We could focus on creativity and the external-facing programs. We could make our programs great.
Pollen Team, Photo: Hannan Wazwaz
Founded by Lars Leafblad in 2009, Pollen has enjoyed an institutional trajectory of which many other nonprofits might only dream, though its initial iteration had a narrow, but impactful focus: newsletters and a simple website aimed at professional community building. Its initial years of growth were Propel Nonprofits’ first project in fiscal sponsorship, providing the inspiration to sponsor a range of projects, organizations, and initiatives.
The beginnings were humble for Pollen. “At first it was volunteer-run, paid for on our credit cards, with sweat equity on the nights and weekends between Lars, Meghan Murphy (Pollen’s former Co-Executive Director and current Art + Story Director), and me,” says Jamie Millard, Pollen’s executive director.
The idea drew attention as a model for engagement, connection, and opportunity across a variety of fields in the diverse Twin Cities. Conversations in 2013 with the Bush Foundation had Pollen leadership, shared between Millard and Murphy, envisioning a greater role for their organization.
“We were starting to wonder whether Pollen could be more,” Millard remembers. “Bush started to help us imagine that it could. We had organic and supportive conversations in which Bush started to be less like a funder and more like a startup seed investor – they would supply capital for operations for three years for us, and we would go from there.”
Fiscal Sponsorship: A Path for Creative Growth
With a $1.5 million investment from the Bush Foundation, Pollen enjoyed a rare level of security and funding. Millard also recognized the management and operations this new level entailed, and that she was poised to succeed with the organization’s mission, but not necessarily with a rising level of administrative complexity. Pollen gravitated to the model of fiscal sponsorship and became the first such client for Propel Nonprofits.
“We knew from the beginning that fiscal sponsorship would help give us operational support,” says Millard, “We could focus on creativity and the external-facing programs. We could make our programs great.”
Pollen grew quickly, publishing stories and profiles on thought leaders, along with a jobs board that became a regular stop for opportunities with nonprofits, the arts, and with socially driven organizations.
“I’ve seen other startup nonprofits that don’t have a fiscal sponsor, and they get so bogged down in the operational details,” Millard says. “We knew we needed to build up good policies and transparency. Fiscal sponsorship takes worries about that out of the equation, especially with such a trusted partner.”
A “Mini-MBA” for New Nonprofit Leaders
Millard describes Pollen’s three years with Propel Nonprofits’ fiscal sponsorship as a “mini-MBA,” in which she learned by watching and absorbing advice on such crucial leadership skills as reviewing balance sheets and how to hire, evaluate, and supervise core team members including an accountant and a primary operations employee.
Today Pollen has a network of more than 10,000 “Pollenites” across a broad spectrum of professions who receive regular messaging and opportunities for connection. Pollen has also pioneered an online publishing model noted for depth of quality and presentation as well as its sustainability, with a 2016 local Voting Guide providing civic value with accessibility and functionality. Paying professional writers market rates for features and profiles, Pollen also employs graphic design talent to produce eye-catching layouts. Embedded in an ethic of positive collaboration and the transformative power of storytelling, Pollen has blazed a path for sponsors and partners to provide diverse revenue streams and a wider variety of narrative voices and perspectives.
“It’s amazing how much growth this led to,” says Millard of Pollen’s three years working with fiscal sponsorship. “We’ve been able to build our programs and events, hire designers and tell stories, do network building. I’m just grateful for that time period.”
Pollen is now a 501(c)(3), though Millard still regularly consults Propel Nonprofits about the organization’s finances, governance, and strategy – she likens it to graduating and leaving the nest, but knowing she’s still supported by a nurturing figure who’s invested in Pollen’s success. For its part, Propel Nonprofits has been activated by Pollen to expand its ambitions in fiscal sponsorship after learning the impact the model can have on communities.
“It’s really like a business solution for you,” Millard says. “From operations to hiring to an employee handbook. They’re my fairy godmother business buddy who helps me sleep at night. That’s what they do: they help Executive Directors sleep at night.”