Amy DeVita, TopNonprofits: Welcome everybody. This is Amy DeVita at TopNonprofits. I’m really excited about this conversation today that we have with Amber Leonti. Amber is the Director of U.S. Philanthropy for the global nonprofit, Operation Smile. And today Amber is going to talk with us about a topic we’ve been covering quite a bit lately, and that is accepting cryptocurrency, donations for your organization. Coming up soon, actually the same day as, #GivingTuesday, November 30th, we will also see many nonprofits, including Operation Smile, who are involved in #BitcoinTuesday. Here’s a little background: #BitcoinTuesday is an international campaign. It runs parallel with #GivingTuesday every year to connect crypto friendly nonprofits with crypto donors and companies to help raise money for worthy causes before the end of the year during that crucial, fourth quarter. So again, thanks for joining us, Amber. Thanks for thanks so much for joining me today and taking some time out.
Amber Leonti, Operation Smile: Thanks so much for having me, Amy. It’s a pleasure to speak with you and the listeners
Amy DeVita, TopNonprofits: Before we go too far, it would get into any of the crypto questions and Bitcoin stuff. I’d love to, ha take a minute and if you could please bring our audience up to speed. give us a little background on your professional experience and, your role at operation smile. And tell us a little bit about operation smile’s history and mission.
Amber Leonti, Operation Smile: You bet. as you mentioned, I am the director of us philanthropy. So what that means is I oversee our regional team of seven different major gift officers, raging raising ranging from California, Colorado, Texas, Chicago, New York. So we really about five years ago really embraced a regional approach that the organization didn’t necessarily have, towards fundraising. And our goal here was to take better care of our major gift donors in particular operation smile is a, family, started as a small family led organization, 40 years ago, we’re moving into our 40th anniversary and this coming year, and we’ve just grown immensely. And so as we’ve grown, it really became apparent within the last five to 10 years that as our miss major gift program has grown our staff necessarily to support those major donors haven’t grown. And so that is my prayer primary rule to not only work with our high value donors, but also oversee the strategy with the team.
So Operation Smile as a whole, you know, as we were talking before, you said you’ve heard of Operation Smile, but you don’t necessarily know exactly what we do. And so, Operation Smile is obviously one of my favorite things to talk about. We had humble beginnings 40 years ago in the Philippines and our founders Bill and Kathleen Magee. Bill is a retired plastic surgeon. He just retired out of private practice about five years ago. He had heard that in the Philippines, there was quite a few kids that needed cleft palate or cleft lip surgery and cleft lip and cleft palate surgery is a specialty. As far as surgeries go, it can be done pretty efficiently, for a lip that can be done in about 45 minutes. The palate, could range between two to four hours just depending on the severity.
And so as a young plastic surgeon, he gathered five other plastic surgeons and said that we were going to spend a week in the Philippines and help as many kids as possible and then head back to their private practice. And so I got on a plane headed to the Philippines and they expected to see about 40 to 50 kids. And when they got off the plane, it was more like 400 kids were waiting for them and their families were there. And so, Kathleen looked at Bill when they got on the plane and said like, this is what we should be doing. This is our calling. And so, 40 years later, we’ve worked in 60 countries historically and been able to do surgeries on over 500,000 patients. And that’s just surgeries … the number of critical interventions for nutrition, speech and all of those things, far outweighs that number.
You know, whenever people hear where I work, they say, oh, you guys do surgery. And I say, yeah, we do do surgery. And it’s a big part of our story, but it’s only part of our story. We also do infrastructure building. Do you really help the, the state of healthcare and the country’s low rise in general, we work with ministries of health, to do training and education. So our goal is really to put ourselves out of a job. We want to be able to help countries be as sustainable as possible. And we do that in a number of ways. Surgery is just part of that.
Amy DeVita, TopNonprofits: That is eye-opening and kudos to you all, you know, 40 years and so much good that’s come out of this. So thank you.
Amber Leonti, Operation Smile: it feels like a big accomplishment and I mean, it is. And just to think about how far we’ve come in those 40 years, and that it was started with a somewhat small idea that just kept growing and growing and growing through the drive of really the Magee family, spearheaded by Bill and Kathleen.
Amy DeVita, TopNonprofits: Wow. That’s amazing. And, and that’s encouraging, I know so many folks that, I’ve, I’ve come across in my work that are just starting a nonprofit organization. They’re just getting their approvals and, you know, have a, a mission that’s very near and dear to their own hearts. And, it’s great to see a terrific example like this and thank you for the education because yes, like many of the folks you’ve talked to, I associate operation smile specifically with the surgical procedure. And
Amber Leonti, Operation Smile: You know, another thing that I would like to point out is that most of children born with cleft lip or cleft palate conditions. It’s not a one and done surgery. So most children born with cleft conditions will need to have between two and five surgeries in their lifetime as they grow as their muscle structure changes. And then that also doesn’t take into account all of the, you know, the continuum of that patient care. So as I mentioned, nutrition’s a big deal. So is a patient even healthy enough for us to be able to do this life changing surgery. And then afterwards I do the surgery. Do they have the speech tools because most of them need to learn how, if, if you think about it, and if you put the tongue on the roof of your mouth, if you’re born with a hole in the roof of your mouth, you don’t learn how to speak in a way that, makes a lot of sense to people. So you have to really relearn that whole process. another really powerful thing about operation smile is every single doctor, nurse anesthesiologist, speech pathologists, nutritionists that, gives their time to us all volunteer their time. So they are people who are giving their time and talent, because they really feel aligned with our mission. And so we do have paid staff such as myself and program coordinators and obviously people that work in country, but all of the, really the manpower and womanpower and people power, we get comes from volunteers around the world
Amy DeVita, TopNonprofits: And the volunteer aspect. well thank you to all of those volunteers and bringing that up. I think that’s a good segue also into how, how the operation, how Operation Smile works, how you’re able to deliver. And so in addition to that tremendous support from your volunteer network, I imagine you obviously also need to be raising funds. And so, so in doing so, you know, like I said, we had, I saw that you’re participating in the upcoming, Bitcoin Tuesday. I know our audience especially is very interested in learning more about, the opportunity of accepting cryptocurrency for donations. So, if you wouldn’t mind my asking, how did you actually start accepting cryptocurrency and how did that, how long did that process start take from the time you first started talking about it until you accepted your first donation?
Amber Leonti, Operation Smile: So we are fairly new into the cryptocurrency and Bitcoin space. We have just been accepting it since early 2021. So coming up on our year anniversary of that, and we had been, you know, kind of kicking around the idea and talking with our executive team and our finance team about what does it look like for us to accept this. And we really followed a similar process that we do when we thought about when we thought back to originally accepting stock gifts or donor advised funds, like what are the different parameters and how can we, you know, not only attract these types of donors, but make sure once we do so to take care of those donors after we have them in the door. Because our goal is to not have one-off donors, but to continue be engaging them longterm. And so, we basically decided with cryptocurrency that we couldn’t afford not to give it a try.
Some interesting facts around cryptocurrency that really spoke to me were that it’s really it’s secure and it’s very, very efficient. So someone could initiate a cryptocurrency gift and it be in our bank account within a 15 to 30 minute period. So it’s very, very efficient as far as being able to put donations into action. as of February, 2021, which is right around the time when we launched, we know that there was 68 million blockchain wallet users worldwide. So even if we could tap into a slice of those people within the us and around the world, you know, we just felt like we couldn’t have, we couldn’t afford not to kind of throw our name in the hat. and then lastly, as of July of this year of 2021, we know that the value of cryptocurrencies was $1.4 trillion. So again, just, you know, I think about when we offer giving opportunities to our donors, that, you know, we take a similar approach as we do with our patients, with our patients.
We want to do everything we can to take care of them as a patient, as a whole and meet them where they’re at. Sometimes that helps facilitate get them, getting them from a village to our hospital site during four days and six different modes of transportation. But we’re going to do everything you can to make that possible. Same on the giving side, if a donor wants to give in a way that works best for them and their philanthropic aspirations, we want to do everything we can to meet them there. And so cryptocurrency kind of just made sense for us in that realm of, let’s see how this goes. We’d had a few donors express interest in it. and you know, so far we’re off to, we’re not off to like a blazing start. We’ve definitely seen, cryptocurrency gifts come in at smaller levels, but that makes sense to me because we’re, you know, at this point we’re taking a pretty conservative marketing approach we’re really ramping up so we can make sure that as the gifts started to come in, all of our backend policies and procedures were in place.
So when those gifts do start to escalate, not only in dollar amount of giving, but volume of giving, we’re able to handle that on the backend because we take you under stewardship really, really serious, and how we accept and use funds as, as important as we care for a child that I didn’t mention is that we’re not doing this alone. We really recognize that we knew that we weren’t the experts in this space. And so we have partnered and relied heavily on The Giving Block, which has provided us a lot of tools to say, you know, this is, this is worth giving it a shot and we’ll work in partnership to accept the gifts, in order to further your mission. And ultimately that’s our goal, right We don’t want to accept currencies just to accept currencies. We want to be able to do so to reach more people to care for more patients. So all of it is, you know, a six pole of we want, we, we don’t, we only do things with everything we do ends and begins with our patients and our donors. And if we can match those two things, the better we are. And we felt really confident with the giving block that they are the experts in this space. And so they we’ve really followed their lead need to take these first steps into accepting cryptocurrencies.
Amy DeVita, TopNonprofits: So let me ask you a question about the process: what concerns came up from your executive team that, you felt you needed to dig in a little deeper, maybe get some more stats or facts and figures? So can you walk us through that process a little bit?
Amber Leonti, Operation Smile: I can think of two main concerns that came up. and one is, is this real, I guess this is something that we want to be trying to attract people on. Is this something that is really kind of too good to be true If that makes sense. And then the second part was surrounding longevity, you know, is this something that’s going to be here today and gone tomorrow And we’re going to invest a lot of resources into conveying that we accept this currency, that’s going to be pretty short-lived. And so it is, you know, it is one of those things that we had to kind of step into the space with a lot of, not a lot, but some unknowns about what the end game of this was. And I w I would say that I don’t feel comfortable at this point saying it’s a roaring success, or if it’s a failure, no, we’re still in that learning phase.
But you know, it, it also for people, when we talk about cryptocurrency, there’s some people have a real grasp on what it is and how to give, and they know when we say The Giving Block, they’re like, absolutely we know what that is. And then there’s other people who don’t have any idea about that with that said, these are very similar conversations I have with people about giving through stock through their will or through their estate. So it’s just kind of another avenue that I don’t necessarily feel that I have to be the a hundred percent expert on them to give them the information to spark their interest. and so, you know, and that’s why having people, the experts like it, the giving block to say, you know, here’s, here’s what we know about, and here’s how we’re accepting it. And then letting them explore on their own, because ultimately they’re going to make choices about their philanthropy that work, that work best for them.
And I want to provide them with opportunities, but never sway them in a way that doesn’t make sense for me, that, from an ethical perspective has, would never feel right to me. I would never, you know, in the same respect of, I would never have a heavy hand about someone putting us in their will, if it wasn’t truly what they wanted to do that met with their day and their family’s giving priorities. So, you know, I think for us, it’s less about being a hundred percent expert and more about saying, we’ve decided to give this a shot if this works for you. Great. If not, then we have lots of other ways that you can give to the organization, help kids around the world.
Amy DeVita, TopNonprofits: I keep hearing you say, and I think this is such an important takeaway for everybody is that you’re keeping your organization’s mission top of mind in every aspect of your donor stewardship. I think that’s really key and that will help guide you. And you know, this almost sounds like about 10 years ago when people started saying, you know, like, oh, donations on your phone? That’s crazy. Right. It’s crazy. So, you know, and no one forced anyone to make donations through their phone. It was just another avenue that maybe this will make it easier for people who prefer to give that
Amber Leonti, Operation Smile: Right. Absolutely.
Amy DeVita, TopNonprofits: So, that’s great. And I appreciate your sharing this information. I totally understand this is new for most organizations. This is your first year in, so yeah, it’s, it’s interesting. And it’s very helpful to hear your takeaways. Thank you for sharing on how you were able to get up and running, on this. Are there any other last thoughts that you would like to share with folks and something that you took away?
Amber Leonti, Operation Smile: When I look back on the process I, you know, I think, I think it’s an evolution. And when I think about the extensive conversations that I’ve had with my team, you know, part of that was really convincing them and selling them on this was the right idea. There was a lot, if I’m completely honest, there was like some apprehensive thoughts from our major gift officers about those questions that we ask. And so if you don’t have a team that is going to be bought into that, this is a good thing for the organization as a whole, it’s ultimately going to fail, right If your frontline, frontline people, aren’t confident, don’t feel that it’s a good decision. So that was really a part of the backend process. And so I would say, number one thing, get your backend practices and policies and your talking points about why that is.
This is a good thing together before you move forward with anything forward facing, because you know, it doesn’t matter if you have the perfect talking points and you’ve got beautiful materials. If on the back end your staff, can’t talk about it in a way that they’re comfortable or instill confidence in the donor. It’s ultimately going to fail. Same thing. If we receive gifts and the processing time is incredibly slow, or we don’t have the policies and procedures in line with our data and analytics team that line up with our finance team that align up with our frontline staff. So making sure all of those things are in order, and last thing, give it a shot, you know, do your best to talk about it and promote it always, as you mentioned with your organization’s mission in mind, that’s what we do every single day. And if you’re just chasing giving opportunities, because it’s a new shiny thing, you’re missing the goal of what it is to be a frontline fundraiser.
And so, you know, I think it’s interesting. I love #GivingTuesday. I think #GivingTuesday is just like one of the coolest things throughout the year of people saying we’re going to take this opportunity to like pour some extra love and energy into the organizations that we love and the organizations can say, you know, here’s what we’re doing on this special day. And so layering in a strategy that has to do with crypto makes a lot of sense to me. Again, maybe somebody’s going to read it and say, I have no idea what that is that doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe you’re going to plant a seed that three years down the road, they’re having a conversation with their family about giving and a family member says I’m really excited about this space. I’ve decided to invest in cryptocurrency…whatever it may be. Just making sure that you’re providing them some options to keep thinking about ways and the various ways that they can give to you, because we know that giving isn’t a straight line and people give based on how it works for them best financially and personally. And so you want to make sure to give all those options.
Amy DeVita, TopNonprofits: Well, that’s great advice. Thank you. And before we go, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask how somebody would best be able to donate to Operation Smile.
Amber Leonti, Operation Smile: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so your best, avenue of where to start is OperationSmile.org. And that we have a whole section on giving that really does lay out our options from a straight cash gift to stocks and bonds, wills, all those things. So we really have tried to make it as seamless as possible. obviously as I mentioned in the beginning of the call, we have a regional development team as well. So if you’d like to meet with someone in person, we’ll make that happen, but best starting place is OperationSmile.org and to all the fundraisers listening, good luck to #GivingTuesday and your year end. I know that this is an exciting and kind of frantic time, but, I really strongly believe that organizations when we all succeed, we’re a force for good and so good luck to all of you. And I know we’re going to do our best to raise as much money this giving Tuesday and Bitcoin Tuesday and the year end taking us into 2022.
Amy DeVita, TopNonprofits: Terrific. Amber, thank you. I would like to, you know, wish, operation smile, another 40 successful years, except, your goal is to put yourself out of business. So maybe that’s not the best thing to wish, but I, I, just continued success and happiness and smiles for all of your stakeholders and for all of your clients and the lives that you’ve changed. So thank you so much for this.