The outcomes of thought leadership can feel a little abstract compared to other marketing methods. So, I’m bringing Kel Haney onto the podcast to share a case study of what can be possible in your impactful small business after building a strong personal brand on LinkedIn.
Kel is an outbound fundraising expert who’s all about “Taking the Ick out of The Ask.” While she’s been in the fundraising field for 18 years, she’s now actively sharing her stories and building community to grow her personal brand and nonprofit coaching and consulting business. (And of course, for self-actualization and personal creative fulfillment, which we get into!)
If growing YOUR visibility & influence on LinkedIn is a priority, I want you to bookmark this episode for any time you need a reminder that this work works, plus a behind-the-scenes look at HOW it works.
“I really believe that we can all share our gifts and that we all have something really unique to share with the world. So, yeah, it is scary, but it’s worth it.” – Kel Haney
Highlights from the podcast episode:
How Kel’s personal story influences her business brand story
K: I’m an outbound fundraising expert. I focus specifically on consulting, coaching, and training folks on how to fundraise and, I like to say, how to take the Ick out of The Ask. It’s all about shifting the narrative away from transactional encounters, and instead towards relationship-building opportunities. I work independently and I’m also a senior consultant at Donorly, which is a consulting firm that is out of New York City but has clients all over the country.
I fell into fundraising. I fell into the not-for-profit sector, as I feel like a lot of us did in some ways.
I was a theater director in New York City for almost 20 years. So, I was pounding the pavement in New York City, and in my 20s I needed to do something to supplement my basically nonexistent income as a theater director. So, I started fundraising for the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City where I was also an intern and was working for the artistic director. I started to make fundraising phone calls for them, and it was just so natural to me. I’ve always loved to be on the phone, and I’ve always loved to connect with people. To be able to talk to people about theater, which was my favorite thing, more specifically this theater that for the longest time I actually wanted to run was great. I would even say on the phone that I wanted to run this theater someday, and the artistic director knew that was what I thought was going to be my creative path.
I got really good, really fast. I raised between 6 and 7 million dollars in less than eight years, all in gifts predominantly under $2,000 and it was just because it was something I loved. I didn’t have a traditional background in fundraising or in sales, so it was all coming from a very genuine, authentic, intuitive place.
I started there and after some time I got kind of burnt out, and I took a little break and was focusing just on my theater career as a director. But, as you know, the not-for-profit world is very small. There were people who knew how good I was at what I did, and I started having colleagues who’d moved on to other positions ask if I could come work with them. So, it became this parallel career I didn’t anticipate, where I was consulting, and I was training other people how to be fundraisers over the phone.
Then, the pandemic happened, and I started to fundraise full-time, just to do something when I couldn’t be in the rehearsal room. Then, I just realized that theater was my favorite thing for so long, and pursuing that career was so important to me, but I found this other path. I actually think I have something more unique and more specific to offer the world as a fundraising coach, consultant, and trainer than I did as a theater director. I was really good at that and I really loved it, but a lot of people can do that and do that well, but I feel like I have something very specific to offer the world in this way and it’s feeling really great.
T: And it feels great because you’re very obviously integrating your calling, your passion, your lived experience, your credibility, the thing that you have done over and over and have receipts around, and you’ve put that all together into this mosaic of you doing your life’s work. It’s amazing to see.
Something else that stuck out for me when you were talking about making these calls, is that even when you were starting to fundraise, you would bring your lived experience into it. You were saying “I want to run this theater one day”, and you were building relationships by sharing your story, because how else do you build relationships? You share of yourself, you learn about the other person, and you vibe together. So, I love that so much.
K: I agree with you totally. Starting with our own “why”. I mean, Simon Sinek! I think he’s really got that right. And I think it’s both in the work that you’re doing in terms of encouraging people in their own thought leadership and it’s the same thing with fundraising of getting really clear on how to articulate our own “why”s. That’s very vulnerable to do and that’s not always easy. But, the clearer we are with ourselves, and why we’re doing what we’re passionate about, that’s what makes us connect to others, and it’s all about connection. It’s all about making those connections.
Getting comfortable being visible as a thought leader
T: So, tell me a little bit more about some of the barriers, the fears, the concerns, and we’re by the campfire so tell me about the scary stories of when you yourself were starting on this visibility journey. Because I know that even though you have decades of experience as a fundraiser, as a theater director, this most recent time that you joined the LinkedIn Content Sprint was one of your first forays into building your own personal executive visibility and personal brand as a thought leader and as a go-to voice. So, what were some of the scary moments around that for you?
K: I think – and you say this a lot and I appreciate this – that we really are through our own thought leadership, healing our own wounds.
For the longest time, the fact that I was a fundraiser was my dirty little secret. It wasn’t something that I talked about in my theater career and part of that is because I came up in a moment where the people who were getting ahead, for the most part, were white cis men who had some kind of familial means, had some other way of supporting themselves. So, it was like pretending that I wasn’t doing all of this work on the side, that I somehow magically at 25/26 was able to support myself with a directing career, which is actually not possible. There are ways that the economic system in the theater is really fractured and needs to really be repaired and rebuilt.
So, I think for me, it’s just about getting comfortable being visible period, with this skill and this gift that I had and that I hid because I thought in some ways that was diminishing my work as a director, but it never was. It was always, like you said, in conversation with and a part of myself. So, I think that’s been a big barrier for me in a larger sense.
In terms specifically of joining the Content Sprint, it was just the impostor syndrome – things that you talk about all the time, which I appreciate. Just seeing “Oh, here are all these people who are further along in their journeys, who have more followers or already have a lead generator made”. I was like, “I don’t have any of that yet”. And, having the fear that I didn’t have enough to say. For me, it’s always like, “Am I enough? Do I have enough?” “I’m afraid that I’m going to say everything.” “Do I have enough things to say for six months of content?” That was what I was afraid of, that I truly just wasn’t enough myself and that I didn’t have enough to contribute.
T: There’s so much I want to say that my legs are tingling.
First of all, thank you so much for sharing that and sharing so authentically where you were at. You’re certainly not the only one that has experienced that.
It’s interesting because I have gotten to know you, and as somebody who has raised millions of dollars in donations of $2,000 and under there’s a real tenacity and confidence that you have when you are fundraising – I mean, that receipt alone just knocks my socks off – and I know how good you are at lifting up a mission and bringing attention to the good work of a team, a show, a creative project, but it is so different when we are doing it for ourselves.
But at the end of the day, it still is about lifting up a mission, because I know that there’s a lot that you’re accomplishing through your thought leadership, including lifting up your business and all of that kind of stuff. Ultimately, I think this work is very much also about helping people shift their hearts and minds around a misunderstood subject and I think fundraising is definitely such a misunderstood subject. There was that meme that was floating around a couple of years ago, that was like, “This is what my friends think I do. This is what I actually do.” and the fundraising memes were hilarious.
K: It also harkens back again to what that means in terms of thought leadership, visibility, or “networking”. Some people hear all of those words, and they get the Ick the way some people do about fundraising, but how to break down those barriers? I find that those challenges are very similar, and it really harkens back to being vulnerable and how scary that is: to be vulnerable.
Authenticity is always what gets us where we want to get, which is just authentically connecting with other people. But that takes a level of vulnerability and a level of risk, and I think that’s very similar between fundraising and thought leadership.
How to build community on LinkedIn
T: Vulnerability is such a difficult thing to hold by ourselves, and that’s why community is such an important part of this work.
You are extraordinary at building community. I don’t know if you know this, but I love creeping on my people. So, I’ve been creeping on you behind the scenes, of course, and you get so much wonderful engagement. I mean, people are leaving you long, thoughtful, heartfelt comments in response to the posts that you’re putting out there on LinkedIn. I love the way that you think about this work as not just sharing content, but really building community. What do you think it is about the ways that you show up that really bring out that community-building aspect?
K: I think there are numerous factors.
1. I think part of it is something I’ve really learned and been inspired from you. Which is this idea of really thinking about “who is your audience?” and “who are you trying to reach with your content?” So, I’m always thinking about that. I’m thinking about “who are the people who are fundraisers or who want to fundraise specifically for a passion project?”, and “how do I want to reach them with what I do know and the experiences I have?”, and the questions I’m asking myself or the questions a younger version or a less experienced version of myself may be asking. So, I’m really trying to always keep my audience in mind.
2. Also, having high-quality content is really important to me. I’m not interested in anything that feels navel-gazey or clickbait-y. I am not looking to build transactional relationships. This is exactly what I train in fundraising, I’m looking for relationship-building opportunities. I’m not looking for quick transactions, I’m looking for building my brand with people who want to be in the same conversation that I’m in. If anything, I think I might get too in-depth in each of my posts, I probably could do less, but I just want that to be part of what I’m sharing. Whether it’s a post, whether it’s a freebie that I’m offering, or whether it’s a newsletter that’s going out via email, I want any content from me to really be gold and to really feel like it’s worth somebody’s time. I’m just so aware of the 1,000s of ways we’re all pulled and pushed throughout the day, and I just want that when someone comes across my content in whatever way, that it really is a break and that it really is a moment where they’re like, I’m going to get something that’s going to be valuable out of this and it’s going to be really true and authentic. So, I think it’s that.
3. I also think it’s about the relationships that I’m building. Whether it’s in the comments section, whether it’s in direct messages over LinkedIn, whether it’s about bringing conversations I’m having in other parts of my work and other parts of my professional and personal life and encouraging to have them in public in the comments section. I’m thinking about that a lot, just in how I’m cultivating this. It’s just that these are deep conversations that I’m having in the rest of my life, and then just finding ways to make sure we’re also having that in public so other people can share in it.
4. I also think it’s about the call to action. I’m just really always thinking about “what’s the call to action?” And, when I do ask people and reach out to specific individuals to say “Oh, I think you might be interested in what I’ve written this week and the thoughts I’m sharing. I would specifically like to hear from you.” So, it’s never from a place of “I want to boost engagement” or “get the algorithm happy”. It’s really from a place of “I’d really love to hear what you have to say on this topic. I’d really love for that.” But, this is just the tip of the iceberg. My goal is that whatever I’m sharing opens up a much larger conversation across our community.
T: Something that came up as you were sharing is that in one way, sharing our content is free labor on our part. But at the end of the day, folks are really paying with their time and attention, and you never know where that’s going to go. We were sharing in the greenroom that you were introduced to me through somebody that you’re close to, and she happened to be reading my LinkedIn content.
K: That was Sandra Davis, who’s the president of Donorly, the consulting firm I work with. She mentioned you to me and then I just flew looking at your content and then listening to the podcast. I was like, “Oh, I can listen to all of these.” Every time I was on a walk with my dog before the Content Sprint, I was like “I want to get through as many or all of these as I can, and just gather all of this gold”, because it really is there in the pods. But, yeah, it really is building that familiarity, before you actually even are one-on-one with somebody.
T: That I love! Especially because now it’s 2023 and I’m getting ready to go to several conferences later this year. I’ve noticed that when I go to these in-person things people are like, “Oh, you’re Tania! I’ve read your LinkedIn content.” So, there’s immediately an in, there’s immediately a connection. And, especially as a somewhat awkward introvert, it really, really helps to have that sort of in ready to go.
Results of thought leadership on LinkedIn
T: I’d love to know about you. How has this work of the last five to six months of showing up as a thought leader on LinkedIn impacted your coaching and consulting business?
K: I think in a really similar way of just being able to build a shorthand really quickly. Something I think about is that when someone reached out to have an exploratory call, I really used to feel like I had to spend the first 10 minutes basically giving a version of what I just did at the top of your podcast, and just kind of introducing them to me. Now I feel like people enter the conversation and we can build a shorthand a lot quicker. I find that people are already listening, they already know some things about me, and there’s just a level of enthusiasm and excitement that feels new. I’m already putting out there a whole bunch of content, a whole bunch of thoughts, and sharing my experiences, and I feel like it builds shorthand really, really quickly, which I love for a lot of reasons.
I also find sometimes I’m in conversations with people who aren’t in a place to afford the price points of what I offer, and I can say “Well, I have so much free content.” I want to make sure that I always have material that’s accessible to everybody. And I know it’s not the same as actually working one-on-one or one too many, there’s always so much more content to get as what I’m saying really is just a portion of what I offer. But I don’t also feel like I’m withholding it all, I’m just sharing what I feel is most useful to the most general public that we can.
You’re right about the lurkers. I find that super fascinating. Very early, I think we were still in the Content Sprint, I had a Broadway producer reach out to me, and this is an individual who has won lots of Tonys, who is very, very successful and he reached out to me via LinkedIn. When I did take a couple of meetings with him and we met in person, I think he was reading specifically my intro, and he said, “You could be running any of these not-for-profit theaters, you could be the director of development, but you’ve got a tenacity to you and you want to do this differently.” Which is true. I felt like he really saw me, and he really saw me because of what I was sharing on LinkedIn, and who would have ever thought that?
T: You mentioned excitement and you mentioned enthusiasm. And yes, those two things are the emergent properties of this work of thought leadership. But, I think another way to describe it is trust. You’re building trust with people. People trust that you are who you say you are, and that you have this driving passion and credibility that really positions you as that go-to person. And I love what you said about accessibility and having almost like this library of free resources that you’re building up so that anybody at any level of their journey, you have something for them. I think that’s really important.
Creating your thought leadership framework
T: How do you use your own personal story, as you are coaching folks, as you’re thinking about new offers in your business? I know you have a thing around a 5-Minute Fundraising Ask. How do you use your own story to inspire your business offerings?
K: My story is just so interwoven in everything I do. Again, I was not strategic, I did not have a plan. When I started doing this 18 years ago, I needed to supplement my income and what was, for me, the most fun way to do that? Luckily, that ended up being lucrative for me and really rewarding for me in ways I never anticipated.
You mentioned my 5-Minute Fundraising Ask training, that’s something that I offer to not-for-profits. I feel like I can truly train anyone to fundraise if they’re passionate about the organization or the project that they’re raising money for. And what’s unique about me is because I spent those years on the phone, I truly have tens of thousands of fundraising asks. I would say, conservatively, I’ve made 20,000 asks, and that volume is wild, right? The reason I did that is because I was doing it over the phone, so this was within five minutes.
I have a methodology that I’ve developed that’s basically: we’re basically creating a tent for our conversation and a tent that’s open on all sides. People can come and go as they please, we’re in there and you can come join us in the tent. The tent has four tent poles and so those are different moments that within that five-minute phone call you’re going to reach those marks. But in the middle of that, you’ve totally got the space to go on tributaries just like you would in any regular conversation.
So, I’ve really figured out a methodology and it’s based on me figuring out “Well, what did I do for so long that was so successful? How was I able to build trust, as you said, and build a rapport and be able to get to a place with somebody over the phone that I don’t know, who’s not expecting that I was going to call them? How was I able to get to the point that they would be willing to make a donation and to get further involved within that phone call?” So, it was really almost kind of engineering backwards of “What was I doing? Why was that working?” And some of it is just figuring out “Well, what are my impulses? And then what about my impulses can I teach other people how to do?”
T: There’s nothing I love more than a good framework, and you just described so beautifully how to come up with a version of your framework. Frameworks are so important because they’re a way to package and productize your expertise in a way that people can see, understand, pick up, and work through. So, so, so good. I love that! You’ve done content about that, right? I think I think I’ve seen it.
K: In terms of my framework, yes, that’s something that I have been talking about and I’ll continue to talk about some more in terms of this 5-Minute Fundraising Ask and building your own tent. I just recently realized that a big part of my wedding was us putting up a tent ourselves. We got married on this small island in Maine, where we’re now living, and I have all of these photos of my husband, my brother, and all of our friends helping the guy, who’s now my neighbor and my friend, put up the tent. I just was thinking that it’s funny the things that subconsciously stick with us. “Tent” felt important and “tent poles” felt important. As opposed to pillars, I felt like “Oh, that feels systemic and unmoving”, and I like the idea that we can pitch our tent anywhere and that we can all be a part of that.
I’m really excited to continue to talk about that some more. And again, that really is the framework that I train. So, I’m still trying to figure out what’s the best way to get that framework out in the most digestible way, in terms of shorter LinkedIn posts, but it’s definitely something I’m continuing to share.
And I just realized that as I’m in this farmhouse fixer-upper that we’ve just bought and we don’t have the backyard set up the way I want it yet, but at the same time I’ve just bought a tent so that I can sit outside and make that my outdoor office. Watch out, I’ll probably also post some photos of my makeshift office before we have the three-season porch and the patio that we want to have someday. I just have this tent that I bought on the Internet and a little desk. My husband jokes that all we need is for him to write me a little sign that says “Kel Haney – Fundraising Coach, Consultant, and Trainer” and I’ll put it on there and I can sit in the backyard with it.
Batching personal content for LinkedIn
T: I really would love to hear about your experience of batching six months of content for the Sprint. Because as I talk to people about the Sprint, one of the biggest things is like, “Ugh, six months of content! I don’t even know what I’m going to be doing in six months.” and I work with a lot of folks who are creative, and you are definitely a creative. So, what was it like to create six months of content in one fell swoop?
K: I was really excited about it. I was really excited about the community and the community that you were building. I just knew that whoever was going to be part of that Sprint were people that were like-minded and interested in a more inclusive, supportive world. So, I was super excited just to see who was there and to connect with other people. That felt really great to me. Especially, just because it is so personal and so insular to be creating content.
In all honesty, I wasn’t as fast I don’t think, if I’m comparing myself to other people. I remember someone else in the Sprint was on a plane and said, “Oh, I wrote five/six of these during that flight.” For me, it really would take me about an hour per post in terms of getting out my thoughts, and I just ended up being okay with that. So, I knew we had time that we were all spending every week, but I also spent a lot of time outside of that. For me, I was just carving it out. I just was like, “If I’ve got this time with you.” And truly, Tania, you are a superb copy editor. Once upon a time, I was an English major and I did write a lot, but I wasn’t in the habit of writing, so that was something that I did get faster, and I did get better as I went.
Just having your support along the way, was really great, but it was a lot. Being truly honest. For me and how much I wanted to get out of it and that I really did want to have my six months-ish worth of content – that felt really important. I also started posting for the first time while we were in the Sprint and so that was interesting. I just hadn’t been public in that way. I was truly posting as we were writing, so I felt like I was flying the plane as I was building it. And think that was really, really good for me, actually, just to see.
Even now, I go back, and I think about the prompts. I don’t know how much you’ve talked about this, but the prompts that you offer are really timeless prompts. Today I posted something that I wrote during the Sprint. I thought “Oh, well! That was really good actionable advice” and there were a couple of tweaks I made just towards what I’m talking about right now, in terms of my signature framework of this 5-Minute Fundraising Ask. And I’m thinking towards a lead generator I just created, which is the “8 Phrases NOT to use in your Fundraising” guide and I’m really excited to share that with the world. So, there are ways that I’m tweaking some of the things that I wrote four months ago, but it all feels really easy. It means that I can focus my LinkedIn time in the week on relationship-building and commenting on other people’s things, really building relationships. That just uses a different part of my brain than the actual creation of content, so I love it. I love batching like that! That’s definitely a habit I’m going to keep up.
T: You brought up so many good pieces right there, including the piece around – and I didn’t even know to talk about this the first time I launched the Sprint that much – which was that this work really is evergreen and timeless and fully repurposable. Because the thing is that when you’re spending so much time on these pieces, it feels like “Oh my gosh. There’s no way that I could share this, again, this was a one-and-done.” But if you share the first couple of posts that you shared six months ago: First of all, you’ll have new people in your audience who haven’t had the chance to read that amazing work. Secondly, there are going to be people who just needed to hear it in a different part of their life or needed to hear in a different way. So, I think that, just like you said before, how you’re creating this library of accessible content. I think all of this work in six months from now, you can just repeat it all over again.
I love too how you brought up the piece around community because we said this once before, but this work is vulnerable, and when we’re doing it with other people who are also sharing in similar ways, I think that we can really support each other.
K: To your point about repurposing content, I did a fair amount of that, and I haven’t even really tapped into all of the writing that I already have. I had a few blog posts – and you were great about looking at some of those as well – and I realized that within these blog posts, I probably had six months of content right there if I just wanted to stay within three blog posts that I wrote. Or podcasts that I’ve been on and just looking over the transcriptions of podcasts, and that’s something I’ll continue to do more of which is just go back into the vault of podcasts that I’ve been doing the past couple of years. I love the idea of revisiting those and sharing some of the takeaways as my post and then, obviously, in the comments linking to the entire podcast and continuing to offer that exposure to a new audience to the podcast hosts.
If there’s someone who has been around for a while, but who hasn’t been on LinkedIn, I do think that there’s just so much content that can be repurposed on LinkedIn or can be repurposed towards a newsletter or blog or whatnot, that can continue to be repurposed. It’s just continuing to figure out different ways to say our messaging.
You say this a lot, but I love the reminder that things that feel second nature to us in terms of the things that we have expertise in or that we have experience in that, to everyone else, it’s new information. So, hearing it in different ways and, like you said, in different moments of their lives is important. I feel like there are so many messages that I’m continuing to just say in a slightly different way in order to hopefully reach my audience in a deeper way.
T: That’s actually similar to fundraising as well. At the end of the day, we have a core message, maybe two or three core messages and we’re just trying to find dozens of new ways to share them over and over again so that they’re actually felt and internalized.
I have a question for you. What would you tell someone if they were currently afraid, nervous, feeling impostor thoughts, being visited by the spirit of perfectionism, and something was stopping them from sharing stories and getting visible on LinkedIn? What advice would you have for someone listening who just isn’t sure, if they’re ready?
K: I’d say that it’s already inside you. I posted about this at one point, and it wasn’t a post that’s gotten the most visibility and maybe I’ll repost it. But as a kid, I loved the Wizard of Oz and I thought of myself as Dorothy, and all I wanted as a kid was to go off to some magical land where I had something really special, I had my own ruby slippers, I was special, I was unique and people wanted to be around me for that uniqueness. Go figure! My Emerald City did end up being New York City. But I’ve realized in the past couple of years that I’ve aged and I’ve grown, and I’ve grown into Glinda instead, as the Good Witch. And what dropped into me was just to say, “You’ve got the power, you’ve had the power all along.”
So, I think that we need to move through our own obstacles, our own challenges, our own inner puzzle pieces that we’re trying to work through. We need to work through that because a lot of people are going to be really touched by what you have to share. I think we owe that to the world, to bring our most authentic, candid selves. I mean, that’s how we truly do connect to other people and other people can learn from us.
As someone who was a theater director for all those years – I wasn’t on LinkedIn and I wasn’t using social media for business purposes in this way – I am shocked and delighted that this has become such a creative outlet for me and for my writing. Even deeper than that, and I think you’ve said this lots of times, but it truly is self-actualization for me. I feel like I am being able to be more honest with myself about who I am, the things that I’m learning, where I am now, where I’ve been, and where I would like to go. To be able to share that, and share that with an audience, and have people responding to it. I just feel so excited and so invigorated every time somebody writes to me and says, “I’m so glad you articulated this.” “I didn’t know anybody else felt like that” or “You’re making me feel like I can do this.” I do. I really believe that we can all share our gifts and that we all have something really unique to share with the world. So, yeah, it is scary, but it’s worth it.
LinkedIn Content Sprint
If you’re listening in real time, get ready to join October’s LinkedIn content sprint – doors open for registration on Tuesday, Sep 19. There’ll be 20 spots available and I anticipate it will sell out, so check out the info + get on the waitlist here.
This Sprint supports impactful small business owners in easefully writing 6 months worth of strategic, timeless, and repurposable LinkedIn posts designed to attract inbound opportunities. And, you’ll get my 1:1 copy coaching on everything you write (which is why spots are so limited!)
Resources from this episode:
Get your copy of Kel’s juicy FREE “8 Phrases NOT to use in your Fundraising” guide here.
Connect with Kel Haney:
LinkedIn: Kel Haney