Debbie Stewart, founder of the popular newsletter for non-profit organizations in Prescott called, "By the Seat of Our Pants " was recently honored by the Association for Fundraising Professionals (AFP). Jim Robak, the President of the Northern Arizona chapter of the AFP nominated Stewart saying, "That newsletter Debbie puts out reaches over 500 non-profit organizations. That's their bloodline to find out everything they need to know."
But, Robak didn't just nominate Stewart solely because of the newsletter, excellent though it is. Stewart, it turns out, helps non-profits in many significant ways, even to the point that they might not be able to function without her assistance. Speaking of Stewart and her husband, Don, Robak said, "We all know that when there's something needed, they get the job done."
Tammy Linn, Director of the Yavapai County United Way , when asked about Stewart, couldn't contain her admiration. "Debbie Stewart is the master communicator and the source for all non-profit information," Linn said. "She's an integral part of our non-profit community. People depend on her. People quote her. She is worth her weight in gold in the non-profit community."
So, what exactly does Stewart do to help the local non-profit organizations? And why does she do it?
Hooked on Helping
Stewart's passion for helping non-profit organizations started at an early age. She describes when she first realized how much she enjoyed contributing her time to the non-profit segment. "My mother told me about a fundraising drive that a local organization was having, before the days of computers, even. Well, they had computers, but they just did not automate their fundraising. It was the Foundation for the Jr. Blind in California. They needed people to hand-address thousands and thousands of envelopes and stuff them, so I got my youth group involved in that, and I realized at that point that I was only one person, but I could make a huge difference. And that's when I got hooked on helping."
As time passed, she was given a wide variety of opportunities to help agencies tasked with the mission of helping others. Stewart recounts, "I've been employed by non-profits, I've volunteered for them, I've been a committee member, board member, and I've seen too many good employees, volunteers and board members quit organizations either out of frustration or sheer exhaustion. I've seen it all, the good the bad, the ugly."
Stewart learned quickly that just because one is engaged in a noble venture, it isn't necessarily always satisfactory. At first, she worked in the for-profit sector and volunteered on the side as she looked for something more meaningful to do. But, that turned out to be disheartening, too, "I quickly became frustrated because some of the volunteer directors didn't know how to best utilize my talents as a volunteer. So then I thought, well, maybe I can make a difference by actually working in a non-profit sector. So I got a job in the non-profit sector, and then I got frustrated by the managers who didn't know how to best use my talents as an employee, or got mired down in the way things have always done and all the problems that non-profits face. And again I saw a lot of co-workers that were getting burned out because the workload was too big and the payscale was too small."
She finally concluded that, "Making a difference only goes so far when you're exhausted at the end of the day or frustrated."
Outside Looking In
After moving to Prescott, Stewart knew she could continue to make a difference, but that with her talents and skills, she could be more effective if she took a different approach. She would be a consultant to non-profit organizations, and help them avoid the mistakes she herself had experienced first hand.
She explained, "I felt that I could probably do more good from the outside looking in. My goal is to help as many non-profits as possible, rather than just working with one, and that's when I started doing the consulting and developing seminars and such."
"And I found myself gravitating over the years to helping individual organizations, which is fine, but now what I'm doing, starting beginning in 2008 is really refocusing my efforts and rededicating my efforts to helping as many organizations as possible." Stewart said. This was an important shift for both her and the non-profits, because it allows her to help in ways that nobody else can.
"I have been on boards before but I tend to give 150% in whatever I do, and I realize that if I'm going to join any particular board, that it's going to be good for that one organization, but it's going to take me away from being able to see the bigger picture and helping on a higher level."
This proved to be enormously needed and helpful. Stewart described her role with a little laugh, "I can also come, kind of like, the doctor is in. I've had organizations call me and say, can I pick your brains about this, or can I run something past you. So, I get together with them for an hour, and I say, what is it that your situation is, and see if I can offer advice or if they're on the right track or see what their needs are."
As Stewart describes the "birth" of a non-profit organization, she is thoughful. "Most non-profits start because somebody sees an unmet need, and there's something that they would like to do in the community, and they usually start by gathering a few other like-hearted people, and they either form a support group, or they start by providing whatever service they want to do, like if they want to provide a food service, they'll have a food collection day. And then at the point that they realize, usually about a year or two into their organization starting, they realize it's going to take money to do what they really need to do. And, that's kind of when reality sets in. That's when all the different questions come up, that's when they decide to incorporate as a 501(c)3 so that they can start doing fundraising and everything else that comes with it... My specialty, my niche seems to be in that transition from birth, the excitement of birth to the realities and opportunities and the challenges and the opportunity that come from developing that organization through the first couple of years, because those are really critical. That's when every possible issue comes up, decent volunteers, getting funding, hiring staff, boards, who when the excitement wears off, maybe the work begins and they are not as able or interested..."
Her consulting encompasses really practical, feet-on-the-ground kind of help. "Specific things that I do is grant research and grant writing, I also help develop publicity and media packages, so if somebody is looking to publicize an event, I'll sit down and we can talk about what's the best way to get publicity for that event, but also let's take a look at your year-round publicity needs so that we have a coordinated effort that can be implemented throughout the year so that your organization can be kept in the public eye and in your supporters eyes year round."
Dancing As Fast As They Can
One of the first things Stewart did was to establish a newsletter in 1994 called, "By the Seat of Our Pants". At first, she distributed print copies of it. But in 2001, she was able to convert to an online version, saving quite a bit on postage. When asked why she chose that name, she said, "It's basically because the people who are running non-profit agencies are dancing as fast as they can, they usually start the organization before they have a plan as to how they are going to carry out their mission and they're basically learning everything by the seat of their pants. So, it's kind of like, okay guys, we're all in this together, how can I help?"
Stewart's newsletter quickly became "must-have" material. "I know that I get feedback every month, telling me that the news is valuable to them. I've got one woman now who wants to take me to lunch because she found out about the job that she just got through my newsletter. It's heartwarming to know that it's actually valuable. That's why I keep doing it."
By the Seat of Our Pants was the way that Stewart was able to help lots of organizations at once. "Mainly I wanted to provide a resource for non-profit organizations, it's main target audience is board members and staff. It's to help with their development, to find out about opportunities that can improve how they run their organizations, which then ultimately will benefit their clients and the community. I include things such as workshops that are coming up in the area, job opportunities, if they want to post a job or they are looking for a new job, different events that are going on, just to let people know who is doing what, not necessarily so they'll go to each other's events so they know who's doing what, so they can try to avoid scheduling conflicts."
Along the way, Stewart noticed that non-profits needed a way to publicize their events cheaply, if not for free. That spawned her media guide, called, "Chance Enhancer". At a nominal cost of $25 per year for a subscription, it also proved to be packed with valuable resources and contacts.
Working Together for the Community Good
One of the areas that Stewart stresses is the importance of collaboration between organizations. With her experience in grant writing, she has noticed a recent trend in requirements for grants that include collaboration amongst organizations. And the word is getting out, "Yavapai County is really well-known throughout the state for being willing to work together. That's not the case for a lot of other places throughout the state. It is also becoming more of a necessity, because funders, now, are requiring, at least they're asking for, collaboration. They want to stretch their dollars as far as possible. And so, a standard question in a grant application is who else in your community is doing something similar? Who are you working with? Who else can you bring into this effort? Basically, it's a necessity for the non-profits to work together. So, anything that I can do in my newsletter to let people know, and that's one of the things that I want to get more information about is the different programs that the non-profits are doing."
Yet, Stewart notes wryly, the situation can get tricky, because the organization you might be collaborating with, can also be the organization you're competing against for funding. "There is still such competition, the whole process of applying for money is a competitive grant process and while the funders are the first to ask for collaboration, the funders themselves don't help facilitate that process. There are exceptions, there are some wonderful exceptions throughout the state. But the whole idea that you have five non-profits applying for funding from the same funder and only one or two of them are going to get funding somebody wins, somebody loses... It's also a case of the politics of the non-profit sector - there's a lot of opportunity to save money, to share resources, because almost every organization is under-staffed, overworked, underpaid, and we could combine some of that and really strengthen the whole non-profit sector, and make it a lot healthier and the ultimate winners will be the people the communities are trying to help."
Stewart believes that the majority of an organization's funds should actually come from the local community. And so, 16 years ago, she started the "Last-Minute Non-Profit Stocking-Stuffer Bazaar". She explains her thinking when she started it, "... my husband and I started [the Bazaar] a year after we moved here, so this is our 16th year. It's an opportunity for non-profits to have an inexpensive, easy way to raise funds and educate the public about what they do. The first year that we were here, we noticed that there was a bazaar over here or an event over there, but there was no inexpensive way that non-profits could participate in that, and since we both have event-planning background, we pulled it together, and that first year, the only date the Armory had available was the week before Christmas, so we called it the Last-Minute Non-Profit Stocking-Stuffer Bazaar. It's pretty much been sold out ever since, we have 54 spaces and 54 agencies, and it's low-cost, high-quality gift items that are suitable for gift-giving year 'round."
You can tell that this is a project close to Stewart's heart. Her face softens into a smile when she talks about it. "And it's a real, warm-fuzzy kind of day. Because every dollar goes towards helping a non-profit and it's very non-commercial and we ask the non-profits to bring literature about their organization, so if you come in, you can also learn about what they do. It's become a real tradition in the community. It's free admission, and people like coming because it's a friendly atmosphere and they know that every dollar goes to help support the agency."
It's Really About Hope
Stewart continues to look for ways to help more organizations. And, 2008 promises to be a big year for her, as she develops some of her plans and brings them into action. She'll be coming out of the background a little more, and finally start marketing herself a bit. Why? Because she feels that if she's better known, she'll have more opportunites to help non-profits. And that's what Stewart's all about.
"I love everything the non-profit sector represents. Kindness and generosity, people trying to help others and improving our communities, giving without expectations of something in return, transforming people's lives and basically working in this sector gives me hope..."