5 Lessons Every Nonprofit Can Learn from a Starbucks Barista

Starbucks has built an international reputation for making a fine cup of coffee. But, did you know that you can learn at least five valuable lessons from a Starbucks barista?

I’m not talking about learning how to make a great espresso or cappuccino. While a Starbucks barista could certainly help you with that, I’m talking about five lessons every nonprofit development professional can learn to be a more effective fundraiser.

The lessons don’t come from just any barista, though. I’m talking about Nicole who fixes beverages at the Starbucks in the Nashville International Airport.

Let me tell you my story, and share with you what I learned from Nicole:

Lesson 1: Never say, “It’s not my job.”

I was just passing through Nashville on my way to a speaking engagement for the Association of Fundraising Professionals St. Louis Regional Chapter. I had to make a connecting flight. I passed a Starbucks on the way to my gate. There was a line, but I had plenty of time. So, I queued up for my trenta-iced-unsweetened-green-tea.

I patiently waited to place my order with the cashier, the normal procedure. But, I was startled by the voice of the barista. She called over to me, before I had even made my way to the cashier, to ask for my order. I was surprised. It actually took me a moment to understand what she was doing. Then, I gave her my order.

By the time I made it up to the cashier and paid for my drink, instead of the usual wait, Nicole had it ready for me. I was stunned with how quickly the line moved and how quickly I was served. Because this experience was so vastly different than any other Starbucks experience I have ever had, and because I had some time to kill before my flight, I stood and just watched the operation. I wanted to understand what was so special about this Starbucks. That’s when I realized that the difference was Nicole.

She could have simply waited until the cashiers gave her drink orders to fill. After all, it was not her job to take orders. But, Nicole saw a line of passengers trying to rush off for their flights. She knew they needed to get in and get out as quickly as possible. And, because she was able to assist, she did even though it wasn’t her job.

In our own organizations, it’s easy to fall back on our job descriptions. It’s easy to think, “It’s not my job. Let someone else take care of it.” But, when everyone in our organizations goes the extra distance for those receiving service or those donating money, we show that we care.

My wife was recently treated at Lankenau Medical Center. It’s a large facility. When walking down the hall, if you even look confused, a member of the staff will stop and offer assistance. Even doctors will do this. This is just one small example of the caring culture at Lankenau.

At most other hospitals I’ve visited, this has not been the case. I guess folks at those other hospitals think it’s not their job to help lost visitors, that’s what the information desk is for. Anyway, can you guess which hospital has a warm place in my heart for this and so many other reasons?

If you and your colleagues refuse to say, “It’s not my job,” you’ll help take a step toward creating or enhancing your own culture of caring. When you do that, you’ll be building relationships that make fundraising much easier.

Lesson 2: Be customer/donor centered.

Nicole was definitely customer focused. She knew we were all concerned about making our flights. So, she did what she could to keep us moving along. And, she anticipated our needs.

One of my pet peeves with Starbucks is that after I get my beverage, I always have to hunt for where they have the straws and napkins. Then, I have to figure out which straw goes with my beverage size. It wastes time, and it makes me feel stupid as I stumble around trying to find these items.

However, Nicole knows this straw-hunt ritual is a time waster. So, understanding my needs, she made sure to have the correct straw right there next to my iced-tea.

Part of being customer or donor focused involves putting yourself in the head of the other person. It involves understanding their wants, their needs. And, it involves doing what you can to accommodate those wants and needs.

If you and your colleagues become more customer and donor centered throughout your entire organization, you’ll have much happier customers and donors who are more willing to support your organization with more generous gifts.

Lesson 3: Be competent.

Nicole was able to be extra helpful because she was extra talented. She’s an exceptionally competent barista. Not only can she put together fine beverages, she does so quickly and with ease. I’ve been at many Starbucks where it actually takes two people to make one drink, slowly. I’m serious. But, Nicole does her job quickly and effortlessly.

The better trained you are, the more effective you will be. Read about fundraising and philanthropy. Join a professional association such as the Association of Fundraising Professionals or the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning. Get a master’s degree in philanthropy or nonprofit management. I don’t care how long you’ve been in fundraising; there’s something you can still learn.

Experience is perhaps the greatest teacher of all. The more experience you accumulate, the more effective you’ll be. And, the more helpful you’ll be able to be for your colleagues and your donors.

Lesson 4: Be cheerful.

I’ve been to other businesses where I’ve actually heard the employees complaining about the crowds. That’s right. These individuals were actually complaining about the fact that too many people wanted to give them money. By contrast, Nicole was actually cheerful despite how busy the store was. Her attitude might have been contagious because the rest of the staff was also fairly pleasant, if not quite as upbeat.

Despite the rush of activity, Nicole seemed genuinely happy to help people to quickly get what they wanted so they could be on their way with a bit less stress. She even took a moment to chat with me. She was surprised that I noticed her and what and how she was doing things. When I told her I was impressed, she just shrugged it off and said she was doing what came naturally. She smiled again and went off to make another happy customer.

These days, air travel is stressful. Waiting in line is stressful. But, Nicole and her colleagues helped alleviate some of the stress of travelers at Nashville International Airport. Instead of adding to our stress by reflecting our own anxiety back at us, they were cheerful which made us a bit more relaxed and happy.

If you’re cheerful, you will likely infect the people around you with cheerfulness. You’ll likely feel better about your work. You’ll probably do a better job. And, you’ll have more cheerful donors.

Imagine having a donor call you on the phone. You can treat the call as an interruption, and you can have an annoyed tone in your voice. Or, you can welcome the break from what you’re doing, and you can have a cheerful tone to your voice. Which is more likely to get a positive response from your donor?

Lesson 5: Being customer/donor centered just might get you noticed and might advance your career.

In case you’re wondering, I did contact Nicole’s boss, the Director of Operations. We swapped emails. I raved about Nicole.

If you’re ever passing through the Nashville International Airport, I don’t know that you’ll find Nicole. The Director of Operations indicated that he was already aware of her fine work. I hope by now that he has followed my advice and has promoted her. She’s a perfect person to have training other employees throughout the Starbucks Empire.

If you’re customer/donor centered, people are likely to take notice. They’re also likely to be impressed with your fundraising results. That just might help your career. It certainly won’t hurt it.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

18 Comments to “5 Lessons Every Nonprofit Can Learn from a Starbucks Barista”

  1. Excellent article. Sometimes we forget that the little things matter a lot!

    • Frank, thank you for the kind comment. Common sense isn’t always common practice. It’s nice, every so often, to remind ourselves of the basics and of the importance of the little things…especially if we can do it while enjoying some liquid refreshment. 🙂

  2. I say you’re bang-on, Michael! It’s why I love the Starbucks brand so much, and I’m usually happy to fork-over a somewhat obscene amount of $$ for a beverage because the value is there. Value = learning from how they operate, as you did. Value = using their spaces as a second, mobile office to conduct real business. Value = freebies and customer appreciations and making it right without a hassle, every time.

    I have a motto in my office that I’ve stolen from Howard Schultz: “An exceptional customer experience every time.”

    I’ve also got the words “Surprise and Delight” literally written on my office wall – another business motto taken from Starbucks.

    Thanks for a great post,


    You may like these links:


  3. Awesome article, I really try to be like Nicole in my day-to-day work, though I admit that I sometimes let circumstances drag me down. But I think if enough of us follow these rules, donors will notice and will be more inclined to stick with us, and grow with us, in the future. Another home run Michael, thank you!

    • Brian, thank you so much for your kind words. I’m like you. I always try to be client centered and donor centered. But, sometimes circumstances pull me in another direction. That’s why I valued my experience with Nicole. It was a reminder for me of some things that are very important. It was also a reminder that it’s worth making the effort.

  4. Great post. If more organizations understood the importance of developing a customer-centric culture, the world would be a better place (not to mention the fact that the organizations would see greater success). It’s such a win/win, it’s a wonder more folks don’t do it.

    We need to stand in our customers (or donors) shoes. I’ve also blogged on the subject. http://clairification.blogspot.com/2012/06/how-to-create-customer-experience-that.html You’ve cited some excellent examples of how to create a WOW customer experience. It’s what we should all be striving towards.

    • Claire, thank you for commenting and sharing the link to your own post. You’re right. Being customer or donor centered seems like such an obvious thing to do. Unfortunately, it’s also one of those things that easily forgotten in the heat of the moment.

  5. Smiling. Greeting. Addressing and acknowledging people…especially by name, anticipating needs …this is huge with some hotel brands. The key is consistency and across shops/properties no matter where you go in the country. With Starbucks — my Guy is Seve. He knows my drink, knows my name and he goes out of his way to acknowledge me. At a relative’s residence (gated community with security guards) it’s Bill who waves at every resident’s car and says, “welcome home!” — huge smile on his face. Bottom line: I look forward to these interactions and how I feel —- good!!!

    • Susan, thank you sharing your experiences. It’s nice to hear from you. I guess the bottom line is that we all should aspire to be the person who gives others that good feeling. There’s no substitute for kind, thoughtful, warm human contact.

  6. Michael, I’m a little behind on my reading, as well as other things this week, but I wanted to acknowledge the blog post. I know we have had this conversation before, but good development requires excellent customer service, and this rightly points it out. As I have mentioned, donors appreciate prompt replies to questions, acknowledgments of donations, and fast fixes to problems when they occur. It’s excellent customer service that keeps donors/customers coming back.

  7. Excellent thoughts, I just have one issue to tweek: Point 1 about going the extra mile. It seems I’m attracted to organizations that have a lot of gaps and, so, I fill many of those gaps by going the extra mile. But, usually my efforts are not recognized or valued. In the end, going the extra mile brings stress to my role because I end up doing too much by doing other people’s roles. The balance I try to cultivate now is doing the right kind of extra things that bring value to the organization and its constituency but in a way that doesn’t interfere with my role. It’s a fine balance: on good days it works beautifully by meeting needs – on bad days I become cynical, hunker down, and just try to get my work done.

    • Brian, thank you for sharing your insights. You’re 100 percent correct. It is essential to strike the right balance when going the extra distance. It’s important to keep one’s core responsibilities in mind. Using my hospital example, it would be ridiculous for a doctor to stop and give a visitor directions if she was rushing to the Operating Room for an emergency surgery. Setting priorities has to be part of the mix. As for those in management roles, they need to do a better job recognizing the superstars that work for them. I’m sorry to hear that some of your special efforts have gone unnoticed; that says more about your manager(s) than it does you. I’m glad to hear that you’re not letting weak managers keep you from doing the right thing.

  8. Very interesting article! The importance of being donor/customer centered can not be overstated. Nonprofits that take the extra time and effort to truly engage with their donors are often the ones with the most success in fundraising. As a donor, I want to feel connected with the nonprofit I am supporting, and I want to know how my donation is helping with their work. Especially with the popularity of social media platforms, it is critical for nonprofits to cultivate relationships with their supporters.

    • Vinod, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Social media can help nonprofit organizations reach new audiences and communicate more effectively with existing audiences. But, social media can also become an obstacle to building close relationships if organizations rely on it to do things it’s not well suited for. As you point out, it is essential for nonprofits to leverage social media platforms where they can, but also to remember that, even in the electronic age, it’s still about building relationships.

  9. These Americans are just unbelievable. Everything has to be told as a story for others to pay attention and do what they are supposed to do from the very beginning. In this story, everything flows and fits almost perfectly, and it is is certainly “fun.” You are now gonna write a book and make it into a Hollywood movie so the average audience goes to watch and change overnight? You could simply make a shortcut to that by directly encouraging your colleagues to change their primitive and so structured thinking processes, unethical attitude, and lack of common sense.

    • Al, thank you for taking the time to express your thoughts. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve edited your comment in order to retain a professional, civil, and respectful environment here.

      You raise an interesting question: Why tell a story when a simple, direct message will convey the same information?

      The answer is that adults learn in a variety of different ways. Some learn better from case studies. Some learn better from fun or interesting stories. Some learn better from a clear, direct message. Some learn better through statistics. By the way, this is the case with all adults, not just Americans. You’ll notice that my blog site honors these differences in preferred learning styles by presenting information in a variety of ways.

      Conveying information through a story is a terrific way to engage individuals. First, many folks will be more likely to actually read an article containing a story. That might not be your preferred learning style. However, those of us who blog, need to be sensitive to how others prefer to engage. Second, by telling a story, we allow readers to more easily use their own imagination to reflect on their own experiences and to further learn from those memories. Third, when using a story as a device, readers are more likely to actually remember the information.

      As for turning my story into a Hollywood movie, I’m flattered that you think it is worthy (though you were probably being sarcastic). For the record, I’d like George Clooney to play me.

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