Mission Or Method

If your goal is to increase the amount of gift income you receive, you can:

  • Ask new prospective donors to give for the first time;
  • Ask past donors to give again;
  • Ask current donors to give more.

Those, really, are the only methods (or some combination of these 3) to increase gift income.  Developing plans to implement these 3 strategies is not difficult.  In fact, those plans can be fairly straight-forward.

The most consequential question is almost never, “how can we increase gift income?”

The most consequential question is, “why should givers care?”

When you spend the time, energy, and attention to develop a clear, compelling, and concise case for support, the answer to the question of method becomes far less important.   In general, generosity is sparked by mission far more than by method of solicitation.

However, if you are unable to crisply answer the question, “why should givers care?” you can be technically and tactically effective in your solicitation methods and still fail to meet your gift income goals.

When you and your team meet for strategy planning sessions – for annual, major, or planned giving – instead of spending the bulk of your time focused on answering the “how will we solicit?” question, spend more time addressing this simply question:

“Why should anyone care?”


Believers vs. Everybody

Believers in your institution’s mission give consistently.  Everybody won’t do that.

Believers in your institution’s vision for the future invest charitably.  Everybody won’t do that.

Believers in the leadership and values practiced at your institution remember you through their estates.  Everybody won’t do that.

As advancement professionals, our job is not to invite everybody to give.  Our job is to invite those who believe what we believe to give.  It sounds easy enough.  But we regularly fail to identify, learn about, and thoughtfully invite gifts from those who believe what we believe.

Here are 5 reasons why we fail (at times) to engage our believers:

  1. We don’t know what we believe.  What do you, personally, believe about giving?  What do you truly believe about the need for your institution’s mission in the world?  Are you completing tasks at work or serving a cause?
  2. When we know what we believe, we have difficulty articulating it in a concise, compelling, and clear voice.  Are you practiced and proficient in communicating the positive impacts of your institution?  Can you easily and quickly articulate the need for more charitable gifts at your institution?  Are you comfortable explaining how giving is virtuous and good?
  3. We don’t know what our believers believe.  From whom did they learn to be generous?  What other organizations and institutions do they support charitably?  Why do they support them?  How does your institution rank in their list of charitable giving priorities?  If you struggle to answer questions like these quickly and confidently, you probably don’t know your believers well enough to engage them fully.
  4. We don’t invite believers to give, we receive their gifts.  The more proactive you become in learning more about your institution’s believers, the easier it is to propose meaningful gifts to them.  When you get in the habit of proposing gifts to believers, gift income increases.  When your practice is to receive whatever gifts come your way, gift income will at best stay flat, and usually, will decrease over time.
  5. We don’t offer enough creative ways for believers to experience our institutions.  The more strong-tie relationships a donor has with your institution, the more she will believe in your goodness and champion your specialness.  Are you engaging colleagues and those you serve to help thank your donors?  Are you providing unique opportunities for donors to experience your mission?  Once you know what your believers believe, your institution’s expressions of gratitude should become more personalized and meaningful.

Trying to win support from everybody is tempting.  There are so many (in our database, our community, our alumni ranks, etc.).  But the best work done by advancement professionals is deep not wide.

And understanding beliefs – both yours and those of your believers – provides the most helpful channel to go deep.





The Day-Trading Boss

If you haven’t yet worked for him or her, you probably will at some point.

He’s the VP who focuses more on metrics than on the relationships and processes the metrics are there to measure.

She’s the President who wants to know why gift officers aren’t asking for major gifts during a first meeting.

Day-traders often struggle to understand that inviting gifts is not the same as selling widgets.

There are no “giving markets” with “donors” (buyers) and “recipients” (sellers) transacting gifts based on self-interest.  Donors don’t need – at least not in the same way as buyers do in a marketplace – what recipients are providing.

Among other distinctions between the acts of giving and “buying and selling,” encouraging a generous response in others has an element of time that day-traders don’t comprehend.  Decision-making around acting generously is a complex human process involving emotion, logic, soul, and, yes, time.  Time to grow in the wisdom of why helping others is a benefit to you, the donor.  And time to develop the trusting relationships that help encourage generous impulses.

If you work for (or with) a day-trader, ask her to describe the lead-up to the most generous gift she has made.  How long did it take from the time she first thought of this significant gift to when she actually made it?  What steps occurred between when she first thought of the gift and when she made it?  Invite her to reflect on the process, the relationships, and yes, the time, it took to make that gift.

You will either remind your boss that giving is, indeed, a process.  Or, you will learn that he hasn’t yet made the decision to experience the joy of acting generously.   In either case, you will reinforce the fact that individual generosity isn’t mobilized through the same pathways that motivate day-traders.


What Am I Doing?

The world is filled with leaders in every industry (including advancement/development) who rarely ask themselves this important question.

Posers, caring more about the perception of leadership than the practice of it, almost never ask this question.  Even still, some are able to ascend to high-level, leadership posts (again, yes, even in advancement/development).

It doesn’t matter if you are asking this question in frustration and/or exasperation as in, “What am I DOING?” Or, in a more planful and strategic way, as in, “What SHOULD I be doing?”  The point is that when you ask this question you are focusing yourself on what really matters:  your behavior, your actions, your reactions, how you are spending your time, etc.

It is when we consistently focus ourselves on actually doing what we can — coordinating that trip to see your best prospects, writing that creative and/or heartfelt letter, making those discovery visits, personally thanking a donor for their generosity — that we are authentically rewarded.  What we actually do and the results we get still matter.

Yes, many leaders are in the role because they have posed for the title.  By and large, these leaders worry less about making a difference, leaving a institution better than they found it, or legitimately growing a program.  They worry more about how others perceive their leadership and less about what true difference their leadership makes.  So, they communicate via social media and other channels the perception of leadership.

But, neither the world nor your institution will be better because you pose, or (humble) brag post to social media, or seek out the media.  Consistently focusing on what you are actually doing to advance your institution’s mission is what makes the real difference.  It’s the work that matters.

So, do something good.  The world needs more of that.   And so do you.


3 Ways to Market Giving

“Marketing,” to an advancement professional almost always refers to the marketing of their institution’s programs and services.  You market what you do.  Or more importantly, the impact of what you do.  You market your mission as a way to communicate the rightness and goodness of people giving in support of your institution’s efforts and outcomes.  “People give,” you say, “not because we have needs, but because we meet needs.”

So, you market your mission as a way to encourage others to be more generous.  And that makes good – but not total – sense.   For all of us in advancement, there is definitely more to this story.

Why don’t we, as advancement leaders, spend more energy and time marketing giving itself?  The goodness of giving?  The benefits – to both individuals and communities – of giving?  The rightness of giving in support of things bigger than ourselves?  Why shouldn’t we be marketing that while also marketing our missions?

If there are phrases more ubiquitous in our field than, “culture of philanthropy” or “culture of giving,” I’m not sure I know what they might be.  Everyone talks about the need to strengthen their culture of giving, but rarely do advancement folk spend significant time, energy, or resources marketing that kind of culture.  Instead, we spend our time marketing our missions, almost to the exclusion of marketing the goodness of giving.  If you are serious, though, about strengthening your culture of giving, here are 3 marketing approaches to employ:

  1. Educate people on the goodness of giving.  Who more than you at your institution is in a better position to educate your colleagues and others on the fact that giving is healthy and good?  If you incorporate giving days, thank-a-thons, or other events focused on annual giving, include research and resources about why and how being generous is good for the giver.   Market the goodness of giving.
  2. Correct misunderstandings surrounding giving and philanthropy.  How many times have you heard someone describe your job or giving generally as “arm-twisting,” or ” getting into someone’s pockets,” or “shaking the tree?”  It’s not uncommon for these phrases (and others like them) to go unchallenged.   We smile.  We might even chuckle.  But, rarely do we say, “Actually, what I do is a lot more fun and meaningful than that. . .”  If you want to strengthen your culture of giving, words matter.  Gently, but consistently, market the correct understandings about giving and philanthropy.
  3.  Communicate the importance of giving participation.  Alumni participation rates are decreasing.  Many non-education nonprofits report that total donor numbers are shrinking.  And yet, because total dollars raised remains strong, we whistle past the graveyard.  If we desire to enhance a culture of giving, we should do more to recognize and celebrate new donors and modest but consistent donors.  For instance, do you have a program to publicly celebrate donors for consistent annual giving, regardless of amount?  Market the importance of all gifts, no matter the size.

Marketing the goodness of giving should be our priority as advancement leaders.  If we want to see more giving from more donors, if we aim to enhance the morale among colleagues at our institutions, if we strive to strengthen our giving culture, we must take on this new marketing role.

When we market giving consistently, not only will our institutions become healthier and happier places to be, but our work as advancement professionals will grow more frictionless.

Because as it turns out, people don’t give just because our institutions meet important needs.  The other part of that story is that people give because they have been reminded of their most-deeply-held beliefs about themselves and who they really are (or want to be!).  They are moral.  They are fair.  They are kind.  They are compassionate.  They are helpful.  And, yes, they are generous.

Go, market that.


This Next Year. . . And Beyond

Today marks the first work day of 2020.  And, while there is some measure of confusion, today also marks the first work day of the new decade – the decade of the ’20s.  Every New Year holiday brings with it the time and opportunity to reflect on the past and plan for the future.  A new year that doubles as a new decade makes this exercise even more consequential.

I’m not a futurist, so I won’t attempt to identify broad trends you might see develop over the next 10 years either in the world-at-large or in the world of nonprofits.  Others have made those predictions.

However, I am inviting you to think with me about how we might focus ourselves over the next year and beyond.   I don’t know what the specific outcomes might be, but I do know that I – and you – can choose how we spend our time, how we orient ourselves to our philanthropic work, and how we engage others in our efforts.  If we want to make the biggest, most positive impact we can, or as the 19th century Presbyterian Minister Isaac Anderson was wont to say, “Do good on the largest possible scale,” focusing our attention on our behaviors and activities will reap the most significant rewards.

To frame our thinking, I’m going to employ a version of the “3 W’s” we use when orienting new Board members.  In this instance, I won’t be talking of “work, wealth, and wisdom.”  Instead, to focus us on how we can do the most good on the largest possible scale over the next year and beyond, I want us to focus on our “our well-being, our work, and our world.”

For “our well-being,” let me encourage you to give more.  Yes, you, personally.  Be an even greater giver.  In all ways.  Indiscriminately.  If you want to experience an increase in emotional, mental, physical, even spiritual well-being practice and grow your personal habit of generosity.  As a society and as professionals in the advancement field, we are precariously close to evaluating philanthropy and other acts of generosity based solely on how “effective” the outcomes might be for society or for those in need.  This “effective philanthropy” approach misses the most fundamental and rousing purpose of giving – to change the giver for the better!  It truly is better to give than to receive.

So, volunteer more in the future.  Give more money in the coming years.  I’m not talking about specific amounts or percentages of income.  I’m simply encouraging you to be more generous in whatever forms and ways you can.

You will be glad you did.

For “our work,” let me encourage you personally to invite more people associated with your cause to give and to give more generously.  We talk a lot about “engaging” others, but I find that language to be too ambiguous to be helpful.   Inviting others is much more specific and tangible.

Call more people and invite them to support your annual fund.  Write notes specifically telling others you’d like to see them at your important events.  And, yes, say the words, “I’m inviting you to make your first gift/increase your giving in support of our mission,” far more often and directly to others.

There are, of course, many facets to productive advancement programs.  Inviting others is not all that we should be doing.  But, it should be the crux of our work and we should be doing more of it.  When you believe deeply in your cause or your mission, inviting others to become more involved becomes a joyful activity.  So, do more inviting.

You will be glad you did.

For “our world,” let me encourage you to become an even stronger advocate for generosity in all its forms and expressions.  If you haven’t noticed, philanthropy is not always celebrated.  Giving is not always viewed as a good thing.  And while we should welcome critiques, criticisms, and concerns, we also should promote steadfastly the goodness of giving, in all its forms.

In all major religious traditions, acting with generosity is viewed as a virtue.  As examples, Judaism promotes the obligation of Tzedakah (giving to the poor).  In Islam, practicing Sadaqah (or non-obligatory charity) leads to the purification of the giver.  In the Christian faith tradition, Thomas Aquinas referred to charity as “the most excellent of the virtues.”

Additionally, in the United States today there remains one aspect of our “American experience,” that continues to provide leadership, light, and goodness for the rest of the world – the amount given charitably as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.  In fact, when compared to the second most generous country in the world, the United States almost doubles the rate of charitable giving.  This is good and should be celebrated.

We need to remind community, business, and government leaders that when more giving occurs, people are healthier, people are more empathetic, and the very fabric of society is strengthened.  If those of us employed in various philanthropy enterprises are not the ones leading the charge to orient our world towards more generosity and advocating for the benefits of giving writ large, who, then, should do this work?  So, advocate for a world that is more generous.  Promote the giving news in your community.  Celebrate with colleagues – especially at other institutions – when they receive a significant gift or reach a campaign goal.

So, over the next year and beyond, let me encourage you to focus on strengthening these habits of mind and deed.

We all will be glad you did.


The Most Important “Impact” of Giving Is Not What You Think

With the dawn of another U.S. Thanksgiving holiday just days away, we will soon welcome the commencement of the official “season of giving.”  The month of December will experience millions of donors acting with great generosity and each year at this time I am reminded of the concept of philanthropic impacts.

Specifically, and, it seems, almost universally, is the notion that the role of charitable giving in all its forms and expressions is to serve some broader, greater good.  Not a week goes by in which we are saved from stories about “effective giving,” or “giving with impact.”  Our entire nonprofit sector, it seems, is incapable of assessing the value of charitable giving in any other way but by the degree of impact giving has on some larger problem, ill, or concern.

Proof that our sector values giving almost exclusively through the lens of  broad societal problems, outcomes or impacts can be found without much effort.  For instance, while we’ve had nonprofit rating services for years, The New York Times recently called a new impact rating system the “holy grail of philanthropy.” Major donors attend conferences each year to learn how they can ensure their gifts make the most substantive impact on the issues they care about most.  Heck, we even have other nonprofits established for the sole purpose of making giving “more effective.”

Don’t get me wrong, though.  I’m not at all against studying, researching, and applying what we understand about the “impacts of giving.”  I’m just extremely concerned that we are not focused on the most helpful level of analysis.

While our collective focus on the benefits of giving stubbornly sticks to the impacts and outcomes related to great social and global challenges, I fear we are speeding further and further away from acknowledging the first, most transforming, and indispensable benefit of giving — that which occurs within the donor.

Science has now confirmed for us that giving makes us healthier physically, emotionally, and psychologically.  Generous people live longer and have more friends.  Giving promotes a more positive outlook.   In short, we know that acting in a spirit of generosity impacts the donor in incredibly important and positive ways.  But, here’s another benefit worth mentioning:  Giving connects us as humans and makes us happy.  Donors feel more positive, connected to, and empathetic toward others and the world around them.  This is no small impact.

In a world that seems intent on careening out-of-control toward being more self-centered, fractured, disconnected, prickly, coarse, and uncaring, we know that one activity – charitable giving – serves as the antidote.  When people choose to give, the benefits they receive help to reverse the negative characteristics of a broken world.

So, yes, giving should be impactful.  Yes, giving should be effective.  And yes, giving should make a positive difference in the world.  But, the fact is, we know that each single act of generosity does all of that, regardless of who the recipient is or how “effectively” they might use the gift.

Perhaps, it’s time for the nonprofit sector to recognize that giving for giving’s sake is what will really make the biggest and most positive impact.


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.


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.


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!