Sarah Durham, author of 2009’s Brandraising, founded communications firm Big Duck in 1994 to help nonprofits raise money, gain visibility, and make effective use of social media. After 16 years, Big Duck continues to assist organizations from the Cancer Research Institute to the Women’s Sports Foundation in building strong relationships with key constituents both online and off. –Emilia Benton
Fast Company: How did you get the idea for Big Duck?
Sarah Durham: I was doing licensing work for Disney and I realized I wanted be advancing a great cause or issue. Having grown up with family in the advertising industry, I knew marketing strategies in the for-profit sector helped these brands get their name out, and I believed that was missing on the nonprofit side. Most nonprofits don’t have staff members with fundraising experience, and I know for fact that if you don’t fundraise well, you can’t do your work.
FC: How do you apply the “Brandraising” method to your work at Big Duck?
SD: In a nutshell, “brandraising” means bringing awareness about your fundraising needs, which commonly involves social networking tools these days. We help nonprofits make smart decisions so they know they’re not just throwing their money into a bottomless pit. This is especially important now because of the way the recession is hitting nonprofits. Most of the nonprofits I speak with are facing increasing tough competition for funding and struggling to figure out how to communicate in this new online-driven world—that was the main reason I wrote Brandraising. I think the sector is in for a shake-up about how communications are managed, budgeted, planned, and staffed, and we hope to help them figure it all out.
FC: What sets Big Duck apart from other communications firms?
SD: I’ve always believed that Big Duck’s staff should be smaller (we currently have 11 staffers) than the demand for our services. Being busy allows us to tell a client if we’re not a good fit for a project or if we think there’s a smarter way to get it done. The good news about that strategy is that it’s helped us maintain a high quality of work and a strong reputation, so we’ve been consistently busy during the recession, while other communications firms seem to be floundering. The bad news is that sometimes our bandwidth is so booked up that we have to pass on the opportunity to work with a nonprofit we might really help.
FC: What made you decide to focus on nonprofits?
SD: My grandmother did a lot of volunteer work, which had a huge impact on me as a child. Now that my twin 6-year-old daughters are at an age where they can start to be conscious about the fact that the world is full of people who are less privileged, and that it’s important to give back, I’ve been trying to find ways to get them excited about giving. Last Chanukah we decided to devote one night to giving to nonprofits rather than to one another. After talking it through, the kids chose to give to Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy (a Big Duck client) and Habitat for Humanity. This was a great way to get them to better understand what I do.
FC: What do you think is the biggest challenge for women in technology?
SD: While women are great thinkers and are doing some of the most innovative work in technology, the challenge remains that the “biggest” (and those who are perceived to be the best) still tend to be men. While the glass ceiling has certainly moved, I don’t think it’s gone. However, social media is really changing how we communicate and I personally think that women have a better and more intuitive grasp of it than men, in that women have a better ear for what is worth sharing in a broad way. This is an interesting opportunity for women to lead the social-media movement.