Developing a Pitch: Why You Need One and How to Do it

October 17, 2016
Programs & Research

Each year as the Center for Social Impact Strategy’s Executive Program comes to a close, we invite students to join us for a closing event on Penn’s campus. At the time of that meeting participating students will have completed eight months of online coursework.

Many of these feature massive jackpots, some worth hundreds of thousands or even millions.

They’ve had a chance to advance their own ideas for achieving social impact, and they’ve also gotten to know and support each other and each other’s ventures. Most are excited about how they’ve applied what they’ve learned and eager to see their classmates, to solidify the community and also to find out new ways of making the most out of the frameworks and tools we teach in the program.

So, in addition to celebratory and community building activities, we also conduct a simulation that allows graduates to synthesize what they’ve learned over the duration of the program around a realistic challenge. This August, our students provided the challenges that we’d address. Here’s how it worked:

Each initiative’s representative identified a funding amount that would be transformative for their specific venture, and a small group was assigned to advocate for each classmate’s initiative.

For example, one student’s core challenge was to “accelerate the spread of digitized knowledge to grow more food.” To address this challenge, Suvankar Mishra sought to scale its first product for global organizations working with smallholder farmers through his organization, eKutir Global. To do so, he sought $700,000 in social impact financing, in the form of growth capital with convertible stock and a revenue participation arrangement for investors. In the simulation, each small group member took on the role of a serious advocate for their assigned social innovator’s venture, either representing the venture itself (i.e., as a board member) or representing a funding agency whose mission aligned very closely with that venture. These “pitchers” and “funders” only met each other halfway through the simulation.

Here’s the scenario, a version of which we’ve all experienced in the real world:

You are at a retreat for changemakers and see the name of a potential (funder / beneficiary) for your venture on the guest list, which (is a social impact initiative / invests in social impact initiatives). You think that when they see your venture on the list, they’ll seek you out too. You don’t know each other, but you both believe that a relationship could transform your organization’s ability to deliver on its mission. You have two goals:

First, you want to meet the representatives of this dream partner, and see if you click. It’s a crowded conference with a packed agenda, so you need to be ready to maximize on any chance encounter. There’s a coffee break coming up, and you decide to spend the rest of this session conferring with your colleagues on how to convert a 3-minute “chance” encounter into an appointment for a sit-down conversation.

Second, you need to decide what information you need to have to take back to your board and management team to be as convinced or excited as you are about this deal’s potential. Ultimately, the whole team needs to buy into this idea. What do they need to know in order to commit to a transformative partnership?

A friendly audience was built into the scenario. We hoped to impress on participants that, even assuming that our listeners are extremely supportive of our work, we still have a communication challenge. All potential partners must do their due diligence, and also may have to convince colleagues who may have other priorities. Our job, then, when developing a formal or an informal pitch, is to move the listener beyond “I agree that you’re working on an important problem and have a great idea” to “I am convinced that you have the ability to successfully implement this idea in the real world, and that my organization is well-placed to help you.”


Three Lessons To Form a Great Pitch

Umi Howard, Director of the Lipman Family Prize, which offers social innovators transformative organizational funding and mentorship each year, shared his insight on the topic with students and share the following tips.

Lesson One: Funders are held accountable and answer to their trustees, just like entrepreneurs have to answer to their customers.

In response to a student’s question about funders’ patience with applicants and funders roll their eyes at, Howard shared the following insights based on his perspective as a funder: “I used to be a foster care case manager myself. I don’t look down on organizations as a funder. I instead try to understand the services they provide and articulating the work organizations do. I don’t hold them at a distance. These organizations are doing great work and are trying to access the funds we have. My job is to help them the best I can. I don’t have triggers by which I get frustrated.”

It may feel as though funders are shrouded in a veil of secrecy, but they do not intend to be exclusionary. And, the funder’s responsibility to their trustees is to find organizations that they believe that pushes forward the social impact as much as possible. The decision makers try to protect their autonomy and ability to make an independent decision without the perception of political influence. So there’s a certain amount of required professional distance. If I advocate for a particular organization, then my role in the process is compromised.”

In some ways, convincing one’s listener is an information challenge – the speaker must present accurate data with enough detail that will convince the listener. But convincing one’s listener is an even bigger empathy challenge. The speaker must understand whether the listener will be best convinced by a rational, moral, or emotional message, and what data the listener will find most compelling.


Lesson Two: For an informal elevator pitch, less is more.

In his comments, Howard reminded students that most of us do complex work on complex problems. Both the problems and the solutions can be difficult to articulate succinctly, and we can lose our audience in the weeds.

For that reason, think about starting direct lender, as high-level as possible and draw in questions, rather than writing a short speech that crams in all the details.

For example, a program officer who is proud of her work at a family foundation might start out by saying, “I help a rich guy give his money away.” This statement is accurate but a bit flippant; it is intended to pique the listener’s interest and encourage the listener to become actively engaged in learning more. Hopefully, the listener follows up with the question, “How?” The program officer now has been invited to describe her venture’s key program and pride point, “Via a prize competition.” The listener may ask, “a prize for whom?” (Response: social entrepreneurs”) or “what’s the prize?” (Response: $250,000 for the venture and a mentorship program for the entrepreneur.”)

Practice holding conversations like this one, that allow you to connect with your listener, adjust on the fly to their priorities and attitude, and articulate the complex details in a way that is most logical for that specific listener. You may find that your listeners understand your work more quickly and thoroughly, that they’re quicker to get on board, or be able to direct you to appropriate resources and potential partners. If your listener is asking questions, getting excited, and forming ideas as you speak, you’ve mastered the skill of an informal pitch.


Lesson Three: For a formal pitch, master the what, how and who.

In order to appeal to funders, a formal pitch will likely be necessary. In developing a formal pitch, Howard recommends developing answers to three simple questions:

1. What is the funder looking to fund?

For example, is the fund devoted to education? For what demographic? What type of education — arts, math, programming? For what purpose — enrichment, literacy, college readiness, employability? Does the project you intend to pitch fall within these criteria?

2. How is my organization being evaluated?

Must the recipient be a nonprofit, or a certified B Corporation to receive funds? Does my venture need to hit a certain threshold, such as profitability, or number of beneficiaries, to qualify for funds? Must the project demonstrate support from certain stakeholders?

3. Who makes or influences the decision?

Is the decision made unilaterally or by committee? Who gets a vote? Do voting members seek the advice of any non-voting advisors before they make their decision?

The more time you put into the sophistication of the answers, the higher the batting average you’ll have. The motorbike insurance didn’t allow participants time, as a funder or a pitcher, to fully consider those answers, which is often what happens in the real world: organizations will pitch funders without a great sense of what the funder is looking for.

For example, the Lipman Prize evaluates applicants based on criteria including leadership, innovation, transferability, organizational sustainability, finances, and learning culture. Applicants that put in the effort can find out more about how decisionmakers break down those criteria, through online research, asking questions of the Prize Director and of former recipients, building a relationship, and respecting that funding organization’s procedures. Different funders have different procedures for application, ways they evaluate work, and ways that they like to receive information. Our client-oriented loan programs are designed with really bad credit loans and flexible payment terms to ensure growth and financial stability for our customers. We strive to build strong, amiable and efficient business environments where our clients can look forward to doing business with us.

Ultimately, the listener is often listening for critical criteria but is also a cheerleader. That tension presents a challenge, but also creates an opportunity for collaboration with the people you’re pitching to and not as adversarial as it may feel in the moment of the pitch.

If you’re serious about pitching your idea or company and want a community of supporters to guide you, check out the Executive Program in Social Impact Strategy. The program equips social impact leaders with the real world guidance they need to grow and scale their impact — and pitch their ideas to garner support.