Getting From “Me” to “We”

A personality trait that most leaders desire in individual staff members can best be described as “being a good team player.”  This trait is a combination of behaviors that, overall, puts the team’s goals and interests above those of the individual.  You will hear people say positively, “he has more ego for the university than he does for himself.”

How best to encourage this team-first thinking and behavior, though, is complex.  People come to the workplace with a lifetime full of lessons that may have taught them to “look out for number one,” or that “nice guys (and gals) finish last.”  For someone who believes that they are the most important beneficiary of any activity or effort, it can be very difficult to re-shape that approach.  The old saw, “hire for attitude, train for aptitude” stays imbedded in our thinking because we know it is exceedingly tough for individuals to change their worldview in this regard.

However, there are some leadership strategies that can help to gently move people from a “me” orientation to a “we” orientation.  It is well known in cognitive psychology that negativity focuses the human brain narrowly.  For instance, when something upsets us, it is common for some (many) people to obsess over it.  Our brains tend to get fixated on negative feedback.

I once had a foundation president who, after I delivered an incredible positive Campaign Readiness Study report to the institution’s leadership team and Board, cornered me for the better part of an hour to complain about one slightly negative comment that was made by a participant in the study.  The report was 100 pages in length and was overwhelmingly positive.  And his focus was on the one sentence at the bottom of page 32 that was less than glowing.

However, when we focus on the positive, our span of attention is broadened.  We feel free to take in more than what is troubling us.  Our friends who study cognitive psychology suggest that we are not as self-focused, self-conscious, or self-involved when we are enjoying positive emotions.   When we feel good, our minds tend to broaden out from “me” to “we.”

Shawn Achor and Marcia Losada, psychologists who have studied high-performing business teams, tells us that there is a ratio that best balances positive and negative feedback in the workplace.  Specifically, in separate pieces of research, they suggest that a positive/negative ratio of at least 2.9 good feelings to every negative feeling makes individuals most productive and happy.

In other words, if a primary purpose of leadership is to establish an environment within which individuals and teams flourish, then part of that responsibility should include balancing positive feedback to negative feedback in a 3:1 ratio.  When we help craft positive moments for our teammates, we help them gain the confidence to move from “me” to a much more helpful, “we.”


A Search for Shared Vision

It is not the responsibility of the CEO to create the institutional vision.  It is her responsibility to see that it is created.  A big distinction.

The next question, of course, becomes how best to create this institutional vision.   I would quietly suggest that the CEO who decides to create the vision herself causes many problems – from bad content to poor ownership with the folks who will work to achieve the vision.   What we should be focused on is a search for vision that is shared among institutional leaders and the many constituents who care deeply about the institution’s future.

Engaging the institution’s internal constituencies will help ensure that a vision’s aspirations, goals, and objectives will be ambitious yet achievable.  These are the folks who see to it that your institution will fully live-into its compelling vision.  And engaging your institution’s external constituencies will help ensure that the vision matters to the outside world.  These individuals provide the needed context and perspective as you seek to answer the crucial question:  “Why should anyone care about our plans for the future?”  In addition, engaging external constituencies meaningfully in the visioning process gives you the opportunity to establish valuable partnerships which will provide the expertise and resources needed to implement bold plans.

There are many opportunities to engage others in this search for a shared vision.  Facilitating discussions with governing and foundation boards, advisory groups, faculty and staff councils, or other important groups around institutional strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and desired results is a good starting point.  Establishing task forces and committees to reflect on institutional values and guiding principles is another.  Conducting individual or small group discussions with donors and other partners focused on your institution’s future and their interests is yet another way to begin the process of seeking a shared vision.  All with many happy, longer-term benefits.

No, it’s not the CEO’s job to create the institution’s vision.   It’s the CEO’s job to see that a compelling vision is created.  And the best way to do that is to establish a process in which we ask humbly what others think.


The Problem with Motions, Seconds, and Votes

Following Robert’s Rules of Order during a governing board or foundation board meeting might be helpful for imposing order on the discussion.  But, it is almost wholly unhelpful in engaging and exciting the philanthropic imagination of your board members so that ambitious goals can be achieved.

If you want to get important things accomplished and fully engage the important volunteer leaders of your institution, ask reflective questions like, “Why did you decide to join this board?”  Or ask generative questions like, “How could our institution more fully live into our values?”  Or ask strategic questions like, “How do each of you feel about the direction we are going in?”

The most creative, insightful, energizing, and helpful discussions will almost always come when you allow the space for improvised dialogue.


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.”


The Illusion of Understanding

Recently, an annual fund officer was talking to me about making calls on past annual fund leadership donors who had not given in the last two years.  This list of donors was not that long, but it was still troubling.  All of these past donors had given at least $1,000+ annually until the 2012-2013 year.  A few of these donors had given consecutively for many years and then . . . nothing.

As we talked about the calls he was going to make, I asked him about his script.  “What are you going to say on these calls?” He replied that he was going to thank them for their past giving and ask them to consider continuing their leadership-level annual giving by making a new commitment.

“I know you want them to make that commitment,” I said, “but I would reconsider your strategy of asking them for it directly.  Do you know why they stopped giving?”

He looked at me quizzically.  I asked him, “If you gave at the $1,000+ level for a number of years and then just stopped, would you want someone to call and ask for your gift, or would you want the opportunity to talk about why you stopped giving?”

The annual fund officer re-wrote his script to focus on two key points.  The new script read:

“First, I want to thank you for your past leadership-level support.  Second, I noticed that you haven’t given during the last two years and I wanted to see if there is anything we could do to win back your support?”

With that simple invitation to share their stories, these past donors opened up to him about a host of issues that impacted their ability and desire to give over the last couple of years.   A number of their concerns had nothing to do with being upset with the institution.  Personal financial issues had made giving difficult. Other concerns shared by these donors did involve the institution but were relatively minor and the annual fund officer was successful in encouraging their renewed giving.  And some concerns were more complex and it was clear more work needed to be done.  “Had I asked for the gift outright like I was planning to,” he told me later, “I’m convinced I would have had a bunch of difficult phone calls that ended with only a few gifts.”

Because he didn’t ask for the gift outright and instead invited their stories, he was able to learn and understand far more about why they had made decisions to stop giving and what could be done to get them to give again.  He gave himself the space to hear their stories, learn and understand more about them, and respond appropriately to their concerns.  In other words he treated them like a valued human being.

When we fail to ask a previous donor about her story, about the thinking behind her giving to your institution, we operate with an illusion of understanding.  We don’t really understand her but we appear as if we do.  Or,  we appear as if we don’t care to know her story.  Either appearance is bad.  Because when we appear to understand when we truly don’t, our capacity to encourage the next gift is significantly diminished.


The Most Important Question To Ask Yourself

Here is the most important question a development officer can ask himself:

“Am I more focused on how I look or on what I see?”

How I look vs. What I see.  Where is your focus?  On your own presentation or on the prospective donor?

When you are more concerned with “how you look,” you’ll spend too much time getting your case statement “perfect” before going on that visit.  If you care more about “how you look,” you’ll be more apt to talk too much during a discovery visit.   And you’ll be less likely to listen well.  You’ll ask too early and for the wrong reasons.  And you’ll be frustrated more easily when your results suffer.

However, if your primary focus is on “what you see,” you’ll approach donors and prospects with an openness and a curiosity about what makes them tick.  You’ll ask better questions.  And you’ll listen to comprehend, not to respond.  You’ll be viewed as “authentic,” you’ll understand more, and you’ll develop trust with prospects more quickly.

A focus on you – your institution, your campaign, your goals, your talking points – is, at best, a moderating variable and rarely an explanatory variable when analyzing why donors give.  But a focus on “what you see” is a fundamental key to advancement success.

A gift has never been lost because the donor felt valued.


Why “Going Viral” Shouldn’t Be Your Goal

The #ALSIceBucketChallenge has been a tremendous success no matter how one might define the term.  The challenge began in July and, within the last month, the awareness of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease as it is still known, is sky high.  In addition, ALS is now reporting that the challenge has raised almost $80 million dollars from over 1.7 million donors.  During the same period last year (July 29-August 25), ALS raised a meager $2.5 million.  Simply stunning numbers.

In the rush to congratulate ALS for their social media success, I have heard non-profit leaders lament, “I wish our organization could come up with something like this that goes viral!”  And it is understandable that others would want the same success that ALS has enjoyed.  Those are eye-popping numbers.  But, I’m still not convinced that “going viral,” should be a goal.  In fact, I’m quite certain that it should not be.

In today’s tech-vernacular, “going viral,” means,  “becoming very popular by circulating quickly from person to person, especially through the Internet.”  Clear enough.  And becoming popular isn’t really a bad idea.  We all want our organizations to become more popular and for the importance of our missions to circulate quickly from person to person.  This all sounds pretty good.

However, upon a closer examination of the word, “virus,” one finds definitions that focus on the idea that the infectious agent (or a popular idea) only finds life within a host.  Think of the viruses that spread illness from person to person.  Or even a computer virus.  They need a host in order to live and replicate.  Without a host, the virus dies.

In a very similar and sad way, many causes that have employed viral promotion through social media have not focused on the importance of their mission.  Instead, they have traded the importance of understanding and supporting their mission for a viral activity that makes the host/participant the most important aspect of giving.  Where the focus should be on mission, values, and vision, it becomes about the viral activity and, more importantly, the host/participant.

The act of pouring ice water over one’s head does not have a meaningful, natural, or understandable connection to eradicating ALS.  Neither does it cause the participants nor viewers to become more educated about ALS and the mission of organizations that fight the disease.  It does, though, encourage a focus on the host – the person getting cold water poured over their head.  Because, as is the case with any virus, it’s the host that matters most.

For us in development work, it is easy to go down this path of lifting up the importance of the host/donor.  It’s easier work than meaningfully engaging or educating someone and it makes the donor feel good in the moment.  But placing the donor at the center of our work leads to problems.   I have written before about the wrong-headedness of “donor-centrism.”  Simply put, our donors don’t belong at the center of our work, our missions do.  The best and most successful development efforts are mission-centered and donor-engaged, not vice versa.

Compared to the “viral model” of fundraising, a “mission model” of fundraising encourages us to do our hard and important work as educators and engagers.  When our our central theme is mission and we invite donors to be a part of that mission, we win long-term.  We may not raise $80 million in one month, but we build sustainability.  And, once the ice bucket challenge runs its course, I sadly doubt ALS will raise anywhere close to that amount again.  You see, there is another problem with viral campaigns – they don’t last.  Anyone seen any good pictures of #planking lately?


On Fundraising Attitudes and Aptitudes

Being an advancement leader brings with it the responsibility to “teach up.”  Whether you work with a Dean, a Chancellor, a President, a CEO, or a Board member, getting the best possible results means working with and through others.  In many instances, donors will respond more generously when an institutional leader plays a meaningful role in their giving experience.

Below is a quick typology based on an institutional leader’s attitudes and aptitudes around the fundraising process.  Both their emotional disposition as well as their abilities play a role in how you should engage them.

Fundraising Attitudes and Aptitudes of Leaders and How to Engage:



This 2×2 model suggests that the “Eager-Unskilled” institutional leaders should be coached by advancement professionals and that the “Eager-Skilled” leaders are ready to go raise a lot of money and should be fully engaged by advancement!  For those leaders that are “Reluctant-Unskilled,” we want to involve them strategically only in donor activities that are identified as low-risk and high-enjoyment.  And for the “Reluctant-Skilled” leaders, we need to better understand their reluctance and then provide the leadership, education, encouragement, and motivation to enhance their fundraising comfort-level and enthusiasm.

Of course, Presidents, CEOs, Chancellors, Deans, etc., fall somewhere along the continuums between the two ends of these attitude and aptitude variables.  But, this model is a helpful reminder that our work as advancement professionals involves teaching, engaging, and encouraging not only our team members and our donors, but also those to whom we report.  We must use a variety of tools to get the results our institutions need.  And understanding better the development attitudes and aptitudes of our institutional leaders helps us get those results.

So, where does your institutional leader land in the model?  And, more importantly, how will you engage her differently once you decide?



The Value of Art and Donor Appreciation

Refrigerator artwork is deeply personal and meaningful to the owner but, to the outside world, may not hold much value.  The value of the crayon-colored rainbow scribbled on a piece of paper flows from the little person who drew it and their relationship to you, the owner of the refrigerator.

On the other hand, we may have no personal relationship with a world-renowned artist and, yet, can still find value in her bold and moving use of color or his lifelike and emotional depiction of human drama.  In many instances, we assign value to this artwork based on perceived expertise of the artist, which is informed by the assessment of others.

We assign value, then, based on some measure of personal sentiment (the refrigerator art), on some measure of world-acclaim (the expert artist), or some mixture of the two.  This issue of how we assign value to art (or anything else) should be important to us in advancement because we should aim to provide our donors with personal and meaningful experiences and expressions of our gratitude for their generosity.

For many institutions, saying “thank you” to donors includes some form of “artwork.”  Perhaps you provide your best donors with a beautifully-designed, engraved, crystal desktop award.  Or maybe you give away less expensive chotskies.  Perhaps you give your donors some version of “Platinum,” “Gold,” “Silver,” or “Bronze,” lapel pins based on giving levels.  If your institution expresses its gratitude to donors in these or similar ways, let me quietly suggest that you could do better.

When we say thank-you by adopting the world’s assignment of value (e.g., the crystal award or the platinum lapel pin), we are suppressing the valuable impact of personal sentiment.  But when we extend our gratitude in the form of something more meaningful from our institution, we increase the likelihood that our personal relationship with the donor is enhanced.

For instance, perhaps there is painting or sketch by a student or client that can be duplicated and framed.  Or maybe there is an inspirational photograph of your campus taken by a professor.  Or perhaps you can create a tradition by saying thank-you to donors at a specific level with the same gift each year that has special meaning at your institution.

When the value of our donor “thank you” is derived from who we are, what we do, and our relationship with the donor, the world may not place much value on it, but our donors will.   Just like that crayon-colored rainbow on their refrigerator.


Why Prospects Don’t Respond

Recently, I served as a faculty member during a Gonser Gerber Institute webinar entitled, “Five Effective Strategies to Secure Visits.”  This was a webinar I had long wanted to present as the issue of securing visits can, in many instances, be the most challenging facet of prospect engagement.  I know many advancement officers – beginning and seasoned alike – who struggle with “getting visits.”

As the webinar was focused on effective strategies, we bypassed robust discussion on the reasons why prospects don’t respond to us in the first place.  And while at first blush the reasons for non-response may seem as varied and unique as the prospects themselves, there are really only three fundamental reasons why a prospect goes to “radio silence:”

  1.  The prospect is not interested;
  2. The prospect is indifferent and has yet to make up her mind;
  3. The prospect is interested but finding the time to visit is an issue.

Really, that’s the sum of all the parts.

The prospect has proactively made up his mind that he is not interested and, thus, he is not responding.  Or, the prospect has not made up her mind and she isn’t yet sure how to respond to you.  Or, the prospect wants to meet with you but life is getting in the way.  For this last group, perhaps the prospect has different priorities at the moment, or he is going through a busy season, or maybe he is just a poor time manager.  But, in the end, he can’t seem to find the time to set up a visit with you.

If you look at these three broad reasons, you will note that only one is wholly negative (the prospect is not interested).  The other two options skew positive or have the promise of a positive outcome.

And yet, when I visit with gift officers and listen to their assumptions as to why prospects aren’t responding, the take is almost always negative.   “Jason, she just isn’t interested in us,” is the complaint.  Or, “I’ve tried and he just doesn’t want to be visited.”  Or, even, “It’s clear she isn’t interested or she would have responded by now.”  And, as a byproduct of these, perhaps, faulty assumptions, the creative energy and positive attitude needed to get the visit becomes dulled.

But think with me on this.  The odds are in our favor – by a 2 to 1 margin.  I’ll take those odds over the long haul – and you should too!  The key to getting visits, as we discussed in the webinar, is to be an artist of multiple mediums of engagement.  To carefully and artfully utilize existing relationships, creative invitations, and thoughtful messages.   I call it the “multiple chances, multiple choices” strategy.  We want to give prospects multiple chances and multiple choices to say “yes” to a visit with you.  And when you approach this work knowing that the odds are in your favor you will find that, over time, most prospects will accept the visit.  The visits will come.

Similarly, I have heard from a number of you – the readers of “Jason’s Blog” – over the last few months.  Thank you for reaching out to me, offering kind words about the blog, and asking when it would return.  Just like many of the prospects with whom you are trying to secure visits, I can tell you that my “radio silence” was not due to a lack of interest.  I care deeply about you, our craft, our calling in this work, and writing this blog.  But like many of your prospects, this spring and summer brought with it a work season in which my consulting schedule engaged all of my creative energies.  And while professionally that has been satisfying, I am excited about having the space, once again, to write about our craft.  Thank you for continuing to reach out to me through this unusually busy spell.

Yes, I will always be interested!  Life and work sometimes just cause the very best prospects to not respond.


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