Creating Impact through Storytelling: Tales of a Purpose-Driven PR Agency Lorraine Schuchart, Founder & CEO of Prosper for Purpose

Stories

Lorraine Schuchart is Founder & CEO of Prosper for Purpose, a communications company launched to help organizations engage, inspire, and transform relationships with their publics.  In 2016 they became the first nonprofit consulting and fundraising agency in the state of Ohio, and the second communications agency to become a Certified B Corp (Benefit Corporation).

Lorraine is an accredited public relations strategist and experienced fundraiser who has helped visionary leaders – from large companies to nonprofit organizations and educational institutions – achieve organizational goals for more than 25 years. She has earned numerous awards for both her writing and campaigns.

What initially inspired you to make a difference and what career path did you follow?

I grew up in a family that valued community service. My dad worked for the local government, my mom was a volunteer. I don’t know that I was ever initially inspired, it was just part of who I was and how I was raised. I did a lot of things as a kid and I grew up wanting to be a school teacher. I thought that would be my career path and how I would make an impact.

I loved kids, especially teenagers.  When I was a teenager myself, my summer job was managing a playground – I planned activities, took the kids on fieldtrips, and I loved it.

I went to college and halfway through – it was the 80s – found out there was no job market for teachers. It was kind of a divine intervention.

My teachers and counselors told me “There’s not a really good job market in teaching and you’re taking all of these journalism, creative writing, and communications courses – why don’t you do something with that?” I sighed and said “Well when I was teaching I was planning to write the Great American novel during my summer break… but being a full-time writer probably isn’t a great path either.”  They explained that I could pursue marketing, PR, communications, and advertising.  It sounds ridiculous to be 20 years old and not realize that these professions existed, but I honestly had no clue what public relations was.

So, I started taking classes. I took every PR class, every marketing class, every advertising class. I fell in love with public relations. To me, it was storytelling for other people. It was primarily writing, figuring out what’s best about a person or an organization, and pitching that story to the media. That’s pretty much what it was until the advent of the internet.

Right out of school, I started doing PR for a local printing company. My first full-time job was with the American Cancer Society doing fundraising and communications and running events. I loved it, but the pay wasn’t great. I stayed for three years and then moved on.  Throughout my career I went back and forth between nonprofit and for-profit.

I did some consulting on the side, but I was always a victim of my own success. My consulting kept getting more and more business until I couldn’t handle it. I was never inclined to be an entrepreneur or to start a business. That wasn’t even in my realm of consideration.

I just kept going back to work. I spent 10 years at a social services organization that was focused on social justice and it changed my life. It was the place that felt like home.

Near the end, the founding executive director passed away. After this, they moved into a different stage of growth and I decided to make a change.

Next, I landed at JoAnn Fabric and Craft stores. It was an extreme change moving into retail. However, I loved it there because I got to design the local philanthropic footprint and I started a teacher rewards program. I was able to do a lot of cool things, but after almost 3 years there was nothing new and inventive for me to do.

After I left JoAnn I went back to nonprofit and that choice was not a good fit. I think in a lot of ways I was looking to recreate the impact and the relationships that I had at my long-term nonprofit.

Focusing on Purpose

One day my adult daughter said “Instead of always looking for the place you want to work, why don’t you create it?” I had thought about going back to doing freelance, but I knew I didn’t handle the growth well.  However, I decided I was going to take her advice. I quit my job immediately. It took a month and a half to plan the business. I met someone I worked with previously that was on board with the idea. She came and launched the business with me. We officially launched in January 2013.

Tell me a bit about your work with Prosper for Purpose and how you’re working to make a positive impact through public relations?  

Prosper for Purpose was initially formed as a blend of nonprofit fundraising and public relations. We had clients that were for-profit, and we did PR for them, but we were always looking at the organizational goals. Even if you’re not a nonprofit you’re concerned with raising money because money helps you keep your focus, fulfill your mission, grow your programs, and keep your doors open.

One of the earliest pieces of advice given to us was to choose a lane between working with nonprofits and for-profits. We were told our name would make people assume we only work with nonprofits. I didn’t want to choose a lane because there are really good people working at for-profit companies.  One of our clients now is in energy-efficient housing and they are a thought leader in this industry. Why would I not work with them? They are making healthy households and helping the environment.  There are a lot of good people out there and I’m thankful we didn’t narrow the focus.

What I have done increasingly over time to narrow the focus is to seek clients that are hoping to have either a social or environmental impact. That’s our core focus. Occasionally we’ll take a client not in that realm, but it’s usually because of a personal referral.

We focus on the quadruple bottom line – people, planet, profit, and purpose.

We want to bring our lens of purpose to all we do – to do well by doing good. Being a B Corp, we’re committed to using business as a force for good. Even before we became a B Corp we always said we wanted to do well by doing good.

I also feel what really sets apart Prosper for Purpose is our culture.  We respect that our team is made of individuals and we want them to bring their whole selves to work. That means we care and support the whole person, not just the employee part.

To that end, our employees do personal development plans each year. These plans include both professional and personal goals and desires. Then I sit down with each employee to create a plan to help them meet those goals.

Every member of our team starts with a minimum of three weeks paid vacation and unlimited sick days. We offer flexible work schedules based on a ‘design your week’ philosophy. Some of our team members want to fit a workout into their day, others have children, pets, or parents to attend to. As long as you can get your work done, which includes being available for all meetings, we work with you.

We work hard, but we play hard too. We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. Last year, the team dressed up for Halloween.

This management approach comes from the servant leadership model that my mentor taught me many years ago. Essentially, you flip the org chart upside down. As the founder and CEO, my job is to support everyone else and to ensure they have what they need to do their best work.

Local Impact Through Social Justice and Environmental Investment

What are some of the most impactful campaigns that you’ve worked on?

One of the recent campaigns we’re working on is related to social justice.  Having worked at a social justice-focused organization, it is one of our biggest impact focus areas. For the past 8 months we’ve been working with the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.  They received a grant from the State of Ohio to grow awareness of the free health screenings available to underserved women in our area. It’s a 17-county project. We did a whole campaign that recently won an award called ‘My Body Matters.

We’re now putting the final touches on video interviews from women who have been impacted by either breast or cervical cancer. They weren’t necessarily diagnosed, but they may have had a scare, or someone in their lives was impacted.  We’re helping women get these screenings and overcome the barriers, which can be transportation, childcare, or cost.  It has been one of my favorite experiences because the people we work with are so lovely, and the volunteers that have come forward to tell their stories are incredibly brave. It really resonates with me.  If you can’t take care of your own health, you can’t take care of others.

We also recently finished a year-long engagement with 1% for the Planet, where we piloted a program for them.  1% for the Planet works with companies who pledge 1% of their revenue to the environment. They work with these companies to choose specifically which area to fund – clean water, animal rescue, etc.  The money is essentially invested, but it’s a different kind of investment because it’s a donation.

We wanted to see if we could inspire individual givers – not necessarily to give 1%, but to give something.  Environmental organizations tend to get better traction on the coasts. People living on the east coast and west coast tend to be more supportive than middle America.

In speaking with 1% for the Planet, I told them that one thing I know about Ohio, and Cleveland specifically, is that people are very locally-loyal. They have a strong sense of loyalty to what’s close to them.  I said “What if we tried to work with organizations that you work with in the state of Ohio? What if we did a campaign where people gave one donation and it supported six organizations in the local area working to take a positive environmental impact?”

We did that and learned a lot, including the fact that it takes a lot longer to get traction and to get people to understand what we’re trying to do.  However, we’re proud that it’s serving as a pilot program for what a national campaign might look like. If you go to Seedohio.org you can see some of the visuals associated with that campaign.

Aligning Vision, Values, and Delivery: Lessons Learned on People and Process

What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome thus far?

Choosing the right people was an early obstacle.  The person I launched Prosper for Purpose with is no longer part of the organization.  It’s really hard because you can share your vision with someone and they can buy in to the vision, but sometimes when the rubber meets the road, the vision and mission look different to you than to other people. Then you have to make those challenging decisions.  I wrote a blog post, ‘Four Takeaways as Prosper for Purpose Celebrates Four Years,’ about the key things I learned in the first four years of running an agency, and this was one of them.

Before I launched the company, I came up with the company values and built a website.  Prosper for Purpose was completely aspirational from the start. The first value was people – if you’re not working with the right people, nothing else matters.  In a small agency, people can make or break you. If you’ve read “Good to Great,” Jim Collins says that you have to get the right people on the bus and get the wrong people off the bus. Sometimes the wrong people show up looking like the right people and saying the right things… and probably believing what they say is true.  You can have a vision that aligns with someone, but the implementation of that vision is a little bit different.  When you realize you have the wrong person on the bus, that’s the biggest challenge.

I tend to be more heart-led than head-led. Having to part ways with someone is really painful. We’ve had that happen more than one time.

You welcome those people on the bus and if you realize they aren’t the right people or they aren’t in the right seat, you have to let them off the bus… regardless of how far down the road you are at that point.

One of the things I do now is have every potential candidate meet with my team. We have 7 people on our staff and 3 consultants that work with us. I’ve learned that different people see different things because everyone brings their own experience.

When talking about people, the other piece of that is your client base. You have to choose your clients carefully as well.  Sometimes great projects come with difficult clients. Other times, small projects bring great clients and the scope can grow from there.  We’ve been fortunate to primarily have great people and great clients, but we’ve also had a few of the others as well.  Life is too short to work with people who don’t respect you – either you, your process, or your people.  In those cases, you just have to part ways and refer those clients to someone else that might be a better fit. It’s tough.

The second thing we’ve had to deal with is getting the right systems and processes in place. For us, this was a struggle. We had a project management system that didn’t work for everyone. It was hard for some people to learn and adapt, so then we tried others.  We had different ways of doing things. Sometimes those ways didn’t work.

As a leader of a small organization, sometimes you get caught between wanting to look like you know what you’re doing and being able to admit that you don’t necessarily know what’s best.

We made the best choices we could knowing what we know… unfortunately, some of the software we tried, and the different methods of management weren’t the best. We kept changing until we found something that worked.  We’re in a good place now. I give my president a lot of credit for that because she really led that process.

Do you mind sharing what worked and didn’t work?

Our project management system, Teamwork, did not work. It worked for me because I think in a linear fashion, but it didn’t work for others. Then we tried Excel spreadsheets and a variety of different things.

For tracking – we track our time to confirm how effective we are on projects and to know if we’re charging right. Time tracking does work and now we’re using Quickbooks for that. We’re continuing to explore other software and it all depends on who you work with. As we grew, we needed different tools. Finding the right tools was challenging.

We swear by Google – we use Google Docs for everything.  We store on Google, we share on Google. We think it’s a really easy way to manage that process.

Now our biggest challenge is scaling. I’m starting Goldman Sach’s 10,000 Small Businesses on Friday. It’s a scholarship program. It’s 3 months of classes, 1-2 days a week, every other week. You are really looking at all aspects of the business.  You have to apply, interview, and you have to be committed to scaling. Our current challenge is right-sizing the team for the project, being able to bring on new clients, and then on-boarding them quickly and effectively. I’m running an agency, but I never worked at an agency. I worked at 2 in-house agencies, but they weren’t true agencies.  It has really been baptism by fire. I know scaling is a big challenge for a lot of organizations, but it’s something we’re really committed to doing. We intend to stay a small business, but we don’t have to be a small business of 10… we could be a small business of 20.  I’m very excited.

Define Your ‘Why’ Before Your ‘How’

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world or pursue their passion?

Start with your ‘why.’ I know it’s cliché, but it’s important to know what you want to do and why you want to do it. A lot of people think it has to be your full-time job, but that doesn’t work for everyone. It’s not always possible to follow your heart and turn it into a full-time job. I advise people to figure out what you are called to do and why you are called to do it.

Sometimes the ‘why’ will present other solutions. I say pursue it for sure, I believe we all have a calling.  However, it may be that the first path you think to pursue isn’t the best solution. Don’t give it up just because you don’t think you have the skills or training to be successful.  Maybe you can keep your day job and find a way to volunteer and make an impact. I think there’s always a way.  You just have to be open to different pathways.