Giving The Gift

Imagine with me for a moment that you are sitting with one of your most generous donor couples.  It is a husband and wife who are now contemplating the 7-figure gift invitation you have just extended to them.  In the past they have given significantly to your institution – but not at this level.  If they accept your invitation, this will be the largest single commitment they have made.

You have spent the past year leading up to this moment.  She sits on your board.  He serves on one of your key Advisory Councils.  You have met with them multiple times to discuss the planning of a new program initiative that will impact so many in powerfully positive ways.  They participated in the strategic planning process that birthed the program concept.  In short, they were ready for today’s discussion.  And you were ready to invite them.

So, you invite them to consider the gift.  You tell them them that, should they respond affirmingly, your institution is prepared to name the program in their honor.

They don’t respond at first.  After a moment’s pause, with you on the edge of your seat, she speaks.

“I want you to know that we have already discussed what we plan to do.  We are committed to this program and to the institution.  We trust you and the other leaders.  And we are honored to start this program by making this gift.”

Your smile grows almost too wide for your face as you immediately and excitedly thank them.  “We are so grateful for. . .”  But, before you finish your statement, the husband interrupts you.

“No, no, no,” he says, “we are grateful.  Thank you for the opportunity to give generously.  We believe in you, the institution’s mission, and this program’s impact.  You have given us the gift.”

Now, you may think this vignette is made-up —  a fabricated, dramatic story to illustrate some pollyannish principle about generosity.

But this story is true.  The gift and the donor statement that, “you have given us the gift” really happened.

This story, and this couple, are a big part of how I came to view our work in advancement, development, fundraising (whatever you want to call it) differently.   This conversation happened to me 15 years ago this month.  It was then that I began to see more clearly that I wasn’t a fundraiser.  I wasn’t in the development or the advancement business.  I wasn’t really even responsible for raising money for buildings, programs, endowment, or current operations.

I was learning that my primary role was to help people explore the joys that come with giving.  I was a guide of sorts – a “generosity guide,” if you will.  In short, I was learning that my job was to offer people powerfully positive gifts, not to seek them.

In the coming years, a curious thing happened:  The more I focused my efforts on listening, teaching, inviting, encouraging, and supporting people as they experienced the joys of giving, the more donors gave.  It seemed that even my motivation to engage our donors changed once I consistently viewed myself as the gift giver.

We are now entering the most generous time of the year.  The bulk of charitable gifts that will be given in 2018 will be given during the next 31 days.  As you are working with donors to help them act with generosity, let me encourage you to re-frame your role in your own mind.  Adopt for yourself, the now famous words about fundraising from the late Hank Rosso:

“Fundraising,” he said, “is the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.”

So go teach, go guide, go be the giver of the gift!


They Aren’t

They aren’t. . .

your donors.  You are one of their charitable recipients.

your Board members.  You are one of their volunteer priorities.

your staff.  You are one of the key factors in their workplace satisfaction.

your Twitter followers.  You are one of their social media interests.

your prospects.  They may not even be aware of you.

We tend to view through our own egotistical lenses the engagement of all those with the capacities to make our institutions vibrant and successful.

But when we take the time to view that same engagement from their perspective, not only are we enlightened to a new reality, but we instantly become better advancement professionals and leaders.

They aren’t ours.  We are theirs.

And, everyday we should seek to understand them better, serve them more personally, invite them more enthusiastically, and delight them more ardently.  Only then will our institution’s mission, aspirations, and goals become one of their priorities.


You Have 2 Missions – And You Should Choose to Accept Both

I sometimes wonder how many nonprofit leaders realize they are serving two distinct but related missions?

First, of course, is the mission of service particular to your institution or organization.  You may have an education mission, a healthcare mission, a nutrition mission, a faith-filled mission, a mission to assist the homeless, etc.  Most nonprofit leaders understand this mission and can, on demand, speak to why this mission should matter to donors and how they can be supportive of this mission.  Easy enough.

But, there is a distinctively separate mission – related to the service mission, but different – that nonprofit leaders assume as well. This second mission is related to the nonprofit status of your institution.  As a 501 (c) 3 organization (or similar-chartered organization), the US Internal Revenue Service provides you with a federal tax exemption.  Additionally, because your institution is considered as offering a “public good,” you are considered a “charity” or “charitable organization.”  Therefore, you have a mission to encourage and promote volunteerism and charitable giving and to provide opportunities for people to respond to your service mission with generosity.

Your work as a nonprofit leader necessarily includes extolling the virtues of charitable gift giving.  It is one way nonprofits are distinct corporations from for-profit ones.  Charitable support is a key component of the very structure and operational realities of your institution.  The federal government has provided your tax-exempt status and, further encourages you to engage other citizens in financially supporting your cause through various charitable giving deductions for donors within the tax code.  So, anchored deep within the very DNA of your institution is the mission to encourage charitable giving from your various publics.

But, as I think about how nonprofit leaders communicate their mission, I rarely hear this message of giving emerge.  I hear and see communications about how the services provided by the nonprofit are needed – even essential – for a just, caring, fair, healthy, and educated world.  However, I don’t hear much about the “giving is good” mission and how it evinces empathy, compassion, and understanding – traits that are far too uncommon in our world today.  Sometimes, I don’t even sense a leadership disposition to encourage generosity among as many as possible.

Make no mistake, though, your mission of promoting generosity is every bit as important as your service mission.  In fact, it may just be that it is this mission – this mission of encouraging a more generous and giving world – that will do the most good and will end up also funding your service mission.

As Mother Teresa was quoted to have said, “No money, no mission.”


You Are Not A Fundraiser

How do you respond when someone asks about your profession – what you do for a living?  While it can be tempting to offer a knee-jerk and readily-understood response such as, “I’m a fundraiser,” please don’t.

Ever again.

For the sake of our authentically-transforming work, just don’t.

Fundraising is the transactional, point-in-time act of donating.  Think of the Salvation Army’s red kettles outside of shopping centers before Christmas.  Think of crowd-funding competitions at college football games.  Think of point-of-sale donation drives at department stores.

Such fundraising strategies are not bad or unhelpful.  And, being employed to plan and implement such strategies is not ignoble work.  To be certain, transactional fundraising can raise significant sums of money!

But, that is exactly the point of why you should never refer to yourself as a “fundraiser.”

When you do this work well, it’s never about the money.  Significant giving almost always follows time — and it always follows values and beliefs.  Therefore, far from focusing on money, we should be focused on creating consequential donor engagement opportunities.  Our work’s focus should be on inviting donors to better understand the need, to meet those our institution serves (if at all possible), and to vividly animate the overlap between our donor’s values and beliefs and the needs met by our institutions.

At its core, our work is about transformations, not transactions.  Through engagement we invite others to join a meaningful cause.  Through their acceptance of our invitation, the institutions we serve, the people our institutions serve, and the donors themselves, all are transformed.

Some years ago, I suggested that all development and advancement professionals should refer to themselves as “stewards.”  Stewardship brings with an understanding of serving, protecting, and extending something good and bigger than yourself.  I think that insight has worn well over time and today, I would certainly prefer that title over “fundraiser.”  Having said that, there certainly are other more-apt descriptors to replace the ubiquitous “fundraiser” title.

You are engaged in an honorable, compassionate, encouraging, and virtuous profession.  You do big things, even when working on modest scales.  You build.  You lift up.  You bring good news and aspirations.  You help nurture and grow programs that help others.  In the end, you help transform individuals, communities, and the world by inviting others to express the most generous side of the human spirit.

Simply put, you are not a fundraiser.  You are so much more.


Every Donor Is An Exception

Over the last few years, I’ve taken to explaining the purpose of donor and prospect management as the “management of exceptions.”  By that phrase, I simply mean that all major donors and major donor prospects are “exceptions” to any conceivable universal rule one might use to engage them as a group.  Each of these identified best prospects is unique.  The relationship each has with your institution is unique.  Their history, personality, life events, perspectives, values, beliefs – all different and unique to each of them.

Prospect management, then, simply helps us bring some semblance of structure to the scale and messiness of all of these exceptions.  There is no “rule,” no “formula,” which will adequately assist the development officer with the personalized engagement of each of these prospects and donors.  It is driven, at least in part, by the uniqueness of the donor herself.

The reason I have taken to referring to prospect management as the “management of exceptions,” is to remind us all that there simply is not a magic, singular rule, strategy, or tactic, which, when implemented, will open wallets wide.  Although perhaps appealing in its simplicity, we should resist any temptation to seek or adopt any approach that purports to effectively engage donors and prospects using a template, a formula, or a pitch.

Here is the reality:  There is no such formula, rule, strategy, tactic, or pitch.  There is no single word choice, no special activity, which, when applied consistently, will helpfully engage all – or even a substantial number – of major donors and major donor prospects.

However, it can become confusing when one reads or listens to so many so-called development “experts” who, with great conviction, describe how certain strategies or pitches will work with women donors, or men donors, or business owners, or artists, or. . . well, you name it.  As if development and advancement work were so easy.

Our work, when done authentically, honorably, and effectively, isn’t to come up with the perfect pitch to sell donors based on their demographics or characteristics.  Instead, it’s to captivate each prospect as a full and complex human being and discover with each the bridges that connect their unique values, interests, and beliefs to your institution’s mission and vision.  When you consistently engage individuals as “exceptions” through planful prospect and donor management techniques, you will realize far more success than any single, canned cultivation strategy can provide.


5 Researched Reasons To Be Grateful For Your Work In Advancement

In a world seemingly plagued by insecurity, brittleness, volatility, anger, negativity, and senselessness, being involved as a professional in the arena of gift-giving and philanthropy is something for which you should be grateful.  Each day you work in advancement, you are affirming the remarkable goodness of humanity through generosity.  Consider what we know from research:

  1. Giving makes people feel better about themselves and givers report more happiness in their lives than non-givers
  2. Giving binds communities together and makes them stronger
  3. People who give live longer
  4. Giving changes our bodies chemically so that we are better able to ward off disease and sickness
  5. Giving is contagious. Even by-standers who watch givers in action, reap many of the physical and psychological benefits listed above.

So, as we begin 2018, I hope you keep close the foundational virtues of our work.  Yes, you have specific goals that need to be exceeded this year.  Facilities will need building, programs will need funding, endowments will need to grow, and budgets will need to be met.

But never lose sight of the bigger, more compelling reality:  You are involved in a honorable, particularly human work.  A work that brings us all a full step closer to the very best versions of ourselves.  A work that encourages us to deepen our faith and care for each other, despite all of the nay-saying and negativity.  A work that blesses both the giver and recipient.  And I, for one, am honored to be toiling alongside of each of you in that vineyard.


On Meaning in the New Year


I invite you to begin your New Year by watching this short “ted talk,” which was actually a presentation by Viktor Frankl, the 20th Century Austrian psychologist and more importantly, Holocaust survivor.   He reminds us all that we have a responsibility to lift up, to inspire, and to encourage others.

Regardless of your circumstances, position, and station today, 2018 is a blank canvas waiting for you to create your picture.  I hope each of us will use colors from the palettes of kindness, patience, inspiration, encouragement, and belief as we paint.  Because when we encourage others to reach for their far edge of promise, we, in fact, become the best version of ourselves.




The Law of Supply and Demand – For Development Programs

We all recognize the “law of supply and demand,” as a basic economic construct in free markets which states that ultimately, the price of a good or service will be determined by the supply of and customer demand for that good or service.  But I believe there is a development program version of “the law of supply and demand” as well.

It’s quite simple.

Either you are “supplying” your donors and prospective donors with proactive, consistent, well-planned, inspirational messages about how you are meeting important needs today, will meet more needs tomorrow, and how, specifically, they can (and should!) give through you to help meet those needs, or. . .

Or, you are you regularly are responding to the “demands” of your donors.  What does a donor-demand environment look like?  Well you probably are receiving gifts more than inviting donors to give them, which means they may not be gifts that your institution actually wants/needs.  You probably are communicating gratitude for a single gift 3 times more often than you are inviting specific gifts.  And you probably are accepting gifts with so many strings that it causes problems within your institution.

If you aren’t strategically “supplying” your donors with the plans, the whys, and the hows of their giving – in other words if you aren’t educating them, guiding them, and encouraging their best giving in ways that most benefit your mission, you are most likely operating in a donor “demand” culture.

Receiving more gifts for the purposes that your institution truly needs to best meet the needs of those you serve doesn’t just happen.  It happens because we consistently “supply” our donors with the education and inspiration to respond most helpfully.  Over time, the more we proactively focus on our “supply,” the less we will have to react to “demands.”


A Perspective on Purpose

It is well known that, given the choice, younger people will opt to meet new people and participate in new experiences as opposed to spending time with a sibling or other family members.  Conversely, older folks tend to prefer spending time with those closest to them – family, long-held friends, etc. – as opposed to expanding their circle of friends or seeking new adventures.  A macro-level task of youth, it would appear, is to expand boundaries, friend networks, and experiences.  Meanwhile, the task of old age, it seems, is to embrace those family, friends, and patterns of behavior most comforting to us.

But why does this shift in mindset from expansion to contraction happen as we age?  Stanford Center on Longevity Director, Laura Carstensen, has a theory.  Over the last 20 years she has researched this psychological phenomenon extensively.  And, here is what she has found:  It is not necessarily age that causes us to become more focused on and desire to spend more time with the ones closest to us – the ones we love.  Instead, it is our perspective – our individual sense of how much time we have left in this world.  Regardless of age, it appears, when we are confronted with the limits of our own lifespan, we tend to home in on what is most important – our deep and abiding relationships with family and friends and the activities that bring us most meaning, joy, and comfort.

Tucked away in Professor Carstensen’s research on longevity is a gem of insight for development professionals.  Simply put, the more we can remind people about the value of a life well-lived, about what brings meaning to their lives, and about what matters most to them, the more open they will be to considering supporting causes bigger than themselves.  This is not to say, of course, that we should engage our donors in depressing and morbid discussions about the brevity of human life!

However, Professor Carstensen’s work should serve to remind us that our individual and unique perspectives on life and longevity impact our decision-making and behavior in profound ways.  Perhaps our role as development professionals should be far less about asking people to support our cause and far more about inviting people to consider what lasting impact they want for their lives.  Instead of asking questions to glean more about their financial capacity, it may be that encouraging conversations about what is deeply meaningful and gives purpose to their lives will more effectively trigger their generosity.

We often ask our donors questions about why they chose to support our institutions and organizations in the first place.  Or, what they think about our proposed new program or facility expansion.  And these are fine questions.  But, first and foremost, they are questions about us, our institutions, and, our plans.  If we would consistently turn the questions around and ask about them, as whole and complex individuals, we would pour the relational concrete for a strong gift-giving foundation.  Questions like:  “As you think back on your accomplishments, to what or to whom do you attribute your greatest successes?”  Or, “Tell me about the most meaningful gift you’ve ever made.”

Not only will such an approach provide us with rich, deeply-personal information about our donors, it also gets them thinking about what and who is truly important to them and how giving is good.  This approach also does something else that is powerful:  It clearly communicates the message that, “your perspective matters to me.  What is meaningful to you, is important to me.”  And that message is what enhances trust between human beings.

It’s not a bad thing to be reminded that each of us has precious little time on this earth and that we should focus more on meaning and what matters most – people, experiences, and how our lives can leave a lasting, positive impact.  In fact, encouraging others to reflect on this fact just may be critical to inspiring their generosity.


The New Tax Bill and Charitable Giving: Another Take

This week the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed the much-discussed tax cut and reform bill, which focuses, primarily, on reducing corporate tax rates and re-organizing the individual tax code. In the charitable giving sector, non-profit leaders have expressed concerns that the greatly-increased standard tax deduction levels included in the bill – from $12,700 for married couples in 2017 to $24,000 in 2018 – will reduce the percentage of individual tax-payers who itemize deductions.  In 2017, approximately 33% of tax-payers will forego the standard deduction and itemize, while estimates suggest that only 13% will behave similarly in 2018.

The reason this substantive decline in itemizing tax deductions concerns non-profit leaders is due to a belief that fewer itemizers will equate to fewer donors and dollars given away to 501 (c) 3 organizations.  Put into question form, the clear concern is simple:  If more individuals are not going to receive a tax “credit” for their gift, will they still be motivated to give?

It’s a fair and important question, to be sure.  And while most analyses suggest that charitable giving will be negatively impacted by the changes incorporated within the new tax bill, I don’t believe this is the most concerning outcome of the tax bill even if it comes to pass.  In fact, even if charitable giving should decrease by $10 billion or $20 billion as some analyses suggest, I still don’t believe this short-term result is the most concerning development related to this tax bill.

My deeper concern stems from a broader observation about policy and civil discourse today in our society.  The tax cut and reform bill only evinces my unease, it is not the cause of it.

We live in a political and social context today in which there is no serious discussion about the role of philanthropy, the importance of giving personally, in support of the common good.  Instead, we have treated all questions related to what makes a healthy, cohesive society as a binary choice:  either the answer is government intervention or the answer is free-market capitalism.  And while both of these institutions are critical to a high-functioning, free, and healthy society, they, alone, are not the full answer.

The U.S. has long been the world’s leader in generosity.  On average over the last 50 years, Americans have given away approximately 2% of disposable income annually.  No other country comes even close to that record of generous support.  Historically, Americans have acted so generously in support of the least among us and in support of other communal concerns because of a broadly accepted ethos – that giving is good.  That it is better to give than to receive.  That being generous is a healthy, valuable, and esteemed trait in humans.

But this “generosity ethos,” is being questioned now more than ever during my lifetime.  Politicians are questioning the appropriateness of gifts in support of educational institutions (and, now, through this tax bill, beginning to tax some college and university endowments).  Additionally, in my consulting experiences, I’ve witnessed a rise in governing board members and other influential supporters pushing and jawboning non-profit leaders to seek “efficiency,” and “profit-making,” as if they were leading for-profit enterprises.  In some settings, the non-profit mission itself is being called into question.

Quietly, I do not believe giving totals will be injured in 2018 because of this tax bill.  I believe the analyses of this tax bill suggesting a negative impact over the short-term in charitable giving are wrong.  Charitable giving, broadly-speaking, tracks very closely to market returns.  So, if the financial markets continue to do well, charitable giving will probably fair well in 2018, and perhaps, for the next few years.  Longer-term, though, I do have concerns.  When the important role of personal giving is de-emphasized in our tax policy, we are heading down a pathway that leads not only to fewer Americans making charitable gifts, but more importantly, fewer Americans believing that they should.

This broader and longer-term loss of focus of what, truly, has made America great will be the impact of this tax bill that is most concerning to me.  It’s not just our democratic government, and its not just our version of capitalism that has made the U.S. special.  It is also our historically-agreed-upon “generosity ethos.”  What has made and will continue to make America unique is an emphasis on helping each other, supporting those who have less than us, and, through our private giving, showing deep care for the common good.

This “generosity ethos,” though, isn’t a birthright.  It must be nurtured and consistently reinforced.  It must be taught throughout childhood.  It must be modeled in communities.  It must be celebrated by honoring generous individuals.  And, yes, it must be affirmed in our fiscal and tax policies.  When we consistently reinforce the “generosity ethos” in our families, our churches, our schools, our communities, and our political policies, we all benefit.  Not only do those who need the care, support, and encouragement get assistance, but the givers are transformed too.  It truly is better (and healthier) to be a giver than a taker.

Additionally, we end up being the envy of the world because we do not simply rely on either government or business to solve all our problems, to care for those who might fall through the cracks, or to enhance the communal experience for all.  We have this third sector, this non-profit sector.  This other beautiful, vibrant, robust, personal, and caring component of society which is supported in patchwork fashion by millions of generous people who are compelled to respond to needs larger than their own.  The non-profit structure which encourages the expression of the impulse to help each other is as much a part of the American success story as is any political or business-related accomplishments.

So while many are focused on the short-term impacts of the tax bill on charitable giving totals, I’m not.  What concerns me is not hearing any political, business, or other social leaders consistently and fervently raising the issue that we are in a longer-term trend of minimizing the role and importance of private giving to the health and well-being of our society.  Over time, when fewer and fewer of us are encouraged to give in support of each other, we all lose.  And not just financially.  We lose what has made our society the envy of the world.  We lose our capacity to relate to our common humanity.

This tax bill is not our primary problem, it’s just another expression of it.