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“Be the Change You Wish to See in the World”

Posted by at May 04, 2012 09:32 AM CDT
Categories: NPtech

Today, Friday May 4, 2012, is my last day at Convio. I struggled as to what I should write, in this, my last public address. In the end I decided to reflect on my favorite quote by Mahatma Gandhi, “be the change you wish to see in the world,” as I feel it encapsulates the Convio story very well.

A little known fact is that, before starting Convio, I was exploring three very different concepts: yield management for airlines; supply chain management for the automotive parts industry; and nonprofit fundraising after participating in a PBS pledge drive. I pursued Convio, because I thought it would be amazing to have a shot at simultaneously building a business whilst positively impacting the world. My wife also wanted me to make an impact in the world and frankly thought the other ideas were boring. I’ve learned it’s not a good idea to be boring in the eyes of your wife!

I believed that you could create a for-profit enterprise whilst realizing social good. I was convinced that we could change the way that nonprofits engaged their constituents by harnessing the Internet. I even boldly predicted the demise of direct mail – although I was wrong about that! Though many thought I was crazy, I persevered with the support of my cofounder David Crooke, our early team members, early adopter clients, investors, and of course my wife.

We were privileged enough to attract some great talent early on, in particular Dave Hart, who became our head of engineering.  We brought our first product to market in July 2000 working with a local children’s museum as our first client.  We recruited a number of early adopter clients who had the patience to work with an immature product, and the vision to understand how to utilize it.  I am eternally grateful for them for making a bet on us.

We realized however that building technology alone was insufficient in order to enact meaningful change in the nonprofit sector and indeed to realize widespread customer adoption. We needed to educate and build capacity in our sector, as in 2000 Internet fundraising/communications was far from the widely understood phenomenon it is today. We built a team focused on Client Success to proactively coach clients and to augment their in-house skills. We engaged in primary research with nonprofits and their donors and became maniacal about data in order to publish educational content. I travelled the country speaking at every nonprofit conference that would have me.

Over the years we faced many highs and lows. Among the highs I count, helping the American Red Cross raise funds for Hurricane Katrina and the Asian Tsunami; supporting the Howard Dean campaign on the first large scale Internet political campaign; working with the ASPCA to conclude that tailoring messages/images to dog versus cat people drove demonstrably different results; our first viral email campaign with Planned Parenthood Federation of America; the thrill of winning contracts at many marquee organizations; ringing the closing bell at NASDAQ after going public; and best of all, the gratitude of organizations large and small who felt that our technology and people had made a difference in their lives. The lows included a painful reduction in force in order to survive the brutal technology sector meltdown in 2001, and battling two frivolous lawsuits filed by a former competitor.

The year 2003 was a big year of change for me personally. I handed over the reigns as CEO to Gene Austin and became Chief Strategy Officer. It has been great to partner with Gene and an excellent team of executives, each of whom has helped Convio mature into the thriving business it is today.

Thirteen years on, I am proud of the business we built, but even more proud of the change we helped drive. We contributed to making online fundraising and constituent engagement a real phenomenon. In 1999, less than $100 million was raised online. In 2011, an estimated $17 billion was raised online.

I am also gratified by the economic impact we’ve had. As our country struggles to come out of recession and politicians debate the merits of different economic policies, I have become a strong advocate of the notion of an “Ideas Economy” – harnessing creativity and innovation to drive economic growth. I believe Convio is emblematic of this model. Through our innovation, we helped to create 1000s of jobs among partners and clients, and created 450 jobs at Convio.

People are the fuel for an “ideas economy” and I am constantly in awe of the passion and talent of our employees. For many, working at Convio has been the highlight of their career. We succeeded in building a culture of mutual respect, strong ethics, and client focus. Just as importantly, we built an environment where people could take risks, change roles, and advance their careers. We made our share of mistakes along the way, but we took measures to correct them as soon as humanly possible. I am very grateful to our leadership team and HR function who worked tirelessly to nurture a positive culture. I am also grateful to each team member who has helped reinforce and add to our culture – be it through organizing volunteer days, giving each other kudos for successfully completed projects, to ensuring the hiring bar was kept as high as possible.

Over the past 13 years, I have been privileged to meet many change agents: social entrepreneurs leading their own charities, innovators inside existing nonprofits, creative service providers, and indeed change agents within Convio. I encourage each of you to “be the change you wish to see in the world” and believe there are a few key success factors to pay heed to:

  • Have a clear vision for where you want to go, but listen intently to feedback and adapt as you get new information
  • Be intellectually honest – don’t believe that you always have the right answer
  • Persuade others to join you for the journey – change is not a solo endeavor
  • Hire great people, as they will in turn hire other great people
  • Communicate openly and regularly - combining facts with inspiration
  • Take calculated risks – it is ok to fail, as long as you learn from it
  • Be patient – change does not (usually) come over night

I leave with pride knowing that Convio has left an indelible mark on the nonprofit sector and was a catalyst for real change. I leave knowing that there are many competent and passionate people who will continue to innovate and drive change now as part of Blackbaud. While I am sad to leave this major chapter of my life behind, I am excited to test my entrepreneurial chops for a second time. Convio has set the bar high in creating a business where employees love to come to work, and you can feel really good about the impact you’re having, so I have my work cut out. This time around, I am founding a company outside of the nonprofit sector, but I believe it has the potential to be positively transformative in its own way. Stay tuned!

Anyone who would like to connect with me can do so at http://www.linkedin.com/in/vinaybhagat


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