In this series of Group Thinkers podcast episodes, our focus is on leadership. Throughout each episode, we’ll chat with leaders in the nonprofit and commercial space to learn more about their careers and the unique journeys that led them to where they are today.
On this episode, we sit down with Erik Tomalis, Chief Evangelist of Virtuous, to discuss:
- What it means to be a Chief Evangelist (4:27)
- Thoughts on responsive fundraising (8:06)
- His journeys as a traveling salesman (10:35)
- Who inspires him as a peer (16:20)
- How he sees the future of fundraising (24:51)
Meet our guest
Chief Evangelist of Virtuous
“That's why I'm out there because I'm worried about our industry. In the next couple of years, what does it look like? Did people get burned out? I tell fundraisers all the time when I present … at the core of it, staff retention is the key indicator to donor retention because it’s all about relationships, and it matters for them to stay there.”
Justin: Welcome to Group Thinkers. I'm your host, Justin McCord. Ronnie, I almost just did like an I'm Ron Burgundy kind of moment.
Ronnie: Question mark?
Ronnie: I'm Justin McCord?
Justin: And you're Ronnie, as it were.
Ronnie: I think.
Justin: So, welcome today. Yeah. We're trying to get through this today. We're on the heels, the first weekend, of college football. We're both reeling a little bit. But we're gonna get through it. And we're gonna get through it today with a wonderful guest, a super pleasant guest, and someone who I think has a lot of wisdom, and that's Eric Tomalis.
Ronnie: Yeah. Eric, he’s the Chief Evangelist of Virtuous, and we'll unpack a little bit in the episode what that means exactly, but he has such an interesting perspective from his career path where he started out on the road and started working at nonprofit organizations and in fundraising and then shifted into more of the vendor and agency side. But another interesting aspect, speaking of life on the road, is that he is on the road so much. This is the 36th week of the year, and he's been to at least―I think he kind of lost count―but at least 45 conferences across the country. But that gives him a really unique perspective on, you know, he has so many conversations. He has a really strong perspective on having an ear to the ground of what's going on in the industry. And another thing that kinda stood out to me is when he worked in the fundraising space, he said he never thought about or focused on technology, and it was just, kind of, a blind spot for him, and now it's such, you know, with Virtuous technology, is the front and center, and it really is in our industry.
Justin: Yeah. Yeah. You know, it's interesting, Ronnie. We don't talk to a lot of product-oriented folks on here. Right? And, you know, sometimes that's intentional because we don't want things to turn into a commercial. That's not the point of these conversations And so, you know, setting that aside, you know those moments when you wonder about the art imitating life or life imitating art. What I really appreciate about Eric is, I think that he walks the values that his company stands for, and he does it so well. And he brings this connector mentality to conversations and to relationships, and in our state right now, man, that's valuable, like, this connector mentality. Of knowing what's happening and being able to say, oh, well, have you met so and so? And so, I think that there's tremendous value in that. And so, we're gonna unpack that a little bit. You're gonna hear that in how he shares his story. And so, without further ado, here is Eric Tomalis on Group Thinkers.
Justin: Hey. So, Eric, this is gonna be like a job interview.
Erik: Okay. Let's go. Now, hopefully I get, hopefully I get hired … fingers crossed.
Ronnie: We'll see by the end,
Justin: Yeah, we'll debrief.
Ronnie: We'll be in touch.
Erik: Wow. I haven't even started interviewing, and I’m already getting the gentle nudge.
Justin: It’s all, they're all buying signals. Right? They're all buying signals. Yeah.
Eric Tomalis, Welcome to Group Thinkers. Thanks for spending time with us today.
Erik: Yep. I'm super excited. Thanks for having me, guys.
Justin: You're, you are in the Pittsburgh area for once.
Erik: Yes. Yes. I’m in Pennsylvania. Western Pennsylvania, to be specific. And Pittsburgh is my home.
Justin: Alright. We're gonna get to why I even make reference to that here in a moment.
I wanna start with, what does it mean to be a chief evangelist? You're, your title is Chief Evangelist at Virtuous. What the heck does it mean to be a chief evangelist?
Erik: To me and to our team, well, I mean, I have a real title, you know, I'm the Director of Business Development, which touches a whole host of different areas within our system internally. But to be the chief evangelist, it’s kinda … my opinion is, I spent the last 20 some years in the front line of fundraising. And, obviously, Virtuous is a technology solution that's helping grow global generosity for organizations to do better things more efficiently and easier. And when I was in this space serving in the nonprofit sphere, I honestly never looked at technology, and I regretted it for a long time. And so, to be out there on the road, and you, quote unquote, evangelize to my peers and my nonprofit leaders is to say, hey, look at what else is out there. We need to consistently, you know, change, and look forward, and grow and look ahead. And I did everything else I could when I was in the space, changing, but I didn't do it around technology as often as I probably should've.
Justin: What was the triggering moment that made you think differently about technology? And maybe even back up a little bit, unpack what it means by you didn't ever look at technology when you were a front-line fundraiser.
Erik: Oh, well, I mean, I was comfortable with where we were. Right? With all the different systems that we, you know … ‘no one ever got fired for buying IBM’ is the phrase, right, that we always heard. Right? We have an IBM in our nonprofit space, and we used that for a long time. And, you know, that's where I was. But I think the tipping point for me when I jumped into Virtuous, was, I mean, you guys know me well. I mean, I'm very much into networking and connecting and, you know, and getting along with meeting as many new people as I can. And in the middle of the pandemic, being a social being stuck in my house, you know, I did a lot of zooms and a lot of networking with folks around the world that I've never met, and I was randomly introduced through a friend of mine to Gabe Cooper, who is the founder and CEO of Virtuous, and in a 20-minute conversation, I jumped in and was like, hey, I want on your team. I know technology. I don't know it as well as I should, but I've come from front-line fundraising. But this concept about responsive fundraising, I was enamored with, like, day one. And so, with an individual―like, my background is, I made a little over 4,500 face-to-face visits, traveling all over, asking for gifts and the whole thing. And I was like, I don't know where I would fit in, but I want on your team. And sure enough, I led one of the sales teams and managed a whole sales team, and all these tech salespeople were like, who is this guy coming off the road, who has no tech sales experience, managing us? But I know intrinsically, it's harder to raise money for a nonprofit because it's focused on donors’ trust that you're gonna do good with their funding and gift to make sure that your impact, the mission is growing and, honestly, it's easier to sell a widget, and I had to write that down with our tech sales folks of, you know, going through a process and building relationship and teaching what our people in the nonprofit space feel on a daily basis. It works. It worked.
Ronnie: Eric, I'm curious if you could, just for our listeners, talk a little bit about what you mean by responsive fundraising.
Erik: Yeah. Absolutely. So, responsive fundraising, to me, is this core concept here at Virtuous. This is our core methodology that leads into our technology. And so, you think through when a donor makes their first-time contribution to an organization, what do we do? Right? We call them. We thank them. We, well, screen them. We wanna go into why someone is giving to our organization. That's very much what I would call reactive fundraising. And so, responsive is this core methodology, as I mentioned, and it's all of the technology systems within an ecosystem of a nonprofit that holistically talk to one another. So, our home base is our CRM, our marketing, online giving, automation, all the different pieces. We have a whole host of a technology suite. So, when someone does donate, we actually know why. We can put them in a new donor journey series, and it's very much like, you know, like Netflix. Right? Or Apple Plus or any of these streaming services that when you finish “Stranger Things”―or I have other shows like “Hijack” that I just finished―and it suggests another series based on your personal preferences and what you just watched. And so, when you bring it into even, like, the core of a household here at, you know, in my family: I'm a digital person. I give online. I read email. My wife is an offline person. She is mail, writes checks, you know. So, like, even though the household is two of us both in the same generation, you can have that personal, hyperfocused multichannel approach, and you can do it at scale. And that's this core mindset of responsive.
Justin: So, it's fascinating that your path, man, has brought you to this place of being an evangelist and an ambassador for tech. Because, you know, as you said, that is not how you cut your teeth. So, let's go all the way back to, I think we started in working at Sigma Nu. Right? You were, you were a part of, I'm guessing you were Sigma Nu in college?
Erik: Yes, sir. Yep. Oh, yeah.
Justin: And then you went to, you know, as it were, the mothership. And so, you were working for the fraternity on a on a national scale, and that's where you started to learn fundraising. And so, talk us through the journey from there up until 2020. Like, what was that path like for you to get to the ambassador of tech that you are now.
Erik: I love it. Alright. Here's the story.
Justin: We're buckled up. We've got, all of our safety belts are on, so we're ready.
Erik: So, I went to Duquesne University here in Pittsburgh; I did become a Sigma Nu. I was a brother of our chapter here at Kappa Delta. I had the opportunity when I was a senior in college to serve as one of the four underclassmen on the national board of directors. So, there's about 10,000 undergraduate members; I was one of four that got a taste of what a board of director’s life would look like as an undergraduate. Both my girlfriend at the time―she's now my wife; we've been together over 20-some years too―we both wanted to go to law and business school. And so, that was our path. We got accepted. We wanted to do all the things. But at the last moment, my senior year, I basically had this moment of, like, a, like, epiphany. I was, like, we both can't go to law and business school at the same time and both be broke. One of us needs to get a job. And so, we made this deal back then where it was like, okay, she goes for the first four years, and then we'll switch out after four years. I'll work somewhere and everything else.
And so, of course, giving back, I grew up in … the fraternity space is very much to me like the boy scouts where I grew up. And so, like, community, helping others, taking care of each other, very much like an alumni group. And so, I took a job on the fraternity staff. It was actually really interesting. It was―I don't share this story that much―I took a job as one of those traveling consultants that would go visit chapter to chapter, work on, you know, membership and alumni and, you know, fundraising techniques and recruitment, all the things, right, going from house to house all over the country, and my region, I'm gonna call it the Northeast, with air quotes, was Maine to South Carolina to Chicago. And so, me and my Nissan Altima were driving, I don't know, 40,000 miles in, you know, about three or four months. And to be honest with you, it was like, I would go house to house, and I would get a phone call maybe two months later from someone saying, hey, thanks so much, Tomalis, for being here. You helped us with recruitment. But I’d already forgot about them. And I lost that relationship because I was already on to the next chapter and doing all those different things. And I remember in, like, I think it was December or January at that point, I just, I actually quit. I walked into our executive director's office, and I was like, I can't do this anymore. Like, it's just not appealing to me as a human because of the, you know, the relationship. And so, we’re based in Lexington, Virginia, and my wife was going to a case up in Cleveland. I'm driving through West Virginia, and I get a phone call from the president of the foundation. It was like, hey, I have an opportunity for you. I'd like you to turn around and come back. And so, I turned around from West Virginia and had this conversation with James Owens, who is our president. At that point of the foundation, he was like, well, I wanna change our foundation up, and I need your help to do so. And so, our foundation is the oldest in the Greek space. It was founded in, like, 1944, 1945. And from ‘45 until 2001, we were very much into leadership giving, principal gift manufacturing. Right? We only focused on 30 people that gave six and seven figures to our foundation to fund all our leadership educational programs for our organization. And I just didn't have a good taste in my mouth about that because we are one of the largest fraternity foundations. I think we were top four at that point, top five. And, we have 200,0000 living alumni. Right? And so, we're only asking 30 people to give to our foundation. And so I, with a couple other friends, we came up with this concept of doing mid-level giving― today's buzzword, back then it was something brand new. It was … which took this major gift cycle of building relationship, cultivating, asking, and stewarding all in a 45-minute meeting with a, with a prospect. And so, we turned it into a, kind of like, a sales metrics focus with philanthropy on the side where we met 250 to 300 people a year, asking everybody for a gift on the first visit for $25, and then we upgrade them to $83, which is $1,000 a year. But then if we could close 40 to 50 percent of that 250 to 300, those are brand new people that got in the act of giving. And so, it turned into a process. And in this, in the 2000s, our team, I think we visited with at least six or seven thousand new prospects and new donors, which are still―I just was with them with the other day. And, like, they're still on our board, you know, they're active; they're giving. They're still in, you know, all these people that we started 20 years ago, you can see where they, where they've gone today. But, yeah, Sigma Nu, who had me on the road way more then than today. So …
Justin: I don't, I don't know if I agree with that. I don't know. But …
Erik: There's been, there's two or three years I think I've I made over 410 visits, face to face, back in the 2000s. Yeah.
Justin: It's a lost art of the traveling salesman. It really is. So, this methodology, like, frankly, that became business school for you. Right? Methodology around mid-level is what ultimately took you out of, you know, from Sigma Nu into the agency space. And so, as you're doing this, you're doing this with some peers. Who's speaking into your life? Like, who are you looking at and trying to model any of this work after? Or is this you and your peers just like, pass/fail, we’re trying new things, we’re succeeding in some areas―which version was it?
Erik: A little bit of all of it. Right? Like, we still―it's funny, I talked to a lot of our peers today, and, you know, we go back to, you know, the Si Seymours, the books from the sixties and the seventies are foundational of everything that, you know, we do at fundraising today. The … Jerry Panas is right that actually wrote the book on asking. Like, all those people kind of set the tone, but then we had the change makers around us. So, like, even we at Sigma Nu, we had a group of people. If you know the fraternity space, all the fraternities and sororities all have the same missions, same methodologies, same challenges, but they have different constituents. And they don't compete against each other, right, because we wanna grow the Greeks movement together. So what we built with Sigma Nu and Delta Sig and a couple other different organizations, we turned it into a small little business, if you will, and then moved on to an agency, as you, as you reference. But back then, it was actually interesting. It was like, I remember my first donor trip. And the way we did the trips where you, you know, fly in Tuesday, fly home Thursday, you do that three or four times a month, make 10 to 15 visits in that time span. Right?
But back in 2002, when we didn't believe email was gonna be a thing, Right? Like, we thought email was just a fad, I would send out all these emails to the Houston alumni. And anybody that opened the email got a phone call from me because I can track the open rates. And then anyone I got a visit with, I would go into the email and say, so there's three articles, right, or three pieces, a, b, and c, scholarship, leadership, involvement, whatever. And if whatever they clicked on in red was the topic I would have a conversation about in person when I was meeting with them. You know? So that stuff. I mean, revolutionary, you know, then. And today, right. Right? Like, it's totally gone ten different directions today.
Justin: So fascinating.
Erik: But that's why I had a 70 percent close rate because we're leading into all those different things. Meeting with the right …
Justin: You're looking at these data points and making decisions off of them. To what extent does, you know, does that frontline experience that you have speak into some of the responsive fundraising mechanics that we see with the product today?
Erik: Like, a face to face, like, within our system?
Justin: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, like, yeah. I mean, just like your relationship with the product team, and what you either have experienced yourself or, as you're out evangelizing, what you're bringing back from the field. Like, what is that, what does that look like?
Erik: Oh, that's fantastic. We have a couple of different things within Virtuous. We have, like, the voice of the customer where we listen to who our customers are, and what their interests are and where we wanna go. We have our own product road map internally so that users can, you know, up vote or down vote or, say, see what's out there. Internally, what's really unique with Virtuous is most of us come from the nonprofit space. From all different phases of the space. Right? Like, I was always front of house. I couldn't run, I couldn't manage a database. But I was always needed in external leadership and everything, but we have people in all different facets around the nonprofit space internally. So we all get together and say, hey, we should do this. This is what I’ve always been looking for, whether it's like how to pull a report or how to do a, you know, a major gift pipeline or move a management pipeline, you know, all the things. So, we're always communicating that. And then the unique thing, the backbone of our technology, is this idea about automation. And, you know, it's … the coolest thing about it was Gabe came up with this concept, like, five years ago, six years ago, and now everyone's doing automation and leading into it. So now we have―I'm not gonna unveil it today, but we have a whole host of things that we want to bring to market that are way more forward thinking, you know, leaning in on some new things that are gonna come out there. So, we wanna be the driver of new ideas rather than primarily listening to our people. Right? So, 40 percent of our customers ... people, but 60 percent will come from looking ahead.
Ronnie: So, Eric, I'm curious. We've kind of alluded to this idea that you spend so much time on the road, so much time going to different trade shows or meeting with different clients and everything. How do you, I guess, how do you decide how to build that schedule and where you're gonna be? Because, yeah, you're all over the place. And I imagine all the inputs that you're taking from that is going into building the product and all these different things. How do you, kind of, get all that schedule down in your road-warrior life?
Erik: Yeah. It's interesting. Like, we look at it at a couple of different angles, you know: one, where can we have the, you know, biggest opportunity, you know, right? Because we're still, I mean, how many nonprofit organizations are within our space―I think the last number I saw was, like, 1.4 million nonprofits. Right? And so, we all can work collaboratively as partners, as vendors, exhibitors, whatever you wanna call us. And so, I primarily look at places where our partners are, where we have the biggest opportunity to spread joy and talk about this idea of growing generosity through our responsive fundraising and then work backwards off of that. And so, yeah, it's been a … there's been a lot this year. I think we, I mean, me personally, I think I've been up to at least 45 or 48 conferences or shows or presentations this year, which has been great because, just, we're back. You know, we're, you know, I don't wanna say post-COVID or past the pandemic, but I think everyone wants to get that meet-to-meet experience and shake hands and, like, have, you know, have that conversation again. So, we choose where we're going, where we have the best opportunity for success, but also to where our customers are’ Right? And so, that's been our backbone, where our partners are.
Justin: I'm sorry, real quick. This is week 36 of 2023. You just said that we're all keeping count. This is week 36, and you just said 48.
Erik: 45, 48, I think is what it is. Yeah. Somewhere around there. It's been fun. And then September is just bonkers for me. So Yeah.
Justin: Ronnie, this is why he's the road warrior. This is why he's …
Ronnie: Yeah. The airline miles must be fantastic, right? I mean …
Erik: They're good. And I think that's the other side is like, I mean, I've lived on the road my entire career. So, I mean, the airline miles might say, I mean, is that really a thing. Like, when I was managing our health system here in Pittsburgh, I was off the road for three years. And, you know, it was great, you know, because, like, I could, like, settle down and be called, but I still had those perks with the lifetime status. And my wife and I, what we've decided this year leading into it is every four or five weeks, she's gonna travel with me somewhere. Yeah. And so, we were just together for a conference, and she came down for the weekend. And we're now planning a trip for California here in a second. And so, she doesn't wanna go to, you know, like, Indianapolis or … but she'll go to Scottsdale. She'll go to DC. Yeah.
Justin: There you go.
Erik: But I love Indianapolis. It’s one of my favorite towns.
Justin: Oh, Indy's great. Indy’s fantastic. So, when you think about, you know, all these lessons that you're learning, all the takeaways that you're getting. I mean, you know, frankly, 45 opportunities to have some sort of experience that can help shape the way that you see the space. Sitting here, as we're getting into a very exciting and high-stress season for fundraisers with year end on the heels of one of the more challenging years that we've seen in the nonprofit space in some time, frame for us your outlook on the near-term future―near term might be 12 to 18 months, etcetera. Like, what are you hearing? What do you think this is gonna look like over the course of the next year?
Erik: Yeah. That's a great question. And, like, and I'll bring it back to even the things we're doing at Virtuous because I think that's honestly the solution. You know, you're right. Like, you look at the fundraising effect in this project report, you look at, you know, the Giving Institute, you know, what just came out and where trends are leaning, and you're seeing―it was funny I was talking to a friend of mine last week, and we were like, what does the donor pyramid look like today? Is it a real pyramid? Right? Like, not really. Is it a sky? It's more of a skyscraper because you have all these major, major donors that are giving and no one below. I still subscribe to the donor sombrero where you have a few at the top are giving a lot of money, and a lot of the bottom, but there's no one in the middle. How do you take someone from a $100 gift to a $10,000 gift? And we always forget about that middle. But it's different because, I mean, I think that's where I see the next 12 to 18 months is out there, is hyper personalized, doing it at scale, doing it efficiently, you know? I remember being in the space, and I was told we have to do more with less, you know? Like, you can't hire headcount today because of the great resignation or migration, whatever you wanna call it, and put them in the seats as we did 20 years ago―we would hire gift officers all day long to get out there and build those relationships. But with its opportunity of technology, and AI, and well screening, and behavioral data, and predictive analytics and all the different, you know, lookalike donors that are in our systems, our donors are in our systems, and how do we cultivate, how do we connect, how do we build those relationships, appreciate them, and take them down that donor journey to become those future major donors? And I think that's where Virtuous can help solve that problem for them. And that's why, frankly, that's why I'm out there. That's, like, one of my motors, you know? That’s why I’m out there because I’m worried about our industry, you know, in the next couple of years, what does it look like? Did people get burned out? I tell fundraisers all the time when I present. It was like, you know, because it's nice and, you know, everyone's it's glamorous, like, seeing us and the tech space, agency space out there doing good for our communities, but the work our leaders need to be doing in their communities, and staying in their fields and focused on this idea of donor retention because at the core of it, staff retention is the key indicator to donor retention because it's all about relationships, and it matters for them to stay there.
Justin: That's very well said. I mean, you know, it's time to stop scrambling. You know, I think that we've had, we had our reactive season over the last couple of years. And now, as we're coming out of that reactive season, it's, you know, not to play into y'all's bit, but it is time to be responsive and to stop scrambling. And, and, yeah, I think that you're right. Staff development is a major part of that. I think that if we can find ways to solve for some of the wellness factors for fundraisers and marketers, nonprofit marketers, I think that that will help so that you can have a continuation of a long-term strategy as opposed to cycling it over and over and over, reacting to what's in the moment. I hope that we're out of the worst of it, but, you know, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves for year end. And so, we need to give ourselves―I saw something this morning that, you know, we need to practice both high accountability and high grace. And I think that that's a good way to think about, what do we want this to look like during year end? Yes, we have high expectations, but we also give ourselves a lot of grace on the choices that we're making.
Erik: So well said too. Yeah. And it and that always bothers me too. Just thinking, like, It shouldn't be all about year end or, you know, whatever it is because we have to be that donor centered. We have to build the relationships throughout the course of the year to be able to―I, yes, absolutely, people do give more at the end of the year, but if we can focus on it throughout the course of the year, I think it's, we can be much more successful as an industry.
Justin: Yeah. Well done. Well said, man. I appreciate that. So, what's, what's one tip that you would give to our listening audience on how they’re walking through the remainder of 2023.
Erik: Well, there's a lot of tips, Justin. To probably focus in on there; never miss an opportunity would be one. Right? And it's like, I love, I love asking whatever it might be. Connecting, asking, figuring out what, you know, what, what, how people can give to our organization in, in other ways. Right? Like, be creative. It doesn't have to be financial. It could be, you know, in kind or, you know, opening a door, being a testimonial. Right? Like, all those things matter, toward getting, building that network and influence around our ecosystem for our organizations. The other is, like, you know, a friend of mine just posted on LinkedIn a phrase I shared with him. I was like, don't forget to eat the pie. The mindset is, you know, celebrate today, celebrate where you are. You know, I like, I said, I travel often and, you know, I try to do an experience in every city. I've been, you know, fortunate to be at every baseball stadium in the country. I go to a lot of museums. I do a lot of, you know, libraries. I do a lot of the different things in the community and to keep myself going. And I think we have to, you know, take Stephen Covey's habits, seventh habit, seriously of just sharpening the saw, you know, taking a pause, breathing, you know, focus on the wellness. Right? Like, we talked about, like―and just celebrating where you are in those small little victories. Because it's gonna be a long journey in the next four months.
Justin: Yeah. It is. It is. Eric, I appreciate you taking time to chat with us today and sharing a little bit about your background and some wisdom from all that time in that Nissan Altima.
Erik: Yeah. Oh, yeah, I got rid of that, and I've got a plane now. Right?
Justin: I like to imagine 48, 45 conferences in 36 weeks in the Nissan Altima. That's …
Ronnie: How many miles did that Altima have when you got rid of it?
Erik: I think I used to … when I sold it, it was like a 150,000. It was, it was up there, but it was all, you know, back in the day, it's all road miles. Right? Highway miles. Yeah. Praying condition. I mean, that in itself is, like, you learned a lot. Right? Like, it was six days on. Every two days, you're at a new university. Saturdays, I had the day off, which meant I could go to a laundromat, get a six pack of beer and watch college football. And then on Sunday, go to the next place. Right? So, you learned, like you said, Justin, it was like an education in itself, a graduate degree, of just knowing how to communicate to people and how to, you know, stay motivated.
Justin: When you write your memoir, I need it to either be titled or subtitled, “I Turned around in West Virginia,” because that …
Erik: It's a good one.
Justin: “I Turned around in West Virginia.” So yeah. Alright, man, it's great to chat with you. Thank you for spending time with us.
Erik: Appreciate you guys. Thank you.
Group Thinkers is a production of RKD Group. For more information, including how you can partner with RKD to accelerate growth for your fundraising and nonprofit marketing needs, visit rkdgroup.com.