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.

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.   


It’s a new year, and the Jump Start Growth Blog is being repurposed.  Instead of philosophical/inspirational musings about fundraising, 2014 blog posts will contain short, practical suggestions that (I hope) you can implement right away to make your relationships with your donors more vibrant.  And my resolution is to deliver them to you, dear reader, every Thursday.

Speaking of resolutions, are there donors or prospects that you have been meaning to reach out to, but simply have not made the time?  Have you been hesitating because you don’t know enough about the individual to feel comfortable picking up the phone?  Here are three questions to help get over that hurdle:

  • Does the prospect have the capacity to make a significant gift if he or she gets excited about our work?  (You have to determine what constitutes “significant”) for your organization.
  • Does the prospect have a likely interest in your organization’s work?
  • Is there someone in your circle who is in the prospect’s circle and can make an introduction? 

If the answer to the third question is no, ask around a little bit, and if you still come up with nothing, reach out yourself.  The only thing worse than a cold call is no contact at all.

Let me know if you have questions about how to strengthen connections with your donors.  And happy new year!


Trust is the word of the day.  It is the fundraiser’s most important attribute. Trust is critical in every juncture in a relationship with a donor.

138 Winter QuartersTrust comes into play when a donor is considering:

  • whether to welcome you to her home when you call to ask for an appointment
  • how much to reveal about the complexity of her family tree and the money that grows on different branches
  • how much to show you her excitement about your organization’s work
  • how to respond to a solicitation
  • when she is deciding what names to give you when asked for other prospective donors

In other words, every time you turn around, the donor determines how much room you have to maneuver based on how much she trusts you.

If you attend first to being worthy of a donor’s trust, everything else will be a lot easier.

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.

How can a fund raiser talk less and listen more?

There is a wall that divides good fund raisers from bad. It is the wall of our own voices.  More times than I care to remember, I have sat in the living room or office of a donor, hauling newsletters and annual reports out of my briefcase, talking about programs, accomplishments, plans.  Blah, blah, blah.  I am waiting for a signal from the person across the desk to show some interest, and he or she is waiting for me to stop talking.

listenOn the other side of the wall is an actual conversation.  Give and take.  Back and forth.  Of course, most donors want to learn more about programs and accomplishments and plans.  But there is a very personal and specific reason that the donor selected your organization to support, a very personal and specific reason that the donor invited you into his or her space.  If you can stop talking about programs long enough to find out what that motivation is, you will have crossed the sound barrier.  Asking the right questions is the key.

How do you get across that wall and invite the donor to speak?

Be kind to gatekeepers

Let’s celebrate the personal secretaries, family foundation staff, attorneys and bank London - Buckingham Palace guardofficers known collectively as “Gatekeepers.”  They play an important and under-appreciated role in the philanthropic ecosystem.  I have a great gatekeeper story from when I worked for The Wilderness Society.  Do you have a story about a successful relationship with a gatekeeper?

Every year. an entity called Canyon Investments sent a check for $5,000.  The return address was a post office box in Chicago. Responsibility was batted back and forth between the foundation team or the corporate sponsorship team.  Once, when I was planning a trip to Chicago, I sent a letter to “Dear sir or madam,” expressing appreciation and inquiring whether a visit would be welcome. I was delighted to get a phone call from an attorney representing Canyon, and inviting me to join him for coffee.  He explained to me that the donor preferred anonymity, and that he would be happy to pass on literature.  He also mentioned that there was some extra money in the account, and that a request for $10,000 would probably be granted.

The gifts grew to $35,000 a year. Every time to flew to Chicago, I visited the attorney.  Every time I saw him, I asked if I could arrange a visit between the donor and the Wilderness Society’s president.  He always smiled and shook his head, and offered to deliver any literature I wanted to leave with him.

When you are looking for a donor and, instead, find yourself face to face with a gatekeeper, take a deep breath, introduce yourself, and thank him or her for being an intermediary.

Please share your gatekeeper stories!