Why It Can Be Difficult to Ask

Here are some examples of well-worn statements that underscore the culture-wide bias we have against asking. . .

  • If we are in a jam:  “I’ll never ask you for anything ever again. . .”  or, “I wouldn’t ask you, but. . .”
  • If we are uncomfortable:  “He didn’t bring it up, so I didn’t ask him. . .”
  • If we are worried that we might cross a social boundary:  “I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to appear nosey. . .”
  • If we might appear stupid:  “I won’t ask the teacher in front of the rest of the class. . .”

The concept of asking for help, for assistance, for money, for most anything, can be viewed as a negative experience.  Two observations about the above statements (and other examples of when and why we decide not to ask questions):

  1. One reason we decide not to ask is based on our own negative feelings related to the experience;
  2. Another reason we decide not to ask is based on the negative reaction we perceive might come from others.

So, while there is a rather strong bias against asking built into our shared experience, if we substitute the word “invite” for “ask” we get a very different response.  “Inviting” people is perceived more positively.  It is less pointed and the chance of it being viewed as off-putting is reduced.  It is more embracing and welcoming.

When you work with volunteers, Board members, perhaps even advancement officers on your team who might struggle from time to time with “asking” others for gifts, encourage them to “invite” donors to join your cause or fulfill your vision.  It’s not nearly as difficult to “invite” someone as it can be to “ask” them.

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The 3 Most Damaging Fund Raising Myths – Part III

Note:  This post is part III of a series of III in which I identify 3 separate fund raising myths that make us less productive. The first installment in this series focused on the myth of donors giving only (or substantially more) for restricted purposes.  The second post discussed the myth that case statements which focus predominantly on explaining how gifts will be used are the most effective.  This final installment will discuss the myth of expecting a wealthy non-donor to respond with generosity if she is offered a seat on your governing board.

 

You know the non-donor I’m talking about in this post.  It’s the exceptionally wealthy one who stays close enough to your institution to be tantalizing.  Perhaps he comes to events semi-regularly.  Or she sends in a random gift every few years.  The talk about this non-donor is always the same, “If we could only get her engaged!”

And so, at some point, someone within the institutional leadership structure suggests extending an invitation to this individual to join your governing board as an engagement strategy.  If she says, “yes,” the thinking goes, she’ll understand that she’ll have to start giving more regularly and more generously.  And, even if she doesn’t give generously right away, she’ll learn more about our institution and will be cultivated to give more.  Surely, she will!

Except that is not the way it plays out.   Almost never.  Hardly ever.  Instead, what ends up happening is that your governing board now has at least one member with great financial capacity who doesn’t give, or doesn’t give regularly, or doesn’t give up to his potential.  This member causes heartburn for all involved in the solicitation process of the board.  And, now, because most governing board seats have some tenure component attached to them, you will have to deal with this behavior for a predetermined set of years.

It’s frustrating.  It’s agonizing.  It’s like being married to someone who has never shown you that they truly love you.

Why is the process of inviting a non-donor to serve on your governing board a poor strategy, no matter how wealthy the individual might be?  Simply put, because the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior (this predictor is not perfect of course, but, all things being equal, it is the most salient variable).  Candidates for your governing board should express their generous spirit by being consistent givers, regardless of their financial capacity.  This standard should be the minimum for your institution.

Recently, I was facilitating a board retreat for a client institution when I shared this concept with them.  Before I could finish my statement about how using board seats as an engagement strategy almost always disappoints, one of the most senior members of the board shot his hand up, chuckled a bit, and said, “yep, we’ve done that one before!”  The rest of the board laughed, letting me know I was hitting a point of some past frustration.  “And how did that work out for you?”  I asked quickly.  “Not good,” he smiled and shook his head.

A seat on your governing board is too precious to extend it to those who haven’t yet fully shown their enthusiasm for your mission by giving regularly and generously.  If you want to engage wealthy non-donors, invite them to events and visit with them regularly to learn more about their interests and values.  Invite them to serve on an Advisory Council, a committee of some sort, or a focus group – but never your governing board.

It’s a good and thoughtful strategy to seek to engage wealthy non-donors, there just is no good reason to get married to them too quickly.

 

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The 3 Most Damaging Fund Raising Myths – Part II

Note:  This post is part II of a series of III in which I will identify 3 separate fund raising myths that make us less productive. The first installment in this series focused on the myth of donors giving only (or substantially more) for restricted purposes.  This second post springboards off that myth and highlights the false idea that cases for support should focus predominantly on how gifts will be used. 

While there are many fund raising myths held by people not employed in our field, the myths that are most injurious are the ones held by those of us who labor in the development vineyard.  These myths are far more damaging to our efforts because they either consciously or subconsciously inform how we approach our work and invite other people to support our missions.

Far too many development and advancement folk believe that clearly communicating your funding priorities in a case for support is more important than communicating the compelling reason(s) why a donor should care enough to give in support of your mission in the first place.

The longer I’m involved in our work, the more concerned I become that development professionals assume far too much about donor motivations.  The thinking goes something like, “of course donors understand that higher education transforms lives.”  Or, “of course donors understand that healthcare saves lives.” Or, “of course donors understand that there is a real need to clothe and feed people in our community.”

Because we make these fundamental assumptions, we craft our case for support documents focused on the specifics of how we would invest donor gifts.  We focus on new buildings or renovations, or new programs, or growing endowments for specific programs.  And we give short shrift to reminding donors why they should care deeply about our mission.

Earlier this week I attended the CASE Summit for Leaders in Advancement in NYC and listened as the volunteer chair for Georgia Tech’s recent $1.5 billion campaign discuss her experience leading the effort.  She said, “We have a tendency to talk a lot about the buildings and the programs, but let me encourage you as development professionals to remember that those buildings and programs aren’t why your donors are giving.  They will consider an increase in their giving when they have a clear understanding of the impact their giving will make on the future.”

The most efficient way to discourage a focus on communicating funding needs is to explicitly connect your funding priorities to a broader strategic plan for your institution.  In this way, you can more easily focus your case for support on addressing the question, “why are we attempting to raise this money?”  Your strategic plan should articulate the real-world, true-life impact your institution aims to make over a multi-year period and the metrics you will use to evaluate your progress.  The fund raising in support of this planning, then, becomes another tool to be employed to achieve these strategic aims.

If you seek to turbo-charge your development efforts, reject this myth when you hear it (or think it yourself).  A compelling case for support isn’t driven by an explanation of how the gifts will be spent.  A compelling case is driven by reminding donors why they should care enough to give in the first place.

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The 3 Most Damaging Fund Raising Myths – Part I

Note:  Over the next few posts, I will identify 3 separate fund raising myths that make us less productive.  This is Part I of III.

 

Fund raising myths abound.  People who have not been called into our noble profession will regularly (and perhaps disdainfully) inquire of us, “how can you ask other people for money?”  As if the role of inviting people to align their financial support with their deeply-held values is somehow unethical (or worse!).  Similarly, there is the myth that only “rich people” give money and only because of tax benefits or other self-interested motives.  But these myths and misunderstandings are not typically held by development professionals themselves.  So, while it is unfortunate that these myths circulate in the broader world, they, typically, don’t directly hinder our ability to raise important resources for missions that transform lives.

However, there are myths that are held by many of us laboring in the development vineyard.  These myths are far more injurious to our efforts because they either consciously or subconsciously inform how we approach our work and engage other people.  Theses myths are just that – generally-believed concepts that are neither supported by the weight of researched evidence nor experience.  And yet, they continue to stymie our progress.

Here then, are what I would call out as the first of the 3 most damaging fund raising myths accepted by too many development professionals:

Myth #1:  Donors only give (or will only give more) for restricted purposes.

To say that this myth is pervasive would be an understatement.  I have heard newcomers and experienced professionals alike utter some semblance of this myth too many times to count.  The reason this myth is so widely-accepted, I believe, is because it feels right.  It seems intuitive.

The thinking goes:  “People will give (or give more) when they understand logically and agree with how their money will be used.”

And while this statement is not altogether inaccurate, the problems begin to arise when the concept is applied.  Specifically, many development professionals define the phrase, “how the money will be used,” by pointing to concrete funding priorities such as facilities, programs, endowments, etc., etc.  However, the research – and, more specifically your donors – aren’t primarily motivated to make gifts based on how the money will be spent.  Instead, they make their giving decisions based on the perceived impact their giving will make for a mission they care about.

In the 2014 U.S. Trust Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy, the following finding was reported,

“Almost four times as many high net worth households reported placing no restrictions on their largest gifts in 2013 (78.2 percent) compared to the percentage of wealthy households that did so (20.1 percent). (emphasis added).  Let that sink in for a bit.   Their largest gifts were unrestricted.

Similarly, over the past few months I have completed two campaign readiness studies for clients that supported this finding.  When I interviewed these institutions’ major donors and prospects for the purposes of the study, 63% and 68% of these donors indicated they would make an unrestricted campaign gift.  Why give unrestricted?  The most commonly cited reasons are because they believe in the mission and because they trust the institution’s leadership.

Don’t believe this overwhelming evidence is true for your donor base?  Here is a quick way to find out how it applies for your institution’s donors.  Sit down with a few of your major donors and ask them individually, “Why have you made the decision to make such generous gifts to our institution?”  When you really think about it, you already know how they will respond.  It will be because of mission.  It will be because of impact.  It will be because you are transforming or saving lives.  The specific uses of the gifts – the buildings that get built, the new programs, the new technology, etc., are simply tools to serve more and serve better.  Tools don’t inspire your donors.  The work the tools allow you to do inspires them.

The problem with believing the myth of “restricted giving is king,” is that it can inform work plans in insidious ways.  We begin to pay more attention to how we will spend the campaign money raised, instead of focusing on answering the question of why we need the funds in the first place?  Or, instead of leading with unrestricted giving as the assumed giving option, we proactively put restrictions in major gift proposals believing that the specificity will trigger a more generous response.  Or, even in annual giving appeals, we start segmenting and soliciting our donor base by gift restrictions (i.e., where we believe they might give) instead of continuing to make the strong (and, oh by the way, productive) case that giving unrestricted aligns with their values of supporting our compelling mission.

So, if you hear someone on your team say something like, “everyone knows that donors give more for restricted purposes,” remind them that believing in myths won’t make your program more successful.  In fact, you just might be missing out on your donors’ best gifts.

 

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From Conduit to Conductor

If you are a successful gift officer, you might view your role as a bit like a conduit – a connector that weds donor interests with the needs of your institution.  The best gift officers have carefully crafted questions and strategies designed to engage prospective donors so that deep understanding of values, beliefs, and interests can occur.  This is a skill of “story-listening” that I’ve written about before.  It is a skill that all high-level, productive gift officers possess.

However, when the best gift officers grow into leaders of the advancement enterprise, there is an additional and different skill set that is needed.  Specifically, the best advancement leaders aren’t solely conduits, they serve their teams as conductors.

Conductors guide and encourage the best from others in a team environment.  They persuade and influence and they interpret context in order to keep the team moving forward toward an agreed upon goal.  Think of the choral or orchestra conductor who provides encouragement, direction, guidance and leadership to a team of musicians, all with a nuanced wave of his hand and/or baton.

Being a conductor means that you must possess a vision and set a course – a plan and direction for where you desire the team to go.  While conduits can work ably once a direction has been set, conductors must set the direction and then provide the creative energy which encourages others to move forward in an integrated manner.  Leadership isn’t simply implementing plans. It is creating compelling plans that others are enthusiastic about helping to implement.

Both the conduit and the conductor are vitally important to an advancement team’s success.  The two roles are very distinct with contrasting skill sets.  But, the very best conduits and conductors do one thing exceptionally well:  they both actively listen to others.

 

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A Hypothetical Letter to a Non-Profit Board Member

Dear Board Member:

I am back in my office having just completed our most recent Board meeting.  As I reflect on our work together in support of our institution’s mission and vision, a number of thoughts are occurring to me.  The most important of these thoughts, I believe, involve offering my sincere thanks and an earnest apology.

First, the thanks.  Thank you for your service.  You believed enough in our mission to accept a position as a Board member – to become an “owner” of this institution – and to accept all of the fiduciary responsibilities that come with that role.  This is no trivial commitment and, on behalf of our institution, I am grateful for your willingness to serve.  Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom which strengthens our entire institution.  Thank you for your financial support.  And most of all, thank you for your time.  In today’s world, all of us are regularly reminded that time is our most precious asset.  Because you gladly share all of these valuable resources with our institution, I thank you.

Second, the apology.  I am sorry, truly, that your recruitment to our Board was neither as thorough nor as thoughtful as it should have been.  We did not provide you with a written set of roles and responsibilities and we did not talk with you candidly and transparently about our expectations of you.  Instead of a recruitment process, you experienced more of an enlistment.  And that was not fair to you in many ways.

As an example, while we are grateful that you have given in the past, the expectation for all Board members is that this institution is one of your top three philanthropic priorities.  We set this as an expectation, instead of specific gift amount, because we recognize that Board members bring a variety of important contributions to our institution.  If we desire to populate the Board with individuals who possess an affinity for giving away large sums of money, it is up to our process of due diligence, prior to inviting Board members to serve, to discern their giving habits and potential.

It is a point of some embarrassment for me that our Board giving expectations were not discussed openly with you so that you could have made an informed decision about joining our Board.  Furthermore, it is problematic that we have not established a routine in which there is significant Board meeting time dedicated to discussing the importance of Board giving and the philanthropic leadership responsibilities of the Board.

In addition to being discourteous to you and the Board as a whole, our failure to engage you candidly in discussions regarding the Board’s important leadership role and the associated giving expectations leads to an unhelpful and inappropriate assumption on the part of the administration.  Specifically, we sometimes assume that since you are a member of the Board, we should not need to spend the time, energy, and effort engaging you and inviting you to give.  We assume that you should simply make your very best annual gift available each year and, when we are in a campaign, you should increase your giving substantially.  We assume that “you should know” to do these things.  These assumptions are, of course, completely unfair and based on our shortcomings, not yours.

My hope is that now that you are on the Board, you do not feel as though the expectations, especially around giving, have been changed on you. I also hope that we can work together to make the joyful topic of giving one that is regularly and openly discussed at Board meetings.  As you know, we serve a mission that matters.  And our institution’s vision is inspiring!  We have good and important work to do together.

I look forward to making your service on our Board more meaningful each day.  We are grateful you are here and we will begin acting like it.

With all best wishes,

Your Chief Advancement Officer

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The Tyranny of Knowing

What do you know about your work?  I mean, really know?

The reality is that we all believe we know a lot more than we actually do.  In fact, in all facets of life, we walk through situations believing we have more knowledge than we do.  It’s part of being human.

Each day our brains take in almost incalculable amounts of data and discard the vast majority of it as irrelevant or duplicative – non-essential to what we need to function in that moment.  Think of all the visuals, sounds, textures, tastes, temperatures, movements, etc., that our brains take in as data and respond to every moment.  Right now, for instance, as you read this, your brain is translating these words on your screen, you are aware of a conversation out in the hall, your fingertips are feeling the warmth of your coffee mug, etc.  The diversity of data we receive is incredible and the sheer volume is staggeringly massive.

Imagine if we had to question, re-learn, or re-understand every piece of minute data that we experience each time we experience it.  Every move.  Every interaction.  Every texture.  Every communication. Every symbol.  Every word.  Every sound.  Every stimuli.  Our senses would quickly overload our brains and our lives would grind to a paralytic halt.

So instead, our brains automatically construct and consistently refer to patterns of data and experiences so that we can make decisions in a timely manner.  These patterns help us quickly make sense of our worlds by, in part, discarding the non-interesting or irrelevant data and information.  By using these patterns to quickly discard data, our brains make efficient assumptions which encourage us to believe we know a whole bunch more than we actually do.  Sometimes these assumptions can be huge.  For example, can you make out the famous individual in this picture even though it is upside down?Screen-Shot-2016-03-04-at-14.52.44

Of course you can!  It is Angelina Jolie.  Pretty simple, right?

And, if you are like most people, you didn’t really notice much of anything wrong with this picture.  Instead, your brain quickly utilized its pattern recognition ability, threw out what it deemed meaningless information, and gave you the answer.

But now, look at the same picture right-side-up:

Angelina-Jolie-Inverted--35328

Yes, that’s freaky.  If you’re like most people, your brain glossed right over the fact that her lips and eyes were upside down in the first picture.  It wasn’t scanning for that kind of information, it was just using previous patterns to identify the individual.  So, your brain didn’t pay close attention to some data and instead, gave you a clear sense that you knew the answer.

A tremendous amount of what we think we “know,” is made up of the beliefs, assumptions, fears, and opinions based on the many patterns our brains have created and stored from our previous experiences.  And in most cases, those patterns are incomplete and sometimes completely inaccurate when viewed from another perspective.

As professionals, the problem with “knowing” is that the more we believe we know, the greater chance we have to dismiss opportunities to be exceptional.  Why should I listen to the idea from that new person on our team when I already “know” how this event should go from past experience?  How can a younger team member offer anything to me when I “know” more than she could have yet learned?  I “know” my portfolio of donors better than anyone.  How can someone else help me create donor strategy?  Our brain’s patterns and the assumptions they create are critically important to being efficient and effective.  But being mindful that those patterns are operating is equally critical.

When you hear yourself proclaim:  “What I know is. . .” or “I’m certain that. . .” pause and ask yourself, “do I really know this, or is it an assumption at work?”  You might just find that you don’t know as much as you think.  None of us do.  And you’ll be a much better professional when you make that assumption.

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Making the Invitation

If there is one word in our work that captures people’s imagination and interest more than, “asking,” I don’t know what it is.  Gift officers are conditioned to talk unremittingly about “making the ask,” presidents and CEOs wonder if they are “asking” enough and for enough, Board members want the development team to “ask” more, and donors wonder if your next visit will include “an ask.”

For such a seemingly important word in our work, I’m not sure that we’ve spent much time “asking” if it is the right one.  Upon closer inspection, the definition of the word, “ask,” and the ideas we attach to it, just don’t seem to be the most helpful.   Dictionary.com defines, “ask,” in the following ways:

  • to request or petition;
  • to solicit from another;

“Begging” is listed as a synonym.

In general, the concept of “asking” brings with it the notion that we are requesting to receive something from someone else.  If we have a zero-sum mindset, it means we are seeking to gain something while encouraging another to lose the same.  In the worst way of thinking about “asking,” we are begging to get  something of value from another.  These notions are wholly inaccurate ways of thinking about what the process of giving is all about.

When people give, they don’t lose anything, they gain.  We know from research, that givers are healthier, happier, live longer, and report feelings of greater joy in their lives.  When we give, we are a direct (and one could argue, a primary) beneficiary – the giver truly does benefit as much if not more than the receiver.

Over the years in this work, I’ve asked at least 1,000 significant donors about their giving experiences.  And over and over again, I’ve heard the same emotional response as they have reflected on their generous behavior:  “Our giving means far more to us than it could ever mean to the institution.”  They feel better because they acted on their impulse to be generous.  In fact, they are better because they acted on it.  When we “ask” donors, we aren’t taking anything from them. . . we aren’t begging. . . we aren’t soliciting.  We are giving them an opportunity.  In fact, we are providing one of the most meaningful opportunities one human can offer another.

Instead of talking so incessantly about the misguided concept of “asking,” let’s begin to talk differently and more accurately about our work.  Let’s start talking about “inviting” donors.

Inviting donors to do something that will transform them.  Inviting donors to be happier, healthier, and feel better about themselves.  Inviting donors to align their giving with their values in support of a purpose bigger than their myopic self-interest.  Inviting donors to respond to that quiet but penetrating voice to act nobly and with care for others.

In fact, let’s not just talk about it.  Today, let’s start “inviting” more donors and stop “asking” them.

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Do Not Solicit

Recently, I was with a client and we stumbled upon my donor record in their database.  “Do Not Solicit,” it read.

“That’s interesting,” I observed.  “Why would you have me classified as a “do not solicit?”

“Well,” came the response, “we didn’t want you to receive all our phonathon calls and direct mail solicitations. . .”

“Why not?”  I asked.  And then, the jumbled response: “Well, we know you are busy and you are a special case because of your work with us. . .”

Think, with me about this scenario.  This organization has decided to label a donor as, “Do Not Solicit,” for what they believed to be a good reason – whatever that reason might be.  But they made a decision for the donor – and, in the process made a mistake.

Our role as advancement and development professionals is to invite more people to give generously more often.  It’s to ask questions to learn more about our donors’ interests, values, aspirations, and inclinations.  It’s to educate people on the joy of giving.  Our job is not to make decisions for our donors – and certainly not decisions that decrease opportunities for them to support a mission they find worthy.

So, I said to my client, “Please change my status.  I want to be solicited.  I believe in your work and it is a joy to support your mission.  I enjoy the phonathon calls because I get to talk to people who benefit from my giving.  And I look forward to receiving your direct response invitations to read about the personal stories my giving supports.”

“Of course we can make that change,” was the response.  “But most people don’t view giving that way – your response isn’t what we normally hear!”

“And that,” I said, “is what you are really here to change.”

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Guilt or Grace

Which culture characteristic animates your advancement team’s efforts?  While there are a number of ways to assess team culture, assessing your team’s placement on the “Guilt or Grace Continuum” can lead to helpful understandings.

In the Guilt Culture, the fundamental assumption is that an organization gets better when problems or gaps in performance are identified and specific individuals are assigned blame.  People’s shortcomings, limitations, and lesser strengths are the focus of discussion – often surreptitiously.  Because talking about people and their deficiencies is a hallmark of the Guilt Culture and because most people want to appear to be nice, another hallmark of this culture choice is passive-aggressiveness.

“That is not my job,” and “us v. them” mentalities are quickly adopted in the Guilt Culture.  Coalitions are built.  And posturing for political purposes becomes a large component of the work (if not the work).  People working in a culture animated by guilt are dissuaded from being creative and entrepreneurial because making things better isn’t rewarded (being on the “right” coalition is far more rewarding).  Additionally, attempting to become a better professional runs the risk of making others appear lazy or incompetent – a quick way to be a member of the “wrong” coalition.

On the other hand, in the Grace Culture, the fundamental assumption is that an organization gets better when strengths and opportunities are identified and built upon and thoughtful risks are taken.   Organizations operating with a Grace Culture focus on how people can be best positioned to help create better outcomes.  Instead of talking about people’s shortcomings, the greater strengths of individuals are identified and put to good use.

In a Grace Culture, people are encouraged to try new and creative solutions to help meet the mission more effectively and/or efficiently.  And because grace is the foundational characteristic of this culture, when mistakes are made or creative solutions don’t perform as anticipated, the focus isn’t on the failings of people but on the strategy’s shortcomings or the implementation flaws.  Individuals are encouraged to try another thoughtful approach.  In this culture, while there is not perfection, there is excellence – because people who want to get better will be attracted to and will stick with this culture.

If you wonder which culture predominates in your shop, ask yourself which type of question get asked most often:

  • Who is responsible for the poor outcome?   OR  Why did the idea not work?
  • What are the gaps in our performance?  OR  What are we doing exceptionally well, and how can we do more of it?
  • Why is he still here?   OR  What is he really good at?

There are two cultural approaches a team can take when it aims to get better.  One is to assign blame for the identified the problems, the gaps in performance, and the bottlenecks in the process.  The other is to encourage strategic risk taking by playing to people’s greater strengths, identifying opportunities, and chasing creative and innovative ideas.    By focusing more on the second question in each pair above, your team will become more vibrant, fun, and productive.

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