Tracy Quisenberry is the mother of two premature babies and saw firsthand the hardships families face in similar situations. While on medical leave with her son, she fell in love with the craft of cake decorating—little did she know where that would lead.
Over a decade and thousands of cakes later, Tracy’s nonprofit, Icing Smiles, continues to grow as it finds volunteers to donate their time and skills, using something as simple as a cake to bring positivity to the lives of sick children and their families.
In this episode of Accidental Fundraiser, you’ll hear about Tracy’s journey from being an accountant to founding a nonprofit. Listen as she breaks down her tips and tricks for peer-to-peer fundraising and why an organization’s vision is so vital to its mission.
- Find people to carry your vision
- Your volunteers are your best sellers
- Never stop learning
Tracy: I really did not understand just how much sales was involved. I tripped into this world and I just, I believe so much in the mission that I had to figure out how to make it work. So when you say, what is the strategy? I would say. The authentic, be real. Tell your story. And when you tell your story and if you have a good mission, the mission and the story sells itself,
Kimberly: um, what a great way to picture nonprofit work. I’m Kimberly O’Donnell and this is Accidental Fundraiser, a show from Network for good. That shares radically authentic stories from the trenches. Icing Smiles is a nonprofit organization that provides custom celebration cakes and other treats to families impacted by the critical illness of a child, Tracy Quisenberry, Founder and Executive Director of Icing Smiles.
Isn’t just an accidental fundraiser. She’s basically an accidental founder as well. After becoming disillusioned with the corporate world, she was searching for something more fulfilling and all she knew was that she wanted to avoid sales. So naturally she started a nonprofit and began fundraising. And in this episode, she shares how the birth of her children showed her the need that she could fill and how her belief in the mission helped overcome her initial fear of a career in sales.
Tell me how icing smiles came to.
Tracy: Honestly, I was very disillusioned, I guess you could say with the corporate world, my background is in international tax and I had a fantastic career worked for a large hotel chain and overall loved my job, but there was something missing and. Gave birth to two premature babies, different times, not twins.
And that kind of introduced me to the world of medically frail children and the experiences that parents have when dealing with a child with medical conditions. Neither one of my kids had long-term health issues. Not their issues were not life-threatening, but they were scary as we were going through.
So, um, when I was on family medical leave with my son, I picked up some cake, decorating tools, ended up falling in love with the craft, but didn’t want to start a business. So I figured what can I do with it? I’m just going to give away my cakes. And one thing led to another and you know, we’re now 11 years in and serving over 3000 cakes a year.
So, you know, it really was kind of an accidental venture, not just an accidental fundraising.
Kimberly: Wow, 11 years in you’ve mentioned that you have six to 7,000, you’ve had six to 7,000 donors over the history of the organization and it’s grown so much. Can you share some insight into your strategy and how you stepped into it?
Um, and then began to put into place a strategy that helps you grow exponentially over the years.
Tracy: So strategy. I think I should preface this by saying I actually got out of the field of public accounting because I hated the sales side. I didn’t want to have to fill my time. And I swore that when I was in business school, I would, I would do anything but sales.
So what do I do? I started on profit. I really did not understand just how much sales was involved. I tripped into this world. And I just, I believe so much in the mission that I had to figure out how to make it work. So when you say, what is the strategy? I would say. The authentic, be real. Tell your story.
And when you tell your story and if you have a good mission, the mission and the story sells itself, you don’t have to ask for money. I mean, I tell our people all the time, it’s all of our responsibility, all of our volunteers to do fundraising. It doesn’t have to be a hard sell. It simply has to be telling your story, become a vision carrier for the organization and the vision sells itself.
Kimberly: fantastic advice. So you work with a number of amazing volunteers and supporters across the country. How did you build
Tracy: that network? So that network kind of built itself. I’m in a really unique situation in that the industry weather, pastry bakery cake decorating, they were craving a formal way to give back.
So what we did was create a platform or a model where their volunteer experience was very individually. So they’re not donating to another organization that then uses their cake for an event. They’re not donating to someone who’s going to sell their cake at a silent auction. Their cake is our mission.
So as a result, we found that that network built organically. We don’t have to recruit volunteers. We’re one of the few nonprofits probably that exists that really don’t have to recruit volunteers. They come to us. Because the volunteer experience for us as so individual, the person, our volunteer prepares a dream cake for a child, they deliver the cake to the family.
You know, let’s say 80% of the time, I would hope it’s that high. They get to meet the child. So they’re seeing. Impact and the reward of their volunteerism. I think that’s, what’s missing a lot of times and, you know, people need to feel that they’re having an impact. And it’s really hard to do that in a lot of volunteer opportunities.
We just haven’t to create something that makes it so easy for them to see the impact. So we tend to have. More trouble with demand than we do with supply. We’re constantly getting comments on our Facebook page or email saying, you know, I haven’t baked for you in three months, you know, when do I get to do another one?
And we’re like, we’re trying to keep you down to having to do it once or twice a year. You know? So it’s pretty neat. We’re we are very blessed in that regard.
Kimberly: So one of the things that your organization does extremely well is the peer to peer fundraising aspect. Can you share how that came to be and what some tips you would offer other accidental fundraising?
Tracy: So I would say the peer-to-peer thing came to be because I fully recognize that I can’t do the job myself. I’m an accountant by trade. I’m not a sales and marketing person. I couldn’t even tell you the formal terminology to do half of what I do, but I recognize that I have a passion, but for us to grow this organization and develop into what I know we are capable of.
I can’t be the only one out there selling it. Air quotes from the podcast world. Uh, can’t be the only one selling. So I recognize that we need to, what is the greatest asset that we have? It’s our volunteers. We have 12,000 plus volunteers all over the U S while they’re waiting for their opportunity to serve.
Why not utilize them to tell our story. So I go back to this term and you’ll probably hear it more than once is vision carrier. I really fully believe. People are passionate about what we do. They’re going to carry that vision to someone else, and that person’s going to see that they’re carrying it too.
It’s going to say, well, how can I help time, talent or treasure? A certain amount of those are going to be the treasurer who want to donate. They don’t have the time. They don’t have the talent to do the cakes as well. What can I do to support the mission and we’ll donate. So that’s why the peer to peer, just to me, is very logical when.
Base of thousands of volunteers across the U S peer-to-peer seems to make the most sense. How many
Kimberly: peer-to-peer campaigns do you have going on at any given time? I
Tracy: would say the way we do it. It’s, we’ve got multiple ways to do a peer to peer, to fundraiser. We have the ability for bakers who are not currently volunteers that are not currently engaged in a cake.
They could do a virtual bake sale for. So that’s peer to peer because they’re spreading our mission and it’s virtual. So we use the network for good platform. We have currently at actually, as we speak, we are running one of our largest campaigns of the year, which is utilizing them to kind of fundraise on our behalf and they put out a cake, people vote on it with their dollars.
I realize I’m indirectly answering your question, but I think it’s important to understand the breadth of our peer to peer fundraising. The primary area where we do peer to peer fundraising is our baker sponsorships. When we give a baker or a call to action for an individual child, we give them the chance to raise the funds, to pay for the ingredients for their cakes, by getting that take sponsored by their friends and family.
So we’ve got all the. The set up that it’s a plugin play. They can go in and they can create their own fundraiser on behalf of icing smiles and tell the story about the child that they’re serving individually. And it’s that feel-good it’s that people connected to that volunteer that want to support the volunteer as well as the.
So, I apologize. I kind of went off a little bit, but to answer your question, it can vary significantly. I would say we do about 60 cakes a week and maybe we, we have about 10 going at a time.
Kimberly: Wow, 60 cakes a week, no small feet. A lot of people find peer-to-peer fundraisers kind of scary because you really, you truly rely on your network to build that mass.
And some often wonder, you know, how do we keep the momentum going? You know, someone will start a peer to peer, but it might be hard for them to fundraise. What are you doing throughout these peer to peer campaigns to help keep them moving along and really raising as much as
Tracy: possible. So we’re learning, that’s been trial and error, but I find that people want.
Things to be as easy as possible. So what we try to do is create as much of the assets for the fundraiser as possible. So all of their, what they need to do to market their fundraiser, themselves, creating the graphics, creating the copy cur you know, that makes it so much easier. And then we will do touch base reminders during their, the peer, their campaigns, where we say, okay, we’re okay.
What’s the next, you know, here’s the next thing that you can do to engage your friends and just encourage them that way. But that’s been trial and error. It’s not always easy. And for each campaign you need a different set of assets to support the campaign itself.
Kimberly: I love that you have these checkpoints with your fundraisers as they have their campaign going.
Is that something that you do specifically, or do you have some other people working with you to do those check-ins and I also love the fact that you have suggestions along the way too, because sometimes your fundraisers don’t know what they’re doing. They’ve never done it before.
Tracy: A lot of people don’t and you kind of have to hand hold them through the process.
I mean, and if we’ve learned, imagine doing it for the first time, so let’s take what we’ve learned and make it as easy as possible for them. And it will evolve. I mean, I wouldn’t say we’re there, it’s a, it’s a journey. You know, it’s not a destination, so we’re constantly learning and constantly changing things up.
So, but no, it’s not all me with the volume. We have about 750 man hours behind the scenes of volunteer time each week. And that’s behind the scenes. That’s without cakes. So we’re tucking your social media. We’re tucking your accounting. We’re tucking your operations. Your technology. So we have a development team with one person who’s part-time staff has kind of got leading that team and she’s got volunteers and we take a volunteer who does have some sales and marketing background and put them on creating the assets for each.
Type of campaign that we do. So they become the primary and then our part-time person, staff person will kind of assist in and monitor the campaigns along the way. So
Kimberly: let’s talk about volunteers. We love them. You have an incredible network of them. How do you motivate volunteers who sometimes aren’t living up to the expectations?
What approaches do
Tracy: you take? So I wish I had more tips for you to be honest, but I do think that, and I will say we probably don’t do this as well as we should. In all honesty. It’s really hard when you’re managing 12,000 volunteers across the us, but we also have two volunteer basis. We have our baking volunteers that actually do the cakes, and then we have administrative volunteers.
From a baking volunteer perspective, I would say trying to increase demand so that you’re getting them baking as often as possible and providing them with alternate opportunities to engage with us outside of our traditional calls to action, another learning process. We’re always trying to figure that out cause that any program that we Institute any type of engagement that we want to.
Engaging, it needs to be done with the help of administrative volunteers. So that adds another layer of resources with that said, we use what we, as much as we can. That’s easy. So Facebook, when we created a Facebook. For our baking volunteers, and that has been phenomenal. They give each other tips and tricks.
They get excited about their calls to action. They motivate each other. They look for ideas. So that’s been a nice, easy kind of win for us. For the, from an engagement perspective in administrative volunteers are much more difficult to maintain motivation because you’re asking somebody to sit behind a computer screen and help us execute our mission, but not be hands-on with that mission, delivering the cake to the child, our turnover rate, there is much higher.
So that is a lot more difficult. But what we try to do is empower our volunteers. And try to show them that they are part of the mission and the mission can not get done without the bookkeeping being done. The mission kick get done with our website being up and running. So all of these things that are traditionally behind the scene are absolutely critical to our mission.
So in trying to explain that to them and tell the story and show that appreciation it’s right now, the best that we can do. Do you
Kimberly: have any virtual volunteer parties or anything like that that you do with.
Tracy: We do. And I would say that, you know, you get pretty decent participation in that what we struggle with getting the people, helping us execute that because we have a very limited staff.
I’m actually a volunteer executive director and have a date. In addition to icing smiles. And then I’ve got a full-time assistant director who handles a lot of our operations and our sponsorships and then a part-time development person. So finding someone that’s got the ability and commitment to helping us engage our admin.
We’d love to find someone who could help us do more. But yes, it’s, it’s it’s we, and we try to rotate it, but it’s hard. It’s hard. Cause it’s like, okay, those volunteer hours, do they go into the mission or did they go into it is all part of the mission, but people don’t necessarily recognize that.
It’s hard to have that immediate gratification that you would have if you were baking the cake. It’s interesting to me that you are a volunteer executive director and you have a full-time paid assistant director. So tell me the backstory on that.
Tracy: It’s because I’m a felon. If we have resources, I want them to be poured into our people.
It would be a different story. I think if I didn’t have other employment opportunities. So I kind of feel the best thing for this organization is to set up the organization in a way that can succeed without. So the best way to do it, to support the limited resources that we have into our people who can grow and dedicate themselves full time and bring alternate ideas because I’m here, whether the money is here or not.
So they have my strategic vision. They have my ideas. I want others beyond myself to contribute to the organization. And that’s really hard to find someone that when you’re asking for the commitment that I’m asking for to do it on a volunteer basis. So I feel like I should be paying them first. Not everybody would agree.
I’ve just, I will say that. I’m not saying it’s the best model, but for us it’s been effective. It sounds
Kimberly: to me like you also know what you are good at and what, you know, what’s going to be best for your organization, and you’re not trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Not that you wouldn’t be phenomenal, but do you feel like that’s part of the
Tracy: reason too?
Oh, there’s no doubt about it. I can add value and I can align everything together for one strategic vision, but I’m not the one that should be executing. So as
Kimberly: you were hiring your first assistant director, your first paid staff person, what were you looking for? What were those core skill sets that you had hoped to have?
Tracy: The primary one is commitment to the mission because knowing I was going to be an active volunteer executive director, I knew I can guide so and train and teach, but I needed someone who was fully committed to the mission. I needed someone who had the ability to play good cup and fat cop when needed.
It’s really easy to find people willing to play good cup in the nonprofit world, but sometimes you need a harder hand. If you’re dealing with a volunteer, that’s not stepping up where you effectively have to let a volunteer go. That’s not an easy thing to do. They’re volunteering their time and you don’t want to insult them.
So I needed somebody who was willing to do that, who is willing to be able to handle negotiations kind of with our sponsors on what our sponsors are looking for. So I think it was really, I hate to say it, but it was that all around team player, you know, I know that sounds very generic, but it was critical and up until.
Our current assistant director, we effectively started off with a hire from within. So, you know, we, our volunteers were the first we’d hire them first as independent contractors on stipend. And then we’d say, okay, they they’ve shown the commitment. And we brought them in as employees, but our current assistant director was the first outside hire, but we had some experience with her supporting us on the other side as a spot.
Kimberly: I want to move over into social media because you guys have a great presence share with us how you got started and how it’s grown and any tips that
Tracy: you have. So it’s changed dramatically in the last 10, 11 years. I will say that we were the accidental organization because of. Facebook. I was on Facebook.
I had posted cakes that I had done for my own kids. People told me to do cakes for other people. I started, we were encouraged, somebody said, start a business. I didn’t want to start a business so long and short of it. When I donated my first cake, it was to a Ronald McDonald house in central Ohio. I was living there at the time and friends of mine back in Maryland, where we had lived, had posted or shared.
And so I look at what my friend’s doing and it went viral. So I will never forget, you know, we got a little bit of a nudge with just my network. And then we had a baker in New York city, one of the very first cakes that we did. Parents magazine picked up her blog about her experience. And it was, it was six months after we were founded that we literally went viral through Facebook.
As a result of that, volunteers started emailing me. I didn’t even have a volunteer application at the time. So we are who we are because of social media.
Kimberly: So when things go viral, it all just happens so quickly. How did you navigate that as the executive director, as the accidental fundraiser and just, you know, how’d you ride the wave and make sure that it was growing.
Tracy: Well, I had a decision to make, because your word you’re dealing with food with sick kids in our mission. And that makes it a real, really difficult. And you’re dealing with laws that vary municipality by municipality, not just state by state. And I said, okay, I’ve researched what I’m doing in central Ohio, but what about New York?
What about me? What about Washington? So I said, are we going to do this? Or aren’t. And I, I kind of made a commitment then in there I said, okay, it looks like we’re all in. And I knew it. And it was, it was a runaway training for about five years. And I said, let’s just deal with what we have to deal with today.
One baby step at a time. And we did, and I put a lot of onus on those people wanting to volunteer. So I said, you need to check with your local. Municipality to see, can you donate these cakes? You know, is it allowed in your jurisdiction? So I kind of pushed it back to them to say, we’ll provide the platform, we’ll provide the basis and we’ll provide the connection and infrastructure, but you need to do a little bit of legwork on your own, and it didn’t slow anybody down.
But we said, okay, what is the most important piece of this infrastructure that doesn’t exist, volunteer application. Then it became an application for the families to apply for our service. Then it became the website and starting to make it look pretty and the marketing and the donors. And it was just one piece at a time, but there will always be more pieces.
This will be ongoing in perpetuity. How did
Kimberly: COVID affect your work and the mission?
Tracy: Because we’re doing food to see kids. The beginning of COVID was a really scary place for us and we shut down. So we said, you know, we don’t know what the risks are. We don’t want to put our families or our volunteers in a difficult position.
We press the pause button. Let’s put it that way. Then as guidance started to come out from the CDC saying that it’s airborne, you know, it’s not transmitted through food. We gave. Families that we serve the choice and said, we are happy to serve you during this time, if you want to be served. And ultimately we reopened our doors three months later, it was slow in the beginning because not everybody was ready to be served, but it’s, it’s kind of come back.
But I would say where it’s hit us the most has been in the fundraising. Without a doubt, you know, donor patterns have changed significantly. And the biggest area is in our corporate sponsorships. We’ve seen corporations, very unwilling to commit to sponsorships at this point in time. So we’ve turned to really focus on our individual fundraisers and they’ve kept our heads above water.
So we’ve used them from a peer-to-peer perspective and said, help us tell our story because in order to do this, and in order to survive, we need everyone. Telling the story. We need every vision carrier out there telling them who we are, what we do and why we need funds. People think because our cakes are donated to us that we don’t need funding.
And they have no idea that my database costs me $7,000 a year. You know, they have no idea that I $4,000 for insurance or let’s talk about $5,000 for just being registered to do business in every. I mean, people have no idea and that’s not fun and that’s not glorious, but every bit of that is needed in order for us to serve.
I mean, I can’t serve without those costs so that those costs really are built into, you know, our ability to get that cake in front of that child. And for that family can’t happen with all that, all that.
Kimberly: Overhead is so critical to the success and longevity of an organization. What is your fundraising strategy as you step into 2020?
Tracy: We are again, kind of very investing in our individual donors. And that sounds backwards like they’re investing in us, but we need them to understand the impact that they’ve had and try to encourage them to become long-term recurring donors. That is a really difficult task, especially when the source of so much of your.
Initial donation is a peer-to-peer introduction because people support people. They don’t support missions. So to speak that that is especially in a quality of life area where they don’t fully understand the value of what it is that you do, they’re supporting their friends. So we have to get them to understand the value of our mission.
So once they’re in the door, tell them the story. Get them in front of our families, get the, get our families, telling the story of the impact that I think smiles has had on them. And then they understand. So once we have an audience, we just have to figure out how to tell the story.
Kimberly: What channels do you use to tell the story?
Tracy: We need to expand our storytelling. We’re a little bit limited right now. Our storytelling happens significantly through social media channels. Through email. We have a newsletter that we utilize, but we’re also starting to use network for good, a little bit more to reach our donors directly cause that’s network for good is what we’re using as our donor management system.
So how do you group your donors in a way that. You’re hitting them at a time when they may be ripe to a good story. So we actually have a donor newsletter specifically targeted to donors, not just to our broader audience. So those are a few, but video is one that we probably need to. More often, but I’m so uncomfortable in front of the camera that it’s not tends not to be my go-to, but I’m hoping or development, or kind of recognizing that that’s where we’re headed and find that right person to kind of be that face of the organization.
Kimberly: advice um, would you give, who are just starting with.
Tracy: Dear accidental fundraiser. My advice to you as you’re starting out is be flexible. See what works and roll with it, but always be on the lookout for something new and keep yourself fresh. I mean, it’s the only way I think to survive. What are
Kimberly: some of the stories that really truly moved you over the.
Tracy: So I would say the fundraising stories that have the most impact on me are the ones that involve the families that we serve when they’re in a position to pay it forward, or they do a fundraiser on our behalf because of the impact that we’ve had. That to me is what validates our mission. If you have someone you serve, go out and fundraise on your behalf, you know, that you had an impact on them.
So it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s a $5 fundraiser or if it’s a $2,000 fundraiser, they mean the most to me. And the funds are just a welcome bonus. Having
Kimberly: started your organization 11 years ago. Tell us what it feels like 11 years in to have truly lived.
Tracy: Passion. It’s been an incredibly difficult journey at times.
I mean, it’s challenged me professionally. It’s challenged me personally. It’s created some major change in my personal life as a result of what I chose to do, but when you know, not to get too religious, but when you know you are living God’s purpose for your life. Then everything else just falls into place.
So to ask me to not do this is like asking me to cut off my right arm. I know that that’s what I was put here to do and having the ability to do that and having, you know, the boss at the day job that supports it and the partner that’s behind it. And the kids that are proud of their mom, there is nothing bad.
Kimberly: Thank you for joining me on accidental fundraiser. If our listeners want to get connected with you to learn more about your mission and organization, where’s the best place for them to do.
Tracy: I would say head to our website, icing smiles.org. There’s a get involved tab and you can see all the different ways to get involved, whether it’s as a baker, as a administrative volunteer or as a donor.
It’s all right there.
Kimberly: Now it’s time for the state of the sector brought to you by network for good. So let’s talk about the importance of volunteers, the most recent statistics on volume. Which came from the us bureau of labor statistics in 2016, found that there are 63 million Americans volunteering.
And that represents about 25% of all adults. This number has been declining over the years and the, and the figure initially peaked between 2003 and 2005, when nearly 30% of all Americans said that they had volunteered in the previous year. Small, non-profits tend to rely heavily on volunteers and these volunteers add real value to each organization.
Now you may be wondering how much value the independent sector annually tracks the value of a volunteer hour. And for 2021, the national average is $28 and 54 cents per hour. If you’re curious about the value of the volunteer hour in your state or territory, The independent sector can also break that down for you.
You can visit their website to do so. The value of a volunteer hour is really, it’s often useful when you’re writing a grant and you’re trying to show the true impact that your volunteers make on your organization. Sometimes, uh, an organization will use the value of the volunteer hour and they’ll highlight it in an annual impact report or around certain holidays like Thanksgiving, or they’ll showcase it on the organizations.
Don’t forget that volunteers are often the most loyal and dedicated supporters of your mission. Have you reviewed a list of your most loyal volunteers and considered approaching them for a major gift or bequest? You never know until you make the ask and guess what? You may be surprised by the positive response.
Give it a try.
to wrap up this episode. What are the three things that you need to take away from this? Let’s go first. Find people to carry your vision. Second, your volunteers are your best sellers and three never stopped learning. Yes. Yes you can. I’m Kimberly. See you next time on accidental fundraiser and be sure to follow along wherever you get your audio.