Responding to the Preemptive Gift

“Thanks for the lunch invitation.  I appreciating you visiting with me,” the donor said.

Before the gift officer could respond, the donor reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a check for $3,000.  “And before I forget, I wanted to make sure I gave this to you,” he said.

The gift was larger than last year’s gift of $2,500.  However, the gift officer was there to ask for $5,000 for this year’s annual fund.

The gift officer took the check, read it, immediately smiled and said, “Thank you.  You continue to be one of our most consistent and generous donors.  We are grateful.”

At that point, for most gift officers, the gift-giving discussion would have ended.  Perhaps the discussion would turn to the donor’s children, his business, the stock market, or the weather.  Just about any topic other than making a gift.  That’s because it might appear unseemly to continue pursuing an additional gift when one has just been offered.  Most gift officers take the preemptively given check, extend gratitude, smile, and move on to other topics.

But not the gift officer that was recounting this episode for me.  He is a capable, seasoned gift officer and his response was both instructional and a reminder for how we should approach our work in developing the purposeful donor relationship.  Here is how he responded after he said, “We are grateful.”

“I must tell you, though, my intent today was to ask you for a gift of $5,000.  Since we are now in the public phase of our campaign, we are asking every donor to consider a stretch gift.  You’ve been so loyal and this gift today is yet another example of your generous support.  Would you be willing to allow us to use today’s gift as the first installment on a commitment of $5,000 this year?”

“Yes.  Yes, I’ll do that,” came the smiling reply.

After receiving the preemptive gift, many, if not most, gift officers would not have shared their intent for the visit.  But this gift officer expressed gratitude and then went about doing an important part of our work – encouraging a donor’s best gift by setting expectations.  It didn’t take courage or daring to respond as this gift officer did.  It simply took a commitment to share his intent for the meeting.

“I went there to invite him to give $5,000,” the gift officer told me.  “When he preempted my ask, I thought, ‘well, he just showed me what he was thinking so I should at least tell him what I had in mind.'”

If we only accept what is given, we aren’t doing development and advancement work, we are simply fund raising.



The Value of Influence in a Post-Expertise World

One of the by-products of our digitally-connected age is the waning value of expertise.  The growing understanding today is that the everyone’s right to express an opinion is synonymous with the notion that everyone’s opinion is equally informed.

Medical doctors and research scientists have been publicly second-guessed by celebrities with influence but no medical training – so much so that anti-vaccine movements helped spawn unprecedented outbreaks of whopping cough and measles in California over the past few years.  Fifty years ago it was commonplace for national and international media outlets to invite presidents from our leading universities – Harvard, Stanford, Yale – to opine regularly on the ethical, political, and social concerns of the day.  When is the last time the nation heard from a university president on an issue of import?  And, perhaps more importantly, when is the last time the nation cared to hear from a university president of note?

Today, influence trumps expertise.  And by a long shot.  Instead of training and experience being attributes of advantage, they now can be viewed as hindrances.  Daily, we are blessed by the miracles of science, reason, logic, data, rationality, and yes, expertise.  We send spacecraft to the outer reaches of our solar system because of expertise.  We send messages around the globe at the speed of light because of expertise.  In just a few years, we will most likely have autonomous cars on our roadways because of expertise.

And yet, more and more frequently, we look through lenses colored by skepticism and bias at any presentation of “facts.”  When well-done research is presented that collides with our world view, causes us to re-think a deeply-held conviction, or otherwise makes us uncomfortable, we seek to discredit.  Who says those are the facts?  How was that data collected?  What is the underlying assumption of the researcher?  I’ve witnessed well-educated professionals undermine quality data presented during governing board meetings because they knew how to magnify non-significant concerns with the research itself.

This is an important cultural turn to grasp for those of us in development and advancement work.  As we craft compelling cases for support, what approach will carry more weight and motivate more people to engage?  Are data-rich and research-based arguments more compelling?  Or, are deeply qualitative and values-based anecdotes and stories shared by people of influence more motivating?

A compelling case can be made that we have entered fully an age in which the most important element of our case for support is not the content, not the facts, not the data, but the influence of the messenger.  “The data can be skewed to say whatever they want,” the skeptical public decries.  “The facts are based on the individual’s opinion and political persuasion, not their training and education,” mistrusting constituents howl.  But when we believe in and trust the messenger, the data and facts become of secondary significance.

Not that it hasn’t been important before, but perhaps now, it becomes even more critical to pay special attention to who is signing the direct mail appeals?  Who is serving on the Board?  Who is serving as a campaign leader?   In our culture today, it just may be that the influence of those championing our cause is more important to raising money than the cause itself.


“How Many?” versus “How Deeply?”

For many institutions, the concept of “advancement performance metrics” can be boiled down to a collection of quantifiable goals that represent some number more than last year’s.  For instance, you may have a metric for an increased number of $1,000 donors.  Or, you may have a metric for an increased number of “moves,” or “visits” you should complete with major gift donors and prospects.  Or, you may have a metric that represents an increased number Twitter followers for your institutional account.  For many of us, quantity rules and metrics take on the task of answering the question, “how many?”

And while the “how many?” question is important, it is not the most important question.  Indeed, if you are aiming to encourage the very best gifts from the vast majority of your constituents, the real question you should be addressing is not “how many?” but, rather, “how deeply?”

“How deeply?” suggests something different about our work.  It suggests that we should care about how emotionally-connected people are with our institutions.  “How deeply?” changes the focus from the metric itself to the individual the metric represents.  “How deeply?” doesn’t ask us to count bodies, it asks us to measure interest and passion within those bodies.

If your institutional advancement goal is to serve more and better by building or renovating facilities, expanding programs, growing endowments, or increasing your annual fund totals, you will exceed your goal by connecting your donors and prospects more fully and meaningfully.  Simply focusing on “how many?” donors and prospects you engage will not get the job done.   Having 50,000 Facebook or Twitter users who follow your institution’s page is not nearly as helpful as having 2,500 donors with 500 of them being deeply and emotionally-connected.

We operate in a world of virtual connectedness in which “how many?” is the question du jure.  However, authentic human connectedness happens in real space and time.  And lasting institutional progress happens through making this human connectedness consistent.

So, go against the grain – go for relational depth in all that you do.  Build your advancement budget and organizational chart for relational depth.  Move away from event and transactional fundraising gimmicks and build your annual and strategic plans for relational depth (be prepared to ask meaningful questions of your donors and prospects during face-to-face meetings for instance).  Re-assess your advisory boards and councils, your governing board, your foundation board and push yourself and your team to engage creatively the spirit of the people serving.

In the macro, we are bombarded with the question, “how many do you have?”  It could be, “followers,” “likes,” “attendees,” or “moves,” “visits,” and “solicitations.”   We are not asked with any consistency about the depth of emotional-connectedness of these individuals, only how many we have collected.  As if the wholeness and richness of the human spirit can be summed up in a data point.

But in the micro, where individual donors make individual charitable gift decisions, all of those quantifiable metrics pale in importance to the answer to one simple question, “How deeply do they care?”


Early Exigencies

When do you feel the need to act most urgently during the gift giving process?  Perhaps this sounds like an odd question.  It may, though, be an important one for you and your team.

I have experienced many development professionals who become especially urgent during the stewardship phase of the gift giving cycle.  Once the gift has been made, they are quick to call the donor or send the donor a special hand-written note of gratitude.  At the programmatic level, they have whole systems in place so that the initial gift acknowledgement and receipt is extended to the donor within 24 hours.  They take great care and pride in ensuring that the whole team displays an exigency and high standards when expressing gratitude.

These consistent, exigent actions and systems of expressing thanks are great.  Every development program should aspire to similar types of timely personalized stewardship.  But, by itself, displaying urgency once a gift has been received is not the most effective placement of exigent characteristics.

Displaying an urgency when inviting people to make their gift is far more important to your development efforts and results.  Showing an urgency on the front end of the gift giving cycle will not only lead to more gifts, it will lead to increased gifts as donors respond favorably to the enthusiastic invitation to give more to affirm their values.

Practicing exigence earlier in the gift giving cycle does not mean that you invite every person you meet to make a gift.  But it does mean that when the opportunity presents itself, you take it – with enthusiasm!  When a gift officer earnestly calls a donor at 6:00 pm on a Thursday to extend thanks to the donor for a recent gift, that is practicing an exigency on the back end of the gift giving cycle.  Just imagine how many similar calls that same gift officer would be making if she were being more enthusiastic and exigent earlier in the invitation phase of the gift giving cycle.


Customer or Community Member

If people talk about your institution as “being a community” (or words to that effect) and yet, you don’t consistently ask people to give of themselves and their resources, you are only talking about community, you don’t have community.

Many institutions behave toward their constituents as if they were customers, not community members.  Customers are people with whom you transact business.  Value and exchange are at the heart of the customer relationship.   Community members, on the other hand, are encouraged to give, share, and care for one another, even when the exchange is measurably unequal.  That’s what “being a community” means.

Our job as advancement professionals is to invite more people to become community members, helping each to re-discover the joy of giving, sharing, and caring.


Generosity as Genius

We tend to think of genius as a gift bestowed genetically on individuals in various ways – intellectually, artistically, scientifically, even athletically.  Genius emerges based on a predisposition to greatness in some field or endeavor.  While we understand that training, practice, effort, and focus are components of genius, perhaps honing and sharpening the raw, natural inclination toward excellence, the primary explanation we provide for genius tends toward it simply being a random genetic gift.

And, yes, a genetic stimulus for genius is not imaginary.  It is real.  With the 2016 Summer Olympic Games approaching, the world will watch as Jamaican Usain Bolt either wins or medals in both the 100 meter and 200 meter sprints.  He is the fastest human ever, covering 100 meters in a mere 9.58 seconds.  At 6 feet 5 inches tall, trim, and muscular, one look at his body and it is clear that a man of my size (5 feet 10 inches), would have an extremely difficult time keeping up with him in a foot race, no matter how much I trained and practiced.  He is genetically gifted to sprint.

However, there is another version of genius – or another suggested pathway to genius.  It focuses on the importance of practice, repetition, iteration, and focus.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, “Outliers:  The Story of Success,” suggests that 10,000 hours of practice is needed to become genius at a complex task.  And while other research has questioned the “10,000 hours rule,” there is little doubt that applying good genes and giving consistent effort and focus do, in fact, matter in achieving excellence in any field.  Usain Bolt, no matter how genetically-gifted he is to run fast would get beat regularly if he did not train consistently.  So, consistent practice, effort, and focus do matter.

I recall talking about the concept of “genius” with an art professor years ago.  He shared with me a version of the 10,000 hour concept.  “I’ve watched very capable (read genetically-gifted) students go from being good artists to outstanding artists by dedicating themselves to their craft,”  he said.  “That means they draw, paint, or sculpt, even when they don’t want to or don’t feel like it.  What separates the top 1% of my students from all the others,” he said, “is that they have dedicated themselves to becoming more expert in their craft.”

That phrase, “the top 1%,” got me thinking about our donor bases.  If you think about your donor database, no matter how many records you may have, it is the top 1% of your donors or prospects who possess the financial capacity to make the gifts that will significantly impact your ability to fulfill your mission.  And, my experienced guess is that an even smaller percentage of your donor database are what you would term as “joyful givers” – the ones who give generously – perhaps even sacrificially – and thoroughly enjoy doing it.  You know these donors.  You write stories about them in your magazine and you recognize them at your donor recognition events.  These “joyful givers” are probably less than half of that top 1%.

If we think about the “joyful givers” as being the true generosity geniuses, we can ask the question of how to cultivate more of them.  Sure all of your top 1% donors have the financial capacity to give significant gifts.  You might view all of your top donors as the financial versions of Usain Bolt.  They show up in our donor databases with outsized assets.  But not all of them become “joyful givers.”  Not all of them take the next steps on the path to becoming generosity geniuses.  And according to Malcom Gladwell and my art professor friend, the idea of commitment and dedicated practice, even when one doesn’t feel like it, is a pathway toward that genius.

So take a look at the giving history of your “joyful givers.” In general, I will bet that you see a rather consistent history of giving – perhaps smaller gifts at first and then larger and larger commitments.  Yes, some buck this trend and make their first gift at a leadership level.  But in general, you will most likely find a stream of giving, a practice of giving, perhaps even when they weren’t particularly excited about making a specific gift.  And over time, they developed a habit, a deftness for giving, that turned into a deep and abiding joy experienced from the act.

We can’t do much to impact the financial resources that our prospects possess – that is their genetic predisposition, so to speak.  Our prospects come to us with those assets.  However, we can encourage, educate, and provide opportunities for them to consistently practice giving.  And we can thank and recognize them specifically for their consistent and dedicated giving – no matter the amount.

Yes, receiving a single, significant commitment from a donor should be celebrated and recognized.  But if you want to create more “joyful givers” – more generosity geniuses –  you may want to think about how you are encouraging, thanking, and recognizing the dedication, effort, and consistency of the giving practice it takes to become a genius.



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.


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.



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.


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.