Ask Fever

In the U.S. space industry the term “go fever,” refers to project teams making rushed decisions while “overlooking potential problems or mistakes.”  The reasons that “go fever” can grip a team can range from budget pressures to individuals not wanting to be viewed as the person who slowed progress or questioned authority.  This concept has been cited as part of the cause behind such disasters as the Space Shuttle Challenger break-up in 1986.

Similar to “go fever,” I would suggest that leaders at some institutions experience “ask fever” — or the rush to solicit donors or prospective donors for a major gift while “overlooking potential problems or mistakes” of moving too quickly.  “Ask fever,” may be driven by budgetary pressures or a general misunderstanding on the part of an institutional leader that major gift solicitations are not transactional tasks that can simply be checked-off one’s to-do list.

The full problematic impact of “ask fever,” is not so much that the institution almost never receives the best possible gift when the fever strikes its leaders.  Instead, when leaders give in to “ask fever,” the biggest loss is the loss of donor engagement – and in many instances, that loss is long-term or permanent.

The reason that forgoing donor engagement is such a costly error is because giving follows involvementvolunteers give more than non-volunteers, and donors with more than one meaningful connection to your institution give more than less-connected donors.  Donor engagement, the research suggests to us, is the archway through which the best possible gifts flow.

If you find yourself or others in your institution coming down with a bad case of “ask fever,” go ahead and ask the donor prospect – but instead of asking for the gift, ask them for their advice and perspective.  Ask them to get involved more deeply and more meaningfully in your mission.  You may find that the gift that follows that ask is much larger than you could have imagined.


Centralized, Decentralized, and Compartmentalized

One way to describe the organization of advancement shops is the point at which they sit along the “centralized – decentralized” continuum.  “Centralized” shops are ones that provide advancement services to the institution they serve through one or several offices that report to one positional leader.  These shops are typically recognized as a “division of advancement” or some such name and they serve as the site for the planning, coordination, and implementation of all advancement-related efforts for that institution.

On the other side of the continuum, fully “decentralized” shops are those that have advancement services assigned and reporting to different functional areas of the institution.  For instance, each college of a university may have its own advancement function.

There is no “right” way to approach advancement centralization.  The complexity, history, culture, and needs of each institution as well as how donors relate to that institution should suggest how best to organize the advancement function.  However, one drawback of the decentralized model – however it is implemented – is the notion of compartmentalization.  Too often a decentralized shop becomes a compartmentalized one.

Just because an institution employs a decentralized advancement model does not mean that advancement efforts should be compartmentalized.  Even though reporting structures may vary for each advancement office in a decentralized model, the offices should still seek integration of their work.  For instance, integrated Prospect Management Team meetings should be held monthly so that leadership-level donors are encouraged to give their best possible gifts in support of the whole enterprise.  And marketing should be integrated across the enterprise so that brand elements are affirmed and communicated clearly to all constituencies.

To be both decentralized and integrated takes leaders with a long-view.  It means that staff evaluations need to affirm coordination and working across silos.  It means recognizing that our donors respond best when we approach them with a single comprehensive proposal, instead of multiple disjointed and uncoordinated solicitations.  It means that leaders need to have an ego for the entire enterprise that is at least as big than the ego they have for their individual areas.

At your institution, it may make exceptionally good sense for advancement functions to be decentralized.  But it never makes good sense for advancement functions to be compartmentalized.


Creating Your “To-Who” List

As someone who is part of the advancement process for your institution, you are in the relationship-building business.  To be successful you must work effectively and efficiently with and through others.  At its core, the work is about people.

And you probably employ a task-filled “to-do” list in an effort to organize yourself and your work.

Notice anything odd about the nature of advancement work and how you organize yourself?  The work is all about people, and yet, many of us organize our work around tasks.

Instead of a “to-do” list, advancement professionals should create “to-who” lists to organize ourselves and our work.  Who are the donors you need to bring into a closer relationship with your institution?  Who are the key staff members with whom you need to coordinate to get that email blast sent?  Who are the prospects with whom you need to conduct discovery visits?  Who are the Board members you need to profile?

When we replace our “to-do” lists with “to-who” lists, we not only align our efforts with the nature of advancement work, we also remind ourselves daily that we are at our best when we seek to engage the important people around us.

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What’s The Purpose?

One organization I work with generates over $20 million per year from their direct mail campaigns.  The purpose of their direct mail program is to increase gift income.

Another client – a private higher education institution with about 1,600 students – welcomes back to campus approximately 1,000 alumni for homecoming each year.  The purpose of this event is to strengthen connections among alumni.

When I first got into advancement work, I recall going to a CASE conference and listening as a phonathon director from a larger public higher education institution described her phonathon script.  If the student caller reached an alum on the phone, the caller was to ask for $1,000.  It did not matter what the alum’s giving history might be.  Nor did it matter when the alum graduated.  The first ask for everyone was $1,000.  The purpose of this institution’s phonathon was to identify major gift prospects.

I don’t necessarily hold up any of these programs as models for other institutions to follow.  None of these examples may be a “best practice” for you and your institution.  In fact, they probably are not.  My point is different.  These are examples of institutions that have created a singular purpose for important programs and, by staying true to that single purpose over time, have reaped rewards.

These programs don’t have a “primary purpose” to which there may be a secondary, tertiary, and quaternary purposes.  Rather they have one focused purpose, and that has made all of the difference.

What is the singular purpose of your direct mail or phonathon program?  Of your planned giving program?  Of your constituent relations events?

Too often, we create programs, campaigns, strategies, and tactics and fail to clearly and concisely identify the purpose.  Or if we have identified a singular purpose, we allow it to get muddied by a well-meaning statement that typically begins, “wouldn’t it be great if we. . .”

If you have a difficult time clearly identifying a single focus for any of your programs or campaigns, you probably have discovered a key reason why your efforts aren’t as successful as you would like.


Seeking Strangers vs Delighting Friends

Strangers usually won’t invest significantly with you or your mission.  They don’t know you well enough to trust you.

Friends, though, are much more apt to invest with you.  They know you well, are invested in their relationship with you, and they believe in you and your mission.

When institutions plan for ambitious campaigns or other major gift efforts, one point of conventional wisdom states that the advancement team will need to focus on identifying strangers and making them into friends.

The thinking here is simple:  The institution’s current and past major gift donors are too tired, too old, or simply “tapped out.”  The institution can’t count on them to make the proposed campaign a success.  Strangers with the capacity to make significant investments, therefore, will need to be identified and cultivated into friends if goals are to be achieved.

Within the context of this conventional thinking, it is not uncommon for a good amount of creative capital and other resources to be spent on the work of identifying strangers.  For instance, we ask Board members who they might introduce to us.  We search for new foundations who might fund our priorities. We talk with current major donors about their personal and professional networks.  We conduct electronic wealth screens.  All in an attempt to find our next big donor.

And this is important work.

The problem with conventional thinking, though, is that we often don’t pause to question its veracity.

What if we spent as much creative energy and resources on strategizing how to better engage and delight our current friends as we do seeking out strangers?  In most situations, characterizing your current and past major donors as too tired, too old, or “tapped out,” is inaccurate.  They may very well be bored and disinterested.  But you can change that.


Being Uncomfortable

“I’m not at all comfortable – and I absolutely think we should do it!”

This was a Board member’s immediate response to the Chair’s question: “Are we comfortable with Dr. McNeal’s campaign plan recommendations?”

I was giving a presentation with recommendations to this Board and leadership team to assist them with their campaign planning.  Without question, the proposed campaign represented the largest and most comprehensive fundraising effort the organization had ever undertaken.  Even before the presentation, I knew there may be resistance to the ambitious undertaking.

And, while there was some resistance, other Board members saw my planning recommendations as opportunities.  Opportunities to learn and grow as Board members and opportunities to do more to advance the organization than had been done over the last 30 years.

At the end of the presentation there was vigorous discussion.  Some liked the direction an ambitious campaign would take the organization.  Other Board members struggled with the idea of stretching themselves and stretching the organization.  What specific expectations would a campaign bring for me as a Board member?  How might my giving have to change?  What if the campaign were to be unsuccessful?  These and other questions, I’m sure, were at the heart of some of the anxiety.

Finally, the Board Chair asked everyone if they were “comfortable” with my recommendations.

The quoted answer above was the only response.  Within a minute or two the Board unanimously approved moving forward with the campaign plans.

“I’m not at all comfortable – and I absolutely think we should do it!”

How many times in work – or even in life – have we failed to try something different, decided not to attempt a new strategy, or talked ourselves out of a fresh approach simply because we weren’t comfortable?  Perhaps you are an annual giving director who could be more creative with your direct mail and direct response campaigns.  Or maybe you are a major gifts officer who has argued for setting a timid annual visit goal.  Or possibly, you are a vice president who has been indecisive about a personnel change that you know needs to be made.

If you want the kind of results that are deserved by your institution and those you serve, you can’t always do what is comfortable.  Stretching can make you uncomfortable – and you absolutely should do it.


Board Members and Major Gifts

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that engaging people – wholly, gracefully, and artfully – is a primary theme.   Philanthropic investment is, most often, an action that succeeds (not precedes) other forms of engagement.

Major gifts, then, begin with those who you know best, your institution’s closest friends and champions.  And engaging these individuals in various thoughtful and strategic ways should be the first and most important priority for any advancement program serious about increasing gift income.

If you are looking for new approaches and fresh insights into how best to find, recruit, and engage those individuals closest to your institution I want to encourage you to attend one of the Gonser Gerber Institute’s professional development workshops this spring.  Here are three short, but interactive and smart upcoming opportunities for you and members of your team:

Building a Better Advancement Board – Thursday and Friday, March 12-13.  If you want effective strategies focused on increasing the involvement of your Board members in advancement and encouraging them to give more generously, this workshop is for you.

Higher Education Advisory Boards and Councils:  Positioning Them for Success – Thursday and Friday, April 30-May 1.  Join me at the Gonser Gerber offices outside of Chicago for 2 days of interactive learning focused on best practices on advisory councils and boards.  This is a topic that I’m passionate about and we’ve had fantastic participant reviews each time we’ve offered this course.

Major Gifts A to Z – A Training Session for New Major Gift Officers – Thursday and Friday, May 14-15.  If you or someone on your team is relatively new to major gift work, this workshops provides the keys to getting started successfully.

Also, if you work in the donor relations area or are interested in making your donor relations program more effective without a ton of investment, please plan to join me next Thursday, February 5 for a 1 hour webinar:  5 Essential Tips:  Innovative (and Inexpensive) Ways to Strengthen Your Donor Relations Program.

If you are looking for professional development opportunities this spring and major gifts and board member engagement is on your mind don’t let these programs pass you by.  I hope to see you at an Institute program soon!


5 Steps to Asking Better Questions

Effective questioning is a key skill of successful development officers.  In addition to being the most efficient way to learn about someone, asking beautiful questions and actively listening to the responses evidences an authentic interest in the other person and helps to build trust.  All of which leads to increased gifts.

But while expert questioning is key to development success, I find many gift officers are not exceptionally skilled in this area.  This finding should not surprise, though.  We are not taught how to question in school.  We are not taught how to question in professional development settings.  We are taught to answer questions, not craft them.

Questioning, though, can be taught.  In their book, Just One Change:  Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana provide a blueprint for how to teach the art of inquiry.  And here are the steps you can use with your team to sharpen their questioning skills:

  1. A team leader develops a “question focus.”  This is a short statement that may be provocative and is designed to stimulate thinking and discussion.  The “question focus” is not discussed or explained, it is just a short statement to be used for this exercise.  For instance, you might come up with something like:  “Giving is good for the donor.”
  2. Team members develop questions.  Based on the “question focus,” team members are tasked with writing down as many questions as they can create.  There is no debating the merit of questions or answering the questions being posed.  Instead, everyone simply writes down all the questions that come to mind when thinking about the statement, “Giving is good for the donor.”  Any and all questions are to be captured and all statements need to be turned into questions.
  3. Team members improve their questions.  Next, each person assesses the questions they have developed.  Some will be written as open-ended questions (beginning with “why” and “how” for instance).  And some will be written as close-ended questions (can be answered with a “yes” or “no” for instance).  Team members are to rewrite each of their questions to make the closed ones open and vice versa.  The purpose here is to better understand that the way we phrase questions can elicit vastly different answers.
  4.  Team members prioritize their questions.  Instruct the team members to come up with their top 3 questions by order of importance.   Then, the group is to share and compare the priority questions produced by each person.  Ask team members why they consider these to be the most important questions. This process helps the participants understand that some questions are more productive than others.
  5. Team members reflect on what was learned.  Share the lessons that were learned with the group.

Gift officers are called to strengthen relationships with donors.  To do that work well, they need to be master question-askers.  If we start teaching this skill regularly, I am convinced that gift officers will engage more donors in meaningful ways and they will raise more money.


Answers or Questions

It used to be that answers were power.  If you had the answers, you had the advantage.  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 very different.  Today, answers are a commodity.  They are easily accessible and most everyone can retrieve the same answers very quickly.  If we want an answer to just about any fact-based question, we ask Google.  And with mobile technology, we have access to cloud-based answers from just about any location through multiple platforms.  Answers, truly, are everywhere we want them to be.

In addition, these computer-constructed answers are getting more sophisticated and wide-ranging every day.  In 2011 the IBM computer, Watson, accurately answered questions faster than Jeopardy! champions on TV and won $1 million.  Today, Watson is helping healthcare providers make decisions about the best possible cancer treatment.

So, if answers are becoming ubiquitous and the playing field to access those answers is almost completely flat, what will separate the successful from all others in the future?  I would argue that the ability to ask insightful questions will be more important for tomorrow’s success than knowing the answers.  Especially, in our field, the more capable we are at asking thoughtful and meaningful questions of donors, the more money we will raise.

But the importance of learning how to ask good questions isn’t getting its due.  Our schools still largely teach students to memorize answers in preparation for standardized tests.  And in our workplaces, we are still conditioned to believe that the person with the “right” answers should be the boss.

Let me suggest, though, that the future will be won by those we are able and willing to ask important (and sometimes uncomfortable) questions.  If you are interested in starting a new program or assessing how to make a current program better, ask questions that begin with “why.”  Such as, “why this and not that?”  or “why are doing this at all?”  If you are looking to assess alternatives, ask questions that begin with “what if.”  Such as, “what if we decided to host this event in conjunction with Homecoming?”  or, “what if we were to increase our solicitation goal?”  And, finally, if you are looking to implement one of the “what if” alternatives, ask questions that begin with “how.”  Such as, “how can we increase our total solicitations with the same number of gift officers?”

It may seem that the person who asks questions is ignorant or even obstinate (or both!).  But, if you want to grow your influence with donors and with those on your team, mastering the art of asking insightful questions will be a key component of your success.


Why Do Other Donors Give?

Ask a Board member, an Advisory Council member, or other engaged major donor why he gives to your institution.   Almost universally, you will hear how he believes in the mission of the institution.  Or, how the institution made an impact on his life or on the life of someone dear to him.  Or, how he believes in the concept of giving back.  Or, how he was touched by a story of an individual, family, or community positively impacted by the work of your institution.

Now, ask the same person how you can best encourage others to make significant gifts and you are likely to hear a very different perspective.  Specifically, you may hear something similar to the following:

  • “People give to institutions that can communicate clear outcomes,” or,
  • “People give to institutions that are efficient and can prove that they get results,” or,
  • “People give to specific projects,” or,
  • “People give to name something,” and, of course,
  • “People will not give to the annual fund.”

When donors reflect on their own giving, they will regularly frame their motivations in terms of personal meaning, mission, and relationships.  The impetus for giving is pure, more altruistic, and more emotional.

However, when donors surmise on the giving motivations of others, they regularly frame their responses in more transactional terms.  The giving motivations of others are identified as more self-interested, more business-like, and more rational.

This should not be surprising, of course.  Social scientists have told us for years that, in a variety of settings, we attribute the most socially-attractive motivators to explain our behavior and less socially-favorable motivators to explain the behaviors of others.  For instance, I simply didn’t see the woman whom I cut off driving down the road.  But the guy who cut me off moments later is arrogant, self-absorbed (probably texting!), and, should have his driver’s license revoked.

People make significant gifts because their beliefs, experiences, and personal relationships trigger them to do so.  They give meaningfully because they are moved emotionally and personally to be generous.  During hundreds of interviews with major donors, I have never had one say, “I researched a bunch of institutions and made the decision to make a significant gift to this one because they were the most efficient – their cost-to-raise a dollar was the lowest.”

You should be far less interested in what your major donors think about the giving motivations of others.  Instead, find out why they give themselves.  Dig in to their motivations.  Then, implement the strategies that encourage the types of personal relationships and experiences that motivate their generosity.