Practicing the Art of “Giftfinding”

For all of human history until just very recently, people have used systems-level thinking to navigate the natural world and the opportunities and dangers it presents.  For instance, the ancient people of Polynesia practiced the art of “wayfinding,” which applied a sophisticated understanding of broad natural cues to safely pilot a canoe from one island to the next, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

Using passed-down knowledge about subtle, natural cues like the saltiness and temperature of the water, the type and directional flow of plant debris on the water, the flight patterns of birds, the temperature, direction, and speed of the wind, the positioning of stars, and of the rising and setting sun, they could regularly navigate effectively over the open ocean for days or weeks and arrive at their destination.  Think about that.  You are in a canoe, nothing but open water for as far as the eye can see, and you can get to your island destination just by understanding the natural systems and how they operate.  Impressive, to say the least.

As humans have become more reliant on technology and as knowledge within increasingly narrow areas of specialization has become more prized, we have lost our understanding of the broader systems that impact our lives in real but subtle ways.  Most of us have become completely disconnected from the knowledge and understanding of our planet’s broad systems that give us life.  For example, I would suggest that very few (if any) who are reading this blog possess the knowledge and skills to be expert wayfinders!

Similarly, in our development work, the push over time has been to become more technically reliant, more “siloed” in our activities, and more expert in a single, more narrowly-defined aspect of our work.  Thirty years ago, the distinction between development (fundraising) and constituent relations (friendraising) was about as specialized as many institutions were.  Today of course, there are multiple fields and sub-fields of expertise in both areas and we have added specializations in new areas (for example, prospect research).  And as we continue to move toward more specialization and more technical skills within those specializations, we must ask ourselves if it matters that we may lose the bigger picture – the more subtle and nuanced understandings of how broader systems come together to influence gift giving.

Several years ago, I had lunch with a friend and mentor in our work who was serving as a vice president for development and alumni relations at a major university.  Her university had recently and successfully completed a $1 billion campaign and she was still basking in the glow of that accomplishment.

As we ate lunch, I asked her this question:  “What one accomplishment during your successful campaign brings you the most satisfaction?”   My assumption was that she would talk about one of the many 8-figure gifts received and working closely with those donors.  Instead she said, “I’m most pleased that our development team is now working in a much more integrated way with our alumni relations team.”

She went on to tell me that before the campaign, alumni relations and development operated almost exclusively in their own silos.  However, she understood that a broader, more systemic approach would serve alumni and the institution better.  “Now,” she said, “our alumni folks are asking the development people which alumni we should invite back to speak in the classroom, or to serve on an advisory board.  Our efforts are more focused on how we can integrate or work to make the whole bigger than the sum of the parts.  And we saw the fruits of that integration through increased gift-giving.”

In other words, she and her team were focused on the bigger systems that would result in the better outcomes.

Borrowing from the ancient Polynesians, we could call this type of systems-level thinking in our work, “giftfinding.’”  Specifically, giftfinding could be defined as, “the understanding and embracing of the bigger and integrated systems of our work that influence gift giving.”

We help our institutions find the next big gifts, not primarily because we are becoming more technically and narrowly-focused in our work.  But, rather, because we are engaging prospects in multi-layered, more integrated connections that employ all of the areas of advancement.  In other words, “giftfinding” is about focusing on the overlap and integration of the different areas of advancement (development, communications, constituent relations, and advancement services), and not on the narrow-specializations within those fields.

One of the benefits of focusing on the broader systems of “giftfinding,” of course, is that you will raise more money when you work to understand and embrace a more comprehensive, integrated approach.  Every piece of research conducted with major gift donors tells us that the more involved, the more individual relationships prospects have with people at your institution, and the more diverse their opportunities for engagement, the greater the amount of gift giving.

As we march steadfastly toward an advancement world that values more specialization, we discard at our peril an understanding of the importance of “giftfinding.”

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