation and then the one in San Antonio, Texas. So I look at those pretty closely just to watch their growth, and I think that they do both have, like, additional growth paths that I hope they take, but those are two that are on my mind. But I do think that TrustBasedPhilanthropy.org has great resources, you know, for anyone just wanting to learn more about the movement in general. But two things for those organizations they both do well is moving more toward unrestricted grants. There’s a lot of things I think we could say that we want to see from trust-based philanthropists, but at the end of the day, I think the number one thing we can see from them is just give more unrestricted. That is the most important thing you can do. Let’s just center on that. And I think that they’re both leading the way in their respective regions in that.
Farra Trompeter: That’s for community foundations, private foundations, corporate foundations, individual donors. Give it to the organization and trust them to make the decision about where to invest it. Marisa, anything you’ve seen out in the world of trust-based philanthropy, that’s an example worth highlighting or lifting up?
Marisa DeSalles: Yeah, this was with a small private funder here in northern California. I attended a session that they held for folks who were going to be applying for a grant from them, and it was very different than I thought it might be going in because even though these folks had not been awarded any grant funds, they had clearly been chosen by this funder to receive some support and they hadn’t determined the requirements for the grant. In fact, they were designing the grant collaboratively with the organizations. And so the interaction between this funder and this room full of, it was mixed, some program-level folks, some executive director folks, all small, really scrappy grassroots local orgs here. And some of it was skills identification type, you know, workshops for them so that they could learn what their skills were and what they could bring to the table. And then there was facilitated collaboration between them. And I just thought, wow, you know, if more of these funders could take this grassroots bottom up, even the physical logistics of the meeting were very flat and non-hierarchical and welcoming. Even small steps like that, I think any funder could move towards. I’m very encouraged.
Marisa DeSalles: I follow, like Michelle, the Trust-Based Philanthropy project very closely and listened, actually, to a really inspiring Justice Funders talk recently, and they’re really on the forefront of redesigning systems change and applying some of those things to our sector. Funders, obviously, open the floodgates, right? Let the money out into the world where it needs to do its good, and also listen. Listen to the community, listen to the experts that are your community partners, right? And I do see increased movement in that direction. It’s in fits and starts and as we know, especially larger foundations can be unwieldy, shall we say, and not the fastest, most agile things on the planet. But I do increasingly see a lot of reason for optimism about trust-based philanthropy.
Farra Trompeter: Great. Now, you are both DEI professionals who provide mentoring. So, in the spirit of that, I’m curious if there’s one piece of advice each of you might share for folks out there who want to bring more authenticity and honesty to their communications but might be getting some resistance from their colleagues. You’ve already spoken about examples of where there might be resistance from the board, but let’s imagine more from peers that you work with, folks on staff. Start with you, Marisa, if you’ve got any advice.
Marisa DeSalles: Well, I mentor and I mentee. I make sure to have interactions that go both directions because there is always the danger of one becoming arrogant, right, or one thinking one knows too much, right? When none of us have all the answers. None of us have got it all figured out. I think radical honesty, as I said, requires some bravery and some introspection. It’s very difficult to be honest with others if you aren’t honest with your own self to begin with. I think that might be the foundation of redesigning our relationships and our communication, right, is starting with a little introspection and looking in the mirror.
Farra Trompeter: Great. Michelle, any thoughts coming to mind for you?
Michelle Flores Vryn: Yeah, I mean, I do think that as a sector we all need to get better about talking about the problems we’re trying to solve. I think oftentimes we go into our work, whether that’s fundraising or program development or what have you, thinking people understand the problem. And the more and more that I’m in the sector, the more I understand not everyone is as close to the problems as we are and we can’t expect them to be. So really delineating “What is the problem we’re trying to solve,” and talking about that and living in that space and giving time and resources to it is not a bad thing. I think this goes back to the toxic positivity which opened up this conversation where, you know, we want to be problem solvers, we want to bring solutions, and that’s great, but I also think you have to balance educating others about the problem and just reminding everyone, like, they’re not as close to the problem as we are. And it’s okay if we talk about it more than we’re accustomed to doing.
Farra Trompeter: That’s great. So, take a step back, look at yourself. You’ve got to start by being honest with yourself and you also have to start by really looking around and asking questions and understanding the why behind what you’re doing. So I really appreciate what both of you just shared.
Farra Trompeter: Now before we go, I do want to bring up annual reports. Traditionally, I’ve seen nonprofits spend months to create a 20 to 40-page report or an interactive microsite with the goal of both reassuring and attracting donors and funders. I know many foundations even require an annual report as part of getting a grant, and I don’t think the annual report is going away quite yet. I have certainly seen different models and approaches to annual reports, but I’m curious if you have any advice or examples of how to produce this report or questions you should ask if you’re trying to do it in a new way, or just give us your annual report spiel in a minute or so, and I will encourage, and we’ll link again to the article that you wrote on the Community-Centric Fundraising hub, but Michelle, you want to start us off here? Any thoughts about annual reports you want to share?
Michelle Flores Vryn: So many thoughts. I will shorten it for this conversation, and I will say in our article, make sure you scroll down towards the bottom and we listed out questions that we think everyone should be asking when they’re creating their annual report. And one of those questions is, “Are we really hearing, feeling, and seeing the voices of the community represented in the annual report?” And one thing, like, if we’re dreaming big pie in the sky here, that I would love to see annual reports display are micro videos of people who are being served by the nonprofit talking about their experience with the nonprofit. What the work means to them. How they relate to the mission. Farra, I know you’ll agree that we always say we don’t have time for video, but if we integrate video into the annual report, we can also easily reuse that content and other avenues of our communication strategy. So that’s what I hope we all move towards, micro-videos in the annual report.
Farra Trompeter: Love it. Very specific. Marisa, what about for you? What’s coming to mind for you as we talk about annual reports right now?
Marisa DeSalles: So if you’ve done one before that you have lying around, find somebody that’s not your life partner, because they already know.
Farra Trompeter: They’ve lived through the whole joy and pain of creating that annual report.
Marisa DeSalles: They know, right? But you know, hand it to a friend of yours who has no idea what you do for a living, and ask them their feedback and say, “What do you think we do after doing this? How do you feel? What makes you,” you know, because we’re so deep in it. As Michelle said, we’re elbows, neck, up-to-the-roots-of-our-hair deep in all of the problems of society that we as nonprofits are trying to work toward solutions for. And most people are going about their normal day without any thought in their mind about the very specific and precise problems that we are working our little tuchuses off to try to fix, right? So, it is. It’s so difficult because we’re so passionate in this work, especially we the communicators, right? It’s really hard to step back from that and evaluate it without that emotion and passion at the forefront. So if you can find an objective sounding board to bounce your annual report off of, that would be my one quick, easy advice.
Farra Trompeter: I like that. And then factor that in the next time you’re doing it.
Marisa DeSalles: Yeah.
Farra Trompeter: Well, we need to let you both go get back to doing the amazing work you do out in the world, and I just want to say, for those of you who are out there, if you’d like to connect with Marisa, be sure to check out her website at GoodTilthConsulting.com. G-O-O-D-T-I-L-T-H Consulting.com. We’ll link to that in the show notes. You can also connect with her on LinkedIn, @Marisa, M-A-R-I-S-A dash Desalles, D-E-S-A-L-L-E-S. You can also follow Michelle on LinkedIn, @M-V-R-Y-N, Mvryn, and learn more about the nonprofit she works for at OneStarFoundation.org.
Farra Trompeter: Of course, take a fresh look at CommunityCentricFundraising.org if you’ve not visited it lately, if you don’t follow it on Instagram, check out all of the ideas that they are sharing on how you can prioritize communities and reimagine fundraising.
Farra Trompeter: Marisa, Michelle, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and just bringing your full and honest selves to this conversation today.
Michelle Flores Vryn: Loved it. Thank you.
Marisa DeSalles: Thanks so much, Farra.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. Any last words before we go? Michelle?
Michelle Flores Vryn: Check out all of our questions at the bottom of our article. They’re great to get you started on thinking about how to reimagine your annual report.
Farra Trompeter: Right. And Marisa?
Marisa DeSalles: Try an audit. Try an audit of your communications. There is an aligned actions list on the hub available, and one of my friends and colleagues, Maria Rio, who has had, we both know, has had some incredible success. That’s where she started. And I’d like to recommend that to people. Just audit what you’re currently doing, and take a real hard look at it. You might be surprised.
Farra Trompeter: Wonderful. Well, thank you both. We’re going to link to all the goodies at bigduck.com/insights. You can find all this information and more on our site and for the podcast. Again, thank you both for being here.
Michelle Flores Vryn: Thanks, Farra.
Marisa DeSalles: Thank you.
This podcast has been sponsored by Bloomerang