First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Donald Summers: We’re okay, thank you, I hope likewise.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Altruist
Donald Summers: I was very idealistic as a young person and despised capitalism for its many externalized costs: pollution, social injustice, etc. Then I had an epiphany in grad school when I first studied business, accounting, finance, law, etc. “This is how the world works!” I exclaimed. “What if we could use these tools for good?” Many years later, I heard about Bono making a somewhat belated realization about his charitable work. He said something like “Capitalism isn’t immoral, it’s amoral.” So that’s my origin story: I use the tools of finance capitalism, entrepreneurialism, and business to advance social good.
I founded Altruist after years raising money for charities and then working as the CEO of a small foundation that gave away tiny grants. Just reading the applications I could tell the organizations needed not money but help with management, so I quit and took two of them on as clients. I helped them raise millions of dollars instead of begging for small grants, and we launched very large and successful social projects, and I’ve been doing the same for the past 15 years with a small team of incredibly gifted and amazing colleagues.
How does Altruist innovate?
Donald Summers: The social sector is filled with hundreds of thousands of small to midsize nonprofits, many with great people and potentially very high impact programs. But only a tiny fraction have the expertise on their executive teams and boards to raise capital and scale the program they deliver to the size that the challenge demands. So we deliver our clients an acceleration platform, one that is soup-to-nuts — encompassing planning, staffing, governance, financing, and execution — that consistently delivers sustained median growth of 25%, year after year. It took over a decade of incredibly hard work integrating business practices and social sector realities, but today our firm is behind some truly inspiring and important social and environmental change efforts. Getting into exactly how we do this is very long and complicated, but it works. A basic overview is on our website.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Donald Summers: This is our third economic downturn, and just like the previous two, it means an acceleration in our work. The organizations we partner with are on the leading edge of the challenge – helping the homeless, closing education gaps and social injustice, advancing sustainability and climate work- and we’re working extremely hard to help them secure capital and then execute the right strategies to be successful. Our work always has super high stakes, but today it feels even more scary especially as I look out of my window here in Seattle and see the sky blotted out with climate-change-induced wildfire smoke.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
The hardest choice we make is to focus on a very, very few organizations that have the chutzpah and discipline to really try to change the world for the better. We’ve built some amazing tools and processes that can help most nonprofit to be a lot more effective, but the work to socialize and scale the delivery of these tools at scale is very different from delivering it 1-1. I am always torn between getting out the book and the Ted Talk, etc., and helping my clients do their vital work. There just isn’t’ enough time, and I lack the energy.
What I would love is a major partner to help us disseminate what we’ve learned, which are many, many things around how to finance and manage nonprofits better. The current state of practice in the sector means a lot of impacts is still uncaptured. Do we go broad or deep? Right now, it’s deep.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Altruist in the future?
Donald Summers: Stress caused me major health problems 5 years ago. One morning, I woke up at 4 am, and the world was doing cartwheels. Turns out it was stress-induced vertigo, a problem I would not wish on my worst enemy. Entire days spent incredibly dizzy, vomiting, unable to walk, every 5 minutes was nails on the blackboard. A balance specialist I found, Chris Morrow, literally saved my bacon. I’d been in treatment trying other things for 6 months, and he said “dude, you are not handling stress, your brain is doing a blue screen. Chill out, take magnesium and tumeric, and you’ll be fine.” He was 100% correct, and I learned first hand that stress is a killer. So many CEOs and founders I meet don’t do the necessary self-care, and it isn’t good for business, to say the least.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Donald Summers: There are very few sophisticated management consulting firms for small to midsize nonprofits that are methodologically every bit as sophisticated – or more – than the big fancy consulting firms that charge millions of dollars per project in the private sector. And who are actually focused on what their clients need to grow, not just trying to baffle people with fancy recommendations.
Raising money and growing the impact of a mission is really hard, but we’ve figured out a way to do this consistently. When you look at the full basket of our clients, we have a clear track record of converting every $1 in fees to $25 in new and sustained revenue. It’s a clear value proposition, and I haven’t found another organization that can say this with a straight face. So we are usually quick to get hired and are thankful we get to do the work we do. We talk a lot at Altruist about the ancient Japanese concept of ikigai – a formula for being truly happy and content in life. I urge readers to google that for more details, like all our work, it’s really hard to do, but it’s amazing when you get there. In sum, the fact that we’ve found our ikigai means we will be doing this work until we leave this earth.
Your final thoughts
Donald Summers: My final thoughts? As in truly, truly final? Peace. Peace be to us all.