An Open Letter To A Governing Board Member

Greetings Board Member:

We are writing today because recently we’ve been discussing our institution’s engagement of you as a member of our board.  Simply put, we recognize that we have failed you in the following important ways:

  • When we recruited you, we failed to share with you a clear, written position description which included a list of board member expectations;
  • When you accepted a position on our board, we did not provide you with a substantive on-boarding process that included institutional leaders sharing with you their inspirational strategic visions and plans for our institution;
  • We have not provided you (nor your colleagues) with consistent and ongoing education focused on how you can be a more effective board member;
  • We have consistently reminded you to not “get into the weeds” of management, but have failed to provide you with substantive opportunities to do work that is more helpful;
  • We have failed to talk transparently with you about your responsibility for providing philanthropic leadership for our institution;
  • We have consistently prepared board meeting agendas that include too much time for reporting to you and far too little time inviting you to answer strategic questions and discuss generative issues.

We apologize that we’ve failed you in these fundamental ways and, yet, continue to assume and expect that you should give generously every time we ask.  It is this faulty assumption on our part that is most problematic because it causes us to take you for granted simply because you are on the board.  Moving forward, we promise to strengthen our efforts to involve you meaningfully and in such ways so that your giving will be a natural reaction to and reflection of your significant engagement with our institution.

Sincerely,

Institutional Leaders

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Tickled Pink

As I type this message, most of the world finds itself rushing toward the apex of the “Season of Giving.”  More personal gifts between family and friends and more tax-deductible charitable gifts will be given over the next 7 days than any other week during the year.  Giving is the omnipresent message.

And yet, even in the context of such a positive, loving message of giving, so many of us will experience frustration due to the busy-ness of the season, the crowded-ness of schedules, and the exhaustion that can follow.  In fact, sometimes we allow ourselves to focus more on the frustrations of the season rather than the good message that giving has for us all.

That’s where two words – “tickled pink” – come into play.

Just the other day I read an article about an anonymous donor who gave $50,000 to a charitable organization to help children.  He placed the check under a nativity scene and called the organization and told them where they would find the gift.  ABC News was able to track down the donor and he said,

“My whole life has been immensely blessed. . . I’m tickled pink to be able to do it.”

From time to time, all of us can allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the minutia, the mundane, the frustrations, or even just the trivial or less-important matters of life and work.  Sometimes in our work as development professionals, we allow ourselves to become overwhelmed or bogged down by the day-to-day, routine aspects of our work and miss the bigger, extraordinary impacts we are making.  We allow ourselves to focus more on meeting metrics than creating meaning.  To focus more on our “to-do list” rather than our “with who list.”  To focus more on achieving goals rather than spreading the simple but powerful message that giving is good.

We get distracted from the real story – that when we do this work of encouraging others to give generously, we aren’t taking anything from them.  We aren’t asking them to give us something of great value.  We are seeking to give them something of great value.  We are giving them an opportunity.  An opportunity to align their support with their values.  An opportunity to save or transform a life.  An opportunity to feel better about themselves and our world.  An opportunity to make a difference with their lives that satisfies more deeply than just about any other decision they might make.

So, as you rush through your year-end giving activities and make those final phone calls and visits and send those last emails and letters, remember that our focus shouldn’t be on meeting specific goals and metrics – those are simply outcome measures.

What we really are doing is giving more people more opportunities to become “tickled pink.”

Blessings to you during this most important Season of Giving.

 

 

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The 3 P’s of Discovery

“I finally have a visit scheduled with Dr. Smith for tomorrow!”

This was the joyful exclamation made to me recently by a gift officer.  I smiled and congratulated him on the achievement.  Dr. Smith had been one of those prospects who made himself very slippery.  He was believed to have the capacity to make a substantial gift, perhaps even a transformational one, if he so chose.  But the institution never had a meaningful relationship with him.

He gave, but they were mostly token gifts.  If he was caught at an event, he would agree to the notion of meeting with the gift officer.  But when the actual outreach was made to confirm a date and time, he went into dark mode – rarely responding, or responding in such a tardy fashion as to be unhelpful.  This went on for almost 2 years and became a running joke among the team of major gift officers.  But, now, it appeared the visit would happen.

I was genuinely happy for the gift officer and for the institution because of the possibilities associated with this visit.  So, I asked the gift officer this question:

“When you finish your visit with Dr. Smith, what do you hope to come away with?”

The gift officer paused and said, “I want to share our funding priorities with him and see what he thinks.”

“Ok, so the primary purpose of the visit is for him to learn more about your plans?”  I asked.

He struggled to articulate a response.   “Well, yes,” he said, “and to ask him what he thinks of our plans.”

“Ok, I’m with you.  Let me encourage you to go a step or two further with that questioning part of your visit.  What if you think of your time with him as an informal interview of sorts?” I asked.    “What if, instead of sharing with him during this first visit all of the exciting plans the institution has, you ask him well-crafted questions that will help clarify the ‘3 P’s of Discovery’?”

I continued, “It seems to me that you still need some important discovery questions answered about Dr. Smith.  For instance, before moving too fast with sharing your case statement, it could be very helpful for you to gain more clarity about him and his interests. Specifically, I would encourage you to seek more understanding about his:

Prosperity – what size gift could he make if he were really engaged with you?  Does he really have the capacity that you believe he does?

Propensity – how generous, in general, is he?  Especially since he hasn’t given much to you over the years.  Has he made major gifts elsewhere and, if so, what motivated those gifts?

Passion – what is it, specifically, about our institution, program, or project, which aligns with his values and interests?

So often gift officers feel pressure (real and perceived) to share the case for support before learning what needs to be learned about the prospect.  A few well-articulated, open-ended questions, such as those below can be exceptionally helpful:

  • “I’d love to hear more about the other institutions you support. What has encouraged you to get involved/stay involved with them?”  or
  • “As you think about all the gifts you’ve made, which ones stick out as being especially meaningful for you?” or
  • “From what you know of us right now, which areas/programs/initiatives/projects/etc. do you believe are especially important?”

People will tell you many important facts about themselves when you ask in a way that communicates sincere interest in them and their stories.  And after you gain more clarity on the 3 P’s, you’ll be in a much better position to invite them to transform your institution through their giving.

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How Do You Expect Me To Give. . .?

. . . when I still have student loans to pay?

. . . when I don’t make much money?

. . . when we haven’t received a raise in 3 years?

You may think your most important job as an advancement professional in this situation is to address these questions directly and convince the prospective donor that they should give.

But it isn’t.

Your most important job is to help them better understand and embrace the truth that giving doesn’t take something from them, it gives something to them.  Once they fully live into that truth, the only significant question which will arise about their giving is, “how much?”

In advancement and development, the broader goal of everything we do should point toward spreading the universal human truth of the value and power of thanksgiving.

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More Data or Different Data?

Today, we have more donor and prospective donor data than at any time in history.  From wealth indicators to database analytics providing giving predictions, generating donor data can be as simple as conducting a google search or as complex as conducting a paid wealth screen.  All manner of donor data is ubiquitous and quite easy to acquire.

As an advancement consultant, there is not a week that goes by in which a client doesn’t want to talk about acquiring more (read: better) data.  More times than not, the sentiment driving the need for more data is fairly simple:  If we only had more data, we’d know what we need to know to raise more money.  If we only knew who in our database had significant wealth, we’d make our campaign goal.  If we only knew who in our database fit the profile to make an annual gift, we’d acquire more donors and for less money.  If only. . .

No matter how many reports we have commissioned or how much data we currently have, somehow the “silver bullet of fundraising” will always be found in the data we have yet to acquire.

But the “more data equals better fundraising” thinking isn’t backed up by the facts.  For instance, with more access to donor data and more institutions acquiring and using donor data in various forms every day, one would think that we are doing a better job of raising more money today than in the past.  But we aren’t.  Take a look at the national numbers.

For over 40 years, the U.S. has not moved significantly one way or another off of the stubborn 2% giving level of gross domestic product (GDP).  Yes, we’ve raised more dollars over time, but that is only because our economy has grown.  The fact is, people’s incomes are higher today than they were 40 years ago, which is why the gift dollars are increasing.  We haven’t been successful in getting people to give any more of what they make – for over 40 years!

To encourage more people to give more of what they make, perhaps we need to rethink our “more data” addiction.  Or, at least rethink the kind of data we actually should get addicted to.  When we say, “we need more data,” we almost invariably mean quantitative data.  We need more of the so-called “hard data” in other words.  The “real” data – donor scores, ratings, dollar amounts, etc.

But what if the key to raising more money is found not in quantitative data, but, instead, is found in qualitative and experiential donor data?  What if the true “silver bullet of fundraising” is found in the data gathered through meaningful interactions with donors in which they become engaged with our institution’s mission and we grow to understand them as people and not “giving units?”  Data that informs us of donor giving interests, values, generosity triggers, and relationships has a thickness and richness that quantitative data simply can’t offer.  And, it can help us raise more money.

There is an old saw in our work:  “It is your friends, not strangers, who will give to you.”  Developing friendship is a qualitative, time-intensive effort.  It takes care and effort.  It takes a different kind of data.  It takes attention to the whole person.

So, maybe we do need “more data” to raise more money.  It’s just that the data we should be collecting might need to be quite different.

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Humility vs. Transformation

There are two forms of humility.

A healthy humbleness emanates from an accurate self-perception that takes into account both your greater and lesser strengths.  It is rooted in the authentic recognition that you have distinctive as well as common characteristics when compared with others.  Healthy humility is supported by a genuine yet quiet confidence.

When we possess a healthy humbleness, we put our interests, abilities, and agency in context.  We listen more.  We set appropriate goals for ourselves and have fair expectations of others.  More importantly, the healthy version of humility keeps our ego in check so that we are discouraged from projecting a blustery, boastful nature.  A healthy humility is a strong and helpful trait to possess for development leaders.

On the other hand, meekness born from feelings of worthlessness, humility that emerges when we question our true value, or a humble spirit caused by doubts in our capability or capacity to achieve greatness are examples of unhealthy humility.  Unhealthy humility is an injurious characteristic to possess.

You won’t seek that promotion if you don’t believe you deserve it or think you can’t do the work.  You won’t push yourself to finish that degree if you doubt your intellect.  You won’t lean in and take responsibility if you believe you are or will be a failure.  In so many areas of life, you simply won’t reach your far edge of promise and transform your future if your humility is driven by fear.

Groups of people, even whole institutions, can experience unhealthy humility as well.  Some institutional cultures might find it difficult to build a compelling case for support and promote their goodness and distinctiveness because they possess an unhealthy humility at the institutional level.  They may not plan boldly around their distinctive strengths and opportunities because the unhealthy humble spirit of the institution encourages a more moderating outlook.

In many instances, when institutions struggle to plan for and passionately promote their missions, programs, and value, it is due to a collective belief, held deep within the fabric of the culture, that mediocrity is the best that can be hoped for.  There are questions of worthiness.  And there are serious doubts that the future will be any different. The accepted (but perhaps unspoken) refrain goes something like this:

“We’ve always struggled with our enrollment/fundraising/external relations because the world has never valued us the way others are valued.  Our future won’t be any different.”

When humility is healthy – when it is projected based on strengths, confidence, and knowledge, individuals and institutions will plan boldly, act decisively, engage others effectively, and achieve meaningful goals.  But when humility is unhealthy – born of feelings of worthlessness and questions and doubt, neither the individual nor the institution will do the meaningful work of planning, engaging others, and acting confidently.  And transformation will never happen.

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Receiving vs. Creating Gifts

You have two choices really:  either receive gifts from donors or create gift opportunities with donors.

Far too many development offices are content to receive the gifts that donors give.  These programs are reactive, unplanned, and regularly receive less than they need for their most important priorities.  The gift receiving mentality is regularly accompanied by an attitude that asking for gifts will be experienced as too bold, too greedy, or too uncomfortable.  Consequently, the gift receiving office is much better at extending thanks for a gift than soliciting the gift in the first place.

On the other hand, the most effective development programs create gift giving opportunities with their donors.  The gift creating program is proactive, strategic, and engages donors in serious ways.  Development officers ask questions about values, interests, and seek donor feedback.  Gift creating programs have standard meetings in which donor strategies are discussed.  And gift creating programs have a habit of asking donors for specific gift amounts for specific priorities.

Being a development professional in a gift receiving office is easy and comfortable.  Saying “thank you” is almost effortless and is accessible to just about everyone.   But if you want to do meaningful work for your institution – if you want to make a significant difference by increasing charitable gifts – you will work to create far more gifts than you receive.  Or, to put it another way in paraphrased form:  Ask first and, then, you should receive.

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Making A Real Difference: Moving Beyond “Metrics” to Strengthening a “Community of Giving”

As a consultant, not a week of client work passes without someone, somewhere asking me about “metrics.”  This word, “metrics,” has come to be used in so many ways that it is beginning to be difficult to understand exactly what people mean when they bring up the topic.  For instance, metrics can mean, “a tool to measure gift officer performance.”  Or, it can mean, “results we should track as an office to evidence our value.”  It is even sometimes used as a replacement for “benchmarking.”

However people may use this now ubiquitous term – metrics – they almost always are focused on advancement or development outputs.  Outputs refer to the activities, initiatives, events, appeals, etc., that we implement and the results of those activities.  Outputs are a description of our efforts or the specific return(s) of those efforts.  So, output “metrics” typically focus on measuring items like: number of visits, amount of dollars raised, number of donors who gave, number of individuals who attended an event, or average gift amount.

The question that the thoughtful advancement leader asks, though, is what difference improving any of these “metrics” really makes?  Why does increasing these numbers truly matter?  So, you raised more money this year as compared to last and more people came to your events – that sounds great.  But, as one of my graduate school professors used to demand of me when I was attempting to explain the worthiness of a proposed research question, “So what?  Tell me why should I care?”

In other words, “what difference does showing improvement in your metrics really make?”

To answer this question, people have started to use a phrase almost as ubiquitous as “metrics.”  You hear it everyday – everyone is seeking to strengthen a “culture of philanthropy.”  And while that sounds nice.  I’m not at all certain that people even know what that means when they say it.  Technically, I suppose, it would be defined something like an “environment in which the love of mankind is strengthened.”  But I’m convinced that is not what people mean when they use that phrase.

Instead, what most are trying to communicate when they use the “culture of philanthropy” phrase is an outcome that matters.  I would suggest most want to build and strengthen a “community of giving,” and are trying to say something like,

“I want more people to understand why giving more is important and to act with generosity toward our institution.”

Why then, don’t we measure what really matters more regularly?  Why don’t we survey our donors to find out how educated they are about our mission?  Why don’t we interview them to find out how important they believe our mission is?  Or, why don’t we engage them in focus groups to better understand how they view giving and their understanding of the psychological, emotional, physical, emotional, and life-extending benefits of giving?  And why don’t we track these measures over time so we can conduct trend analyses to see how much of a difference we truly are making?

Yes, we should be focused on more than activity-based, or output “metrics.”  We should be focused on improving much more important aspects of our work.  But, it’s not really a “culture of philanthropy” we are seeking to strengthen.  What we really want and know we need is a strong “community of giving” around our institutions – and we need to do a much better job of assessing that important outcome.

 

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Your Passion Matters

“Our alumni just don’t come back for Homecoming at our institution like they do at other places.”

“We’ve never had a strong turn-out for our donor recognition event.”

“Our Board members just don’t give like they should.  It hasn’t been part of our culture for our Board members to play a significant role in soliciting each other.”

If you ever hear someone on your team say something like the above (or, perhaps, you catch yourself expressing similar frustrations), I want you to remember this picture:

KNOXVILLE,TN - OCTOBER 04, 2014 - Arial Shot of Checkerboard during the game between the Florida Gators and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Matthew S. DeMaria /Tennessee Athletics

KNOXVILLE,TN – OCTOBER 04, 2014 – Arial Shot of Checkerboard during the game between the Florida Gators and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Matthew S. DeMaria /Tennessee Athletics

This is a University of Tennessee football gameday photo taken at Neyland Stadium last year.  Neyland stadium holds over 102,000 people, making it one of the largest sporting arenas of any kind in the U.S.  That is a massive amount of people.

I share this picture because there is a story behind this “checkerboard” design.  As you can see on the playing field, the orange and white checkerboard is a signature visual element in the end zones.  The checkerboard is part of the University of Tennessee Football brand.  The idea, then, to have fans wear either orange or white shirts to create the visual of a stadium-wide checkerboard makes sense with the brand.

By looking at this picture, you might think that a massive amount of planning and coordination lead by the the University of Tennessee and/or the Athletics Department would be needed to pull this off.  I mean, how in the world could you get all of these 102,000 people to come to the game dressed in a certain color shirt without massive coordination efforts.  Or, maybe it just took a lot of resources that most institutions don’t have.  Maybe the Athletics Department just bought 102,000 orange and white shirts and distributed the shirts in the stadium so that they were waiting for the fans at their seats.  That’s how big institutions like the University of Tennessee can pull off these cool things – they have huge teams of people and lots more money than most other institutions or organizations.

Well, here is the back story.  There was no institutional planning or coordination.  No buying 102,000 shirts for all the fans.  No teams of students and athletic personnel distributing shirts in any way.  This picture happened – the orange and white checkerboard in the stands happened – because 2 fans had a vision, built and published a website and sold the idea to 102,000 people.  And they did it all 11 days prior to this game.

During those 11 days, they went to every restaurant and business in Knoxville they could find and asked if each would help promote the checkerneyland.com web address on their street signs.  They sent messages to the local media, along with digitally-created pictures of what the “checkered Neyland stadium” would look like, and asked for support to get the word out.  They called into sports radio stations and “advertised” their website so that fans could log on, enter their seat number and learn whether to wear an orange or a white shirt.  Any orange or white shirt would do – just make sure you were wearing the right color for your section in the stadium.

And the people followed the lead of these 2 guys.  Fans visited the website in droves, learned what color shirt to wear, and came to the game prepared.  As you can see from the picture and from the news coverage after the game, it was a huge success.

Here is the point:  These 2, everyday guys had no significant resources.  They had no institutional support for this idea.  But, they had a passion for an idea.  They wanted to make something happen.  And they were determined that it would be a success.  They sold their idea by presenting a compelling vision for what it could be.  And they were tireless and creative in inviting people to be a part of it.  Their passion was contagious and their idea was sticky.

So, the next time you hear team members complaining about how “no one” shows up or participates or responds, remember the checkerboard Neyland picture.  The issue may not be that “they” don’t show up.  It may be that “we” don’t passionately give reasons why “they” should.

As advancement professionals a big part of our work is to paint a vision of an exciting and better future, be passionate about that vision, and be relentless in inviting other people to own the fulfillment of that vision with us.  No, it’s no where near enough to say, “we put the invite in the magazine and no one came.”  If you want to create memorable engagements with your donors and friends, your passion matters.

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The Diminishing Value of Answers

It used to be that answers were power.  Answers were not only important, in and of themselves, but they represented something valuable – the capacity and the willingness to problem-solve.  If you had the answers, you would have the advantage, in part because you were better at problem-solving.  You would get the best scholarships to the best universities.  You would get the best jobs.  And you would get promoted faster.  All because answers weren’t easily and readily available.  You had to work for them.

Today, is different.  Answers are an easy-to-come-by commodity.  The ability to solve task-oriented problems is becoming less important.  If you want an answer or solution to just about any question or problem, just ask Siri or Google.  No matter where you might be, if you can gain access to the interwebs, solutions are easily accessible.  And most everyone has the same swift access to the same answers.

The fact that computer-aided, “at-your-fingertips” solutions to problems are getting more sophisticated and wide-ranging every day is old news.  In a well-shared story from some time ago, the IBM computer, Watson, answered questions faster and with more precision than TV’s Jeopardy champs.  More recently, a computer was built that recognizes and sorts images of dog breeds faster and more accurately than humans.

So, if solving problems and gaining answers is becoming an easier process and the playing field to access those answers is almost completely flat, what separates the successful from all others?  I would argue that the ability to ask the insightful, creative, well-crafted questions and being genuinely interested in understanding others are the most important characteristics for success today and, especially, in the future.  An authentic curiosity about people and the ability to thoughtfully craft questions provide more than answers and solutions, they provide understanding.

But the importance of learning how to ask good questions isn’t getting its due.  Our schools still largely teach students to memorize answers and solutions.  And in our workplaces, we are still conditioned to believe that the person with the “right” answer or solution (as if there is only one) should be the boss.

For those who aspire for extraordinary results, though, it is the art of question-asking that holds the most promise and value.  In every area of your life and work – but especially in development where meaningful donor engagement with your institution is the gold standard – developing your “human curiosity” muscle and becoming the best possible question-asker will do more to enable you to influence others, get results, and advance your career than any other skill-set you can develop.  Caring more and gaining the knowledge to ask insightful questions will help you more than anything else you can learn.

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