A Conversation with the Leader of a Dynamic Veterans Service Organization

By susanlienau | May 22, 2020 | Uncategorized

From the desk of: 

Robert C. Happy, Jr. – President, Averill Fundraising Solutions

Bob Happy has more than 35 years of experience providing expert leadership and direction to clients across the not-for-profit sector. During his career, Bob has served more than 2,000 clients and has guided them to raise more than $3,500,000,000.

On April 7, 2020, I had the opportunity to sit down and have a (virtual!) conversation with Michael Abrams, the Founder and President of FourBlock. This dynamic organization is dedicated to equipping veterans for a successful transition to life in business. Since its founding over a decade ago, FourBlock has graduated more than 2,000 veterans who are now employed at 400 of America’s best companies.

I was invited to join Mike as COVID-19 was beginning to place its grip on the world, providing the opportunity to discuss strategies and tactics for successful fundraising amid COVID-19 and what makes an effective fundraiser and salesperson.

At the helm of FourBlock is Michael Abrams. Mike joined the United States Marine Corps shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He served on active duty for eight years which included deployment to Afghanistan and service with an infantry company as the artillery forward observer. Shortly after leaving active duty, Mike founded FourBlock.  While leading FourBlock to provide opportunities to our veterans, Mike continues to serve his country as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves.

I am delighted to share the recording of this podcast with you as we as a nation pause to remember those who have served, and fallen, for their country.

Please enjoy!

For more of our thoughts on engaging supporters during COVID-19, please click here.

Averill Fundraising Solutions stands with you through these challenging times, and is available to talk with you about the thoughts outlined in this memo, YOUR thoughts, and all your advancement needs. Email us at info@averillsolutions.com or call us at 888-321-1810.

If you’d prefer to read our conversation with FourBlock, we’ve provided a transcription below:


Mike Abrams: Hello everyone. Welcome to the FourBlock Podcast, a show where we examine veteran career transition and the military-civilian divide in the workplace. General Charles Krulak coined the term “Three Block War” to describe the nature of 21st century military service defined by peace-keeping, humanitarian aid and full combat. But what happens next? Veterans are often unprepared to return home and begin new, meaningful careers. And we call this the Fourth Block. I’m Mike Abrams, founder of FourBlock and Afghanistan veteran.

Mike Abrams: In this week we welcome Mr. Bob Happy. Bob has 35 years of experience providing leadership and direction to clients across the not for profit sector, during his career, Bob has served more than 2000 clients and has guided them to raise more than $2 billion. And that is billion with a B. Before forming Averill Solutions, Bob served as the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the nation’s largest fundraising firm. He is a recognized industry leader, sought-after speaker and trainer and instructor. He has mentored hundreds of professional fundraising practitioners and many have joined him at Averill Fundraising Solutions. Bob also graduated from Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. So, Bob, great to have you on the show.

Bob Happy: Mike, thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here.

Mike Abrams: I want to start first with just how we met, because I think there’s a lesson in that. This is going back last year sometime. As someone in the not for profit world, many of us who found an organization or are currently leading an organization in the not for profit world or whatever, you’re so focused on the mission or you started it in a service oriented way and you never really think about how to fund-raise. And as your organization grows, your role within the organization becomes less service delivery or service oriented and more management and more fundraising. So, one of the things I did was just realize that I needed help. I needed expertise in just how to do this better. And I literally just went to Google and I searched who are the top fundraising firms in the United States. And an article popped up and I just went to their websites and I emailed the top five that they had listed in this article.

Mike Abrams: And Bob, your firm was one of those top five. And I think it was Susan, one of your colleagues emailed me back the same day and then another firm emailed me back a couple of days later, but you just were… Your firm responded, we hopped on the phone and we just talked. Come to find out, you have a summer home or weekend home about 10 minutes from where I grew up, we had an interest in military history and I remember getting off the call and I was just thinking, “Man, Bob’s a great guy.” So, I guess there’s a lesson there in just not being afraid to ask for help and also on the other side of it just being responsive.

Bob Happy: Yeah, I think responsiveness in this business, this is a highly competitive business. All businesses are. I consider myself working with not for profit organizations, a strategist and a coach and a leader and a guide and a mentor, but I’m also a salesman. And at our firm if we have an inquiry, we have to respond within 24 hours. And if we talk to somebody today, today’s Tuesday, we have to get them a proposal within a week. And I think that’s important. I think it’s a cultural identifier if you will. And I think it penetrates when that occurs. So it’s one of our maxims from the business side as far as our approach to sales and getting in there and getting contracts because that’s how we stay in business.

Mike Abrams: How did you get started in this industry?

Bob Happy: Well, I fell into it quite honestly, Mike. I went to school in Connecticut at Fairfield, I grew up in Connecticut. Fairfield U, a great Jesuit school. And after college, I went over to Europe for eight weeks and I got home and my dad looked at me and said, “He’s back and the only difference now is he’s eating all the food.” And I went down to Fairfield U, there was a priest there, a Jesuit priest who headed the career placement department and he knew a gentleman in New York who had a fundraising company. And I went down to see this gentleman and got hired and got to work. This was a firm that did a lot of work with faith-based groups and churches. And you really learn the business down in the church basement. And as a result of that experience, I think you learn… I consider myself an uncredentialed student of…a professor if you will, of human nature, because I’ve worked with so many organizations and tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of prospects and millions of prospects in some situations.

So, that experience has taught me about how people react in the context of when they’re asked for money and it gives you a little bit of an opportunity to see around the corner. So, the long and short of it is I fell into it, but I’ve enjoyed the work. You get to work with the best people in a given community. If you’re in a small community working at the community hospital, you’re working with the leadership people in that town. And of course, if you’re working at an organization like FourBlock with the work that you do Mike, you meet great people. And that’s an added benefit to this job and this life that I’ve had.

Mike Abrams: What would you say are the core attributes of being a good salesperson or being a good fundraiser?

Bob Happy: I think they’re sort of aligned, what I tell people is… When you’re talking about asking people for money, I think it’s the same thing as asking for the order when you’re a salesperson. And I think that the little things really make a big difference. I worked with someone a long time ago, our offices were in the Empire State Building and she would size up candidates for employment by looking at their shoes and looking at their hands. And if their shoes were shined and their hands were clean and their fingernails were clean, that was a plus.

Mike Abrams: Wow!

Bob Happy: So, little things like that are a big deal. So, as you talk to people, your body language is terribly important, you’ve got to have that salesperson’s handshake. I recall when my daughter was in elementary school in New York, she walked up the front steps every day – she turned 18 a couple of weeks ago – she walked up the front steps every day and she had to shake hands with the head and look the head of school in the eye and say, “Good morning Mrs. Alvar”. And that child has no difficulty introducing herself to people. So, it was imbued in her early.

So, I think when your body language, your stance, if you will, you’ve got to be an enthusiastic person when you’re making a case for an organization like FourBlock or anything else, you can’t be apologetic, you can’t be, “Gee, I’m sorry to do this to you.” You have to say, “This is a great opportunity for you to learn about FourBlock,” or whatever organization you’re representing. So I think those two things are aligned. Being a good salesperson and being a successful fundraiser as well. Sort of the same attributes, I think. You can find those attributes for good fundraisers and good salespeople.

Mike Abrams: And many people working with a lot of veterans, they balk at the language of selling. I want to be a salesman or networking. Networking seems to be a dirty word right now, but it’s really about… It’s relationship building, but it’s building trust. Whether or not you’re going in for a job interview, you’re going to ask someone to marry you, or you’re going to sell them something or ask them for money. People have to trust you.

Bob Happy: And I think that oftentimes in this business, I will have repeat clients. And I’ll go to see somebody who I saw four or five years ago and I might’ve interviewed them as part of a feasibility study or something for an organization and I say, “How are we doing in fundraising at X, Y, Z organization?” And this has happened to me a few times. A person puts down his piece of paper and says, “You know what Bob? The last person I saw to talk about my support of this institution, was you.” So, I think that stewardship is a very important part of the process of fundraising. What is stewardship? That is somebody gives you money, you keep in touch with them, you tell them what you did with the money, you raised the money, here’s what you did with the money and I’m going to ask you for some more money.

So, by having that kind of a conversation, you’re building trust and you’re being accountable. And I think that’s terribly important, especially when you’re getting people to give you money. You can’t just disappear. It happens too frequently. So, it’s easy for people to separate themselves because maybe they drop a handwritten note in the mail, maybe they’re making a phone call just out of the blue, or maybe they’re doing other things that are part of a stewardship plan to keep people connected. But it’s all about accountability and building trust and having some relatively easy access next time around.

Mike Abrams: Yeah. I like the term stewardship. And what about even before I guess point of sale? So if someone’s starting out and they’re prospecting, they’re trying to start these relationships, how do you go from zero? How do you go from reaching out to someone or meeting someone for the first time and then I guess building that relationship and having some stewardship to the point where there is enough trust where you can make a sale or you can get an interview?

Bob Happy: I think that in my experience Mike, what you don’t say is just as important as what you do say. And one of the things I counsel people to say is… One of the operating principles that I would counsel clients and organizations would be, “Don’t ask a question that you don’t want an answer to.” So, I remember when my daughter was in school, one day my assistant came in and she said, “Christine’s on the phone, she’s the head of development at the school. And Katherine is fine.” She was about four at the time. And I got on the phone with Christine, who said, “Mrs. Alvar, would like you to chair the lower school annual fund this year and next year.” She said, “For two years.” And I said…. What do you say to that type of an entreaty? So I said okay.

Bob Happy: So I think if you want to try to hook people, I use that expression guardedly, but you and I know each other now. I think you’d say, “I’d like to meet with you.” If you call somebody and say, “Would you like to have lunch?” I think nine out of 10 times, they’re going to say, “No, I don’t want to have lunch.” Even a month ago before this COVID-19 hit, because people are busy. But if you say, “I’d like to meet with you,” or somebody calls on your behalf and says, as you’re traveling the country, “Mike is going to be here in Chicago or Seattle or San Francisco, wherever it might be. And we want to meet with you.” Then I think that’s an assertive stance.

Again, I think that’s the one that’s going to get you the results that you want. And you’re going to do pretty well. You’re going to bat .300, you’re going to bat .350, which gets you in the hall of fame. So, for every 10 calls you make, you’re going to get three or three and a half, or 2.9 or 0.29 visits. So, that’s pretty good success rate.

Mike Abrams: Well, we had a saying on recruiting duty in the Marine Corps that, you got to get the “no’s” if you want to get the “yeses.”

Bob Happy: That’s right. I think that’s true. I think that’s true here too.

Mike Abrams: That’s a good point for people. Is that you’re going to fail. You’re going to fail and it’s okay. Just because someone says no to you right now, doesn’t mean they can’t say yes later.

Bob Happy: Right. And I think usually no means not now. It rarely doesn’t mean no, absolutely not. I think it means not now.

Mike Abrams: What was the hardest sell you ever made?

Bob Happy: That’s a good question. I work with such great organizations, it’s always… No, I shouldn’t say it has been easy. This is not an easy job, but they sell themselves. If you put the right machinery around the campaign, if you give people the right data as far as research and things, if you don’t put clients in situations where they’re going to struggle, that they know that the person that you’re going to see knows you’re going to be asking them for money. And so it’s more of a close than it is an initial call. We do a lot of vetting and say, “Mike is going to come see you, Mike is going to ask you for $100,000, what are you going to say?” So you put the client in a position where he or she is going to be successful. But when you think about organizations like your own and others that we work with, whether they’re human service organizations, today there’s been an outpouring of support for human service organizations across this country because of COVID-19. Healthcare, another enormous outpouring of support, faith-based organizations, because people do look to God when these kinds of crises hit.

Bob Happy: So, there’s a step-by-step approach that we counsel clients to take regardless of what type of organization that they are. But they do, I think to a great degree they sell themselves. Our role is to put a structure in place and to make sure they’re being assertive enough when it comes to asking for the money, because rarely do people get angry or disappointed if you ask them for a big gift. If they can’t do it, they’ll tell you. When you ask for money regardless of the nature of the organization, you have some very, very candid conversations with people. And that provides you with a lot of good intel as you move the conversation forward.

Mike Abrams: And we talked before about this notion of instilling a culture of philanthropy across your team, where some of these smaller organizations, maybe the executive director or they have one person, a development officer who is responsible for the fundraising and no one else really thinks about it. But this notion of instilling that culture where everyone has in the back of their mind or has a mission of selling the organization and helping to drive some revenue I thought was something that we had talked about before that’s very, very important. Everyone on that team, if you’re managing a not for profit is a fundraiser.

Bob Happy: That’s right. And regardless of whether you’re a small shop or whether you’re a hospital that’s got 10,000 employees, the only way to instill that is from the top-down. So you need leadership from the CEO, you need to provide instruction to people about what exactly their role might be in the context of philanthropy. There’re not many people out there that like to ask other people for money, there’s not too many of those folks. There’s even fewer that come by it naturally. There’s a role for people who want to introduce people to the organization, there’s a role for those who want to identify prospective donors and there’s a role for people want to volunteer. Whether that means volunteering at an event or stuffing some envelopes, it could mean any of a number of things. But if you get people involved, they’re going to want to become more involved because you’ve had some success and success breeds success in this business as well.

So that’s a very important part of… There’re some places that have built this culture to a degree that they’re known for in a given community. For example, in Philadelphia, I’ve worked in Philadelphia for a number of organizations. I’ve lived there and it’s a great city. There’s the University of Pennsylvania Medicine called Penn Med, short. And people who are in the fundraising business down there refer to “Penn-evy” because they’re so envious of the way Penn Med does it. Because they built this great culture, they have a great training program in their fundraising office. And you’re fortunate enough to hire somebody out of there, you know you’ve got somebody who really knows how to do this and is good at it. So, that’s developed in such a way that it’s sort of their brand, which is neat when you think about it. A lot of work, it took a lot of time to get there.

Mike Abrams: It’s an attitude. Right? It’s an attitude that everyone can do it and everyone can be successful in it. And I think there’s hope for some folks listening to this, if you absolutely hate asking people for money or selling or trying to network, you can be trained to do it and to do it well, but it starts first with your attitude.

Bob Happy: It really is all about the attitude. I think you’ve got to convince yourself that this is something you’re going to do and do well. Like my mother used to say, “stand up straight.” You’re going to be leaning forward and you’re going to be enthusiastic about this, because this is a terrific organization that you’re repping. As you said Mike, maybe you’ll trip a couple of times coming out of the blocks, but eventually you’ll good at it and you’ll enjoy it. It’s a very, very rewarding experience to have somebody say yes and go back to the office with the paperwork all signed and have everybody celebrate that kind of success. But if you listen and learn and try it and have some assistance, have some help, maybe have somebody sitting in the second chair, then you’re going to be successful.

Mike Abrams: In one way, you can reframe this as well is that, by approaching another organization or a company and asking them to contribute financially to your organization, you’re actually helping them be able to contribute and give back in a meaningful way as well. So, it’s not like you’re just asking and taking from another organization, but another way of sort of looking at it is you’ve got this impact that you want to make, you’re really inviting and trying to bring another organization into that so they can contribute to that impact and feel good about themselves and make the world a better place. So it’s almost like you’re not just asking and taking, you’re saying, “Collaborate, let’s join together, let’s contribute the resources that we have to bring to bear our ability to make this type of impact.”

Bob Happy: That’s a huge part of it. And as much as the person’s name on a building is important for some people, the opportunity that is created by co-branding with that not for profit organization, whether you’re an individual or a foundation or a corporation, is really significant. And it’s a value add as far as the brand is concerned. And you want to celebrate that person’s generosity or that company’s generosity, make a hero out of them. And it’s not that hard to do. You’d put a press release together or you make an announcement at a big event and that person goes away feeling pretty good about what they’ve done in the context of making a gift to your organization. And that is also I think part of what we talked about earlier, Mike. It’s about stewardship and accountability. So, you’ve got the person on the stage, he’s actually made the gift. Maybe you got a big check presentation thing going on or something like that, but that’s about stewardship and accountability as well.

Mike Abrams: And you mentioned earlier what’s going on right now with COVID-19. Is philanthropy going up or is it going down? Is it harder to raise money during this time?

Bob Happy: Well, this is an unprecedented time. We all know that. But I would make a couple of points about this. Everybody that I talk to who’s in a fundraising job right now has never been busier. Academic medicine, higher education, human services, faith-based organizations, people are reaching out to their supporters. Their supporters are reaching out to them because people want to know if you’re a board member or a supporter of an organization, How are you guys doing? How are you doing with these market fluctuations? How are you doing in the context of social distancing and social isolation? So, there’s a lot of money that’s in the arena right now. Foundations have made some extraordinary contributions and gifts to organizations. They’ve made new opportunities available. One of our clients just applied to a foundation in New York, we were able to pull the handles on a couple of things and get them an invitation after this foundation made a $50 million tranche of money available for healthcare and other services primarily in the city, but having to do with food insecurity, pre-existing conditions and the likes.

Bob Happy: So there’s a lot of money that’s being put out there. We see almost in every community in the country, the local civic leaders, the community foundation, the big corporations, the civic leaders of those communities are banding together to try to address what we know are going to be some very significant issues with regard to need in housing and as I mentioned, food insecurity and those other issues. I think it’s a little bit too early to tell about what kind of an effect it’s going to have on philanthropy. Back in 2008, 2009, entirely different circumstances. There was no pandemic involved, but the S&P went down about 38% and philanthropy went down by about 7%. So, you and I were chatting before we got on about the market today, it’s up today, it was up yesterday, but this thing has to play itself out in other ways.

We would never counsel a month ago. We would never say to Mike Abrams that we should Zoom and solicit somebody for money. We would say, “Mike, let’s get on the plane or let’s get on the train to Manhattan or whatever it might be and have a conversation.” That’s not going to happen for a while. And I think we’re going to figure that out because we’re doing a lot more of this. Everybody’s Zooming, everybody’s using the platforms that are available. We’re going to start briefing prospects on things, plans that include what we’re doing every day to help people and what our strategic plan is. What was our strategic priority? It was a new building or new facilities or whatever it might be when COVID-19 took hold. It’s really only been about a month. Right? I think it was March 11th, I think it’s the night.

As I remember, I was supposed to go to spring training with my son and the 11th was the night that the NBA canceled, I think. And then I canceled my trip. And then the next day MLB canceled. It hasn’t been that long, it seems like it’s been forever.

Mike Abrams: It does. It seems like it’s been a while.

Bob Happy: I was chatting with a client earlier about a TV station. I think it’s in Ohio. Instead of just putting down in the lower right hand part of the screen, the time and the temperature, they also put the day and they said, today’s Tuesday. Because I find myself asking people, “Hey Mike, what’s today again? What day is it today?” Because they’re all running together. So we’re in uncharted territory from that perspective. But the response to date that we’ve been able to measure has really been incredible. We got a lot of navigation to do, there’s no precedent for where we are.  I’m not sure about what I just said really about Zoom interaction, I think that’s my instinct coming forward, but I think that philanthropy plays such a huge role in this world.

Bob Happy: These are the organizations that really knit together the fabric of the community. What would we do without the hospital? What would veterans transitioning from active duty do without FourBlock? And people know that when times get tough that not for profit organizations are probably in greater need. So I think we have to be hopeful about the path ahead, because I think there’s not much of a choice here today, we’re being hopeful.

Mike Abrams: So what would you say to an organization who started out the year with not a lot of money in the bank, they were counting on some cash flows coming in Q2, Q3 in order to maintain their operations and now it’s likely that that money is not going to come in given the situation and they’re panicking. They’re saying, “What are we going to do? We need to raise X amount to keep our operations going over the next three to four months. We don’t know what to do.” What would you say to them?

Bob Happy: One of the things that we’ve been counseling clients to do is if you look at the behavior of your donors, most of them give in December, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most people believe that’s because of the tax ramifications. In fact, studies show that among reasons for giving, taxes come out in a list of 10 reasons, about nine or 10. The ninth or 10th reason. People give because they want to make a difference, people give because they want to help, they want to give because they want to make sure that the playing field is leveled and the under served people get scholarships at the private school or whatever it might be.

Bob Happy: So what we’re suggesting is, examine your list, look at the behavior of your donors. Most organizations raise most of their money… I shouldn’t say most of their money. Their biggest month is December. Write to those December donors and say, “You can make a bigger difference now, than you could have waited, because we need the money now.” And you’d wouldn’t say it maybe in those exact terms. I think that a lot of people are going to respond to that. In fact, our clients are doing it and they are responding. And I also think that those folks are going to give again at the end of the year, because of what we talked about earlier. We took the money, we did what we said we were going to do with it. So we built trust, we built accountability and people are going to continue to give. Your best prospect is a current donor.

Bob Happy: And when you do capital campaigns, rather than always looking at the annual fund and trying to determine if somebody who gives you a thousand bucks a year, could be asked for $25,000 for the campaign. So I think that’s a very practical, granular action that a not for profit can take. And I think it’ll help its cash flow. I don’t think it’s going to affect the overall revenue, because I think a lot of these folks, again, are going to give again at the end of the year.

Mike Abrams: That makes a lot of sense. And Bob, what would you say to someone who wants to get better at this? They’re looking for some extra help, they’re looking for a book to read, what would you suggest?

Bob Happy: I think that a book on sales is a good place to start. I think you have to… What I say to people is, because it’s true. I learn in this business every day. So, being a good listener, listening to what people have to say in the context of whether you’re planning campaign or whether you’re trying to sell a contract or whatever it might be. But I think it’s a good idea to get a book on sales. I think it talks a lot… Books on sales will say a lot of the things that I’ve said here today. Shine your shoes, stand up straight, nice handshake, smile, your body language. If you’re wringing your hands and stuff, nobody’s going to buy a car from you. Right? And nobody’s going to… “How’s this car?” “Oh, it’s all right, it’s okay.” It’s like that commercial, “How’s the doctor?” “Oh, he’s okay.” You don’t want an okay doctor, you want a really great doctor.

Mike Abrams: Right, right. He’s okay.

Bob Happy: I think that would be helpful for people. There’s a lot of opportunities out there too with the professional associations that are associated with fundraising. There’s the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy, that’s sort of the trade association of hospital fundraisers. There’s the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, that’s the sort of the trade group if you will, professional society for higher education fundraisers. There are meetings that are regional all over the country, that those groups and others hold that have a lot of instructional opportunities for people to get better at this. So it takes a long time to develop the experience that I have with 2000 clients and three and a half billion dollars. I think about if we had that kind of data and things back when I started off in this, maybe I’d be a little bit better at this today, but it’s a learning experience for everybody, for me and I think if you have that kind of an open mind and then you’re just somebody who’s thirsty for knowledge, that’s going to serve you well in this business.

Mike Abrams: And Bob, in closing this out, everything that you just described is things that were taught at boot camp. It’s having bearing, it’s looking someone in the eye, it’s having a firm handshake, it’s standing tall, it’s being confident, it’s being trustworthy, it’s taking care of your people, your clients, having stewardship. Everything you just said are basic leadership traits and principles that military folks learn at boot camp. So if you are a veteran listening to this and you don’t think that you could be good at sales or in fundraising or asking people for money or anything like that, you have the skill sets, you have the building blocks to successful. You just got to apply it in a different setting.

Bob Happy: I think that’s so true too. There was a company back when I first got into this business, they hired almost exclusively retired military officers and only at the rank of Colonel and North. Think about that.

Mike Abrams: Wow! Yeah.

Bob Happy: That would be a pretty good company. I think. But I think it’s so true what you say about bearing and… My dad enlisted six weeks after Pearl Harbor and every Sunday he would be up at the kitchen table shining his shoes. He was polished everyday. He was an enlisted man, but I think that the army gave him so much to build upon. He was a great salesman, my dad, after he graduated from UConn on the GI Bill in 1951. So he brought a lot of that to the table when he was working for a living too. So I don’t have any doubt that military men can be successful in this business and many others as well.

Mike Abrams: So Bob, I know you’re a busy guy, but I really appreciate your time. You’ve been such a great help to me over the past year in just thinking through some things and just getting smarter on this and it’s nice to have you 10 minutes away as well from where I live.

Bob Happy: Mike, thanks so much for the opportunity. It’s great to see you again.

Mike Abrams: Likewise, thanks again for your time Bob. And thanks everyone for tuning in, if you want to share your story or ask us a question about the military-civilian divide, send your comments to podcast@fourblock.org. Also don’t forget to subscribe, rate and review the podcast and we will see you next week.

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