Conversation with Steve Orr

Michael Kenyon, President and CEO NACGP

Eddie Thompson:  We have a really special guest with us today, Steve Orr.  Steve is the managing partner of the Orr Group.  I wanted to have a podcast with Steve because he is a gentleman that I really respect.  He’s insightful, obviously intelligent, very capable, and I want our clients and friends to be exposed to the very best in our business.  That’s why we have conversations with industry icons and I would put Steve on that list along with others.  But, Steve, thank you for joining us today, this is a personal pleasure for me.

Steve Orr:  Thank you, Eddie.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to live up to that standard, but I’m going to try!

Eddie:  You’ll be fine!  Let’s begin with your history and then I’ve got a couple questions for you.

Steve:  Sure.  I run a for-profit consulting practice, although we never refer to ourselves as consultants.  We refer to ourselves as embedded partners – we’re exclusively focused on the nonprofit sector, specifically 501c3s, and we are focused on the business of philanthropy.  We are trying to help nonprofit organizations run a better business.  Usually, that comes down to building relationships and fundraising.  But, as you know, there are many, many parts of building relationships and fundraising – from the board to running campaigns, to running galas – all that stuff – including the back-office work like Chief Operating Officer kind of work and technology and so forth.  So, we get into all those elements as a business.  We hire people with lots of experience.  My mission is to help this sector and I come from the for-profit sector myself.  I come from New York’s financial districts with lots of experience there, prior to the 30 years at Orr Group.  I learned a lot in those practices and I would like to think that I’ve been able to bring some of those best practices to our field now.

Eddie:  You have built a great company.  You’ve just done an excellent job.  Let me ask you a couple questions, Steve.  Number one, what is the most important lesson you’ve learned in this industry? 

Steve:  I think in the nonprofit industry, which generally in terms of being on the cutting edge of new business practices or best methodologies for doing things, has not always been where it needs to be.  I’m constantly reminded that we need to really move it forward, really advance the field.  So, whenever I’m working with individual clients – nonprofits, specifically, I’m trying to send that message out.  I’m trying to actually get involved whether it’s database work or building a successful donor base or building a relationship that takes a donor from zero to a hundred.  It is always being mindful that we need to use the current techniques; we need to be smart about it and we need to advance the field.  Again, I come from the for-profit sector, a pretty sophisticated space with the financial work and New York’s fast pace, I’d like to think that I can add value to our space now – not just in finance, but really more in relationship building.  So, I guess lessons learned are that, that was a surprise to me, where the industry was and was not.  I think it’s advanced greatly in the 30 years I’ve been involved, but that’s what’s fun for me and that is a big takeaway.

Eddie:  There’s nothing greater than seeking and aggressively pursuing excellence, which is what I believe you’ve done.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made and what lesson did you learn from it? 

Steve:  So many mistakes Eddie, wow!

Eddie:  Only pick one!

Steve:  I guess when you challenge me like that, it is thinking in any capital campaign, for example, that I am going to be able to help the organization bring a big, major donor across the finish line quickly.  I mean, there are dozens of examples I would be able to give you where someone is in a position to give you a million dollars or a hundred thousand dollars, you know, that’s pretty terrific.  But I’ve learned over and over again that is an enormous mistake to think that it’s going to happen fast.  In other words, taking them from a nice discussion, creating value from the case statement that we bring them, they like it, they’ve been a donor, but for them to get to a major donor level in a capital campaign or any other sort of bigger feat or bigger objective that the organization’s attempting to conclude, it just takes a long time.

So, I have made mistakes in expecting and thinking that’s going to happen in a short period of time.  For example, I’m working on a big whale-size, $5 million dollar transaction right now and it’s in its 18th month, Eddie!  It just takes a lot of time, as you know from your planned giving work.  Usually, when you’re talking about a planned gift, if it’s a blended gift, then you’re getting into the family estate work – it’s very complicated.  I didn’t know that, I had to learn that.

Eddie:  That is so true though, isn’t it?  I’m getting ready to meet with someone who’s going out to ask for a $100 million dollar gift.  I’d caution them don’t expect an answer that day.  Just realize that it’s going to be a blended gift.  It’s going to take a lot of thought with accountants and attorneys involved.

I’ll tell you, Steve, what my perception of you and your firm is that you love and pursue excellence.  That’s rare now.  I appreciate your contribution that you’re bringing to our industry and pursuing excellence – means a lot.

Steve:  Eddie, let me ask you a question, I’m going to turn the tables here.

Eddie:  Sure!

Steve:  Where do you see lack of excellence?  How would you frame that?

Eddie:  Very little planning, no accountability, not having a systematic approach, kind of shooting from the hip, coming in every day trying to figure out what needs to be done today.  I find it’s so much more effective to really have a thoughtful plan each year.  I believe in fundraising strategic planning.  I don’t believe in shooting from the hip, and I’m not talking about institutional planning, I’m talking about fundraising plans.  I think with most capital campaigns, that’s their only approach.  I think they need a good major gift program before they get in a capital campaign.  But, you know all those things.  I’m preaching to the choir there. 

Let me ask you to do something else.  We only have a few more minutes.  Tell me about your firm.  What do you all do?

Steve:  I take a different approach to assisting nonprofit organizations in that what I see is a tremendous amount of turnover in the field, particularly at the executive level – and, also at the relationship-building levels, whether that’s a manager of a gala or the manager of a major gift program or the major gift officers or planned giving officers, all across the board.  As you know, the average life expectancy of a professional in the fundraising field is about 18-24 months.  That’s incredibly short.  That hurts the field.

Eddie:  Yes!

Steve:  That lends itself to lack of excellence because how can you be excellent if your tenure is so short?

Eddie:  Yes!

Steve:  So, what we do as a business, is try to feed into that and remedy that.  I’ve hired about 50 professional fundraisers who come from other fundraising positions, whether their chief development officers, are major gift officers, or event managers or you name it.  They’re able to step into a situation either on an interim basis when someone leaves or on a more permanent basis where we become part of the team.  So, Eddie, we call that the embedded partnership model.

Orr Group is in a position to start immediately with organizations that all of a sudden are confronted with not having a Chief Development Officer.  For example, I personally have played the interim CEO role for six organizations, on average for a year to two years each because the leadership change like that is so difficult to manage.  I become an expert in that type of management and usually that comes with restructuring the business as well.

It’s putting talented people into organizations to fill those empty spaces. That’s what it’s all about.  And, we can do that in a whole variety of areas.  We can do outsourced HR, we can do outsourced recruiting, we can do outsourced annual gifts, outsourced foundation grant writing, outsourced board management and recruitment, all across the board.  It’s fascinating, it’s fun, it’s all related, and it all has to do with the quality of our people, 100%.

Eddie:  All right, folks, I wanted you all to meet Steve.  He’s a good guy.  Look him up on his website.  Very capable professional, a good man.  I think that’s the best compliment I can give you!  Steve, thank you for your time today.

Steve:  Thank you so much!

About Steve Orr.

As co-founder and Managing Partner of Orr Group, Steve has facilitated the growth and evolution of the firm to its current position as a national leader in the nonprofit consulting sector.  Steve began his career on Wall Street as an investment banker specializing in the financial sector at Goldman Sachs. In 1991, inspired by the charitable efforts of his parents, Steve founded Orr Group with his wife, Carol, to help nonprofits fundraise more effectively.

Drawing on his investment banking and finance background, Steve brings a problem-solving approach, a focus on metrics, and an outcomes-driven perspective to the nonprofit sector. Steve is committed to enhancing philanthropy using innovative technologies and approaches developed in the business world to disrupt the established ways of working and encourage experimentation.

Steve leads strategy and implementation teams for Orr Group’s partners, frequently serving in the role of Executive Director or Chief Executive Officer during times of transition. In addition to providing fresh thinking and visionary leadership, he drives transformational change to help nonprofits achieve their missions. He draws on his 30 plus years of experience to establish and build trust with staff, management, and boards, as well as to drive philanthropic revenue growth.

In 1994, he also founded Youth, Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps NYC grassroots youth programs expand through fundraising, board placements, training, and direct grants and led the organization for 20 years, during which time Youth INC partnered with 130 youth programs in NYC, placed 140 executives on its program boards, and raised over $50 million.

Conversations with Industry Icons Podcast Series

With this podcast series, Eddie Thompson, Founder and CEO of Thompson & Associates, brings incredible insight and inspiring stories interviewing leaders from different perspectives of the fundraising community: higher education, healthcare, consultants, academia and more!  Hear these professionals tell stories of lessons they’ve learned during their distinguished careers.  We hope these conversations inspire you to continue to strive for excellence in this noble occupation of fundraising!