On Thursday March 6, Pirates pitchers Francisco Liriano and Jason Grilli found their scheduled Grapefruit League game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Bradenton, FL rained out. That night, 1,000 miles north back in Pittsburgh, ten brave nonprofit leaders got up and did their own pitching. On a stage in front of 300 people, they delivered three-minute pitches that they’d spent seven weeks writing, editing and memorizing. Why did they put themselves in this “shark tank” atmosphere? To start with, there were 20,000 reasons. At the end of the fourth annual Social Venture Partners Pittsburgh (SVP) Fast Pitch competition, one organization would go home with a top prize of $20,000. Others would collect additional prizes that would bring the total to $30,000. At least, that was the amount when the night started.
Bayer Center consultants Jeff Forster and Scott Leff returned to coach presenters in this year’s competition. Presenters all site the impact of having a pair of coaches assigned to help them hone their pitch for nearly two months. The Bayer Center asked a few participants about their experience and what they got out of the program.
Presenters found out about Fast Pitch in different ways. Bill Wolfe from the Homeless Children’s Education Fund learned about SVP through networking and had attended several Fast Pitch competitions in the past. Erika Johnson learned about it from Global Links and GTECH, organizations that had competed in prior years. A colleague recommended that Marijke Hecht from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy look into it. This year’s finalists were selected from a pool of 29 applicants.
Through the process, presenters went from using notes at a first run-through in front of their fellow presenters and all of the coaches to memorizing their pitches for the final run-through and the big night. Memorization and a strict three-minute limit created unique conditions for the presenters. It surprised Johnson “that three minutes seemed like plenty of time to hear another organization’s story, but not nearly enough time” to tell her own. “I often like to give a lot of examples and explanations.” recalled Hecht. “With this, I had to just cut right to the chase.” At the first run-through, some presenters were well over the 3-minute limit. In Hecht’s words, over the next month, they had to find ways “limit some…explanatory clauses…just limit the phrase to its barest bones…Having to edit so much really makes you think about what is important to say.” Presenters across the board found cutting the pitch down to fit into three minutes and then memorizing it to be the most difficult things. At the final run-through, Wolfe said he “wished he’d had one of his younger employees” present instead of himself.
That process changed the way presenters talked about their programs, each in their own ways. Whereas Hecht needed to cut out examples, Johnson realized that it would be better to cut an abstract mission statement from the pitch. Instead, she “needed to ‘show’ by providing examples rather than just telling”. Fast Pitch also brought her face to face with an attribute of the Center for Creative Reuse that hadn’t seemed so significant before: “We’ve always loved talking about collaboration and the ways we can help support other projects and organizations. The Fast Pitch process helped us to understand that as a core strength, and we landed on the very useful phrase ‘building Pittsburgh’s creative infrastructure’.” Wolfe also found tangible keys to describing his organization’s Service Access for Youth program: “How important it is for the facility to be in an easy to access location and how important food is as an incentive to get the children living on the streets to come to the program.”
SVP has long told participants that it’s best to look beyond the financial prizes. As coaches, Jeff and Scott advised their presenters to think about how valuable it is just to get the undivided attention of 300 people for three minutes. Presenters found that the cash prizes certainly motivate but that there’s more to it. Wolfe said “[T]he opportunity to make over 300 community leaders aware of the problem was very powerful. In addition, the media coverage after the event continues to build awareness.” When asked what was most valuable about participating in Fast Pitch, Johnson had one answer before the night of the big pitch and a different one after: “Before the pitch event, I’d have said it was just the opportunity to focus in a serious way on our story was the most valuable part, though the opportunities for connection and building community were a close second. After the pitch night, however, I think I would say that the increased exposure to a new audience may prove to be equally valuable. We have already received one unsolicited individual donation because of the event, and initiated two new partnerships.”
Most of the “pitchers” deployed stories from their work to help explain it. “Storytelling is everything,“ the Parks Conservancy’s Hecht said. “Having a good story is what draw people in and gives them a sense of why your program matters.” Wolfe found other benefits to making a story the core of his pitch: “My two coaches helped me put the pitch into a story format. The story format enabled me to memorize the pitch and deliver it with passion.” To help the audience understand the plight of homeless children, Wolfe described a 17-year-old named Tanya, who was kicked out of her house when her mother got a new boyfriend. The audience connected with a promising student facing the merciless realm of the streets.
Prizes varied for the organizations. The Parks Conservancy’s Young Naturalist program received an anonymous donation from someone in the audience. The Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse won the second place prize awarded by audience voting, taking home $5,000 for some critical organizational infrastructure. In addition, they won the Capacity Building award which they’ll use to plan for the future growth of the organization. Wolfe’s Homeless Children’s Education Fund won the top prize of $20,000 for its Service Access for Youth program. The Forbes Funds surprised the crowd by expanding from its planned $500 award to one organization to a $500 grant to all semi-finalists. Social Venture Partners, likewise, gave $500 to the presenters who did not take one of the top four prizes. So each finalist found their courage and hard work rewarded with at least $1,000. Prize money ended up totaling nearly $40,000.
Just as the Pirates are gearing up for a new season, the Fast Pitch is training for a new season in their organization’s life. Fast Pitch presenters from past years say the benefits don’t end on the night of the pitch. Andrea Williams from the Children’s Sickle Cell Foundation, participated in the competition in 2012 and talks about a trajectory change for her organization. They morphed after Fast Pitch into an organization that’s ready to communicate more clearly and make more connections. The Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse’s Erika Johnson describes her organization’s current transformation this way: “The confidence and momentum provided by the Fast Pitch event are…helping us to move forward in new ways.”