Receiving vs. Creating Gifts

You have two choices really:  either receive gifts from donors or create gift opportunities with donors.

Far too many development offices are content to receive the gifts that donors give.  These programs are reactive, unplanned, and regularly receive less than they need for their most important priorities.  The gift receiving mentality is regularly accompanied by an attitude that asking for gifts will be experienced as too bold, too greedy, or too uncomfortable.  Consequently, the gift receiving office is much better at extending thanks for a gift than soliciting the gift in the first place.

On the other hand, the most effective development programs create gift giving opportunities with their donors.  The gift creating program is proactive, strategic, and engages donors in serious ways.  Development officers ask questions about values, interests, and seek donor feedback.  Gift creating programs have standard meetings in which donor strategies are discussed.  And gift creating programs have a habit of asking donors for specific gift amounts for specific priorities.

Being a development professional in a gift receiving office is easy and comfortable.  Saying “thank you” is almost effortless and is accessible to just about everyone.   But if you want to do meaningful work for your institution – if you want to make a significant difference by increasing charitable gifts – you will work to create far more gifts than you receive.  Or, to put it another way in paraphrased form:  Ask first and, then, you should receive.


Making A Real Difference: Moving Beyond “Metrics” to Strengthening a “Community of Giving”

As a consultant, not a week of client work passes without someone, somewhere asking me about “metrics.”  This word, “metrics,” has come to be used in so many ways that it is beginning to be difficult to understand exactly what people mean when they bring up the topic.  For instance, metrics can mean, “a tool to measure gift officer performance.”  Or, it can mean, “results we should track as an office to evidence our value.”  It is even sometimes used as a replacement for “benchmarking.”

However people may use this now ubiquitous term – metrics – they almost always are focused on advancement or development outputs.  Outputs refer to the activities, initiatives, events, appeals, etc., that we implement and the results of those activities.  Outputs are a description of our efforts or the specific return(s) of those efforts.  So, output “metrics” typically focus on measuring items like: number of visits, amount of dollars raised, number of donors who gave, number of individuals who attended an event, or average gift amount.

The question that the thoughtful advancement leader asks, though, is what difference improving any of these “metrics” really makes?  Why does increasing these numbers truly matter?  So, you raised more money this year as compared to last and more people came to your events – that sounds great.  But, as one of my graduate school professors used to demand of me when I was attempting to explain the worthiness of a proposed research question, “So what?  Tell me why should I care?”

In other words, “what difference does showing improvement in your metrics really make?”

To answer this question, people have started to use a phrase almost as ubiquitous as “metrics.”  You hear it everyday – everyone is seeking to strengthen a “culture of philanthropy.”  And while that sounds nice.  I’m not at all certain that people even know what that means when they say it.  Technically, I suppose, it would be defined something like an “environment in which the love of mankind is strengthened.”  But I’m convinced that is not what people mean when they use that phrase.

Instead, what most are trying to communicate when they use the “culture of philanthropy” phrase is an outcome that matters.  I would suggest most want to build and strengthen a “community of giving,” and are trying to say something like,

“I want more people to understand why giving more is important and to act with generosity toward our institution.”

Why then, don’t we measure what really matters more regularly?  Why don’t we survey our donors to find out how educated they are about our mission?  Why don’t we interview them to find out how important they believe our mission is?  Or, why don’t we engage them in focus groups to better understand how they view giving and their understanding of the psychological, emotional, physical, emotional, and life-extending benefits of giving?  And why don’t we track these measures over time so we can conduct trend analyses to see how much of a difference we truly are making?

Yes, we should be focused on more than activity-based, or output “metrics.”  We should be focused on improving much more important aspects of our work.  But, it’s not really a “culture of philanthropy” we are seeking to strengthen.  What we really want and know we need is a strong “community of giving” around our institutions – and we need to do a much better job of assessing that important outcome.



Your Passion Matters

“Our alumni just don’t come back for Homecoming at our institution like they do at other places.”

“We’ve never had a strong turn-out for our donor recognition event.”

“Our Board members just don’t give like they should.  It hasn’t been part of our culture for our Board members to play a significant role in soliciting each other.”

If you ever hear someone on your team say something like the above (or, perhaps, you catch yourself expressing similar frustrations), I want you to remember this picture:

KNOXVILLE,TN - OCTOBER 04, 2014 - Arial Shot of Checkerboard during the game between the Florida Gators and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Matthew S. DeMaria /Tennessee Athletics

KNOXVILLE,TN – OCTOBER 04, 2014 – Arial Shot of Checkerboard during the game between the Florida Gators and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Matthew S. DeMaria /Tennessee Athletics

This is a University of Tennessee football gameday photo taken at Neyland Stadium last year.  Neyland stadium holds over 102,000 people, making it one of the largest sporting arenas of any kind in the U.S.  That is a massive amount of people.

I share this picture because there is a story behind this “checkerboard” design.  As you can see on the playing field, the orange and white checkerboard is a signature visual element in the end zones.  The checkerboard is part of the University of Tennessee Football brand.  The idea, then, to have fans wear either orange or white shirts to create the visual of a stadium-wide checkerboard makes sense with the brand.

By looking at this picture, you might think that a massive amount of planning and coordination lead by the the University of Tennessee and/or the Athletics Department would be needed to pull this off.  I mean, how in the world could you get all of these 102,000 people to come to the game dressed in a certain color shirt without massive coordination efforts.  Or, maybe it just took a lot of resources that most institutions don’t have.  Maybe the Athletics Department just bought 102,000 orange and white shirts and distributed the shirts in the stadium so that they were waiting for the fans at their seats.  That’s how big institutions like the University of Tennessee can pull off these cool things – they have huge teams of people and lots more money than most other institutions or organizations.

Well, here is the back story.  There was no institutional planning or coordination.  No buying 102,000 shirts for all the fans.  No teams of students and athletic personnel distributing shirts in any way.  This picture happened – the orange and white checkerboard in the stands happened – because 2 fans had a vision, built and published a website and sold the idea to 102,000 people.  And they did it all 11 days prior to this game.

During those 11 days, they went to every restaurant and business in Knoxville they could find and asked if each would help promote the web address on their street signs.  They sent messages to the local media, along with digitally-created pictures of what the “checkered Neyland stadium” would look like, and asked for support to get the word out.  They called into sports radio stations and “advertised” their website so that fans could log on, enter their seat number and learn whether to wear an orange or a white shirt.  Any orange or white shirt would do – just make sure you were wearing the right color for your section in the stadium.

And the people followed the lead of these 2 guys.  Fans visited the website in droves, learned what color shirt to wear, and came to the game prepared.  As you can see from the picture and from the news coverage after the game, it was a huge success.

Here is the point:  These 2, everyday guys had no significant resources.  They had no institutional support for this idea.  But, they had a passion for an idea.  They wanted to make something happen.  And they were determined that it would be a success.  They sold their idea by presenting a compelling vision for what it could be.  And they were tireless and creative in inviting people to be a part of it.  Their passion was contagious and their idea was sticky.

So, the next time you hear team members complaining about how “no one” shows up or participates or responds, remember the checkerboard Neyland picture.  The issue may not be that “they” don’t show up.  It may be that “we” don’t passionately give reasons why “they” should.

As advancement professionals a big part of our work is to paint a vision of an exciting and better future, be passionate about that vision, and be relentless in inviting other people to own the fulfillment of that vision with us.  No, it’s no where near enough to say, “we put the invite in the magazine and no one came.”  If you want to create memorable engagements with your donors and friends, your passion matters.


The Diminishing Value of Answers

It used to be that answers were power.  Answers were not only important, in and of themselves, but they represented something valuable – the capacity and the willingness to problem-solve.  If you had the answers, you would have the advantage, in part because you were better at problem-solving.  You would get the best scholarships to the best universities.  You would get the best jobs.  And you would get promoted faster.  All because answers weren’t easily and readily available.  You had to work for them.

Today, is different.  Answers are an easy-to-come-by commodity.  The ability to solve task-oriented problems is becoming less important.  If you want an answer or solution to just about any question or problem, just ask Siri or Google.  No matter where you might be, if you can gain access to the interwebs, solutions are easily accessible.  And most everyone has the same swift access to the same answers.

The fact that computer-aided, “at-your-fingertips” solutions to problems are getting more sophisticated and wide-ranging every day is old news.  In a well-shared story from some time ago, the IBM computer, Watson, answered questions faster and with more precision than TV’s Jeopardy champs.  More recently, a computer was built that recognizes and sorts images of dog breeds faster and more accurately than humans.

So, if solving problems and gaining answers is becoming an easier process and the playing field to access those answers is almost completely flat, what separates the successful from all others?  I would argue that the ability to ask the insightful, creative, well-crafted questions and being genuinely interested in understanding others are the most important characteristics for success today and, especially, in the future.  An authentic curiosity about people and the ability to thoughtfully craft questions provide more than answers and solutions, they provide understanding.

But the importance of learning how to ask good questions isn’t getting its due.  Our schools still largely teach students to memorize answers and solutions.  And in our workplaces, we are still conditioned to believe that the person with the “right” answer or solution (as if there is only one) should be the boss.

For those who aspire for extraordinary results, though, it is the art of question-asking that holds the most promise and value.  In every area of your life and work – but especially in development where meaningful donor engagement with your institution is the gold standard – developing your “human curiosity” muscle and becoming the best possible question-asker will do more to enable you to influence others, get results, and advance your career than any other skill-set you can develop.  Caring more and gaining the knowledge to ask insightful questions will help you more than anything else you can learn.


Why Are You Asking?

Don’t ask because you hope to get;

Ask because you hope to give.


Don’t ask because performance metrics insist that you must;

Ask because your passion for mission yearns to be shared.


Don’t ask because you have needs;

Ask because you have a plan to meet needs.


Don’t ask because you’ve completed the case for support;

Ask because you understand their case for giving.


Don’t ask people to give because you want their money;

Ask people to give because you want them to experience joy.


Institutional Addictions

We all understand the concept of addiction in individuals.  The idea is that an individual is caught in a web of bad decision-making that, even when the person understands the decisions they are making are bad for them, they still make them.  When a person is addicted, he or she will go to great lengths to cover up the addiction and create a façade of well-being.

But what about institutions?  Can they be addicted too?  Can institutional cultures both exhibit behaviors that are unhealthy and, at the same time, seek to cover up these unhealthy behaviors?

I have found that institutions can exhibit addictive behaviors.  And, much like individual addictions, the idea is that the addictive behaviors keep the institution from achieving what is really important. Instead of daily striving toward mission and vision, the institution gets caught in a downward cycle of behaviors that stagnate progress and injure individuals in the process.  And, much like addicted individuals, addicted institutions will strive to cover up their condition.

Here are 3 institutional addictions that harm the enterprise and the people in it:

  1. Addicted to Drama – high-drama cultures run on a collective sense of adrenaline. There are always fires to be put out.  Order is eschewed and chaos is embraced.  Even when things seem to be running smoothly, mountains suddenly will erupt out of mole-hills.  In order for the drama-addicted culture to continue, there will be no serious efforts to establish more organizational structure.  If you are in a drama-addicted institution, you have probably heard this statement that attempts to hide the problem: “Everybody just pulls together and gets the job done!”
  2. Addicted to Control – if high-drama cultures are chaotic, controlling cultures are ones in which there is so much organizational structure that individual team members are valued less than their positions. Information and decision-making is jealously held by those at the top of the organizational chart.  With this addiction, team members will report that they don’t feel like they have much ability to define their work and, as such, don’t find their work meaningful.  Control-addicted environments are “us vs. them” environments which silo people and encourage everyone to watch out for themselves, instead of working for the common good.  If you are in a control-addicted institution, you have probably heard this statement that attempts to hide the problem:  “I wish I could do something, but that’s not my job.”
  3. Addicted to Metrics – in the metrics-addicted institution, there is too much focus on analyzing how much progress you are making toward your vision and not enough focus on actually achieving the vision. Data is the currency of the realm.  And quibbling over what the data means (when you have it) is the #1 institutional pastime.  Instead of doing work that supports the mission, people highlight metrics-making, data-collection, and data analysis as the work.  Metrics and data will never be the work, they are a reflection (albeit poor ones) of the work.  If you are in an metrics-addicted institution you have probably heard this statement that attempts to hide the problem:  “We will need better data before we can make a decision.”

To break these institution addictions, we must constantly remind ourselves and our colleagues why we do the work we do.  If you believe you work in a drama, control, or metrics-addicted environment, you can help your institution break its addiction with a regular and consistent dose of re-focusing.  In multiple ways and at every opportunity, ask your colleagues, “specifically, how will what we are talking about help us achieve our mission and fulfill our vision more effectively?”

When you ask that question – perhaps over and over – you will encourage others to focus not on the addiction, but on the good work you are all called to do.


A Willingness To Be Transformed

Your best donors are those who believe deeply in your mission.  They believe so sincerely that, in most instances, your most significant donors are those who encourage others to give as well.  Perhaps they host an event for your institution.  Or perhaps they speak publicly or privately about why they give.  Or perhaps, they are willing to be a part of the asking process, authenticating the solicitation with a level of influence you or others at your institution may not possess.

These donors are willing to do more than just give generously because they have experienced something about your institution and mission that moves them.  They, or someone in their sphere of influence, could have had a direct and powerful, life-changing experience with your institution.  Or, they simply find meaning and alignment with the values that your institution projects into the world.

When you talk with these donors, you regularly will find that they experience their relationship with your institution as deeply personal.  They will tell you that their giving is of bigger benefit to them than it is to those you serve.  We often talk in terms of how a donor’s major gift might “transform” some part of our institution or program.  But, in a very real way, your best donors will report that they have been transformed by their giving in support of your efforts.  These donors personify the statement that is better to give than to receive.

Why, then, when we traditionally think about “qualifying” major donor prospects do we typically seek to assess only two variables that have little to do with their personal experience with giving.  Traditionally, when we are attempting to qualify a prospect, we will seek to learn more about their:

  1. financial capacity to make a gift and;
  2. interest level in making a significant gift.

Why don’t we also seek to assess the degree to which these prospects might be willing to be transformed through their giving?  We know this to be a key part of the profile of our most helpful major donors, so shouldn’t we be asking questions in the discovery and qualification process to assess the degree to which they are ready to be transformed by their own giving?

I can think of a few questions that would be very helpful in learning more about your prospective major gift donors and their willingness to be transformed through giving.  For instance, you could ask the following as you are working in the discovery and qualification process:

  • Tell me about the organization or institution that is at the top of your priority list for giving – why do you support them?
  • As you think back over all of the gifts you’ve made to other organizations or institutions, I’m interested to hear about the one gift that really stands out as being special to you or your family?
  • What was the reason or the primary motivating factor behind the largest philanthropic commitment you have made?

If we begin to integrate open-ended questions like these into our regular discovery and qualification work with prospects, I am convinced that we will learn more (and learn more quickly!) about our prospects.  When we work to identify those who are open to being transformed through their giving, we are assessing information about a powerfully-predictive variable for major charitable gifts. Unfortunately, researching your prospect’s financial capacity and understanding her philanthropic interests do not, by themselves, give us the best and most complete picture of how ultimately generous she might be.


5 Important Tasks of a “Working Board”

Occasionally, I confidently am told by education or non-profit governing board members that they serve on a “working board.”  This statement is most often uttered as the follow-up to another less self-confident admission – namely that the board is not one that focuses on the topic of philanthropy.

During these conversations, I am reminded that the concept of a “working board” can get skewed by well-meaning but unhelpful board members.  Specifically, when board members accentuate the nobleness of “work,” they strangely leave out of their definition any aspect of philanthropic work.  As if getting more major gifts in the door in support of your mission is not “real work.”  Instead, the concept of a “working board” usually refers to members who provide their volunteer time as their primary gift to the institution.

The problem, of course, is not that being a “working” board is an ineffectual way for a governing board to operate.  The problem is that the highest, most effective form of “work” for non-profit boards occurs in the philanthropic vineyard!  The most important job a board member can do is to advance your institutional mission and vision by partnering with paid staff members to increase philanthropic gift income.

So, the next time you hear a governing board member lift up their “working board” status as a way to deflect the conversation from board giving and the board’s responsibility to provide philanthropic leadership for the institution, please feel free to share with them the top 5 ways all boards should “work:”

  1. Participate in a peer screen session and alert the institution to donor prospects who have annual, major, and/or planned gift potential;
  2. Arrange for an institutional leader to make a presentation at their local civic, community, church, workplace, or other venue;
  3. Accompany development personnel on cultivation and/or solicitation visits with those donors or prospects with whom they have influence;
  4. Host a dinner or event at their home, civic or country club, workplace, or other venue with the purpose to introduce new major donor prospects or board members to the institution’s leadership;
  5. When called upon, speak publicly with passion and authenticity about the reason why they are involved and the difference your institution makes in the world.

Showing up for board meetings, participating in committee work, and volunteering to assist with special events does not fully qualify as the definition of “board work.”  Instead, governing board members should be encouraged to help their institutions reach their far edge of promise by rolling up their sleeves and engaging in the real work of philanthropy.  Not only will the results be significant, but board members will find this work much more meaningful.


21 Advancement Truths

  1. The success of your ask was determined during the cultivation.
  2. Donors don’t give to institutions, they give through institutions.
  3. And they give through institutions to people they trust.
  4. Doing the fundamentals consistently is “the silver bullet.”
  5. Generous people don’t grow tired of giving, they grow tired of being solicited.
  6. When it is time to ask, be bold — ask for their best possible gift. Those you serve deserve that from you.
  7. You have a case for support only when you can concisely answer the question, “why should anyone care?”
  8. What your donors believe about your institution is far more important than what they know about your institution.
  9. In making your most effective case for support, keep in mind that too many numbers numb, but stories are stored.
  10. If you do not know the other causes your prospect supports and why she supports them, you are not ready to ask.
  11. With only rare exceptions, special events represent the most inefficient and ineffective way to raise money.
  12. If you want money, ask for advice. And if you want advice, ask for money.
  13. It’s not about you #1: Your job is not to strengthen your relationship with the donor.  Your job is to strengthen the donor’s belief in the goodness of your institution’s mission.
  14. It’s not about you #2: If a prospect tells you “no,” it is not a personal rejection.
  15. Engagement isn’t sending out the magazine. True engagement is the process of asking meaningful questions and actively listening to the responses.
  16. A gift officer can have many visits and not be successful. But rarely can a gift officer have only a few visits and be successful.
  17. Performance metrics are not the work, they are only a poor proxy for the work.
  18. Major donors dislike “wish lists.”  Strategic planning is the foundation of successful campaigns.
  19. How you treat donors after they make a commitment says far more about how you value them as people than how you treated them before they committed.
  20. The most robust and helpful prospect research is not done electronically.
  21. Giving is good.

AIM To Communicate Effectively

If your goal is to educate, engage, and delight more donors, friends, supporters, or funders through communication vehicles, ask yourself if the AIM of your message is on point.  For every written solicitation, every webpage, every special events invitation, every magazine article, and every newsletter story, etc., ask yourself if what you are communicating is:

Authentic – is the message you are communicating true and genuine to your institution?  Does the message affirm and support your institution’s mission, vision, and values?

Inspiring – is the message you are communicating motivating and encouraging others to action?

Meaningful – is the message you are communicating worthwhile?  Does what you are talking about make a difference in the world?  Does it matter?

When we communicate using the AIM framework, our messages are worth reading, they extend the brand of the institution, and they help broaden and deepen the base of supporters.