The Build #30: Cause

Cause. It’s what drives you. It’s the reason you make the choices you make.

James Brobyn found a cause in his work as a helicopter crew chief and infantry officer for the United States Marine Corps. Then, something happened that would change his life — leading him to leave the military and enter the nonprofit world. Today, he’s leading a company designed to help nonprofits solve complex technology problems so they can focus on their own causes.

It’s the story of CauseEngine on The Build.


Announcer: [00:00:00] From 2820 radio in Philadelphia. It's the build conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators about their dreams, their triumphs, and their challenges. 
Joe Taylor: [00:00:13] Cause. It's what drives you. It's the reason you make the choices you make. James Brobyn found a cause and his work as a helicopter crew chief and an infantry officer for the United States Marine Corps, then something happened that changed his life.
Leading him to leave the military and enter the non-profit world .Today, he's leading a company designed to help nonprofits solve complex technology problems so they can focus on their own causes. It's the story of the Cause Engine up next on The Build. 
Announcer: [00:00:47] The Build is made possible with support from 2820 Press. Providing business consulting and content strategy services to customer obsessed companies nationwide. 
Joe Taylor: [00:01:00] It's The Build, I'm Joe Taylor Jr. Joined this week by James Brobyn co-founder and CEO of Cause Engine here in Philadelphia. Welcome to the show. 
James Brobyn: [00:01:14] Hey Joe. It was great to be here. 
Joe Taylor: [00:01:15] So you have a very interesting intersection of experiences that brings you to this role, military non-profit. And now startup founder, this is an interesting space in which to sit. Not many people have visibility into all three of those worlds. So we'll delve into that in a little bit. But for our listeners who aren't familiar, tell us a little bit about Cause Engine, what you do, who you do it for and who you try to serve.
James Brobyn: [00:01:44] Sure. So really looking forward to getting to some of those questions, it has been a very interesting road so far and looking forward to the road forward. Because there's a simplest form is on demand talent for the modern nonprofit. And we do that in two ways, but an online freelance management system for project based work, we vet high quality talent.
And connect them into the non-profits who wouldn't necessarily be able to access those skills in a cost effective and efficient way. And then we also have some amazing people coming in as professionals that we're vetting that are coming from big agencies that are coming from big consulting firms.
So we've actually started putting together what we call a network based consulting, basically deploying small teams of three to four, really high quality people. Imagine a chief marketing officer, a CFO, a COO, and outsourcing that to us. So that, you know, a nonprofit founder, a CEO has some of the best talent available to them at a fraction of the cost.
But, you know, for people that have incredible skill sets, doing work for an organization at quarter of the price of a full-time employee, you get pretty good output on that. And frankly, it's a really efficient way for these organizations to utilize the resources and get better results. So, and the nice part there is for those long-term and engagements, because we have about 80 vetted pros on our freelance management system.
We're able to, those teams actually able to dip into a deep bullpen for maybe they need developers, maybe the copywriters, maybe they need graphic designers. So it's a nice actually tying together. So both the teams extend their skill sets, but also the non-profits can maintain the work of those teams after that engagement ends, by using the freelance management system. So it's a nice kind of end to end solution for talent. 
Joe Taylor: [00:03:19] It sounds like you sit, kind of, in between the traditional staffing agency model and the freelance talent platforms like Upwork. So tell me what you offer for your clients really on both sides of that equation that weren't being met, what needs weren't being met by those existing models? 
James Brobyn: [00:03:39] So go with the freelance management or the freelancer or oDesk kinda model. No one's happy with that model. Like it is a meat market. So if you're the client, you don't know what you're getting, you don't know who you're getting. You don't know if you're gonna get a graphic designer from some other country that steals a logo from some other business and you don't even know the risk you're taking with that.
On the freelancer side there we hear consistently from our pros, they hate it. They don't get paid very well. They're competing internationally. It's a race to the bottom cost-wise and quality-wise frankly. So no one really wins in that situation. And it's a really imperfect way to resource it, especially when you're talking about the skill sets and, and frankly, the business objectives that you want to reach on the staffing model staffing is a really interesting challenge because I think a lot of people focused on staffing around like temp.
Sometimes there's outsource CFO wages, things like that. But unless you build a team to actually deploy as to be that back office, to be more than just a single entity, that's attached. It doesn't really feel like they're a part of the team and a lot gets missed there. Kind of find that intersection where the client's happy freelancers fascialist as we call them or getting meaningful, high-quality work in a consistent way.
It's a nice mix between the parties where everyone's kind of happy. And it's a nice, it's a nice mix between all those parties, because ultimately this, this new economy that we're getting into with Uber and Airbnb and the freelancers of the world. I go more towards how fortune 500 companies are leveraging for good or bad it's happening right now, but they're leveraging freelance marketplace to cut costs.
They use the systems like work market. So kind of our take on it. I was like, well, if that's happening anyway, like, you know we help people find good work-life balance, get meaningful pay and do work that they're passionate about. And I think that's kind of the secret sauce areas for finding ways to leverage the new economy and how it's kind of changing business and work as we know it, but really focusing it down into frankly, the areas that we should be investing the most time and energy and money into that's our communities. That's our neighbors. It's the people that make our beautiful city here in Philadelphia run. They're the only people focusing on a lot of those issues at all.
So it's kind of a win-win for everyone and investing more in kind of the market of hope and love seems to be a good place for us to be spending our energy, especially with the current political climate, you know, Trump and Hillary and all that stuff going on. It's just a, it's a hot mess and people want more.
They want work-life balance. They want purpose in their work. You know, they're tired of selling widgets and selling stuff that's destroying the earth and they want to get connected back to people again and real things. 
Joe Taylor: [00:06:00] Well, it's something we've heard from other guests on the show. We've talked to a few folks about the concept of the portfolio life, the idea that you could, instead of having a job that maybe interests you 20% of the time. And the rest of it is other stuff that you have to do. You can piece together through project work, something that's compelling to you more like 80 or 90% of the time. In a situation like this, for some of the folks on your talent platform, it sounds like you're removing that last 10 or 20% things like the billing, the client cultivation, the stuff that's not necessarily interesting to someone that just wants to roll in and do accounting or copywriting or whatever it is. I think the fascinating thing for me is that you've gone very wide with the platform. You log on your website, lot of discrete skills that you offer to the clients, but you have drilled down on the clients. Most of the other folks I see engaging the space are doing the complete opposite. They're saying. We are the source for writers. We're the source for developers, but we'll work with anybody. Tell me a little bit about how that gives you an edge when it comes to serving those nonprofits? 
James Brobyn: [00:07:10] Well it starts with their background. My other founder and I have a lot of experience, either founding or running and scaling nonprofits.
We know our customers. We feel very strongly about them. We're passionate about them and they might feel like it's a wide range of skills and it is, but they're actually very targeted in really what the customer needs are, what the market is demanding. You know, that's fundraising, marketing technology, the places that they're really under-resourced, but they know that they need and they haven't figured out how to, how do we fill this like rapidly evolving world of marketing and tech and fundraising, all these issues, but do it efficiently.
And with the understanding that we can't really take them on board as staff, especially as nonprofits, because nobody wants them to spend money on overhead. So I think you're right there is seemingly like a wide range, but we're trying to be smart about the type of, I think a bulk of our work is around the marketing tech creative areas.
And then we have a smaller number of financial people, strategists, operations, people that can have a wider portfolio of clients to work with because they're not as needed as often, but when they're needed, their skill sets are really important for those teams. I think it really has to do with understanding your customer and, you know, and really serving them and their unique needs.
And I think a lot of times, a lot of companies don't spend the time to understand their customers or really know the market that they're getting into. I mean, I see it all the time with startups. I joke we're not really startup we're a small business, you know, that's what we're trying to be. We're trying to, you know, good revenue and take our employees do right by our clients, do right by professionals that work for us, trying to run a good small business.
Joe Taylor: [00:08:33] And that's an interesting distinction to make in your mind. What's the line that separates how you would define a startup versus a sustainable, small business or what? In our company, we call ourselves a boutique agency because we don't want to be large. But in this very go-go atmosphere of go get funded, get money, get huge.
What attracts you to framing things up as it sounds like you've defined how big you want to be, or you want to get, and you're not necessarily interested in becoming like a big Silicon Valley startup. 
James Brobyn: [00:09:06] Yeah. We don't want to do that at all. So, I mean, it's really starts with the problem you're trying to solve.
And I think so many of these Silicone Valley startups, and there's exceptions, but they're not really adding value to anyone's life. They're creating things that they hope people will need for some reason. I think of social media channels and things like that. Like Snapchat is great and the kids are using it.
Awesome. Is it really adding value to our lives? I'm not sure. So we're .Creating all these companies that really are being created to have a billion users and then be sold. Their whole reason for existence is to hack in a billion users. Literally, like we were told that like, Oh, you're getting a startup going, you should be building something that gets a billion users.
We were told that up in New York and we were talking to people.
Joe Taylor: [00:09:46] Often when you hear that advice, it's a billion users, but don't get revenue because then we can measure it and we can see you're not going to get a billion dollars. 
James Brobyn: [00:09:54] Yeah. That's it. That's it right? Like there's, it is. It's so funny that. We built the company with a revenue model from the beginning.
And that was intentional because we wanted to build a sustainable, good business. And also being intellectually honest with ourselves that, you know, we also bootstrapped the whole thing, too. So that's about ownership. It's about owning the vision, not letting venture capitalists on what we're doing. Because it's not theirs. 
Joe Taylor: [00:10:16] So when you're thinking about swapping your role at a non-profit for the CEO hat. You and your co-founders are getting things together, what organizations, what companies did you look to as role models for the kind of company that you wanted to build? 
James Brobyn: [00:10:30] It's a very good question. Some of my experiences were. Around some of that sustainable non-profits that have grown rapidly, that I was exposed to and worked with directly look to some of that. And then I see, you know we're sitting in the bunker. I know Mike Maher. Or, I'm sorry, in Benjamin's Desk. 
Joe Taylor: [00:10:45] It's like a nested Russian doll. Right? 
James Brobyn: [00:10:47] Yes.
Joe Taylor: [00:10:47] So for folks who haven't listened to previous episodes, we tape this at our studio at Benjamin's Desk in center city, Philadelphia, which is a fantastic coworking facility. Full disclosure, Benjamin's Desk is a client of my agency 2820 Press. But their inclusion here does nothing to do with the editorial content. Well, we always have to disclose that. But one of the projects within Benjamin's Desk is the Philadelphia outlet of the Bunker, which is Todd Connor's extraordinary- it feels more like a campaign than anything else- where he's set up, through lots of help with lots of local sponsors and chapter coordinators, these incubators called Bunker Labs that are designed to help focus veterans through a transition into civilian life as entrepreneurs, which is really fascinating thing. We've had other Bunker Labs folks on the show before. So from your experience, what does that do to help crystallize how you are building your company? 
James Brobyn: [00:11:44] To go back to your original question of like what other companies you look up to. And I think getting exposed to other veteran entrepreneurs and seeing some of the success that they've had, there's one of the guys in our cohort named Dan Tobon. He started a company called Starchup. 
Joe Taylor: [00:11:56] Dan has been on the show. We'll put a link to that in the show notes. 
James Brobyn: [00:11:58] Yeah, he's done a phenomenal job. He's got a couple of other businesses that, you know, getting going. Yeah. I look to individuals and people as much as businesses and to model ourselves after. 
Joe Taylor: [00:12:07] Dan's interesting, because his hobbies would qualify as companies that people would be happy to have built the things that he does on the side.
I think it's it's we can't underscore enough, the impact that it has to be able to interact with someone who's gone through that journey. Whether or not it's as a formal mentorship, or even in your cohort to have peers that you can bounce ideas around without the fear of, oh I'm drawing too many resources away or I'm being too pushy.
You know, you're growing together in hopefully the same direction, but every member of that cohort has a different focus, a different set of wants and needs. Some folks want to become huge venture backed startups. Some folks want to find a nice, you know, what feels comfortable for them. Shifting back to something I heard you say earlier, Understanding the wants and needs of your customers.
And this, I think goes beyond that, just having empathy for customers, you were the director of a non-profit. Running a nonprofit has probably the strangest, most unusual set of demands on a professional because even beyond what startup CEOs think they have to do, nonprofits have to do it without necessarily a funding model in place. 
James Brobyn: [00:13:35] That's for sure. 
Joe Taylor: [00:13:36] I'm personally fascinated by the work of folks like Peter Brinkerhoff and other folks who've studied the idea that some of the most successful social impact organizations have figured out how to run almost a skunkworks like business within their organization that generates revenue.
So when you're speaking to your nonprofit clients, what are the biggest challenges that they're coming to you for help with? Where do they need the most help? Where do they see a lack of support within the community for the things they're trying to do? 
James Brobyn: [00:14:08] So, you know, a lot of it comes down to find sustainable, meaningful revenue sources.
Really the two biggest problems are access to talent and access to capital period. Those are the two things that the nonprofit sector are. It's the biggest challenge. They're competing with everyone for talent. They're competing with Coca-Cola, they're competing with LinkedIn without the same resources.
And the mission only goes so far. They also don't have access to the same kind of capital markets that the for-profit sector does. So they're relying on really imperfect grant systems and. The wants and needs of individual donors at different times. It's very, you know, and doing special events and peer-to-peer.
So when you talk about finding new sustainable revenue models, new ways to use technology, to reach new potential donors, and then how to efficiently use their resources so that they're actually able to focus on their mission in the right way. Between the funding and really being efficient use of resources.
Those two pieces are really the problems we're trying to solve and help them with. So a great example is I know startups end up with the same problem to some degree is you have a founder or CEO and they want to hire their next big. Person that like we have we're going to take that next step. But inherently, especially in the nonprofit sector, they want that person say it's a director of development, a fundraiser, they go and hire them.
And they're like, I want to basically outsource my fundraising deal. I want you to do marketing. I want you to do communication. I want you to run our CRM, wants you to manage all our data. I want to make sure you have the copywriting, ghostwrite articles for me too, and make sure you thank all the donors.
That is the expectation. That's eight jobs in one. 
Joe Taylor: [00:15:31] Yep. 
James Brobyn: [00:15:32] And it doesn't work. I mean, there's unicorns that you find out there that it might work, but there are few and far between, and you're getting lucky when that happens. So in a lot of ways, that problem, right there is we're trying to get ahead of that to some degree and say like, don't do that.
We're a much more efficient way to get a better return on your investment. And then we want to get you to a point where we're helping you find the right people to hire like, okay, you don't need a director development right now. You actually need a program manager to administer these programs, which is ultimately the product they're selling to the donors.
I'm very much in the belief that impact drives revenue in the nonprofit sector. If you're having a true impact on the people you're serving, it's a really easy story to tell the donors and they believe it and they feel it and they want to give to it. So really tightening up that product. It's almost like product development for any business, but really helping them tighten up that product and sell it.
Joe Taylor: [00:16:20] And I think it's a huge distinction between some of the legacy large charities that we see out there that sometimes get embattled for the money that they spend on big hires. One of the things we see often with large nonprofits is that they will compensate folks pretty equivalently to Fortune 500 organizations within the mindset of- if I hire a fundraising director for 500 grand a year, and that person then brings in a hundred million dollars in revenue on the face of it within that bubble, that might feel fair until the first meeting of your donors that you go to. You'd say that you paid somebody 500 grand and then they tear you apart. 
James Brobyn: [00:17:02] Being an executive director of a nonprofit and walking that tight rope is like one of the most challenging things, because play it down to the next level.
Say you take it to people that aren't making $500,000 a year. That's what makes the headlines, but it's the middle-management people that are the core of your organization. And you've got to kind of pay him not very well or find a way to pay them well, but you can only have so many of them. And then if you start getting grief from your donors or whomever, the impact downstream on that, and really on the impact and the people you serve and is dramatic, that's really where that the total roadblock is really incredibly challenging because as soon as that heat starts coming from donors or from anyone outside of the organization, the people that are doing the work.
And a lot of ways of doing God's work on the ground, helping people or being cast aside and say, like, they're not valuable. Their work's not valuable. And that's what we say when we call them overhead, when we don't value their work. And a lot of ways, maybe this is my own cause I led scaled and grew. The Travis Mannion foundation was a part of that organization was very grateful to have a team there that was amazing, but that the nonprofit sector is never going to be equivalent of government for-profit or thought of that way until we as a sector, take a stand and say our work is just as valuable or maybe more valuable than any.
Product that's being sold out there. And until we take that stand and start investing in ourselves and come up with sustainable revenue models, come up with ways to sell products, come up with smart ways to utilize the tax system, to our advantage, get the government to start looking at, okay, this is great.
We have the B Corp like, okay, IRS, we need to be fixing them so that there's some tax advantages to a B Corp. So they do that. A B Corp doesn't really matter. But point being all that is like, There's so many opportunities to make ourselves a social sector. Really, probably the most important sector we have going on in both in the country, but as a huge part of our economy, which it is, but people don't even know how big it is, but it starts with us valuing ourselves, valuing our workers, find the people on the ground, doing the work.
There's some interesting articles out there about, you know, how you will crunch of resources and the continual driving down of. Salaries in the nonprofit sector. There's actually a lot of charities that their employees would qualify for the services that they offer because they're paying supportively and that's funders is government is donors.
Joe Taylor: [00:19:07] And some of them actually build that into their pricing, their staffing model. They just expect, well, you'll go on Medicaid. So we can, you know, staff you at a rate below 20 X thousand a year because the government will cover your. Healthcare. 
James Brobyn: [00:19:24] It's true though. But the ironic part is like the expectation is that nonprofits do that.
Like no one cares, like, go figure it out. You know, I don't even know why you're paying anyone. Whereas Walmart, most of their employees, that's what they do. I mean, Walmart pays them below living wage so that they can be on the government dime. And how much money does it save Walmart? Walmart is a multi-billion dollar company is a multi-national corporation. I mean, it's an unfathomable amount of money that they're saving from the government. 
Joe Taylor: [00:19:47] It brings up that misconstruction of the phrase non-profits. So coming up in the first half of my career through nonprofits, I learned this the hard way every budget season that it's not that you're not trying to make a profit, it's that you have the ability to not make decisions on a profit basis. And the idea here is that you still want to grow revenue. You still want to bring more money into the organization so you can reinvest it in your mission. It's completely okay. And clients of mine that are, or clients in the past, especially that have been churches, for instance. Down South churches really get it. There is zero problems with a church South of say, Virginia. Raising $10 million in a year. They'll figure out how to distribute those funds. If they get really good, if they build that competency around fundraising, I think a kind of a culture of distinction is that if you get into other types of nonprofits and you say, well, we figured out how to raise $5 million around this issue. But now how we spend it, depending on how this goes, we could face all kinds of criticism. We lots of challenges versus something like Amazon, which I love to bring up. You will never hear about actually making a profit. And yet they're lauded as one of the most significant success stories, because they've been able to leverage the system that rewards them for growing users, growing customers.
And their stock grows and it all works out. It all ends up being okay. Whereas a nonprofit director who actually gets to the end of their fiscal year with any gas left in the tank gets told that they're not an efficient operation. You made a dollar at the end of the year. What are you? You're not doing this right.
James Brobyn: [00:21:39] That's exactly it. I mean, it's a misnomer just from a tactical sense. And we've talked to our clients all the time about this. Is it take a special event. Like if you're a special event that you're raising money against. Is it in the green by a significant amount and you don't have good margins. They're like, why are you doing it?
It should have margins. And you got account for your staff time too. And that's such a common mistake in nonprofits are like, Hey, raise a hundred thousand dollars. Sounds good to donors. They feel good about it. The reality is they spend 95,000 to get there. So they really only netted 5,000. Then you throw in staff time on top of it.
And you're like, wow, we probably lost money on that special event. Tactically. We talked to him about that all the time. We do talk in terms of having a profit, we use business terms. Let's get comfortable around that. We're not special unique businesses. We have to operate in a lot of ways the same way, but you're exactly right.
Joe Taylor: [00:22:23] You know, it's just a misnomer around what a nonprofit is and it's really just, you can't have ownerships doing, knowing kind of ownership stake in that company. And it also seems like as with any organization profit or non-profit you get what you measure. So if your metric is the deliverable of an event, you can wave the flag and said, we have a great event. It earned $80. So everyone had a great time. 
James Brobyn: [00:22:46] So, and this is where it gets back to like the access to capital for, and it's so true. And, and I love thinking about Amazon's a great example. Like they invest internally on R and D and growth, and that's all models. Like will just grow for the sake of growing and we'll just keep growing revenue and that's going to keep us going.
And the ironic part is if nonprofits had access to the capital in the same way, the capital markets would find the best ones, get rid of the worst ones and the problems they'd be solving at scale one, you'd be solving dramatic problems, but just let's talk financially about it. If we could scale up some of these organizations that are doing things the right way, like can Amazon scale them up that way?
Imagine if we could reduce recidivism by 50%. We're talking about hundreds of billions of dollars across the country we'd be saving across myriad things. But I'm not going to talk about all the industries that would be involved with that. But from a practical standpoint, like if you're talking about social issues, there are financial implications to us actually scaling these solutions up, take the recidivism ones.
Very interesting, because if we could find a way to add tax hot now. Ed techs trying to build technology, too, for educational institutions and a lot of it's around the students and helping get them more engaged. And it's a fancy name for getting tech into students' hands and colleges and whatever, but there's nonprofits out there like trying to solve the reading problem down in preschool and in lower school, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, most of your listeners probably don't know that our jail system, our jails actually, they predict the number of jails they need to build by the third grade reading level of that current year. So this year, the third grade reading level is X in 15 to 20 years. We're going to need this many jails. 
Joe Taylor: [00:24:28] But again, this is an issue of how people are incentivized, right? Because even the framework of that example that you provide starts from this concept that we don't value education.
And we just say, well, that's something, any nonprofit should handle. It's not the job of government. It's not the job of business. A nonprofit has to raise their hand and volunteer to tackle that. Whereas an institutional bias toward building jails has plenty of funding behind it to be able to do the research, guess how many jails we need to build, right?
James Brobyn: [00:25:02] Yeah. 
Joe Taylor: [00:25:02] So that's kind of the broader societal like, wait, huh? How did we get to this point? And I think it speaks to what we've been talking about in terms of where we place the value on non-profit. Like, what should the nonprofit be involved in? What should a business cover? I think the B Corporation thing is an interesting distinction because I think it more than anything else, it lets founders off the hook for wanting to do things that don't necessarily make a huge amount of money.
I think more than just the tax break thing, it's just being able to say, structurally we don't necessarily have to make every decision for the pursuit of stakeholder profit. Right. Which is, again, that interesting thing of a B corporation can do things a little more aggressively. They don't have to be as dialed back as nonprofits in certain areas, but if they happen to generate a huge amount of profit, they don't have the same strings or the same societal bias.
It could go into the pocket of the founder and everybody would be okay with that. So we find ourselves in this interesting thing of who tackles these. Issues B Corp, regular Corp government, nonprofit, or church, which is within that nonprofit circle, but it's really its own thing. 
James Brobyn: [00:26:16] I think there's a lot of potential for the B Corp and I think it does, kind of, strip away some of those societal issues around not-for-profit and a lot of it goes back to our puritanical roots and like what charities are and what they're not.
I think it does help solve some of that. I think it is current state and I've sat in enough social enterprise entrepreneurship. Brown tables and Philadelphia and other cities now. And when it comes down to scaling those social enterprises, those B Corp's in its current state, because there's really no tax advantages for either of the businesses or investors.
That's constraining of profit for the social good. At some point it's going to hit a wall. Investors are not going to invest in that or the founders of saying, like, we're not talking about the social good piece because the investors don't really care about it and they're not gonna invest in something that's not going to give us a 10 X on our return. 
Joe Taylor: [00:27:00] But I think calling out here is a shift in how philanthropy works among high wealth individuals. Right? So we look at something like the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative. So the idea that we're here in Philadelphia, Right two doors down were very large buildings, but two buildings down from us is the original Roman Haas headquarters.
The children of those families dominate philanthropy in Philadelphia in various ways. But we don't see those scions, those corporate folks getting into the foundation, set up business anymore. They're founding things that look more like B corporations or initiatives that are not traditional grant writing foundations.
Sometimes they might make a grant, but more often they might make a strategic investment in a company. They. I think is going to help solve this bigger mission. So it really comes back to the idea of when I hear you say finding sustainable sources for revenue, that pie that we used to call grants is shrinking.
And a lot of the old school nonprofits are really struggling to figure out how they get a shrinking slice of a shrinking pie. So coming back to Cause Engine, one of the things I observed that you're doing is you're sending very tactical professionals into these organizations and helping folks shake things up a little bit and figure out, well, not only can we maybe be more.
Effective at getting those grants, but maybe we can think about other ways to raise funds that don't necessarily rely on appealing to the sensibilities of one or two high wealth individuals. 
James Brobyn: [00:28:43] Actually, if anything, that's what we spend our time on more organizations than that we're telling the grants aren't worth your time.
Unless of course, you know, someone that organization it's just like going after any big sale, if you know someone in that grant-giving organization, you have a warm introduction, go for it right on. But the days of just sending out hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of grant requests, it's not worth your time, energy or money, or your staff time.
Joe Taylor: [00:29:03] And I think, yeah, and along those lines, where 10 years ago, as a nonprofit, you might hire a full-time grant writer and a really good one might, you know, require you to lay out 70, 80, 90 grand a year. And I'm even being conservative there. But instead of having that person be on staff, and they're super busy for three months out of the year and the rest of the time, they're kind of like resting that grant writer can come into Cause Engine spend their entire year being busy on projects for a multitude of clients and get to actually work on the diversity of missions, which I think I find fascinating because you don't get bored or tired. You can just move on to the next project. So I want to come back to the idea of valuing your team. There's a little bit of a different dynamic in any organization. When you've got someone that's considered  a free agent or a freelancer or a staffing resource compared to folks that are employees actually on the team. So how do you help folks that are on your talent platform feel that value? How do they actually get connected to that familial feeling that you would normally get if you were on staff somewhere? Is it that they're just busier all the time? Where are they getting their fulfillment? How do you help them achieve those goals?
James Brobyn: [00:30:23] Giving them sustainable work is probably number one, but we also. We find out what kind of missions that they're passionate about. I think that's an important for kind of finding that fulfillment, but it also the simplest form, like there's a lot of our professionals, they just want purpose in their work.
So on the talent side, like I feel pretty good about that. We're training them. We do very warm introductions from the Cause Engine side. We manage the relationships and help manage some of the organizational dynamics so that our teams and our individuals are. Introduced in the best way possible, you know, from the nonprofit side, it's really spending our time due diligence on the front end, working with the clients and understanding what their unique needs are.
And we're also, frankly, we're fairly hard task-masters on both sides, but specifically whether they're nonprofits. We get narrowed down and really what the goals are. Establish a box. We're not straying too far from that, because I think a lot of times it's easy when you're a mission-focused organization to not focus on anything because the mission is the most important thing.
So you end up doing all things for all people. I think part of our job and part of our mission is to help them focus on the most important parts of their organization. That's going to give them the best return on their investment. Well, I think that's the role in a typical agency. An account manager would come in and play that role, but it also sounds like you're layering a little bit of project management in there as well, because that might be a competency that's lacking in most of those nonprofit.
It absolutely is. And that for the individual project based work, we light project management and account management because a lot of times they're just one offs. When we deploy the teams, when they're one person in that team is we call them client directors and they're effectively the account manager slash project manager.
And they also wrangled a team. Those teams have a portfolio of four to five organizations that they work with. So they actually get to know the organizations really well cause they work with them on a consistent basis. Over time. It seems to be a real nice model. It's a known burn rate for the nonprofits.
There's not all the extra employee expenses. They get really high quality talent. And from the talent side, they get to know the clients very well. They still get a diversity of. Work so still interesting. And frankly, they're getting compensated for it. Well, I also think that from on the nonprofit side, you could be a little bit more daring because you're no longer committing to an annual salary.
Joe Taylor: [00:32:26] It's the biggest fear I find. Well, in both for-profit and nonprofit folks don't want to commit to an annual salary because you don't know your revenue might fluctuate with a nonprofit. It seems like it would be an easier sell to say. Try us out for three months. Let's get through this project at the end of it.
We'll assess it. And then hopefully it'll go so well. You're bringing us back to that. Another one. 
James Brobyn: [00:32:47] Yeah. I mean, that's exactly it. We're helping mitigate risk, giving the nonprofits, the organizations permission to innovate and to try things. And I think that's really important. I think unfortunately, the funding model.
The old grant model, the high net worth individuals, which still is a vast majority of, most of the organization's funding streams. A lot of times they find what works. Here's a program that I can sell. If they start getting revenue there, they're very, very scared to change that program because of the change it, maybe the funders won't fund them anymore. So ultimately what happens, and this is the irony of it. All the funders are trying to do good by giving the money to the organization, the organizations like the funders are giving money here. So I can't change anything. And then downstream to the clients and the people you're serving because they're the ones suffering because things change over time and unless you're evolving and adapting, programming and impact and what you're doing and innovating within that space, based off current changes in the climate or whatever, then you're not serving your clients at the end of the day. So the nonprofits being served, the donors feel good about their money.
But all the way at the end of the day, the downstream people are not getting what they need. 
Joe Taylor: [00:33:46] It's a very channel, challenging role to be in because your stakeholder engagement, which is the formal consulting phase for this feeling of pain in your gut. When, on one hand you have the folks that you want to serve as part of your mission, but you have that individual, whether it be an executive director or a donor who just feels like, Oh yeah, Judy gives us X amount of dollars every year, because she loves going to our gala. But what if we decided not to do the gala anymore and put more of that into actual service? Do we risk Judy being mad at us and funding a competing agency? You know, there's all that risk. That's perceptual risk about those relationships that you have to manage.
James Brobyn: [00:34:30] This is part of the difference between for-profit and non-profit because there's in for-profit. If you're a board member, You're generally making money, working on those boards. Which is fine and should probably own stock in it. Maybe you get some shares, initial investment. Great. Maybe, you know, the employees that are getting paid and they're getting maybe, you know, a part of employee stock option pool.
There's lots of incentive there around the profit, which is a good thing. Yeah, that's a good thing. I think it's a great incentive, but when you're running a nonprofit. Just structurally, you don't have the same incentives and the board members are your key volunteers, but they're volunteers. So your board members, your stakeholders, keeping all the balls in the air and making sure that this high net worth individuals happy this the client's happy. The board members happy. The staff's happy. Because in all cases you don't have the same incentive structure for them to take the staff. You're paying them less than you're hoping that you can keep them on board because they're mission-focused.
But that only goes so long. So you've got to find other ways to incentivize them. Maybe you give them more flexibility in their work. Maybe it's this, maybe it's that, but it's you can incentivize in the same way in the for-profit sector, board members. I mean, they're Lilly volunteers. So like you got to keep them happy and fulfilled and a part of the mission because it's just a different incentive. So, like, balancing all those competing stakeholders is incredibly challenging and it's probably one of the most overlooked things when you talk about nonprofit leaders that they have to manage and we joked about it, cause like we started Cause Engine is bad in marketplace and people like two-sided marketplace. It's a horrible idea. Don't do that. Cause it's really hard. It is really hard. 
Joe Taylor: [00:35:56] You're literally fighting a war on two fronts. 
James Brobyn: [00:35:58] Yeah. But I said we actually have a lot of practice with this because non-profits are the ultimate multi-sided marketplace. You're literally dealing with multiple people that you have to balance that all have completely different reasons for being. 
Joe Taylor: [00:36:11] How many nonprofit leaders I know who would say, Oh, only two. Are you guys slacking? 
James Brobyn: [00:36:15] Exactly. That's exactly it. So like, because like we have plenty practices. Two's easy. We'll be able to figure this out. 
Joe Taylor: [00:36:21] Because I know folks, it would be staff people you're serving government donors, you know, there's at least four. So they look more like 20 sided die. 
James Brobyn: [00:36:31] And they literally all have different interests and reasons for being involved and invested in the organization.
And a lot of times they're in congruent. I was given the example of the funders needs versus the client's needs. And many times never the two shall meet even though through all the best intentions. But that doesn't mean that they're actually aligned that way whatsoever. 
Joe Taylor: [00:36:48] It's true. So thinking now about Cause Engine and as it grows, tell me your dream for the organization. Where are you at in 5 years, 10 years? 
James Brobyn: [00:36:56] I'm really interested in this last year. So nonprofits are a heart, but we're finding this model is actually very, a lot of small, early stage companies. And, you know, social enterprises, like this kind of model is actually very, very interesting to them. We're talking right now. It's like the talent side. Like we're getting a lot of people, thousands of people apply and we only have about 111 that we've accepted. It's it is 111. Cause I looked before. Really high quality people that wants some of the flexibility that we're talking about. And so we're really taking a look at like, where are we seeing successes as an early stage company, right?
You're talking about building a company, your initial hypothesis, not necessarily be right about who your customer is in a weird sort of way. Our customer ended up being a talent that we're recruiting in here. And we've been really good at that. And the vetting there is highly curated, vetted pool of talent.
That's readily available to small businesses, you know, nonprofits pretty highly sought after. So as we look into, we think it's our tagline. Now, is there an opportunity in five, 10 years to be kind of, you know, work inspired to be that middle management, that be that agency that, you know, when you start talking about portfolio lifestyle, it should be going through work inspires should be going through us that cause engine, like why can't we manage that for them?
You know, to me, there's a huge opportunity there because the economy is going that way. People's desires are going that way because in the current corporate environment, And I think this is the interesting part. They've undercut all the employees so much, and there's no safety net that everyone relied on.
There's no retirement. There's some 401k contribution, but people get laid off all the time. It's, you're not thought of as a valuable member of these teams. So everyone feels like they don't really have any buy-in to these companies. You may as well follow our lifestyle at this point might as well.
Joe Taylor: [00:38:33] It's not considered rebellious anymore. It's considered free agency. 
James Brobyn: [00:38:37] And you know what, why shouldn't people have the opportunity to hang out with their family? To spend time with their kids to go on vacation. You know what to take a month or two or three or a year when they have a kid, we should be able to do that as a society.
We should value that more than we do. And to me, that's interesting as we evolved, we've become very passionate about that idea of really work-life balance and really finding a way to get people, good resources and get paid well, but like give them that balance. Give them that flexibility to go live their life. People really want that. And they're tired, especially in America. Like they're just getting worked and worked and worked and paid less and less and less. And there's no upside. So why shouldn't we be freelancers? 
Joe Taylor: [00:39:12] And within the freelance community, there's so much conversation around the concept of value-based pricing because we've been using this model of earning X per hour. But what if your expertise generates a 100 X return, right? Get into a situation where it's very easy to structure your work year in such a way that you could see theretically take three months off because what you're earning in nine months covers all your needs for the year. And it's a very, very different way of thinking about security. Security used to mean, at least when I was in my teens, what all my elders told me was. You're going to go work for someplace like a university that has a pension plan. You're going to work, whatever job they give you, maybe you'll get promoted, but you'll have a job for 40 years. I don't know of anybody who's hiring with the intention of having somebody for 40 years right now. I know zero hiring managers who are thinking beyond year three at this point. And that's probably generous for those roles they feel like they have enough work to give somebody in a very specific role. 
James Brobyn: [00:40:18] It's interesting because even my experience transitioned out of the Marine Corps and I look at the military is one of the few places in the federal government that still hasn't the vast majority of people don't ever get that pension.
I left after 13 years because I didn't have combat deployments and I want to hang out with my kid. Pretty simple stuff. I didn't want to stay until 20. You know, if I had stayed until 20, I still would have had to work. But my transition out was like, I was looking around and going, like, there's not really any real security, like we were talking about. And finding purpose and meaning and putting value on both the quality of my work and the quality of my time that I spend with my family and my loved ones.
That's important. That's, you know, that's value in yourself. And ultimately end up with happier people, a better workforce, frankly, you get a better return on your investment as a company if you're using this because it's those workers or they're gonna give you more. Yeah. 
Joe Taylor: [00:41:03] I think you bring up a very interesting point, which is in the military, you have tremendous job security, but the job you're doing is highly insecure.
You're in jeopardy throughout your entire career. Especially given the last 20 years, it was a very different thing, I think in the nineties, looking at recruiting ads compared to, I think that I just saw the secretary of defense announced they're going to spend $140 million to go after young recruits for the Army, because they're at an near all time low because folks are not necessarily thinking about that as a secure career. Whereas it could be the challenge, I think, as you point out, is that transition away from the structure of that life and now getting into the civilian role and thinking about what do I do? Can I find something that's that structured? Probably not. And then the entrepreneurship thing comes in. For you, explain that transition to me. Like, what were the biggest challenges for you coming out of that 13 year stint and going first into the nonprofit world and then getting to the point where you could say, Oh, I'm going to run my own thing. 
James Brobyn: [00:42:12] So we'll go back to trying to find structure after you get out. I was a captain in the Marines. When I got out, I was enlisted first and then it became an officer being a good captain, getting out. I was like, I'm going to want to go to law school. So that was a lawyer. I could still help people seem like their security. I didn't know any better. I hadn't really looked at the illegal market. 
Joe Taylor: [00:42:29] Who knew that was going to be industry that would implode? 
James Brobyn: [00:42:32] And so I got to law school and, one I hated it- every minute of it. And I had some personal things happen at the time, kind of made me reassess what was important. I ended up leaving law school and I kind of happened into the nonprofit realm. The, I was the third employee at the Travis Mannion foundation. It was probably the most entrepreneurial environment I could have been in like, Hey, here's no resources and go figure it out.
And we were able to grow that from. A small family foundation to, uh, one of the most well-respected veteran serving organizations, the entire country. 
Joe Taylor: [00:42:58] They are about 10 years in,at this point? 
James Brobyn: [00:43:00] Almost, almost. Yeah. It'd be 10 years next year. Yeah.  
Joe Taylor: [00:43:03] I mean, that's a really very good example because we see things like Travis Mannion foundation here in Philadelphia, Alex's Lemonade stand, you know, the foundation behind that sprang  from nowhere a decade ago, and now are household names. You see them everywhere there, they have name recognition, they have traction, but they did not come from the traditional top down philanthropic method. They came from motivations individuals that wanted to make a specific dent in a message or in a community and have made it happen often by not following the playbook that was laid out by the Red Cross or by other institutional...
James Brobyn: [00:43:45] It's so true. I mean, that's half the fun. If you'd dig into some of these new organizations, they are finding creative ways to raise money. They are finding new ways to generate revenue internally. And I had a great team. I was just a very good at finding good, interesting ways to raise money that are non-traditional.
One of my favorites was got a partnership with Sony online entertainment. They. Do massively multiplayer online gaming. They make all their money through micro-transactions by selling widgets inside the game for like a dollar a piece. Well, lo and behold, I did a little demographic search and a vast majority of their users or a very large percentage, 15 or 20% were veterans.
So I went out to San Diego and pitch them on selling our logo inside the game. So they ran it over four weekends in one year and each weekend generated 15, 20, $25,000 transactions, a hundred percent going to us. And this is without manufacturing apparel or staging events. This is just some lines of code.
So some lines of code and it was those types of things. And really it comes down to, and this is part of what we help our clients do as well is the traditional funding model that we've been kind of alluding to. It still works, frankly. It is very good. The old traditional funding rising model, it does work, but the creative kind of crowdsource funding that's available now and the opportunities to really think about your corporate partners in a new way as really as partners where you have a strong brand that they want to leverage and you could potentially activate customers on their behalf.
And if we can help organizations think about the instead of, like, you're getting a donation from Comcast foundation instead of why don't you go after Comcast marketing? And figure out how to activate customers for them. And if you can figure out an activate customers for them, you're going to get a lot more money out of them.
Joe Taylor: [00:45:23] It comes from a different point in the org chart too. We had a great conversation on the show with Christopher wink, who runs technically Philly and runs generosity now publishes generosity. And one of the things he said he observed was we've hit what he calls the end of big check journalism. You can't just show up with a big foundation check.
And expect to get on the nightly news or in your local paper. If you find a way to actually sell or transact with your customers in a way that benefits some organization that fits your values. Now there's a story. That's interesting to journalists that can extend the message even further. So it really does echo what we see folks in the press look at and say, yeah, w who cares if someone wrote you a check for a hundred thousand dollars, but if you figured out a way to make a hundred thousand hours, that's a good story. And that's something we want to see more of. 
James Brobyn: [00:46:15] Yeah. If CBS Philly, I give the radio stations a lot of credit in the city here because marketing partnership with them. And when I was at the Travis Mannion foundation, they were forward leaning and coming up with a sustainable model that they, both of us benefited from.
And then ultimately the people that are selling advertisements to one off of as well. It was a nice model of kind of shared revenue. And then the people buying advertising got the same value or more for the same dollars. And they got the write off a piece of it for us. 
Joe Taylor: [00:46:40] But it requires you as a fundraiser to think like a marketer and not like a grant writer.
You're not saying give us a hundred thousand dollars. You're asking, let's make a hundred thousand together or let's make you a million and you give us a hundred grand, which hopefully would be less than what you would have to otherwise spend to make that million. 
James Brobyn: [00:46:59] It is. It's really thinking, reframing how you think about the business and it is a business and being smart about it.
And ultimately, we're talking a lot about raising money at the end of the day, resources allow organizations to innovate, to have more of an impact and ultimately serve more clients better. And at the end of the day, that's what it's all about. I think that's what everyone wants and. The fundraising is just a part of it.
So being smart about that is as crucial to these organizations and helping them rethink kind of how they do it is a huge opportunity. You know, technology, access to talent, all those things are really ways to kind of get people moving that way. And I think some of the new funding models and B Corp, you know, those types of things, it's a very interesting kind of road ahead here.
Kind of hit a tipping point where maybe the election will do it. I don't know.But we're kind of hitting a tipping point here where people were kind of looking around going, Oh crap. Like the global warming is like, it's 85 degrees and it's November 3rd or November 4th. Like that's not good.
California's on fire every year. There's no water. We're going down this unsustainable pathway that if we don't get ahead of this and really start rethinking our commitment to each other and to our communities, we're not gonna have much to look around at. And I think what my daughter and was just talking about my family.
The rest of my family lives down in the Florida Keys and they just sold their house. My brother and my dad, they sold the house down there and we were just joking about it the other day saying, well, at least we got out before the keys are under water. You think about it. And I was like, well, it won't happen in our lifetime.
It'll probably happen in my daughters. And that's scary. It's happening in real time. As we look at it, I think we are going to hit a tipping point here because people are seeing it. You know, the workforce is being disenfranchised on a consistent basis. I think social media has been pretty, keeps us apart from each other ironically. Although digitally, we can look at each other and communicate.
Joe Taylor: [00:48:44] It actually like cases what we don't like about each other. 
James Brobyn: [00:48:47] Yes, exactly. And then we'll walk around the city, looking at our phones and not actually interacting with each other. And people are looking at it like they're becoming more aware and they're like, this is, we can change this. But like the institutions we've come to rely on are not going to do it for us.
You know, we've got to take that power in our own hand. These different models of business that whether it's non-profits, whether it's a B Corp, whether it's an amalgamation of the two, you know, the four sectors, some people talked about we're going to get there in the near future. And as my old professor at Penn used to say really reframing how we think about the resources we have and the people around us. And I think nonprofits are a perfect example of this. They kind of live in the scarcity mindset and if we can reframe how we view the world around abundance, that's a game changer. So the fundraising, we were just talking about like there's opportunities.
If you think like a marketer, there's a lot of resources out there. If you think like a nonprofit, there's not a lot of resources out there. A great example of the 3 billion people that live in this world for less than a $5,000 a year. Bottom of the pyramid is pro law. And some other people have called it imagined they're not any smarter dumber or anything.
They just grew up in a different environment than us. Imagine that we can unleash that talent, that latent potential there. Imagine what we could do. We're heading to Tim point here where like technology access to different forms of capital, the democratization of capital love that people could crowdfund now invest in small businesses and get a return of their investment last, should that only be for accredited investors?
I think it's great. Now people are going to get scammed. Absolutely it's going to happen. But they were never given that option before now. We're democratizing access to capital, access to opportunity. That's really exciting to me. That's the future here of what technology and all this stuffs and this tipping points are going to allow us to do is giving power to the people in a different way than we're used to.
The old structures are kind of dying off and we need to find a way to catalyze that into good way. I mean, this maybe cause engine and work inspires a little part of it, but kind of our feeling around it. There's a lot of hope and opportunity. If we look for it or it's gloom and doom, if we allow the kind of world to shape us, well we'll keep an eye on Cause Engine to be at the forefront of helping organizations innovate through those.
Joe Taylor: [00:50:50] James, thank you so much for joining us on The Build. 
The Build is a production of 2820 radio in Philadelphia. Our producer is Katie Cohen Zahniser and our consulting producer is Lori Taylor. Our account coordinators, Katrina Smith. Our research team includes Alison Hartman, john Assini and Gizem Yali.

Joe Taylor Jr. has produced stories about media, technology, entertainment, and personal finance for over 25 years. His work has been featured on NPR, CNBC, Financial Times Television, and ABC News. After launching one of public radio's first successful digital platforms, Joe helped dozens of client companies launch or migrate their online content libraries. Today, Joe serves as a user experience consultant for a variety of Fortune 500 and Inc. 5000 businesses. Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *