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.

How to mingle at a fundraising event

I am a raging introvert.  At a party, I usually look for one person I can talk to.  If I have one or two good conversations during that evening, it’s a success.  So I have had to develop some strategies for what comes naturally to some people: mingling, schmoozing, working the room, at a fundraising event.  Here are some tips.

  1. Make a list beforehand of the most important people to talk to.
  2. Think about how you are going to start the conversation.  This is the hardest thing for shy people to do.  Or, even better, as a mutual friend to introduce you.
  3. Keep notes for yourself.  A few words that will jog your memory when you are writing down what happened and what you need to do next.  Your memory is probably not as good as you think it is.
  4. Say to each person you speak with, “Great things are happening at this organization, and I would love to speak with you about them.  Can I call you next week to get a date on the calendar?”
  5. Don’t forget to contact the people who did not come to the party.  Maybe there was a conflict on their calendar.  Or maybe, like me, they enjoy one on one conversations more than crowds.

Happy mingling!


Slow down and raise more money

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else – if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”


The Queen spoke with derision about “a slow sort of country.”  But isn’t that where we redqueenwould all rather live?  And wouldn’t we serve our donors better if we operated in a slow country that allowed us time to treasure each one of them?  Here are a few ways you can slow down and work more effectively.

  1. Keep events simple.  Events have a place in the fundraising toolkit, but the fatal temptation is to make each gala more elaborate and time-consuming than last year’s.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Find ways to make your mission come alive in your events, and work all other details around that goal.
  2. Don’t nag board members.  Instead, set up agreements with each of them about how they would like to help the organization in the coming year.  “How can I help you succeed?” is the beginning of a much more pleasant and fruitful conversation than  “We need every board member to sell ten tickets to the gala.”  I know a fundraiser who has board members lining up to talk to her after every board meeting.  That is because every meeting she brags about how different members have advanced the cause.
  3. Focus on big donors and big prospects first.  Block the time off on your calendar, put a “do not disturb” sign on your door and figure out how to advance your relationships with each of them.  Or take your donor list for a walk, and give a few minutes’ attention to each name.  You may think of ways to advance the conversation that don’t occur to your sedentary self.  I have found a handheld dictating device very useful for this purpose.
  4. Set aside time for meeting with donors.  Quality time.  Real listening time.  Exquisite attention time.  I once suggested to a fundraiser in a one-person office that she meet with the organization’s most generous donors.  “That’s the icing on the cake,” she said.  Meaning, when I finish the grant proposals, the appeal letters, the database nightmares, the walkathons, then I will have time for getting together with donors. The fact is that relationships are the icing, the cake, and the cakeplate. 

Lewis Carroll, who created the Red Queen in 1871, was a shy Oxford math professor.  Was he protesting the breakneck pace of academic life in Victorian England?  Perhaps.  Find ways to slow down and encourage your organization’s relationships with donors to thrive.   

Superman and Fundraising

Superman, that great icon of American male power, is a cartoon version of the LeadershipSuperman prototype.  The square jawed guy in the corner office works tirelessly, makes correct split-second decisions, and inspires the enthusiasm of his followers.  I know that when I compare myself to him, I am slow-tongued, wracked by anguish, and sometimes rumple-suited.  But maybe, for us who are not Superman, we can get more mileage out of honoring our limitations than trying to live up Mr. It’s-a-bird-it’s-a-plane.

The fund raising profession is crippled by that the Superman mystique.  Lots of people believe that succeeding in fund raising requires nerves of steel, telepathy, and a Kryptonite handshake.  The truth is, good manners and a little ambition will get you far.

If you find that Superman’s Textbook for Fund Raising doesn’t help you so much, here are some alternative ideas.

  • Superman is self-reliant.  As my mentor Andrea Kihlstedt is fond of saying, “every organization is perfectly configured to be itself.”  That means change is hard.  If you want to be an instrument of organizational transformation, find allies.
  • Superman is never insecurePay attention to your insecurity.  Once you recognize that your nerves are made of some material more like pliable than steel, you can tune them to signal that something is off kilter in your relationships with your donors.
  • Superman is unerringly persuasive.  Your donor has assigned your organization to a certain groove in her brain, and that determines her decision to give $X instead of ten times $X.  Your job, as a fund raiser, is to try to move the organization into a different brain-groove.  This is nervous-making.  You can face this nervousness by asking permission to propose something bold, by acknowledging that you are going out on a limb, or by any one of dozens of other ways of humanizing the encounter.  Once you admit you are not Superman, all kinds of possibilities open themselves.

Superman, go catch a flying train or something.  We have work to do.

Fundraising and the flexible ego of Winnie the Pooh

“Well,” said Owl, “the customary procedure in such cases is as follows.”

“What does Crustimoney Proseedcake mean?” said Pooh.  “For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me.”

— Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One

“Without Pooh, said Rabbit solemnly as he sharpened his pencil, “the adventure would be impossible.”

…Pooh went into a corner of the room, and said proudly to himself, “Impossible without me!  That sort of Bear.”

 — Kanga and Roo Come to the Forest

A fund raiser can learn a lot from Winnie the Pooh.  First lesson: keep your ego flexible. Pooh has a remarkable ability to slide between self assurance and modesty.

There are times when our profession requires us to submit ourselves to almost-secretarialpooh bear support of a CEO, board member, or donor.  (I realize that this creates more complexities for female than male fund raisers, but discussing that would exceed my self-imposed word limit.)   There are other times when we are the creative force of the organization, with mind-blowing expanses of responsibility.

We sometimes work fundraising for months behind the scenes.  Other days, if we are fortunate, we return triumphant from a donor visit and are greeted by astonished acclaim from our colleagues.  If you can continuously increase your territory at the Important end of the spectrum, and still be comfortable at the modest end, you will serve your organization well.

Thoreau and fund raising

Henry_David_ThoreauCast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.  – Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience.

If democracy requires the whole influence of citizens – and it has never needed it more than it does today — a non profit organization requires the whole engagement of its supporters.

What does whole engagement mean?  Of course there is the usual checklist of ways a donor could help an organization: giving money, introducing her friends, soliciting corporate gifts from her employer, adding the organization to her estate plans, volunteering, and so forth.

But in a donor-centric universe – have you noticed that is where we live? – whole engagement means that she is giving what she is able and willing to give at this time, when asked appropriately.

How do you know whether you are inviting the whole engagement of your donors?  Here is a simple test.  If, when you are talking to your donors, do you listen in order to respond, or do you listen to your donors in order to understand?    

Each of your supporters is, to quote Thoreau again, a majority of one, worthy of your inquisitive attention.

Savvy Trumps Conviction?

There was a very energetic discussion on one of the fund raising forums on Linked In a couple months ago when someone asked if a colleague should take a job for a controversial organization in a conservative small town. What interested me most in that discussion was the division between two points of view. Several writers argued that if she had a passion for the cause, she should take the job. Others opined that fund raising is a professional pursuit and conviction has nothing to do with it. I was so struck by that division of opinion that I offered to explore it in a guest essay for the Non Profit Quarterly. (www.nonprofit quarterly.org) The editor took me up on the offer, and I am trying to tease apart the difference. Are fund raisers who say “you gotta believe” employed in such fields as advocacy and religion? Are fund raisers who “savvy trumps conviction” working for hospitals, universities, and other institutions with near-universal appeal? Or, maybe the true believers represent the organization in conversations with donors, and the “I could do this job anywhere” crowd works behind the scenes. Is it a matter of different approaches to fund raising, as Andrea Kihlstedt describes on her Asking Matters website (www.askingmatters.com)? Many questions, few answers, looming deadline. Please share your thoughts. Thanks.

The eyeball: what a redcap taught me about fund raising

I was checking my bags at the service counter outside an airport terminal a week ago.  After he had given me the receipt for my suitcase, the red cap said “I can take care of that for you.”  I gave the man a blank nod, and he repeated, while looking me straight in the eye, “I can take care of that for you.”  I realized he was waiting for a tip, so I gave him a few bills before walking into the terminal.

eyeballI am sure biologists and anthropologists have written many pages about what eye contact means.  But here is what it meant to me at that moment:  I am giving you a chance to do the right thing.

Thirty five years ago, computers were changing everything.  Fifteen years ago, the internet was changing everything.  Now, social media is changing everything.  But many things do not change, and the eyeball is one of them.  Look someone in the eye and give them a chance to do the right thing.

Fund raising and witness

Carolyn Forché 2 NBCC 2011 Shankbone

Carolyn Forché 2 NBCC 2011 Shankbone (Photo credit: david_shankbone)

April is the month of Carolyn Forche’s birthday.  She is a poet who had a big impact on me in my youth.  She was teaching at UC San Diego in 1980 when she was visited by 3 men from El Salvador.  “We need you to come to El Salvador and write about the violence you see there,” they said.

“But I am not a reporter,” she countered.

“We have reporters.  We need a poet,” they answered.  She accepted the invitation.  The book that resulted from her visit, The Country Between Us, published in 1981, is a powerful testimony that played a role in America’s growing awareness of its covert support for the repressive regime.  She describes her writing as “the poetry of witness.”

When faced with the crises of the day, it is easy to get discouraged.  It is easy to say, “I am only a fund raiser,” just as Carolyn Forche said, “I am only a poet.”

But we are also witnesses.  Forche’s audience was the readers of poetry.  Our audience is the supporters of the organization where we work.  Whether you work in the arts, spirituality, education, social change, or service, you travel to a place where your donors cannot go, and bring back stories.  Don’t forget how important that is.