Inputs and Outcomes

In the April 1, 2017 edition of The NonProfit Times, Mark Hrywna writes about the challenges and opportunities large nonprofit organizations face in keeping employees engaged and feeling valued.  In the article, Hrywna quotes Harry Johns, the President and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association as follows:

“The thing that’s most critical is engaging people in a real way and paying attention to the input.” (emphasis added).

Mr. Johns was talking about the process of consolidating 81 Alzheimer’s Association chapters and 48 stand-alone affiliates into a single national entity.  He was referring to the variable in that process most important to their success.

As I read and re-read the quote, I thought about the various circumstances in which the “most critical” variable “is engaging people in a real way and paying attention to the input.”  One such circumstance immediately came to mind:  Inviting donors to make gifts.  But, in many instances, we don’t focus on the inputs, we focus far more on the outcomes of the gift.

It is not uncommon for whole gift proposals to be focused on how the gift will make a difference, the data to support the notion that this difference is important, and ways in which the gift will create a new reality of some sort.  And while all of this outcomes talk is important, it is not the most critical.

The most critical aspect of the giving equation is paying attention to the input!  Listening is the critical skill.  Telling the story back to the donor is merely important.  And, in the best cases, telling the story serves as a confirming activity to show evidence that you were, in fact, listening in the first place.

As development professionals we spend an awful lot of time focused on “making the case,” which myopically has come to mean, “show evidence and outcomes” of why gifts are needed.  Perhaps, though, we need to be reminded that the “case for support” only finds its real vibrancy when it is steeped in the interests, values, and generous impulses of the donor.


Who Are You Making Comfortable?

We’ve all been in a social setting – perhaps a theatre prior to a performance – when a voice comes over the public address system and calmly states, “In the unlikely event of an emergency. . .”  Or, if you board a airplane, you will certainly hear the phrase, “In the unlikely event of a water landing. . .”  Following these phrases will come important safety instructions of what to do should the worst scenarios occur.

If you think about the wording of these phrases, they are crafted to communicate critical, but potential distressing information (yes, this plane may, in fact, fall right out of the sky!).  But the language choice is designed to minimize the degree of anxiousness and concern among the masses.  These events are “unlikely.”  Additionally, the message is delivered in a serene tone that helps soothe any nervousness.

These messages are designed specifically to comfort and put the listener at ease.

Now, think about the way you might invite someone to make a significant gift?  Are your words – the phrases you use – crafted to make the donor more comfortable from an emotional standpoint?  Or, instead, are they words and phrases that, unconsciously, make you more emotionally comfortable?  Think about who is put at ease with the following three opening statements:

  1. “I realize this would be a stretch gift for you, but would you consider giving. . .”
  2. “You already do so much for us, would you consider a gift of. . .”
  3. “I don’t like coming to you again, but would you consider a gift of. . .”

Yes, we should acknowledge and thank donors for their past volunteer or gift support, but because these opening statements are non-specific, apologetic, and submissive I would suggest they are crafted to make the solicitor more emotionally comfortable.  Perhaps the solicitor doesn’t enjoy asking.  Or, perhaps, the solicitor doesn’t fully believe that this ask should be made.  Whatever the reason, the solicitor is more interested in protecting herself emotionally when she crafts her opening in these ways.

Additionally, these phrases actually reduce the chance that the prospective donor will joyfully accept the invitation to give.  The solicitor is, in effect, making the case for why the prospect shouldn’t give.  For example, the prospective donor might think to herself, “Yes, I have done a lot for them – maybe I’ve done enough!”

Now, consider the following three opening statements:

  1. “From your long history and support of our institution, it is clear our mission resonates deeply and personally with you.  We are convinced that your next leadership-level gift will enable us to serve in ways we could only dream of three years ago.  Will you consider giving. . .”
  2. “You have given in support of so many initiatives that have made a difference in the lives of others. We believe this program will have the biggest, positive impact yet and are inviting leadership donors like you to help us transform more lives. . .”
  3. “You have partnered with us in so many ways recently, and you’ve seen the progress we’ve been able to make on the issues that are important to you and our institution.  That’s why today, we are excited to invite you to take a next step with us. . .”

While the prospect may have given just as much or just as often as in the first statements, these statements are crafted to make the prospect more emotionally comfortable – not the solicitor.  By including phrases that remind the prospect why giving in support of your institution is of value to her, she feels known and understood as a person, not just as a checkbook.  She is far more likely to give generously because your statements put her at ease.

Here is the interesting truth:  When we use words and phrases that are designed to comfort us, we reduce the likelihood that the prospect will give generously.  However, when we communicate in ways that put the prospect at ease – by confidently acknowledging their core interests and values and aligning them with our work – we greatly increase the chances of the prospect’s affirming response.

So, when you invite a donor to give, who are making more comfortable?


Hiring the 25%

One of the least-discussed, but germane mysteries of our advancement profession is the fact that too many gift officers shy away from asking prospective donors for specific gifts.  I’m not suggesting that gift officers are not receiving gifts.  But just about every institution I’ve worked with has someone (or more than 1) on the team who isn’t comfortable looking prospects in the eye and asking them to stretch their giving.  So, while gifts may be flowing, there is little question that many gift officers leave significant amounts of charitable gift income on the table because the ask was made neither confidently nor specifically.

Enter a recent study by that reported, among other things, two incredibly interesting findings:

  1. When credit card customers call the credit card company to ask for a reduction of a late fee or even to ask for a reduction or complete waiver of the annual fee, they are successful 84% of the time; and,
  2. Only 25% of all credit card customers will call to ask for such fee reductions or waivers.

Let those two data points sink in for a moment:  If we simply make a call and ask to save money, we have an 84% chance that the credit card company will agree to our request.  However, even when it squarely and directly impacts our personal financial well-being, only 25% of us will ask!

With so many people in the population who demur at asking for their own financial gain, is it any wonder that we sometimes hire gift officers who may not be as bold and confident about asking others to support an institutional mission?  If only 25% of us are bold enough to ask for something that is completely in our self interest, it should not be a surprise that gift officers sometimes struggle to ask confidently for another entity – even when that entity is paying them to do so.   Culturally-speaking, we have an asking problem.

Here is a suggestion:  The next time you are hiring for a gift officer, devise a question or a set of questions that focus on having them explain their experience with asking for a rebate, refund, a fee reduction, or some other kind of “deal.”  Perhaps it is a question involving the credit card scenario and asking for an annual fee reduction.  Or, perhaps it is a question focused on how they handled a situation in which the service or product they purchased wasn’t up to expectations.  What did they do?  How might they handle such an interaction?

Apparently a strikingly small percentage of folks (25%) are willing to simply ask – even when it is clearly in their interests to do so.  My advice is to do everything you can to find those 25% when you are hiring a gift officer.  Employing such interviewing strategies won’t guarantee hiring success, of course.  But they will give you a window into how confident prospective gift officers are about simply asking.


What They Will Do

Far too often I witness strategy discussions about major gift donors and prospects that leap too quickly to observations focused on what a particular donor “will do,” in terms of his or her gift amount.

The conversation plays out something like this.  The Associate Vice President (or whoever supervises the Major Gift Officer) asks in a prospect planning meeting, “Ok, what about John and Jane Smith?”

The MGO responds, “I think they will do $250,000.”

The problem with this oft-repeated exchange is that the AVP has asked the wrong question and the MGO has answered the wrong question.  A more helpful exchange would look like this:

AVP:  “Ok, what is the gift amount you are requesting from John and Jane Smith?”

MGO:  “I’m going to invite them to give $500,000.”

The AVP should ask specific, not general, questions during strategy sessions.  And the MGO should focus first (and primarily) on the aspirational amount being requested as opposed to the amount he or she thinks the donor ultimately will give.

We know that asking good and thoughtful questions of donors leads to better outcomes.  The same holds true in the guidance, leadership, and management of our team members.

Additionally, when we are engaging our major gift donors and prospects, the first hurdle is always the one created in our own minds.  Focus enthusiastically on the joyful activity we are inviting others to participate in, not on how they might ultimately respond.  It just might be that our focused aspirations for our donors might encourage them to think more generously and positively influence their response.



Using Your Database to Invite, Report, and Steward

The most fundamental and effective organizing strategies when using your database (certainly not the only organizing strategies!):

  • Inviting Donors and Prospects to Give – you will be most effective in inviting donors and prospects to give when you organize your database by giving history.  In other words, to be the most effective and efficient in inviting gifts to be given, you are best served by assessing and grouping prospects by whether or not they have given to you before and when the last gift was given.  The best predictor of future giving behavior is past giving behavior and the more recent behavior the better predictive value.  So, if could only segment your database on one attribute to invite all to give, it would be by giving history:  “Lybunts,” “Sybunts” (within the last 5 years), and “Not Yets.”
  • Reporting on Donor Giving – you will be most effective in reporting on donor giving (in summary fashion) when you organize your database by constituency groups.  When you show summary gifts and pledges information based on constituency group (i.e., alum, Board, parent, friend, organization, business, foundation, etc.), you provide an answer to the basic question of how the various constituents of the institution are responding to invitations to give.  Formatting summary giving reports by constituency group also allows you to establish and report on goals for these giving constituencies (for examples, Board, parents, and alumni giving goals).  It is worth noting that reporting by constituency is most helpful when referring to annual or ongoing giving to an institution.  In the case of comprehensive or capital campaigns, the most helpful organizing principle for gift reporting is by campaign priority.
  • Stewarding Donors – you will be most effective in stewarding donors when you organize your database by gift amount.  Establishing a donor stewardship program by gift amount does not have to be complex nor expensive.  For instance, the most basic organizing decision for stewarding donors is to identify the amount at your institution that is reserved for “leadership-level annual giving.”  For most institutions that amount ranges from $1,000 to $2,500.  Once a donor reaches that level of giving annually, simple stewardship strategies such as having the president/CEO sign the thank-you letter, sending the thank you letter and gift receipt “flat” (in a large booklet-style envelope) are simple strategies which communicate a message of importance to that donor.  Much like reporting on donor giving above, when an institution is stewarding campaign gifts, there can be more opportunities for stewardship (events, etc.) and different strategies (naming, etc.).

It is important to keep in mind that the above strategies represent the most basic – but also the most effective and efficient – organizing principles.  In the best possible world, every individual donor and prospect is invited, reported on, and stewarded personally and uniquely.  However, that goal is rarely achievable (or helpful) due to constraints of time, energy, and financial resources.

So, while you can always grow in the sophistication and complexity of how you pull, use, and display giving data, when you begin with and consistently employ the above fundamental organizing strategies, your development efforts will be maximized.


“Whatever Makes You Feel Good”

In all the years I’ve flown through Denver airport, I can’t recall ever having my shoes shined there. Earlier this week, though, I had a long layover and realized that my scruffy dress shoes were in desperate need of help.    As I waited my turn at one of the chairs, I looked around but couldn’t spot a sign showing the prices.   I didn’t think much of it, and watched as the shine ahead of me was completed.

As the customer left, the shoe shiner invited me to climb into the chair.  He came over a minute later, smiling broadly, introduced himself as James, and began my shine.  He turned out to be a great conversationalist.  He asked questions about me and my family and shared parts of his story with me.  I found myself liking him and our interaction.

After what turned out to be one of the most thorough shoes shines I can recall receiving, I popped down from the chair, reached for my wallet, and asked James, “how much do I owe you?”

Without a pause but with his big smile he said, “Whatever makes you feel good.”

“No really, how much?

“Whatever makes you feel good. . . really.”  He responded.  So, I chuckled and followed his instruction — opened my wallet and gave him an amount that made me feel good.

As I walked away, I smiled at what had just transpired.  I had heard of these, “the buyer decides the amount” financial transactions before, but James’ choice of words resonated deeply with me — “whatever makes you feel good.”

He was offering me the opportunity to set the price, of course.  But, he could have done that by saying, “it’s your choice,” or “whatever you think my shine is worth,”  or, even, “whatever amount you think is fair.”  But he didn’t make any of those statements.  Instead, his “whatever makes you feel good,” approach inserted a wonderfully pleasant assumption –  that exchanging money for his work would make me “feel good.”  He was suggesting that our interaction was much more than a simple economic transaction.  And I appreciated him because of it.

Later on the plane, I thought about how his simple, yet powerful language choice shaped my response to James and, I believe, shaped his behavior as well.

You see, James was never selling me a shoe shine.  In fact, he wasn’t selling me anything.  He was trying to make me feel something.  And he did so – expertly.  From his frequent and bright smiles, to his artistic use of inquiry, to his approach on price, James was creating an experience which boldly communicated,

“I care more about you than I do your money.”

As advancement professionals, I wonder how consistently and effectively we communicate this message to donors.  How often do we genuinely seek to understand them as whole people as opposed to checkbooks?  How often do we miss opportunities to ask questions about their lives and family?   How often do we launch into rehearsed “pitches” focused on our institutional needs before learning about their interests and giving desires?  How often do we fail to pay attention to how they are feeling?  Probably far more than we would like to admit or even realize.

James reminded me of something else:  Asking for the gift is never about taking something from someone.  Or convincing them to give you something.  Instead, it is about reminding them – with all that we do and say –  that their giving will, in fact, make them feel good.  When we invite donors to give, fully believing that giving is good, we will be far more successful in triggering their generosity.

I know James triggered mine.  I gave him more than I’ve ever paid for a shoe shine.  And, he was right.  I felt awfully good about it.


Why You Are Here Matters Most

Over the past year, I’ve read two thought-provoking articles – “Donation Inflation,” by Toni Coleman in CASE Currents and “Unplanned Obsolescence,” by Paul Clolery in the NonProfit Times – which focus on different topics but speak to a similar root concern for the future of philanthropy in the U.S.

In “Donation Inflation,” Coleman highlights the seemingly insatiable appetite for higher education campaigns to be driven myopically on setting and reaching a “magic dollar goal.”  For many institutions today, that goal is $1 billion.  Get to that number and your institution becomes a successful fundraising institution.

In the crusade to reach the magic dollar goal, however, campaign counting irregularities are becoming questionable if not fully unethical.  One institution may decide to count royalties from a patent or an ongoing state grant in campaign totals.  Another may count questionable and inflated gift-in-kind “money.”  As a consultant, I see it daily.  And yes, it’s a mess to be sure.  Especially when donors, board members, and advancement professionals want to compare campaign totals  across institutions.

In “Unplanned Obsolescence:  The donor is becoming an after-thought,” Clolery outlines the problem of shrinking donor numbers (not just in higher education but across the nonprofit sector).  He argues that a primary cause of declining donor numbers is due to a growing reliance and interest in creating “social entrepreneurship” and quasi-for-profit vehicles for funding.  In other words, we don’t have as many donors because we are turning to different revenue streams for funding programs and meeting needs.  Perhaps, but I think there is something more fundamental going on.

The fact that everyone seems to be counting campaign totals however they wish or that more nonprofits are utilizing licensing, fees for services, or other entrepreneurial activities to raise revenue are not the fundamental concerns. These are simply two symptoms of a deeper more troubling development for philanthropy.

To better understand what I would suggest buttresses both issues, I invite you to list the top reasons – the most prominent motivating factors – which have encouraged your career choice.  What is it that drives and propels your enthusiasm to serve in the philanthropic vineyard?  Why are you here?

My guess is that nowhere the top of your list have you included, “to reach the goal of raising X dollars,” or even, “to change the charitable landscape by making nonprofits behave more like for-profits.”

No, those motivators simply aren’t the drivers for the best development and advancement professionals.  The most effective folks working in philanthropy are driven, instead, by a deep and abiding passion for mission.  Simply put, they are impelled to make the world a better place by serving a meaningful institutional mission.

And here’s the payoff:  That same mission motivation drives your donors.

Yes, getting to a campaign goal is a benefit.  Yes, being innovative with funding can spark new revenue opportunities.  But if you want your donor numbers to increase and you need to raise more resources because the need is growing, donor research clearly tells us that reminding or educating donors on why your mission should matter to them is the first step.  And asking them to join with you in support of that mission is the second step.

Givers are not less caring today, they are more confused today.  And, I’m afraid, we are compounding the confusion by accentuating pretension rather than purpose and modification rather than magnanimity.


Happy Anniversary

You may complain regularly that your database is deficient, inaccurate, or misused (or all three!).  And because of your database shortcomings, you may get frustrated that you cannot consistently use it to improve and enhance your donor identification, solicitation, and stewardship.

Here, though, is a database stewardship and solicitation strategy that all institutions can use – starting today – regardless of how robust or accurate your data might be.

Send your donors an anniversary card.

Not a card for their wedding anniversary – because if you are concerned about your database, my guess is that you don’t have that data for many of your donors.  I’m talking about sending your donors a card on the anniversary of their first gift to your institution.  Show them that you recognize when they gave their first gift and are grateful for them and their support.

Perhaps you did a database conversation 12 years ago and the data beyond that point is compromised.  You may not know everyone’s first gift date.  Ok, that’s understandable.  But, you know a whole lot of first gift dates and starting now to recognize those donors is a wonderful touch.

Donors desire to be recognized.  Not always publicly, of course.  But they want to know that they are of value to your institution.  That they are important to you and to your successes.  Sending them a thoughtful card on their gift anniversary is a strategy that communicates, “you matter and we are grateful for you.”


Grow Up

If you’ve ever been admonished to “grow up,” you know the sting of those words can linger.  One of the reasons these words stick with us like they do is because they demand much more than a simple change in our behavior.  Rather, they are meant to communicate a much deeper transformation – a maturation – that must occur in our thinking, attitudes and perspectives.  The words “grow up,” don’t suggest we are acting wrongly as much as they suggest we are thinking wrongly.  And changing our thinking, attitudes, and perspectives is almost never a quick and easy adjustment.  Most would agree though, that becoming more mature is almost always worth it.

Similarly, whole institutions can find themselves needing to “grow up” as it relates to philanthropy.  And just like with individuals, the concept of “growing up” for institutions is not so much about implementing a particular set of new development activities, programs, events, or initiatives.  It’s not about doing things differently as much as it is about conceptualizing philanthropy differently.  Here are 3 points of evidence that could suggest your institution has some maturing to do when it comes to philanthropy:

  1. Phrases such as, “squeezing donors,” or “hitting them up,” or “twisting their arms” are peppered throughout the language of institutional leaders when discussing the development process;
  2. Giving is not discussed transparently, easily, or consistently at governing board meetings, board members are not involved in the solicitation of other board members, and the board does not have specific giving goals;
  3. You either haven’t operated an annual family (employee) campaign consistently or when you attempt it, you are met with serious resistance.

If you find that your institution struggles with one or more of these behaviors, you most likely have important work to do educating and transforming the minds and hearts of those closest to you.  And this work matters.  Because donors can sense when an institution is philanthropically immature.  And their response is usually less than generous.

Don’t be surprised if the institutional process to become more philanthropically mature is lengthy and challenging.  We all know, growing up isn’t always easy.


3 Steps To Increasing “Donor Durability”

Some number of your major gift donors are what I would term “durable.”  They are the ones who continue to give (often generously) regardless of their own personal and financial circumstances;  they are the ones who are deeply committed to your mission;  they are the ones who show up when you need it most;  and they are the ones who are your institution’s most ardent champions.  Many durable donors report a special joy in giving and are moved emotionally when they are asked to describe how important your mission is to them.  It is not uncommon to hear durable donors say that they are “honored” to give.

Oddly enough, a question in our major gift work that should be one of our most pressing is one we rarely pose:

“What can we do to increase the durability of more donors?”

Having interviewed major gift donors throughout North America, I would suggest the following 3-step approach to increase the durability of more major gift donors and prospects:

Step 1:  Ask them for help – seek out your best prospects for their expertise or influence and ask them to assist you in some way.  This isn’t a formal request to serve on a Board or other group – a least not yet.  Instead, think of small but meaningful tasks they can help you complete.  Perhaps you need help being introduced to a potential donor that they know.  Or, perhaps, you need a location for an event and their home would be perfect.  Or, perhaps, you have an institutional issue about which their counsel could help.  Whatever it is, ask for their help or advice.

Step 2:  Create pathways for their engagement – once you have asked for and received their help, find additional, perhaps more formal, ways to enhance their engagement.  Invite them to lead a project committee, or serve on an Advisory Council.  Recruit them to provide volunteer leadership to a fundraising effort.  Introduce them to faculty members, deans, athletics coaches, the chancellor or president, or other key individuals to expand and deepen their personal relationships at your institution.

Step 3:  Publicly lift them up as key to your progress – in whatever ways they have provided formal or informal assistance to your institution, recognize them.  Have an institutional leader acknowledge them by name at a ribbon cutting.  Direct a reporter from a newspaper to ask them a question about their leadership with an important institutional project.  Include their name in your magazine or website stories about your institutional progress.  In these ways (and others, of course), you help to create a perception of ownership and accountability in their mind and in the minds of others.

Donors become more durable as they adopt a stronger and more emotional sense of ownership in your institution’s progress and success.  Seeking their engagement in a series of more important and meaningful activities is a wise strategy to encourage their ownership and increase their durability.