The Nuanced (But Key) Lesson Behind Robert F. Smith’s Gift

Amid all of the publicity regarding Robert F. Smith’s announcement to repay the student loan balances for each of the Morehouse College graduates a Sunday ago, there is a key lesson to ferret out, if advancement and nonprofit leaders are willing to look (and listen) closely.

Yes, the gift is wonderful and should be applauded.  Yes, the gift will end up being exceptionally large.  Yes, the gift is different than most other gifts in support of higher education in that Mr. Smith has agreed to pay the loans these Morehouse College graduates owe as opposed to helping them with scholarship dollars to afford the education in the first place (although it is important to note that Mr. Smith is also a Morehouse College scholarship donor.)

But, the observation most helpful for advancement and institutional leaders is more nuanced than these facts.  The most helpful lesson is found when we pay close attention to what exactly Mr. Smith said during his announcement and, just as importantly, how he said it.

Here is Mr. Smith’s announcement during the commencement address.  It’s worth taking a moment to watch and listen to it again.

Did you hear it?  He said emphatically:  “This is my class, 2019.”

Did you see it?  He pointed to himself and the class as he made this announcement.

The lesson is simple, if we are willing to really listen and watch.  This donor’s motivation wasn’t tax breaks.  It wasn’t a name on a building.  It wasn’t to have his family’s name appear on a donor recognition plaque somewhere.

No, the fundamental motivation that drove Mr. Smith to make this generous gift was his sense of authentic partnership with these students.  His emotionally-transparent statement showcased the true instigator for his decision:  He saw a problem and he wanted to make a difference.

Clearly, he views himself at least being partly responsible for ensuring that these graduates have “fuel in their bus.” He has a sense of ownership in helping to solve a problem he cares about – in this case student loan debt for these graduates.

The lesson, then, apparent in Mr. Smith’s announcement has to do with the nature of our work.  Our work as advancement leaders and nonprofit leaders more broadly is not to offer a menu of giving options from which donors can choose.  Our work is to involve donors in a cause that betters humanity and our world.  Our work is to invite donors to experience the mission themselves so that they are encouraged to adopt the same sense of authentic responsibility Mr. Smith clearly has.  Our work is to touch the heart of the donor far more than it is to convince the mind.

Mr. Smith said that 2019 is his class.

How different might our fundraising results look if, instead of calling on donors when we want their support for our plans, we decide to seriously invite them to partner with us to solve big problems.  We may just find that they are eager to put more fuel in our bus.

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It’s All About The Donor, You, and . . . Who?

Just recently I was consulting with a university president when, in a moment of personal and professional transparency, he shared his lamentation that he had “gotten too close” to one of the institution’s most generous donors.   I asked him what he meant by that and here was his all-too-familiar story.

“I’m not quite sure how it happened,” he said.  “But, we’ve known each other now for a number of years and we genuinely like each other – as do our spouses.  And our relationship has just evolved.  It has grown into more of a friendship.  And, now,” he finished, “I’m finding it awkward to talk to him about his giving.”

This is not a new or novel problem.  But, it is one that causes us sometimes to lose perspective.  I asked him if we could talk our way through an analogy for a moment.  He agreed.

“Let’s say,” I started, “that you have a very close friend.  We will call her, ‘Jen.’  And Jen is very important to you.  In fact, Jen is one of the most important people you have in your life, outside of your spouse and family.”

“Jen,” I said, “also is a close and dear friend with your donor.  And Jen was kind and generous enough to introduce you and the donor to begin with.  If it were not for Jen, you and the donor would have never met – most likely never come in contact.  Because you are from two different worlds.  He chose business as a profession, you chose the academy.  He lives far away, etc.  But, Jen introduced you two.”

“Now, Jen, had one stipulation when she introduced you to the donor.  She told you, ‘I don’t ever want to be left out of your interactions with this donor.  I really like and enjoy you both.  If you go to dinner, I want to be there.  If you go to a show, I want to go.  I want to be stay involved.'”

“Imagine, with me now,” I continued, “if you met the donor and began leaving Jen out.  You two met without her.  You enjoyed meals together without her.  You and your spouses went on fun outings and events together, without Jen.  You simply began ignoring and even forgetting about Jen altogether at times.  It actually came to pass that Jen was never invited to join you all any more.”

“If you were to act that way toward Jen,” I stated, “my guess is that you would be viewed – at best – as being rude.  At worst, you would be viewed as being self-promoting, manipulative, etc.  If you treated people in that fashion for long, not many people would want to be your friend.”

“Now,” I finished, “imagine your institution is Jen.”

Sometimes we lose perspective on all of the interests that are involved with our donor relationships.  When we put a human name on our institution, its can be easier to see how our institution has the driving interest in our relationships with donors.  We must continually remind ourselves and our colleagues that the relationships we are building are not, in the end, our own.  We are, instead, playing the role of good steward – facilitating a stronger, deeper relationship between the donor and. . . well, Jen.

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Giving The Gift

Imagine with me for a moment that you are sitting with one of your most generous donor couples.  It is a husband and wife who are now contemplating the 7-figure gift invitation you have just extended to them.  In the past they have given significantly to your institution – but not at this level.  If they accept your invitation, this will be the largest single commitment they have made.

You have spent the past year leading up to this moment.  She sits on your board.  He serves on one of your key Advisory Councils.  You have met with them multiple times to discuss the planning of a new program initiative that will impact so many in powerfully positive ways.  They participated in the strategic planning process that birthed the program concept.  In short, they were ready for today’s discussion.  And you were ready to invite them.

So, you invite them to consider the gift.  You tell them them that, should they respond affirmingly, your institution is prepared to name the program in their honor.

They don’t respond at first.  After a moment’s pause, with you on the edge of your seat, she speaks.

“I want you to know that we have already discussed what we plan to do.  We are committed to this program and to the institution.  We trust you and the other leaders.  And we are honored to start this program by making this gift.”

Your smile grows almost too wide for your face as you immediately and excitedly thank them.  “We are so grateful for. . .”  But, before you finish your statement, the husband interrupts you.

“No, no, no,” he says, “we are grateful.  Thank you for the opportunity to give generously.  We believe in you, the institution’s mission, and this program’s impact.  You have given us the gift.”

Now, you may think this vignette is made-up —  a fabricated, dramatic story to illustrate some pollyannish principle about generosity.

But this story is true.  The gift and the donor statement that, “you have given us the gift” really happened.

This story, and this couple, are a big part of how I came to view our work in advancement, development, fundraising (whatever you want to call it) differently.   This conversation happened to me 15 years ago this month.  It was then that I began to see more clearly that I wasn’t a fundraiser.  I wasn’t in the development or the advancement business.  I wasn’t really even responsible for raising money for buildings, programs, endowment, or current operations.

I was learning that my primary role was to help people explore the joys that come with giving.  I was a guide of sorts – a “generosity guide,” if you will.  In short, I was learning that my job was to offer people powerfully positive gifts, not to seek them.

In the coming years, a curious thing happened:  The more I focused my efforts on listening, teaching, inviting, encouraging, and supporting people as they experienced the joys of giving, the more donors gave.  It seemed that even my motivation to engage our donors changed once I consistently viewed myself as the gift giver.

We are now entering the most generous time of the year.  The bulk of charitable gifts that will be given in 2018 will be given during the next 31 days.  As you are working with donors to help them act with generosity, let me encourage you to re-frame your role in your own mind.  Adopt for yourself, the now famous words about fundraising from the late Hank Rosso:

“Fundraising,” he said, “is the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.”

So go teach, go guide, go be the giver of the gift!

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They Aren’t

They aren’t. . .

your donors.  You are one of their charitable recipients.

your Board members.  You are one of their volunteer priorities.

your staff.  You are one of the key factors in their workplace satisfaction.

your Twitter followers.  You are one of their social media interests.

your prospects.  They may not even be aware of you.

We tend to view through our own egotistical lenses the engagement of all those with the capacities to make our institutions vibrant and successful.

But when we take the time to view that same engagement from their perspective, not only are we enlightened to a new reality, but we instantly become better advancement professionals and leaders.

They aren’t ours.  We are theirs.

And, everyday we should seek to understand them better, serve them more personally, invite them more enthusiastically, and delight them more ardently.  Only then will our institution’s mission, aspirations, and goals become one of their priorities.

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You Have 2 Missions – And You Should Choose to Accept Both

I sometimes wonder how many nonprofit leaders realize they are serving two distinct but related missions?

First, of course, is the mission of service particular to your institution or organization.  You may have an education mission, a healthcare mission, a nutrition mission, a faith-filled mission, a mission to assist the homeless, etc.  Most nonprofit leaders understand this mission and can, on demand, speak to why this mission should matter to donors and how they can be supportive of this mission.  Easy enough.

But, there is a distinctively separate mission – related to the service mission, but different – that nonprofit leaders assume as well. This second mission is related to the nonprofit status of your institution.  As a 501 (c) 3 organization (or similar-chartered organization), the US Internal Revenue Service provides you with a federal tax exemption.  Additionally, because your institution is considered as offering a “public good,” you are considered a “charity” or “charitable organization.”  Therefore, you have a mission to encourage and promote volunteerism and charitable giving and to provide opportunities for people to respond to your service mission with generosity.

Your work as a nonprofit leader necessarily includes extolling the virtues of charitable gift giving.  It is one way nonprofits are distinct corporations from for-profit ones.  Charitable support is a key component of the very structure and operational realities of your institution.  The federal government has provided your tax-exempt status and, further encourages you to engage other citizens in financially supporting your cause through various charitable giving deductions for donors within the tax code.  So, anchored deep within the very DNA of your institution is the mission to encourage charitable giving from your various publics.

But, as I think about how nonprofit leaders communicate their mission, I rarely hear this message of giving emerge.  I hear and see communications about how the services provided by the nonprofit are needed – even essential – for a just, caring, fair, healthy, and educated world.  However, I don’t hear much about the “giving is good” mission and how it evinces empathy, compassion, and understanding – traits that are far too uncommon in our world today.  Sometimes, I don’t even sense a leadership disposition to encourage generosity among as many as possible.

Make no mistake, though, your mission of promoting generosity is every bit as important as your service mission.  In fact, it may just be that it is this mission – this mission of encouraging a more generous and giving world – that will do the most good and will end up also funding your service mission.

As Mother Teresa was quoted to have said, “No money, no mission.”

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You Are Not A Fundraiser

How do you respond when someone asks about your profession – what you do for a living?  While it can be tempting to offer a knee-jerk and readily-understood response such as, “I’m a fundraiser,” please don’t.

Ever again.

For the sake of our authentically-transforming work, just don’t.

Fundraising is the transactional, point-in-time act of donating.  Think of the Salvation Army’s red kettles outside of shopping centers before Christmas.  Think of crowd-funding competitions at college football games.  Think of point-of-sale donation drives at department stores.

Such fundraising strategies are not bad or unhelpful.  And, being employed to plan and implement such strategies is not ignoble work.  To be certain, transactional fundraising can raise significant sums of money!

But, that is exactly the point of why you should never refer to yourself as a “fundraiser.”

When you do this work well, it’s never about the money.  Significant giving almost always follows time — and it always follows values and beliefs.  Therefore, far from focusing on money, we should be focused on creating consequential donor engagement opportunities.  Our work’s focus should be on inviting donors to better understand the need, to meet those our institution serves (if at all possible), and to vividly animate the overlap between our donor’s values and beliefs and the needs met by our institutions.

At its core, our work is about transformations, not transactions.  Through engagement we invite others to join a meaningful cause.  Through their acceptance of our invitation, the institutions we serve, the people our institutions serve, and the donors themselves, all are transformed.

Some years ago, I suggested that all development and advancement professionals should refer to themselves as “stewards.”  Stewardship brings with an understanding of serving, protecting, and extending something good and bigger than yourself.  I think that insight has worn well over time and today, I would certainly prefer that title over “fundraiser.”  Having said that, there certainly are other more-apt descriptors to replace the ubiquitous “fundraiser” title.

You are engaged in an honorable, compassionate, encouraging, and virtuous profession.  You do big things, even when working on modest scales.  You build.  You lift up.  You bring good news and aspirations.  You help nurture and grow programs that help others.  In the end, you help transform individuals, communities, and the world by inviting others to express the most generous side of the human spirit.

Simply put, you are not a fundraiser.  You are so much more.

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Every Donor Is An Exception

Over the last few years, I’ve taken to explaining the purpose of donor and prospect management as the “management of exceptions.”  By that phrase, I simply mean that all major donors and major donor prospects are “exceptions” to any conceivable universal rule one might use to engage them as a group.  Each of these identified best prospects is unique.  The relationship each has with your institution is unique.  Their history, personality, life events, perspectives, values, beliefs – all different and unique to each of them.

Prospect management, then, simply helps us bring some semblance of structure to the scale and messiness of all of these exceptions.  There is no “rule,” no “formula,” which will adequately assist the development officer with the personalized engagement of each of these prospects and donors.  It is driven, at least in part, by the uniqueness of the donor herself.

The reason I have taken to referring to prospect management as the “management of exceptions,” is to remind us all that there simply is not a magic, singular rule, strategy, or tactic, which, when implemented, will open wallets wide.  Although perhaps appealing in its simplicity, we should resist any temptation to seek or adopt any approach that purports to effectively engage donors and prospects using a template, a formula, or a pitch.

Here is the reality:  There is no such formula, rule, strategy, tactic, or pitch.  There is no single word choice, no special activity, which, when applied consistently, will helpfully engage all – or even a substantial number – of major donors and major donor prospects.

However, it can become confusing when one reads or listens to so many so-called development “experts” who, with great conviction, describe how certain strategies or pitches will work with women donors, or men donors, or business owners, or artists, or. . . well, you name it.  As if development and advancement work were so easy.

Our work, when done authentically, honorably, and effectively, isn’t to come up with the perfect pitch to sell donors based on their demographics or characteristics.  Instead, it’s to captivate each prospect as a full and complex human being and discover with each the bridges that connect their unique values, interests, and beliefs to your institution’s mission and vision.  When you consistently engage individuals as “exceptions” through planful prospect and donor management techniques, you will realize far more success than any single, canned cultivation strategy can provide.

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5 Researched Reasons To Be Grateful For Your Work In Advancement

In a world seemingly plagued by insecurity, brittleness, volatility, anger, negativity, and senselessness, being involved as a professional in the arena of gift-giving and philanthropy is something for which you should be grateful.  Each day you work in advancement, you are affirming the remarkable goodness of humanity through generosity.  Consider what we know from research:

  1. Giving makes people feel better about themselves and givers report more happiness in their lives than non-givers
  2. Giving binds communities together and makes them stronger
  3. People who give live longer
  4. Giving changes our bodies chemically so that we are better able to ward off disease and sickness
  5. Giving is contagious. Even by-standers who watch givers in action, reap many of the physical and psychological benefits listed above.

So, as we begin 2018, I hope you keep close the foundational virtues of our work.  Yes, you have specific goals that need to be exceeded this year.  Facilities will need building, programs will need funding, endowments will need to grow, and budgets will need to be met.

But never lose sight of the bigger, more compelling reality:  You are involved in a honorable, particularly human work.  A work that brings us all a full step closer to the very best versions of ourselves.  A work that encourages us to deepen our faith and care for each other, despite all of the nay-saying and negativity.  A work that blesses both the giver and recipient.  And I, for one, am honored to be toiling alongside of each of you in that vineyard.

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On Meaning in the New Year

 

I invite you to begin your New Year by watching this short “ted talk,” which was actually a presentation by Viktor Frankl, the 20th Century Austrian psychologist and more importantly, Holocaust survivor.   He reminds us all that we have a responsibility to lift up, to inspire, and to encourage others.

Regardless of your circumstances, position, and station today, 2018 is a blank canvas waiting for you to create your picture.  I hope each of us will use colors from the palettes of kindness, patience, inspiration, encouragement, and belief as we paint.  Because when we encourage others to reach for their far edge of promise, we, in fact, become the best version of ourselves.

 

 

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The Law of Supply and Demand – For Development Programs

We all recognize the “law of supply and demand,” as a basic economic construct in free markets which states that ultimately, the price of a good or service will be determined by the supply of and customer demand for that good or service.  But I believe there is a development program version of “the law of supply and demand” as well.

It’s quite simple.

Either you are “supplying” your donors and prospective donors with proactive, consistent, well-planned, inspirational messages about how you are meeting important needs today, will meet more needs tomorrow, and how, specifically, they can (and should!) give through you to help meet those needs, or. . .

Or, you are you regularly are responding to the “demands” of your donors.  What does a donor-demand environment look like?  Well you probably are receiving gifts more than inviting donors to give them, which means they may not be gifts that your institution actually wants/needs.  You probably are communicating gratitude for a single gift 3 times more often than you are inviting specific gifts.  And you probably are accepting gifts with so many strings that it causes problems within your institution.

If you aren’t strategically “supplying” your donors with the plans, the whys, and the hows of their giving – in other words if you aren’t educating them, guiding them, and encouraging their best giving in ways that most benefit your mission, you are most likely operating in a donor “demand” culture.

Receiving more gifts for the purposes that your institution truly needs to best meet the needs of those you serve doesn’t just happen.  It happens because we consistently “supply” our donors with the education and inspiration to respond most helpfully.  Over time, the more we proactively focus on our “supply,” the less we will have to react to “demands.”

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