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How Funder & Community Relationships Propelled This Nonprofit

Break out the pie chart. How much time, energy and resources do you devote to ensuring your funders and recipients are happy? 20%? Maybe 30%?

In her journey to founding and serving South Carolina’s Freedom Readers, Executive Director Tracy Bailey has learned it’s a two-way street.

In this episode of Accidental Fundraiser, Tracy shares how to reflect and celebrate your community, partner with key organizations for the benefit of all, and use your potential lack of access as a tool for motivation.

In This Episode You’ll Learn:

  • Why your board and funders should be a reflection and celebration of your community
  • Why a two-way street with funders and community is important
  • How Tracy turned black women’s lack of access into motivation

Season 2 Episode 8 Transcript

Tracy Bailey: Having come from one of those communities myself, I absolutely understand the importance of, of continuing the work and helping everybody who might volunteer at our organization to realize that in an instant you could be on the receiving end of someone else’s help. So what we try to do is make sure that there’s always a two-way street

Kimberly: break out the pie chart, excluding your job as an accidental fundraiser. How much of your time, energy and resources do you devote to ensuring your funders and service recipients are happy that the really happy is that 20%, maybe 30% of your job. In her journey to founding South Carolina’s Freedom Readers and serving as the executive director, Tracy Bailey has learned that it’s a two-way street without genuine conversation with your partners, your funders, and your community, your nonprofit can’t live out its mission.

during our conversation, Tracy shares how to reflect and celebrate your community partner with key organizations, to the benefit of all and to use your potential lack of access as a real tool for motivation

Tracy Bailey: Having come from one of those communities myself, I absolutely understand the importance of, of continuing the work and helping everybody who might volunteer at our organization to realize that in an instant you could be on the receiving end of someone else’s help. So what we try to do is make sure that there’s always a two-way street.

Kimberly: Tracy. I am so happy to be speaking with you today. I can’t wait to learn more about Freedom Readers and your relationship with the, um, Sisters of Charity Foundation. as we step into this conversation, you give us a little bit of background on Freedom Readers and how it all came to be?

Tracy Bailey: Absolutely. Well, Kimberly first, let me thank you for this opportunity to have this conversation with you today. I’ve been really looking forward to speaking with you and telling you a little bit about Freedom Readers. We’re an afterschool and summer literacy program. It was founded in 2010. And I started the organization to improve reading skills in low income communities. We started in two communities in 2010 and expanded to about 22 different locations in three counties in South Carolina. Um, our goal is to help kids feel more confident in their reading, in their public speaking. We connect kids with people in the community who love books, and they form a relationship that really inspires kids to reach their full potential.

Kimberly: That’s incredible. And what growth you’ve had. Let’s talk a little bit about how you, um, came to be the executive director and started this why.

Tracy Bailey: Yeah. So I, I am the founder of the program and did do a lot of the foundational work to get it up off the ground. So it was my honor to be asked to lead the organization when it actually became a nonprofit and we received a 501c3. I wanted to do this because my father always read to me when I was growing. Um, there were books that we shared that I remember so fondly. I just reflect on those days, like it was yesterday because that was how we bonded. My daddy always loved words. Somehow his brain worked in a way where he could be in a conversation with you. And then he would just break out in the couplets. Like he’d be able to rhyme sentences in the middle of a conversation. I always said he was way ahead of his time. Like he was a pioneer in that area and had to be an absolute genius. But my daddy had to leave school at the end of the eighth grade. He was just in a situation where he needed to go to work to help his family. He was born in 1935 in South Carolina. And I know that the situation was not very easy for him, but because his mother taught him how to read, he knew that it was so important for, for him to share that with all of his children. So I just always looked up to him and just cherished what it was that he was able to pass down to me through his love of reading. And so I wanted to be able to do that in my community as well when I had the opportunity to think about how I was going to use all of my education and what my career was going to mean for me.

Kimberly: Wow. What an incredible, what an incredible story of a beautiful gift that your father gave to you. And by the way, as you were sharing that story, you were smiling from ear to ear. could feel it. I could feel the love and just the pride and having that gift being given to you. then you’re passing it on

Tracy Bailey: absolutely.

Kimberly: children and families. That of reading and also, you know, desire to help kids have something to do during the summer.

Tracy Bailey: Yeah.

And after

school. Yeah. Yeah. I just,

Kimberly: school,

Tracy Bailey: just remember growing up, being surrounded by books. You know, they were everywhere and I don’t really know where they came from. If my parents picked them up from the grocery store or what they decided to do, but they were always there. There was always somebody there to help me unlock the gifts in those books. So it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was really able to appreciate the gift that they gave me. And so now we give away brand new books all the time. We’ve given away thousands of books to help kids build their home library. Research tells us that kids who have more books in their homes are going to read more often and are more likely to do well in school and graduate from high school. So on top of the tutoring that we try to offer, we definitely don’t wanna send any kid home empty handed.

Kimberly: That’s great.

Tracy Bailey: Yeah.

Kimberly: I have to ask, what are you reading right now?

Tracy Bailey: Oh, that is such a great question. I just finished a book recently, and it’s actually a romcom. So sometimes during the summer when I have a lot going on reading can be an escape for me. And I just really like to be able to connect with characters that are different from me and the main character in the book that I just finished is autistic. So I was learning more about her lifestyle, her challenges, the way that she discovered her diagnosis. So it was really a great eye opener for me. It’s called the Heart Principle.

Kimberly: The Heart Principle. I will have to check it out. I need a little summer reading myself. Share with us your thoughts on fundraising. What is it like for you? Do you like it? Do you feel like you’re an accidental fundraiser? Do you feel like you’re a Where are you now in your journey? Um, because it’s part and parcel growing a sustainable and strong organization. Fundraising is a piece of the foundation. I definitely think that I still fall in the Accidental Fundraiser category. I told the story about why I started the organization, but it, it definitely wasn’t to raise money. Fundraising wasn’t at the top of the list of the things that I wanted to accomplish. But I did understand in the beginning that in order to achieve the mission, in order to reach those families and try to change lives, that we were going to need to be able to fuel the engine. And so over the 12 years that our organization has existed, I’ve learned a lot about fundraising and we’ve recently been able to hire someone to help us in that area. So we’ve definitely grown. It’s still not one of my favorite things to do, but I do understand the necessity. And when I think about how those funds are going to be used, then I don’t hesitate to, to jump into the fundraising arena.

Congratulations hiring: development support. That’s a big milestone in the growth of an organization when you can fund someone to help with fundraising. You mentioned that

Tracy Bailey: Yeah.

Kimberly: your favorite thing. And we hear that a lot from people because it can be really hard to ask others for, for money, right. For gifts to your organization. We always say it’s about asking for them to support your cause. it’s not about the money,

Tracy Bailey: Mm.

Kimberly: the support for your, um, cause do you overcome some of the apprehension that you have?

What I’ve learned looking back on my journey is that I haven’t so much gone to people and necessarily laid an ask on the table, but I’ve tried to let my passion for what I’m doing shine through. And if people understand the urgency of what we’re doing, if I can raise awareness about what what’s going on and about the need, then I feel that their moved to support that. And I’ve also seen that with longevity also comes trust. People are willing to support people that they trust and causes that, that they believe in. So I I’ve overcome my apprehension by just trying to remain authentic and transparent about how I feel about what I’m doing.

Kimberly: That’s a fantastic approach. Be you. Tell us a little bit about how you came to find, the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina and how that partnership blossomed.

After I decided that this was something that I really wanted to pursue, there was a lot for me to learn. And there were, there was a lot of research that I needed to do. And I think that there were people who connected me with local foundations, with local funders. And once I started to develop a relationship with those people, then they started, started to tell me about other foundations that I could work with. And that’s how I learned about the Sisters of Charity. They’re a statewide organization. We’re a small rural nonprofit. And so I just reached out and, and shared a little bit about what we were trying to do and found out about the application process. And immediately just got to work on that on the forms and the applications, and just cross my fingers and hope that they would embrace me. And I’m very, very grateful that they did.

Kimberly: Now as I’ve spoken with Donna Waits and Meredith Matthews at the Sisters of Foundation of South Carolina, we actually have another podcast interview that we did with them. They just spoke about this incredible relationship that they have with you and how they truly appreciate the feedback that you share with them, insight and advice. Because for them as funders, you know, it’s a two way street you wanna be able to have that give and take in a relationship. There are probably some people who are listening to this podcast right now who go, oh, I, don’t wanna say anything too controversial to my funder because I know I need those funds in the future. I wanna keep this relationship going. They’re kind of like big brother. How do you manage that?

As a person who didn’t have a background in nonprofits, you know, I was learning how to put together a board, learning how to build programs, learning how to do just about everything. And at that point, I felt like the people who were in a position to fund my mission, they called the shots. That’s what I thought. But then I kept hearing over and over again that it was supposed to be a two-way street. That we were supposed to be partners in trying to improve conditions in our community. And I thought about that and I thought, Hey, maybe they would like to hear what my perspective is. And, gave it a shot, was pleasantly surprised that the people at the Sisters of Charity were open to hearing some of the, the feedback that I had to share. That relationship is not one that is easily built, but again, I think it’s built on trust. We have to trust each other on both sides. They respect my voice because I’m working in the community with the people that they’re trying to reach. And I definitely respect their voice because they have a, a solid vision for how we can all come together to make the community a better place. Have you gotten other grants from other funders over the years?

Tracy Bailey: Yes, I’ve, I’ve worked with quite a few different foundations, and I think that relationship building is different in each one of those situations. Mm-hmm

Kimberly: So based on your experience, um, and your understanding of what a strong partnership could look like,

Tracy Bailey: you

Kimberly: have any insight for funders? What are one or two things that you might recommend to that might help?

The first thing that I would ask a foundation to think about is the application process. Consider what is it that you really want to know about a partner? Because in some cases you feel as if the application is set up to weed people out, um, I have a, a, a doctorate in language and literacy, and in some cases I sit there and wonder, you know, do I need three or four or more different degrees in order to be able to fill out this application to the standard that this funder wants. So maybe the word that I would use here is simplify. And really focus on what it is you really think you need to know there’s the application. And then there is the reporting process. What are the things that you need to have in order to feel confident that your money is being used in the community, the way that you had hoped that it would be used? So simplify in the second word, and I’m sorry to keep going back to this word again and again, but that word is trust. Because on some level, as a person, who’s trying to start out, uh, with a vision, somebody who’s really enthusiastic, but you may not have the resources or the infrastructure of a United Way or a Red Cross. You need a little bit of wiggle room. You need a little bit of space to be able to prove yourself. So I that’s the advice that I would give to funders, um, go in with your eyes wide open, expecting to be wild and not necessarily expecting things to go south.

Kimberly: Absolutely and amen to that. Um, I’ve certainly heard it from others. And then my years of writing and receiving grants. I have felt that pain myself.

Tracy Bailey: mm-hmm I’ve noticed and heard that there’s even more because they’re also trying to get some additional demographic information on the organizations that they’re working with. It can be even more challenging and a lot to fill out.

I mean, if I could add one more.

If, if you’ll, if I work with one foundation that is now moving to, um, they’re calling it a Sustaining Grant Program where you don’t have to apply every year. So you can get three to five years of funding versus just getting one year of funding after you’ve built a relationship and kind of proven that what you’re doing is making an impact. So I really love that idea because that cuts down on some of the paperwork that our organization is involved in, and we can focus more of our energy on the program itself.

Kimberly: That’s great. And it is built trust. there’s a flexibility that’s needed in the world today,

Tracy Bailey: Yeah.

Kimberly: around grant making. The needs, the capacity building needs of the charities, um, that they work with. You are part of the Jumpstart program. This is something that, uh, is offered with Network For Good in, in partnership with, foundations. And typically a cohort, a group of charities will the Jumpstart program together and there’ll be resources available to them like our personal fundraising coaches, as well as, fundraising software that they can use.

Tracy Bailey: mm-hmm

Kimberly: were your thoughts on that Jumpstart program?

Tracy Bailey: Well, I, um, was invited to be a part of the Jumpstart program in 20. And it was right around the time that our organization was pulling back from our in person meetings because we were all at home. And it was a very high stress time for me, but being involved in the Jumpstart program helped alleviate some of my anxiety because I felt as if I really wasn’t in it alone. And I felt like I had a partner in building a roadmap out of the pandemic and into the future. It was a wonderful, wonderful gift for me at the time.

Kimberly: And the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina helped with that because they funded that, um, with you and your personal fundraising coach helped you with your strategy, which coach did you work with?it Andrea Holthouser or Leanne Janet? It definitely was Janet. She understood where we were coming from and we described for her what some of our fundraisers were what we were doing. And she just really dropped down into the middle of what we were trying to do and gave us suggestions and ideas and checked in on us to make sure that everything had gone well. We definitely trusted her.

I know that you had a spectacular Giving Day this past year

Tracy Bailey: did

Kimberly: through the grapevine. tell us a little bit about that.

Every year, I think we get a little bit better. We learn a little bit, uh, more and because of the Jumpstart program and because we have the Network For Good resources, we have a much better handle on who our donors are now and how to reach them, how to get them ready for a Giving Day. And so I really feel like I have to give a lot of the credit to our coach for teaching us how to better utilize the resources, to Sisters of Charity for allowing us to try it out that first year and get comfortable with it.

Kimberly: That is fantastic. Fantastic. So let’s talk about some of the things that you’re doing that are a little different from what you were doing before. Are you active on social media? What works for you? You mentioned you’re in a more rural area.

We have a lot of people who live in rural parts of the US and that fundraising approach is slightly different. A couple years ago, we, we brought on a marketing person and she is fantastic. Uh, she used to be an anchor for the TV news. So she really has a great presence, but she also has a great eye for graphics. She is constantly on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, letting people know about some of the great work that we’re doing and getting people ready to give. Whenever we have, a fundraiser coming up, especially on Giving Day, she will send out newsletters. She’ll send out really quick blurbs and just keeping in touch with people. That way, I think is, um, something that they tell us that they really appreciate about our organization. They know where their dollars go. Um, Giving Day is a time where we reach out to people who might give smaller gifts, but we have increased the number of those people exponentially year over year because we’re able to keep in contact with them that way. And we’ve been able to build that relationship through social media in our newsletters.

Kimberly: That’s important

Tracy Bailey: Yeah.

Kimberly: less to retain a donor than to acquire a new one. And so you’re engaging them through multiple channels, then you’re touching them and keeping them informed because they wanna know about the impact that is being made.

Tracy Bailey: Absolutely. And one other thing that Janet emphasized with us is how important it is for us to thank our donors right away. And so we’ve really invested a lot of energy in making sure that the people who are our biggest donors and the ones who are recurring donors, that they understand how important they are to just the heartbeat of our organization. We constantly are focusing on making sure that they know that we appreciate them.

Kimberly: Do you do many events?

Tracy Bailey: We do about two events a year, and then we do our Giving Day. So we have three big times of the year where we focus on either pulling people together for an event or reaching out to people online during a Giving Day. Our first event is in the springtime. It’s called Books and Boogie. And so it started with inviting local authors to come out and sign copies of their books. People had a wonderful meal and then we have live music and everybody would just get up and dance and have a really, really great time. The second one that we have in the fall is called Igniting a Love of Reading, and we have it at a restaurant called Bonfire. And so there’s a silent auction and great food. And just really people love the opportunity to come together and support the cause. And we always bring some of our scholars to these events and have them either recite a poem or do a reading and build their confidence in front of a, a really welcoming audience.

Great way to bring together community, um, and really celebrate your organization. As you look forward, what are some things that you’d like to try, but haven’t had the

Tracy Bailey: things. Yeah. Hmm. We have some thoughts about the next Giving Day already. And we feel as if that’s even going to be bigger and better than this one because we’ve nailed down a really good strategy. At some point we’d like to be able to have a Book Mobile type deal going. Um, I read about this woman in New York city that just bought a school bus and got a grant to refurbish it and turned it into a traveling bookstore. We’d love to do something like that and take it to different, um, to our different sites and maybe have fundraisers around that Book Mobile. Set up under the stars next to a lake, have some, uh, champagne and celebrate and just raise money for the kids that way.

Kimberly: Yes, I agree. It’s a fantastic for a

Tracy Bailey: Mm-hmm

Kimberly: fundraiser, quite frankly.

Tracy Bailey: yeah, And what’s perfect about that is it ties directly to the work that you’re doing.


Kimberly: So funders out there, this is a great one for you to fund.

That’s part of the time it’s just sharing that vision

Tracy Bailey: Yeah.

Kimberly: and you know, it’s kismet sometimes when it all just comes together. Have you had any of those kismet moments? I’m sure you’ve had many, but does one stand out to you as this was just a great that we received?

Tracy Bailey: Yeah. The first year that we were in existence, I had the opportunity to make a presentation to a local foundation that had a student board. And so there were about 15 to 20 high school students, maybe juniors, seniors in high school. And they were told that they had $10,000 that they could grant to, a nonprofit. And maybe, maybe there were 20 of us that came through and made presentations. And they said you could give a part of the money to one organization, or you can give all of the money to one organization. I just went in there and told them how I felt about these kids and the fact that they needed those books and they needed to learn how to read. They said, well, well, what if you only got a portion of the money? And I said, I’d be really excited if I only got a portion of the money, but you know, the children in this community deserve the best that we can give in everything that we can give them. And when I got the call that there was $10,000 in our account, it was the first grant that we had ever received. And we were so excited and we just, uh, we made that money stretch a long way because it was a gift. It was just a wonderful opportunity to be able to talk about something that has now grown bigger than I had ever imagined at that time.

Kimberly: That’s incredible. I love it. Wow. Wow. Wow.

Tracy Bailey: Yeah.

Kimberly: Let’s pause for a moment on what you just said though.

Tracy Bailey: Okay.

Kimberly: That this is grown bigger than you’ve ever imagined.

Tracy Bailey: Mm-hmm

Kimberly: I want us all to take that in and just celebrate it for a second. being the Chief Everything Officer, starting a nonprofit, getting your 501c3

Tracy Bailey: Mmm.

Kimberly: all the paperwork and the pure energy and time that you and others pour into the organizations that you start and you love. It’s hard and it takes time and here to, to

Tracy Bailey: um, it just

Kimberly: that moment to hear you say it’s grown bigger than I ever imagined. Tell me how that feels.

It’s almost surreal because there were some moments where I was just absolutely exhausted, tapped out, at the end of my passion, um, thinking I was a, a high school teacher thinking I needed to brush off that certificate and get back into that classroom and try to make sure that we could make ends meet as a family. And fortunately, my family is very supportive of what it is that we’re doing and, and we all believe. But to be here in this moment, we, by no means have arrived, but I just really, I believe that there’s so many kids who have a story to tell about someone that they met, that believed in them and invested in them and really stuck beside them and helped them reach their dream and their goal. And so that, that just feels wonderful to know that those kids think of Freedom Readers in a positive way. Thank you.

Kimberly: Congratulations to you and everybody who has supported you along the way. There’s data that shows that black- led organizations don’t always raise as much money as their white counterparts. The social justice movement has gained over the past few years, certainly lots, lot farther to go. we know that there is a stronger focus again, long way to go around

Tracy Bailey: Mm-hmm

Kimberly: How do those things affect your organization?

Tracy Bailey: Yeah, absolutely. Um, I was fortunate enough to be able to do some writing about my journey with Freedom Readers. During the time that I was researching for the book, I came across the very same statistics that you’re mentioning, that the organizations that are led by people of color, especially those who are led by African American women, they are not as financially successful as their counterparts who are led by white men. And so that’s something that I always keep in mind, but it’s also something that, um, has always been a motivator for me. I never try to pass up an opportunity to ask and to make sure that people know that there is a need and to raise awareness. I was also fortunate that the Sisters of Charity invited me to serve on their DEIB committee for their board. And so to be able to have those conversations with the leaders of that organization is something that’s extremely important to me. There are lots of great organizations, lots of great people who are already doing the work on the ground. That are not necessarily being recognized for that work and aren’t being supported financially. And so what I always try to encourage people to do is to amplify the voices of those who may have been marginalized and who we see based on the statistics, haven’t had as much access. So definitely this is a, a part of the conversation at our nonprofit. We focus on low income communities and we know that a lot of those communities for historical reasons, people of color live there. So a lot of the people that we work with are people of color. Having come from one of those communities myself, I absolutely understand the importance of, of continuing the work and helping everybody who might volunteer at our organization to realize that in an instant you could be on the receiving end of someone else’s help. So what we try to do is make sure that there’s always a two-way street.

Kimberly: Is there anything else we can be doing as fundraisers to make that progress happen?

We have to, to look at how it is that we identify the people who receive the funding and the help. One of the things that I know that sisters of charity is focusing on right now is collecting the data who receives the grants right now, who is applying for the grants and how can we build the infrastructure in some of these organizations that may not already exist? I think those are extremely important questions for us to continue to ask ourselves so that we can get to a more equitable playing field in the nonprofit sector.

Kimberly: Thank you for that insight.

Tracy Bailey: Yeah. Let’s go to your board. Do you feel like your board helps with your fundraising? How have you leveraged your network of volunteers, board members, um, you with fundraising?

Well, I just have to take a moment here and just brag on our board. I think our board is fantastic. Not only are they all investing financially in the organization, but they are good people. And they keep me inspired and encouraged and they are really, I would say the conscience of our organization and will ask those difficult questions. A board member said during one of the board meetings, we really don’t want our fundraisers to be a place where the rich elite just get together and clink their glasses and have a great time and pat each other on the back for helping those poor kids or those poor people. We want our, our fundraisers to be a celebration of our work and a celebration of our community. And so sometimes we have to make hard choices. About the kinds of fundraisers that we will do because we do wanna continue to be inclusive of our volunteers, of our families, of our parents and, and everybody who we consider to be a key stakeholder in our organization. I’m happy to report that we have a racially diverse board. We are adding our first male in a while to the board. So we’re working on gender diversity as well. Everyone who who serves on our board is just really committed to the organization and the work and understands what it is that we’re trying to do. we have an attorney, we’ve got a real estate agent. We have a retired educator. We have someone who works at the university, so there’s just a diversity of thought. We stand together to try to make our community better.

it’s fantastic when you have a board is that dynamic and supportive. You have some thick skin where you don’t mind the hard It seems to be part and parcel of your personality, but I bet there’s also a culture of that your organization. How do you foster that culture?

Sisters of Charity a couple years ago also sponsored, um, a program for executive directors. We had this facilitator to take us through this, um, take us through this program and he said the work might come through you, but the work is not about you. So I think that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been able to keep a thick skin because I have to understand that it’s about the children and about the mission. Because I am the founder of the organization, we were able to build a culture from the ground up, and we were able to maintain that culture as we began to grow. So people who joined our organization understood that we were about the children and that we really were not going to focus a lot of time and energy on trying to puff ourselves up. We were constantly trying to stay grounded, stay close to the work, stay close to the people and keep an open mind in a listening ear when it came to the communities that we serve.

Kimberly: So I have to is your daddy still alive?

Tracy Bailey: My daddy passed away in 2018. Mm-hmm

Tracy Bailey: that

Kimberly: would he say? What did he think of Freedom Readers?

Tracy Bailey: My daddy would say that one of the most important things that you could do in your community is invest in the kids. He always loved kids, always loved telling jokes and laughing. One of the things that we, we do try to, to maintain in our organization, in our program and our work with the kids and our work with one another is joy. Because in the current climate that we’re in, even thinking about schools and how schools are really focused on trying to make sure that those test scores are where they need to be. And I think my daddy would encourage us to continue to focus on joy. On the joy of being able to learn new things and being able to come up with ideas and try them and see them work out. And sometimes when they don’t work out, go back to the drawing board and start again. He would be proud, but he would remind us again and again, don’t forget to celebrate one another and don’t forget to have a great time.

Kimberly: Tracy, I’m overjoyed that we got to have this conversation today. Thank you so much. And thank you for the incredible work that you and your team and your volunteers and supporters are all doing with Freedom Readers. Was there anything more that you wanted to add?

Those of us who are doing this work, doing work in communities, raising money to fund our mission. Um, a lot of us are on the front lines of change in our communities. It’s a major responsibility and sometimes it can feel like a heavy weight, but I do think that it’s important for us to take care of ourselves and to take care of one another and just breathe. And so I hope that in the midst of trying to make our budgets and in the midst of trying to recruit new board members and write our strategic plans that we take a moment, sit, relax, and breathe.

Here are the key takeaways. One why your board and funders should be a reflection and celebration of your C. Two. Why a two way street with funders and community is very important and creates an incredible feedback loop and three, how Tracy turned black women’s lack of access into motivation to

do and get more.

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