Each year, eight to ten nonprofit leaders representing their organizations get on a stage in front of more than 350 people and make the pitch.
In three minutes or less they must clearly and compellingly convey the mission and purpose of their organization and a plan for the prize money totaling $25,000. Without props. And without notes.
It’s tense, and rather terrifying, but the prizes for the Fast Pitch from Social Venture Partners Pittsburgh are well worth it and the coaching they receive along the way? That could be the best part of all.
Social Venture Partners (SVP) Pittsburgh is a group that is committed to cultivating nonprofits in the region. As the name suggests, it’s all about partnership, “building powerful relationships to tackle our community’s social challenges.”
In pursuit of this mission, SVP works year-round with many organizations, but also focuses on two major events each year. The spring event, Fast Pitch, takes place on Tuesday, March 3rd at The Circuit Center on the South Side. It’s an uplifting evening that showcases eight organizations doing inspiring work in the Pittsburgh region, each making their case for prize money and community support.
Every year, Fast Pitch begins with the event committee selecting 12 organizations from dozens of applications. “We are looking for nonprofits that are socially innovative, which is evident in many ways,” says Elizabeth Visnic, director of SVP Pittsburgh. “It may be reaching an audience that has been traditionally hard to engage. It may be driving collective action that breaks through traditional barriers. More generally, it may be implementing products, processes, technologies or ideas that remarkably influence change for others.”
There are many ways that nonprofits differentiate their organizations—a fact that has been made clear by the diverse range of participants and winners over the competition’s five-year history in Pittsburgh.
Once the organizations have been selected for Fast Pitch, the eight-week coaching process begins. Each organization is assigned two coaches, and they work tirelessly together to perfect their pitches. Eventually, the participants are narrowed down to eight finalists who pitch on the night of the event.
Over two months of meetings and practice, Fast Pitch coaches work closely with participants from each of the organizations to fine-tune their messages, choose the right direction and language, and do it all in a very fast three minutes. And while each participant has a unique experience, many of the coaches echo similar stories about the organizations they support. Here are four key takeaways from the SVP Fast Pitch coaching process:
#1 Tell a story.
One of the first things that participants have to understand is that, although they are making a business pitch, their task is really about storytelling. “You have to tell a story and make an emotional connection. But you have to do it in three minutes,” says Donnie Wagner, an experienced Fast Pitch coach and SVP Pittsburgh board member.
“The participants are getting up on stage with no visual aids, no PowerPoint, no prompts, just themselves,” he adds. “You have to be captivating from the very first sentence.” Creating that connection using nothing but your words—in less than three minutes—is one of the toughest parts of the competition, but Donnie emphasizes how important the story is to creating a pitch that resonates long after the night of the event.
#2 Find the essence.
Pat Calhoun has been a coach with Fast Pitch for three years, and she has seen the transformations that take place as participants and coaches work hard to figure out exactly what their story should be. To her, there is one key that always makes a pitch turn the corner. “I think the greatest value in the coaching process is helping to distill all the wonderful work—all the hundreds of things that an organization does—down to the essence of it.”
Pat understands why the organizations want to say it all: “It’s all important,” she says. “But the average person can’t process all of that and walk away with a strong understanding of exactly what it is you do. You’ve got to simplify it.”
#3 Go one step beyond development.
“Until fairly recently,” says Pat, “not a lot of nonprofits were tracking their outcomes. It’s happening more now, but it’s not easy.” Fast Pitch coaches help organizations put more focus on results and impact. “It can’t always be about your mission or how many people you serve,” she says. “You also have to let people know how you are accomplishing your goals.”
From data to anecdotes, these results take different forms. But they are always meaningful in helping potential donors and volunteers understand how their time, money and effort is not just working toward a good cause. It’s making a difference.