Nonprofit transparency with Nick Savarese

Episode aired August 12, 2020: What Is Transparency

Nick Savarese knows that transparency isn’t just posting your financials on your website. It’s much deeper than that. The organization he heads, the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation For Autism has adopted a more holistic approach to transparency. In this episode Nick discusses

  • why unrestricted donor funds = transparency
  • why being vulnerable as an organization is liberating
  • the importance of constantly producing fresh content and 
  • why not being perfect- and saying publicly that you don’t have all the answers- is okay.

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.


Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us my friend and nonprofit expert, Nick Savarese. Nick, how you doing today?

Nick: Doing well. How about yourself?

Ephraim: I’m doing okay. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Nick Savarese has spent his entire career working to improve lives and communities for people with disabilities. He joined the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism as executive director in January 2018. He’s responsible for day-to-day management of the organization, including fundraising, strategic planning, program development and financial management.

Prior to joining the Flutie Foundation, Nick spent 11 years at Special Olympics Massachusetts. While there Nick led initiatives across all disciplines of fundraising, including major gifts, foundation relations and corporate development, as well as the organization’s communications and digital marketing efforts. Prior to moving back to his home state of Massachusetts and joining Special Olympics, Nick founded Sky’s The Limit, a Colorado-based organization providing inclusive social and recreational programs for children with and without disabilities.

Nick spends his free time with his wife Stephanie running between soccer, dance, basketball, girl scouts and all the other activities of their two children Naomi and Dominic. Nick is also an avid sports fan rooting for all the Boston professional sports teams to continue their recent run of great success.

What Is Transparency

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss transparency. So let’s dive right in. Nick, how do you define the term transparency?

Nick: That’s a loaded question and I hope that by the end of this conversation, maybe we have a better definition than we do at this point. But what I would say is it’s not necessarily what it’s been defined as. I think people think transparency is sort of a box you check: Are you disclosing your financials on your website? Are you… are you getting audited? You know it’s really become about that end of the world, it’s very important of course. That’s a key component of transparency.

However the way I look at it I think is it’s a more holistic thing, I think it’s more a set of behaviors, I think it’s more an overall competency that your organization or yourself, you know as a professional, need to adopt. And it’s about just an overall commitment to honesty and a commitment to communication really. Even if it makes you a little more vulnerable, there is a um…. so let me just apologize about that. Sorry for the distraction. That’s terrible. So anyways like I said, I think it’s more of a bigger picture holistic thing and it’s a commitment to a set of behaviors, it’s a commitment to honesty and it might make you a little more vulnerable but I think it’s actually liberating at the end of the day. So if I had to define it to one definition, I would say a set of organizational behaviors and actions that ultimately bring your mission and donors close together and on the same page.

Are Nonprofits Transparent

Ephraim: Okay. So let’s expand a little bit. Do you think that the average nonprofit is transparent or shuns it and if they shun or avoid it, why is that?

Nick: I think the average nonprofit is generally tries to be transparent, especially doing the best they can. However I think we all shun it a little bit really, because there’s this pressure in the nonprofit world to be perfect, there’s this pressure to only spend certain amount of dollars on mission versus overhead and that whole sort of thing. And I think we sort of showed this from the very beginning.

As you know very well, any time that you get a job in a nonprofit space, particularly in development, first thing you kind of do is you write a grant. You know everyone’s written a grant proposal before and it’s so academic and every grant proposal you have to fill out is so… it gets to these pressing questions and you might not have the answers to. So i just think we all kind of… we get in this academic mindset of explaining the work we do and really trying to come up with… You know, it’s a good thing obviously. You have outcomes and evaluation and all that sort of stuff. But it gets you into this whole academic mindset of the way that you have to express the work you’re doing, the way you tell donors or tell the public about the results, it… you’re just constantly trying to put up this image of your nonprofit and really it might not be who you are.

At the end of the day. I think there’s great liberation in saying, you know what? We don’t have all the answers. We have a great team here, we’re working really hard at what we do, you can trust us with your donor dollar. But really together we’re gonna figure it out. We might not have all the answers. I think there’s great… like I said, there’s great liberation in that but I think a lot of nonprofits are afraid to not have the perfect answer if that makes sense.

Ensuring Transparency

Ephraim: Yup. As executive director at the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, what have you done to ensure that the foundation is transparent to its donors, supporters and corporate partners?

Nick: I’m glad you asked that because I was thinking about it and I don’t know that we necessarily have done anything specific to be transparent, if that makes sense. Like we haven’t, you know… I’m glad you’re bringing it up because we haven’t really talked about, okay transparency what does it mean? What do we do now? I think that inherently we have developed a set of behaviors that are at the end of the day transparent and I’m glad we have. But we’ll have to be better at this moving forward.

But I would say a couple things that we’ve done is, one is just a commitment to continuous action as well as content production, right? So you know we’re very… our organization and myself personally really believe in just in being present, being out front, putting out content- our own original content, answering questions, all that sort of stuff. So like for example we have a Facebook Live show. We’re always putting out videos, we’re present on you know certainly on Facebook and the different social media platforms. So that’s one thing, just being out there and being present, not just putting out an annual report, see you next year type of thing.

The other is, we pride ourselves on being available and literally just answering the phone, returning every phone call that comes into our office. That’s one that’s feedback we get a lot at our organization versus others. Families will call us looking for support and they’ll say, I didn’t get a call back from this organization, that organization. We always call people back, even if it’s just like sorry we can’t help you. Just trying to be a resource. Just being available all the time.

I think the third thing is… we have formally talked about adopting a voice, like what’s our voice? I know you want your content to be evergreen and that makes a lot of sense but when the coronavirus thing reared its head, we were very intentional about adopting the voice. We could have gone in a couple different directions. We thought about, are we going to be thought leaders in the field of autism and how everything… how this pandemic and everything is affecting the autism community? And we decided not to go with thought leader because we just thought that would… we went humble servant. That was the voice we adopted, humble servant. We’re here, we’re here for the autism community, we’re here to serve you, we’re here to learn, we don’t have all the answers. But gosh darnit you can count on us to help you. And I think that adopting that voice has really been very beneficial to us because it’s an invitation to all our donors, to supporters, whomever, to engage with us and work out issues together. So those are three things I’d say.

3 Things To Do To Show More Transparency

Ephraim: I like that because that means transparency isn’t just having your 990s on your website. It’s a lot more… it’s much deeper than that. Today’s actionable item: Could you tell us three things that any nonprofit can implement or can do in order to display more transparency?

Nick: Yeah and I think it’s kind of similar to what we just talked about. But I would say one is no message goes unanswered. There’s a million ways people can get to you, whether it’s calling your office, tweeting at you, they’re on your Facebook page, whatever it is. And I would really say try to make sure that you answer every question. Because that’s just about… I mean I know it’s basic and it sounds like super simple, it’s like customer service 101 but you’d be surprised. A lot goes unanswered and so to just connect with people in that way is a very easy thing.

Another thought I had is ask for unrestricted donations from donors, as opposed to pure 100% program donations because then it opens the door to deeper conversations. You can say hey, here’s all the great stuff that our program is doing. We’re curing cancer or whatever your organization, whatever your mission is. But it also opens the door to say well, we need to keep the lights on, we really want to hire more staff to be able to execute this program. It gives donors a more holistic look at what you’re doing and then doesn’t perpetuate that continuous imbalance so to speak.

And I would say again, going back to what I said before, the third thing I would say produce original content. It doesn’t… again. I think going back to what I was harping on before is I don’t know why it is but nonprofits think they have to put out the perfect piece of literature and about…and all this outcomes and evaluations and all that sort of stuff and I was thinking, you’re all over the place online. I think more authentic content, where you can just be out there, be vulnerable, be who you are as an organization, I think it’s a way to attract people to you… I don’t want to tie everything to the modern, new normal that we’re living in but I think now more than ever, it’s acceptable to put out content information that’s not super polished and PR-a-sized and perfect. People out there, donors out there really want to help and you can connect with them in ways that are pretty inexpensive and really authentic and transparent.

Ephraim: Excellent. The example you brought about unrestricted funds, I actually hadn’t thought of and I really liked that idea of how you tied that to transparency. That’s something that every nonprofit can and should use.

Nick: We got to be better about that too. We got a lot of restricted funds at Flutie Foundation. So again I’m not speaking from… I’m not saying… do as I say, not as I do. I’m learning from this talk and the preparation for this talk as we speak, so it’s good.

Nothing About Us Without Us

Ephraim: Excellent. You were a very successful VP of Advancement at Special Olympics Massachusetts. In your experience, has the nonprofit world accepted and embraced people with disabilities or are employment opportunities and services for them still lacking?

Nick: Lacking, lacking. I mean what the latest unemployment number is… always like somewhere between 70 and 80% of people, adults with disabilities, are unemployed or underemployed. So yeah thoroughly lacking. I would say even in our organization, we’re a small staff right now. We’re five, in pretty short order hopefully we’ll be six or seven. But we don’t… actually we have a number of part-time employees, we have a number of part-time employees who identify as having autism or are on the autism spectrum. But none of our full-time staff would identify as having a disability. So even we’re not a part of the solution on that. I would say overall there’s a definitely a huge crisis as it relates to unemployment in the disability world and I don’t know that the nonprofit world…

Frankly, again going back to the previous podcast I listened to, the notion of scarcity versus abundance or you know that argument of so many nonprofits are just like, you know, trying to live up to these expectations that they’re not able to do so. I think actually in the for-profit sector has probably done a better job at embracing employment for people with disabilities, because they have… it seems like diversity inclusion programs in the for-profit world are probably a little more advanced than they are in the nonprofit world. But yes, it’s definitely a major issue.

Ephraim: Considering that many nonprofits are trying to be that voice of diversity and inclusion, it’s interesting you’d say the business world is ahead of the number.

Nick: Again I’m no expert on this. I can’t say I’ve done tons of studies but I think that, you know, it takes investment, it takes intention, I don’t think you’re going to get ROI for one year. It’s a long-term ROI proposition and I think the corporate world is better than the nonprofit world at using… looking out over five to ten years and they’re not evaluated the same way we are, as you know. It’s like if we don’t spend 80 percent of our dollar or whatever it is on this, curing problem X, then we’re looked at poorly in the nonprofit world. Whereas in the business world there isn’t that same level of expectation. It’s like you can invest in long-term opportunity, invest in overhead, whatever it is. I’ve seen some very successful diversity and inclusion and equity initiatives, many more in the for-profit world. I think just anecdotally than in the nonprofit world.

Let’s Learn More About Nick

Ephraim: Excellent, alright. Let’s move to the lightning round, learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Nick: Volunteerism. I was 20 years old. I had moved to Colorado to spend the summer. My brother, my older brother moved out there. I was like I’m gonna go out there and I ended up staying and I was in between colleges at the time, so I was working… I was working as a cook in a restaurant and I was PO’d. After months and months of that I was like, I gotta kind of figure out what I want to do with myself, with my life.

So I decided to do some volunteerism. I took two volunteer gigs: one was at a local child care center where I would just come in every Tuesday afternoon and play with the kids, while the staff was like, thank God this young guy with energy can show up and play with kids because we’re here all day long. And the second thing was I volunteered at the local parks and rec department with the Special Olympics program there. There was actually… In Colorado there’s snowshoeing. You know snowshoeing?

Ephraim: Never heard of it.

Nick: It’s snowshoeing. You put those big like moccasin looking things on your feet and you go hiking through the woods. I had never heard of it either but in Colorado, that’s actually like a sanctioned sport with Special Olympics, so I volunteered on a weekly basis to that. That was where I really learned a couple things personally about myself and about the world. One is that I enjoyed that type of work. It was fun, I could connect with people in a way I never knew I could. And two on the organizational side, it’s like so needed, they were like so grateful to have me show up every week, they just needed volunteers so bad. So as you know, in this world you need people ready to kind of step in and help out. So it all went from there.

Ephraim: Fantastic. So given all your years of experience, if you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Nick: If we could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be? I would say… not having to live up to these kind of faulty expectations that keep us as a sector ingrained in small time thinking. Again, it’s that whole notion of like, hey we’re gonna… we have to just be so buttoned up about everything and we have to put out all this… you know, the annual report and everything. I don’t know. I know I’m kind of rambling here. I would just say, let us try things, you know what I mean? Let us use the your donor dollar to go out there and change the world in ways that we think we can and we’re going to fall on our face and plenty of organizations are going to fall on their face. But plenty more… and then we’re going to get right back up and keep at it. So I just think the whole notion of being able to take risks would be wonderful and welcome.

Ephraim: Let us try things. I like that a lot. Best thing about living in Boston?

Nick: There’s everything but the weather. So yeah I live in the burbs north of Boston. I would just say… again, I grew up here so I’m biased. I think it’s a great place to raise kids. I think people are… people are who they are right to your face and I like that. I think it’s a smart, generally, like… just a good place, good people, smart people. I think one example is- again, I know you want evergreen content- but I would say we right now, Massachusetts and New England as a whole, are in one of the best positions in the country as it relates to fighting this virus. And that’s because people are all smart, science-based. There’s a disparity of opinions across the board, just like there is anywhere. But I like living in a place that’s smart.

Ephraim: Okay, we’ll take it. Favorite Boston sports championship team: 84 Celtics, 2001 Patriots, 2004 Red Sox or the 2011 Bruins?

Nick: It’s funny. I mean I would say it has to be the 04 Red Sox. And the Red Sox aren’t on my totem pole on Patriots, Celtics and then Red Sox and Bruins probably. But the 04 championship was just something that was unlike anything anyone’s ever been a part of. It captivated generations upon generations of people because they hadn’t wanted it you know, 100 years or whatever. It was 96. I forget exactly what it was but that was the one that was just insane. So I’d say that one.

Ephraim: Fantastic.

Nick: What about you? What’s your favorite?

Ephraim: Probably also the 2004 Red Sox, only because it had been so long. So I’d probably end up choosing… out of those four, yeah it would be the 04 Sox. Not even a question. A hobby most people don’t know you do or like?

Nick: I’ve picked up guitar over the last few months. I’m not good at it yet but I’ve tried guitar like three times throughout my life and it only got to a certain point and I’ve passed that point now. I feel like this time it might stick. So if we do this podcast again in a year, check me on that. Make sure I’m still sticking with it. But a little acoustic guitar.

Ephraim: I’ll ask you to play a song. Why am I going to ask you if you’re sticking with it? We’ll do a podcast of songs.

Nick: There we go. Now we’re talking.

Ephraim: Now we’re talkin. Let’s turn the tables. You get to ask me a surprise question. I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Nick: I just want your opinion which one thing that’s coming out of our new normal that’s going to change in either the nonprofit or marketing world?

Ephraim: I’m happy to always talk about the future. I wrote about it and I really think that office life is going to completely change and I’m going to take one specific thing: The work from home. I’ve worked for numerous bosses in the nonprofit world. None of them agreed ever to working from home. That was not something you did. It was basically if you work from home, you’re goofing off. You are not doing work and we pay you to work and the only time you can do work is in an office. Now if you’ve ever spent time in an office- and that’s not just you Nick but anybody who’s listening- you know you’re not giving eight to nine hours of full-time work to your employer.

I mean come on, seriously?! If you give three at this point, considering social media and everything else that’s going on and I’m talking this could be any year in the last decade, if you’re giving three to four good hours a day, some of us might consider that to be, well that’s great.

So I think that you can do a lot from home way better than you can do in the office. Certainly you’re not tired from the commute from going to your bed to your desk or just staying in your bed for goodness sake and not moving. I think that that’s the biggest deal and I kind of… I mean I know this is snarky and has smells of sarcasm but when this… I kind of want to tell all the CEO’s out there, remember all those times you told me I couldn’t work from home and now all your employees are working from home? And are you seeing that they’re all able to do the work and meet all the goals that you’ve set out for them? Don’t you feel like you’re a bit of a jerk, all those years telling employees you couldn’t work from home? So to me that’s the biggest one.

It’s a mindset that’s gonna… that now it’s changed for all CEO’s. Basically workers can work from home and get stuff done, even if- and you know this- the kids are home, they’re not in school or whatever, it doesn’t matter. You can still get stuff done and you can meet your goals and you can fundraise and do your marketing and everything else and we all don’t have to be in the office. And that to me is the one thing that I hope going forward is the big… is a big lesson and comes out of this.

I want, I want people to be able to work, work where you’re most comfortable. If you like working in the office, hey go to the office. Maybe you do want to get away from the kids every day. I get it. I’ve got kids. But on the other hand, if you like working at home and that’s your happy place and you can be more productive there, then as a boss you got to let your workers work from where they’re going to be most productive. That’s what you should want. And so that’s what I’m.. that for me is the biggest thing that I hope comes out of this, is working from home.

Nick: I agree 100%. It’s been a work from home for us at the Flutie Foundation. It’s been a bit of a revelation over these past, whatever it is, four months. So I agree with you 100%.

Ephraim: Totally. Thank you very much Nick for appearing on the podcast today. You can connect with Nick on twitter at @nicksava and you can follow the Flutie Foundation at @flutiefdn on Twitter. Nick, thanks very much. Have a great day.

Nick: Thanks so much for having me. Take care.

Ephraim: A pleasure. Have a good one.