Best Practices or Best Thinking?

As an advancement professional, you see the hackneyed phrase, “best practices” a ton.  Professional development opportunities tout the teaching of “best practices” for this advancement function or that one.  Members of your team may spend time benchmarking other shops to identify, “best practices.”  Perhaps even you have sought or are seeking the silver-bulleted “best practices” as a way to immediately enhance your advancement results.  Truly, it is a ubiquitous phrase in our profession.

But what if authentic, sustained advancement improvements and results come not from copying “best practices,” but instead emerge from how we think about our advancement work?

The problem with “best practices,” of course, is that what works for the university on the other side of town may not work as well for you.  Or, activities which improved results at another organization could actually be detrimental to your advancement results.  Every institution – each organization – is unique.  Each has its own history, giving culture, greater and lesser strengths, leadership  capabilities (and shortcomings), and donor interests.  Each institution has its own opportunities as well as its own threats.  So, as a profession, we probably should be critically questioning how beneficial the seeking of “best practices” really is for the progress of our individual advancement programs.

I’m not totally against “best practices,” mind you.  Understanding the general idea of advancement “best practices,” can be helpful.  As an example, learning what works for envelope teaser language in order to get the envelope opened is helpful.  It’s just not what is most helpful.

I’m concerned that our profession touts “best practices” as some sort of “progress panacea.”  “Do these 8 things,” the “best practice” elixir suggests, “and your online giving portal will produce more gifts.”  “Best practices” provide guidance to our work around the edges of effectiveness.  They do not represent the building blocks of longer-term success and enhanced advancement results.

Regularly, my encouragement to advancement professionals is to spend less time seeking “best practices” and far more time reflecting on “best thinking.”  If you want to create environments in which donors give generously and consistently, here are 3 “best thoughts” to commit to memory and work by:

  1. Being Generous is Good . . . for the Giver – When you really buy-in to the notion that giving is good for the giver, you will give strenuous scrutiny to gimmicks, give-aways, and other transactional maneuvers designed to raise money.  You will put far more energy into creating compelling reasons and ways to invite donors into the wonderfully meaningful experience that comes with acting altruistically and generously.  You will focus on your mission and why it should matter to more people in the world.  And, you will bring a passion to your work that performance metrics and goals, alone, will never animate.  Simply by looking at the strategies and tactics of some advancement programs, one would wonder what the leaders of those programs really believe about giving and generosity.  I can assure you that the best, most effective advancement programs are led by people who fully embrace the truth that giving is good.
  2. All Giving is Personal – Recently I co-presented at the Association of Healthcare Philanthropy International Conference with a dear friend, Tim Self, Executive Director of AnMed Health Foundation.  As we were preparing for our presentation, Tim reminded me that years ago, I invited him to make his first “major” gift – an annual gift of $1,000.  “Jason,” he said, “I’ll never forget the satisfaction I had in making that commitment and then bringing that gift to your office.”  Here’s the rest of that story:  I consider Tim a good and dear friend.  And I have absolutely no recollection of inviting him to make that gift nor of his fulfilling it!   To Tim that gift was beyond a “major” gift – it was meaningful – and that is all that really matters.  The best, most effective advancement programs are led by people who fully embrace the notion of viewing all that you do through the eyes, ears, and perspectives of the prospective donor.
  3. Educating Donors is Your Primary Role – Yes, you are supposed to use the art of inquiry to learn about prospective donors.  Yes, you are supposed to listen actively to discern their interests and values.  And, yes, are supposed to invite donors to give.  But, eclipsing all of those activities should be a realization that you are an educator first.  Educating donors on the need, on why they should care, on how they should make their gift, even on what amount they should consider giving.  Too many in our profession fail to recognize their appropriate role in shaping gifts through donor education and, instead, are content to receive whatever gifts emerge from donor interactions.  The best, most effective advancement programs are led by people who fully embrace the role of being a donor educator.  And like all good educators, they lead.  They encourage.  They correct bad thinking.  They challenge.  And they do it with a deftness that inspires.

Cultivating habits of good thought in order to drive better practices should be our goal.  When we embrace “best thinking” like the 3 examples above, we put ourselves and our advancement programs in the best possible position for long-term success and positive results.  In the end, it will not be the employment of random “best practices” which will secure our success.  It will be the employment of practices that are driven relentlessly by a habit of “best thinking.”


The Believability Factor in Campaigns

What makes a campaign successful?

“It depends,” is a well-established, go-to answer for consultants, but that doesn’t mean it is an altogether unhelpful response.  From leadership, to donor engagement, to giving history at the institution, successful campaigns do, in fact, “depend,” on numerous important variables.

One variable, though not often discussed, is exceptionally predictive of campaign success.  It is what our firm calls the “believability factor.”  This factor is important because it impacts the donor at the very beginning of the campaign process and discussion.  It sets the stage for all future conversations and it colors all information, education, and engagement activities that occur through the cultivation and solicitation process.  To understand the power of the “believability factor,” it is helpful to understand what, exactly, it is and how it works.

Campaign “believability” can be defined in two ways.

First, a campaign is seen as being “believable” if major donors, in general, perceive the proposed campaign dollar goal as achievable.  The dollar goal may be viewed as a stretch for the institution, but, major donors must be willing to state that the stretch can be reached.  If you were to ask major donors whether or not they believe a proposed campaign dollar goal is achievable, and you asked them to rate their confidence on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being “high confidence in achieving the dollar goal”), you would want to see the scores around the 4-7 range.  You certainly don’t want ratings of 1-3 as that would suggest they believe the campaign dollar goal to be a fantasy number.  Conversely, you wouldn’t want to see scores in the 8-10 range as that would suggest that these major donors believe the campaign dollar goal is too low.  When a campaign’s dollar goal is not “believable” – especially when it is viewed as being far too high – the institution runs the risk of turning off major donors from the start.  Who would make a decision to give their best gift in support of a campaign they believed to be headed for failure?

The second way a campaign’s “believability” is understood by major donors is based on the campaign initiatives that are being presented.  Are these initiatives viewed as being achievable by the institution should the money be raised?  Is the leadership in place to deliver?  Is the infrastructure present to support the initiative?  Is the initiative viewed as a pipe-dream or as a logical next step for the institution based on its strengths and its strategic plan?  If major donors perceive the institution to be “dreaming” recklessly, they will, again, be discouraged from making their best gifts.

Recently, I was with a higher education client in the process of preparing for a campaign.  The president is a visionary with bold aspirations.  He is an advancement leader’s dream but he can also be viewed as being a bit too ambitious with major donors expressing some measure of skepticism at his plans and aspirations.  His initial instinct was to propose a campaign dollar goal that was far and away larger than anything ever considered by the institution.  As I shared with him the importance and power of the “believablity factor,” he responded, “So, we need our campaign dollar goal to be a number that encourages each of our major donors to see how their stretch gift can help us achieve that goal.”

“Exactly!”  I said,  “your major donors know they are at the top of your giving pyramid.  So, if they can’t imagine how their gift helps you significantly reach your proposed dollar goal, they won’t be inspired to give significantly.”

The aspirations we have for our institutions should always be filtered through the lens of “believability.”  When we get it right, we encourage the best gifts from our best donors.  But, if we get it wrong, we discourage them.  And that may not be easy to reverse.


Causes vs. Symptoms

I’ve been running now for about 10 years (actually, I jog, but that sounds 1980ish).  Over those years, I’ve only experienced two injuries that were painful enough to sideline me this activity that I’ve grown to love.  One of those injuries occurred about 8 years ago.  It was a sharp pain on the outer side of the left knee which presented so quickly and intensely that I had to stop running mid-workout and slowly limp back to my car.  The second injury occurred a few weeks ago and is an arch pain in both of feet.  And while this pain is more of a throbbing, bruised feeling, it is severe enough that I’ve not been running for 3 weeks.  However, I can tell I’m getting better.

What I learned from both of these experiences is that bodily pain can show itself in places that are not the location of the underlying problem.  In other words, the actual causes of my pains were not in my left knee nor in my feet.  For my knee pain, I had a tight, left leg iliotibial band that was pulling on tissues just enough around my knee to cause pain there.  For the soles of my feet, I’ve realized that I have tight calf muscles that have pulled on tendons that run down around my ankles and connect to the tissue (fascia) underneath my feet.  The knots in my tight calves have pulled on the tendons and have caused pain in the arches of my feet.  In both instances, I massaged the problem areas vigorous and, voila, the pains in my knee and feet subsided.

Besides perhaps being TMI, there is a development purpose to this post.  Specifically, it is not uncommon for development leaders to misdiagnose the real causes of unsuccessful outcomes or missed goals.  In fact, I see this quite regularly in my consulting work.  Below are 3 classic “painful symptoms” we can experience in our development efforts and their true causes.

  1. Our Board Isn’t Being Generous – While it is easy to blame the Board members themselves who don’t give annually, or don’t give generously to our institution (“They know they are supposed to give!” or, “I don’t know why they would even say ‘yes’ to being on the Board when they know the giving expectation.”), the reality in many situations is that the Board members were, in fact, not clearly informed of the giving expectations when they were asked to serve on the Board.  The institution may not even have a standard recruitment process or a consistent set of Board member expectation talking points (preferably written down).  In so many instances, the real “cause” for this pain can be traced all the way back to the first conversation about the member serving on the Board and the fact that giving expectations were never fully nor clearly communicated.
  2. We Don’t Have a Deep Pool of Major Gift Donors – Institutions can adopt a culture, especially around major gifts, in which the talking points are as follows:  “We don’t receive significant gifts here,” or “We don’t have many major donors or prospects.”  People associated with the institution, even institutional leaders, can downplay their ability to raise significant gifts because, “our donors just don’t have those kinds of resources.”  Again, it is easy to look at the point of pain (i.e., the donors who supposedly don’t have major gift giving capacity) as the cause and not merely a symptom of the real cause.  And, in almost every situation, the real cause of this “pain,” is an underdeveloped culture of engagement throughout the institution.  In other words, the institution has not consistently sought out friends and potential partners and asked them for advice, asked them for feedback, asked them to dream with the institution, asked them to help make the institution better, etc.  Over time, institutional leaders have not prioritized and allocated the necessary time, energy, and financial resources to do the hard and sometimes messy work of relationship building.  Without a culture that consistently invites and welcomes new partners into the multi-faceted work of mission fulfillment, it becomes easy to blame the lack of major gifts on either our donors themselves or their lack financial capacity.
  3. Our Donors Will Only Give For Restricted Purposes – Donors who only make restricted gifts may not be a problem for you and your institution, but for an increasing number of organizations and institutions, receiving unrestricted gifts to help fund operational costs is becoming more important by the day.  If your institution is one that receives more restricted gifts than you would like, the reality is that this “pain,” is not due to your donor base having unusually strong and well-formed opinions about their giving.  This “pain” is not even due to your donor base needing concrete outcomes for their giving.  The cause of this “pain,” is almost always a lack of consistent messaging and compelling solicitations specifically seeking support for the annual fund (or whatever unrestricted gift vehicle you might use).  Development professionals and leaders, in general, completely underestimate the influence that consistent solicitations for annual fund gifts can have over time.  For instance, I’ve worked with smaller social service organizations and larger universities which initially claimed that unrestricted gifts were not gifts their donors were interested in making.  In two such instances, because we implemented consistent, multi-channel messaging, we re-imagined the brand and marketing of the annual fund, and we confidently invited all to give in support of the institution’s mission, both institutions enjoyed 200%+ increases in unrestricted giving over the course of just a few years.  Over time, donors will follow our lead and will give in support of the areas or funds that we suggest.

In each of these classic, painful development circumstances, the root cause of the problem turns out to be different than where or how the pain is experienced.  Much like our human bodies, the cause of a particular development pain may be something else entirely than what we, at first, believe.  If we aim to limit or eliminate our painful development outcomes, we will be wise to assume that the pain we are experiencing is probably only a symptom and not the root cause we need to address.


3 Ways Social Technologies Are Failing Development Efforts

I’ll start this post by professing that I am neither a technological luddite nor hypocrite.  I value and gladly utilize technology – in all its forms.  Heck, I’m communicating with you via a distributed, social technology that makes our large world wonderfully and magically small.  Technologies, especially social technologies, such as social media, wikis, blogs, podcasts, videos, and other mobile communications  are impressive human advances.

Having said that, in my experience as an advancement consultant, I regularly experience 3 ways in which social technologies are failing development efforts (and development officers):

  1. Distracting us and the donors we seek to engage – The promise of most all social technologies is that they will connect all of us more closely and meaningfully.  That they will provide more opportunities for “community,” and will enhance and strengthen an individual’s engagement with institutions, organizations, causes, for fundraising, special events, etc.  All of that sounds positive and helpful.  However, there are two “flip-sides” to this promising coin.  First, I watch regularly in development team meetings as mobile devices and social technologies  serve to distract people from face-to-face engagement.   As I’ve blogged before research is clear that mobile devices present during in-person interactions cause those interactions to be far less substantive and meaningful.  Second, when we are out of the office with donors, introducing technology into those visits (such as sharing a video or reviewing pics with a donor on a tablet), can cause both the donor and the development officer to focus on the screen and not on each other.  Human trust is built most efficiently through interpersonal engagement and, simply put, introducing a technology into that equation can slow the trust-building process.
  2. Failing to live up to the promise of more “connectivity” – the internet and all of the software programs and apps we employ to engage the internet tease us with an almost utopian promise – it will be easy to connect with more of the people you care about.  And while that promise has been true in some specific ways (i.e., yes, we have “connected” with long-lost friends via Facebook), development efforts haven’t experienced a sustained uptick in the number of new and returning donors who consistently are giving based on all of theses new engagement channels.  In fact, some recent research suggest that donors numbers are going down – not up.
  3. Providing a false sense of our own productivity – finally, and perhaps most importantly, social technologies are making us feel busy, but not necessarily productive.  I regularly have some version of the following conversation with Vice Presidents and Presidents around major donor strategies:

Me:  “How often are you meeting with the expressed purpose to discuss strategies for the donors that the President needs to engage?”

VP and President:  “We have our regular weekly/bi-weekly administrative meeting, and we talk via phone regularly and we text/email almost constantly – we communicate a lot!

Notice that the response is some form of “we are in constant communication.”  But busy communications are not necessarily productive communications.  Social technologies can mask our authentic levels of productivity by making us feel very busy (and tired).  So, while we are busy communicating using our devices and multiple channels, we wind up not finding enough time to have the longer, more substantive communications that lead to real development results.

Social and mobile technologies are convenient and impressive evolutions.  However, they are not the complete answers to all of our development program prayers.  We must recognize their benefits and, simultaneously, understand how they can detract from and derail us from our most fundamental goals – to meaningfully engage our colleagues and donors in supporting important and compelling missions.

*NOTICE*  Please mark your calendars for Wednesday, December 13.  With the Gonser Gerber Institute, I am excited to announce that I’m planning a fresh 90-minute webinar titled: 

“Asking:  The 90-Minute Guide to Inviting Donors to Give Big” 

If you are involved in asking for significant gifts, you will want to participate.  We will begin marketing this one-of-a-kind program shortly, but I wanted to alert you to save this date!  See you online on December 13th!


The Gift and The Giver

It’s easy to focus on “the gift.”  What is the amount we are seeking?  For what purpose?  Over what period of time?  We talk about the gift in strategy sessions, when we ask for it, and when we receive it – especially when we receive one of significance!  We write proposals that answer the questions of why the gift matters, how the gift will make a difference, and the how the stewardship of the gift will occur.

And while the gift is important, “the giver” is indispensable.  The giver, of course, makes the gift happen.

Focusing on the giver is the most effective centrum of interest for the wise advancement professional.  What motivates this donor to give?  What animates her interest in our project, program, or institution?  What are his values and how can we best present those values as being in alignment with our work?

What if, instead of preparing proposals focused on the gift, we crafted giving invitations that elegantly and articulately spoke to the values, beliefs, and motivations of the donor?  Instead of building our “case for support” around why gifting to a particular project or an initiative was important, our case focused as much creative messaging on how the donor’s values would be affirmed and extended?  And, what if, after the giver made the giving decision, we focused more of our stewardship activities on how the giver’s beliefs and convictions were being supported through their generosity, as opposed to how we might be using the gift.

Yes, the gift matters.  The amount, the type, the time frame, the purpose.  Everything about the gift is important.  But, the giver. . . simply put, the giver will give you more when she feels as though she is known and understood.


3 Questions To Help Avoid “Ask Fever”

Within the U.S. space industry, the term “go fever,” refers to the general idea that engineering teams sometimes rush to get a project completed or a program implemented without taking the appropriate time to assess problems or concerns.  “Go fever,” was identified as a contributing factor in both the Space Shuttle Challenger (1986) and Space Shuttle Columbia (2003) disasters.  When the urgent push to reach the goal becomes overwhelming, even the best, most thoughtful people can make significant errors in judgment.

In a similar vein (but lacking the same tragic outcomes), there can be times when advancement professionals, volunteers, presidents, etc., are stricken with a case of “ask fever.”  “Ask fever” occurs when there is mounting interpersonal or institutional pressure to ask a specific donor for a significant gift before enough information and/or donor engagement has occurred.  The sense is that if the ask doesn’t occur soon and with success, a key opportunity may be missed.  Or, worse, a campaign or project goal might not be achieved.

To relieve the conditions of “ask fever,” the wise advancement leader will ask herself these 3 questions:

  1. Do we have a clear sense of the donor’s financial capacity to make the gift we are inviting them to make?  If you cannot articulate a range of gift the donor can make based on previous discussions with the donor, independent research, or other reliable sources, you may be rushing the invitation to make a gift.
  2. Do we have a definite understanding of the donor’s interest in our mission and/or program?  If you cannot articulate a specific area of support (inclusive of “unrestrictive”), that this donor is enthusiastically willing to support, you may be rushing the invitation to make a gift.
  3. Are we certain that the timing is right for the donor to make this commitment?  If you cannot articulate the window of gift fulfillment that would make sense for this donor, based on previous discussions with the donor or other reliable sources, you may be rushing the invitation to make a gift.

Answering the above 3 questions with affirming responses means that you run a much lower risk of having “ask fever” cause a significant donor miscue.

There is, indeed, a great deal of urgency built into our work to raise needed funds for important missions and causes.  But do not let a projected sense of urgency or other pressures cause you to ask for the wrong amount, or for the wrong purpose, or at the wrong time.  Instead, ask questions of the donor which provide you with a better understanding of  his interests, his level of enthusiasm for giving now, and his capacity make the gift you might seek.

The terrible lessons of “go fever” are sad but instructive – it can be exceptionally difficult to recover from a gift discussion that was forced too soon by “ask fever.”


Inputs and Outcomes

In the April 1, 2017 edition of The NonProfit Times, Mark Hrywna writes about the challenges and opportunities large nonprofit organizations face in keeping employees engaged and feeling valued.  In the article, Hrywna quotes Harry Johns, the President and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association as follows:

“The thing that’s most critical is engaging people in a real way and paying attention to the input.” (emphasis added).

Mr. Johns was talking about the process of consolidating 81 Alzheimer’s Association chapters and 48 stand-alone affiliates into a single national entity.  He was referring to the variable in that process most important to their success.

As I read and re-read the quote, I thought about the various circumstances in which the “most critical” variable “is engaging people in a real way and paying attention to the input.”  One such circumstance immediately came to mind:  Inviting donors to make gifts.  But, in many instances, we don’t focus on the inputs, we focus far more on the outcomes of the gift.

It is not uncommon for whole gift proposals to be focused on how the gift will make a difference, the data to support the notion that this difference is important, and ways in which the gift will create a new reality of some sort.  And while all of this outcomes talk is important, it is not the most critical.

The most critical aspect of the giving equation is paying attention to the input!  Listening is the critical skill.  Telling the story back to the donor is merely important.  And, in the best cases, telling the story serves as a confirming activity to show evidence that you were, in fact, listening in the first place.

As development professionals we spend an awful lot of time focused on “making the case,” which myopically has come to mean, “show evidence and outcomes” of why gifts are needed.  Perhaps, though, we need to be reminded that the “case for support” only finds its real vibrancy when it is steeped in the interests, values, and generous impulses of the donor.


Who Are You Making Comfortable?

We’ve all been in a social setting – perhaps a theatre prior to a performance – when a voice comes over the public address system and calmly states, “In the unlikely event of an emergency. . .”  Or, if you board a airplane, you will certainly hear the phrase, “In the unlikely event of a water landing. . .”  Following these phrases will come important safety instructions of what to do should the worst scenarios occur.

If you think about the wording of these phrases, they are crafted to communicate critical, but potential distressing information (yes, this plane may, in fact, fall right out of the sky!).  But the language choice is designed to minimize the degree of anxiousness and concern among the masses.  These events are “unlikely.”  Additionally, the message is delivered in a serene tone that helps soothe any nervousness.

These messages are designed specifically to comfort and put the listener at ease.

Now, think about the way you might invite someone to make a significant gift?  Are your words – the phrases you use – crafted to make the donor more comfortable from an emotional standpoint?  Or, instead, are they words and phrases that, unconsciously, make you more emotionally comfortable?  Think about who is put at ease with the following three opening statements:

  1. “I realize this would be a stretch gift for you, but would you consider giving. . .”
  2. “You already do so much for us, would you consider a gift of. . .”
  3. “I don’t like coming to you again, but would you consider a gift of. . .”

Yes, we should acknowledge and thank donors for their past volunteer or gift support, but because these opening statements are non-specific, apologetic, and submissive I would suggest they are crafted to make the solicitor more emotionally comfortable.  Perhaps the solicitor doesn’t enjoy asking.  Or, perhaps, the solicitor doesn’t fully believe that this ask should be made.  Whatever the reason, the solicitor is more interested in protecting herself emotionally when she crafts her opening in these ways.

Additionally, these phrases actually reduce the chance that the prospective donor will joyfully accept the invitation to give.  The solicitor is, in effect, making the case for why the prospect shouldn’t give.  For example, the prospective donor might think to herself, “Yes, I have done a lot for them – maybe I’ve done enough!”

Now, consider the following three opening statements:

  1. “From your long history and support of our institution, it is clear our mission resonates deeply and personally with you.  We are convinced that your next leadership-level gift will enable us to serve in ways we could only dream of three years ago.  Will you consider giving. . .”
  2. “You have given in support of so many initiatives that have made a difference in the lives of others. We believe this program will have the biggest, positive impact yet and are inviting leadership donors like you to help us transform more lives. . .”
  3. “You have partnered with us in so many ways recently, and you’ve seen the progress we’ve been able to make on the issues that are important to you and our institution.  That’s why today, we are excited to invite you to take a next step with us. . .”

While the prospect may have given just as much or just as often as in the first statements, these statements are crafted to make the prospect more emotionally comfortable – not the solicitor.  By including phrases that remind the prospect why giving in support of your institution is of value to her, she feels known and understood as a person, not just as a checkbook.  She is far more likely to give generously because your statements put her at ease.

Here is the interesting truth:  When we use words and phrases that are designed to comfort us, we reduce the likelihood that the prospect will give generously.  However, when we communicate in ways that put the prospect at ease – by confidently acknowledging their core interests and values and aligning them with our work – we greatly increase the chances of the prospect’s affirming response.

So, when you invite a donor to give, who are making more comfortable?


Hiring the 25%

One of the least-discussed, but germane mysteries of our advancement profession is the fact that too many gift officers shy away from asking prospective donors for specific gifts.  I’m not suggesting that gift officers are not receiving gifts.  But just about every institution I’ve worked with has someone (or more than 1) on the team who isn’t comfortable looking prospects in the eye and asking them to stretch their giving.  So, while gifts may be flowing, there is little question that many gift officers leave significant amounts of charitable gift income on the table because the ask was made neither confidently nor specifically.

Enter a recent study by that reported, among other things, two incredibly interesting findings:

  1. When credit card customers call the credit card company to ask for a reduction of a late fee or even to ask for a reduction or complete waiver of the annual fee, they are successful 84% of the time; and,
  2. Only 25% of all credit card customers will call to ask for such fee reductions or waivers.

Let those two data points sink in for a moment:  If we simply make a call and ask to save money, we have an 84% chance that the credit card company will agree to our request.  However, even when it squarely and directly impacts our personal financial well-being, only 25% of us will ask!

With so many people in the population who demur at asking for their own financial gain, is it any wonder that we sometimes hire gift officers who may not be as bold and confident about asking others to support an institutional mission?  If only 25% of us are bold enough to ask for something that is completely in our self interest, it should not be a surprise that gift officers sometimes struggle to ask confidently for another entity – even when that entity is paying them to do so.   Culturally-speaking, we have an asking problem.

Here is a suggestion:  The next time you are hiring for a gift officer, devise a question or a set of questions that focus on having them explain their experience with asking for a rebate, refund, a fee reduction, or some other kind of “deal.”  Perhaps it is a question involving the credit card scenario and asking for an annual fee reduction.  Or, perhaps it is a question focused on how they handled a situation in which the service or product they purchased wasn’t up to expectations.  What did they do?  How might they handle such an interaction?

Apparently a strikingly small percentage of folks (25%) are willing to simply ask – even when it is clearly in their interests to do so.  My advice is to do everything you can to find those 25% when you are hiring a gift officer.  Employing such interviewing strategies won’t guarantee hiring success, of course.  But they will give you a window into how confident prospective gift officers are about simply asking.


What They Will Do

Far too often I witness strategy discussions about major gift donors and prospects that leap too quickly to observations focused on what a particular donor “will do,” in terms of his or her gift amount.

The conversation plays out something like this.  The Associate Vice President (or whoever supervises the Major Gift Officer) asks in a prospect planning meeting, “Ok, what about John and Jane Smith?”

The MGO responds, “I think they will do $250,000.”

The problem with this oft-repeated exchange is that the AVP has asked the wrong question and the MGO has answered the wrong question.  A more helpful exchange would look like this:

AVP:  “Ok, what is the gift amount you are requesting from John and Jane Smith?”

MGO:  “I’m going to invite them to give $500,000.”

The AVP should ask specific, not general, questions during strategy sessions.  And the MGO should focus first (and primarily) on the aspirational amount being requested as opposed to the amount he or she thinks the donor ultimately will give.

We know that asking good and thoughtful questions of donors leads to better outcomes.  The same holds true in the guidance, leadership, and management of our team members.

Additionally, when we are engaging our major gift donors and prospects, the first hurdle is always the one created in our own minds.  Focus enthusiastically on the joyful activity we are inviting others to participate in, not on how they might ultimately respond.  It just might be that our focused aspirations for our donors might encourage them to think more generously and positively influence their response.