“To create a fantastic work culture, make it possible to connect work to a larger identity as a human being”, With Grant Hensel, CEO of Nonprofit Megaphone and Phil Laboon

I think there is a growing consensus in society that our work should “make a difference.” Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people, this difference can be hard to see. When you can’t connect your work to your larger identity as a human being, you almost have to see it as a means to an […]

I think there is a growing consensus in society that our work should “make a difference.” Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people, this difference can be hard to see. When you can’t connect your work to your larger identity as a human being, you almost have to see it as a means to an end. Work becomes a necessary evil that, when finished, lets you get to the parts of your life that “really matter.” One observation that has struck me is how many applications we get for our job openings, and many of them say the same thing, “I want to do work that matters.”

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Grant Hensel, CEO of Nonprofit Megaphone and the RoundUp App. Both businesses serve nonprofit clients. Nonprofit Megaphone helps them acquire and manage the Google Ad Grant to create exposure online while the RoundUp App provides nonprofits with a platform for supporters to give by donating the “change” from their credit or debit card purchases. Grant is a serial entrepreneur with a heart for nonprofits. He sold his first company while a freshman in college and is also the author of What the Fortune 500 Read, a book he co-authored with his wife Julia after receiving book recommendations from 150 Fortune 500 CEOs.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have wanted to be an entrepreneur since I was 13 years old. I later learned that this is around the age human brains develop the capacity to make concrete plans for the future, so I have literally wanted to start companies since the moment it was mentally possible.

My first taste of the fusion between entrepreneurship and startup work came in high school when I started a resale store called Encore in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where I grew up. The store was owned by a local nonprofit called Hope For Chicago, and the store’s mission was three-fold: create jobs, provide affordable clothing, and generate profits to reinvest in the community. Even today, helping start Encore — which is still in operation — is one of my proudest memories.

Later in high school and into college, I started other companies, some of them successful, many of them “smoking craters” of failure and hard-fought lessons learned. I had the opportunity to work as a contractor for a larger marketing agency with a large number of nonprofit clients, and I noticed that one of the most impactful things we could do for them was help with the Google Ad Grant. I didn’t think about it much at the time, and after graduation, I began working for a consulting company and then later as the director of marketing at an IT services business.

But the itch to help nonprofits was always there, and eventually, I started experimenting with the Google Ad Grant concept. I had never actually seen one in action and didn’t even know how to apply for it, so I convinced a local nonprofit to let me use them as a test case where I would do all the work for free. I was stunned by the power the Ad Grant gives nonprofits to reach their audiences online and with that, Nonprofit Megaphone was born. We would later launch the RoundUp App out of NPM in response to client requests for a new way to get more recurring donors.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

We have the privilege of working with nonprofit clients, so the “conversions” that we optimize for after someone clicks an ad are so much more meaningful than just dollars and cents. Just today, we were working on a case study with our client the COPD Foundation. As a direct result of the Google Ads we are running for them, more than 300 people per month are taking their free online screening, identifying if they are at risk for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). We’ll never know for sure, but the odds that one of these people’s life might be positively altered forever because they happened to click an ad and take a screening are pretty good. It’s so motivating to see that digital marketing, of all things, can be a tool to make the world a better place.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of our most exciting projects is expanding the RoundUp App to allow individuals to give to any of the over 900,000+ IRS 501(c)(3) approved charities. Prior to this roll out, an organization had to manually create a profile with us before they were listed, which was a cumbersome approach that led to many donors not finding the nonprofit they wanted to give to. It makes us incredibly excited to think about new organizations learning about the RoundUp App in the best way possible… by receiving a check in the mail.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I think there is a growing consensus in society that our work should “make a difference.” Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people, this difference can be hard to see. When you can’t connect your work to your larger identity as a human being, you almost have to see it as a means to an end. Work becomes a necessary evil that, when finished, lets you get to the parts of your life that “really matter.” One observation that has struck me is how many applications we get for our job openings, and many of them say the same thing, “I want to do work that matters.”

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

I am a big fan of the Gallup organization’s research on the powerful and predictive effects of employee engagement, and I have absolutely seen the implications play out in my own experience. An unhappy employee is not as healthy or holistically “well” as they could and should be. As a result, their productivity suffers, and with it, company profitability. We are primarily a services business — our people are the value we deliver to clients. Having an unhappy workforce would be like running a factory and not caring that the machinery is rusting for lack of attention. This is doubly true when the “resource” is a human being. Beyond simple economic justification, if we believe that every person has dignity and worth and can contribute, we owe it to them to do everything we can to make their work meaningful and rewarding.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  • Be different: Our company is 100% remote, which our team loves. Almost all of them have specific reasons why they prefer to work remote, and the relatively small number of opportunities for fulfilling work in a remote context means we can attract and retain top talent.
  • Be meaningful: As mentioned, we work exclusively with nonprofits and can tangibly see the difference our organization is making through the partners we serve. This creates a culture of caring and passion naturally — it doesn’t have to be manufactured.
  • No jerks: We refuse to hire people who are jerks, and we fire them if they slip through the cracks. Enough said.
  • Default to trust: We assume people are highly competent and only act differently if that assumption is disproven. We have a culture of catching people “doing something right” and recognizing it, not the opposite.
  • Grow: We have been more than doubling in size each year as a company, and it makes for an exciting work environment. People have opportunities to grow and stretch because the company is changing so much every quarter.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I think the best part about this problem is that entrepreneurs have an incredible incentive to change the culture, and that progress is already being made. The most difficult problems for society to tackle are those where there is no economic incentive for them to be solved (or worse, incentives in favor of the problem). But workplace culture is a “beautiful” problem in that sense, in that the entrepreneurs who create more engaged teams will win in the marketplace, and those who do not will lose. And over time, leaders who don’t invest in their people will be weeded out of the economic system.

This is all well and good in the long term. What about in the short term? There are people stuck in companies with awful cultures and horrible bosses right now. What about them? I think articles like this one as well as research quantifying the impact of employee happiness can continue to help change the narrative. Every bit of reinforcement helps.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I’ll describe the ideal I shoot for — anyone will be able to tell you that some days I live up to these aspirations, but other days, not so much! My model of leadership in a business context comes from Good to Great by Jim Collins, a book that incidentally was the most-recommended title by 150 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Good to Great talks about the notion of Level 5 Leadership, which is characterized by a leader who displays an almost paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.

How does this work in practice? When something goes well, the leader points to the team, emphasizing the contributions they made. When a project fails, the leader takes a hard look in the mirror and points to themselves, focusing on what they personally could have done differently to set the team up for success.

This brand of leadership requires having a talented team, and trusting that in many circumstances, the team’s ideas will be better than your own. As a result, I have a very hands-off style of management with my directors, who I trust implicitly and who are each far better at their jobs than I could ever be. However, it also means being willing to step in and roll up your sleeves when a less experienced colleague needs help, even being willing to guide them in minute detail during their first time through a process. We call this “situational leadership,” which is a concept coined by Ken Blanchard. Both situational leadership and Level 5 leadership have served us very well.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am thankful for my pastor, Dave Helm, who had the guts to back a teenage kid in opening the Encore Resale Store. When I came to Pastor Helm with the idea, he told me to go back and write a business plan. I later learned that he expected that would be the last he ever heard of the project. But when I came back with a 20-page document, he put his better instincts aside, believed in me, and helped me launch the store. I will never forget that experience of having someone far older and wiser support me in doing something no one in my community had ever done, but having confidence in me anyway.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I would like to think that the teams of Nonprofit Megaphone and the RoundUp App create a positive ripple in the world, even if in a small way, every day. The only way we are successful is if our clients are getting more exposure through our marketing and more financial support through our app. It is such a joy to be aligned to that end goal when we go to work every day.

I am also thankful for the way our 100% remote model of working has allowed us to give opportunities to incredible people. Our team is so talented, and many of them have told stories of how there weren’t any strong job prospects in their hometown (which often tend to be more rural areas) until they heard about us. Giving people opportunities and then stepping back and watching them accomplish more than I ever thought possible is one of the most rewarding experiences in the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” by Alan Kay. It embodies the proactive, restless, curious, determined mindset we work to embody. Instead of focusing on external circumstances and the unknowable (“the future”), it centers on what we can control, what we can do to make our desired future more likely (“invent it”).

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Our mission in life is inspiring people to do something, even if small, to benefit those around them every day. That was part of our goal with starting the RoundUp App — we envisioned a world in which donating to nonprofits was so normal that everyone did it, every day. But ultimately, the vision is broader than that, because money isn’t the only way to make a difference. I think that as a society, we overestimate the impact of being “Great” (being the next Steve Jobs, etc.) and underestimate the power of being simply “Good” to those around us in our normal, mundane, everyday lives.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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