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028 – How to engage volunteers and why you need to run your NPO like a business with David Appelbaum

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In this episode, we interview David Appelbaum, a very much experienced director of technology and engineer who has worked with non-profits in the past. He’s here to give us his insights on how to engage volunteers and how running an NPO as a business has worked for him and why.

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Episode Transcription

David: Welcome to the Non-profit Digital Success Podcast. I’m your host, David. And today I have another David, David Applebaum on the show. So allow me to introduce him. David has 25 years of IT experience in his current role, building long-term relationships with ITSA’s clients and guides them and aligning their business goals with best of breed technology. He holds a BA in communications, a master’s of ED, as well as being Comp TIA, A+, network plus certified engineer. He’s been director of technology for two different Philadelphia area schools and has worked as a network and systems engineer for two managed IT support firms. David, the other David, thank you so much for being on the show with me today.

David A: I am delighted. Thank you so much for having me on, I appreciate it.

David P: How are you doing?

David A: I am fantastic. Couldn’t be better.

David P: Awesome. So if you’re ready, let’s do this. Let’s jump in. And I know you’ve got a lot of experience. You’ve got this, like in Yardley, Pennsylvania sign behind you. Can you tell us a little bit about what, what that’s about?

David A: Well, aside from all the other work that I do and the duties that I have for keeping the family together, I’ve also taken upon being president of Experience Yardley. Yardley borough, Pennsylvania is a very small one square mile city or town, just on the other side of the river from New Jersey’s capital, Trenton, Pen- Trenton, New Jersey. And the goal of experience shortly initially was to bring great things for folk to enjoy such as music and other events that we produce. Over time, though, our mandate has changed so that we are building commerce, creating economic impact for the growing community need. Obviously one square mile doesn’t get any larger, but the town has- or the main street has grown significantly, where we have basically dubbed it a renaissance of businesses and restaurants that are beginning to attract a lot of attention.

Recently. In fact, over the last month, a New York Times article was written about Yardley as about, about being a great bedroom community for the York. But I say that they missed the boat. I think that it’s been a great community for the Philadelphia area, which is a lot closer, but I’m so excited about what this town is and what it can be. And most importantly, we’re not looking to grow. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a town called New Hope, but New Hope is north of us. And it’s, it has a vibe that maybe is a little bit similar to a Yardley, but we’re, we’re, we’re a new hope lite and that’s because we don’t want to grow or to develop. We want to grow commerce, attract people, come spend money and go home. We don’t have the parking problems that your New Hope has.

We’ve been very fortunate that we’re a very safe community. We have reasonably good parking and we have a lot of things to do in a, in a, in a, in a quarter mile main street. That is really second to none. When you compare it to other towns that their businesses and events are spread out over a very large area. I believe that we’re fortunate that it’s compact and that we’re able to get so much done in a short expanse, because then it’s much easier to market the town and I’ll stop there because I probably explained way more that you wanted to know.

David P: No, that’s great. I mean, it, it really shows your passion for anybody listening or watching this. You might not know, but David actually made a run for-

David A: Excuse me as I drink it out of my Yardley, a coffee cup.

David P: There you go. He, he, he made a run for mayor as well. And you know, so like as, as president of this group making a run for mayor, you can’t do it alone, right? And budgets are very tight and finite. It’s super important to work with volunteers. And as you mentioned, and coordinate and bring them together and really kind of like rally rally them behind a specific cause. at ITSA, how does your company perceive volunteer work?

David A: It’s interesting because for many years, let’s be honest, that was not part of our core values. It’s not that we don’t care about our communities. It’s just that we’re physically busy, struggling to make a successful business. We’ve been the Philadelphia, we’ve been on the Philadelphia 100 numerous times now as being one of the fastest growing companies in the Philadelphia area. We’ve in the past year, we’ve, we’ve received the MSP 500 and the MSP 501, they want it to just be one better than the MSP 500. We’ve been as part of that, we were also at the Pioneer 250, which makes us one of the most respected and spected MSPs in north America. That includes, I’m sorry, my friend, Canada and Mexico. To your question, over time, we realized that a lot of our clients were involved with, you know, different nonprofits or they themselves were nonprofits or are nonprofits. And we realized that we were giving back to those people that feel so passionate about the work that they’re doing. So we started to do that one great opportunity came up where a company donated a computer lab to the boys and girls club of Gloucester County, New Jersey. And they said, “well, we’re donating, you know, nearly $20,000 worth of equipment. How about setting it all up?” And we’re like, “sure, of course, because-“

David P: A natural fit.

David A: Natural fit, we actually know how to set up computers. And you know, it doesn’t require us to walk a 5k, or in my case I would be probably slower than a walk. It brought two companies and a nonprofit, a deserving non-profit together in ways that we couldn’t have imagined. And from that point on to the question, it made us begin to think, what are we missing out on? I don’t mean to create more business necessarily, I think, and I think you and I talked about this a little bit. If you’re working with a nonprofit where you’re doing, you know, sponsoring a, a tea at a, at a golf event, and it’s just for the sake, again, your name out there, you know what? I don’t want to do it, because to me that’s not genuine. And, and, and when I work with my group and we talk about the things we want to do, we want to make sure that it’s a fit for us, because if it’s just to put our name out, yeah, you know, sometimes you do sponsor the little league and stuff like that, because it’s a nice thing to do. But on a larger level, if you can’t, if you don’t believe in their mission and you don’t want to be involved in some way, I say, don’t do it. Just my advice.

David P: I think it’s important to, to, to make sure that there’s sincerity behind, behind what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and making sure that there’s some kind of, you know, meaningful value and an impact there. I mean, you, you talked about core values and you know, how you partnered with another company and this nonprofit to create this computer lab and, and get it going for them. How did that work in terms of getting the, your, your business. I think a lot of people that listen to the podcast, they’re in nonprofits and they’re looking for ways to connect with other businesses, to provide these opportunities for them. Do you have any thoughts or advice on how they could reach out to businesses and try to bring them in and help, not necessarily help them, you know, improve their core values, but bring them in and make them feel and be part of their community.

David A: If they’re interested in marketing themselves, let’s be honest. You know, when you’re you run a nonprofit, I run a nonprofit work for a for-profit company. It gives me a perspective that maybe the nonprofits alone and the for-profits alone don’t have. And that is as much as I just said, used to be. It shouldn’t be disingenuous when you work with a nonprofit, I believe that a nonprofit should focus on relationship first before asking for something. And the reason I say that is, it goes back to the old marketing, my, my marketing thought, which is you got to like, know and trust. Now, when I go to sell something, I want to know that I like and know and trust the people that I’m going to be working. But if I don’t, I probably want to run. And I think it’s the same for the non-profit.

If they get involved with a company that they find out is not, I wouldn’t say sincere, but aren’t going to put the work into the relationship. They’re not available to me on occasion. They’re not available to volunteer on occasion, whatever that means, because I don’t know which non-profit, it is then it may not be, not every relationship is a good fit. And I, I stick to that point because if you get involved with someone and then somehow it prevents you from creating other relationships, because there’s some kind of understanding that you won’t work with any other, I don’t know, automotive repairs shops, because whatever, whatever it is, or IT companies, then you just limited yourself other great partners. And I just think it’s important, again, it goes back to being genuine, to liking, knowing, and trusting from both sides. And I got that perspective because again, I work on both sides and I’m going to tell you, running a nonprofit, it’s not easy, especially as you pointed out, the volunteers are hard to come by.

Well, let me rephrase that. Volunteers that want to take on a long-term role is hard to come by. I can find someone to help me set, set up and tear down an easy up doing musical or made. I can find a few of volunteers to help light up 400. Well, not a few, but a lot of people to light up a Jack-O lanterns. But what about the rest of the year? What about the, the planning? What about the budgeting? What about marketing? What about all these different things? And I think about this in terms of ITSA also because it’s very similar. Business and nonprofits have, as much as they seem like they’re different, they’re actually very similar in the way that they operate. And I need people to volunteer that will say, “I will be responsible for social media”, “I will be responsible for being the producer of music on main and finding those volunteers for those 10 weeks, that will help me set up and tear down the event”.

I need I, and this other person, you know, looking for might be the person who’s responsible for press releases and working with the media. I hate to say this, but I’m a little tired of just being the person on the ground all the time, feet on the ground, as they say about her industry, right? I believe that the executive board should be the leaders, should set the direction, make sure that people are following what they’re supposed to do and that they’re doing it. But unfortunately, I find myself from top to bottom doing a lot of it.

David P: It’s very hard to, when you’re passionate about something and you really want to see something come to fruition, like an event or a, you know, a nonprofit with a very, you know, close to your heart mission and goal to rely on only yourself because you’re having a hard time and struggling to find volunteers to mentally buy in to what it is, and to really care and to like nurture them to the point where they want to give back, not just financially, but you know, a lot of organizations struggle with time and they need people to actually come and spend the time whether, whether it’s on-site in person, or remotely, or digital marketing, or emailing, or, you know, there’s a million different facets. And to your point, nonprofits and businesses really kind of need to operate the same way, right? They need a mission. You need a goal, they need a purpose. They need the governance and the structure and the finances where the finances come from might be different spots, but they still need the money to, to operate. But just back to the point about needing volunteers, do you have any advice that anybody’s listening to this or watching it? This is video interview, so this is on YouTube also. Do you have any advice for anybody who’s looking to recruit volunteers?

David A: Yeah. That’s, that’s something that, honestly, we’re still discovering. I hate to say. It’s one thing I think, you know, see what you don’t know is there’s been a transition. For this organization developed out of a borough committee. Maybe it’s an ad hoc committee. You say a business enterprise committee and the person who started that, when he left council decided that, and I don’t, I don’t know the reasons, but he decided to turn what was doing with the business enterprise committee and make it into a nonprofit. And I think that, honestly, that was one of the best decisions he could have made because as a nonprofit, we were eligible for grants, different sponsorships. And we were able to take money from individuals when he was working this as a, an arm of the local government. It’s not to say that things didn’t get done, but it was seen differently.

And I believe even today, people have the mistaken idea. And one of the things I say when I’ve emceeing events is “now that, remember folks, this event is brought to you-“, let me rephrase this so I get up there and I emcee these events. And I say that these events are, come to you at no cost to the local taxpayer Experience experience. Yardley is responsible for all the fundraising, and the administration, and the producing or production of all these events. And so get out your wallets. We’re going to pass a hat around because you have to understand that this is your community and you need to be involved how to get them back to the point of volunteer. And the reason why I mentioned this is that I wanted people to stop thinking of this as a, as a borough organization. It’s a borough organization, but it’s not a government organization.

And so in order for it to survive, we need that buy-in on whatever level from the folks in this community to continue what we’re doing. Because you know, when I’m a few years older, I’m going to say, you know what, I’m kinda tired. I can’t do this anymore. I’m not saying I do it all myself. I don’t, I have a executive floor of four people. Yeah, that’s not a lot, but the, but, but the point is, is that unless we have people, unless there’s a succession plan, an exit plan for these people and it’s well-developed, and we have the buy-in from people and people who are excited and will take on these responsibilities for as many years as I’ve done since 2016, I’m afraid of what’s going to happen to this organization in the future. So I have no magic wand. I have no magic recipe at this point.

I would say the things that we’ve done is do some social media advertising asking for volunteers. But I think the next step based on my recent experience is that I just gotta- and my recent experience being running for mayor- And I’ll get into that in a second, but there’s a point to that too. And how it, how it relates to the Experience Yardley, but it’s feet on the ground. Now, let me explain what I mean when you’re running for a position, I’m sure you have the same experience in Canada. The way to win an election is by knocking doors. And if you don’t knock doors, you’re not going to win an election. Now I know that’s a bit harder on the grand scale of let’s say a national campaign, but they do their version of it. But on a local local level, I have walked this neighborhood three times and not by myself. I had other people walk, but I found that getting down in the trenches, knocking on doors, introducing myself and tell them what I’m doing is the best way to get not only the word out about the, the organization, but to find people that are willing to commit to help. And I hate to say it, but I guess that’s going to be the next thing I do. And yeah, again, I only wore a couple pairs of shoes, so I’m sure what’s another pair of shoes.

David P: I think it’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation, right? Like you need people to go and canvas for volunteers, but then you need volunteers to help with the canvas. Like it’s a, it’s a very cyclical type of thing. And, and, you know, creating the, the mission and the goal to, to help people understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it is a really key part. I think in terms of being able to convince people, you know, this is a cause worth spending time or money, or at least telling somebody else about, about it, about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You know, that, that in and of itself also helps because word of mouth is a great form of advertising, for sure. You know? So in terms of, you know, a great segue, but in terms of, you know, creating a nonprofit, coming up with a mission and your goal and your vision, do you have any ideas on how somebody who’s thinking of starting a nonprofit or nonprofit, who’s really like, broad-based what they can do to help kind of focus in and narrow down and even like niche.

David P: Oh, we got a visitor. That’s awesome. There’s a dog, there’s a dog behind you there. So like, I’m curious, what’s the-

David A: You’re not talking about the mule.

David P: Right, right behind your shoulder. There’s a, there’s a dog on a little red pedestal or something, right?

David A: This is an animal house. We are fosters, and I can talk about a new project regarding foster in the section, but, but let me make sure I understand your question. So you’re talking about the person who has this great idea is going to bring some value to something. Either it’s a medical, non-profit, a local nonprofit, whatever it is.

David P: Yeah. How does, how does somebody like determine if they’re really passionate about something where they should focus their energy and like kind of narrow down their mission? I mean, there’s so many people in so many different organizations that, that exists to help, but how, how did, how does somebody go “You know what, yeah. We need this, you know, Experience Yardley platform”? How do you, how do you focus in on it? Yeah.

David A: Well, being that I did not start Experience Yardley, I can thank those that came before me that did to understand a couple of things. And that is, you know, take this great idea that you have and like a business. Again, I’m bringing everything back to the business, have a business plan and share that business plan of this organization or mission that you have and see what others think of it. And they might say your mission is too broad where your mission is too narrow or bam! Goldilocks. it’s right, That’s it. And then if that’s what you’re comfortable with, then develop it further because these things take time to develop. I don’t think you should just go out there and start, you know, promoting an organization that does not have, that’s not planned because you know, you know what I’m about to say, a fail in the plan is planning to fail.

And you’re going to lose interest in this pretty quickly if things don’t go your way, but if you treat it like a business, I think that you’ll be successful, but it’s important to listen to others. And if you can get some other people on board, not necessarily volunteers, but just local business people or local politicians or local community leaders, and just say, can you spare a few hours helping me flesh out this idea? Because I think it’s a good idea. And they might say, this is a terrible idea, or this is a great idea, but you know, you’re all over the place you want to, you want to say, I shouldn’t, I’m not trying to belittle anyone’s organization, but yeah you’re trying to raise money for the school and save the whales in the same organization, that doesn’t make any sense, you know, which is what do you want to do?

And if you are going to help with raising money for the sports teams, you know, well, maybe you should, you know, focus on what kind of sports team or maybe the football team doesn’t need money because while they’re the football team, you know, maybe it’s the girl’s team. I don’t know, but I, I sincerely believe these things should be created and developed over time. And before you get to the point where you actually create a nonprofit- in America, I don’t know what it’s like in Canada, but in America we create what’s called a 5013C, which gives you a nonprofit status. And if you don’t have that, it limits you on fundraising, especially in Pennsylvania, because you have to, you know, meet certain qualifications to be able to solicit and to raise money. So you’ve gotta be very careful too. And that’s the other reason why I should treat it like a business, cause you better do it right or you’re going to get in trouble. You’re not going to go to the jail, but someone’s going to call you out. And they’re going to say something like, this is what I don’t like sometimes about these GoFundMe things. I believe it’s great. I think, you know, someone’s in dire need and they do a GoFundMe, that’s great. But a lot of times people get caught up in that “where’s the money really going?”

With a nonprofit and nonprofit status. You know, we have a board, we have a accountant, CPA, you know, it’s all on the up and up. It’s all, it’s public record. You know, there’s not any confusion about, and you, and honestly, David, you got to worry about this stuff because it’s your reputation and you don’t want to ruin your reputation because you made some silly mistake and mixed up money from your family shopping money with the money from the organization, I’m just making something up.

But the point is that it’s a serious venture. So once you get to that point, you’ve created the non-profit, it’s a serious endevour. And, and then you gotta have a, you know, in America you have to have an EIN number so that- you’re not going to pay taxes on anything less than 50,000, but you still have to submit some forms to show that you’re an acting nonprofit. You know, you, you got to show the people that you’re working with, that, you know, and those people that you’re going to solicit to either volunteer or donate that this is a real thing. And so you should be able to put at the bottom of your solicitations, that you’re a 5013C, etcetera. But I digress.

David P: No nobody wants revenue services coming after them because they issued tax receipts when they weren’t supposed to, or they weren’t registered in a specific state. Right? Like it’s, it’s definitely important. And I think it’s important for people when they’re thinking about this. Like you say, think about it like a business. If you have a business idea and you don’t come necessarily from a wealthy family where you can like, get it going and off the ground financially yourself, what do you do? You go to the bank and you try to get a loan, right? Or you go and find a venture capitalist or an angel investor, whatever, to, to really believe in what you’re doing. And the first thing that you’re going to say is, “let me see your business plan, right?” And that’s, that’s exactly what it is. It’s going to be really hard as a nonprofit, same kind of thing, let’s say there’s, you know, a billionaire in your neighborhood and you want to approach them to like give, I don’t know, even something as small as $2,000, right? Like $2,000 for them is probably nothing. But for you, it can make a huge, big difference. And what are they going to say? “What’s your business plan?” Right. So it’s, it’s important to make sure that you’ve got those pieces lined up.

David A: “What’s your business plan?” “What’s the mission of the organization?” “What kind of things have you done before?” “What do you do for a living?” I mean, they’re going to ask you all kinds of questions and I think it’s fair. You know, I, I find sometimes people are offended by the silliest things, but when someone’s giving you money, answer the questions, don’t be upset because as a, as business people, we get these questions all the time. You know, it’s like a “Who have you worked with before?”, you know, “What’s your differentiator? What makes you think you’re so good?” And I’ll say, well, this year we got the MSP 500, 501, we were the Pioneer 250. Oh yeah, and we’ve been the on the Philadelphia 100 for the last six years, you know? “Oh, okay, fine, well done”.

David P: That’s important. Absolutely. To build that level of like no trust, like you said earlier, and have that level of ability and understanding like what you’re getting into and why you’re doing it, what is your purpose? Right. And I think all that really comes together and sometimes, you know, it’s, it’s harder to start a nonprofit than it is to start a business. Anybody can go and start, you know, baking cakes and trying to sell them. Some people do well, some people don’t, right? Same with nonprofits, and at the same time, like when I, when I talk with our clients from Wow Digital, I talk about, you know, like make sure that you’re true to your goal and your mission, make sure- don’t worry about what other organizations are doing or not doing everybody’s on their own path. And you need to follow your, your gut and your path and, and do what is needed for your mission and your organization.

David A: Yeah, you make a really good distinction there. You talked about business and then non-profit. The operative there is non profit. So that’s why it’s harder because you’re, it’s, it’s not a business where you’re making money. Possibly, you’ll have some paid people. We don’t, I mean, this is all, I think that nonprofits need dynamic leaders, unless it’s something that’s, there are other nonprofits that come out of different political, well, not so much political, but let me give you an example. We had recently over the last five or six years, unfortunately, a young woman was killed by her father and she was only six years old. And the, the organization has grown tremendously.

The traction, the momentum of doing something to not only respect the memory of this young girl Kayden, but to bring to the forefront how important it is to make sure in this case for judges and others in judicial system to pay attention to what’s really important for the child. And in this case, unfortunately, the child was released to a father that was known to be violent. And it had disastrous effects for not just the girl and the family, but the whole, the whole community, we all suffered when this happened. But the people that run it aren’t necessarily dynamic. You know, and that’s the point I want to make, but it’s compelling and we, not me, but, but the, you know, local governments, the Pennsylvania reps, the Pennsylvania senators, they’ve been able to get Kayden’s law through the system to help protect people like, you know, Kayden who don’t necessarily have a say.

So there is a difference between different kinds. I wanted to point out that there are different kinds of non-profits. They’re not all fun, like Experience Yardley, and they don’t all need a dynamic individual running though, because in this case, it’s the idea that the protecting children is compelling. For Experience Yardley you need a nutball like me because I’m out there. And I don’t, I’m happy making fun of myself because if that’s what gets that, that’s what makes us successful. Then I’ll do it. You know, that’s what works for our event. But as I, but I go back just very quickly to the issue with the child. And that is that, that requires a different kind of leadership and a different kind of approach. So I would say that you got to find the right people for the right mission and that’s something else you might want to look at as someone who’s starting a nonprofit is make sure that you have the energy, you have the time, that you have the ability to communicate, you know, just to be able to create a nonprofit, because if you don’t have those things, you can have the best idea in the world, but no one’s going to hear about it. And I think it’s important that, you know, if that organization is important to develop, then you better be able to, you know, communicate what you want to achieve and how you’re going to achieve it and be the kind of leader that you need to be for that particular organization. You know, I would not make a good leader for, you know, certain organizations cause I’m too silly. I’m honest.

David P: It’s all good. David, this has been so great having you on our episode today, I’ve learned some great tidbits about, you know, how to kind of wrangle and, you know, get volunteers on your side to believe in your organization and, and work with, with you. And I hope that people that are listening or watching to this it’s on YouTube, that they’ll be able to take some of these little bits and bites and bring them back to their own organization, maybe rethink their approach or, you know, try something out, try something different to, to connect with their communities and the people that they help serve to drive more volunteers into their organization. So they can run maybe a little bit smoother or maybe not take on as much individually on their own. So I want to thank you so much, some great advice and pointers from you today. If anybody wanted to get in touch with you, what do they need to do?

David A: Well, first of all, I just wanted to say what a great pleasure it is to talk to you today. I can’t tell you how pleased I am and to be able to share all these things and to be able to bring both sides of my life, the both ends of the spectrum of business and non-profit together. And yeah, I love to talk about these things with anyone, whether it’s one or both, because I have experience or perspective from each side from the nonprofit side, our website is www.experienceyardley.com. And you can get more information about us. And there is a [email protected] email that you can send me messages for that. And then also of course, I’d love to talk about our services, which is not your typical, you know, I, you know, computer repair shop, we’re a high level managed services shop that deals with we’re highly focused on cybersecurity.

I think the business has changed tremendously over the last few years where it used to be that managed services was the top of the umbrella, but now the umbrella really is cybersecurity because things like managed services and, you know, monitoring and response is just part of the checklist for cybersecurity. So if your IT company is not focused on cybersecurity, is not 24/7, and is not having discussions with you about how to protect yourself, your assets, then you might want to talk to another company. It doesn’t have to be me, but we’re, I like to say that if you’re not protecting your most important assets, you might get kicked in them, but that’s just my funny little joke, but we’re-

David P: It’s important for organizations to make sure that like some organizations are not using a CRM. They’re not using a, you know, a robust platform like that. They’re just, you know, they have a couple Excel sheets or a word doc or something like that with donor information and pieces like that, it’s really important that somebody thinks about security holistically from an entire approach.

David A: And I just- one last, very quick comment about that back before it was, you know, WFH, work from home, you all worked in the same brick and mortar buildings. So you had one network, maybe if you’re lucky you had two networks, but now you have as many networks as you have people working from home. Think about that for a second. Who or what company do you want to work with? Because if you pick the wrong company, then you’re as protected as that weakest link. And so with that, I say, check us out, www.itsatechs.com. And I am [email protected]. If you want to reach me directly, I have to say what a pleasure. It’s been great meeting you and working with you. Let’s do it again sometime.

David P: Thanks again, David, for joining in, it’s been great having you on the Non-profit Digital Success Podcast to everybody listening. If you want any of the links that he mentioned for the nonprofit or his ITSA company, or his email addresses, we’re going to have them up in the show notes. So head over to wowdigital.com/podcast and click on this episode for the details. Until the next episode, keep on being successful.

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