Constantly Distracted

Back in the mid 1990s the word “pizzled” was coined.  It was a mix between “puzzled” and “pissed” and was used to describe the feeling you might have when someone you were with decided to start talking on their mobile phone.  Today, such distractions in the social arena are common and accepted.

Have you been to a college campus recently and watched as students walk across campus in packs of 2, 3, or more – in complete silence?  They are physically with each other but psychologically they are far removed.  They are texting, or engaged in a phone call with someone else, or even listening to music with earbuds – all while walking side-by-side with classmates.  They are plugged-in, but tuned out.  I recently watched as a group of college-aged friends – about 5 of them in all – spent approximately 15 minutes in the same space, but didn’t speak one complete, thoughtful sentence to each other.  Instead, they each had their smartphones out and they alternately pointed to status updates on their blue-hued screens or laughed at jokes they were reading.  And when they did speak to each other, they did so in short, staccato bursts of words that imitated the 160 character limit of twitter.  It was a sociologically interesting scene.

But, it’s not just college students or younger people who are engaged in this “constantly distracted” culture.  I’ve been in many advancement meetings and watched as professional team members checked their phones (sometimes addictively) with each notification buzz, answered emails and texts, and even answered their phones – all while others were talking.

Here’s the point for us in advancement:

The very best advancement professionals are emotionally intelligent – especially deft at being plugged in to the moment and to those around them.  They pay attention and listen.  They learn.  They show genuine interest in other people.  The pros are the ones who are tuned in to how they are being perceived by others and are open and aware to what is going on with those around them.  They are engaged with the here and now of the interaction with donors and prospects.  In other words, the truly successful advancement officer is expert at paying attention and focusing attention – on themselves and others –  for lengthy periods of time.  

And becoming expert at these skills takes practice – lots of practice.  It takes being able to focus for periods of time without giving in to the distractions of technology.  Like any other skill, the more we work at it the better we become.  

Some like Miss Manners might decry the use of technology in the social space as rude or boorish behavior.  Perhaps.  But I’m more concerned about its impact on our effectiveness as advancement officers.  So, the next time you have a team meeting, try using the time to practice staying focused and present with the people around you.  Keep the phone out of the meeting.  It just might help you become a more effective advancement professional.


What Is Valuable?

What We Are Told To Value What Actually Is Valuable
Task Accomplishment

Relationship Building







Problem Solving

Question Posing



Through culture and institutions, our western world encourages us to value the items in the left column of the table more than the items in the right column.

But the best leaders, the best gift officers, the best colleagues (and the best spouses, friends, etc.) value the characteristics on the right more than the left.  If you wish to become more effective, focus on what actually is valuable.


Authentic Inquiry

To fully live into her promise, a development leader’s most valuable skill set is what I refer to as “authentic inquiry.”  Here is how I define the concept:

Authentic Inquiry is the gentle art of relationship-building through the process of asking well-framed questions based on your sincere interest in the other person and to which you do not already know the answers.

That’s it.  It’s that simple.  To build relationships well, you must ask thoughtful questions which are born out of a genuine interest in the other person and to which you do not already know the answers.  This is the behavior of exceptional gift officers as well as exceptional leaders.

The problem, of course, is that Authentic Inquiry as a skill set is not taught.  It’s not taught in primary or secondary school.  It’s not taught at university.  And it’s not taught in any robust way at professional development seminars for advancement folk.  The best way to learn it – at least at the present time – is to watch and learn from exceptional mentors and successful colleagues.

If you are aiming to become a better development officer, if your goal is to become a leader, or if you wish to grow into a stronger leader, there is nothing more important you can do than develop the skills of Authentic Inquiry.  The hallmark of effective development work is that it gets accomplished by mobilizing and activating others in support of a worthy mission.  When you care sincerely about others and you display that care through the asking of thoughtful, real questions, the relationships needed for success will be strengthened.


The Meal, the Menu, the Recipe, and the Grocery List

Meals are an experience.  Good meals activates us.  Exceptionally delectable meals with family and friends during special occasions are stored and relived as indelible memories for years to come.  Some people (perhaps you!) can recall with fervid clarity the over-the-top chocolate dessert they had at a special restaurant a full 10 years later!  When they retell the story, their smile broadens, they ooh and ahh, and their eyes get wide with excitement.

Reading a menu usually is not an experience.  Although effective menus  help us choose our meals by portraying food as appetizingly as possible with savory descriptions, we don’t remember the menu.  We don’t retell the story of reading the menu.

Even less memorable and rousing is the reading of a recipe.  This is almost never an experience  – even when it does create the “to-die-for” dessert!  Most of us simply can’t envision the scrumptious outcome from reading the recipe.  It is too technical to elicit great emotion.

Finally, at the lowest level of positive impact is the grocery list.  For most of us, we don’t even want to see the grocery list because shopping is a chore.

So, here’s the point:  To get the diner interested in the meal, the restaurant shares a well-crafted menu, not a recipe and, certainly, not the grocery list.  But as development officers, we spend much of our time telling donors and prospects about our grocery list of needs.

For instance, whole case for support statements have been developed that are little more than a list of needs.   We do the equivalent of telling our donors we need egg yolks, cornstarch, dark brown sugar, cocoa powder, bittersweet chocolate, and heavy cream and expect their mouths to water in anticipation of our delicious chocolate pie.  And, in the worst cases, we don’t even suggest that our needs will be combined into a good recipe.  We simply list a bunch of needs like an unfocused grocery shopping list and then wonder why our prospects are not making significant investments in us.

At the most basic level, we should be preparing giving menus that artistically paint the pictures of appetizing outcomes their gift choices will help us achieve.  And when we do our work exceptionally well, we should go beyond the menu.  We should offer experiences to our prospects and donors.  We should give them opportunities to experience for themselves the work of our institutions and organizations.  We should connect them with those we serve, ask them for their advice,  invite them to participate in fulfilling our mission, and engage them with others who believe what they believe.  We should give them memories that they will want to share – even 10 years later.

Yes, you need donors to help you get the egg yolks, the cornstarch, and the cocoa powder.  But you will have much more success getting those ingredients when you make the compelling case for the chocolate pie.


On Becoming A Fundraising Artist

In David Bayles and Ted Orland’s book, Art & Fear, they tell a great story about becoming a better artist.  Here it is:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the “quantity” of the work they produced, all those on the right solely on its “quality.”

His procedure was simple: On the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work in the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B” and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot–albeit a perfect one–to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busy turning out piles of work–and learning from their mistakes–the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

The moral, of course, is that practice makes us better.  We learn and are shaped by practice.  We are changed when we practice a craft and are disciplined in our practice.  There is nothing that makes you better more quickly than focused, disciplined practice.

Fundraising is the same way.  It’s a craft.  It’s a practice.  So, today, don’t wait for that campaign collateral to be completed.  Don’t tell yourself that you don’t have enough information.  Don’t procrastinate.

Call up a donor or prospect – and go practice.

** Thanks to Tara Friesen at Athabasca University, Canada’s Leading Online University, for sharing this story with me.


Get Better in 2014 – Advancement Webinars and Workshops from the Institute

Start the year off right with high-quality, mind-stretching, solution-rich professional development opportunities.

The Gonser Gerber Institute is offering the following webinars and workshops to help you and your team do the best possible advancement work in 2014.  Below are three programs being offered early in the year:

5 Essential Tips:  Innovative (And Inexpensive) Ways to Strengthen Your Donor Relations Program – I’ll be leading this webinar next Monday, January 27, from 11:00 – Noon Central.  If you are looking to enhance your donor relations and stewardship efforts in 2014, this program is for you.  I look forward to seeing you online next Monday!

Measuring Performance to Improve Results in Alumni Relations and the Annual Fund – This webinar will dig into various strategies to best measure the effectiveness of your alumni relations program and the Annual Fund.  Led by Cristian Murdock and me, this webinar is scheduled for Wednesday, February 5, from 11:00 – 12:30pm Central.  Join us for a session that is sure to help you measure your effectiveness better.

Major Gifts A – Z:  A Training Session For New Major Gifts Officers – One of our highest evaluated workshops of all-time, this workshop is a must for new gift officers in your shop.  Led by Gonser Gerber consultants Ron Gunden and Chad Jolly, this workshop will be presented in Dallas, TX, from Thursday, April 10 – Friday, April 11.  If you or someone in your shop is new to the fundraising field or has been a gift officer for less than 2 years, this workshop will provide great value!

I hope you and members of your team will take advantage of these high-quality professional development opportunities.  I look forward to seeing you at one of the Institute’s programs in 2014.

If you have questions about any of these programs or other Institute programs, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.


When the Gift Is a Message

Sometimes a gift isn’t a just a gift.  Sometimes a gift – especially the gift amount – is a message.  Consider the $1000 to $50 continuum.

Let’s say that a new donor gives your institution $50 one year and then $1,000 the next.  In most instances, something has changed in a positive way with their affinity toward your institution, their financial circumstance, or both.  In any case, their $1,000 gift is more than a gift.  It’s a conspicuous red flag clamoring, “pay attention to me.”

Or, what about the donor that has given your institution $1,000 for a few years in a row and this year reduces her gift to $50.  This message, of course, is most likely not as positive.  But we should seek to better understand the message.  Have financial circumstances changed for the worse?  Has someone or something upset this donor?  Is she feeling less connected?

The concept of the “gift as message,” should remind us all that our work isn’t about the money.  The money is a byproduct, a side effect.  It’s not an outcome, its an outgrowth.  Like the image in a mirror, gifts are a reflection of engagement not the engagement itself.

Donors at all levels are whole people who are multifaceted, nuanced, and wonderfully complicated.  Our work is to better understand them.  And that starts by listening intently and responding appropriately to them.  Even when the messages they send come through their giving.



Why You Shouldn’t “Close” Your Next Gift

I listened over the last few days as speakers at a conference talked about “closing gifts.”  I’ve never been fond of that phrase – “closing the gift” – but I’ve never went out of my way to find particular fault with it either.  And then one speaker made the following statement in reference to the almost insatiable need for most institutions to garner major gifts:

“You close one major gift and you move on to the next.”

In that instant, the reason for my repressed dissatisfaction became clear.  It was like the speaker was talking about making widgets at the factory.

We should never talk about “closing” anything in philanthropy.  Instead, we should always be working toward “openings.”  Opening relationships with new donors and friends.  Opening new gift opportunities with donors.  Opening new ways for our most ardent and consistent donors to get re-energized about our mission.  Or opening opportunities for our institutions to show our donors just how authentically grateful we are for their generosity.

“Closing” the gift is the wrong way to think and talk.  Closing suggests transactional, not relational development work.  It says something is done, finished, completed.  Development work is never done.  Our relationships with donors should never be finished (hence the “legacy endowment gift”).  And gifts should never be completed in any real sense – they should only lead to greater levels of donor engagement and future gifts.

So, don’t go “close” your next gift.  Instead, go open it.


Finding the Car, Then the Dealership

It wasn’t that long ago (pre-internet, actually) that people interested in buying a car would show up at the local dealership and begin the process of being “sold” a car.  Those days are all but gone.  Today, when people are interested in getting a new vehicle, they first scour the internet for their choice and learn all about its pricing, options, and promotions.  They arrive at a dealership (if they do not buy the vehicle online) with purpose, knowledge, and a “not to exceed” number.  The process of buying a car has been turned on its head.  People are no longer “sold” a vehicle off the lot, they “buy” the vehicle of their choice.

This selling sea change has meant that the job of car salesperson is radically different today.  She is no longer there to sell an off-the-lot product.  She’s there to match the buyer’s particular interests (and knowledge) with the vehicle that best fits what she is looking for.  Her job has changed from”selling” to “matching.”

This is very much like our world in development.  Gone are the days when donors make significant gifts simply because it is the right thing to do.  Yes, altruism (however you might define that word) remains an essential driver of generous behavior.  However, more and more donors give significant thought to the impact they want their philanthropy to have.  They come to your institution with well-formed ideas about what they want to do (and what they don’t want to do).  They are not interested in being “sold.”

And just like the role of the car salesperson’s job – our job in development has changed.  There is no longer a need for the development officer as “salesperson.”  So, forget learning everything you can about your institution, your program, your initiative so that you can “sell” the next prospect.  Instead, become a better donor-opportunity match-maker by asking keen questions, listening, and leading.


What do we REALLY get when we give to a good cause?

Recently, Seth Godin blogged on the subject of giving.  His entry entitled, “What do we get when we give to a good cause?” was a bit off base from my perch.  His answer to this important question was simply, “A story.”  He said,

“In fact, every time someone donates to a good cause, they’re buying a story, a story that’s worth more than the amount they donated.”

Well, kinda.

Unfortunately, Seth’s “story” answer encourages advancement officers to focus on “story-telling.”  Even seasoned advancement officers can get confused about the fundamental nature of our work and lament the fact that they don’t have enough data about that program, or enough information about this initiative, or enough collateral materials to tell “the story” effectively.  All because they have bought into the notion that their primary responsibility is to tell “the story.”

But our first job isn’t about telling a story.  It’s about listening for a story.  The donor’s story.   Our first job is about asking thoughtful questions and listening to the people who care about our work.  It’s about better understanding them, their values, their passions, and their interests.  And, then, secondarily, our job is to educate them on how our mission and work aligns, supports, and affirms those values, passions, and interests.  Of course, we may educate them using stories, but not always.  Sometimes we educate by providing them with an experience – engaging them personally in the work itself as a volunteer, for instance.  In fact, I would argue that providing an experience for our donors and prospects is a much more effective pathway to activate their generosity than is simply telling them a story, no matter how compelling.

Additionally, it is clear today that donors get much in return for their giving besides a story.  Research has shown that giving is linked to better physical, psychological, and emotional health, a more positive attitude, and even living a longer, more satisfying life.  Giving, it is becoming clear, is a hard-wired attribute of healthy human living and we dismiss it at our own peril.

Hank Rosso, founder of The Fundraising School now a part of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, is quoted as saying, “Fundraising is the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.”

Advancement professionals are teachers.  We are teachers of one of the most important lessons in life – that it really is better to give than to receive.  And, like any good teachers, we must begin not by telling stories, but by understanding our students.  Only then can we teach effectively.