I first met Dean Bragonier, the founder of NoticeAbility — a nonprofit changing the world for students with dyslexia — after I saw him pitch at a Power Launch‘s Pitch InEvent in Boston. Pitch In is essentially a Shark Tank for Nonprofits and I love attending these events because you can learn a lot by watching executive directors pitch their organizations to the judges and audience. It’s fun to get a glimpse into how donors decide where to invest their funding and it’s interesting to see the way in which people use stories to demonstrate both their impact and their need.
Anyone who has ever appealed to an individual (versus a foundation) knows that the strength of the pitch can be the most important factor in a successful outcome. It’s the pitch — the story, the appeal — that donors often base their initial decisions on (the due diligence comes after a pledge has been made). I don’t know if Bragonier was an actor in a previous life, but his pitch was captivating (if you don’t believe me, you can watch his Tedx talk here). Dyslexia is a condition that affects an average of 20% of the population, and I watched Bragonier convince the other 80% of the room that, as a society, we share a collective responsibility to reimagine opportunities in education for our dyslexic youth. As someone who has helped develop innovative curriculum for dyslexic middle schoolers, it’s clear that Bragonier spends a lot of time thinking about how he structures content and presents data. Here are a few things you can learn about pitching your cause by studying how he does it.
Be Vulnerable, But Also Credible.
Anyone can be vulnerable — but it’s tougher to be both vulnerable and credible. Within a few minutes of chatting about his work, Bragonier will openly talk about his own experiences with dyslexia, sharing insights into the struggle and isolation he endured as a student.
He recalls walking down the hall and hearing things like, “That guy Dean? Kid’s so dumb he can’t even read.” And hearing his teachers consistently tell his parents, “Your son is a smart kid, if he just tried harder. I think he’s a little lazy.” By middle school, Bragonier had internalized all of this and, given his low self-esteem, he gravitated towards other students who were engaged in at-risk behavior like drugs and violence. (Studies show that up to 35% of dyslexics drop out of high school.)
Most of us are compelled when we see others being courageous and vulnerable, and being honest in this manner can be a great way to establish trust and create genuine connections. I saw the founder of a cancer charity begin her pitch with, “When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I felt angry and powerless and full of self-pity.” Immediately, she made herself relatable and you couldn’t help but lean in to want to hear the rest of her story. You are rooting for her before you even know why.
When talking about his work, in person or onstage, Bragonier always makes a bigger leap from citing his own suffering to sharing broader research related to students today in order to help his audience understand the depth of this issue. He quotes experts who have studied dyslexia. He knows what all of the literature says and this makes him credible. He cites psychologist Gershen Kaufman, who discovered in his study on shame culture, that people who struggle to read report feeling the same levels of personal shame as those who have engaged in incest. At this point, Bragonier has laid the foundation for explaining to people why this matters to them.
Explain The Problem, But Focus On The Opportunity.
Psychologists have long since established a correlation between shame and rage, and it is easy to imagine the negative consequences that a disenfranchised population can have on society. A disproportionate number of youth with dyslexia are represented in juvenile detention facilities and substance abuse rehabilitation centers. Some studies estimate that almost half of all offenders in correctional facilities demonstrate symptoms of dyslexia — an incredibly heartbreaking statistic however you look at it.
But breaking people’s hearts, alone, isn’t going to get you where you’re going.
One of the best pieces of fundraising advice that I’ve ever read was, “People give because you fill a need, not because you have a need.” By that same token, I’ve found that most donors are compelled to give because you have inspired them with possibility, not filled them with pity.
Immediately after explaining the problem, Bragonier shifts the conversation to talk about the opportunity, explaining that according to The Dyslexia Center, dyslexics, it’s been proven, see the world differently, a fact which leads to several key advantages. Many dyslexics are often natural problem-solvers, creators (entrepreneurs) and builders (engineers). Some of our brightest minds have been dyslexic: Albert Einstein was dyslexic, Steven Spielberg is dyslexic. It’s a significant thought, to consider that all of these folks might have been left out of our school systems today, simply because they process information differently.
Close With The Solution And Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously.
Bragonier is passionate about dyslexia not only because he wants to end the isolation and pain of kids who are excluded from our education system, but because he sees dyslexia as a gift. He will tell anyone who will listen (and anyone will listen to him) about the fact that 35% of entrepreneurs are dyslexic. According to Bragonier you don’t “suffer from” dyslexia, you have the gift of dyslexia…if you are given access to the tools to harness it. And that is what he has set out to do.
Bragonier explains, “I want my dyslexic students to become self-actualized people. I want them to be positioned to tackle some of the biggest problems that the world faces.” In order to do this, NoticeAbility has developed a project-based online course that in-classroom facilitators deliver. The content teaches information through multiple mediums (outside of the written word) and is focused on showing dyslexic middle schoolers how to capitalize on their strengths, rather than battle their weaknesses. One course helps student create their own business plans. If you are wondering, “Why middle school?” then you have never been to middle school. Sixth grade is where the map of your academic future is laid out and carved in stone. No more running around with gangly arms and knobby knees. Sixth grade is the major leagues, right where that door of innocence begins to slam.
It’s in this space that Bragonier hopes to reach dyslexic kids with his innovative curriculum. Motivated by their potential, NoticeAbility shows students what’s possible when you have access to material that “clicks.” When you are taught by mentors who speak your language, when you are working with students who are not “any number of disordered” but who are like you — dyslexic, gifted. While Bragnoier is speaking, my mind wanders to my own first grade for a moment. I was born and raised in England, but when I was 6 years old, I moved to America for a few years. The transition was tough, and a bit lonely. I remember telling my dad one day that kids in my class were making fun of my accent. Without missing a beat, my dad explained to me, “You are not the one with the accent darling, they are.” In my six-year old mind, it was a revelation.
At the heart of Bragonier’s pitch and work is a call for society to stop shutting these bright and smart kids out of our school systems. Not because it’s cruel, but because we are wasting the potential of natural-born problem solvers, inventors, creators. And boy, do we need those things right now. As he wrapped up, we were on the edge of our seats, and a judge warned him that he only had a few minutes left, to which he responded, “Do I get extra time because of dyslexia?” The audience erupted in laughter, compelled and inspired by this man’s mission. The chatter as we filed out of the building confirmed that most folks felt like me: that while we have no shortage of dyslexic role models, it’s time for a dyslexic champion. It’s no small feat to move, inspire and educate a room full of donors all in one pitch. I suppose that even as adults, we never really lose those middle school nerves, always wondering, “Will I do a good job? Will they like me?” Whether you knock it out of the park or fall flat on your face, the single biggest takeaway we can learn from Bragonier is that being passionate is contagious and speaking up for those in need always makes you the cool kid.