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Mike NellisMike Nellis is the Founder and CEO of Authentic and the Founder and Executive Chairman of Quiller. Authentic is a digital-first fundraising and advertising agency where Mike focuses on online fundraising, paid media, and creative design, catering to high-profile clients, including President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and entities like the United Nations Population Fund. Quiller is an AI copilot that helps Democratic campaigns and allied organizations draft and deploy high-quality, effective fundraising content, leveraging generative AI to innovate online fundraising and earning awards like AI Efficiency of the Year by Adweek in 2023. With over two decades of experience in fundraising and AI, he has been instrumental in raising over $1 billion for various political campaigns and nonprofit organizations.

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Mike Nellis shares the founding story of Authentic
  • Online fundraising tactics used in Obama’s 2008 campaign
  • The importance of creating an emotional connection with donors
  • Email marketing do’s and don’ts for political campaigns
  • The impact of direct response principles on fundraising
  • How Mike fosters a positive company culture in Authentic and Quiller
  • The #1 mistake Mike made in his career
  • Mike shares how they helped resolve their email deliverability issue
  • Fundamentals in marketing and nonprofit work
  • Why Mike decided to start a second company
  • How AI can help improve fundraising efforts
  • Mistakes and misuses of AI

In this episode…

In a world where technology is rapidly transforming how we approach challenges, can it also revolutionize the way nonprofits fundraise? Imagine a future where AI not only streamlines processes but also fundamentally changes how we connect with donors and tell impactful stories.

According to Mike Nellis, incorporating AI into fundraising strategies enhances the efficiency of campaigns and also opens new avenues for donor engagement and data analysis. This technological integration goes beyond mere automation; it brings a nuanced understanding of donor behaviors and trends, enabling more personalized and effective fundraising approaches. He emphasizes that this tech-driven approach is about raising money more effectively and reshaping the nonprofit operations landscape, making them more adaptable, responsive, and impactful.

In this episode of the Rising Entrepreneurs Podcast, Dr. Jeremy Weisz is joined by Mike Nellis, Founder of both Authentic and Quiller, to explore the cutting-edge intersection of AI and fundraising. They discuss Mike’s innovative approach to online fundraising, the role of AI in revolutionizing nonprofit strategies, and the importance of nurturing a supportive company culture in high-stakes environments.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

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Episode Transcript

Intro 0:03

Welcome to the Rising Entrepreneurs Podcast where we feature top founders and entrepreneurs and their journey. Now let’s get started with the show.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz 0:13

Dr. Jeremy Weisz here founder of I talk with inspirational entrepreneurs and leaders today is no different. I’ve Mike Nellis, he runs and And Mike, before I formally introduce you, I always like to point out other episodes, people should check out other podcasts. Since actually, we are in EO together, that’s Entrepreneurs Organization. We had a great conversation over one of the events, dinners or he may tell some poker stories because I didn’t realize Mike has had some amazing success in the poker world, besides being an agency owner and software, SaaS business owner, but there’s some good ones and Mat Zalk of EO Tulsa, he talked about his journey. Robert Hartline of EO Nashville, talk about his journey building up a company to over $100 million. And he had a chain of cell phone stores. He also has a software too. So you know, just serial entrepreneur, type of person that was interesting episode, and many more on This episode is brought to you by Rise25. At Rise25 we help businesses give to and connect to their dream 100 relationships. And how do we do that? We do that by helping you run your podcast, we’re an easy button for a company to launch and run a podcast we do the accountability, the strategy and the full execution. Mike, we call ourselves the magic elves that work in the background and make it look easy for the company, the host, so they can build amazing relationships and create amazing content. You know, for me, the number one thing in my life is relationships. I’m always looking at ways to give to my best relationships. And I found no better way over the past decade to profile the people in companies I most admire and share with the world what they’re working on. So we’ve thought about podcasting, you should if you have questions go to We have a lot of I have a bunch of free episodes and content on inspired insider, all about podcasting if you want to learn more. So without further ado, I’m excited to introduce Mike Nellis. He’s a fundraising and AI expert with more than two decades of experience helping nonprofit organizations, political campaigns, he’s helped raise more than $1 billion online. He founded Authentic, a marketing agency that specializes in online fundraising, paid media, and creative design. He also founded Quiller, that’s that uses generative AI to revolutionize online fundraising and Quiller even received an AI efficiency of of the Year Award by Adweek in 2023. So Mike, thanks for joining me. You know, before we get into the poker stories, which I want to hear, you know, just talk about Authentic and what you do for a second.

Mike Nellis 2:57

Sure. So I’ll talk a little bit about how I got to finding Authentic. So like you said, I have I have two decades of experience working for social impact organizations, that’s primarily nonprofits and political campaigns. I got my start working for Barack Obama in 2007, on his first presidential campaign, and I was a fellow, which was a fancy way of saying I wasn’t going to be paid to do the work. And but over time, I was able to kind of parlay that into a real job on a Senate campaign in Nebraska, which is where I’m from. And we were in a room I was a finance assistant and finances this job is, you know, making sure the candidate has coffee has the numbers they need to call for, for dialing for dollars and donor calls. And somebody in the room was like, hey, Barack Obama is raising a lot of money through online marketing. Does anybody know how to do that? And nobody did, because nobody had really done it before. And I was the youngest person in the room. I was 18 years old, and somebody just like, Hey, Mike, go figure that out. And I did, I sat down. And I basically copied exactly what the Obama campaign was doing at the time and built out a series of best practices. And we raised what at the time was like an unbelievable sum of money with like, $700,000 over the course of a year. Now I have clients that raise that on a day on a good day. And so but over time, I worked my way up and became the vice president of a very large DC consulting firm, that focused on online fundraising, and I got to focus on online marketing. I really loved my clients, I loved the team that I had, I loved the work that I was doing. It was a really miserable place to work. It was a hostile and toxic work environment that was really poorly managed to run. And it’s a much longer and deeper story about that, which I’m happy to maybe not happy, but I will get into if you want me to. But ultimately, I decided like, Hey, I think I could do a better job of this. And so me and now my business partner, Laura and Sean, who is the president of our company, we both broke off from that from that company and started what would become authentic. So to us. We want to make sure that authentic is a great place with a great culture with great people that is doing work for social impact organizations that they really care about that can be nonprofit organizations. We work with the United Nations we work with We work with the National Resources Defense Council, or it can be like political campaigns, we worked with Joe Biden, I was a senior adviser to Kamala Harris for many years. We work with other large political organizations in bands. And in our services include online fundraising is like our bread and butter. But we also do like digital paid media, would you advertising, I would do some fun stuff with AI, which we’ll probably get into today. We also do creative design, so websites, graphic design animation.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz 5:28

We’ll talk about like culture for, you know, a will touch on the culture part, because you have some interesting initiatives that the company, but before we get to the culture part, with the Obama campaign, and you you, what were you seeing, and what were you modeling that was working then? And is that stuff still working today? Because he said, you know, you looked at Obama and you saw stuff working? And then you applied it? What was working? What you were modeling at that point?

Mike Nellis 5:57

Yeah, I would, I would say a couple of things. The first was, online fundraising was not necessarily new in 2008, like in 2004. For those who remember, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign had raised a significant chunk of money online. And then the Obama campaign sort of like skyrocketed that to raise unbelievable sums of money online, they broke a lot of records at the time that are now much smaller than than a lot of campaigns that we run, I think the thing that they were doing that was that was new, was they were taking tactics that had been used for direct mail, and porting them over to online. And then using CRMs. So like the monetary equivalent of that would be Salesforce, but at the time was probably Blue State Digital, I would imagine. And but they were also doing a great job of like injecting authenticity and personality into that campaign. I mean, if you go back, if you’re someone who is old enough to remember what 2007 2008 was, like, we were in the middle of the Iraq war, people were really frustrated with our politics not dissimilar from today. And people wanted to kind of turn the page into something new and interesting. And I think a lot of people resonated with with Brock Obama at the time, he was a new fresh face, he had young kids, he had an awesome wife, people wanted to connect with him. And so they let that lead through and shine through in their program. And ultimately, to me, that is the most important thing for any marketing period. But it’s certainly important for online marketing, there’s going to be a lot of people here who are like, Mike, I get political emails all the time. And most of them are terribly written. And they’re very impersonal. And they’re just trying to scam and scare me into giving donations. And that’s true. That is how like 80 90% of online fundraising programs and run, even in the nonprofit space, a lot of programs are run that way. And it’s not right. What the Obama campaign pioneered and proved to me is like if you can build a connection between the candidate and the cause, and then the user or the or the voter, or the activist on the other end, you could actually just create rocket fuel from an online fundraising and activism and engagement standpoint. And so that was what we were copying. So I was working for a candidate named Scott club, who, frankly had no chance of winning that Senate race in Nebraska. But he had an interesting personality. And he had a nice, beautiful family. And he had like interesting things to say, and a lot of resonated with a lot of people. And so we were able to build an email list of a couple 100,000 people who were really engaged in the race nationwide, and were willing to part with their dollars, you know, 510 $25 at a time. And when you do that, you can kind of build something really special together.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz 8:21

I love what you said there. And this applies to all business, right? I mean, a lot of people study what, what the, what the political landscape is when they’re doing marketing, right? When you look at direct response, and you look at email, when you look at, you know, all the stuff that people are doing online. What were you finding, what have you found are do’s and don’ts of email? You’ve sent a tremendous amount of email. And it’s, I mean, the goal, the emails to raise money, it’s to have people donate, right, in the case of the political campaigns, so which is not an easy thing to get someone to take their wallet out, and enter it in and, and donate. And, you know, it’s for support, they’re not getting a good or a service with it. So what has worked and what are mistakes people make with with email?

Mike Nellis 9:15

Well, I would push back on one thing you just said, Right? There’s no good, there’s no service, but people make donations because of the way that it makes them feel, right. There’s a lot of behavioral science to suggest that when people volunteer with an organization, or when they donate to the Red Cross or any other NGO, like they’re doing it because it gives them a value and a self worth and an identity that they care deeply about. And I think that a lot of times when we’re in the weeds doing fundraising for you know, one of our nonprofits or one of our campaigns, we sort of forget that we are like doing social marketing and we are selling like a feeling we are creating emotion. And that’s a double edged sword. So when you talk about do’s or don’ts, the do to me is focused on like lifting people up, building something that’s sustainable, dry Hang up intensity with a smaller group of people opposed to what I see a lot of campaigns do or what I would recommend not doing, which is trying to build the biggest email list possible. And then sending hundreds and millions of fundraising emails that are awful and lying and deceptive. And this is very common practice in the industry. And the truth is like, you can raise more money in the short term that way, but you raise way less money in the long term that way. And that leads me to sort of like the other like do on this is you have to make sure if you’re doing any email, and I know there’s lots of people, you know, working on like commercial entities and corporations and stuff like that, who are worried like with all the changes that are happening with with Google Apple over the last couple of years, that it’s harder for them to get their marketing emails out, it’s hard for them to do their outbound marketing, like, you have to fundamentally make sure that your email deliverability, which is your ability to reach people, so it doesn’t matter whether or not you send a good email or a bad email, if I press send in my CRM, email, you know, 100,000 people, and 99% of them go to spam, you’re not even able to reach your people. And so it’s it’s lowering your open rates, lowering your engagement. So you have to make sure that your program is set up technically proficiently. So your demark records are set up, and you’re working with your CRM, and your domain provider to get all those things set up. And political campaigns have actually been on the forefront of doing that, right, because we first wants to get crack down on because frankly, a lot of a lot of others in this space, were abusing the leniency of the way that email had been operating. So now all these companies are cracking down on these, you know, Jeremy, you probably get a million of them these b2b, you know, emails that people send where they’re like, hi, I really love your business. It’s so cool. And they’re generic and stupid. And they and they probably work at scale, I imagine, but they’re gonna get cracked down on. So I think the number one thing you have to do is run a technically proficient program in order to be able to do everything else.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz 11:49

Yeah. What are some other mistakes or bad examples of bad emails?

Mike Nellis 11:54

Yeah, I think other other mistakes is, you know, when you’re sending an email, only ask people to do one thing. There’s, there’s a ton of behavioral evidence out there that the more things you ask people to do, the less likely they are to do anything. So if you’re working for a nonprofit organization, you’re sending out an email, I get a ton of nonprofits who send me an email that’s like, make a donation today, volunteer their upcoming event, attend a seminar, read this newsletter, etc, etc. Like, I’m unlikely to do any of those. But if you send me one compelling email, that’s, here’s what the here’s the problem that we’re trying to solve. Here’s the solution or the opportunity that we have to solve it together. And then a compelling request for money that points to me towards Hey, you donate $50 $100, right now you’re going to, you’re going to make a difference. And in order to Chicago organization that’s relatively new that does a good job of this is the Grace Network. I highly recommend people check that out. Their founders are amazing, but the Grace Network helps provide, like basic supplies to kids who are struggling with like homelessness. And I know it’s not the right terms to say more, so I apologize. But then anybody but housing insecurity is the right here who experience housing insecurity. And like in Chicago right now with like, influx of like, you know, migrants and people who are fleeing violence and poverty, like, there are a lot more of those kids. So like, they’re helping to get like, you know, basic food, basic supplies, helping with like, provide schools with like laundry machines, so that kids can wash their clothes. Because you never know, like, what the one thing that’s going to trigger somebody to kind of give up is, or what the one thing that might inspire them to be is so like, they’re focused on small stuff, they do a great job of just like connecting that mission and making it really clear if I give them 500 bucks, like, what’s that scope?

Dr. Jeremy Weisz 13:34

Mike, I love what you say, which is like really rooted in direct, good direct response. I’d love to hear are there any resources, people mentors, like you mentioned, selling a feeling? That’s a political thing. That’s actually if you’re selling a Ferrari, right? I mean, ultimately, whether it’s a good or service you mentioned, but one call to action? What are there any resources, mentors, books that you have learned more of these direct response principles have helped you.

Mike Nellis 14:07

I think some of the some of the best resources I’ve ever I’ve ever written are like, Chip Heath and his brother. They’ve written a ton of really great book Made to Stick is yeah, Made to Stick is one of the I think it when I got my master’s in strategic communication, it was the first book assigned to me. And it like opened up so many different pathways in my brain, both explaining like why some of the things I had been doing for years in my career were working but also explaining like, ways to sort of like maximize them and Chip has a new book about numbers. I forget the name of it.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz 14:37

Okay, because I think it actually which they have.

Mike Nellis 14:42

Made to Stick. Yeah, so they have something about big moments. Okay. They’ve got one he’s got one out about numbers. I forget the name of it, but it’s really great. It talks about how the science of how you can take like a big number and turn it into something that like sticks with people and generates the emotion that you want because As so many organizations and I think like for nonprofits or political campaigns, this plagues them is, how do we talk about dense topics in a relatable way so that people understand what we’re trying to do. So I’ve been reflecting on that a lot.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz 15:13

Yep. Is Upstream, the one that was Made to Stick, The Power of Moments, which decisive and upstream? I don’t know if there was, maybe there’s a more recent one besides that, but.

Mike Nellis 15:22

I’ll find it and maybe you can put it in the notes.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz 15:24

I love it. There was there’s one I want to tell people to check out. I did an interview with Richard Viguerie, actually, who also has done direct mail fundraising. You know, he talked a lot about direct response in that interview, it was actually interesting, because at the time, he was 81. And he was work still working 14 hours a day, which was was pretty remarkable, dedicated, but check that one out.

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