Inside IPM: Meet Colton Strawser
“Inside IPM” is an ongoing series featuring the talented players who comprise the IPM Advancement team! Here you’ll learn all about the people who work behind the scenes at IPM to help nonprofits raise more money to make the world a better place. Today, we’re talking to…
Colton Strawser, Consultant
Where are you originally from?
I’m from a small rural community called Wolcottville in Northeast Indiana that is in a county in the heart of Amish country and home to Shipshewana, Indiana. My hometown has one stoplight, with a few local businesses on Main Street — my family’s auction company being one of them — and everyone pretty much knew everyone there growing up.
What’s your background in the nonprofit sector and how did you get started?
At 14, I joined a youth philanthropy council through my local community foundation, and my passion for philanthropy took off from there. That same year, I became the director of marketing/fundraising for a nonprofit organization dedicated to youth and computer literacy. I later became the executive director of the organization and was in that role for about five years. I was not your average teenager, but being average is vastly overrated.
I was pretty much a self-taught grant writer and fundraiser and did the best I could with the resources I had. I then attended the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. When I was 20 and in my final year at the Lilly School, I earned a “lifetime achievement” award from the Presidential Volunteer Service Awards for contributing over 4,000 hours of community service — I guess it’s just been downhill from there.
I recently completed my Ph.D. in Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leadership from the University of San Diego — so I am pretty committed to making a difference, and I absolutely love working in this field.
How did you incorporate your academic skills into your work?
My work as a consultant is often different from other consultants since I was a nonprofit director, turned nonprofit scholar, and returned to nonprofit consulting to create a more significant impact. I often approach a lot of my work with a research background, which is a great skill to have when creating surveys, conducting interviews, or simply combing through tons of donor data. While I am outside of higher education now, I still conduct research and publish academically to push the field forward. A recent project I worked on examined whether the community engagement of universities is a significant factor in increasing philanthropic contributions — and the short answer is yes, it does have a positive effect on donations.
What’s something you’ve learned in your career that you wish the nonprofit sector as a whole did better?
When I was conducting my dissertation research on the community leadership role of community foundations in California, I often referred to the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” To make an impact, we must collaborate with others, and we cannot be on this journey to help our communities alone. This saying was reinforced throughout my interviews, and thriving community foundations aided their communities in envisioning a brighter future and worked tirelessly to see that future brought into fruition. Sharing what makes your organization or program effective is not giving away the secret formula. However, if we can collaborate more as a sector, we can be more impactful, and at the end of the day, that is what matters.
Let’s talk about capacity building. What are some changes or opportunities in that area that you see on the horizon for nonprofits as they enter this new decade?
Capacity building essentially enhances an organization’s ability to produce, perform, or deploy. We clearly saw which organizations had the capacity to respond well to COVID-19 and those that did not. Often, when I work with nonprofits, they tell me how the biggest struggle for them is fundraising; however, when asked how they are engaging their board, marketing the organization, or evaluating the success of programs, they are sometimes at a loss for words. Investing in an organization’s overall capacity is a worthy investment because donors want to make a philanthropic investment in an organization where things are working well. Organizations should not feel ashamed for raising money to help them become better. If a nonprofit needs assistance with fundraising, program evaluation, strategic planning, or some other organizational challenge, I recommend speaking with a donor or funder who truly cares about their success about making a philanthropic investment in capacity building.
If you could give a nonprofit one and only one piece of advice that would increase their impact on their cause, what would it be?
I encourage all nonprofits to create robust evaluation plans to report back to funders and know whether or not they are helping their clients. Evaluation does not have to be overly complicated, but it must be strategic. Nonprofits need to determine what they want to know as a result of evaluation and tell their funders what their outcomes are. If funders want additional data, it is important to ask them to pay for it, so budget for evaluation. Generally speaking, evaluation costs about 10% of the overall budget of a program (that includes staff time, materials, software, and an external evaluator). If your organization cannot afford to hire an external evaluator to conduct an entire evaluation, figure out a way to hire an evaluation coach to help the organization conduct a thorough evaluation.