Hyper responsibility is not your friend

It is typical of fundraisers that we are over-responsible.  We are conscientious problem-solvers, and so we often try to solve problems that are not ours to solve.  I spoke to a fundraiser recently who was struggling with how to generate the content for a monthly email newsletter to major gift prospects.  The problems she was talking about were very real: program staff are too busy to write stuff down, she is too busy to pursue them, program staff don’t tell her about upcoming events until too late, the communications team is preoccupied with action alerts, and so forth.  BUT, when we talked to the executive director a few days later, and all the problems melted away.  The ED recognized that monthly emails to major gift prospects were a good idea, and said she would make it happen.

Remember — that sense of hyper responsibility is not always your friend.  Other people may be better placed than you are to make things happen.  Go forth and delegate, upward, downward, sideways — whatever it takes to get the job done.

Turbo-charge your donor relationships

A client (who runs and organization that does social science research for non profits) told me he had met with the head of a major foundation.  The Foundation Guy suggested setting up an advisory committee.  Eyes rolled.  The last thing I need, my client thought, is to have an advisory committee telling me what to do.  But when Foundation Guy explained what he meant, it became clear how brilliant this idea was.

Several of the organizations that commission research from my client also get funding from this foundation.  So why not set up an advisory committee that will include Foundation Guy, researcher, and the organizations that are (a) asking my client to do research and then (b) asking Foundation Guy for funding to implement the strategy that arises from the research? That way, Foundation Guy is in on the discussions from the beginning, and everyone wins.

When my client told me this, I told him that he was moving from being a fundraiser to being a power broker.  That’s a way to turbo-charge your donor relationships!

Beyond donating

Yesterday I was at a fundraising breakfast. One board member stood at the podium and announced that her company had made a $100,000 pledge.

I was seated at the table of another board member, and everyone else at the table worked for his company.  When the pitch was made, he suggested to his employees that, if they want to give, they do it through payroll deduction, because the company would match their gifts.

I thought “This is an organization with momentum.”  These board members are going so far beyond donating.

How recently has you sat down with each of your board members to find out how they would like to support your mission?  You may be amazed at what you learn.


Share nicely

Is your organization in a revenue-sharing arrangement, like national/affiliate partnership?  If so, you probably have stories like this one.  Local fundraiser tells donor “please don’t give more than $4,999 because if you do the national office will swoop in and steal you.”  That was from the ACLU before they worked out a brilliant sharing formula.  Sometimes the locals have all the power, like at NPR.  Fundraisers from the national office are forbidden from soliciting gifts from donors who are committed to local stations.  Please describe to me how a donor could be interested in NPR and not in a local station.  Crazy, isn’t it?  And sometimes it’s just a food fight, with local, state, and national offices of the same organization competing for the same gift.

If your plan for collaboration is based on some kind of we’re-all-in-this-together hope that everyone will share nicely, forget it.  I can guarantee there are a lot of fundraisers out there who didn’t get the memo.  There are ways to make sure that it is in everyone’s best interest to do the best job of donor cultivation and stewardship possible.  As Tina Turner sang, “What’s nice got to with it?”  (Or something like that.)  You have to make sure that everyone benefits from a larger gift, no matter which office gets the check.  Call me if you want to talk about how to make it work.

Collect information to share with your donors

I was talking yesterday to the fundraiser at an environmental organization butterflynetwith staff all over the country.  We were talking about sending a monthly informal email monthly to their top 200 donors and prospects.  Because the staff is scattered (literally and figuratively) she is having a hard time getting the content for those emails.  We came up with ten sources.  Part of her job is to run around with a butterfly net and collect the stories.

  1. The executive director’s sporadic reports to board members
  2. Staff members who are good storytellers: make sure different programs and regions are represented
  3. Comments in staff meetings
  4. Profiles of board members
  5. Profiles of staff members
  6. Profiles of heroes of the movement
  7. Historical notes
  8. Newspaper articles circulated by communications staff.
  9. Newsletters
  10. Blog

What’s important is for donors to feel like they are part of the “inner circle” — they don’t need a ton of information (who does?) but just an occasional stroke to remind them that we think of them as part of the family.

Harnessing Charisma

I was recently speaking with my colleague Tina Yoon about a tour of a health clinic in a poor neighborhood. The tour inspired her to start supporting the clinic. I asked her what made the tour so special, and she said, “The doctor who spoke during the tour was a pillar of the community. I felt honored that he would spend time with us.” This was many years ago, but it made a big impression on Tina.

A major DC philanthropist did a tour of a major multi-faceted social service agency, and promised $20,000 — $10,000 unrestricted, and $10,000 for whatever the man who ran the tour (director of a teen drop in center) wanted.  The executive director had a conniption fit, as you might imagine, about a staff person several rungs down the chain of command being empowered to direct contributions.  Nonetheless, something that man did captured the heart of the philanthropist, who wanted to empower him to do more.  That’s a good thing.

Who are the people in your organization who have the power to make donors feel special?

The business of soul development

Fundraising is the business of soul development.  For this phrase I am indebted to LindaGottfried, development director at Calvert Hospice, and one of the leading lights of the growing non profit support network in southern Maryland.  Sure, it’s a little pompous, but why not?  We are offering people the opportunity to be their best selves.

I have limited patience for semantics.  (If I never hear another discussion about the difference between fundraising, advancement, and development, that’s soon enough for me.)   But when I heard Linda use the phrase soul development, I realized that it perfectly captures what I aspire to in my work.

The big ask and the big answer

I was videotaping one of my first clients yesterday talking about her first visit with a couple who had given steadily increasing gifts every year, as much as $5,000.  After a lovely conversation, mostly about their family, the husband was driving her back to her hotel.  He mentioned that in at his first job, he was required to buy Berkshire Hathaway A stock, and he got a big stack of them.  Before she got out of the car, she said, “I am going to ask you for a gift, and it’s going to be a large amount.”  His response: “you can ask me for anything you want, and how we respond, we’ll see.”  She sent a thank you note when she got back home, with a $100,00 ask.  They said yes.  And they have been giving gifts in that range for the past 8 years, totaling $1.4 million.  The big ask paid off.

The thing that jumped out at me was his response to her pre-solicitation.  “You can ask me for whatever you want.”  Isn’t that liberating?  When we ask for a gift, we don’t have to know how a donor will answer.  There are dozens of factors, and we can’t even imagine many of them.  All we can do is produce the best ask we can.  After that, “we’ll see.”



Where to start

I met a development director in a one-person fundraising shop this morning.  He had been in his job for 11 years.  He said that he and his boss had spoken many times about starting a major gifts program, but it kept getting swept away by more urgent (though less important) things.  He asked me where to start.  Here was my advice to him:

  1.  Begin with a manageable prospect list.  If you can only handle 5 prospects, that’s a great beginning.
  2. Measure success before the money starts coming in.  Building relationships takes time.  It can’t be rushed.  So avoid discouragement by tracking your progress in non-financial terms.  Getting board members to do thank you calls.  Getting a board member to host a house party.  Getting program staff to describe their work to donors at a tour.  Getting 100% giving from your board.  All of these are important prerequisites to the first big ask.  So celebrate when they happen.
  3. Look at your calendar through a donor cultivation lens.  Do you do an annual gala?  Invite prospective major donors to come as your guests, and assign a board member to escort each of them through the event.  Do you have in-house celebrations, like graduations, that you could invite prospects to witness?  Could your prospects address your students/clients on an area of their expertise?  Using the opportunities presented by your existing calendar, you can draw your best prospects closer without a lot of extra effort.

I hope this is helpful.  Start where you are.  Do what you can.  Use what you have.



Jargon ban

We all know that good writing and speaking is free of jargon.  But jargon is insidious.  It’s not just obscure acronyms and five-syllable words.  It’s language that is devoid of human warmth.  Very helpful for manipulating concepts in strategic plans and budgets.  NOT helpful for talking to donors.  Think about it.  The donor wants to know that his or her contribution is making the world a better place.  What happens to that enthusiasm if you talk about personnel issues, finances, or other administrative tedium?  If the donor asks questions about people or finances, of course that is a promising sign of engagement.  But the relationship does not start with anyone wanting to balance budgets or pay salaries.  So please don’t start with the mundane.

It is natural that the internal details occupy our heads.  Those are the problems we are solving every day.  So it takes a deliberate re-orientation to talk on the level that makes sense to people whose relationship is primarily inspirational.  Here are a couple of tips.

  • Remember what you first learned about the organization and why it attracted you.  Connect with why you first flushed with pride about working there.
  • Listen to donors talk about why they are inspired.
  • Follow program staff around for half a day.
  • Imagine you have been invited to do a Career Day presentation at your daughter’s fifth grade class, and you want her classmates to tell her how cool her mom or dad is afterwards.
  • Declare next Monday a Jargon Ban day — anyone who uses jargon in the office has to put a quarter in the jar.