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Tragedy to Change: A Mother’s Mission to Make Schools Safer with Lori Alhadeff

Just days before yet another deadly massacre at a Texas elementary school, Lori Alhadeff joined Accidental Fundraiser to share her journey in founding Make Our Schools Safe and lobbying for change at a national level.

Listen to this episode to learn from Lori’s unwavering dedication to her mission. Whether you are a parent or not, her passion for her daughter’s legacy and school safety will strike a chord. And may even inspire action.

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How to turn a simple voice into major change
  • How to land and expand donors via digital marketing and frequent touchpoints
  • Staying on mission and avoiding shiny object syndrome is critical

Season 2 Episode 1 Transcript

Lori: What makes me most proud is that through Alyssa’s law, not only is Alyssa helping to protect kids in schools, in New Jersey and Florida, but also that I’m honored to continue Alyssa’s legacy and that everybody will know who Alyssa is. And with her tragically being killed and not being here, it’s so important for me as Alyssa’s mom is to make sure that.

We remember Alyssa,

Kimberly: sometimes in fundraising, you have to step outside of your comfort zone, dive in and learn something new. I’m Kimberly O’Donnell. And this is accidental fundraiser show from network for good. That shares radically authentic stories from the trenches. Lori, Alhadef lost her 14 year old daughter in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school.

And. A month later, she and her husband opened their 5 0 1 C3. Non-profit known as make our schools safe and began fighting for sensical school safety. Not just in Florida, but across the nation, just days before another deadly massacre at a Texas elementary school, L’Oreal a deaf joined accidental fundraiser to share her journey in founding, make our schools safe and lobbying for change at a national level.

I can say that after Lori and I spoke, I went out and hugged my 15 year old daughter who was outside doing chores and she rolled her eyes at me because she had no idea. Of the conversation that I just had. And I was grateful because she could roll her eyes at me. And then I made a donation to make our schools safe.

Let’s listen to Lori’s powerful story. And what she’s learned in almost five years, running a lean fundraising. Whether you’re a parent or not her passion for a daughter’s legacy and school safety will strike a chord and may have make you jump into action. Thank you for being part of this podcast, our accidental fundraiser podcast.

I’m looking forward to today’s conversation where we’re going to learn a lot more about make our school safe and just your journey. Into becoming an accidental fundraiser. We have people who become accidental fundraisers through joyous means through tragic means. And I think one thing, one thread that goes through all of us is that we are really passionate about our causes.

They have deep meaning. Can you share for our audience, your passion for your cause how it came to be? How make our schools safe came to be

Lori: on February 14th, 2018. It was Valentine’s day. And I brought my daughter Alyssa to school at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school. And later that afternoon, I got a text message saying shots fired as someone Douglas high school kids running and jumping the fence.

And I need to really have a sense of loss that came over my body. I knew something was drastically wrong and I raced to the school and it was basically a day of just. Tragic the most horrific day of my life to later find out at two o’clock in the morning from the FBI that my daughter Alyssa was shot eight times in our English classroom.

There was a gunman that came in and shot 17 people and kill them and also injured 17 people. So from that horrific day, My husband and I, we decided that we wanted to turn our pain and grief into action. And we started the nonprofit organization called make our schools safe,

Kimberly: an incredible story. I cannot even imagine the horror of having to wait all of those very long hours for word about Alyssa.

And I’m curious, how long did it take you after her passing for you to start this organization?

Lori: So we did it rather quickly. It was like within a month period of time, we just went into fight mode and we had lawyers help us establish, make our schools safe because this was such a tragic way that my 14 year old daughter died in school.

And it was our way of dealing with the grief and pain of losing our only daughter, Alyssa. We moved forward with make our school safe in a very quick

Kimberly: manner. And so you started moving forward with it. I’ve talked with other people who have had, as I said, that incredible loss. How was it sharing your story in the beginning?

And even now four years later, what’s it like to have to share that story over and over again? After

Lori: the shooting? I definitely shared my story over and over. Media, the news doing interviews, going on TV, doing podcasts on social media. It is very hard because you know, it can also be, you know, very triggering to me.

I’ve gone through a lot of mental health therapy for four years, but pain and grief. It’s like a rollercoaster and I can be talking to one person. I can be in the grocery store and see something that I used to buy for Alyssa. And then it can trigger you, but it’s just something that you, you have to deal with.

And one thing we do say is your voice is your power. And so I feel that the more that I can. Talk about the tragedy and what happens for Alyssa. And maybe I can prevent the next school shooting from happening through all the different resources that make our school safe, has to offer.

Kimberly: So let’s take it the step into that.

Tell us a little bit about the mission of make our schools. We

Lori: want all kids to be safe in school. And we think about it in a layered approach from prevention, see something, say something, stopping violence and threats from happening. When people see stuff on their social media, giving them the pathway to report something anonymously or as.

And preventing violence from happening before it happens through schools doing threat assessments. When there is something that is said that a student might bring a weapon to school, they might say they want to shoot up a school. So behavioral threat assessment needs to be done. And then based on a collaboration of mental health people, law enforcement teacher, They can determine what level is that right?

Is that a high level threat is a medium or low level threat. And then what types of services that they can provide for that student to give them, get them the help that they need. There’s also a school hardening measures from single point of entry, Bulletproof glass, and different ways to, to harm the school, to make sure that.

The threat stays outside the school. We want to make sure we lock our buildings, lock our classrooms. We want to make sure that there’s cameras. And it’s also very important that we have a collaboration with law enforcement. So we’ve helped pass Alyssa’s law, which requires schools, that panic buttons. And when teacher presses a button on their phone or a badge they might wear around their neck or a hardwired button, the great thing it’s directly linked to law enforcement.

Also goes to the 9 1 1 center at the same time, and then also can go to about 200 people. So it’s mass notification all within seconds. So our thought is if law enforcement can get to that threat, it’s, geo-fence the area, just like your Uber knows where to go. They know where that threat is coming from.

They can pull up the cameras, get eyes on the scene and get to the threat or a medical emergency triage victims and save lives.

Kimberly: It’s just incredible. And it’s amazing how you’ve been able to see an advocate for the community to truly come together, help each other and have those rapid responders available.

You’ve also accomplished so much in these last four years.

Lori: How does that feel? I’m not only I run a nonprofit organization, I’m also on the Broward county school board. So my life is a roller coaster and meaning like, go, go, go one thing right after the next. But usually I feel like that’s how I deal with my trauma, my pain by staying busy by continuously like being with people because it’s very hard if you’re just isolated.

By yourself. And then your thoughts come in. And I just keep thinking about Alyssa. So the busier that I can say, I just feel more I can accomplish these small wins. The more that I could help other students help keep people safe. The stronger that make our school safe would be. Yes,

Kimberly: but putting your mind in a place where you can be productive for Alyssa and for so many others.

Tell me a little bit about your past. Were you involved in school activities and the school board prior to Alyssa?

Lori: I was a school teacher for five years. And then I was a stay at home mom with three kids for 14 years. I was absolutely always involved with my kids’ education. I was a class mom, so I was involved with the schools specifically kids’ schools, but definitely getting.

School board. There was a learning curve, learning the processes and everything and protocols, but I’m a quick learner and I’m actually, I was on the school board for four years now and I’m actually running for another term for another four years for me. I definitely think I’m making an impact, making a change, making a difference.

So I continue to be on the school board and fight for change and also accountability. And that we continue to thrive. Make sure that our schools are safe.

Kimberly: Let’s step into fundraising. Do you feel like you’re an accidental fundraising?

Lori: Definitely. I was always actually good at fundraising. I would always help my kids, soccer teams, where they always need fundraising to go on there, the soccer tournament and everything like that.

So I was always involved with fundraising as of with the nonprofit organization. It’s like fundraising on steroids because you have so much more things to be accountable and, um, more things to accomplish.

Kimberly: What felt easy. So as you were stepping into starting this nonprofit, you and your husband, what things seemed easy and what things seemed really hard.

Lori: It was first learning how to run fundraisers. And those events. I was very lucky to have a lot of great friends. We put on our first tennis fundraiser three months after the shooting. I think we might’ve raised $50,000, but my friends like helped me. You know what I’m saying? As much as now, four years later, I still have a lot of volunteers that help running our fundraiser.

So like we just had our. Third annual live for lists of benefit on Cinco de Mayo. And we raised a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, but it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of time. And I don’t think people were like really realize, but you have to focus on all those like little details, especially when.

Sponsors. You want to make sure that you are holding up to what we set as a nonprofit organization, that we are giving them whether it’s a certain amount of social media posts, whether it was their name at a table, whether it was a banner. So all those details needs to be excellent.

Kimberly: Events are a lot of fun and great, you know, donor and stakeholder engagement opportunities, but there’s so much work.

There’s so much work. So the details with the events are so important. Do you do a lot of fundraising campaigns where you send out letters, emails you make asks on social media?

Lori: So honestly, our events is really what drives donation, because a COVID, we did a lot of virtual events and they were very successful, like bike for school safety, run for school safety and doing different campaigns.

That way. I feel that our peer to peer fundraising. Are extremely successful. We had a 17 year old girl. She did a, basically a fundraiser all on her own. She raised $5,000, but that was like, she was reaching out to her connections and people were donating. Sometimes those peer to peers are great too, because there’s competition within your group.

Oh, I want to be the top fundraiser person. They always are trying to beat the next person, but honestly, Biggest way. I feel that we’ve been able to raise money is through our sponsorships at our events. That’s

Kimberly: great. Have you ever had an individual give you a major.

Lori: Yes. We’ve had donations like when, like a twenty-five thousand dollar donation.

That’s probably been our like major donation amount that we’ve received. For sure. There’s been certain donors that have donated a significant amount of money. But also like every year they’re donating. So over time it’s more than $25,000. So that’s absolutely helpful to the organization and our success and our ability to give back to school.

And our goal, our ultimate goal is to pass Alyssa’s law, panic buttons in schools as a standard level school safety protection across the country. So like schools have their fire alarm, full stations ads. Now they’ll also have every teacher will have their panic button. And how many states is that active?

And now it’s in New Jersey and also in Florida.

Kimberly: So how do you maintain some of those relationships with your donors?

Lori: I would say a lot of times we’re reaching out to them, whether it’s just a text message, a video. Thank you. Through network for good. Those small touches. We’ll send them a Moss box and make our school safe box with a t-shirt or like stickers, just trying to engage them and always inviting them to our events.

We try to do like probably every 10 days an email blast. And I try to also, I’d like to do the videos, which I think have a lot of engagement and the text messaging, even though sometimes people get sensitive about text messaging and then they. Push stop so that you don’t text them again. But text messaging honestly is very successful and it’s 99.9% of people get the text message.

Kimberly: Great. They get them. They want them, they want to continue. And then you’ll just have one or two who may want to opt out and they can opt out. But that doesn’t mean that an organization should stop doing it altogether because they’ve heard from one or two people that they don’t want it. So I’m so glad that you are continuing to do that because for me as a fundraising coach, I always try to impress on people that we digest information through different channels.

So you can’t just use one channel all the time. Send emails all the time. Right. And it sounds like you and make our schools safe or doing that so well by using all of these different, what we would call multi-channel communications, you’re using email, you’re using print. You’re sending tokens of appreciation to people.

You are texting them. You’re sending videos, you’re using you’re leveraging social media. So. People are getting your information and they can, they can look at it and digest it through whatever means they’re feeling that day, because I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’ll look at a text message or sometimes I’ll see it on social, but I’m digesting it in the way that I want it at that moment, but don’t just do one.

And it sounds like you’re finding a lot of success.

Lori: Definitely. And honestly, like it’s about engaging people and sometimes you can’t always go back to the same source of people to donate. You have to be able to find a way to connect and reach a different population. The more that I can expand our social media, the greater outreach that we have, the more people that sign up for our email blast is that continuing.

Well, they might not donate now, but maybe six months from now, they might feel more connected with one of the events that we’re doing, or it might be the five-year anniversary coming up on every 14th. So they might feel different connection at them.

Kimberly: Another thing that I often will recommend to people just close the loop on the, on the multi-channel communications.

Is that from accidental fundraisers who say we don’t have the phone numbers, the mobile phone numbers for the contact center database. And I always recommend that they send out a survey, right? To update their information, ask them for their birthday. It’s great thing to have. And then note in their fundraising software that they have this send out a note on their birthday, those types of things.

So for those who are listening, who just don’t have the information and are wondering how they can access it, you can survey your contacts and some will answer and some won’t, but you’ll have more information than you did yesterday. So are you doing Facebook advertising and how do you engage? Nu, uh, supporters on social and then convert them potentially to donors.

Lori: So we’ve done Facebook advertising in the past, but honestly, I feel like it’s a waste of money. Just to be Frank, we’ve gone on to take talk. I have make our school safe. Underscore is our tic-tac handle. And Tik TOK is like Facebook on steroids and we get a significant amount of more views on our posts.

And I always bring people back to our website. Make our school safe.org because that’s where they can donate volunteer, sign up for one of our events, sign our petition, and it’s very actionable. Everything always goes back to our website. And, you know, I, I think we’ve had a lot of success with that.

Kimberly: Now, as you stepped into Tik TOK, how did you get

Lori: started?

I just jumped in. Honestly, you learn as you go, but you just have to keep trying, just have to keep putting content out there. And then you’re going to get a following just as I have different people that I follow on Tik TOK know, I might not like everything they do, but I follow them. I’m into whatever that is.

You just have to put yourself out there experiment and just try.

Kimberly: And do you have others whose videos you’ll post or does your husband post videos with you?

Lori: No, not so much. We just had SWAT the TV show. They did a video for make our schools safe. We’re just super cool. And we have their video that we just posted that I got thousands of views.

If you can find influencers to post or wear your shirt for make our schools safe, then you’re now going to be reaching a whole new audience. Who didn’t know about me from Parkland, Florida, but now in California, they know. Yeah. So

Kimberly: what I’m hearing you say is just step into it, give it a whirl. Look for influencers who can help you create shirts or buttons or hats or whatever that can be Lauren and shared.

So people will want to share and promote your organization that way and let that ripple out. Let the ripple effect work.

Lori: So one thing last year really got into is QR codes. So whether we have a QR code linking to follow us on Instagram files on tic-tac files, on Facebook, pure code, linking to make our school safe, that, or even like a QR code to a specific event that has been tremendously helpful in our communication.

We could make a flyer for third annual golf class. And then have a QR code that links to the network for good to sign up, to register for the

Kimberly: event. And everyone uses QR codes. Now, when you go to restaurants, so people are very familiar with it. It’s funny because I’ll often hear from organizations who will say my donors are older and they can’t use any of this new technology and they’re not here and they’re not there.

And I shake my head and I say, everybody is in a digital world and we’re all using it. Do you see that as.

Lori: Oh, for sure. Since COVID, how do you get your menu at the restaurant while scan the QR code from your phone? So for sure, like there’s, everybody’s using and knows how to use QR codes now, but I find it just, it’s a direct way to link people back to our, whatever vent that we have going on through network for good to access that and to be able to.

Sign up for a ticket. Another thing that we do to help raise money and get donations is periodically we’ll put together like a really cool basket, like a 4th of July basket with different stuff in it. And then we’ll sell tickets for, could be like one tickets, $25 for tickets seventy-five dollars, whatever it is.

And then we’ll at the end. We’ll do raffle off. You get the everyone’s names. I put them on like a wheel. Do a Facebook live and then pick the winner and we’ve raised thousands and thousands of dollars through that type of wave. It’s a fundraising. That’s

Kimberly: fantastic. Let’s talk a little bit about your base of supporters.

Because you are focused on education and schools and safety and youth safety. I imagine that you have a lot of parents, a lot of students who want to help and support. You mentioned that peer to peer fundraisers that some students will do. What would you say your base of donors looks

Lori: like? Definitely it’s a range.

I feel that a lot of females, moms. Are definitely big supporters of mine, definitely the ones that are actually doing the hard work for our events and volunteering doesn’t necessarily have to be. But the moms that are female kids in schools, I think definitely have my back.

Kimberly: What do you think has been the hardest thing with fundraising?

Lori: I think at the end of the day, as much volunteers that you have, or even people that work for the organization, it all falls on my shoulders at the end of the day, like we just had our event and there was auction items that people didn’t pick up. I was the ones who make sure to get those auction items and deliver them to the people’s houses or mail them out at the end of the day.

I’m working full time, working hard to, to make sure that every little detail is made sure that it’s accomplished. And so it’s just a lot of work. I definitely have people on my team that I rely on that helped me, but I have to make sure did we make sure that we sent a tax deduction letter to all the people that gave us an in-kind donation?

Okay. Yes, but I had to make sure that people on my team actually exited.

Kimberly: It’s again, back to the details, right? All those little details that really can eat up a day. Do you have paid.

Lori: We do. We have someone for communications, someone for social media. And then I do have someone that kind of does a little bit of everything, but she does more focusing, like when we have an event to make sure that there’s a spreadsheet on sponsor.

In kind donations so that we can calculate at the end, would it be gross? What did we net and then do all that analyzing and all that math. And she was fabulous. And then to be able to analyze, she even broke it down to from year to year for a live for Alyssa events. How did we do in the auction items compared to last year or the year before, and then analyze it?

I love

Kimberly: the year over year analysis. That makes such a difference because you’re really able to see is our auction pulling in the same type of funds. Do we need to shake it up? There’s so many lessons learned right along the way as an accidental fundraiser. It’s so true. And it is important. There are incredibly generous people, incredible in-kind gifts that you can get.

And then sometimes you have to weigh. Is this going to. Is this going to be appealing to my crowd? What are the logistics with it? There’s just so much more complexity that sometimes it doesn’t seem like it’s worth accepting that gift. And sometimes you do, you have to say no to certain gifts and for lots of reasons.

Lori: Sometimes there’s hidden print, like a lot of the vacations. They have this like small print. Oh, you have to buy your airfare. You have to pay this tax. You can’t go here. You can’t go there. And then I feel bad because then the person, oh my God, I won this trip. To England and blah, blah, blah. But then there’s like all this fine print and they might’ve paid like $3,000 for it, but now they’re going to have to pay like another 5,000.

And I don’t want to trick my donors. Like I just want to make it nice and clean. And as they see and they think they want, they’re going to get. And what

Kimberly: I was thinking of was a conflict of interest. Sometimes you’d have to turn down donors because there may be a conflict of interest in some way, shape or form.

Have you had to do that? Have there been organizations that have come to you wanting to make a contribution and they just don’t align as well with the mission of make our school.

Lori: So we don’t focus on the gun issue. So even, I don’t know necessarily about as like donations, but it’s been more of it’s interviews that I’ve done.

They’re always constantly trying to pull me into speaking about the gun issue, but I’m very savvy to bring them back to the mission, to make our school safe and staying in the school safety league. That

Kimberly: is great advice for so many organizations who have a certain mission, but yet if there’s a gray area where people will want you to go.

So I applaud you for saying, you know, this is our lane we’re

Lori: staying. Yeah. And it’s hard. I’ll be honest because even like, sometimes people would like us to fundraise with them on something. I think it’s an important fight focusing on. Gun control, but that’s just not make our schools safe. And I know people are fighting that fight, but we wouldn’t be able to do a, like a collaborative fundraiser together because then it gets the lines, get blurred for make our school safe.

It gets confusing. And my donors, they know exactly what we do and what we represent. And then if I start going over there to the gun issue, they’ll get very confused and upset. I feel so. Try to really stay in our lane. There’s

Kimberly: politics tied to that for years now into your very successful organization, what would you tell yourself as you were setting this up?

Lori: Laurie, be more organized. I wish I kept contacts wrote down email addresses and were more organized in that manner because then I would be able to reflect on that and have that list of contacts to be able to go back to for whatever reason. As you

Kimberly: think about your organization and where you want to be from a fundraising standpoint, three years out, five years out, where do you see yourself?

Lori: So hopefully we continue to go state by state to pass a listless law, panic buttons in schools. I would love six years from now or sooner, hopefully that we have a federal bill that passes Alyssa’s laws, a federal bill. So with cover every state across the country,

Kimberly: So you’ve fallen into accidental, but throughout this interview and our discussion today, I’ve seen you smile.

I’ve seen you get excited about talking about the donors and that work that you’re doing. What makes you most proud of running this incredible non.

Lori: What makes me most proud is that through Alyssa’s law, not only is Alyssa helping to protect kids in schools, in New Jersey and Florida, but also that I’m honored to continue Alyssa’s legacy and that everybody will know who Alyssa is.

And with her tragically being killed and not being here, it’s so important for me as Alyssa’s mom is to make sure that we remember Alyssa.

Kimberly: I have a 15 year old daughter. So this leaves a huge imprint on my heart. Talking with you today. I really want to thank you for sharing your story and for just rising the action so quickly, so diligently, right?

And the work that you’re doing, you and your husband are just incredible. And this organization, the board of directors, I really applaud the progress that you’ve made, the work that you’ve done, the fundraising, the creativity that you’ve put into this fundraising. Thank you for doing this for a little.

But also doing it for all of us. All of us who have children, all of the beautiful youth in our country. Thank you.

Lori: Thank you.

Kimberly: Here are three key. Think about how to turn a simple voice into a major change. Often a major life experience will prompt you or a person to start a non-profit and begin advocating passionately for your mission.

Laurie immediately jumped into action and use the public spotlight that was on her and her tragedy to speak up for school safety. As you consider your organization and role, how can you begin to advocate more broadly for your Ms. Another key takeaway is how to land and expand donors via digital marketing and frequent touch points.

I’m impressed by Lori and her volunteers who leveraged social media and digital marketing techniques to engage their supporters of all ages. We live in a digital world and your organization. Can also have an active following on social media, perhaps it’s time for your organization to audit your digital marketing strategy.

Lastly, staying on mission and avoiding that shiny object syndrome, you know, all those shiny things. It’s really critical. It’s important to consider how existing and prospective partners can elevate or distort your message, your brand, your focus. Is it your quest for new dollars and partners? Is that slowly pulling your organization away from its true center.

That’s a hard thing to sometimes see because it can happen incrementally over time. So it can be useful to have a set of questions that you and your staff and your volunteers have to answer before you initiate a new partnership questions about ethics, how closely that company that wants to sponsor or another partnering organization aligns to your.

As well as your values, their values and the effort needed on both sides. Those questions can make that answer a no-brainer. Yes, you can. I’m Kimberly. See you next time on accidental fundraiser and be sure to follow along wherever you get your audio.

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