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.

Pat adds that it’s especially meaningful to the audience in the room—the group choosing a winner on the night of the event: “It’s a way of helping everyone there realize that they have something of value to give that will help your organization. When you create a pitch that helps them feel that, you compel action.”

#4 Speak a universal language.
Like any organization, the Fast Pitch participants have a deeper understanding of their work and their constituents than the general public. “Almost every nonprofit has their own language,” says Tessa Nicholson, “and one of the greatest benefits that coaches bring is the perspective of an engaged outsider.” Tessa has been closely involved with all things Fast Pitch since its inception, including acting as a coach for the last two years. She has seen dozens of organizations translate their “insider language” into messaging that is meaningful to the masses.

“In a three-minute pitch, you can’t waste a word,” adds Tessa. “You have to express what you do and why it matters to everyone in the room, not just the people who instantly connect with your mission. We can listen and give feedback that helps them do that.”

Maura Rogers.
Maura Rodgers.

The other side of coaching
Maura Rodgers is Executive Director of the Miracle League of South Hills. She participated in—and won—Fast Pitch in 2013, bringing home $20,000 to build a fully accessible playground (which will be completed this spring) in addition to the organization’s existing accessible baseball field.

Maura discusses how the Fast Pitch coaching process helped her hone Miracle League of South Hills’ message and make it meaningful to a broader audience. “We realized that we needed to help people understand that what we do is bigger than baseball. Before Fast Pitch, we didn’t really know how to do that.”

When Maura first began practicing the pitch with her coaches, she was about one minute too long and was focusing on accessibility. (The Miracle League is an organized baseball league for special needs children and adults. The field is fully accessible, and everyone can participate.) And although accessibility was certainly important, it didn’t communicate the full reach and power of the organization—nor did it differentiate it enough.

For Maura and the Miracle League of South Hills, the perfect pitch required changing the conversation: “It’s not about baseball, or even accessibility,” she says. “It’s about changing how children relate to each other, and ultimately, how adults do, too. Our work had always been doing that, but we didn’t know how to talk about it.”

Eventually, Maura and her coaches landed on the right story to tell, they found the true essence of what the organization does, they included points about impact, and they spoke in a way that was meaningful to everyone, not just baseball lovers. “Our biggest challenge—how to share our message in a way that goes beyond sports and recreation—became our greatest strength,” says Maura.

This year’s first place winner at Fast Pitch will receive $15,000 to put back into their organization. And while only one pitch wins, all the organizations that compete get eight weeks of invaluable coaching, feedback and practice honing their message. In the end, all of the participants are in a much better position to present themselves to key audiences and build on the great work they’re already doing.

“Fast Pitch participants tell us that the training they receive helps them target their messages more directly to potential funders, beneficiaries and the community,” says Elizabeth Visnic. “They receive the tools and exposure needed to improve their communication skills, grow their networks, increase their fundraising success and elevate their profile in the community.”

Maura Rodgers can attest to this: “It’s a lot bigger than three minutes,” she says. “I can’t think of a meeting I’ve had since then where I didn’t use part of the pitch. It’s about building a stronger community of people that lift one another up. That’s what we’re doing, and that’s what Fast Pitch does, too.”

Fast Pitch takes place on March 3rd, and the event is open to the public. You can purchase your tickets online today.

Hailing from northwestern PA, Deanna has made the transition from country to city life. She earnestly covers all the fun and intriguing stories that Pittsburgh has to offer. And when she's not writing, you might find her running the streets of the East End or cooking big meals in her tiny kitchen.