Advancement as Teaching

Recall the one teacher in your life that made the most positive and lasting impression on you.   Perhaps you remember a teacher from your earliest years.  Or perhaps it was a university professor that made the impact.  Although I’m no gambler, I would wager that this teacher engaged you far beyond the content of the class and displayed an interest in you as a unique individual with gifts and graces.  It wasn’t only his expertise or her intellect that made the difference.  It was your teacher’s authentic care for you.

Contrast this memory with what occurs in so many advancement programs today.  In so many instances, gift officers focus almost exclusively on their message.  They focus on their talking points, their content, and the institution’s case for support.

So many spend the bulk of their time prior to a donor visit preparing to “tell and sell.”  Or to use a crasser phrase, to “show up and throw up.” The conventional wisdom is that our job is to influence, to sway, to convince, and “to close the ask.”  At best, it’s as if our job is to do something to someone.   At worst, it’s as if our work is to hawk the philanthropic equivalent of a damaged used car on an unsuspecting prospect.

But what if we view ourselves as teachers of philanthropy and our work as facilitating the learning of the joy of giving?  What if we remind ourselves – from our own experiences – what our very best teachers did with and for us?  And what if we pattern our advancement efforts after those exemplars?

We would seek to understand our donors first and educate them on our needs second.  We would ask more questions and spout fewer facts.  We would show more concern for them and less concern for our institution’s goals.  We would engage them more and solicit them less.

About education and teaching, the noted Irish poet, William Butler Yeats is quoted as having said,

Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire.

Whether it is teaching or advancement, we shouldn’t worry ourselves about “the filling of the pail” (neither theirs nor ours).  Instead, we should seek to light the fire.




Let’s Finish This Campaign Quickly! – One Phrase, Two Meanings

Case Study #1

A president who is new to campaign work and has found that she genuinely enjoys working in the philanthropic vineyard was in a meeting with the vice president for advancement and me. She said, “I’m so excited about what this new facility will allow us to do for our students and for our community.  We are so close to having all of the funding to finish it.  Let’s go get it.  Let’s finish this campaign quickly!”

Case Study #2

At another institution, I was in a meeting with the vice president for advancement and the Advancement Committee of the Board of Directors.  The institution was nearing the end of a successful (and relatively short) quiet phase of their campaign and one of the Board members asked a question about the projected length of the public phase of the campaign.  The vice president spoke up, “I don’t want to be in the public phase any longer than we need to.  I’m worried about donor fatigue.  I want us to finish this campaign quickly!”

In the first case study, the president communicated enthusiasm for the cause.  She was excited and her passion was infectious.   But more than communicating authentic delight, she was communicating that giving is good and that being part of the giving process is fun.  In essence, she was saying, “let’s go spread the message and invite even more people to experience the joy of giving to such a worthwhile project!”

Meanwhile, in the second case study, the vice president communicated a sense of negativity about giving.  His message was clear:  That the campaign was something to finish as quickly as possible because it was grueling and difficult.  That giving leads to fatigue and donors have to take a rest from the onerous task of being generous.  That giving isn’t joyful, isn’t fun, isn’t good and that we should get it over with as soon as possible.

The kicker:  Both of these episodes happened during the same week.

Guess which institution actually finished their campaign quickly?


.001 Seconds Do Matter. . .Sometimes

It seems that Bode Miller, one of the winningest downhill skiers of all-time, is focusing on becoming a thoroughbred race horse trainer.  In making the transition from ski slopes to horses, Bode made an interesting observation.   To his mind, the field of horse racing is not as technologically-advanced as skiing.  And Bode understands technology and gaining a technical edge wherever possible.  At the Olympics in Sochi, he replaced a rubber goggle strap with a plastic strap because his research suggested it would decrease his time by .001 seconds.  He happened to take the bronze medal by .001 seconds.

So, doing the research and looking for the small tweaks that provide an edge are important aspects of top performance.  For instance, other world-class athletes such as swimmers and runners will shave their bodies to decrease their times.  And the research suggests it helps – in some cases dramatically.  Who would think that a little leg hair would be the difference between winning and losing!

But, here’s the caveat:  the small tweaks that provide .001 or less of an advantage are only really helpful once all of the foundational and underlying basic skills are mastered.  In other words, there is little use for a recreational skier who wishes to go faster down the hill to change her goggle strap from rubber to plastic like Bode Miller did.  Instead, if she wants to decrease her time, she should work on mastering how to get consistently in and out of her turns faster and more efficiently.  Mastering the fundamental skills of skiing will decrease her time far more rapidly than will adjusting her wardrobe.

The concept at play here, of course, is the Law of Diminishing Returns:



This law states that 20% of the effort will yield 80% of the results.  The final 20% of the results comes from small tweaks that can take a lot of time, energy, and money.  So, for instance, Bode Miller, took the time and spent the money to figure out that rubber straps decreased his speed and increased his time.  That’s a lot of effort for a .001 second reduction in time.  But for the elite in any field, the reward is worth it because they already have mastered the fundamentals.

The problem comes when people want to skip the basic underlying fundamentals that make up the first 80% of success and jump right to the small tweaks, or “silver bullets,” that they believe will drive success.  But as it turns out, all success really is built on mastering the fundamentals and consistently performing them.  So, today, ask yourself and your team, are we doing the advancement fundamentals consistently well?   Have we mastered them?  For instance:

  • Are we training our student phonathon callers thoroughly enough?
  • Are our major gift officers making enough calls to secure enough visits?
  • Are our institution’s leaders fully living into the strategic plan by holding up our aspirations regularly?
  • Are we practicing the best approaches with our direct response efforts?
  • Are we engaging our Board appropriately in our work?
  • Are we providing the kind of leadership to our volunteers that energizes them and makes them want to do the work that needs to be done?

These questions – and others like them – represent some of the advancement fundamentals that need to be mastered and consistently practiced if we are to be successful.  If we aren’t working each day to master these skill sets and activities, it won’t matter that we’ve added a new module to our database that allows us to track event attendance.  Master the big foundational skill sets first and, then, the little tweaks that make you .001 seconds faster will matter.

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The Right Answer vs. The Best Answer

We are taught to seek out the single, right answer.  And we are trained to learn the formula that leads us to the single, right answer in most all circumstances.

The problem for development leaders, of course, is that there is almost never an unconditionally “right” answer.  Qualitatively complex human interactions are far too varied and nuanced to be reduced to a formula — much less a single, right answer.  Think about the relatively simple questions we ask each day that have no “right” answers:

  • “Who should be involved in the solicitation of John and Ann?”
  • “How should we go about recruiting Jennifer to our Board?”
  • “Who should we have sign the letter for our direct mail solicitation?”

For each of these questions, a response of “it depends,” while perhaps unsatisfying, is usually the most truthful.

The more helpful work, then, is not to seek out the “right” answers, approaches, or strategies, but rather the “best” ones.  When we begin looking for the “best” answers, we recognize that each question and each opportunity comes with its own set of important variables that need to be addressed.  The kaleidoscope of advancement work can be twisted in any number of ways to create a picture of success and effectiveness.  To discover the “best” possible responses to most every development concern, the acronym VIBE can be helpful.  Ask the following questions:

  • Values – What fundamental values and knowledge about our institution need to be emphasized and communicated?
  • Influencers – Who are the influencers in this specific circumstance and how do we involve them?
  • Beliefs – Which core beliefs are serving to motivate these donors or prospects and how do our values align with these beliefs?
  • Experiences – Which experiences will stimulate the most positive and meaningful emotions?

When we incorporate VIBE questions into our strategy-setting efforts, we take significant steps toward generating the “best” possible answers to our development questions.   When we ask VIBE questions, we begin the process of engaging our creative and strategic faculties in the highest interests of our craft.   Artists don’t seek to create the “right” art, they seek to create the “best” art.


When a Board Asks Questions

“It’s the board’s responsibility to ask questions.  And it’s the staff’s responsibility to respond.”

We were discussing the roles of a non-profit governing board and the relationship between a board and an institution’s administrative leaders, especially as it relates to strategic planning.  The Executive Committee Board member who made this statement is new to non-profit governance, but not new to board work.  He serves on a number of boards that govern internationally-recognized for-profit corporations.  He is sharp, sophisticated, and sincere in his service.  His statement attested to an understanding that has emerged for him after years of for-profit board work.

We were seated next to each other and he looked at me for a response.

“Yes,” I started, “it is the role of the board to ask questions.  But, just as importantly, board members must understand what types of questions will lead to the most fruitful discussions and outcomes.  Some questions are more productive than others.  And some can be  downright unhelpful.”

In my experience, board members – those who are well-meaning and truculent alike – can ask 3 types of questions:

  1. Questions focused on the staff and their work
  2. Questions focused on the institution and its mission, vision, and values
  3. Questions focused on the board and their work

Questions that fall into category 1 can be the most unhelpful.  Questions in this category tilt the psychological gaze of the board member down to the administration and staff.  Unless there is an emergency or crisis or unless a board member is genuinely attempting to understand how a part of the enterprise works, it is the responsibility of the president/ceo/chancellor/administrative leader to focus questions on the team and their work.  Generally speaking, when board members ask category 1 questions, the board can drift into focusing on operational and managerial issues.  Straying from governance responsibilities into operations is one of the most unproductive, unfulfilling, and frustrating journeys a board can take.

Category 2 and 3 questions are types that are much more helpful and appropriate for a board member to ask.  Questions focused on the mission, vision, and values of the institution encourage board members to lift their gaze upward, to dream, and identify the institution’s far edge of promise.  These questions lead to important generative and strategic discussions.  They help the institution understand and embrace its strengths and move confidently toward a preferred future.  From these questions emerge discussions that help determine institutional aspirations.  In turn, administrators and staff can identify meaningful goals and objectives.

Similarly, questions that focus the board’s attention on the work of the board itself are extremely helpful.  When a board looks inward and asks how they can serve more effectively and conduct their business more efficiently, they generate discussion that will lead to enhanced board leadership.  Likewise, when they ask how to implement a “best practice” board evaluation, they are moving toward helpful accountability.

Yes, it is the responsibility of the board to ask questions.  And it is also true that the very best boards know which types of questions to ask.



If you don’t ask. . .

Despite its triteness, the following platitude regarding our work is true:

“If you don’t ask, the answer will almost always be ‘no’.”

We need to be out of our offices, asking for specific gifts.  However, to do this work well, asking alone is not enough.  To round out this statement, I would add the following:

“And if you don’t engage before asking, the answer rarely will be ‘yes’.”

Engaging your prospect before an ask can be as informal as seeking their advice, feedback, or counsel on a particular topic of import.  Or, it can be as formal as inviting them to serve on an advisory board or a committee.  In addition to increasing the prospect’s buy-in, involving them before you ask increases your understanding of what a successful solicitation should look like for them.  You will have a much better sense of who should ask, when to ask, how much should be asked for, and for what priorities.

If you want more “yeses,” engage the whole prospect, not just their checkbook.


5 Alternate Questions You Should Be Asking

Instead of asking, “what’s new?” ask, “what’s working?”

Instead of asking, “who failed?” ask, “what are our strengths?”

Instead of asking, “how do I feel?” ask, “how are others reacting?”

Instead of asking, “what went wrong?” ask, “what does ‘high functioning’ look like?”

Instead of asking, “why did we make that choice?” ask, “what do we value?”

Conventional wisdom regarding how an individual or group can get better (at anything) is to identify faults, weaknesses, and gaps in past performance, find solutions, and fix them.  But when we ask questions that focus on problems, we tend to reap answers that uncover even more complications.   Or, we might hope that we can get better by focusing on the next new thing.  Perhaps we just need more technology.  Or the new case for support.  “This,” we tell ourselves, “will make us successful.”

Sustained success, though, is rather simple to understand.  When we authentically and consistently seek answers to questions that are future-oriented, positive, and focused on others as whole people, we will get more helpful responses.   And when we persistently apply these responses to our practice, our work, and our life, we get better.

Playing to our strengths, living into our values, and seeking the best in people and in the institutions we serve helps remind us of our many gifts and graces and energizes us to become better.

Appreciative inquiry works.


Your Calling

My hope is that you are in this work we call advancement because you are driven to make the lived experience for others better.

My hope is that you chose this work because you are committed to a meaningful mission.

My hope is that you wake up most days eager to fully live into a cause that has the potential to transform individuals, families, communities, and the world.

My hope is that you are an advancement professional because you believe using your professional gifts and graces to help others become the best they can be is about as worthy as work can get.

My hope is that you read the above statements and thought first not about your institution’s mission but, rather, about the cause of philanthropy and how donors are positively shaped by it.  Advancement is a calling.

And my ultimate hope is that you embrace that.


Getting From “Me” to “We”

A personality trait that most leaders desire in individual staff members can best be described as “being a good team player.”  This trait is a combination of behaviors that, overall, puts the team’s goals and interests above those of the individual.  You will hear people say positively, “he has more ego for the university than he does for himself.”

How best to encourage this team-first thinking and behavior, though, is complex.  People come to the workplace with a lifetime full of lessons that may have taught them to “look out for number one,” or that “nice guys (and gals) finish last.”  For someone who believes that they are the most important beneficiary of any activity or effort, it can be very difficult to re-shape that approach.  The old saw, “hire for attitude, train for aptitude” stays imbedded in our thinking because we know it is exceedingly tough for individuals to change their worldview in this regard.

However, there are some leadership strategies that can help to gently move people from a “me” orientation to a “we” orientation.  It is well known in cognitive psychology that negativity focuses the human brain narrowly.  For instance, when something upsets us, it is common for some (many) people to obsess over it.  Our brains tend to get fixated on negative feedback.

I once had a foundation president who, after I delivered an incredible positive Campaign Readiness Study report to the institution’s leadership team and Board, cornered me for the better part of an hour to complain about one slightly negative comment that was made by a participant in the study.  The report was 100 pages in length and was overwhelmingly positive.  And his focus was on the one sentence at the bottom of page 32 that was less than glowing.

However, when we focus on the positive, our span of attention is broadened.  We feel free to take in more than what is troubling us.  Our friends who study cognitive psychology suggest that we are not as self-focused, self-conscious, or self-involved when we are enjoying positive emotions.   When we feel good, our minds tend to broaden out from “me” to “we.”

Shawn Achor and Marcia Losada, psychologists who have studied high-performing business teams, tells us that there is a ratio that best balances positive and negative feedback in the workplace.  Specifically, in separate pieces of research, they suggest that a positive/negative ratio of at least 2.9 good feelings to every negative feeling makes individuals most productive and happy.

In other words, if a primary purpose of leadership is to establish an environment within which individuals and teams flourish, then part of that responsibility should include balancing positive feedback to negative feedback in a 3:1 ratio.  When we help craft positive moments for our teammates, we help them gain the confidence to move from “me” to a much more helpful, “we.”


A Search for Shared Vision

It is not the responsibility of the CEO to create the institutional vision.  It is her responsibility to see that it is created.  A big distinction.

The next question, of course, becomes how best to create this institutional vision.   I would quietly suggest that the CEO who decides to create the vision herself causes many problems – from bad content to poor ownership with the folks who will work to achieve the vision.   What we should be focused on is a search for vision that is shared among institutional leaders and the many constituents who care deeply about the institution’s future.

Engaging the institution’s internal constituencies will help ensure that a vision’s aspirations, goals, and objectives will be ambitious yet achievable.  These are the folks who see to it that your institution will fully live-into its compelling vision.  And engaging your institution’s external constituencies will help ensure that the vision matters to the outside world.  These individuals provide the needed context and perspective as you seek to answer the crucial question:  “Why should anyone care about our plans for the future?”  In addition, engaging external constituencies meaningfully in the visioning process gives you the opportunity to establish valuable partnerships which will provide the expertise and resources needed to implement bold plans.

There are many opportunities to engage others in this search for a shared vision.  Facilitating discussions with governing and foundation boards, advisory groups, faculty and staff councils, or other important groups around institutional strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and desired results is a good starting point.  Establishing task forces and committees to reflect on institutional values and guiding principles is another.  Conducting individual or small group discussions with donors and other partners focused on your institution’s future and their interests is yet another way to begin the process of seeking a shared vision.  All with many happy, longer-term benefits.

No, it’s not the CEO’s job to create the institution’s vision.   It’s the CEO’s job to see that a compelling vision is created.  And the best way to do that is to establish a process in which we ask humbly what others think.