Which Story Are You Seeking?

When I was a higher education vice president some years ago, our institution was asking important questions about student retention.  We brought in experts from around the country to look at our retention efforts and implemented a number of first-year and curriculum-wide programs to help more students persist until graduation.  While we made some progress, I was troubled by one aspect of our approach to increasing student retention.  Specifically, our institution went to great lengths to interview students who were leaving or who had left in an effort to assess the factors that influenced their decision-making.

While the stories of those who made the decision to leave could be helpful, I offered at the time that we were missing a more important story.  Namely, what about the students who were staying, excelling, and having a fantastic experience with us?  What was their story?  Why were they delighted with us?

Understanding why people choose to join you, give to you, and become a champion for your cause is a powerful form of appreciative inquiry that helps to clarify your strengths and opportunities for explosive growth.  Conversely, understanding why people reject you, your programs, or your institution may encourage some leaders to go to great lengths to develop strategies focused on “fixing” your weaknesses.  This approach is the basis of “gap analysis” — determine the extent of the distance your service might be from “excellent” (i.e., “the gap”) and then work to close that difference.

The problem with “closing the gap” is that you may end up pouring a ton of creative energy and financial resources into enhancing your sub-standard areas, only to find that you are now merely “average” in those areas.  And “average” won’t create delight in your students, donors, or anyone else you serve.

You are better off asking questions that will help you understand the stories of those delighted with you.  Then, you can identify your institutional strengths and develop strategies that amplify those characteristics across the enterprise.   When you build on your current strengths you will attract more people who fit your preferred profile.

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Solving The Wrong Problem

It is rare that the first problem presented in a team setting is the most crucial to solve.  In most instances, the first problem presented – usually in the form of a complaint – may have an urgent quality to it, but, represents only a symptom of a deeper, more fundamental issue that needs solving.

When complaints are raised, the freedom to ask questions becomes invaluable.  If questioning is not an appreciated characteristic of your team’s culture, the loudest complaint will get addressed first.  And, instead of dealing with the larger, more significant problems that led to the complaint, you will spend time racing to put out one fire then another.

If your team doesn’t encourage the asking of questions, you will solve the wrong problems – the symptoms.  Rarely will you pause to reflect on the bigger, more strategic issues causing those symptoms.   In essence, you will be employing the use band aids when you should be looking at more holistic treatments.

If you want to solve the right problems, encourage the use of questions in all circumstances.  A good and helpful question to start with is, “why do we do it that way?”  Hint:  If the first answer is, “because we always have,” you may quickly find that you are onto the larger problem that needs solving.

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Aspirations, Angels, and Agreement

If your goal is to engage others and do work of substance and consequence, utilize the “Essential A’s”:

Aspirations – help others dream and establish the highest possible aspirations for your institution or program.  It’s easy to get distracted and discouraged in the weeds of work (which is why some people choose to live there, by the way).  But when we focus our energy, resources, and efforts on achieving compelling and meaningful aspirations, we re-energize ourselves, our colleagues, and our work.  Remind others regularly to lift their gaze away from tedious tasks onto the far horizon of promise.

Angels – appeal to people’s better angels by focusing their attention away from self-interest and comfort and onto the broader cause you are called to serve.  Yes, it is easier to “do things like we’ve always done them.”  And yes, it is most comfortable to keep the work routine and flow unchanged.  But, are we fully living into our mission and doing everything we can to reach our aspirations by keeping the status quo? Help others develop an ego for your institution that is bigger than their ego for self.

Agreement – work to identify what is agreed upon and move forward on those points.  It is easy to get derailed by focusing on the potential hurdles, weaknesses, threats, or disagreements that may (or may not) exist.  Remind others that you have much upon which you agree and work toward those aims.  Soon enough, the petty disagreements and trite reasoning for “why this can’t work,” will recede into the woodwork.

Doing meaningful work that truly makes a difference is simple, yet not easy.  By implementing the “Essential A’s” consistently, you surely will enhance the significance of your journey.  You will find, though, that others may not always show an interest in going with you.  Go anyway.

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“They Are Going To Do Something”

When working with natural partners (such as presidents, other administrators, or faculty) and volunteers in major gifts, one of the most troublesome statements I can hear during major gift donor strategy sessions is, “They are going to do something.”

Almost always, what this seemingly positive statement actually means is something akin to the following:

“I didn’t ask the prospect for the specific gift amount we have been discussing, nor did I have a proposal on paper for them to consider.  Instead, I briefly mentioned something about the project in an off-handed type of way, they smiled, nodded, and said it was an important initiative.”

Sound familiar?

You may think that the reason the “they are going to do something,” statement is troublesome is because it usually means that an ask hasn’t actually been made.  And, yes, that is a problem.  On the whole, if you don’t ask for a specific amount, you won’t receive the prospect’s best possible gift.

But the real troubling aspect of the “they are going to do something,” statement is much worse than simply not asking.  When a natural partner or volunteer says of a prospect, “they are going to do something,” they may be attempting to put a positive spin on the fact that they didn’t actually ask for the gift.  It can be a statement made to proactively defend a poor solicitation.

So, if a suggestion is made to go back to the prospect and ask for a specific amount, the odds are high that this suggestion will get batted down quickly.  “Why would we go back to the prospect with an ask when I talked with them already about their gift?  That would be overkill.  They know about the project and they are going to do something,” would be a likely response.

The real problem with the “they are going to do something” statement is not that it means that a specific ask probably wasn’t made.  The real problem is that it can mean that a specific ask maybe never will be made.

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An Open Letter To A Gift Officer

Dear Gift Officer:

Thank you for contacting me and asking for a first visit over coffee.  I was honored to receive your call.  And I especially was pleased that our schedules matched and we could meet on relatively short notice.

When you arrived at the coffee shop, your warm smile and confident approach were appreciated.  You struck me as professional and congenial all at once.  We sat, sipped our drinks, and small talked.  We covered the usual topics — the weather (yes, travel has been brutal recently), updates on work, and other bland topics as I recall.

And then you pulled out a neatly packed folder filled with information about your institution and began to update me on the latest news.  The information was superb.  The materials in the folder were impressively designed and communicated compelling plans.  You were deft in your oral recitation – covering all of the facts, figures, and statistics with nimbleness and ease.   You even brought me a pen!  It was a great presentation.

But, there was a problem.  I wasn’t looking for a presentation.  And I didn’t ask for the update.  It’s not that I don’t care.  My wife and I have increased our annual gifts for many years consecutively.  So, it’s not that we don’t care.  But, I was expecting a visit.  I thought you wanted to meet me, not pitch me.

You didn’t ask me any substantive questions about my work (which always strikes me as odd especially when gift officers know what I do for a living).  You didn’t ask me any thoughtful questions about my wife and family, even though both our names are on the gifts we give.  And you didn’t ask me any questions about our experience with your institution.   You wanted to tell me what was important to you, not ask me what was important to me.

Clearly, you knew your case for support.  But, you didn’t do your real job – which was to learn more about the person you were visiting – the whole person.

I was honored when you called me to set up our visit.  I took your invitation to mean that an institution that my wife and I care deeply about was acknowledging us.  I thought you were saying, “We see you!”

Instead, your very professional and prepared presentation left me feeling like you were saying, “We hope to see your next gift.”

Sincerely,

Jason McNeal

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Building A Culture of Philanthropy

When advancement leaders claim a desire for a stronger “culture of philanthropy,” what is typically meant is that they want a stronger “culture of giving.”  They want more people to be more generous.  From the Board, to advisory groups, to primary constituency groups, the idea is that more donors and more dollars are the best evidence for an increasingly strong “culture of philanthropy.”  The thinking goes, if the amount of giving and the number of donors are increasing, our culture of philanthropy is growing stronger.

But, giving totals can increase because one or a few donors decides to make unusually large gifts.  Or because someone passed away who decided during their life to include your institution in their will.  And the number of donors can increase because of a matching challenge effort.  Or because someone close and important to your institution’s community passed away and memorial gifts came flooding in.  In these scenarios, it is not likely that a “cultural” change around giving or philanthropy has occurred.

To better gauge the strength of your institution’s culture of philanthropy, I would suggest using a different lens through which to view the issue.  Specifically, ask yourself how regularly good and meaningful questions get asked at your institution.  The honest answer to this question is a fantastic predictor of the strength of your philanthropic culture.

For example, how regularly do you ask good, meaningful questions of your Board members?  Questions about institutional values and strategic direction, for instance.  Or how regularly do you ask good, meaningful questions of your team mates?  Questions about your institution’s strengths and how proposed strategies might affirm those strengths, for instance.  Or how regularly do you ask good, meaningful questions of your donors?  Questions about their interests and how or when they might most appreciate being solicited, for instance.

Institutions experience extraordinary advancement when a growing number of people more deeply share a sense of ownership.  Asking people to think with you, to share their opinions, ideas, perspectives, observations, feedback, and inclinations is the single best way to invite feelings of ownership.  If you want to strengthen your institution’s “culture of philanthropy,” focus your efforts on strengthening your “culture of questioning.”

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Ask Fever

In the U.S. space industry the term “go fever,” refers to project teams making rushed decisions while “overlooking potential problems or mistakes.”  The reasons that “go fever” can grip a team can range from budget pressures to individuals not wanting to be viewed as the person who slowed progress or questioned authority.  This concept has been cited as part of the cause behind such disasters as the Space Shuttle Challenger break-up in 1986.

Similar to “go fever,” I would suggest that leaders at some institutions experience “ask fever” — or the rush to solicit donors or prospective donors for a major gift while “overlooking potential problems or mistakes” of moving too quickly.  “Ask fever,” may be driven by budgetary pressures or a general misunderstanding on the part of an institutional leader that major gift solicitations are not transactional tasks that can simply be checked-off one’s to-do list.

The full problematic impact of “ask fever,” is not so much that the institution almost never receives the best possible gift when the fever strikes its leaders.  Instead, when leaders give in to “ask fever,” the biggest loss is the loss of donor engagement – and in many instances, that loss is long-term or permanent.

The reason that forgoing donor engagement is such a costly error is because giving follows involvementvolunteers give more than non-volunteers, and donors with more than one meaningful connection to your institution give more than less-connected donors.  Donor engagement, the research suggests to us, is the archway through which the best possible gifts flow.

If you find yourself or others in your institution coming down with a bad case of “ask fever,” go ahead and ask the donor prospect – but instead of asking for the gift, ask them for their advice and perspective.  Ask them to get involved more deeply and more meaningfully in your mission.  You may find that the gift that follows that ask is much larger than you could have imagined.

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Centralized, Decentralized, and Compartmentalized

One way to describe the organization of advancement shops is the point at which they sit along the “centralized – decentralized” continuum.  “Centralized” shops are ones that provide advancement services to the institution they serve through one or several offices that report to one positional leader.  These shops are typically recognized as a “division of advancement” or some such name and they serve as the site for the planning, coordination, and implementation of all advancement-related efforts for that institution.

On the other side of the continuum, fully “decentralized” shops are those that have advancement services assigned and reporting to different functional areas of the institution.  For instance, each college of a university may have its own advancement function.

There is no “right” way to approach advancement centralization.  The complexity, history, culture, and needs of each institution as well as how donors relate to that institution should suggest how best to organize the advancement function.  However, one drawback of the decentralized model – however it is implemented – is the notion of compartmentalization.  Too often a decentralized shop becomes a compartmentalized one.

Just because an institution employs a decentralized advancement model does not mean that advancement efforts should be compartmentalized.  Even though reporting structures may vary for each advancement office in a decentralized model, the offices should still seek integration of their work.  For instance, integrated Prospect Management Team meetings should be held monthly so that leadership-level donors are encouraged to give their best possible gifts in support of the whole enterprise.  And marketing should be integrated across the enterprise so that brand elements are affirmed and communicated clearly to all constituencies.

To be both decentralized and integrated takes leaders with a long-view.  It means that staff evaluations need to affirm coordination and working across silos.  It means recognizing that our donors respond best when we approach them with a single comprehensive proposal, instead of multiple disjointed and uncoordinated solicitations.  It means that leaders need to have an ego for the entire enterprise that is at least as big than the ego they have for their individual areas.

At your institution, it may make exceptionally good sense for advancement functions to be decentralized.  But it never makes good sense for advancement functions to be compartmentalized.

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Creating Your “To-Who” List

As someone who is part of the advancement process for your institution, you are in the relationship-building business.  To be successful you must work effectively and efficiently with and through others.  At its core, the work is about people.

And you probably employ a task-filled “to-do” list in an effort to organize yourself and your work.

Notice anything odd about the nature of advancement work and how you organize yourself?  The work is all about people, and yet, many of us organize our work around tasks.

Instead of a “to-do” list, advancement professionals should create “to-who” lists to organize ourselves and our work.  Who are the donors you need to bring into a closer relationship with your institution?  Who are the key staff members with whom you need to coordinate to get that email blast sent?  Who are the prospects with whom you need to conduct discovery visits?  Who are the Board members you need to profile?

When we replace our “to-do” lists with “to-who” lists, we not only align our efforts with the nature of advancement work, we also remind ourselves daily that we are at our best when we seek to engage the important people around us.

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What’s The Purpose?

One organization I work with generates over $20 million per year from their direct mail campaigns.  The purpose of their direct mail program is to increase gift income.

Another client – a private higher education institution with about 1,600 students – welcomes back to campus approximately 1,000 alumni for homecoming each year.  The purpose of this event is to strengthen connections among alumni.

When I first got into advancement work, I recall going to a CASE conference and listening as a phonathon director from a larger public higher education institution described her phonathon script.  If the student caller reached an alum on the phone, the caller was to ask for $1,000.  It did not matter what the alum’s giving history might be.  Nor did it matter when the alum graduated.  The first ask for everyone was $1,000.  The purpose of this institution’s phonathon was to identify major gift prospects.

I don’t necessarily hold up any of these programs as models for other institutions to follow.  None of these examples may be a “best practice” for you and your institution.  In fact, they probably are not.  My point is different.  These are examples of institutions that have created a singular purpose for important programs and, by staying true to that single purpose over time, have reaped rewards.

These programs don’t have a “primary purpose” to which there may be a secondary, tertiary, and quaternary purposes.  Rather they have one focused purpose, and that has made all of the difference.

What is the singular purpose of your direct mail or phonathon program?  Of your planned giving program?  Of your constituent relations events?

Too often, we create programs, campaigns, strategies, and tactics and fail to clearly and concisely identify the purpose.  Or if we have identified a singular purpose, we allow it to get muddied by a well-meaning statement that typically begins, “wouldn’t it be great if we. . .”

If you have a difficult time clearly identifying a single focus for any of your programs or campaigns, you probably have discovered a key reason why your efforts aren’t as successful as you would like.

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