Carter Crockett is an entrepreneur and a scholar who uses teachings from ancient philosophers to foster nonprofit growth. He works with startups and nonprofits to help people scale through storytelling, culture building and marketing strategies.
He’s a fractional CEO, or CMO, and kind of a marketing genius. He also has an interesting background as former director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Gordon College, has his Ph.D from Robert Gordon in Aberdeen, Scotland. Carter spent time to talk to us about reframing growth. He encourages everyone to see it as flourishing rather than winning.
Listen to all of his insights in the full episode.
Here’s a few can’t-miss insights from our talk with Carter.
Smart strategies pull from the past to understand how to move the future forward.
Aristotelian Virtue encourages leaders to create a culture that does well in the world. It might look different now, but it is still central to connecting with people.
Growth comes in many forms and if you see it as the moments where you’re flourishing (rather than times you win), you will see growth more frequently.
Gabe Cooper: Hey everybody, this is Gabe Cooper with the Modern Fundraiser Podcast. So glad you could join us today. Today I’m so excited to have Carter Crockett on the podcast. Carter lives in San Diego. He works with some amazing startups and nonprofits to help people scale through great storytelling, culture building, and marketing strategies.
He’s a fractional CEO, or CMO, and kind of a marketing genius. He also has an interesting background as former director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Gordon College, has his PhD from Robert Gordon in Aberdeen, Scotland. So just a breadth of great knowledge. So, Carter, thanks so much for joining us.
Carter Crockett: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me on the show.
GC: Yeah, absolutely. So I’d love to hear, and I know our listeners would too, just a little bit about what you’re up to now, and how you’re helping startups and nonprofits.
CC: Yeah. I was born and raised in Southern California and had a good 20 plus year journey as an entrepreneur, both as an academic and as a practitioner, and the last five have been as an academic at Gordon College where I was the founding director of a Center For Entrepreneurship.
But I just missed the struggle of starting and running startups, and so I resigned there recently and moved back home to San Diego. And it’s in this context that I’m helping startups, not in an academic sense through classrooms or through programs, but really by joining the team where I can as a chief marketing officer or a strategic advisor, mentoring quite a few here in the emerging startup ecosystem of San Diego.
GC: That’s amazing. What’s the startup scene look like in San Diego?
CC: You know, it still feels a little bit new. It got a good boost with some of the things that make the region unique. Biotech, a lot of military technologies, proximity to the border with Mexico, has made it a really fascinating kind of place. I’ve lived in San Francisco and Seattle and Boston, and this place is not like those in significant ways.
It’s not as big and developed as an ecosystem, even though the population is bigger in some ways. Startups, they’re still trying to develop a platform where they can be launched outside of particular fields like biotech and particular technologies, like those offered by Qualcomm, the big giant corporation in town.
GC: Yeah, well, in defense of the ecosystem there, if I lived in North County, San Diego, it would be hard for me to be focused on anything other than hanging out by the beach. So…
CC: Yeah. I think you’ve nailed one of the challenges that has kept it from growing quite as fast as San Francisco, where I was in my office on rainy days a whole lot more.
GC: Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly right. Well, I kind of want to jump into some of the stuff that you’ve done in your academic work. Before Gordon, you worked on your Ph.D in Scotland, which is an amazing place to work on a Ph.D. I know you spent a lot of time studying there, kind of these old principals looking at Greek philosophers, looking at what it meant to be virtuous, and obviously the idea being virtuous as a subject close to both of our hearts. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about your research there, and kind of how you think it applies today.
CC: Yeah, so I didn’t understand that I was an entrepreneur until well after I graduated from college as an undergrad, and until a number of years of working at Microsoft. I kept gravitating towards the riskier parts of the company. And so when I had a chance to actually help some investors write a plan and launch it, I felt like I came into my own at 27 and really kind of tapped into something. It was the most exciting part of being in business, as far as I could tell, that you could actually create the mission, craft the culture, invite everybody to play, and do something truly noble with a company or a nonprofit.
And so I had the chance to do that working with car dealers. Transferring what they were doing in a physical auction setting into an online auction setting to trade vehicles in the Pacific Northwest. And after two years, was just fascinated by the power and the excitement of creating something from scratch. Kind of been hooked on startups ever since.
But after a couple of years, I decided I needed to hand this company that we’d created to more senior practiced hands that understood the industry. And so I went off to get a PhD in entrepreneurship. Mainly it was driven by this idea that my professors hadn’t really mentioned the concept as a viable career choice when I was a business major at a liberal arts school called Westmont in California. And so I thought I’ve got to fix that, and I understand to get a teaching job at one of the best schools in the country, you’ve got to have a PhD. So I’ll get one in entrepreneurship. And about 30 years ago, people started getting PhDs in that subject.
And at the time the questions I was chasing were really the moral social implications of starting a venture. That was what I was losing sleep over and most concerned about, and those are the burning questions I wanted to chase. And I actually needed to leave America in order to chase them properly, because at the time the management schools really had a strong bias towards quantitative data sets, and using those to answer more quantitative questions. Mine was definitely a qualitative research project.
So, thankfully, the British system has a long tradition of theory building, and I was able to find a supervisor that really mentored me for the three years I was there in Scotland. And one of the things that they do in a PhD program, the top ones, is they say, well, what’s the burning question that’s going to motivate you all these years? And I told them I wanted to find a kind of a guiding framework for making moral decisions in a startup. Because it felt like it was pioneering territory without a roadmap, and I wanted to create one, or at least make it easier for the best founders to make the best decisions. He said, well, that’s great. You’ve got to read everybody that’s ever tried to do anything like that before you.
And so I quickly dove into not just the management scholars, but into philosophers, political philosophy, moral philosophy. And long story short, found something in ancient Greece in the form of Aristotelian virtue that I felt was much more profound and had much more credibility than any newfangled system of moral philosophy I could come up with. And I have been building on Aristotelian virtue effectively since that day.
GC: That’s amazing. And it’s funny that you stumbled into to something so old that profoundly could pull forward. And thinking about virtue and being virtuous, so flesh that out a little bit. What’s that mean for you?
CC: Virtue represents not just an antiquated word that doesn’t get used very much in modern vernacular, it also represents something of a paradigm, a moral philosophy that is different, and almost an alternative, to the ones that were more used to hearing about, like utilitarianism or deontological thought. And as somebody in business, I felt strongly that really winning, closing the deal, making the transaction, that was really what was motivating a whole lot of what I needed to do in order to perform, hit the quarterly targets, and get promoted, and proceed. And yet it felt like I was just missing something. It felt like it was too shallow. It just wasn’t rich or deep enough.
And I think one of the reasons I ended up in ancient Greece is because I had to go before the enlightenment thinkers, Bentham and Mills, the folks that established ideals like utilitarianism, that I feel have really dominated the American capitalist experiment, where it really has become easier and easier to just assume that that winning in short term financial metrics was what mattered most, when at my core, I knew there should be something deeper, better, bigger. And part of that was motivated by my faith, but what I was attracted to in Aristotelian virtue ethics is he wasn’t using faith language, although it was very consistent with the values and faith that I had been exposed to as a child. And so I found in Aristotelian virtue a lot of power in underpinning, I felt, lifelong values that were going to be the most meaningful.
GC: And I love that idea, and I know you hear a lot about this idea of common good. Obviously it’s been in vogue the last 15 years or so to think about sort of social impact, or sometimes expressed as double bottom line, the idea that you can do well while doing good. And so have you been able to sort of integrate this idea of Aristotelian virtue into some of these new ideas of how do you have a business that culturally seeks to do good in the world?
CC: Yeah, I have. It’s not been easy, partially because what worked for the polis in ancient Greece is very different than what you would assume would work here, and the language that was used was very different. And yet I needed to kind of deconstruct the motives and methods of modern day business, and deconstruct the various components of a virtue paradigm, and then connect the two. So I am one of a dozen or so scholars that’s been going to conferences and writing articles on how what was relevant for ancient Greece could prove profoundly powerful and helpful for guiding these new motives and a different set of methods for achieving something more like flourishing, less like winning, in a modern business context.
So it wasn’t easy. I often found I was needing to translate and kinda revive something that had been buried. I needed to be like an archivist, where you’ve got to dig it out and dust it off and reassemble it in ways that you think are true to the original, and yet still have profound power for modern day folks.
And I think I have, and yet it’s still been a struggle. And my initial struggle is how do I write about this? How do I publish papers in the top journals and do it as an academic. And I succeeded on some level in that regard, but I didn’t find that that was actually going to make the difference that I wanted as a practitioner.
So the first time I left academia, after teaching at my alma mater for a few years, was to create another company, and to create a different type of company, and to do it with two of my best friends, and to do it in a unique setting. We moved to Rwanda, our three families, in order to create what’s effectively the first consulting firm in the country. Kind of a McKinsey for the country of Rwanda. And we did that a decade ago now in 2009. Sold our houses and our cars in order to try to take the skills that we felt like corporate America had trained us with, and then put them to a very different type of use. A use to tilt just a little bit more consistent with our values, and just like it might equate to something that looked more like flourishing, not necessarily for us or our families, but for a country, and for a poor people group that needed it much more than the areas that we’ve been raised in.
And it worked. That’s the amazing thing to that story, is that… Well, I guess there’s a number of amazing things to that story. It’s certainly the highlight of my career, what we did when we created Karisimbi Business Partners. But one kind of amazing thing is that our wives agreed to this, right? Can you imagine? We scribbled the idea on a napkin and handed it to them, and they said as long as we do this together and we commit for years to to give it a good shot, we’re in. And that meant 15 one way tickets, because we had kids, and it was quite a commitment to do something that hadn’t been done before in an industry that hadn’t existed in Rwanda at a time when a lot of people said it would probably fail. Peter Greer of Hope International is one of the primary instigators that was encouraging us to take the next step. But there were a whole lot of naysayers.
So that was one huge surprise. The other is that we happen to be getting into Rwanda at a time post-genocide when there was tremendous progress, tremendous stability, given the region doesn’t have a lot of safety, corruption. These are issues in a lot of the continent, and Rwanda had found a way, with the guidance of a of a benevolent dictator type of a leader, they found a way to stabilize and become a welcoming place for business. And they welcomed us with open arms, introduced us to the companies there that they felt could use this most, the biggest and the smallest. And we’ve been there ever since. Every industry, every type of management problem we’ve been addressing for the last decade.
So yeah, it was amazingly rewarding, and yet it looked terribly tenuous. Probably the riskiest of risky startups you would ever want to launch, and yet it worked. And so that is another huge blessing we couldn’t count on.
GC: Yeah. I can’t imagine. Doing a startup in Phoenix or San Diego is hard enough. Like war-torn Rwanda is a different level entirely. So that’s such an amazing story, and such an amazing level of commitment to sort of to see these things you’ve been learning put in practice at one of the hardest spots in the world. So really amazing.
I know a lot of our listeners kind of focus on international relief and development, but maybe more broadly serving underserved people groups in the form of a nonprofit. With that in mind, what are some of the principles of kind of winning versus flourishing? And I know a lot of our nonprofit listeners, they’re always going to lean into probably flourishing over winning. I think that’s the bent of, of our sphere. But what are some of those principles, kind of those old principles, that you think work really well in and helping even a nonprofit think about flourishing?
CC: Yeah. We’re not gonna have enough time on a brief podcast to get into too much of it. But as somebody who’s trying to struggle to translate the parts that matter most, I’ll just say in my own company, even my co-founders, my really good friends that I started with, they weren’t trained in philosophy, and so they didn’t hear me talk about Aristotle that much. And yet when we were shaping the mission of our organization and the values and the manifesto that we created in order to guide it to this day, it was absolutely marinated in those thoughts that I’d developed as a virtue scholar. And it did matter, it did make a big difference.
One thing that was surprising to me, to get at your question about how this applies to nonprofits, is we actually kind of look like a nonprofit. Our first year in Rwanda, we were supported by our own savings and a couple hundred donors, including some of my former students, that were just trying to help us out because they believed in the mission. And then after a year and a half, the business plans, and feasibility studies, and turnaround plans, and things we were doing for Rwandan managers, we were charging for those services, and we were making more money than it cost us to live at a year and a half. We called that breakeven. And so we wrote a letter to all of our donors and said, we still appreciate your thoughts and prayers, but we no longer need your funds. Please don’t send anymore money our direction. Which I think for Westerners to receive a letter from Africa that says such a thing, a lot of them were quite stunned.
GC: I’ve honestly worked with hundreds of people, hundreds of organizations, raising money and doing work abroad, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that letter before.
CC: Yeah. I could give you a copy of it. I’ll tell you, it felt great to send it, because we didn’t know if we could get there. We knew the government preferred businesses to nonprofits in Rwanda. There is a bias towards business. And we knew we had a bias towards business as three business guys running a consulting firm, hadn’t been consultants, really, before. We liked the discipline and the sustainability that came with being a business, and we wanted to hold onto that discipline in this new place that we were living for the sake of our clients. And we’re also preaching the same to our clients, and thought it’d be good if we could live by what we were preaching. And so it was great to send that letter, and it also was profound in some other ways.
One is the break time that we had when we weren’t living in Rwanda, where we’re trying to go back to the States and visit family once a year, we were spending that the first year fundraising. And boy, was it nice to never have to do that again. And we could actually just kinda enjoy time with family and take a much needed break from very, very hard work. Because the people we were serving in Rwanda were the ones that were effectively funding all of our operations. Which, there’s just no way around it, it’s a much more ideal way to operate an entity than a nonprofit, where you, especially in an international element, have very different types of donors with very different interests that are funding something for a people group that they sometimes never see and don’t understand. So it’s more complicated to run a nonprofit for that reason.
What we didn’t anticipate was that the government of Rwanda, with it’s bias for business solutions, trying to sever a donor mentality where too many Westerners had come in for too many years. And the president of the country felt that it was crippling his own people from solving their own problems. And so that’s part of why, surprising to many Westerners, most Africans would prefer to receive an investment than a donation, and that’s largely due to the dignity attached with an investment that you do not get with a donation. So our preferred way of operating, the intent that we had to actually help a country flourish by helping its companies and measuring our success based on their success, that, I felt, was a virtuous pursuit. And yes, it did endear us to our initial donors, but more importantly, it endeared us to the clients that we moved there to serve, and continue to serve to this day.
GC: Yeah. I love every bit of that. And so you hit on a point there that we’re focused on a lot here. Especially in international relief and development, there’s this disconnect between the people who are giving the money and the people who receive the money. And there’s sometimes such a large gap created by sort of what a Western institution of a nonprofit looks like and how they operate that there’s a big disconnect between the giver and the recipient, and maybe an unhealthy way where the giver sort of fancies himself a savior, and they’re never really drawn close to the cause in a meaningful way. And so one of the biggest struggles, I think, in modern nonprofits is actually how do you shorten that gap, right? How do you bring donors close so it’s not an us and them, and the donors and people we’re serving, but how are we all in this together? It’s one of those things that’s imperative for nonprofits to solve, I think, over the next 10 years. So it’s a hard thing.
CC: It is. It is. And yet I’m hopeful, because I’ve been working with lots of young people as a professor, and I can see that the difference between the nonprofits fears and the business fears is crumbling. The walls between these silos is not as high as it used to be, and younger people, they don’t buy the false dichotomy. They want impact, and they want meaning, and those have historically been associated with things like international development and nonprofits. And yet they also want sustainability on a level that nonprofits have not succeeded very well in. And they also want kind of an internal consistency that businesses have with their clear motivations and more aligned stakeholders that nonprofits have struggled to have. So there is a blending going on and it’s actually harder to convince those over, call it, 60 years of age. It’s harder to convince them that this is a healthy blending then the younger generation, who just demand it. And so I’m encouraged by that.
GC: Yeah. And part of it’s like there’s so many sort of cause-related brands now from Patagonia to Legos getting in the game with $150 million grant for conservation. And so you just see that people want to purchase things from folks who are creating good. And so it’s kind of in the water. And so it’s a much easier sell, which is healthy. It’s great.
GC: I don’t think traditional forms on the corporate side or on the nonprofit side are always, sometimes they do a great job of solving a problem, but sometimes there’s forms that are sort of new or halfway in between, and I think that’s great progress.
CC: Yep. Yeah. So increasingly I’m really motivated by the mission. What is the true motivation? And whether it’s a business or a nonprofit, what are they aiming at? Because that that really is the critical crux of the matter. And I like shaping that from the beginning, because I think it’s really hard to go into General Electric hundreds of years later and change the mission. But if I can talk to Patagonia tomorrow at a time when the founder’s thinking about how to set it, that’s where Aristotle would say, well begun is half done. And a lot of it is in setting the motives and the direction well beyond what winning might look like into something that looks like flourishing. That’s the way I began to try to translate it, not only in my own company in Rwanda, but with those that I’m working with here in San Diego in non-philosophical terms.
GC: Yeah. Yeah. There’s something amazing about that.
CC: I do feel like the trends are… It’s been nice to see a lot of popular books and speakers that are, I feel like they’re pounding the same drum. So like Simon Sinek focusing on why, or even Jim Collins focusing on what lasts over time, longer term thinking. The wisdom of the modern elder with Chris Conley’s new book. There’s a whole lot of good thinking out there that is trying to kind of right the ship at a time when there’s been too much emphasis on what would of at one point in history been deemed vicious nations and vicious cultures, vicious mission, instead trying to find a corrective balance. And thankfully, I feel like, thanks to Aristotle, I have a corrective balance that comes in the form of an already intact moral framework that just needs translating into contemporary virtue ethics.
GC: Yeah. Yeah. And I couldn’t agree more. On one hand I’m a dyed in the wool capitalist, but on the other hand self-interest and winning without a framework of virtue underpinning it can be a really dangerous thing, and so I think that balance is critical.
GC: Okay. I want to kind of transition here a little bit, because I know some of the work you’re doing now with both nonprofits and startups, startups that have sort of an explicit social impact, especially. I know you’re working a lot on the marketing side as kind of as a fractional CMO. What are some of the most common mistakes that you’re seeing in the nonprofit world and otherwise around how they tell their story and how they market?
CC: Yeah. Well as you know, just to survive as a new entity, a new organization, it’s a struggle. It’s tough. And so most startup businesses don’t survive their first three years. Nonprofits, I don’t know exactly what the stats are, but it’s also not easy. And so when there’s a lot of pressure and there’s limited resources, it’s just real easy to default to the urgent, the tyranny of the urgent can take over, or what everybody else who’s panicking says you have to focus on.
And so I feel like that can get us into trouble. When we don’t stop to think about the underlying motivations and values that are meant to be guiding all of our activity and we’re just trying to get more activity, work harder, work faster and close more deals, we often see just a diminishment of the culture and meaning that the organization could have been pursuing otherwise. And so it’s hard when you’re struggling to focus on the things that really matter, because it feels like you’re bailing water as fast as you can to stay afloat today. And so who am I to think about how I’m going to hit that ideal destination that seems years away? And so that’s what I, often as an outside advisor, or friend, a trusted ally, can try to focus the founders on in ways that you generally wouldn’t expect an investor who’s motivated by a more short term interest to do.
And there is a component of this that is really storytelling. What story do I tell myself about what we’re in this for? What story do I tell my employees about what we’re in this for? What story do we tell our clients about what we’re in this for? And that’s where marketing is just storytelling. Storytelling has an implied promise attached to it, and I get to help the founders share that promise in a way that hopefully resonates and creates loyalty and trust and buy in on a much deeper level than a mere transaction would accomplish.
GC: Yeah, I’m just completely critical on both the nonprofit and for profit side. And I think the ironic part of that is by focusing on sort of your aspirational future and your big picture and being able to tell a story well around that both internally and externally, it actually helps you win, right? I mean that’s the funny part. Especially in our modern age, the people who can do that well end up at the end of the day actually making more money and closing more deals, and the transactional stuff actually comes on the heels of that as a result. And I think that gets a little bit lost in the mix. It’s not just the touchy feely thing. And you know, kind of in Jim Collins’ framework, it is the thing, right? I mean that sort of solid culture and solid story is the thing that the makes you scale and have impact. That’s the part that gets lost.
CC: Exactly. It is. And it’s easy to let inertia, and common sense, and again, the tyranny of the urgent, bring you to that place. I serve on the board of a wonderful nonprofit called Amirah in New England, creating residential and other aftercare services for women that are coming out of sex trafficking. And I came in and joined the board a few years after it had begun, and yeah, it was so easy as a nonprofit just to go, well, we don’t have much money in our pockets, and so let’s just do the minimum, because that’s all we got here, and hope for the best. And you just don’t get excellence in that scenario. And I feel like sometimes as those that are leading nonprofits, we feel like because it’s a nonprofit, we shouldn’t be aiming for excellence.
But I believe the beneficiaries, in the case of Amirah, the women, the survivors of sex trafficking, they deserve our very best. They do. They deserve the world’s best. And the employees want to be part of something that’s excellent. And we shouldn’t let the resources guide the discussion, we should let the vision generate the resources. And we kind of had to make a major shift at a time when we were in transition. New leaders. We closed down at a time, and kind of restarted in order to start with a new sense of mission and a deeper commitment to excellence that could go the distance. And what’s amazing is the resources that we were afraid we were never going to have enough of, that problem starting to go away when people saw that we were doing something really profound in the way of an impact.
And whether you’re a business or a nonprofit, I feel like aiming at the impact, not at the metrics that are effectively means to that impact, that’s where we often get into trouble, is we confuse the means and the end. And any organization that’s just trying to measure its success based on the money or the fame or the market ranking that they’re pursuing, Aristotle would say, is on the path to becoming vicious. That’s a short term win that leads to long term failure. And what we should be looking at are the long term impact metrics. What’s the true value in difference that we can make for people in Rwanda, for survivors of sex trafficking? And we just treat those metrics, and the amount of money that comes in of a recent fundraiser, as means to a much deeper end that we continue to point to in all of our marketing and of our hiring and everything that we do.
GC: Yeah. Yeah, everything you said resonates with me. I think at a less healthy nonprofit, that becomes sort of the battle cry, it’s like, why do you have a crappy website? Well, we’re a nonprofit. We’re resource constrained. And from that, from the marketing side all the way back to the program and execution side, that becomes the fall back, when instead it should be the opposite. Like we are solving some of the world’s most important problems, and the people that we’re serving deserve excellence. If we care about people in Rwanda, or even if we care about art and music, or whatever it is we care about, it demands excellence. And we should let vision guide that, like you said, and not the other way around. And I know that’s a hard shift.
CC: It is.
GC: I’ve been in nonprofits. I know it’s easy to say and hard to do. But oh my gosh, I think so many nonprofits would be well served to kind of listen to what you just said, and figure out how to put it into practice.
CC: Yeah. Yeah. It really is the David and Goliath thing. I mean it’s hard to think bold when you’re David, but those are the stories that we tend to remember. And where the great impact actually comes from is those small and yet bold steps that we can take.
GC: Wow. That’s beautiful. Well okay, Carter, it’s been amazing having you on today. I think this stuff is so helpful. I think people are going to love what you had to say. And so thank you so much for taking a few minutes to join us and participate.
CC: No, it’s been a pleasure. It’s been a pleasure. You know, you never know when you spend a few years understanding an ancient moral philosophy what sense you’re going to be able to make of it or what difference it could make later. So just the thought that it could help encourage some founders or leaders of organizations that are listening, that’d be a real treat to know that that made a difference.
GC: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I fully expect Amazon to see a spike in Carter Crockett book sales after this podcast. So hopefully that’s the case.
CC: And you know, ever since I’ve met you and knew the name of the organization that you are leading, I’ve been attracted to it, and now you know a little more why.
GC: Yeah, that’s perfect. That’s awesome. All right. Well, Carter, thanks so much, and I really appreciate the time.