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EPISODE 039: Star Fundraiser Heidi Webb Sells the Opportunity for People Like You to Change the World
Heidi Webb is one of those people who creates opportunities to help others wherever she goes. She knows everyone and truly wants to help without asking for anything in return. She is currently the Chief Development Officer at Cornerstone Montgomery and serves as a Development Chair on the Board of the Center for Non-Profit Advancement.
Cornerstone Montgomery helps people in Montgomery County, Maryland with basic needs through their 89 properties and 300 employees. It also, offers training to help people get back into the workforce. She was hired by Cornerstone Montgomery in 2013 to grow their development capacity from the ground up and she brought in $1,000,000 in donations within the first year.
She does this non-profit sales work because it fills her heart and she’s incredibly talented at fundraising.
Find Heidi on LinkedIN!
Raising funds truly is a sales job and I know you’ve written about that and you had that discovery which I’m excited to hear about as we go through today’s podcast. Heidi, tell us what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
Heidi Webb: I sell the opportunity for people like yourself to change the world and that sounds probably big broad stroke there but it’s true. What I’m selling is the opportunity to give to your local community, to give abroad, to make change, significant and powerful change to causes that matter most to you.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about the realization that you had that you’re in sales. Tell us how you realized that even though you’re a fundraiser you’re truly in sales.
Heidi Webb: Absolutely. Fred, I knew this probably 15 years into fundraising. Fifteen years, I actually and please forgive me, distanced myself from the sales community. I was successful but I really saw what I did is different from sales. I didn’t see myself as aggressive or opportunistic. I saw myself as this person who was changing the world. In fact, I’m selling the opportunity to change a woman’s life, who is the victim of domestic violence or build communities abroad or help a veteran get back to work. I’m selling those wonderful opportunities here and abroad and I love what I do, clearly. It is selling.
Fred Diamond: What happened? What was the moment that you realized that even though you were a fundraiser for 15 years, your job was to bring in funds for various organizations, various causes? Do you remember that moment or the incidents, series of incidents that led to that ‘Aha’ moment for you?
Heidi Webb: Just like any successful person, I read a lot and I talk to people and, more importantly, I listen to what others have to say and I noticed a trend when I was networking out in the community between me and other individuals who are in sales and I thought, “Gosh, we’re very similar in what we do. We both are accountable to our employers for bringing in dollars. We’re both people persons.
We’re out in the networking community and frankly, Fred, I have to share that I went to one of your events, IES and I was jumping out of my seat. I just was invigorated. I was charged up after meeting these other people in sales and I thought to myself and I think I even reached out to you in an e-mail. I said, “You know, there’s not much different between what these people in the room are doing and what I’m doing in terms of bringing in the dollars for an organization.”
Fred Diamond: There’s an audience you’re trying to serve. There’s a value you’re trying to provide to the people who are going to be contributing so you need to be communicating that. One of the key trends that we’ve heard from the Sales Game Changers Podcast is that more and more sales professionals need to show value to their customer. And, they need to really get to what their mission is and, I guess, it’s probably similar as you try to raise funds.
Heidi Webb: Absolutely and you have to listen. I’m a firm believer that I don’t go for the short-term fix. I go for the long-term relationship and I think that’s true for a lot of your listeners, a lot of the professionals that you work with.
They’re in it for long term. I’ll give you an example. There’s a very known and well-off individual. He’s philanthropic and all of that but I went to him for a donation and I realized that he was connected to this particular mission mental health.
That wasn’t a conversation we had within our first ten minutes but it was something that quickly evolved as we grew our connection together as I continued to listen to what he had to say. This was a really good match for what his personal human journey was as well as being able to give back to the community.
Fred Diamond: Tell us some of the lessons you learned from some of the first jobs that you had in fundraising.
Heidi Webb: It’s not about you. It’s just not about you and for folks who spend a lot of time personalizing it, they’re going to burn out. I actually, in the very beginning of my career, I did make it about me. I didn’t know any better. I got into fundraising in a very organic intuitive way and we can talk about that too.
But so, when I made it about me, “Give to this organization because you like me.” I had the smile. I had the shoe shine. Right? Then, they weren’t really giving to the organization, they weren’t connected to the mission. When I took myself out of the equation in terms of the why, I found that I was much more successful and in fact I kept a ‘no’ journal in the beginning to help remind myself that it wasn’t about me and that I could learn for every time someone said “No” I could learn something from that experience, my ‘no’ journal.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little bit of how you got into fundraising originally. What got you into this profession?
Heidi Webb: I would love to tell that story because I’m proud of it. I spent the first four years, I graduated from the University of Maryland College Park and I went into the I.T. industry and this was back in the day when there was an I.T. company on every street corner block and a lot of organizations were jockeying to get federal contracts. It was a great time, actually. There was a lot going on. You learn something new every day. There was always new technology. But, I wasn’t fulfilled. My head didn’t lay comfortably on the pillow at night so I went to my employer and I said “I’m unhappy. How can I help, of course?”
And, he said, “There’s a non-profit, one of our pro bono clients who’s hiring an HR Director. You should apply.” And, I took his advice. I met with the Executive Director. This was almost 19 years ago. His name’s Craig Knoll. He since passed away but he’s the reason I’m in this field. I met with him for five hours, Fred, five hours and I don’t even know that we’re really talking about the job at hand but I was hired.
In January of that particular year, I began as their Human Resources Director. By August of that year, I was their full-time Development Director and here’s the quick story as to how that happened. Very intuitively, I started raising money for this non-profit organization because no one was doing that. They needed to. They talked about needing to but no one was actually doing it so I started bringing in money.
And so, in August, I went to this individual and I gave him a form. It was a business card order form and on it, he quickly grabbed a piece of paper and he went to go put his signature of approval and he looked down and he smiled and he took a little giggle and he said, “You know, Heidi, in the 35 years I’ve been doing this no one’s ever asked me for a job this way.” And so, Fred, that form said, instead of Heidi Webb – Director of Human Resources, it said Heidi Webb – Director of Development. I wanted the job. I went after the job. I intuitively and instinctually became the Development Director for this organization for the first time.
Fred Diamond: Wow, very good. Along the lines of that, why don’t you tell us a little more about what you are specifically an expert in? Tell us a little more about your personal area of brilliance.
Heidi Webb: I am a capacity builder. It’s what I get up for. It’s what I thrive in, an environment to build. Here at Cornerstone Montgomery, they are the product of two organizations that merged in 2012. Their development activity had flat-lined. Basically, for a year there was no activity whatsoever and here they were, this large ship now, a big player in the field of mental health.
The Executive Director called me, Cari Cho and she said, “I got a real good one for you.” She knows I love capacity building. She said, “Would you like to build from scratch, basically? I’ve got exciting news. You’re going to be the team, basically.” For the first year, I did this solo and since then I’ve hired a full team but I just, I have a knack for it, Fred. I enjoy it and, if anyone listening to this podcast knows, Mary Poppins, that tale Mary Poppins. She’ll come in, she’ll do what she needs to do to get the family leveled out and happy and thriving. And then, she follows the wind and moves off to her next assignment and that’s really been my professional journey.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career.
Heidi Webb: I had a mentor that had raised billions of dollars for charity, billions over the years and he had this philosophy that not-for-profits were really for impact organizations. He believed that we were doing it all wrong. We were using the wrong language. We were looking at the field of non-profit as a handout rather than a hand up and I think, for me personally, he gave me hope and excitement about my profession in a way that no one else had.
Fred Diamond: What exactly does that mean? Tell us the distinction about that.
Heidi Webb: It’s leading with the positive, Fred. If I come to you and I say, “I’ve got this great organization, you know we’re not-for-profit.” As opposed to, “Fred, you’re not going to believe the change we can make together, should we do this. This organization has real impact. It’s a for impact organization that does XYZ.”
Fred Diamond: That is very powerful. That’s a clear distinction there and that also, again, gets back to, from a sales perspective, communicating the value that you’re bringing.
Heidi Webb: Absolutely.
Fred Diamond: Is that something you think about? Again, that’s been one of the main themes in the sales game changers podcast. One of them has been that because the customer has more access to information, that they can do their own research, they can understand, they think they know, sales professionals, sales leaders need to bring true value. Is the same thing happening in the fundraiser space, in the not-for-profit space, where people don’t necessarily want to be talking to you? You have to figure out a way that how you’re providing the impact that’s going to impact their lives or what they’re committed to?
Heidi Webb: Absolutely, in fact, when the economy took a nosedive into 2008, a lot of people were up in arms in my community about all of the non-profits that really fell to the wayside. I hate to say this but I rather marveled in that. I certainly didn’t like to see people out of work. I didn’t like to see charities fall to the wayside but I felt that the organizations that survived 2008 were the ones that got it. They were the ones who focused on impact statements. They were the ones who said, “We’re going to deliver X to the community” and they delivered it and they reported on it and if they didn’t they were authentic about the reasons why.
Fred Diamond: Heidi, tell us about two of the biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader.
Heidi Webb: In the not-for-profit space, any time there’s a huge catastrophe, a huge flood, a huge earthquake. What happens is that donors get distracted. You could be counting on, for example, $100,000-gift that’s going to seed a program and then something like Katrina happens and that $100,000 gift just poof, goes away. It’s being prepared for actually not getting the donation. It’s being prepared for all of that.
I look at my job as I’ve three lanes every day and I may spend more time in one lane than the other but those three lanes are, I’ll start with the left one, the fast lane, the exciting lane, right. We all pass through this lane and hopefully the slow folks don’t stay in the lane but I digress. The fast lane for me is working with major donors and individuals who give to the organization. They’re active, right. They have an active commitment to the cause and somewhere in the middle are folks who maybe give once a year, who they’re there in the visceral but maybe they haven’t been engaged to the impact that those in the fast lane have. And then, of course there’s the slow lane but frankly you have to take it slow and that’s the research, cold calls, things to that effect. I think that if all those things are moving, you can prepare yourself for the unexpected because we are living in a world, all of us, where the unexpected happens.
Fred Diamond: I’m just kind of curious here. I like that analogy of the three lanes and you hear about that in sales all the time. You have your existing customers, you know how you continue.
Heidi Webb: Very similar.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the sales strategies that you have, that you’ve developed over the years to be successful with, let’s say, major donors?
Heidi Webb: My big push for all non-profits is retention. Retention is key. In a sales respect, it’s keeping those customers and that’s important. A lot of organizations, I hate to say, will get the big gift and be grateful and make a plaque and have a ceremony but that’s the end of that. I mean these are human beings that have decided to give and some cases very, very significant and substantial gifts and I would say this is true for everyone, don’t make the sale about the sale. Make it about the human being that you’re selling to. That to me is a game changer.
I guess the other one would be is to have that balance that I spoke of earlier. I think all of us, sales people in particular, we work hard. We’re always sort of on call. We all give out our cellphone numbers. We all have our phone sitting next to our bed and we get up when we hear a buzz or ding or whatever. I think that when you tune off, tune out for a little bit, I think you’re a better version of yourself when you come back. Go hiking.
Fred Diamond: What was the one homerun from your career that you go back to, you think about, you pontificate on and you try to replicate?
Heidi Webb: It’s a great question. I hope this doesn’t come out as braggadocios but I have many that I’m very proud of. But, there’s one in particular that I think has lessons within it so I’ll share that one.
A gentleman had come around this particular organization for a while and he does, essentially, been courting the organization. I reengaged this individual and I wanted to find out more about why he was courting the organization and he was not tightlipped but he was somewhere between being extremely open and keeping his cards close to his chest so I decided that I would find out more about him.
I found out that he was a coach and coaching was extremely important to him and anyone who’s a coach knows ‘once a coach always a coach’. Right, it’s within you. And, the other thing he was, was he owned multiple homes but his favorite home was his home in Annapolis. I matched him up with a Board Member on this particular organization’s Board and the Board Member, life-long coach and Mr. Annapolis. He had been at that time a legislator for his whole life. I orchestrated a lunch between all of us just to kind of open him up and it served its purpose, opened this gentleman’s heart, mind and he was able to share with us a very, very, very personal story on how he was connected to the mission, right. We allowed him to fall in love with us is what I say.
There’s courting, there’s dancing, you take someone to coffee and then lunch and then dinner, etc., etc. A few months later he made not only his first gift to the organization but the organization’s largest gift and it was a 6-figure, very significant contribution.
Fred Diamond: Heidi Webb, you’ve had a great career in sales. Did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “It’s just too hard, it’s just not for me.”
Heidi Webb: There were moments where I wondered if sales in the non-profit space was for me and it’s only because I had seen my colleagues in the field on the for-profits side, these sales champions and they’re driving fancy cars and they’re taking luxury vacations and I knew that I had what it could take to have all of those things so I had to decide at various moments throughout my career, although I’m founded and solid and grounded in the fact that I’m in the right space. But, there were times when I, maybe had a little envy and wanted to keep up with the Jones’s.
Fred Diamond: Heidi, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them improve their careers?
Heidi Webb: Fred, all the basics. Read, stay up with current events, pay attention to your competitors. You can’t run a race looking back at them. However, pay attention. In the case of, I mentioned earlier in this podcast that in 2008, a lot of non-profits fell to the wayside. Well, I saw it as an opportunity to look at their donor base and I knew that they were carrying people in the community who had no home for all that love that they wanted to give. You want to pay attention to what’s going on out there and see how you can help.
But also, I’d say don’t pay attention to roadblocks. There are no roadblocks in life. For example, there are certainly phone calls that I make and visits that I make where I don’t get through to the person the first time. I read the Washington Business Journal and I know what’s going on in the community. And so, I attend a lot of events but I’m very strategic in the events that I attend. I pay attention to where my perspective philanthropists are going and I make sure I’m there.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things that you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Heidi Webb: Anything that I’m afraid of I run towards, absolutely. Anything that challenges me I can’t say it stops challenging me but I’ll do things like Melanie Spring. She’s a local marketing branding expert, travels the world, does talks. She has a rock your talk and you get on stage and you’ve got no PowerPoint. You’ve got no podium. You’ve got no notes and you just talk for five minutes and that was quite an experience. Anytime I have the opportunity to branch out, take some risk, I do it and I would hope anyone listening would as well.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Heidi Webb: Well, for Cornerstone Montgomery, they launched two years ago an $8 Million capital campaign and I’m very proud to say that we’re $650,000 left to raise for this organization. As I mentioned earlier, my role here was to build the capacity, I feel that I did that, and move on to the next challenge.
Fred Diamond: Speaking of the next challenge, sales is hard, fundraising is hard. You mentioned before that you may have a good plan in place but then hurricane kicks in or something or a tragedy and planned funding, planned donations go a different route. Sometimes people don’t return your phone calls or your e-mails or they go silent. Why have you continued? What is it about sales or fundraising as a career that keeps you going?
Heidi Webb: I don’t play tennis often but when I do, I love that sound a ball makes when it hits the sweet spot of a tennis racket and this is why I know I’m in sales. When the sales relationship has a match, right, and you, I mentioned the donation earlier, that 6-figure gift. When that happens, when you land that deal or get that donation, there’s that sweet spot and we all crave it when we’re in sales. It feeds me. It makes me want to keep going.
But, more importantly when I see a non-profit launch program or, in this case, build a building or renovate a facility, I’m really happy with that. That’s what makes me tick. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and I don’t hit snooze.
Fred Diamond: What’s one final thought you can share to inspire those listening to today’s podcast?
Heidi Webb: Fred, I would say to everyone listening, “You sell every day. You tell stories. You share stories. You paint pictures for people. Paint some pictures for yourself.” I’m a big fan of vision boards but if that feels too foreign to you, too strange, too peculiar, go to a vision boarding group.
Do it right. Or, as I do in my kitchen, I have my next adventure planted there to see every day. Have something that you look forward to and you’re inspired by and plant it in your face every single day. Dream big.