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.

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.

Manners and fund raising

Fundraising simultaneously occupies two worlds: the world of human relationships and the world of return on investment. It is very important to calculate ROI every way you can slice it, but when you carry your ROI-head into the world of human relationships, you act in a manner that Miss Manners would say is “downright rude.”

Miss Manners got a letter from a man who gave a couple thousand dollars annually to each of a hundred charities. When he lost his job, he was unable to continue give. He wrote to Miss Manners about being hounded by solicitors, and she replied: “It has always puzzled Miss Manners to find how often those who work on behalf of other people in general feel free to annoy the particular people with whom they come into contact.”

In these volatile times, your contribution income is likely to make some whiplash-inducing ups and downs. Use your ROI-head to make your budget, but not to talk to your donors.

And here are a couple other lessons from Miss Manners: Say please. Say thank you. And say thank you more often than you say please!

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?

Announcing the Jump Start Contest for SMALL organizations that receive BIG gifts

Conventional wisdom holds that only big organizations can secure significant gifts from individual donors.  But that conventional wisdom is wrong – I have seen it over and over: small, smart organizations securing gifts of five or six or seven figures.  Let’s collect those stories about organizations with a budget of less than $2.5 million who does things right.  Tell your story, get some publicity in fund raising publications, board training, and a cash prize of $2,500.  The deadline is May 15th.

Five judges, all development professionals in small organizations, will choose the winner based on:

  • The size of the top 10 gifts
  • The growth of the top 10 gifts over the past three years
  • Creative and effective engagement of board members in fund raising
  • Creative and effective cultivation strategies
The top 5 entries will receive a board training workshop and publicity in fund raising publications.  The top winner will also get $2,500.  Apply by May 15th at

Please spread the word about the Jump Start Contest.  Thank you.

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!