The Restaurant Worker’s Community Foundation is only two years old and already has an annual revenue of $7 million from more than 15,000 donors. That’s 250,000% growth! A lot of their success is the result of a great communications strategy. We invited communications thought leader and RWCF board member, Michael Hamill Remaley, to the podcast to discuss the topic. You will definitely pick up tips for your own communication strategy!
Listen to the Episode Here!
Hamill Remaley’s Website
Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation(RCWF): Website
(5:33) Developing useful contacts
(7:22) Earning the community’s trust
(10:29) Building media relationships
(16:48) Using social media
(22:33) Adapting your communications strategy as media interests change
(25:07) Earning and keeping new donors
Dolph Goldenburg (00:00):
Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits® Podcast. I’m your host, Dolph Goldenburg. And today we are going to be talking about communication strategies with Michael Hamill Remaley. It is essential that nonprofits have strong and effective communication strategies. How we communicate impacts and affects our staff, our board, our standing in the community, our fundraising and, ultimately, our clients now more than ever, communication is key. We are living in unprecedented times, and it is essential that as an organization, you have a way to really communicate to your community and your constituents, what you’re doing, how you can help them and get your message across. I have to share with you real quick, how I met today’s guest. So obviously I’ve got a podcast. It’s this one. And I get a lot of pitches for podcast guests. I mean, a lot of pitches. I would say in any given week, I typically get five or six podcast guest pitches.
Dolph Goldenburg (01:08):
And I pride myself because I always respond. Well, Michael approached me about a podcast guest that I was not interested in now. That’s not too terribly surprising because, honestly, I turn down about 9 out of 10 perspective podcast guests. But I was really intrigued by the way that Michael pitched it. It was such a good pitch, even though I was not interested in the guest because it just was not a good fit for the show. It was such a good pitch. And it was so well written that I’m knew I needed to check Michael out. So I go to his website.
Dolph Goldenburg (01:53):
On my very first glance at the website, I thought I have got to have Michael on the podcast. Because he clearly put a lot of thought and intentionality into his website. And then I started to read it and I have to tell you, my podcast jowls were salivating. I loved the way Michael approaches the world and approaches the work. So I reached out and said, “Michael, yeah, I’m sorry. I don’t think this is a good guest for us, but I think you’re the meat and potatoes of a great episode.”
Dolph Goldenburg (02:43):
We went back and forth a little bit about it. And after a little arm twisting and wrangling, I’m so excited that we got Michael on the podcast. So Michael has got a ton of media, PR, communication experience with nonprofits. His website mentions everything from report writing to issue campaigns and everything in between. And again, when you visit his website, it just makes you want to read more. It is the definition of a great website. So with this as the intro, Michael, welcome to the podcast.
Michael Hamill Remaley (03:26):
Hello, thank you for having me. My brain is about to explode from all that positive feedback. I’m just, wow, thank you.
Dolph Goldenburg (03:34):
Well, I routinely go look at every PR person or firm’s website in case they have other clients I’m interested in. And their websites are a yawn and it’s really clear that it’s just a WordPress template. That was not your website. It really, really sucked me in. So I want to launch our conversation with a question about the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation. I know that you’re on their board. I know that you have been heavily involved. And I also know that just as New York city has been hard hit by COVID-19, the restaurant and hospitality industry has been doubly hard hit. So if I am a betting person, you reworked some communication strategies as COVID-19 was hitting. Can you tell us about that?
Michael Hamill Remaley (04:27):
Yes. So it has been a just bonkers five, six months. Restaurant Workers Community Foundation is a young organization. We launched in September 2018. We are an all-volunteer organization. My husband works in the restaurant business and is a co-founder of Restaurant Workers Community Foundation. One of his colleagues had the idea for the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation, but no nonprofit experience. So they reached out to me for advice and I’ve been involved ever since. When we got to January of 2020, we were looking out on this great year with a booming economy and thinking about all the systemic problems in the restaurant industry. We were focused on wage issues, career ladders, sexual harassment, fair treatment of immigrants, mental health, and substance abuse issues. All these things that are really endemic in the restaurant industry.
Michael Hamill Remaley (05:33):
March came along and our board had a Zoom emergency session. We decided to establish a COVID relief fund. Part of our success is that we moved very nimbly- we announced it the next day. Something to know is that our organization is made up of 20 volunteer board members who do the bulk of the work. And many of our members have incredible connections. Our communications chair is Caroline Hatchett who had been a major writer at Star Chef. My husband, John Debary, is our president and is a former editor of the Food & Wine cocktail book. And another involved with the Momofuku restaurant group. So we had some really strong connections in the food media business.
Michael Hamill Remaley (06:29):
There are also many people who know my husband started Restaurant Workers Community Foundation. So editors at Eater, Food & Wine, Bloomberg Eats and other major media companies started reaching out to see what Restaurant Workers Community Foundation was going to do about COVID. And we were able to say that we had just gotten approval to start a COVID relief fund.
Michael Hamill Remaley (07:22):
So we got out of the gate before a lot of other organizations. And we did a lot of the stuff that you would typically expect. We wrote a press release. We had an established media list of organizations. We had a great website. And by the way, one of the reasons that I think that people decided they were going entrust all this money to our organization was in no small part because we have an incredibly diverse board. It is half restaurant workers working in restaurants and half people with foundation and nonprofit experience. And I think that when people looked at who we were as individuals, people trusted us even though we were only two years old.
Michael Hamill Remaley (08:15):
We laid out a really clear mission for the fund. 50% goes to direct financial relief for out-of-work restaurant workers. 25% goes to existing nonprofit organizations that service restaurant workers with pro bono legal advice, food assistance, mental health assistance, et cetera. And another 25% is set aside for a zero interest loan program for restaurant businesses to get up and running again when the crisis is over. So I think the combination of getting out of the gate really early, having clear established relationships in the food business and the food media world, and having a really clear idea about what the money was going for by people that, at least on paper, look really trustworthy. And we try really hard to be extraordinarily transparent about every dollar that’s come in. We try to regularly update where every dollar came from and where it went out to. So that people can look at our FAQs and say, “Oh, this week they’re up to $7.1 million.”
Dolph Goldenburg (09:50):
All right, Michael, there is so much that I want to unpack there. Here’s the first thing I want to unpack. You mentioned journalists and editors knew to call you. Now, I’m assuming that did not just happen. I’m assuming that when you got started in 2018 and in 2019, you were building your media list and you were building media relationships.
Michael Hamill Remaley (10:29):
Oh yes. This is smartest thing I ever did, and I take full credit for this. When we did our first gala we had $0- everything was donated. A corporate sponsor gave us their space. We wanted to have some sort of speaker, but we had no real track record. We decided to approach Amanda Kludt, the chief editor of Eater. For your Listeners, Eater is the insider online publication that always covers great food and restaurant trends. People in the restaurant industry follow it religiously. And she was just amazing. Our president and I went to meet with her before she agreed to be our headliner. It was an amazing conversation about our work and our issues. Not only did she give an amazing speech, but she bought 20 of our silent auction items, so god bless her. That relationship has been incredibly important. Eater covered us when we launched our organization, and has continued to cover us.
Michael Hamill Remaley (12:14):
We also had a great relationship through my husband, with the person who had been the editor of the Food & Wine Cocktail book and then moved to Bloomberg Eats. Those two people basically gave us glowing coverage on the first day that we launched. Then Eater did this listing of relief funds. We were the top of their list so everybody who was reading Eater saw that. That started a cascade of us being listed on every relief fund that was focused on restaurant workers. So those first two relationships got the word out on the first day. And they’ve led to all kinds of other opportunities like ABC interviews with our president.
Michael Hamill Remaley (13:13):
Something good that came out of COVID is that, as people lost their jobs, we have so many more volunteers with so much time on their hands. For example, one of our stellar volunteers is Rebecca Palkovics. She was a communications person for Momofuku. And since most of her restaurant is not happening, she has been working her butt off for Restaurant Workers Community Foundation. And she, along with the chair of our communications committee, have become practically full time workers on this. So we have had a huge team effort and have accomplished so much.
Michael Hamill Remaley (14:11):
With that being said, media is definitely trailing off. People seem to have forgotten that restaurant workers are suffering. Three months ago the media was focused on the needs of restaurant workers and it’s trailing off. We’re currently trying to get picked up on an op-ed basically calling out Washington DC for their lack of care for restaurant workers who just lost their $600 per week supplemental funds. They’re in dire conditions. Restaurants are not ever going to come back the way they were. And so we’re trying to build up media coverage again.
Dolph Goldenburg (15:06):
Unsurprisingly, Michael, you said some things that have caused me some more questions. So first of all, love that. That was so strategic for you to have a highly influential editor give your keynote, especially a highly influential editor who’s going to come and spend lots of money at your silent auction. So as you’re rolling this out, obviously day one you’re getting some great press from two of the top media outlets in the food and beverage industry. Did you also put together a press release or were you primarily just working the phones and talking to editors and reporters? What were you doing?
Michael Hamill Remaley (15:49):
We did. We already had an existing target list of 40 media sources prior to the COVID relief fund that we were already communicating with. And it was a mix of food press, philanthropic press, labor press. We’d been sending them important news, like when we made grants. So we had that established list. And we did a press release announcing what the fund was and where the money would go. We just laid it all out there in a really transparent form. And then we responded to any requests that came back. We talked to anybody who wanted to talk to us for a solid month. Everybody on our core communications team, as well as our president, were working 70 to 80 hour weeks that first month so we could respond to anything that happened.
Michael Hamill Remaley (16:48):
We did another thing that was a really smart communications move. We had a successful fundraising year last year so the board permitted us to hire a social media consultant. Our volunteers did not have the time to be on social media constantly and have the kind of conversations we wanted to have. So we hired Cassandra Rosario, who has her own communications consulting practice. She started with us the week we announced our COVID relief fund, so she was trial by fire. She and her team have been unbelievably effective; we doubled her contract the next month. We’ve used that social media conversation in so many ways. Obviously there’s a fundraising element. We’ve also started doing RWCF talks where restaurant workers can come together to learn about important topics like mental health and renegotiating, or not paying, your rent if you can’t. We also used our social media to call for volunteers and board members. We have a deficit of back-of-house workers, like dishwashers and line chefs. We got a really wonderful response. We’ve been interviewing people for the past two months and just passed one of those names to our board for approval. We’re not on TikTok and we’re not on Reddit, but we’re on just about everything else. We have significantly increased our following, too. I think we started the crisis with 500 Instagram followers and now we’re around 10,000.
Dolph Goldenburg (20:25):
Talk to me about the ways in which you involve the restaurant workers who were impacted to help you amplify your message.
Michael Hamill Remaley (20:38):
Well, a couple of ways. One of the earliest strategies that we pursued was to thank our volunteers and highlight what they’re doing. We show people’s pictures and talk about what they do with us like reviewing grant applications. We can show others that there are people who have lost their jobs, but they’re spending all this time volunteering with Restaurant Workers Community Foundation. And it’s not just our board members or just restaurant workers. We have an incredible roster of people who have been giving their time, and it’s nice to highlight all of them.
Dolph Goldenburg (22:33):
That is so cool and so awesome. Here’s the other thing I have to ask you: You had mentioned that at this point, some of the media coverage is starting to wane. We all know the media has a short attention span and they chase that news cycle. So how is your communication strategy changing as the media is starting to move their attention to other things?
Michael Hamill Remaley (22:57):
We did start talking about creating this op-ed piece at the beginning of July, which we’re now shopping around. If it doesn’t get picked up in the next couple of hours, we’re actually going to put it out as a public statement and see if that gets us a little traction. The other thing is our programmatic work is not static. So we have additional things to talk about. We’re continuing the nonprofit grantmaking. We try to make announcements when we hit major fundraising milestones. And we’re moving towards launching a new fund that I cannot talk about right now because the board has not officially approved it; we’ll vote on it at our September board meeting. So we’ll have a new programmatic area to talk about. In the midst of all this, we created a restaurant managers resource guide that helps people.
Michael Hamill Remaley (23:54):
We’ve also created a restaurant managers’ resource guide, led by Rebecca Palkovics. It’s this guide for restaurant managers to help them share resources with their current and former employees on topics like finding health insurance while unemployed and how to sign up for unemployment. A lot of those topics have strong links back to our program areas. And then, with the help of volunteers, we’ve translated it into 7 different languages; there are a lot of restaurant workers who speak other languages. At the same time, we put out a call for people to join a Restaurant Managers Network that we hope will help us continue to develop our work and be emissaries of our programmatic messaging.
Dolph Goldenburg (25:07):
Oh my gosh. That’s awesome. I really know that I need to wrap it up and take it to the off-map-question, but there’s a couple more questions I’m dying to ask you, Michael. Here’s the first one. If you were to ballpark, how many new donors has the foundation garnered over the last five months?
Michael Hamill Remaley (25:25):
Well, almost all of our donors are new. Prior to March 15th we had around 3 board donors and 3 corporate donors. I don’t have my spreadsheet in front of me, so you can double check my numbers on our FAQ page. But I think we have around 15,000 individual small donors through our website and 500 to 1,000 major donors. We also just got a grant for $60,000 from United Philanthropy Forums’ Momentum Fund. They basically got this huge amount of funding from the Gates Foundation to help crisis relief funds ramp up their capacity. And so, in addition to that capacity grant, we’ll also be listed on the Gates Foundation website so people can learn what we’re all about and why they should fund us.
Michael Hamill Remaley (26:47):
We raised $7 million this year because of the COVID fund. We will not raise $7 million next year. That is not going to happen. But I believe, based on my back-of-the-envelope estimate, that it is totally realistic for us to raise a million dollars next year. If the board approves it at our September meeting, we will be hiring an executive director and chief operating officer.
Michael Hamill Remaley (27:14):
I am confident that at the end of the year we will have the resources that we need to support that level of staffing, at minimum, and really build out this organization for the long-term future. We have a proof of concept. We’re not even a two year old organization, but we have had hundreds of amazing donors. And they have done their homework, they have done their due diligence and put us through the ringer. And I just know, based on the list that we now have of people who have said they believe in us and have put their money where their mouth is, that we can definitely be a long term sustainable organization at a very high level.
Dolph Goldenburg (28:11):
You just pitched me the softball for what I’d planned to be my last question. So I appreciate that. so as an organization. You have literally gone from very few donors to thousands of individual donors and hundreds of corporate and foundation and other institutional donors. What is your communication plan to keep those donors engaged so that you will be that multimillion dollar organization in the future?
Michael Hamill Remaley (28:48):
Well, there’s general communications that I’ve talked a lot about it. And then the individual donor communications. Honestly our database situation is not what it should be. We did not use the donor management software program that I wish we had and we really have not had the staff to input the information that we should have. I think we’ll invest in a part-time development assistant to go back through the thousands of emails to make sure that every single funder and potential funder is in our system so we can loop back around with them. I think we have almost $2 million in commitments and $6.6 million in our bank account. So we need to loop back around with the people who have made those commitments and we need a system for doing that. That’s really the core of what we’ll be doing in the coming six months.
Michael Hamill Remaley (29:53):
I can’t believe we’ve got this far in the conversation and I have not mentioned my great love affair with newsletters. I put a ton of content into newsletters, so much that you feel overwhelmed. I have a long history of people telling me they can’t read all the content in my newsletter. So some of the stuff we’ll be talking about in the coming months will be in the newsletter. But we also need some special communications for funders, especially institutional funders. I think this year is a lost cause. So in 2021 when everyone resets and reevaluates their strategy, we need to be ready with our story. We can share our amazing team, our resource managers’ packet, our restaurant managers’ network, our racial justice work.
Dolph Goldenburg (31:43):
I love that you are focusing on development and getting your CRM in place and all of that because those are going to be resources so well spent for really cultivating and engaging your donors so that they’re with you from year to year. And no all of them will stay with you, but if just two thirds of them do, you’re a huge success.
Michael Hamill Remaley (32:05):
We also invested money in bringing on Nicole Campbell who runs an organization called Buildup Philanthropy Advisory Group. She specializes in understanding an organization’s institutionalization and legal needs. She did this really amazing analysis of all the things we need to move out of our infancy and become a healthy, happy adult organization. So we will be using that report as an endorsement of where we are, where we need to get to, and the resources we need to accomplish it.
Dolph Goldenburg (32:58):
That’s absolutely awesome. Michael, got to ask you the off-the-map question, because well, we never let any guests go even when we’re running over. So I understand that you were one of the few people on the planet that has a cocktail named after you.
Michael Hamill Remaley (33:19):
Well, I do have a cocktail named after me. Coincidentally, I was born on the day the Stonewall Riots started. I was born June 27th, 1969, which is the day the riots started. And usually they observe on the 28th, but it started on the night of the 27th. Anyway, my husband worked at the world renowned cocktail bar, PDT, which stand for “please don’t tell” for the uninitiated. It’s this uber speakeasy, where you go in through a hot dog joint and you go through a phone booth and then you’re in this little back bar. So I had my 40th birthday party at PDT. And my husband created a drink to honor me called the Stonewall Debut. It is now in his book, Drink What You Want. So you can get the recipe for Stonewall Debut in his book.
Dolph Goldenburg (34:44):
I love that you’re pitching your husband’s book. Good for you. You’re a good husband. I have to share with you a quick story. Every now and then I talk about my husband on the podcast with the assurance that, even though we get 8,000 Or 9,000 downloads a month, he will not be among any of them. So I can say whatever I like about him and know he’s not going to hear it. So about five or six years ago, I had a book come out. And whenever you have a book come out, as I’m sure your husband has experienced, you want to know your first review on Amazon. Any my first review was actually one of my best friends from graduate school. And I could not help but go into the living room and say, “Honey, I just have to let you know that you’ve already lost out on the first position on reviews. You should really work on getting in this queue quickly.” So good for you for pitching the book
Michael Hamill Remaley (35:48):
Better than I did. I haven’t even thought to review his book. He had an amazing review from Publishers Weekly and all these other famous people. So he does not need me at all.
Dolph Goldenburg (36:06):
I promise you you’re the most important person in his life. So if you review it, you might be surprised. Michael, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your passion and your expertise and, frankly, your authentic self. I love it. Listeners, if you want to learn more about Michael and the incredible work he is doing, check out his website hamillremaley.com. Interestingly enough, we spent our time today talking about his volunteer work, but the work that he does for clients is incredible. You can read more about Michael, his services and his process, particularly his dedication to sticking with his clients through the execution of their plans. And you know, there’s a lot of consultants out there that will put together a plan for you and then dash out the door. And if it doesn’t work, they say it must have been the organization. So I will share with you that Michael sticks around with his clients and helps make sure they get that plan done.
Dolph Goldenburg (37:15):
If you’re interested in learning more about the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation, you can also visit their website, restaurantworkerscf.org. And, Listeners, there are many reasons why you should visit the website. Maybe to make a contribution. But also, you know that there’s going to be a pro behind their upcoming email newsletter. So if you want to see how an email newsletter is done right, you need to go to restaurantworkerscf.org, and sign up for their newsletter. And if it’s not already happening, I bet you by the time this rolls out, there’ll be a link to sign up. Michael, thanks again for being on the podcast.
Michael Hamill Remaley (37:58):
Thank you for having me. It was a great conversation.
Dolph Goldenburg (38:02):
All right, Listeners. If you missed those URLs because you were checking out Michael’s cocktail recipe, then don’t worry about it. Start fixing your drink and head on over to our website successfulnonprofits.com. There you will find those URLs along with a transcript and timestamped highlights of our conversation. You will also find a link to my email. I love getting feedback from you. I respond to every email that I get might take me a day or two, but I do respond to every email. Another great way to connect with me is, surprisingly enough, my email newsletter. Which is funny because Michael was just talking about the importance of that. Each issue is packed with useful updates, information and tools that you can use in your nonprofit. And believe it or not, the email newsletter, when you hit reply, it will come to me personally.
Dolph Goldenburg (38:58):
While you’re on the website, also make sure you check out our tactical planning services. Let’s face it. We are in a crisis. Most nonprofits are faring relatively well this year. It’s next year that’s going to be the tough year when there’s no stimulus. When there’s long-term unemployed people who maybe could give something this year but are not going to give something next year. So now is the time for you to be thinking about your tactical planning. If you’re trying to figure that out, reach out to me at successfulnonprofits.com. I want to have that conversation with you.
Dolph Goldenburg (39:37):
And also one last quick promo: Recessions are stressful. Pandemics are stressful. This election is stressful. So if you are feeling overwhelmed right now, remember that you are not alone. There are a lot of nonprofit leaders just like you that are feeling overwhelmed. And as I’ve often said, dealing with feelings of being overwhelmed is a lot of what I ended up working through as an executive coach. And for that reason, I’m going to be hosting a free webinar on Wednesday, October 14th. You can sign up for the webinar at successfulnonprofits.com/maketime. I will help you feel a little less overwhelmed at a time when it’s really easy to feel that way. That, Listeners, is our show for this week. I hope that you have gained some insight to help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.
Dolph Goldenburg (40:30):
I am not an accountant or attorney and neither I nor the Goldenburg Group provide tax legal or accounting advice. This material has been provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for tax, legal or accounting advice. Always consult a qualified, licensed professional about such matters.