Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Creating Change: It's a Bumpy Ride

Dear friends,

I can’t believe it has been three months of working on Compassion by the Book (CBTB) full time already. I want to give you a bird’s eye view of my work. In typical Kurtis fashion, I will give it to you in complete honesty. If you’ve donated to this work, you deserve to know everything that we’ve been up to in the last three months and to hear about the hope we have for the future.

When I started on October 1, we had two months of funds to move CBTB forward. It has been nothing short of a miracle and testament to God’s provision that CBTB has secured funding through the end of February. I want to quickly say “THANK YOU!” to the folks who have donated to fulfill our mission. Your support means more than I can say.

Nonprofit work is not glamorous. I won’t sugar coat it. These three months have posed huge challenges. Fundraising has been one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Amidst the challenge, I have had moments of sheer amazement at the love that friends and strangers have in joining me in this endeavor. I’m also amazed by the power of perseverance. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

As I am about to describe, the current state of CBTB is not pretty. However, I have reason to believe that CBTB is on the verge of something incredible. If you are able to read through the painful circumstances, I promise you will see light at the end of the tunnel… a brighter light than we would see if things all went according to our initial plan.

At the beginning of the quarter, I had great hope for the growth of our textbook fundraising program because of some technological changes and prospective partnerships. I envisioned a slight change to our model that would help us overcome sales tax issues and encourage more groups to make use of the program. I tested the new technology and unfortunately, it was more burdensome than helpful and did not solve our issues with sales tax (which has kept us from growing outside of Colorado). As for the prospective partnership, it fell through, meaning that CBTB would not grow instantaneously to 10 more campuses. It quickly became apparent that we needed to change our model to overcome barriers to entry and barriers to growth.

Shortly after my big fundraising push for Colorado Gives Day, I found out that several of our student groups would not be participating this semester. The primary reason for this is leadership transitions in our participating student groups.

A couple weeks ago, we were informed that our Regis Chapter would be absorbed by Regis University (due to circumstances beyond our control) and will no longer be affiliated with CBTB. This comes as a heavy hit to our current participation, but we are glad that the Chapter we started will continue to operate under Regis’ umbrella.

One more piece of bad news: our current model cannot financially sustain the work we are doing. You see, taking more time to fundraise means there is less time to work on the program. I cannot justify spending all my time fundraising and not making progress with the program. It is my personal belief that CBTB, as a social enterprise, should be at least partially financially self-sufficient, and some changes are needed to make that happen.

On the bright side, CBTB has been able to help students contribute over $13,000 to their chosen causes this year.

Since mid-October, I have been working on researching and exploring new ways to implement our program that will offer sustainability and scalability. It seemed like every week I found a solution or had some epiphany, only to later have it crushed or found infeasible.

Last week, I was doodling on my white board, considering how CBTB would find a solution to the many issues noted above. I started with the basics: what problem is CBTB solving, what is our vision, and what are our strengths.

Somehow it dawned on me that CBTB was trying to be too many things to the wrong people. What I wanted for CBTB when I started was to replicate my experience for other students and give organizations a powerful tool to make a difference.

Disclaimer: My idea could be the latest in my weekly epiphanies to be shot down. Or it could morph and grow and help CBTB become the organization we have sought to be for four years. I believe it is the latter and offers CBTB the best chance for achieving our mission of cultivating a philanthropic lifestyle in students to create change. Still, the board of directors of CBTB needs to vet the idea and approve it before it is adopted.

So here it is: I believe that CBTB needs to focus its attention on finding, recruiting, and cultivating at least one champion on each campus. Each champion will undergo a year-long fellowship with CBTB to learn about social enterprise and philanthropy while operating a CBTB branch (under our group exemption, for my nonprofit readers) on their campus. Each champion will be responsible for recruiting and managing students and organizations to participate in textbook fundraising by collecting and donating books and volunteering their time. The champion would handle all the business aspects for their campus and give their fellow students an opportunity to give books and time with a low barrier to entry. Student groups wishing to raise funds would be awarded with funds based on the number of books they donate and percentage of volunteer time they give. Upon successful completion of the fellowship, champions would receive a scholarship provided out of the funds they raised through textbook fundraising.

I’ve always said anyone can sell books and give the money away. Any student organization could conduct a textbook fundraiser. There's probably a reason that not every group does do this. I’ve found that only the really strong leaders will be brave enough and capable enough to execute this activity. We should not try to convince all student organizations to participate. Instead, I believe CBTB should find those willing to take more responsibility for personal and professional development and who have an interest in empowering their whole campus.

My solution does not entirely address the problems. We still have a need for ongoing funding for CBTB. Having a strong program, however, is infinitely more fundable than an ineffective one. I’ll worry about the funding when we get there. In the meantime, I hope to grow our program into one worth funding.

CBTB has many resources to aid our growth. We have a fantastic board of directors, including Dennis Griess, Kevin Kuoni, Michelle Norris, Ray Pownall, myself, and Chris Spitzer; amazing volunteers including Joseph Garcia and Kait McNamee (branding, creating new website), Cindy Fitzsimons, Laura Barnett, and Ed Vaughn; wonderful students and alumni of our programs; and numerous other counselors and advisers. And of course, our work would not be possible without the many financial partners of our mission.

This year promises to be an interesting one. I’ll keep pressing on, doing my best, and keep you informed. Thank you for your encouragement and support. It is a bumpy ride, but well worth it.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Kurtis Griess