An Interview With Fred Mednick, Founder, Teachers Without Borders
Certain ideas make so much sense that one wonders why no one thought of them sooner. Case in point: Global leaders struggled for decades to think of a way to improve education. Ten years ago, Fred Mednick, Ph.D., started his nonprofit aimed at supporting those who can best provide that education.
Teachers Without Borders, based in Seattle and operating on nearly $2.4 million a year, started with nothing but a plan to advance “human welfare through teacher professional development.” Soon, the organization will have a dedicated fundraiser added to its eight-member staff, seven of whom work full time. That will give the nonprofit a chance to diversify its funding that now consists of corporate grants and unsolicited donations.
The organization's purpose is to improve education because “all children deserve the right to flourish because of great teachers.”
FundRaising Success: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
Fred Mednick: We have done a considerable amount of thinking about this, along with the development of a new strategic plan focusing on multiple revenue streams. Despite the profound economic downturn, Teachers Without Borders actually grew in revenue. We may attribute this to those foundations who have decided to go deep with known quantities like Teachers Without Borders. However, we are far from complacent and consider it the height of arrogance to assume that such grants will continue. Therefore, we are beginning the active implementation of a strategic plan that will generate revenue from multiple, additional sources:
- Public campaigns: These are targeted toward the sponsorship of teachers to participate in programs — focused campaigns for our program channels, rather than one-off grants: Certificate of Teaching Mastery, Emergency Education and the Millennium Development Ambassadors Program. Focusing on channels, rather than grants, allows us to strengthen the core, rather than run after revenue.
- A transformed board of trustees: This is designed to move us from a traditional “founder’s board” to one that opens doors to individual gifts.
- Hiring of a development director: Teachers Without Borders has kept a close watch on existing funds, having preferred to focus entirely on measurable impacts and programs. However, we have learned that an investment of this kind may generate the kind of untapped revenue that could more than sustain the position and, indeed, help TWB to flourish.
- Speaking engagements: After 10 years, Teachers Without Borders is becoming a known quantity, and TWB has spoken at Harvard, Oxford, Stanford and TED. One hundred percent of income generated from public keynotes shall be given to the organization for capacity-building.
- TWB Toolset: Our innovative platform connects a social network, active and customizable group-space, and courseware in one package, [which is] capable of serving as both a stand-alone, multilingual online educational environment or of being customized to fill specific educational needs at a fraction of the cost. We have developed a revenue schedule that we project will provide income for TWB and recover costs within two years.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
FM: As discussed above, these are changes that were in the works prior to the economic downturn and are glaringly obvious now.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
FM: Up to this point, we really had none. In fact, we were criticized for not spending any money in creating a fundraising approach. Today, our philosophy is to ensure that revenue is generated from existing sources, enhanced, expanded and accelerated by public campaigns, coordinated leadership, large-scale awareness and the ability for funders of any kind to see all our financial information, along with verifiable impacts of our programs.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with social media and social networking?
FM: We are membership-based and depend upon the collective expertise of our members to connect with — and learn from — each other, across borders. We are heavily involved in social media, ranging from Facebook Causes to targeted campaigns. We are also innovating in the field of social media and social networking with our TWB Toolset.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
FM: When we have poured our heart and soul into a project, we have been pleasantly surprised. Years ago, when we were asked to help an Afghan girl get a heart operation in the United States, we worked with a filmmaker whose short piece found its way to Ted Koppel’s "Nightline" and earned enough to pay for her operation, her family’s well-being for several months and then some. After the 2008 Chinese earthquake, our experience having worked in the area close to the epicenter won the hearts of many, and we were able to fund our efforts there that continue to this day and beyond. So, we’re getting better and better at this. Ask us again in six months, after the development director has been hired and the TWB Toolset has been released. By that time, we should be able to provide a new story.
FS: Have you had any major difficulties or setbacks you've faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
FM: It is important to note that I started this organization 10 years ago with nothing. People rolled their eyes when I talked about connecting the world’s teachers. Our first project took place in May 2001 with Arab friends. After Sept. 11, many thought we were insane. We have faced setback after setback, but we prevail. Creativity and the reliance on our members has been the key.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
FM: There’s advice and then there’s action. Right now, TWB is able to serve as a fiscal sponsor and guide to a small number of young organizations seeking their nonprofit status. We do not charge a fee. We would advise, however, that organizations focus on their core mission and leverage what already exists so that they do not think they have to invent everything. Use QuickBooks for finances and wikis for collaboration. Find out what others are doing, and trade and barter. Stand on the shoulders of giants, and rely on partnerships. This, I believe, is key.
FS: Additional thoughts?
FM: More advice, really. For anyone out there reading this that is feeling the pain of this economy, I say, “Keep your integrity strong; join forces with like-minded organizations if your value system is consistent; and don’t take 'no' as a personal attack. In fact, a 'no' and a 'yes' are clear. But don’t think that a 'maybe' is going to turn out for the best. If you receive a 'no,' move on. For what it’s worth, if you receive a 'yes,' prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. But if you’re constantly getting 'maybes,' consider them a 'no.' ”