Colleen Brinkmann: Creating food security, one relationship at a time

Colleen Brinkmann
Colleen Brinkmann

Nonprofit strategist Colleen Brinkmann, who was born in India to an Indian mother, speaks about her recent book, secret sauce for fundraising success and her “Char-Minar” approach, among other issues.

Colleen Brinkmann radiates genuine warmth. She speaks from her heart, truly cares about what she does and brings a clinical efficiency to getting things done. It is probably the rare, magical combination of these qualities that has made her one of the most successful nonprofit fundraisers. Achieving a 588 percent increase in annual public support over a period of 14 years and orchestrating a successful capital campaign to bring in over $55 million is a feat that few can match. Brinkmann is however quick to acknowledge and share credit with the entire community and team that worked shoulder to shoulder with her.

Brinkmann is a giver. She wants to spread the wealth and grow the pie. So, soon after retiring she embarked upon her “share-the-wisdom” project. The outcome of that is her book Moonshot Leadership that provides a rare inside glimpse of how nonprofit fundraising can succeed while offering to readers the “secret sauce” to achieve that kind of success.

Born in Kolar Gold Fields, in Karnataka, and moving to the United States at 18, Colleen is no less than a goldmine of knowledge, connections and deep insights into philanthropy and its inner workings. Venky Raghavendra met her multiple times even while the book was in the making and engaged her in a conversation when the book was out.

Why is the address 4 Battery Lane in Old Delhi so important and special to you?

Sister Kay and Colleen at Nehru’s birthday party in his New Delhi home in 1958.
Sister Kay and Colleen at Nehru’s birthday party in his New Delhi home in 1958.

Growing up in India with my mother, a native of Bareilly, and my father, an American who spent most of his life in India helped me evolve to be a true Indian in spirit and propensity. Born in Kolar in South India, I lived at 4 Battery Lane from age 4 – 18, attending the American International School.

Though an Indian inside out, nuanced biased assumptions about “who I was” always entreated me. What I know as certain is that I am Indian, through and through, in terms of my identity, culture and values. Yes, I am Western and comfortable in any setting.

My values evolved from observing and spending time with my parents during their work and community outings. My father, a multilingual, spent most of his time in the villages and leper colonies, made friends with each President and Prime Minister of India since Independence in 1945. I saw him build bridges that led to life-long friendships that later helped build Christian schools, churches and other institutions that provided training and sustainability for rural and urban communities. My mother, an outspoken educator, advocated for the least of those for providing a future of self-respect and independence that can be carried on to the next generation. All religions and walks of life were welcome at 4 Battery Lane. I saw, breathed and lived that mindset each and every day.

In your book Moonshot Leadership, you are giving away the “secret sauce” for fundraising success. Will Coca-Cola give away its winning formula to the world?!  Why did you decide to do that?

I believe that we are all in this planet to help others so that all living creatures can embrace purpose effortlessly. I also know that much of what was achieved in the first 7-8 years at the North Texas Food Bank was done because a few us were extremely passionate about our CEO Jan Pruitt’s vision. Jan was able to ignite the fire in us. Despite having not enough people in the right roles, we were raising 10-20 percent more every year in public support which led to distributed food!

The transformational moment occurred when Jan was introduced a top-quality consultant, Joe Frodsham of CMP, who coached, assessed and continued to coach the executive team and other leaders. The obvious impact on the clarity of thought and actions paved the way to grow with much less pain.

I am just a portion of the journey. I learned from those before me, and now I am passing on what I have learned. Maybe it will help others from repeating the painful moments, and give them new energy to detour while finding the solution. I had the opportunity to be mentored and led by incredible leaders who gave me the space to learn, stumble, fall, get up and all without punishment or negative karma. As I share in my book, I could not have achieved what I did, without Tom Quigley, Jan Pruitt and Trisha Cunningham.

In the fundraising world, why do you think it is important to have the freedom and the courage to take risks and make mistakes?  Does this extend to other aspects of life too?

It isn’t a crime to stay the course, safe and beige. What I have found through painful times and joyful moonshot moments is that by cutting through ones fears, and quickly addressing mistakes, one achieves greater insights, impact and learning. Even if the mistakes were made by my staff, I love helping remove the roadblock. In one instance, they felt they had disappointed a major corporate supporter. After hearing their story, I just jumped into the deep end of the pool and I called the donor on the phone immediately and apologized for our misstep. The tension evaporated right away, and the two team members watching this were relieved. We all make mistakes and my hope is that I was able to model for them to step up and find courage amidst fearful moments.

Fear truly is that one main roadblock that prevents transformation and well-being from blossoming. I had a tendency to wait too long to resolve matters to avoid conflict. The realization about this fear made me to start experimenting to turn that around by giving myself an internal Confidence Talk. Every single time I did that, there was a positive outcome and the relationship was healthier.

The confidence so evolved helped achieve greater impact, moonshots, and builds healthier relationships that are mutually-respectful.

Please tell us more about the highly-ambitious $55 million capital campaign of the North Texas Food Bank of which you were a key player. The seemingly audacious goal that all of you set for yourselves and how it came through.  

CEO Jan Pruitt hired me in her 3rd year as director of communications and her focus was to build the brand and impact. She gave me space to create without the fear of failure, and always had my back.

The three-year campaign was to transform NTFB from 62 million nutritious meals a year to the current need of 92 million meals by 2018. We were focusing on a 50% increase. 40% of the working North Texans were hungry making it hard to describe itself as an economic center. My team of 30 already was raising $17 to $18 million each year for operations,  we knew we’d have a heavy lift to raise both annual operating and the $55 million. I knew we could do it!

But then, the tsunami hit. NTFB felt a massive shock; it tilted back and forth, but stayed the course on raising the amount. And then Jan was diagnosed with cancer and passed away. I found myself pushed into a foreign land requiring to accepting battlefield promotion. Our consultant Joe Frodsham of CMP helped to scale us with the executive strength and stability we drew upon in Jan’s absence.

Another blast occurred when my husband was detected with cancer. However, my team and peers, stepped up, we held tight and ended the capital campaign with over 500 gifts totaling $55.6 million. The newly-hired CEO Trisha Cunningham’s leadership, who arrived in the final six months of the campaign, played a pivotal role.

Raising money in general is considered a very tough and draining exercise. What is your advice to those already in this space or getting into it?

It is not easy. It has to truly be a passion of yours. And, don’t think of it in linear terms of “raising x amount each year.’ Become the best and most trusted relationship-builder, connector, and strategist you can be. Those three words define those who I think are the best “fundraisers.”   If you are a great “friend-maker,” you will bring in support to make good happen.

There are three things that make you the best fundraiser. Know the cause that sets your heart afire is foremost. Then find the best organization tied to that cause. And, even if you have to relocate, or start at the bottom, find the best. Do your research in obvious and behind-the-curtain channels. Third, find the right leader who is self-confident, they are willing to teach you, then give you space to experiment without fear of failure and who have your back. I did in all three of my nonprofit jobs.

Don’t allow ego or money be your primary driver for “where” to work. I took at 50 percent cut when I first went into nonprofit. This led me into simple living for years until my salary went up and I am grateful for every level of pay I’ve received.

Your “Char-Minar” approach to success. What is it all about?

I will share four points which I was compelled to frame out the space in which I found success.

Minar #1 – Find your right cause, call and leader (I’ve spoken about this above)

Minar #2 – Lead the right team, paid and unpaid. Yes, invest in securing the right people for the right roles. It may cost more increasing your fundraising budget. Seek excellence in all the ways you define that word. Be candid about your culture, what resources you have and don’t have. Hire strength, heart, integrity, and people eager to strap on the moonshot suit and travel to un-charted territory.

Minar #3: Create the right value proposition looking for partnerships by doing research, active listening, bringing value sometimes before you get value, and developing trusted relationships. So much of what was raised financially was because those people knew we had integrity, operated transparently, and did what we said we’d do – feed the hungry.

Minar #4: Think Big. Build on what is working. The mayor of Plano, Texas, one of the fastest-growing cities in America, was a true game-changer. He recognized hunger as a roadblock to economic and social strength and we built strategies accordingly to raise annual and capital campaign dollars. Mayor Harry was inspiring and incredible. I tell everyone who wants to hit the moon – Find your Mayor Harry!

Can you talk about the Indian Diaspora community in the North Texas area and what got them excited to engage in addressing this critical issue of hunger?

Anna and Raj Asava, co-founders and co-chairs of the North Texas Food Bank’s Indian American Council, with their grandson and Colleen Brinkman, getting ready for a food drive.
Anna and Raj Asava, co-founders and co-chairs of the North Texas Food Bank’s Indian American Council, with their grandson and Colleen Brinkmann, getting ready for a food drive.

Soon after joining NTFB in 2002, the opportunist and connector in me saw sectors of North Texas which had unique history, values and culture and believed that hunger was unacceptable. These sectors were the GLDBQ, Young Professionals, Jewish and Indian communities. So, we created a marketing mindset identifying their core values, faith and community preferences to set annual goals of acquiring new relationships, securing in-kind and financial gifts, and volunteer hours. We were not always successful. So, with the Indian American Council, we placed it on the shelf until we had the right volunteer leaders. Gradually, more people came forward. When they did, I’d share my story of being from India and build the connection. Now, the Indian-American Council is thriving with new leadership and each year they raise funds to support one million meals – over $330,000!

Nonprofits must think like marketers!  Look at your communities to identify the thriving sectors. Build a “campaign within a campaign” to your cause to attract those who align with your values. Remember, our Indian American Council started small, percolated for three years with little impact. It was when NTFB’s board chair is Anurag Jain and Anna and Raj Asava went on-fire about the mission then the Council took off!

You have a new special connection to California now. Another woman of half-Indian descent like you, Senator Kamala Harris from California, is making news. Any thoughts on that?

I’m thrilled to know she’s throwing in her name. I am proud of her accomplishments and strength. That said, I don’t have a crystal ball that shows me the 2020 outcome. What I do know is that I am the product of many strong women including my Indian grandmother and my mother who opened the door for many village boys and girls so they could get a good education. She was a fiery advocate for equality and leadership, regardless of gender. And, Jan Pruitt was also bold, visionary and able to mobilize others to follow.  We, as a nation and world, are faced with the ugly and painful truth that genders are not respected equally – be it women, men, and those who don’t identify with either of these descriptors.

One of my most rewarding goals at this point in my life is to uplift girls, women, and children wherever they are, and especially in India where my heart firmly resides. May Kamala Harris, and those like her, open vistas bigger than we have today so our children can authentically shine and achieve their own moonshots.

(Venky Raghavendra is Vice-President @ Safe Water Network an organization that creates access safe and affordable drinking water to underserved communities. He is a Contributing Editor of The American Bazaar.)

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