Harry Grammer of New Earth Pitching at LASVP’s Social Innovation Fast Pitch 2013

For the last 2 years, I’ve been honored to participate in the LA Social Venture PartnersSocial Innovation Fast Pitch competition. It is an amazing and inspiring 3-minute pitch event showcasing ten worthy non-profits on a big stage on a single evening, witnessed by hundreds of the socially-conscious citizens of Los Angeles. There are celebrity judges who rank contestants on the organization’s innovation, impact and the quality of the pitch, mobile text votes from the audience are tallied and many generous sponsors hand out checks to the winners. The buzz created by this event is wonderful for the participating non-profits who are featured in the media and introduced to generous donors and foundations.

However, what the crowd doesn’t see is that earnest participants & volunteer coaches spend countless hours, days, weeks, months preparing for this event. Over 100 organizations apply, and volunteers sort through the applications to select just twenty non-profits representing all sizes and social issues. Then, each organization’s designated spokesperson is matched with two experienced coaches from a range of business backgrounds. The triads work together to craft and hone a powerful three minute speech. Through three practice rounds, pitches are critiqued by all forty coaches so that the clearest language is selected, the most poignant stories chosen and the delivery is perfected. After the third round, the coaches narrow the field to ten contestants and contestants endure another nervous round of practice pitching.

Finally, on the big night, all twenty organizations set up information booths to chat with potential donors, board members and supporters. The chosen ten step up to the microphone and dazzle the audience. We are always astonished at how strong all of the pitches are on the final night. Everyone is impressed, and even now, it is hard to think of those nights without tearing up. These non-profit leaders represent the best that our city has to offer, and it is an honor to watch them shine.

In the afterglow of the 2013 event, I asked participants and coaches to share their three best tips for fast pitch success. Without further ado, I will share the summary of their findings with you:

  1. Practice, practice, practice
  2. Memorize
  3. Get comfortable – turn jitters into excitement
  4. Work hard
  5. Commit the time
  6. Be humble, not defensive
  7. Be supportive
  8. Be open to transformation
  9. Be yourself
  10. Grab attention
  11. Although presentation is important, content rules.
  12. Seek ways to benefit from the process – cultivate relationships with other coaches and presenters. By networking with other inspiring people, you’ll gain exposure for your organization and personal growth.
  13. Don’t let your coach take over – dive in and own the process
  14. Focus on your “why”
  15. Tell a powerful, heartfelt story with great conversational narrative
  16. Test concepts to see what resonates and refine over the sessions
  17. Focus on impact – even if your organization is now and proof is yet to come
  18. Innovation is the hardest to prove
  19. Share hard data, but use simple, easy, “social” math
  20. The opening and first impressions are crucial
  21. Be absolutely clear on your mission
  22. Provide reasonable, believable and validated outcomes
  23. Leave them wanting to know more so they will reach out to you
  24. You are telling a story- not writing a grant
  25. Use YOUR voice to tell YOUR story
  26. Make sure your personality shows through (be sincere)

Of course, some of us like to dive deeper, so here are the details from each of the respondents:


Michelle Rhone-Collins, LIFTLA

  1. Memorize it until it becomes comfortable.
  2. What might be important to you as an insider, may not be most important to the listener. You want to get them interested to know more so you can get to the nuances.
  3. Have an equal combination of heartfelt story and hard impact data.

Kaile Shilling, www.vpcgla.org, @VPCGLA

  1. Work hard! In other words, set meetings with coaches early, do homework (writing, practicing) in between coaching sessions. You will get out of it what you put into it.
  2. Dive in. Get started early, bring your best game to the table and don’t hold back. Everyone will get better — even the good people. Start as strong as you can so you can get better.
  3. Be humble. Be supportive. Be open. This process can be transformative if you let it. The potential to win the prize money is secondary to the process. You will be surrounded by inspiring people and organizations doing incredible work. It’s a chance to get to know them and build relationships, and the biggest win may not be the prize money. The more willing you are to really breaking open your pitch — why you do your work, what you really do and are about — the more rooted and grounded you will be moving forward. That shift can transform everything on a scale beyond prize money.

Katie Quintas, HeretoServe.org, @heretoserve

  1. Cultivate relationships with the other coaches when the opportunity presents itself. Come to coaching sessions 15 minutes early to mingle. Go to the SVP reception after one of the coaching sessions and ask other coaches how to best leverage the opportunity Fast Pitch presents. Meeting grantmakers after the Fast Pitch was limited since most grantmakers did not come to the reception. So find other ways to leverage this opportunity including asking your coach what you should do.
  2. Although presentation is important, content rules. On the night of the Fast Pitch consider that everyone will hit it out of the park with their pitch. Think how grantmakers do about who they fund and why when developing your content. Match good content with clever and memorable statements, like “the two most important days in your life is the day you’re born, and the day you know why!”
  3. Leave them wanting to know more so they will reach out to you.

Kelly Bruno, NationalHealthFoundation.org, @NHF515

  1. You are telling a story- not writing a grant
  2. Use YOUR voice to tell YOUR story
  3. Make sure your personality shows through (be sincere)

Ashley Hernandez, www.prototypes.org, @PrototypesCare

  1. Identify what is unique and compelling about the organization.
  2. Find your own passion and personal connection to your organization, it will come through in the pitch
  3. Hold the audiences’ hand through the pitch, guide them and explain in a simple and clear way what you are doing, with who, how and why.

Hector LaFarga Jr., www.mothersclub.org, @MothersClubFLC

  1. Be energetic, enthusiastic and genuine.
  2. Practice in front of your key staff, they will provide valuable input.
  3. Listen to your coaches but own your presentation…it’s all you!


Tania Mulry, taniamulry.com, @mrsmulry

  1. Turn your jitters into excitement to propel your performance. Every coach and everyone in the audience is donating their time because they love what you are doing and want to support you. Feel that support and go for it!
  2. Think like a beginner – What does a person who has never heard of you or your organization need to hear to spark an interest to learn more about your organization?
  3. Don’t overwhelm people with a complex math problem – It shuts down their hearing because as they are focused on calculating the numbers you just provided. Give a simple, powerful statistic and use social math (comparing something with a known size or quantity to the problem or population you serve).

Alina Sanchez, mlabsinc.com

  1. Commit the time. This will take more time then you think. Finalists spent up to 20 hours a week or more honing their presentation.
  2. Know your strengths and play to them. You have a certain style — use it. Be you. Whether you’re the intellectual, the preacher man or the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-things-done person.
  3. Practice until your pitch becomes a conversation you have with the audience. Finalize your presentation with enough time (~2 weeks) to practice so many times the presentation becomes a conversation.

Maureen O’Boyle Feldman, ResonationMusic.com

  1. Be authentic (yourself), but remember you do have to get our attention. Think of something that is unique to you but might interest us. Use it early in your pitch.
  2. Always think of ‘why’ you are doing this right ‘before’ you get up to speak. It usually helps calm some of the jitters.
  3. Tell us about impact. Even if it isn’t happening yet, what impact will you make if you receive the funds needed.

Megan Jones

  1. Embrace the process and don’t put up defenses and argue against it. Everyone is there to help (and donating their time).
  2. What matters most is the first sentence and first impression.
  3. You don’t need to win to benefit (or make the time spent on the fast pitch justified).

Betsy Densmore, www.academies-se.org, @SELeader

  1. Practice
  2. Practice – be upfront and personal – who you are in the matter matters
  3. Practice – tell people what’s in it for them.

Denise Berger

  1. What I found works well is to develop the content and facts first and throw it out there to see what resonates.
  2. Then, work on honing and scaling down.
  3. Then work on presentation style.

Debbi Winter, www.ecf.net

  1. Coaches be ever mindful of not crossing into territory of offering to write portions of the pitch, or the whole thing for that matter. It is tempting to want to simply “do it” because you may see clearly how things should be going, but we know that is not the purpose and ultimately does not help the participant to grow.
  2. Participants be well informed about the time AND emotional commitment of doing this work. While one certainly must go through the experience to fully understand it, there are ways to help prepare participants for work that lies ahead. Possibly including some of this description / info in the application so those that aren’t ready will self select out…a thought.
  3. A big challenge is the innovation aspect. Most nonprofits while doing good and important work, often it is not terribly innovative. This is a challenge for both the participants and the coaches. I’m not sure that I have a tip to offer to help on this front as innovation is such a key component of the structure of the competition. But I will share that while I so liked the competitors and felt really proud of how well so many of them progressed, I honestly only found a few to be innovative in their work.

Scott Jarus

  1. Use a powerful story narrative
  2. Ensure that the description of your mission is clear
  3. Provide reasonable, believable and validated outcomes

Steve Burns (Advice for coaches)

  1. A lot happens in 3+ minutes. Try and keep up with the presenter and not lose focus by writing too much down or thinking too deeply into one particular item.
  2. Put all your thoughts on the note cards that get handed in. These are kept by the presenters and the more times people mention similar things, the more it will be impressed upon them that it is important. Even if someone spoke about the point, if it’s important to you, write it down.
  3. Try and help the presenter find and create the “shock and awe” moment. That means what will make them unforgettable. Many presentations get forgotten. What will make this stand out. It must be natural to the speaker and true to their cause. Even days later people will talk about that moment when they thought “shock and awe!”

Elliot Sainer

  1. Practice, practice, practice, and do it in front of groups of people whom you either don’t know or know little.
  2. After focusing on the content, spend time with an outside resource, if possible, to work on presentation skills.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from other coaches if you feel it would be helpful. Also, you cannot please everyone, so don’t worry if you get conflicting advice from coaches at the presentations

Candy Deemer, www.interven.com

  1. The key to a compelling pitch is to have compelling “evidence” about your uniqueness and your impact (that’s the rational component), AND a compelling emotional component (that comes from a combination of your “stories” or memorable anecdotes/soundbites, AND your passion as a presenter).
  2. You have to deliver the pitch with no notes, so that means practice, practice, practice. Once you’ve got your content down and are happy with it, give your pitch over and over again until it is second nature to you. Give it to the mirror, give it to your peers, give it to your family.
  3. Listen and work collaboratively with your coaches…but in the end, follow what your heart and your intuition tells you–because nobody’s standing up on that stage except YOU.

Do you have more tips for pitching a non-profit to donors? Please leave them in the comments!