Build and Scale a Nonprofit with Genevieve Piturro

In our eighteenth episode, Sofie is joined by Genevieve Piturro, an accomplished nonprofit founder, and speaker, to discuss everything you need to know to build and scale a successful nonprofit. Genevieve shares her insights on how to build a board of directors, communicate your nonprofit’s impact, and other best practices. She also provides practical advice for creating compelling storytelling and overcoming founder’s syndrome. Throughout the episode, Genevieve draws from her own experience as a nonprofit founder and shares the lessons she has learned along the way. Her insights provide valuable guidance for anyone looking to start or grow a nonprofit.

Our next episode will be released on May 7th at 9 am EST.

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About the Guest

Genevieve Piturro

Genevieve Piturro left her job as a successful TV marketing executive, picked up a pair of pajamas, and built a nationally known 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and named it Pajama Program. Two decades later, Gen educates audiences on how to change their own course.

Genevieve Piturro is all about Purpose and The Human Connection. She was a successful television marketing executive until a sudden inner voice challenged her direction and she dramatically altered the path of her life. She found her true purpose when a simple question from a six-year-old girl in an emergency shelter changed everything. In 2001, she jumped off the corporate ladder and founded the hugely successful national non-profit, Pajama Program. This year, the Program celebrates its 21st anniversary, having delivered more than 7 MILLION magical gifts of new pajamas and new books to children through its 42 chapters across the U.S.

Genevieve is now an inspirational speaker and purpose consultant inspiring individuals, groups, and companies to find their purpose & embrace the human connection for success. She created the Purpose ACER business training program to help leaders create a shared culture by aligning the goals of the company and management with the goals of its employees.

Her first book, sharing life and leadership lessons she learned through her Pajama Program journey, is an Amazon best seller and the winner of five (5) awards. The book, Purpose, Passion and Pajamas: How to Transform Your Life, Embrace the Human Connection and Lead with Meaning, debuted during the Covid shutdown to rave reviews. The book’s message and Heart of the Matter life and leadership lessons after every chapter, dovetail perfectly with our Nation’s growing interest in finding purpose and rekindling our human connection. Her TEDx talk: “1 Idea + The Human Connection = 7 Million Pajamas” debuted with her book.

Genevieve has been interviewed on and in many local and national media including Hallmark’s Home & Family, The Huckabee Show, OPRAH, TODAY, GMA, The Early Show, CNN, O Magazine, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Parenting Magazine. Genevieve rang the Nasdaq Stock Market Opening Bell in 2016. She has been the recipient of many local and national awards as she inspires others to listen to their heart-voice in pursuing their passions.


Pajama Program:


Sofie: Hello everyone and welcome back to Claim Your Potential, the Empowerment Podcast. I’m your host Sofie. And for this episode we are joined by Genevieve Piturro to discuss everything you need to know to start a nonprofit from how to build a board, attract and retain volunteers, scale a nonprofit, and other best practices. Genevieve is a best-selling and award winning author, inspirational speaker and founder of the Pajama Program. She is all about purpose and the human connection. She was a successful television marketing executive until 2001 when she jumped off the corporate ladder and founded the hugely successful national nonprofit Pajama Program. This year, the program celebrates its 21st anniversary, having delivered more than 7 million magical gifts of new pajama and new books to children through its 42 chapters across the US. Please welcome Genevieve. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Genevieve: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Sofie.

Sofie: And I don’t know if you know this, but this is something that we have been announcing, at least from our end, is claim your potential is becoming a nonprofit. And so this episode is really hitting close to home already. Because I’m excited to not only pick your brain, but also, a lot of our listeners can hear a little bit about your story and how you run your organization and some of those best practices and that motivation that you have that keeps you going. So my first question for you is, what do you wish you knew before you started your nonprofit?

Genevieve: Probably, I’m glad I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Because I think I’m like a lot of people. I would have scared myself right out of doing what my heart was telling me to do. So I guess I would have wanted to know that anything I was afraid to ask was something that I shared with many people. Asking is hard. Asking makes you feel dumb. Asking makes you feel like you don’t know anything. Asking makes you vulnerable. I knew all that. But I wish I had known that people wanted and want to help and that we shouldn’t feel any of those things, because it’s something that, unfortunately, we all can relate to. So I think it’s really important to know that the human connection, which I talk about all the time is, therefore, our support. People naturally want to help and want to ask questions, especially when they know the answers. So every time I was brave enough to ask a question about something I didn’t know, I was met with not only an answer, but lots of advice and enthusiasm from the person who knew more about what I needed to know about than I did.

Sofie: Absolutely! I think just asking the question is always the hard part. And I think that’s something that I have noticed, not only just in life, in general, but also as I’m trying to build creamier potential into a nonprofit is, yeah, there’s so many moments where I don’t know how to do certain paperwork, or there’s something that I know I need to file but I have no idea how to start on it, and so rather than trying to sit there and wrack my brain, and my head spinning in circles, and rather than doing that, I have contacts that I know, know how to do it. So I’d rather… And that’s something that I enjoy doing is asking: “Hey, I know you’re in the sector. If you have a couple minutes that we could maybe chat about this, I would love to hear your expertise.” And yeah, you’re absolutely right. People love to talk about what they know. And so 9 times out of 10, someone always will say, “Oh yeah, absolutely, I have time this week, let’s go get a coffee and figure it out.”

Genevieve: Yeah, I don’t know why we’re built or we’re wired to be so afraid to ask. I mean, I know the reasons I said earlier that we feel dumb or we feel vulnerable. But it’s something that we all share. And the more that we are brave enough to ask questions, the more, like you say, people pop up wanting to help.

Sofie: Absolutely. Absolutely. And what are the top three things other than…? I’m assuming definitely having someone that you know that can help you out with some of the paperwork or someone that’s in the sector that can help you out just trying to navigate some of the expertise involved. But what are the top three things a nonprofit should have out of the gates other than that?

Genevieve: Well, I would say a very committed founder who is willing to go the extra mile every hour, every day, somebody who has very heart connection to the reason why he or she is starting this nonprofit personal experience, something that in the hardest of times, you can remember and bring right up front and say: “It’s for these kids. I remember that day. I know this child. I know that person who is suffering. I can help.” Something in us, founders, gives us the strength and the courage to wake up on the hardest day, and the day we have to ask for more money, on the day we’re on the brink of losing some money, on the day we’re all alone and we’re exhausted, we all need that commitment, that passion, that reason that we know: “This is our purpose. This is our North Star.” And the person has to believe that we’re given that purpose, that choice— because we all have a choice — and it’s supported by whoever you believe in — the universe, your God, your inner being. But it’s sort of that invisible place where inspiration comes to us. That gives us that assurance. That came to us is ours to do and everything we need will show up.

Sofie: Absolutely. And then are there other, maybe another two things that a nonprofit should have outside of the gates other than a dedicated passionate founder?

Genevieve: Yes, technical help. So for me, when I started, I needed somebody who was a CPA or at least a bookkeeper to start and an attorney.

Sofie: Yeah, absolutely.

Genevieve: So, one is relation piece and two practical pieces.

Sofie: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I’m running into that now where just the amount of legal jargon I have to sift through is insane. So yeah, I could not recommend more to anyone having a lawyer. And then, yeah, of course, someone to help you figure out accounting and setting up QuickBooks and things along those lines. So thank you so much for sharing that. And then in terms of support for the founder, building a board is crucial for any nonprofit success and, especially, the ability for the founder, the executive director to be able to best serve. So how can someone effectively recruit board members who are passionate and committed to the cause?

Genevieve: That’s a tricky process for founders who are leading with heart, because we naturally tend to ask friends. We aren’t always the best people do ask advice or ask support of strangers. So we lean toward friends who don’t always make the best board members. Now, they can at the start. So, for me, I asked friends. I found out through my lawyer. I needed three. And I asked a couple of friends who said sure, because they didn’t even know what a board member does. I didn’t educate them because I wanted to get this done. So in the experience that I had in going from three friends to a couple of strangers that contacted me, because they saw something I was doing with a flyer or something, and they were interested, I was quick to say, “Would you like to join our board?” And they pretty quickly said sure. So there we were, a group of individuals, forming a board that didn’t know what it really meant and didn’t know, again, the commitment that was inherent in the bylaws that you have to submit and all that to the government. So a lot of us learn trial and error. It’s hard to ask friends for money. It’s hard to ask friends to do things. And I didn’t make it clear that this wasn’t just for fun and games, that this was to raise money that wasn’t easy, and to plan strategies and make a budget and all of that not so fun stuff. So I think when I mentor people who are starting nonprofits, I tell them up front, at the most one friend, and know why you’re asking that friend, and have a frank conversation with that friend the way you would the next group that you’re going to bring on who are strangers or have something that you need and want to exchange it for their purpose that’s aligned with what your purpose is. So it’s hard because a lot of founders are emotional before were business leaders. And if that’s the case, then they need to really investigate boards, talk to people who have served on boards, and find out what it means so that they don’t find themselves in an awkward position of having uncomfortable conversations with friends.

Sofie: Absolutely. I think that was the same advice that was given to me. And I’m very thankful for that. Because as I’ve gone through the board development process, I made sure that I put it on LinkedIn that I did outreach to people beyond my immediate circle. And yeah, I mean, I echo that statement that it will serve you in the long run to pick people that are not just invested in you as a person, which is what happens when you bring friends on, but people that are invested in the mission. And that’s really where that lies in terms of having a board that is motivated and committed, because not only do they believe in you, but they believe in what you’re doing. And so it is easier for them, at least what I’ve seen so far is that when you have a board that’s committed to the mission — specifically, the mission — it’s easier for development, it’s easier to fundraise, because they’re like, “Hey, this is what I’m passionate about, so therefore I’m gonna go out and make sure that I’m building connections for the organization that I’m developing fundraising goals and events, because I believe in what this organization is doing,” versus, as you were saying, having friends on that are like, “Well, sure, I’ll help you out.” And then they’re committed maybe the first couple months, maybe even the first six months, and then they sort of fizzle out as they’re like, “Well, I love you as a person, but I just don’t have the same drive for this organization.” So, absolutely, I could not agree more with what you said there. And I think so much of where the power is, is impact. And it’s the impact that board members want to make and they know your organization can make. And so I’m curious as to how can nonprofits measure and communicate their impact to stakeholders.

Genevieve: Well, as you grow, it becomes more involved. Just to back to the board question, sometimes you get really super lucky. So I founded Pajama Program over 22 years ago. And I ran it for 20 years, so founder and executive director. And there was a board member, along the way, who was wonderful, became president of our board. Her name is Jamie. And she expressed interest early on that she wasn’t really in love with her law degree. And if I ever wanted to not be the day-to-day the executive director that she’d be interested. So after 20 years, I wanted to write my book, and I want to speak and teach and talk about finding your purpose, and how we grew, and use our story to inspire other people on the human connection and finding purpose and the magic of those two, whether it’s nonprofit or business that you want to run or your own life. So Jamie became our executive director and has been running it for the last few years. Now, she has it 20 years old. So in the first 20 years, it was a very different type of group to run, as you can imagine. So we had stories. And that’s what I loved to tell people, funders, the stories of the kids, my story, how I met the little girl that changed everything, my stories of bringing some friends with me to meet the children to give them new pairs of pajama and new books just for them and how excited they be. And so those stories really brought in the volunteers, brought in the funders, brought people to ask how they can help, brought more people to the board. All of that was easy because it came naturally to me. Sure, I would tell them how many books and pajama we were giving, I could tell them how many kids were on the waitlist, I could tell them who they were, what circumstances that they were living in. But as you grow, there’s more accounting and there’s a little more sophisticated. So I had to learn all the pieces of a puzzle that would really help funders understand where their money was going, in addition to making them feel that they were contributing to something warm and wonderful and helping. So the more money you want to raise, sometimes, the more they ask of you. And Jamie has been doing a great job. And I learned, but she’s much better at it. I’m finding those ways of showing the success in black and white, not just in warm stories that tell the story. So it does change as you grow. So I always tell people when they start to use the stories and the photos if they can, and to bring funders or potential funders with you, because generally people give from the heart. And I believe they still do. But as you want to ask for more money, there are more people at a corporation that have questions. So that’s a more comprehensive report that you want to give to them. And it’s more than what I started with and how we grew to where we were. And now Jamie takes it to the next level.

Sofie: Absolutely. I think also speaking to your point on starting off with that warm fuzzy stories, I think, especially when you have less of a client, tell her in terms of numbers, it really helps to drive your impact forward when you are just starting out, when you are a smaller organization, versus when you’re… If you’re trying to present that. Let’s say we have 10 clients. If I was a funder, I’d rather hear 10 testimonials or even 5 testimonials, than having it be a numbers game of, “Oh, you’ve served 10 people.” Well, that’s great but, maybe, I want to give my money to a larger organization that served more. And so I think that it’s knowing when to use the numbers and when to use those points of impact, those testimonials, those stories. And then, yeah, absolutely. When it comes to grants and to strategic partnerships, yeah, they want to see the numbers, they might want maybe one or two quick testimonials, but it’s all a numbers game for them. And so really, yeah, it’s about — as you were saying — knowing when to use which and kind of judging your audience. But yeah, absolutely, starting off with that warm, fuzzy, that storytelling. And I think, at least for you, when you were… Being the founder and getting it up from the ground running, I feel like for you having those stories rather than the numbers game ultimately would help convince people to get behind you, to show people that “Hey, I’m passionate about this, look, what we’ve done,” come in. So I think that’s a fantastic way of approaching it, like the trajectory of starting off with testimonials and then kind of, as time goes on, shifting more towards “Let’s look at the numbers.” But yeah, absolutely prioritizing those firsthand accounts of the impact of your programs.

Genevieve: Right. And no matter how many wonderful supportive numbers that you have, you need the stories too.

Sofie: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I’m noticing this with… I was reading through some impact reports today. And it’s like, “1200 children’s serves,” but there’s no stories on their website from these children. There’s no nothing like that. And so it’s kind of like, “Well, I would love to donate, I’d love to help out, but I want to know, am I helping Sally from Georgia who…?” I don’t know. Whatever example. I want to know.

Genevieve: Right. Are you feeding three children meals for a month?

Sofie: Exactly.

Genevieve: Yeah. I mean, people want to feel. No matter how big you are, how much money you have, you want to feel where you’re giving your money.

Sofie: Absolutely. And I think some of the most successful nonprofits have that fundraising approach, where you can donate to a specific person, depending on the type of program, and you can read the person’s bio and you can read where they’re from, their story, where the money is going to. And so I forgot which organization did this, but you can sponsor a specific panda with World Wildlife Fund, I believe, or something like that, where you feel like you’re directly giving to that person, to that animal, to that cause, rather than to the general organization. So I always found that to be a pretty cool approach to fundraising.

Genevieve: I agree.

Sofie: So nonprofits rely… I mean, we just talked about funding. And nonprofits rely on funding to carry out their mission. But what are some creative ways to fundraise and generate revenue for a nonprofit? I know, we just touched on one, but are there any others?

Genevieve: I like the old fashioned way of bringing everyone together. I know there are lots of online ways to do it and people are mixed about getting out. Some of us feel like: “We can give money in a lot of different ways. You don’t need to be in a room.” But when you are in a room, whether there are 10 people or 250 people, there’s energy in that room. They’re sharing stories why do you care about the organization, who do you know here, what have you done. “Oh, you volunteered? Oh, I’m willing to volunteer. What was it like reading to the kids? What was it like when they were so excited they wanted to put the pajamas on right over their clothes?” And you can’t have that when you hit an online campaign button to donate. Not to say that there’s not a place for everything. So I think it’s best to include some in-person energy to the fundraising, because that’s part of why people give, to feel camaraderie, to maybe meet some of the people that they are helping, or at least meet the people who are closer to them than maybe they are, they’re a funder. To get some real stories, to share, to ask questions in real time. And I think that it can be a little more expensive than doing something online. And it can be hard to get all the people you want in a room. But I think to include an in-person event is really important to the energy that you all feel. It’s a lot of work. Believe me, I’ve done lots of them. And so it is a lot of work. And you have to pay for halls and food and things like that. But there’s nothing like a successful in-person event when people are saying good night and you have to push people out the door because they’ve enjoyed themselves, and that you have more people to follow up with, because “Oh, I didn’t know this happened. And I met someone who told me I can have the opportunity to fold pajamas. I would love to do that.” So I always try to encourage people not to give up on in-person events. Because it really is very, very special.

Sofie: Absolutely. I think, I mean, with COVID, at least, so much got moved online. And it did a real disservice to nonprofits. Because I mean, I think that’s where so much giving happens, is those events. And seeing people from the organization, talking to people from the organization, maybe you even have previous clients, success stories that donors and constituents and stakeholders can talk to. And at least, where I’ve worked previously, I’ve seen the difference of having an online… They have an annual fundraising event. And they had an online one year and they had it again this year. And an absolute difference in terms of donations, just an astronomical difference, where people really want to be in-person. People want to see up close what’s happening with the organization, and where the money is going, and the impact that it has not only on the organization but the people it serves.

Genevieve: Right. And you don’t have to have a fancy Gala. Those are fun too. But you can have bowling. We did a very successful bowling event, in the recession, years ago. And it didn’t cost a lot and people needed to have fun. And although I thought, do people really bowl in New York City when somebody suggested that? I learned, yes. I learned that there was a bowling alley in New York City and people bowl. And I learned that it’s fun and that it’s inexpensive, especially when you have a small budget and times are hard. And people laugh. And it uplifts people. And they know. They feel the difference. And maybe they’ll donate more, maybe they’ll tell more people, maybe they’ll get make a new friend there. And it doesn’t have to be fancy.

Sofie: Yeah. I mean, people appreciate the simple thing. So I think that if you can find something that’s just simple pleasures, simple fun… I love that bowling example. That’s definitely something I haven’t heard of. But I’m gonna do. It’s pretty effective, though. I would totally go out to bowl with someone.

Genevieve: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t get it, but there’s a whole other story to that, but it was an amazing list for those of us worried about recessions hold on nonprofits.

Sofie: Absolutely. And so much of what we’re talking about is about scaling a nonprofit, building it up. So such as scaling it into a national organization, which is something that you did. And so scaling a nonprofit is important for reaching more people and making a greater impact. And so what are some strategies you have seen that work well in growing a nonprofit?

Genevieve: Well, I think getting some professional help is good, because a founder and sometimes an executive director, because the executive director is not the founder, might be too close to the situation to really know the right direction, or maybe doesn’t know that there are some choices. And somebody who is a professional in growing businesses or growing nonprofits can show you different ways. And you can mix and match. So it’s good to have somebody else’s perspective. Now, about paying for that person, there are people that might volunteer who you know, who are growing their own business or who have grown a business, and would be great to talk to. So it doesn’t mean it has to cost a lot of money, but it does mean that you get another perspective from somebody who has been successful in growing their business. Because nonprofits are businesses. Yes, it’s wonderful. It doesn’t feel anything like a business when you begin, but it is. It is a business once you get your 501(c)(3) and leading up to it. So I always tell people that get advice from business people.

Sofie: Absolutely. I think that when you’re in the nonprofit sector, it becomes so easy to only want to connect with people in the same sector, which is great. But at the same time, absolutely, the business industry has so much advice, and also so many resources to use, that 100% apply. Because you’re right. It’s the same structure. You still need funding. You still need to have governance. You still need to have some sort of operations set up. You need to have an HR. There’s all these different systems that you need to have the same way a business has. You need to have accounting. You need to have all have that setup. And so yeah, I think that’s some fantastic advice for our listeners to take away. And to wrap everything up, is there one thing that our listeners should take away from this whole conversation?

Genevieve: Majority of your listeners are founders or want to start a nonprofit. I know that we all have our reasons and we all know exactly or we think we know exactly how we want this to go. Invite other people to be part of the journey. Invite other people who share a passion for something that’s related to what you’re doing. So even if there wasn’t somebody that exactly wanted to help children exactly the way I wanted to, many of our supporters loved what we were doing and they felt some connection to it. And that helped me grow. And inviting them, in their opinion, their help along the way, takes the pressure off you as a single leader, because there’s a lot of pressure on any leader who’s working by him or herself. And I think it’s more for nonprofits because of the rules and because of the public wanting to know things and you wanting to please everyone and show the need, because it’s real. And educate people on the need, because they might not be aware. And I think by keeping to yourself and only relying on what you know and the way you always wanted it to be or wanted to be, limit us. And I had to learn to ask for help. I had to learn that there were more ways in my way and that might have been better and faster. And I tripped and fell a bunch of times. And I learned that, “Oh yes. So and so did offer to help me and did suggest this other way. But I didn’t listen because I know the right way because this is my baby.” And it’s not always true. So back to your question, what did I know, I wish I had known that I could still love my baby and be it’s nurturer and the leader and still be open to inviting other people into this private home I had for this loving journey that I was on.

Sofie: Absolutely. It’s called founder syndrome where we just don’t want anyone to touch it and we don’t want anyone to mess with it. And you become so emotionally attached to — you’re right — your child, to your baby. And so yeah, I think that’s some wonderful advice to give all of our listeners, especially to those that are looking to start a nonprofit. And to those that are currently in the industry, maybe you’ve seen it firsthand from a founder that you know, or maybe you’re experiencing it right now where you just don’t want to let go. It’s founder syndrome. It’s your child. You don’t want to let people mess with it, to let people get involved. But you’re absolutely right, Genevieve. You have to let people get involved. You have to let people help. You have to let people give their advice. You might not always take their advice, but it’s important to seek it out in the first place. And so thank you so much for sharing that and for coming on to the podcast today. And sharing all of your wisdom.

Genevieve: It’s my pleasure. If anybody wants to have a brainstorming or conversation, I’m always open. Please share my information with them.

Sofie: Absolutely. I will have that in the episode description box as well as on our guest info page. So for anyone that’s interested, feel free to reach out to Genevieve. And I think that’s a wonderful resource that you’re offering our listeners. So thank you so much for that.

Genevieve: My pleasure. Sofie.

Sofie: Thank you so much for coming on and have a wonderful rest of your day.

Genevieve: You too.

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