Justin Rule On Smart Risk-Taking and Thinking Creatively

As fundraisers, we’re always thinking of new, fun and exciting ways to engage our audience. We are competing for our donors’ attention, so we have to stay on top of our games to keep them interested and engaged. 

Justin Rule of Sparrow Websites knew that struggle all too well. Working as a nonprofit leader for over 10 years, Justin has written many strategic plans but found the best way to a donor’s heart is through song. His organization Heads Up Lancaster parodied Will Smith’s Miami to show the world how great their school is. 

It’s been years since that video dropped but the local community radio stations still play the song every weekend. So how did they create such a viral hit? And how did it help bring in a whole new wave of monthly donors? Justin explains all this and more in today’s podcast. 

We discuss
  • How to leverage corporate marketing tactics for your non-profit campaigns
  • Learning how to let go, and have fun with your fundraising
  • Connecting with your community by collaborating with your staff and those you serve

Official Transcript

Can thinking like a business be a good thing. Let's learn how to think outside the box with today's guest, Justin Rule.

Hello and welcome to Driven's Fundraising Superheroes podcast. I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and if you're not familiar with Driven, you should be because we are an All-In-One non-profit software is built from the ground up to help you and your team save hours of time, smash those duplication rates and raise more funds. So our clients are really our partners and we want to help them succeed by providing the easiest and most efficient software there is. Please give us a visit at trustdriven.com to learn more.

So one of the most powerful skills anyone can have is to be smart risk taker. When beginning a new adventure both in the for profit and nonprofit sector there are a ton of risks and uncertainties. You don't know if your organization will succeed or if you have the tools to meet your fundraising or strategic goals. Along with so many other worries, you fall into the habit of doing what's safe. Because if you don't, there's a lot of unknowns.

Justin Rule is a nonprofit leader and co-founder of Sparrow Designs. He felt similarly when he founded his organization Heads Up. After some creative risk taking he found that it was when he began taking those risks that found the biggest rewards, a solid strategic plan, is nice. But Justin made his way into donors' hearts by spitting rymes and keeping time to Will Smith's Miami. Today Justin is sharing his successes and how he got there on the show.

So thank you so much for joining me today.

Absolutely. I'm so glad to be here.

So when you started out as someone who has experience working in the nonprofit and for profit sector, is there a big difference between the two? Have you been able to use your experience from one to build success in the other?

It's a really good question. And they're different and they're similar, right.

So I have definitely learned, I think, the hard way, because given my early experiences, my early successful experiences, I should clarify were more in the nonprofit world, what I was learning when I then came into the business world, as I'm juggling both those, is that the reasons why it took me longer to learn in the nonprofit sector was because I wasn't thinking of the work I was doing, like a business in the way that I serve people in a way that I even strategize for my nonprofit.

So it's been helpful, I think is probably the best answer to have been in both worlds and realize that there are similarities just in the same way that a business owner would really have no problem saying, hey, if you want my services cost this much money to work with me. What I started to then learn is in the nonprofit sector, I am offering a service and it does have a value to it that is actually monitary. And and so that really helped me change how I ask people to come alongside and support the nonprofit work.

Yeah, that mindset shift is something that when I started out with these interviews, took me a while because for me, like I pictured the traditional business model goods exchange for money. And it wasn't until my interview with Maeve, who is also a fundraising consultant, that she's like, no, like you are offering a service. It's a different type of service. The exchange just makes the person feel good. You're offering value, so don't be afraid to make that ask.

Yeah, yeah.

It definitely helps you make the ask when you realize. Also a big difference that I found in the nonprofit sector, largely, at least in my experience, we were asking for things that we planned to do and if we raised the funds we then could do, whereas in the for profit it's usually you've done the work and then you're sort of sending the invoice.

And so that's a little different. It's hard for maybe nonprofit leaders and even myself to understand how to juggle that, because the reality is in the nonprofit sector, we know the work that we're doing to benefit our community has to be done. And if we don't do it like somebody else is going to do it. So you almost have to change how you frame it like, hey, we're going to do this thing and you have a chance to be a part of it.

We're going to do it as opposed to please, please, please, please give me money so that I can do this.

A lot of confidence has to go in when you're communicating your mission.

Yeah, absolutely.

So when did you start looking at your nonprofit as more of a business? How did that help you in fundraising?

So when I started, I mean, just being really candid, like when we were doing on building our nonprofit, we largely in the first few years relied on grants and foundation support and that type of model. And with that, you largely kind of beholding to those requirements and regulations around how you spend those funds. You're kind of locked in. And that that limits a little bit just how fast you can grow, how far you can reach, because you can't really go outside of that box, because if you've got funds to do X and you start doing Y, you understand, right?

We understand that is, how do we then validate the use of those funds? Right. All those beautiful things that nonprofit leaders have to balance. So when I started getting back into the for profit business world, what I realized is that I needed to start having more creative ways to fund the things we wanted to do to grow and expand. So one of the things we launched is we called it the three hundred projects. We had three hundred families in the school we were working with.

We started to rally donors around, like when you support us, you're supporting a family, we need three hundred supporters and I think we asked somebody for ten dollars a month. But what that allowed us to have supplemental funds outside of just the grant and foundation funds that we could then be flexible with. And we could bring on a new staff member to start a new project or take an initiative just to do like a community mural, lika a community beautification project, because those funds weren't tied to a grant and didn't need to be justified.

They came from outside. And so when I began to think, man, I need to be flexible beyond what I just quote unquote wrote a grant for that for profit like knowledge of how we can kind of get other funds to do other things. When I brought that into the nonprofit world, it really opened my eyes to like wait- if I can tell the right story and help people outside of a grant community or grant board understand what we're doing and see the value in it.

Now, I have a lot more opportunity to do the work that needs to be done, not just the work that foundations believe need to be done.

And creating such a stronger the monthly donors and must be a really great feeling internally to see how many people support you.

And it always goes back to story telling how well you communicate. Your need your mission and connect with your audience.

Yeah, and I initially I think I was looking for a few more donors to give larger funds and I radically changed that. I don't know, halfway into my nonprofit experience, I was like, no, no, no. I actually want a lot more people to know that their five or ten dollars a month that they can give me actually is effecting change in the community. And I really like talking to those people and making it really easy for them to say yes as opposed to like, you know, sweating it out, meetings with a big donor that you just might not say something right to.


So you have a lot of work with charity organizations. And one of my favorite was when you did with Will Smith's Miami. I watched the whole thing it was immaculate. That was, I think, one of the best ways of storytelling, because from that I understood what the organization was about. I got a sense of your personality, which is huge. So we want to be part of a community that you were setting. And I think it's something that a lot of nonprofits can learn from.

So how did that idea come to be? Why was it so successful?

What's the truth? What are the true answers to those questions? Well, I had a moped, which you see in the video at the beginning, and I was like, that was my daily driver to and from the school and way back in my whatever days. I just love rapping, singing, whatever, but I absolutely can't dance, which the video proves. But as I began to really like, just hear what the students and teachers loved about themselves in the community, I can't actually pinpoint the exact reason why that particular song jumped into my head.

So it was I'll give credit to a teacher, a student or something. But what I realized is I was tired of doing so much work in the traditional ways and trying to get it out right, like do all that work to hold an annual event and then try and share your passion with people. When men I think through like art, music, dance, like all these things that our organization was about, why don't we just use those means and actually empower the voices of students rather than me saying something and tell their story?

So the students helped us like think of the words to the song. They helped us know what was nuanced about each grade's teacher.

And so it was the hardest part of that was actually talking teachers into being just like totally out there. Like, you know, they were afraid that their students would maybe take them less seriously when they saw them, like dancing around. And number two, I mean, the kids were obviously cool with it. It was like helping people understand that that process was going to continue to be fruitful.

And here's the crazy thing, Sabrina. They still play that song on the local kid's radio station every Saturday when they play kids songs. It's still like it's bizarre, right? I mean, I don't even know what's that like eight years ago. And you asked me, like, the impact that it had, the impact that it had is what you just said. It made it exciting for people to get involved. It showed that the school is doing things differently.

These kids are different. These kids are talented. These kids, like, have a voice that needs to be heard. Honestly, I feel like God blessed that way more than we ever could have done in our own human efforts, it was kind of a little special thing.

Yeah, and I think that's even if it's not a music video, but just having the kids or the people that you're serving involved in that fundraising process, having them show in this case, you know, how much fun they have at the school, how connected they are to the community there, or just giving somebody else the chance to speak up and share their voice and their experiences goes back to that story.

It really just drive the point home that you are doing great work.

It's a little more exciting than reading like a brief or a case statement about a non-profit right.

I would take a parody over a breif.

So right now, for our viewers who are watching the video, they can see the beautiful Sparrow logo behind Justin here. But not only did you co-found Sparrow Media, but you're working with ex-convicts to teach them skills and marketing design. I'd love to share more about that with our audience. So how did the program come to be and what came first, the business or the nonprofit?

Well, good question. You know, as the chicken or the egg theory goes, they actually came at the same time.

I was working in my nonprofit and started working for a for profit as well. And I met another guy named Adam, and we realized our passion was for nonprofits and startups and entrepreneurs. And so we started to like think about do we want to maybe launch our own business later to be known as Sparrow.

But at the time we were like, I don't just want to launch a business in my heart, like beats for my city. And so how do I still do something that is impactful? And about that time, the story is probably online somewhere. But I came across a book by Calvin Coolidge at a yard sale of all places, and it was like a first edition, nineteen twenty four book called The Price of Freedom. And I, I mean, totally a godsend that I picked up this book and read this right in the middle of the book.

There's a essay that Calvin Coolidge wrote who I mean, shameful admission. I don't even know he's a president. When I picked up the book for those in the states that probably gasping. But he wrote this essay called The Needs of Education. And it says one of the things that jumped off the page, it said, like, to truly empower someone. It's not just the intellectual empowerment, but it's the moral development of an individual, too.

And, you know, kudos to my parents like growing up. They both happened. My mom's Canadian and just toss that in there. But the fun thing is, like we I learned just watching them how to serve people who are not as fortunate as us ex convicts. Homeless people were sitting in sleeping in my basement all the time. And I realize that now as an adult, that man, they have some barriers to employment.

They have barriers to you know, there's just a ton of stuff we take for granted going in and out of buildings or homes in business that they can't do. So Adam and I really just stood over this Coolidge mentality of training both the intellect and the moral development of kind of the soul. And Coolidge Academy was born. That's what we called it. And the goal there is that we are doing what we know really well, which is digital media and design and teaching that to people who you don't need a college degree.

You can very much apprenticed, you know, whether it's social media marketing, whether it's content marketing or whether it's web design. Those three fields are like brilliant in terms of you're not doing anything that sort of infringes on or like the joke is this. When you build a website for somebody or pitch it to somebody, nobody says your websites look amazing. But let me ask you something, Justin. Have you ever been in prison? That doesn't happen, right?

Conversely, if you're like showing up to do a service in someone's house, I mean, you have to have like quote unquote, clean background checks or you can't really get hired by those companies. So that's sort of a long answer to what Coolidge Academy is, what we try and teach and how we try and empower individuals, refugees and convicts or people that couldn't afford college and or maybe decided to prioritize raising children. Now, they can actually learn some new things in an apprenticeship model.

And there's a lot I can say about it. We were pretty intentional about. The different things we did, but I'm really finding life in a. And that's such a great way to approach information and giving back to the community, because you're focusing on your company, which is, you know, helping people with their design needs, and then you're taking those skills and your knowledge and you're kind of bringing it back and you're getting people who don't have the same opportunities in the mainstream of opportunities and all that.

So I think that that's a great approach. And it's really weird to have this conversation with you, because I literally just spoke with another gentleman and he was expressing the same thing. He's like more people should be taking their companies and looking at ways to get back than just starting a whole bunch of nonprofit. So I think that this kind of model really is going to be the future of the community.
Yeah, I would like to think that the world would be a better place if we did a little more friendly, which is kind of what we used to do. It's a little slower. I can't serve three hundred people. Once we take a few people through each year, we give out our tools and like it's more it's almost like I don't even know what an example would be. It's almost like discipling someone as opposed to just teaching somebody knowledge. It's it's a little messier, but it's a lot more fruitful.

Oh, a thousand percent. You have such a diverse background of experiences, as we can tell from this interview, from your business and charitable ventures, both successful. And what was the biggest lesson you learned from it all?

That's a great question, Sabrina. I mean, I feel like what I learned is God is bigger than my failures. And but I think if I were to sort of make it more palatable maybe to everyone, just depending on how they see or view the world around them. It's like I've learned and it's cliche, but it's so important that my failures don't define who I am either to my successes, define who I am. And that's kind of a I think the first is is easy maybe for people like I think I have five kids.

And if they are playing soccer in the backyard and they try and Chicagoan and miss or something, I mean, hopefully, kids don't go waving like, oh, I'm a failure. No, no. We like, understand, we tried and we just missed. And that's, you know, as we grow older that we do we try miss whether it's on a test or a business venture or we kind of if we're mature, we can kind of understand that that that failure to define me.

I think what I've learned candidly the hard way or is when we let ourselves begin to be defined by our successes and we sort of like take credit and we become prideful and we become kind of these arrogant people that aren't really nice to be around because all we want to talk about is me, and that just people don't really like hanging around, people like that. So I feel like I'm really learning to just be confident in who I am, not necessarily letting what I do define me, but knowing really who I am and out of that place.

Doing whatever kind of God gives me a chance to do that day, that year, that venture, so that's I think what I've learned is that helpful?

I think that's going to be a huge help to me. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. For all of those listening just to the special websites have provided us with free guide to building a website. It's obviously great information around something that's great. So definitely take advantage of that opportunity, like most for his own website. And if you're looking to keep updated on everything during the Fundraising Superheroes, give us a follow on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Both of our essentials are also not up there. Or you can find us at trustdriven.com. Thank you so much for listening to Fundraising Superheroes.

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Podcast Mar 3, 2021, 12:00 AM

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