The Real Story of MarketSmart…

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Greg Warner is CEO and Founder of MarketSmart, a revolutionary marketing software and services firm that helps nonprofits raise more for less. In 2012 Greg coined the phrase “Engagement Fundraising” to encapsulate his breakthrough fundraising formula for achieving extraordinary results. Using their own innovative strategies and technologies, MarketSmart helps fundraisers around the world zero in on the donors most ready to support their organizations and institutions with major and legacy gifts.

You may already know that MarketSmart helps nonprofits engage with their supporters in a way that keeps them highly involved and committed— so they give more. 

But what you might not know is that the personal challenges I faced building this business have been tremendous. So today, I thought I’d share my story with you. 

I tried to bury what follows because it was so painful. But, when I was interviewed because my firm won a very big award (last year), it got me thinking about the challenges I/we overcame to get here.

Here is my story:

I started the business in 2008 during the economic downturn. It was shortly after my dad died from a heart attack and my stepmother began to sue me for his estate.

My dad 2 weeks before he suddenly died from a heart attack

Here’s a picture of my dad 2 weeks before he suddenly died from a heart attack

At the same time, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.
That meant I had to help her physically, emotionally and financially. Then one of her nurses stole $50,000 from her after giving her an overdose of drugs and rousing her from her sleep to have her sign checks emptying money from my mom’s account to her’s and her friend’s.

On top of all that, sadly, that crime led some people to judge how I took care of my mom (even though they weren’t involved in her care at all). I felt terribly guilty that I wasn’t with her 24/7. But I had to work. When she first got sick, I brought my laptop to her bedside and worked beside her. But I just couldn’t do that every hour of every day. Nevertheless, I felt horrible about it. Reprehensibly, those people made me a pariah. It still breaks my heart.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 9.20.34 AM

Me and my mom before we learned about the cancer

Mom in the hospital dealing with operations, chemo and radiation

Mom in the hospital dealing with operations, chemo and radiation

If that wasn’t enough, the adjustable rate mortgage on my home came due and my house payment more than doubled.
The business wasn’t ready to provide my family with an income. I had been paying my employees. And, of course some of them wanted raises. But I wasn’t yet paying myself. And, in fact, the business needed a lot more capital just to keep it alive. 
Everything was hitting me at once.
Plus, many of you probably know that my wife has been a Type 1 diabetic since the age of 8. The birth of both of our children was tremendously challenging. Her daily life is filled with blood sugar testing, episodes of hypoglycemia and other demands. It was because of her dreadful disease that I took particular notice of a terribly offensive newsletter sent to us from a diabetes-related charity. That’s what led me to realize that I could do more to support the search for a cure by helping them overhaul their marketing efforts than by giving them money. More on that can be found here.

So, on top of my dad dying, his wife suing me, my mom dealing with cancer, my mortgage coming due and my business floundering, I had tremendous concerns for my wife’s well-being.
Her disease made it especially challenging for her to rear our two young children. I desperately wanted to be there to see them grow up because my dad wasn’t around much when I was a young boy or a teenager. He left our home when I was just 12, leaving me with my mom who suffered from chronic depression, anxiety and other issues.
I can’t believe how much I was dealing with when I look back. But I’m sure many of you have faced similar hard times. Everyone does, including your donors, volunteers and the beneficiaries of their gifts and time.
Finally, MarketSmart started to deliver serious results for our clients.
I was thrilled. Making progress warmed my heart. Building relationships with great people around the world made me feel like I was contributing. Making the world a better place.
But we still weren’t out of the weeds yet because many fundraisers simply were not yet ready to accept our “disruptive” software and strategies. In fact, soon after achieving amazing results for a few of our clients I was invited to speak about our successes at a fundraising symposium. But a handful of naysayers heckled me so much I couldn’t even finish my presentation. It was awful! I felt like an Uber driver at a taxi cab convention all because my technologies and methods were unorthodox and unconventional. 
Today MarketSmart is finding more acceptance but, we still frequently encounter consternation.
I guess I’m a pariah to some in the nonprofit sector too. Such is the life of a disruptive, conscientious capitalist. We’re growing very fast. People keep asking about buying us or funding us. We’re winning awards. But most of all, we’re delivering results in line with our brand promise and our mission.

So that’s my story.
And now I just want to say “THANK YOU” to my wife. She is everything to me. She is the reason I started the business— to help raise money to cure her diabetes. She is my inspiration, my support, and my most trusted advisor. She is my true love and my best friend. If you ever meet her, you should thank her too. Without her, none of this would be possible.
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51 responses to “The Real Story of MarketSmart…”

  1. Karen says:

    Greg, thanks for so freely sharing your journey. Congratulations on the success you’ve achieved as a result of your impeccable marketing talent and personal ethos.

  2. Greg, I for one am so grateful that despite your incredible personal challenges you persevered with your business. My organization – and more importantly, the millions of people in need who access our services – has benefited enormously from your creative and disruptive ways of thinking. Planned giving especially is a world where the status quo is king and no one wants to rock the boat. Add to that an unhealthy distaste of “marketing” and it’s no wonder people were skeptical. But how selfish it is to refuse to consider new and different way to raise more money and to help more people! Keep disrupting, Greg! You’re a great role model for your kids.

  3. Mike Cowart says:

    Once again, you have proven the power of “story” and there is no gain without pain!

  4. Sasha Lewis says:

    Wow. Thank you for sharing your story and congratulations on your success! I had just learned about SCORE and saw your mention of it the same week. Excited to learn more and encouraged after reading your post.
    Sasha Lewis

  5. Pamela Miler says:

    Greg, thank you for sharing your story. Your strength, determination, love and resilience are inspiring. As for those who felt compelled to judge you, they have not walked in your shoes and do not your heart. We do. You have made a difference in the lives of many, and we know that — remember that. My best to you and yours!

  6. Lucy Barnett says:

    I have learned so much from your blogs, high level perspective and sage advice. You pass on key concepts, powerful messages and encouragement freely. When meeting with Board around their fundraising roles, if I print out something from you, it’s accepted without question because it is concise, on point and very “human” too. Best to you on your path. You’ve helped more people and nonprofits than you know.

  7. Roland Emerton says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is deeply inspirational. Reminds me of Jim Valvano’s “never quit” speech. Much appreciated and God bless you and your family.

  8. Scott says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Greg. I love what you’re doing. Keep up the great work. And thank you so much for hanging in there!

  9. Dianne says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. As a caregiver to my mom after losing my dad last year, I could really relate to some of the things you have been through.

  10. Greg Shannon says:

    Everyone has a story and now I know yours. Like the others above I always find tremendous value in your posts and so does our team. Thanks Greg and I wish you nothing but success and great memories with your family today and in the future.

  11. Laura says:

    Greg, thank you for sharing. You are blessed with the greatest asset: A loving family. God bless you!

  12. Theresa says:

    What an inspiring story! Thanks for sharing it. We all suffer hardships, but when they all seem to occur at once it can be simply overwhelming. Many of us owe you for seeing it all through and bringing us encouraging ways to better our seach for more and bigger donors!

  13. Mbwoge Ngole Solomon says:

    Most of the comments on this sad story are of 2015 precisely September. I believe I was missing something good. I am astonished to read such a sorrowful narration from a white colored family. We in Africa, feel sometime that blacks suffer most. I am happy you shared this story with many, and observing you, where you are now, will encourage many , I NOT EXCLUDED. You were truly led by the Holy Spirit. God will continue to bless you more and more in Jesus name- Amen.

  14. Kelley Tetzlaff says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have appreciated your approach, methods and material from the first day I became connected to your organization.
    Now however, I am honored to even say that i know you, even if it is only via your marketing emails and a couple of contacts through your sales.
    Truly inspiring and appreciated. Blessing to you.
    Kelley R.J. Tetzlaff

  15. Bob Werner says:

    Greg – Your sad story is part of our human experience and I salute you for having the strength and fortitude to create and achieve what you have. This is a tribute to those that you love.
    I met your organization through Fundraising Report Card which is but one of the great innovations you and your team have created, It has been a great gift to the several non-profits that i work with as a volunteer. Thank you.

  16. Gary says:

    Thank you for sharing your story and making me aware of the challenges you have undertaken,it is a powerful story and applaud you in persevering in the challenging times that you have gone through.Wish you continued success in all of your efforts at MarketSmart in making a difference in the nonprofit world.
    Gary Bukowski

  17. Rick says:

    Wow. That’s quite a story. Congratulations on overcoming all those challenges. I’m a very satisfied client. My thanks to you and your team for your unorthodox approach. It’s refreshing and, most important, leads to results.

  18. Ven says:

    Inspiring story Greg. I’m also impressed with the way I was led to this post via email. Simple but very effective idea!

  19. Greg, thank you for sharing your story. Authenticity makes us vulnerable yet human. Most people, unless they are jealous, are drawn to people who have struggled and overcome. You have a powerful reason on what drives your business, never let anyone or anything take that from you. We are grateful for your passion, service and commitment to making this world a better place. I am new to your resources, but from what I have seen, its impressive. Thank you for sharing your gifts and talents with the nonprofit sector.

  20. Ernestine Miller says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. May God continue to bless you and your family.

  21. Carolyn Lowery says:

    Yes, I had read your story a couple of years ago but re-read today. I have always admired your creative common sense approach and hope to convince a client to sign up for your help with their success.

  22. Frank Santulli/713-816-7197 cell says:

    Thank you for sharing Mr. Warner!
    I look forward to helping your company grow to new levels and very motivated to working with you on mapping out your company’s growing success!

  23. John L says:

    Thank you for sharing your personal story behind the story of MarketSmart. Life is messy. A good friend of mine’s mother often said, “Make you mess your message.”
    Stay strong!

  24. John Leshney says:

    Thank you for sharing your personal story behind the story of MarketSmart. Life is messy. A good friend of mine’s mother often said, “Make you mess your message.”
    Stay strong!

  25. Rev Rick J Fritzemeier says:

    Dave, thanks for sharing your own humanity and journey, including the depths of the valleys. We don’t need supermen/women. But we do need caring, honest, and transparent bosses, leaders, colleagues, staff, and friends.


  26. Rev Rick J Fritzemeier says:

    Ah shucks, Greg, not Dave. My bad!

  27. Gaynor Brymer says:

    Goodness – congratulations on keeping your head above water in the battle of life !
    As a business professional who took up professional fundraising 6 years ago I find Marketsmart exactly that – business savy, client focus and simple practical advice – I was surprised to hear you had fought criticism from the sector; but then my approach is that philanthropy is a business just as any trade and exchange – the difference being the currency is the fulfilment of the higher calling or emotional desire to make a difference .
    I continue to learn from marketsmart advice and insist my staff subscribe to your newsletters !!
    Well done !

  28. Geoff Lloyd says:

    Greg, It’s funny how so many people you meet are fighting serious personal battles, especially entrepreneurs. Although the details are quite different, I relate to so many of the challenges you faced. I look forward to meeting you in a few weeks. This will be good fodder for connecting. Best, Geoff

  29. Bill Olson says:

    Above all else in fundraising, after 30+ years of experience, I appreciate honesty. Greg, your back story is helpful to me at this time (though it appears your 2015 replies may have been modified some in recent years). My wife of nearly 40 years is fighting her fifth battle with breast cancer. This time, it is Stag 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer – spreading in the lungs. In the midst of this most recent battle, my organizations that I have worked with for nearly 15 years decided to require me to produce 40% of my annual goal in less than the first three months of our FY … AND … one Monday morning soon after that ultimatum, our director of development walks into our one on one weekly meeting and says, “Surprise, we have hired another planned giving director!” He detailed that the new guy was basically taking over my position and I was to have to start working more than one hour away from our home and the clinics my wife needed to attend weekly, or more. In short, with God’s help, and the prayers of many, many faithful friends and even strangers, I was able to reach 60+% of my annual goal by Christmas Day and 100%+ by Easter morning that FY. Now, I am in a new FY and my wife’s health is teetering on ‘slight improvement’ after reaching a point this past summer where she could barely walk to and from the bathroom. And, the two trials she had entered at great cost to a nationally known oncologist both had failed over the past year. So, she was and is now receiving the best ‘standard or care’ they can offer a person in her condition. Basically, medications approaching $20K per month that at best ‘slow’ the progression of her particular kind of cancer. We’ve celebrated Thanksgiving several times this year because in August we were not sure she’d see it again. We’ve held a ‘family reunion’ on the East Coast with our family to see the Fall Leaves of Vermont, because both Christmas and our 40th anniversary in May next year seemed a bridge too far. Yet, with faith, and GREAT HOPE, we are trusting God to help her overcome this dreaded disease and prognosis – this slow progression – and we seek in faith a TOTAL RECOVERY and VICTORY over this her fifth battle in the last 25 years. Why is your back story so important? Victory! Winning! Overcoming the seeming ‘pile on’ that life’s circumstances has thrown at us. And, for me to win means keeping our health insurance intact – forget the income – we NEED this health insurance and are so thankful we have it. What can MarketSmart do for us? I hope, I trust, it will be a godsend through your team members to help me reach my goals as soon as possible and DO THE MOST GOOD with the compressed time I have to be both a full time fundraiser and full time husband of a woman who deserves so much more than I can offer in time and love – yet – it is my life and hers wrapped up together in this awesome challenge we face. Can MarketSmart help? It is my hope it will and not only this — amplify what I can do in ways that not only secure my job (and health insurance) from year to year – but allow me/us to enjoy the over 40 days of vacation I am now entitled to with my seniority. Time for my wife and I to be with family and friends and just enjoying and loving each other and her precious rescue dog (who has rescued us). Let’s see. I am re-engaging as best I can with your incredible staff. Our organization has opened the floodgates for you to help us (something I worked on quietly from my lowly position over the past few years). IF MarketSmart can help me – a fellow who is NOT smart enough to operate his SmartPhone – you can help anyone. And, I am reminded, God can help us all. Even me! Do I need His help? YES! Daily! Hourly! Can MarketSmart be His instrument in my fundraising for legacy and outright gifts of significant size? Of course it can. Is this vitally important? Like your backstory – I need to have a victory over my circumstances. We need a WIN!
    Thank you for sharing your story. Life, and fundraising, are not separable in my circumstances. I must be more efficient. I must be more successful. And, so much as humanly possible, I need to have a deeper, calmer more loving approach to every minute of my day so that the healing and health we need for my wife’s total recovery is enhanced by my life’s work. There. That felt a bit better to share my hope for our relationship AND yes. I will share what MarketSmart can do for other fundraisers, their organizations and most important the people they seek to help – like diabetics or cancer patients – or a myriad of afflictions and difficulties every family will face in our lives on this planet.
    One last thought, technology is NOT the devil. Nor is it the Savior. It is a tool. When I think of the ‘technology’ that Jesus Christ had available to him during His ministry in Palestine nearly 2,000 years ago, it really came down to story-telling and travel. Today, we can send a story like this I am sharing or like you shared to hundreds if not thousands with the push of a ‘send’ button on a computer. However, like Jesus in the days He walked among us, we have to meet face to face, hear each other’s voice, and experience personally the sincerity of our messages. We have to draw close enough to feel the depth of compassion that comes with writing a check or feeling the needs of others we seek to help. Otherwise, we are missing the humanity we all need to experience – truly loving one another. At the very heart of life it is caring for others that matters most. Charity is not the only way to express love, but Love is the goal we all should share. And, if technology helps us to reach out and touch the lives of others more effectively, more genuinely, then I believe that MarketSmart will serve a greater purpose and a good purpose that may meet the needs of our seemingly degrading dive into metrics and digital measurements of production as fundraisers. We need to protect our humanity and the Human Spirit from becoming a tool of AI and rather let AI and technology be a part of what draws us and our many needs closer together.
    God bless all of your staff and their families and everyone near and dear to them. When they go to work today, I pray they will realize they are helping me and hundreds if not thousands of people they serve who also have a back story.
    Now – let’s all go about seeking the Ultimate Victory in Life – to love one another the way Christ has loved us …. immeasurably and eternally …. go!

  30. […] talk about making yourself vulnerable so others can understand your “why” — you can read here, the long and short of it is that we exist to connect people who want to help, who want to exercise […]

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