Using Your Database to Invite, Report, and Steward

The most fundamental and effective organizing strategies when using your database (certainly not the only organizing strategies!):

  • Inviting Donors and Prospects to Give – you will be most effective in inviting donors and prospects to give when you organize your database by giving history.  In other words, to be the most effective and efficient in inviting gifts to be given, you are best served by assessing and grouping prospects by whether or not they have given to you before and when the last gift was given.  The best predictor of future giving behavior is past giving behavior and the more recent behavior the better predictive value.  So, if could only segment your database on one attribute to invite all to give, it would be by giving history:  “Lybunts,” “Sybunts” (within the last 5 years), and “Not Yets.”
  • Reporting on Donor Giving – you will be most effective in reporting on donor giving (in summary fashion) when you organize your database by constituency groups.  When you show summary gifts and pledges information based on constituency group (i.e., alum, Board, parent, friend, organization, business, foundation, etc.), you provide an answer to the basic question of how the various constituents of the institution are responding to invitations to give.  Formatting summary giving reports by constituency group also allows you to establish and report on goals for these giving constituencies (for examples, Board, parents, and alumni giving goals).  It is worth noting that reporting by constituency is most helpful when referring to annual or ongoing giving to an institution.  In the case of comprehensive or capital campaigns, the most helpful organizing principle for gift reporting is by campaign priority.
  • Stewarding Donors – you will be most effective in stewarding donors when you organize your database by gift amount.  Establishing a donor stewardship program by gift amount does not have to be complex nor expensive.  For instance, the most basic organizing decision for stewarding donors is to identify the amount at your institution that is reserved for “leadership-level annual giving.”  For most institutions that amount ranges from $1,000 to $2,500.  Once a donor reaches that level of giving annually, simple stewardship strategies such as having the president/CEO sign the thank-you letter, sending the thank you letter and gift receipt “flat” (in a large booklet-style envelope) are simple strategies which communicate a message of importance to that donor.  Much like reporting on donor giving above, when an institution is stewarding campaign gifts, there can be more opportunities for stewardship (events, etc.) and different strategies (naming, etc.).

It is important to keep in mind that the above strategies represent the most basic – but also the most effective and efficient – organizing principles.  In the best possible world, every individual donor and prospect is invited, reported on, and stewarded personally and uniquely.  However, that goal is rarely achievable (or helpful) due to constraints of time, energy, and financial resources.

So, while you can always grow in the sophistication and complexity of how you pull, use, and display giving data, when you begin with and consistently employ the above fundamental organizing strategies, your development efforts will be maximized.


“Whatever Makes You Feel Good”

In all the years I’ve flown through Denver airport, I can’t recall ever having my shoes shined there. Earlier this week, though, I had a long layover and realized that my scruffy dress shoes were in desperate need of help.    As I waited my turn at one of the chairs, I looked around but couldn’t spot a sign showing the prices.   I didn’t think much of it, and watched as the shine ahead of me was completed.

As the customer left, the shoe shiner invited me to climb into the chair.  He came over a minute later, smiling broadly, introduced himself as James, and began my shine.  He turned out to be a great conversationalist.  He asked questions about me and my family and shared parts of his story with me.  I found myself liking him and our interaction.

After what turned out to be one of the most thorough shoes shines I can recall receiving, I popped down from the chair, reached for my wallet, and asked James, “how much do I owe you?”

Without a pause but with his big smile he said, “Whatever makes you feel good.”

“No really, how much?

“Whatever makes you feel good. . . really.”  He responded.  So, I chuckled and followed his instruction — opened my wallet and gave him an amount that made me feel good.

As I walked away, I smiled at what had just transpired.  I had heard of these, “the buyer decides the amount” financial transactions before, but James’ choice of words resonated deeply with me — “whatever makes you feel good.”

He was offering me the opportunity to set the price, of course.  But, he could have done that by saying, “it’s your choice,” or “whatever you think my shine is worth,”  or, even, “whatever amount you think is fair.”  But he didn’t make any of those statements.  Instead, his “whatever makes you feel good,” approach inserted a wonderfully pleasant assumption –  that exchanging money for his work would make me “feel good.”  He was suggesting that our interaction was much more than a simple economic transaction.  And I appreciated him because of it.

Later on the plane, I thought about how his simple, yet powerful language choice shaped my response to James and, I believe, shaped his behavior as well.

You see, James was never selling me a shoe shine.  In fact, he wasn’t selling me anything.  He was trying to make me feel something.  And he did so – expertly.  From his frequent and bright smiles, to his artistic use of inquiry, to his approach on price, James was creating an experience which boldly communicated,

“I care more about you than I do your money.”

As advancement professionals, I wonder how consistently and effectively we communicate this message to donors.  How often do we genuinely seek to understand them as whole people as opposed to checkbooks?  How often do we miss opportunities to ask questions about their lives and family?   How often do we launch into rehearsed “pitches” focused on our institutional needs before learning about their interests and giving desires?  How often do we fail to pay attention to how they are feeling?  Probably far more than we would like to admit or even realize.

James reminded me of something else:  Asking for the gift is never about taking something from someone.  Or convincing them to give you something.  Instead, it is about reminding them – with all that we do and say –  that their giving will, in fact, make them feel good.  When we invite donors to give, fully believing that giving is good, we will be far more successful in triggering their generosity.

I know James triggered mine.  I gave him more than I’ve ever paid for a shoe shine.  And, he was right.  I felt awfully good about it.


Why You Are Here Matters Most

Over the past year, I’ve read two thought-provoking articles – “Donation Inflation,” by Toni Coleman in CASE Currents and “Unplanned Obsolescence,” by Paul Clolery in the NonProfit Times – which focus on different topics but speak to a similar root concern for the future of philanthropy in the U.S.

In “Donation Inflation,” Coleman highlights the seemingly insatiable appetite for higher education campaigns to be driven myopically on setting and reaching a “magic dollar goal.”  For many institutions today, that goal is $1 billion.  Get to that number and your institution becomes a successful fundraising institution.

In the crusade to reach the magic dollar goal, however, campaign counting irregularities are becoming questionable if not fully unethical.  One institution may decide to count royalties from a patent or an ongoing state grant in campaign totals.  Another may count questionable and inflated gift-in-kind “money.”  As a consultant, I see it daily.  And yes, it’s a mess to be sure.  Especially when donors, board members, and advancement professionals want to compare campaign totals  across institutions.

In “Unplanned Obsolescence:  The donor is becoming an after-thought,” Clolery outlines the problem of shrinking donor numbers (not just in higher education but across the nonprofit sector).  He argues that a primary cause of declining donor numbers is due to a growing reliance and interest in creating “social entrepreneurship” and quasi-for-profit vehicles for funding.  In other words, we don’t have as many donors because we are turning to different revenue streams for funding programs and meeting needs.  Perhaps, but I think there is something more fundamental going on.

The fact that everyone seems to be counting campaign totals however they wish or that more nonprofits are utilizing licensing, fees for services, or other entrepreneurial activities to raise revenue are not the fundamental concerns. These are simply two symptoms of a deeper more troubling development for philanthropy.

To better understand what I would suggest buttresses both issues, I invite you to list the top reasons – the most prominent motivating factors – which have encouraged your career choice.  What is it that drives and propels your enthusiasm to serve in the philanthropic vineyard?  Why are you here?

My guess is that nowhere the top of your list have you included, “to reach the goal of raising X dollars,” or even, “to change the charitable landscape by making nonprofits behave more like for-profits.”

No, those motivators simply aren’t the drivers for the best development and advancement professionals.  The most effective folks working in philanthropy are driven, instead, by a deep and abiding passion for mission.  Simply put, they are impelled to make the world a better place by serving a meaningful institutional mission.

And here’s the payoff:  That same mission motivation drives your donors.

Yes, getting to a campaign goal is a benefit.  Yes, being innovative with funding can spark new revenue opportunities.  But if you want your donor numbers to increase and you need to raise more resources because the need is growing, donor research clearly tells us that reminding or educating donors on why your mission should matter to them is the first step.  And asking them to join with you in support of that mission is the second step.

Givers are not less caring today, they are more confused today.  And, I’m afraid, we are compounding the confusion by accentuating pretension rather than purpose and modification rather than magnanimity.


Happy Anniversary

You may complain regularly that your database is deficient, inaccurate, or misused (or all three!).  And because of your database shortcomings, you may get frustrated that you cannot consistently use it to improve and enhance your donor identification, solicitation, and stewardship.

Here, though, is a database stewardship and solicitation strategy that all institutions can use – starting today – regardless of how robust or accurate your data might be.

Send your donors an anniversary card.

Not a card for their wedding anniversary – because if you are concerned about your database, my guess is that you don’t have that data for many of your donors.  I’m talking about sending your donors a card on the anniversary of their first gift to your institution.  Show them that you recognize when they gave their first gift and are grateful for them and their support.

Perhaps you did a database conversation 12 years ago and the data beyond that point is compromised.  You may not know everyone’s first gift date.  Ok, that’s understandable.  But, you know a whole lot of first gift dates and starting now to recognize those donors is a wonderful touch.

Donors desire to be recognized.  Not always publicly, of course.  But they want to know that they are of value to your institution.  That they are important to you and to your successes.  Sending them a thoughtful card on their gift anniversary is a strategy that communicates, “you matter and we are grateful for you.”


Grow Up

If you’ve ever been admonished to “grow up,” you know the sting of those words can linger.  One of the reasons these words stick with us like they do is because they demand much more than a simple change in our behavior.  Rather, they are meant to communicate a much deeper transformation – a maturation – that must occur in our thinking, attitudes and perspectives.  The words “grow up,” don’t suggest we are acting wrongly as much as they suggest we are thinking wrongly.  And changing our thinking, attitudes, and perspectives is almost never a quick and easy adjustment.  Most would agree though, that becoming more mature is almost always worth it.

Similarly, whole institutions can find themselves needing to “grow up” as it relates to philanthropy.  And just like with individuals, the concept of “growing up” for institutions is not so much about implementing a particular set of new development activities, programs, events, or initiatives.  It’s not about doing things differently as much as it is about conceptualizing philanthropy differently.  Here are 3 points of evidence that could suggest your institution has some maturing to do when it comes to philanthropy:

  1. Phrases such as, “squeezing donors,” or “hitting them up,” or “twisting their arms” are peppered throughout the language of institutional leaders when discussing the development process;
  2. Giving is not discussed transparently, easily, or consistently at governing board meetings, board members are not involved in the solicitation of other board members, and the board does not have specific giving goals;
  3. You either haven’t operated an annual family (employee) campaign consistently or when you attempt it, you are met with serious resistance.

If you find that your institution struggles with one or more of these behaviors, you most likely have important work to do educating and transforming the minds and hearts of those closest to you.  And this work matters.  Because donors can sense when an institution is philanthropically immature.  And their response is usually less than generous.

Don’t be surprised if the institutional process to become more philanthropically mature is lengthy and challenging.  We all know, growing up isn’t always easy.


3 Steps To Increasing “Donor Durability”

Some number of your major gift donors are what I would term “durable.”  They are the ones who continue to give (often generously) regardless of their own personal and financial circumstances;  they are the ones who are deeply committed to your mission;  they are the ones who show up when you need it most;  and they are the ones who are your institution’s most ardent champions.  Many durable donors report a special joy in giving and are moved emotionally when they are asked to describe how important your mission is to them.  It is not uncommon to hear durable donors say that they are “honored” to give.

Oddly enough, a question in our major gift work that should be one of our most pressing is one we rarely pose:

“What can we do to increase the durability of more donors?”

Having interviewed major gift donors throughout North America, I would suggest the following 3-step approach to increase the durability of more major gift donors and prospects:

Step 1:  Ask them for help – seek out your best prospects for their expertise or influence and ask them to assist you in some way.  This isn’t a formal request to serve on a Board or other group – a least not yet.  Instead, think of small but meaningful tasks they can help you complete.  Perhaps you need help being introduced to a potential donor that they know.  Or, perhaps, you need a location for an event and their home would be perfect.  Or, perhaps, you have an institutional issue about which their counsel could help.  Whatever it is, ask for their help or advice.

Step 2:  Create pathways for their engagement – once you have asked for and received their help, find additional, perhaps more formal, ways to enhance their engagement.  Invite them to lead a project committee, or serve on an Advisory Council.  Recruit them to provide volunteer leadership to a fundraising effort.  Introduce them to faculty members, deans, athletics coaches, the chancellor or president, or other key individuals to expand and deepen their personal relationships at your institution.

Step 3:  Publicly lift them up as key to your progress – in whatever ways they have provided formal or informal assistance to your institution, recognize them.  Have an institutional leader acknowledge them by name at a ribbon cutting.  Direct a reporter from a newspaper to ask them a question about their leadership with an important institutional project.  Include their name in your magazine or website stories about your institutional progress.  In these ways (and others, of course), you help to create a perception of ownership and accountability in their mind and in the minds of others.

Donors become more durable as they adopt a stronger and more emotional sense of ownership in your institution’s progress and success.  Seeking their engagement in a series of more important and meaningful activities is a wise strategy to encourage their ownership and increase their durability.


5 “Alternative Facts” for Advancement Professionals

Recently, a U.S. political figure who shall remain nameless (only because it would be too embarrassing for her to be named) used the phrase, “alternative facts,” during a heated exchange with a reporter.  And since a fact is, by definition, well, “a fact,” I have no idea what the phrase “alternative facts,” is intended to mean.  However, when I take the phrase at face value, my best approximation at a definition would be that “alternative facts,” are those facts that are not facts in our known world, but, instead, are facts that apply in some alternative universe.

So, then, I thought about that concept – facts that are not facts in our world, but perhaps, could be factual in some other alternative reality – and I came up with the following 5 “alternative facts” for advancement professionals.

Alternative Fact 1:  Donor fatigue.  In our world, donors don’t get tired of giving.  What we know is that giving is a scientifically-proven joyful, health-giving, disease-debilitating, life-extending activity.  People don’t typically get “tired” from being more healthy.  Instead, donors stop giving because they aren’t engaged and inspired to give, not because the proverbial well has run dry.  However, in some alternative universe, perhaps life-forms don’t enjoy healthy activities and giving, does, in fact, become tiresome.

Alternative Fact 2:  Asking for a planned gift should only occur after you know a donor well.  In our world, discussing a planned giving opportunity can happen easily and comfortably early on in a relationship with a donor – even during a first, discovery visit with a prospective donor.  For instance, you could be enjoying a wonderful first visit with an alumni couple, listening to them talk glowingly about what your institution means to them.  And as you get up to leave you could say something like:

“A thought just occurred to me.  You both are so complimentary of our institution and have so many fond memories of your time there.  I visit with donors all the time who share with me the same kind of fondness and care for our institution – and many of them have included our institution as a beneficiary in their will.  It occurs to me that you might have done something like that yourselves.  Is that something you’ve already done or have talked about doing?”

In some other version of reality, it could be an “alternative fact” that planned giving conversations are touchy, sensitive endeavors.  You might even have to wait for a long time before bringing up planned gifts.  But not in our reality.  In our reality, it’s actually kind of easy.

Alternative Fact 3:  The best development professionals raise money by themselves.  In our world, the research is clear, volunteers give more money themselves and, when engaged appropriately, help institutions raise more money from others.  I once had a very wealthy, generous major donor say to me, “The project is important.  Before I give, I have to believe it makes sense and is a good project.  But the asker – the asker is even more important.”  In other words, enlisting people he respected to solicit him was a key to receiving his best commitment.  People give to people.  And in many instances, the very best people in any given circumstance may be volunteers who we coach up.

Yet, in some parallel universe, it may be all about the development officer.  Engaging volunteers meaningfully for campaigns or in major gifts might be belittled or viewed as more trouble than they are worth. But in our world, we know that volunteers can extend a development officers results.

Alternative Fact 4:  Annual giving is not worth our time.   In our world, we understand the research that points to the fact that the largest single gift that a donor might make – a planned gift – is typically preceded by years and years of somewhat consistent modest, annual gifts.  Additionally, we read the research that connects the habit of making annual gifts to making larger, current major gifts.  Finally, we understand that a robust and growing donor base (who, by definition will be making smaller gifts), is a risk-reduction, diversification strategy for an institution’s annual revenue stream.

However, in some other, alternative world, there might be those individuals who are short-sighted enough to cut resources for annual giving.  Or, there may even be consulting firms who suggest that annual giving shouldn’t be an important part of the annual revenue mix for an institution.  Of course, this “alternative fact” could not possibly be accepted in our world. . . right?

Alternative Fact 5:  The “Working Board.”  –  In our world, giving by the members of your governing or foundation board matters.  In fact, it matters a lot.  Not only should 100% of your board members give annually, the total of your board’s collective giving should be substantial.  We know from our research at Gonser Gerber that campaigns are far more likely to end successfully and on time when members of the board give at least 20% of the total campaign goal.  Your board is your institution’s leadership body – and that means philanthropic leadership also.

However, in some “alternative world,” there may be a place for a “working board,” whatever that might mean.  My best guess at a definition for the concept of a “working board,” would be something like the following:  “Members of a working board like to remind others that they roll up their sleeves and volunteer for the institution – that is their ‘gift’ to the institution.  But in reality, they don’t do much meaningful volunteering and they certainly don’t embrace serious giving expectations.”

Yes, a “working board” might be all that is needed in an alternative reality.  But, in our world today, our institutions deserve much better.

My sincere hope is that none of us have to deal with any more “alternative facts” – at least not in this world.


What Is The Work?

What if the purpose of your campaign is not to raise extraordinary amounts of gift income, but instead is to educate potential givers on the need(s) being met by your institution?

What if the purpose of your alumni relations event is not to ensure that people have an enjoyable experience, but instead is to remind them why your institution should matter to them?

What if the purpose of your annual giving efforts is not to raise operational and/or unrestricted gift income from a growing base of givers, and instead is to encourage people to adopt a habit of consistent giving.

What if the purpose of advancement services is not to provide accurate and timely reports and data, and instead is to provide leadership and coaching on how to gather the best possible data and use it effectively?

What if your purpose – whatever your position may be in the advancement profession – is not to raise more more money or enhance your institution’s reputation or get more people out to events?  What, if, instead, your purpose is to help people to see beyond their bubble of self-interest and awaken the innate but rarely discussed need for each of us to be generous?

How would you change your behavior?  And, more specifically, how would you change the actual work you are doing?

Because, in fact, these are the ways in which the very best in our profession view our work.


From “Why?” to “What?”

“Why?” isn’t the thing.  It’s not the building project.  Nor the endowment fund.  It’s not the new program.  Nor whatever the gifts might support.  “Why?” is what will happen once you successfully build that building, or grow that endowed fund, or start that new program.  “Why?” is how the money supports your mission and helps you fulfill your vision.  “Why?” is about how you will serve more and better.  “Why?” is about saving and/or transforming lives.

On the front end of the gift giving process, addressing “why?” in a compelling and clear way is critical.  Research suggests that givers are much more likely to be generous when they understand clearly “the why” and when it aligns with their values and beliefs.  If you are building a case for support, addressing, “why your gift is needed” early and with clarity matters.  Simply asking for a gift for the new building, program, or initiative, is not nearly enough – you will be leaving out the most captivating part of your request!  Passionately appealing to people’s values and beliefs encourages their most generous response.

However, after a gift has been made, communicating the “what?” of the gift becomes imperative.  “What?” describes the specific advances the gift has made possible in support of the mission or to fulfill the vision.  “What?” is the new, flexible space that will allow you to teach better.  “What?” is research that the newly-endowed professor just completed which signals a new pathway for sustainable energy.  “What?” is the new program that will link professional training with the classical liberal arts.

However rational we might wish ourselves to be with important decisions, researchers tell us that emotions still play an integral role in all decision-making.  In fact, recent work suggests that in situations where decisions are made in the best interests of others (as opposed to “self-interest”), moral sentiments, or emotions, serve to help decision-makers commit to others rather than being drawn back toward pure self-interest.  In other words, on the front end of the gift giving cycle, answering “why?” is a key trigger for generosity.

But after the “why?” has been answered and the gift commitment has been made, it is wise to begin focusing on addressing the “what?”  Humans might make charitable gift decisions based on the “why?” but they rationalize the shrewdness of their charitable investment with concreteness and logic.



3 Often-Overlooked Principles for Effective Volunteer Engagement

Effectively engaging volunteers – be they Board members, campaign leaders, special event volunteers, advisory council members, or others – can be a tricky proposition.  On the one hand, influential volunteers have an ability to open doors, leverage personal relationships, and tell the story of your institution with an authenticity that can be unmatched by those who are paid by your institution.  But, on the other hand, working with volunteers can be exceptionally messy and time-consuming.  Unfortunately, there is no formula, no template, nor science that adequately explains how best to engage non-paid, but influential and sometimes high maintenance partners.

In our firm’s work with non-profit institutions and organizations, we regularly experience advancement professionals who struggle to adequately engage and utilize the value of their volunteer resource.  At some institutions, volunteers are persona non grata – viewed as “not being worth the effort.”  While at others, they are engaged, but with a good deal of murmuring and frustration from advancement leaders.

At Gonser Gerber, we wholly endorse the engagement of influential volunteers.  Not only do they extend your institution’s reach and invite new donor relationships to be nurtured, the appropriate engagement of volunteers will serve to deepen their own relationship and sense of ownership at your institution.  Here, then, are 3 guiding principles to help you engage volunteers more effectively, artfully, and with much less frustration.

  1. Being unprepared is provocative. The quickest way to invite volunteers of influence and affluence to begin telling you what and how to do your work is to be perceived as being unprepared for meetings or other interactions.  Influential volunteers have typically enjoyed a great deal of success in their professional lives and are used to “calling the shots.”  If meetings are called without a crystal clear purpose, if expectations for their roles are not written and stated plainly, or if you struggle to articulate what “success” looks like for the term of their engagement, you run the real risk of volunteers coming up with work for you to do.   And typically, because volunteers are not advancement professionals, what they ask you to do is work that is neither helpful nor needed.
  2. Volunteers need to be led in order to provide leadership. There is a fine line between leading volunteers and encouraging them to adopt ownership or leadership of the campaign, event, or other activity for which they are assisting.  But here is the reality:  Advancement professionals should not be in the defensive position of regularly responding to volunteer requests.  Instead, you should be educating and leading volunteers in a way that answers most of their questions before they are asked.  In other words, you should be, at least, a few steps ahead of your volunteers.  It is only when volunteers are led effectively that they can adopt an attitude of leadership.  In other words, when you lead your volunteers well (starting with being prepared for their engagement), they will leave your meetings feeling supported by professionals.  This allows them to be more eager to leverage their influence in ways that will assist your institution.  You have educated and led them well.  Therefore, they are more inclined to represent themselves as champions of your institution to other constituents.
  3. More data is almost always unhelpful. One of the tell-tale indicators that influential volunteers are sensing less-than-effective leadership from advancement professionals is the request for “more data.”  This request typically emerges in the following way:  A volunteer might say, “Before I can go out and invite others to learn more about supporting this campaign/special event/etc., I need more information, more data.”  The problem with this request is that you know that “more data” is not a strong motivator to encourage someone to give or give more.  Research clearly tells us that data isn’t nearly the philanthropic motivator as compared to a personal connection (even through a volunteer) to an institution.  So, complying with their request is not only unhelpful, it perpetuates a falsehood about giving.  When a volunteer leader asks for “more data,” the effective advancement leader will pause to deftly explore and educate.  For instance, she might say, “Since we know from research that people give to people, and clearly you have strong relationships with these prospects, help me better understand how we can help you encourage their support.”

Volunteers are worth it – most of the time. Simply put, you can raise far more money by engaging influential volunteers than simply by doing it all yourself.  But volunteers only make good sense when you engage the right people (of influence and affluence) and have the capacity to engage them appropriately and expertly.

One final point to always keep in mind — you are the pro, they are the volunteer.