Child CEO Brings Light to Darkness—by Accident
I started my company in 1989. I was not 12, but I tell people that I was. “I went from babysitting to being a CEO the same year. It was crazy!” In the beginning, I didn’t have a good idea of what I sold. I thought I sold stuff—mugs, T-shirts, hats.
As time when on, I realized I sold change in human behavior. Or, as Tom Cruise said in Risky Business, “I deal in human fulfillment.” What I also realized is that my clients often did not know what I was selling, or what they were buying.
The first time I understood that I did not sell stuff was when a client said, “I need to buy some X,” and I asked “why?” She stopped with her hand in the air. She stayed there a bit. Finally, she said, “I can’t answer that.”
Now this was a discerning, self-aware person who mistook my "why" question for something far deeper than it actually was. I asked “why” to find out if there was an event or some timeline I needed to accommodate. She answered thinking I had asked about the purpose of the product she was buying. Clearly I was the beneficiary here. This was an opportunity to skip a grade, so I pursued the course of conversation she had set. “Tell me,” I said, thoughtfully resting my chin on my hand. “What drove you to call me?”
She started to walk her own decision-making backwards. “Well,” she said. “I was in a meeting, discussing how to get people to an event to register, and someone said, ‘We need some branded product.’ I just went and started getting it. But, you are right!” she said. “I don’t want branded product, I want people to show up at the event. Branded product was just the easy answer.”
“Ahhhhh,” I said with great import, as if I had seen it all before, Yoda-like. “Product you want?”
“Yes!” she said, leaning back with wonder. “I just wanted to take my task and do it, instead of thinking about the true purpose, the true goal.” She looked at me with wonder, amazed that such a young person could hold such wisdom. Little did she know that the only wisdom I held was, “Do not talk now.”
For any decision you make, ask yourself why you made that decision, and whether anybody needed to make that decision. Rinse and repeat until you get to your true purpose.
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.