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.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.