Philanthropy on the fly: Nonprofits compete in startup-style pitch contest
Santa Barbara will soon host its first ever startup-style competition for nonprofits.
From March through late April, Fast Pitch SB has been coaching 20 organizations on marketing their causes and explaining why they stand out from the rest. On April 23, coaches graded organization leaders in areas such as mission statement and level of engagement, ultimately selecting 10 finalists to compete in the contest’s main event at the Music Academy of the West on May 15.
During the May competition, nonprofit leaders will give a three-minute elevator pitch before an audience of 300 people and seven judges for a chance to win an array of prizes totaling $45,000.
Mission Wealth Management President Seth Streeter, self-proclaimed “chief energy officer” and founder of the Santa Barbara contest, described it as a cross between American Idol and Shark Tank, a reality show where hopeful entrepreneurs give pitches to a panel of wealthy funders. “We wanted to give these nonprofit organizations the opportunity to tell their story, much in the way Shark Tank helps businesses and entrepreneurs more under-the-radar,” he said.
Through a three-minute “fast pitch,” each participant has to be quick and creative in telling the story of his or her nonprofit. That platform gives judges and the audience a chance to see philanthropic organization in a new light, Streeter said. “We’re tugging at the heart — this is about people, not just opening up their wallets or calendars to support,” he said.
The contest is hosted by Social Venture Partners and modeled after dozens of similar contests the group holds across the nation in cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland. The first competition of its kind was in 2008, when the Los Angeles chapter of Social Venture Partners saw a chance to apply the model of the investor pitch contest to the nonprofit world.
“It seems so obvious, but no one was really doing it in L.A. and certainly not with that model,” Diane Helfrey, executive director of Social Venture Partners in Los Angeles, told the Business Times.
The startup pitch competition model tackles some of the marketing issues nonprofit groups face when they seek funding, Helfrey said. “We noticed that a lot of nonprofits weren’t telling their message and their stories as well as they could be,” she said.
Santa Barbara will be the smallest city thus far to host a Fast Pitch event, Streeter said. But given the more than 1,500 nonprofits in the county — Santa Barbara has twice the per-capita average for the state, according to nonprofit consulting firm Nonprofit Kinect — is “fertile ground” for the contest, he said.
The competing organizations vary greatly, with some of the nonprofits concerned with aiding low-income pet-owners and others providing emotional support for cancer victims.
Another group, called A Different Point of View, offers flight lessons to underprivileged youth. The organization was founded by former airline captain Lynn Houston and uses aviation training and the experience of flying to connect with Santa Barbara teens.
“Sometimes the kids haven’t ever been on an airplane,” said Mike Linhart, a board member. “When they get out of the plane, there’s a huge smile on their face, and they’re ready to take on the world. Their confidence is through the roof — they can take on this life that we live right then and there.”
A Different Point of View is one of the county’s newer nonprofits, founded in 2011. That means it has less funding than Fast Pitch participants such as Hospice of Santa Barbara and the Museum of Contemporary Art, but Houston said the contest is perfect for a nonprofit looking to connect to the philanthropic community and gain broader exposure. “Just the fact that we’re part of it right now is such an honor,” Houston said.
For other organizations, the contest holds another set of potential rewards. Sarah House Santa Barbara, which provides end-of-life care to homeless and low-income individuals, sees the contest as a venue for much-needed funding. “We have our eye on the prize. If there weren’t a cash reward, we wouldn’t be participating,” Executive Director Deborah McQuade said. “Because like all other nonprofits, we are always on the search for the next $10,000.”
Houston of A Different Point of View said the nonprofit hopes to eventually spread out across the country, and that a the contest is a good leg-up. “In my lifetime, this is going to be a national program,” Houston said. “Hold onto your hats because this rocket ship is about to take off. Whether we win or not, we’re going.”