Why Are You Asking?

Don’t ask because you hope to get;

Ask because you hope to give.


Don’t ask because performance metrics insist that you must;

Ask because your passion for mission yearns to be shared.


Don’t ask because you have needs;

Ask because you have a plan to meet needs.


Don’t ask because you’ve completed the case for support;

Ask because you understand their case for giving.


Don’t ask people to give because you want their money;

Ask people to give because you want them to experience joy.


Institutional Addictions

We all understand the concept of addiction in individuals.  The idea is that an individual is caught in a web of bad decision-making that, even when the person understands the decisions they are making are bad for them, they still make them.  When a person is addicted, he or she will go to great lengths to cover up the addiction and create a façade of well-being.

But what about institutions?  Can they be addicted too?  Can institutional cultures both exhibit behaviors that are unhealthy and, at the same time, seek to cover up these unhealthy behaviors?

I have found that institutions can exhibit addictive behaviors.  And, much like individual addictions, the idea is that the addictive behaviors keep the institution from achieving what is really important. Instead of daily striving toward mission and vision, the institution gets caught in a downward cycle of behaviors that stagnate progress and injure individuals in the process.  And, much like addicted individuals, addicted institutions will strive to cover up their condition.

Here are 3 institutional addictions that harm the enterprise and the people in it:

  1. Addicted to Drama – high-drama cultures run on a collective sense of adrenaline. There are always fires to be put out.  Order is eschewed and chaos is embraced.  Even when things seem to be running smoothly, mountains suddenly will erupt out of mole-hills.  In order for the drama-addicted culture to continue, there will be no serious efforts to establish more organizational structure.  If you are in a drama-addicted institution, you have probably heard this statement that attempts to hide the problem: “Everybody just pulls together and gets the job done!”
  2. Addicted to Control – if high-drama cultures are chaotic, controlling cultures are ones in which there is so much organizational structure that individual team members are valued less than their positions. Information and decision-making is jealously held by those at the top of the organizational chart.  With this addiction, team members will report that they don’t feel like they have much ability to define their work and, as such, don’t find their work meaningful.  Control-addicted environments are “us vs. them” environments which silo people and encourage everyone to watch out for themselves, instead of working for the common good.  If you are in a control-addicted institution, you have probably heard this statement that attempts to hide the problem:  “I wish I could do something, but that’s not my job.”
  3. Addicted to Metrics – in the metrics-addicted institution, there is too much focus on analyzing how much progress you are making toward your vision and not enough focus on actually achieving the vision. Data is the currency of the realm.  And quibbling over what the data means (when you have it) is the #1 institutional pastime.  Instead of doing work that supports the mission, people highlight metrics-making, data-collection, and data analysis as the work.  Metrics and data will never be the work, they are a reflection (albeit poor ones) of the work.  If you are in an metrics-addicted institution you have probably heard this statement that attempts to hide the problem:  “We will need better data before we can make a decision.”

To break these institution addictions, we must constantly remind ourselves and our colleagues why we do the work we do.  If you believe you work in a drama, control, or metrics-addicted environment, you can help your institution break its addiction with a regular and consistent dose of re-focusing.  In multiple ways and at every opportunity, ask your colleagues, “specifically, how will what we are talking about help us achieve our mission and fulfill our vision more effectively?”

When you ask that question – perhaps over and over – you will encourage others to focus not on the addiction, but on the good work you are all called to do.


A Willingness To Be Transformed

Your best donors are those who believe deeply in your mission.  They believe so sincerely that, in most instances, your most significant donors are those who encourage others to give as well.  Perhaps they host an event for your institution.  Or perhaps they speak publicly or privately about why they give.  Or perhaps, they are willing to be a part of the asking process, authenticating the solicitation with a level of influence you or others at your institution may not possess.

These donors are willing to do more than just give generously because they have experienced something about your institution and mission that moves them.  They, or someone in their sphere of influence, could have had a direct and powerful, life-changing experience with your institution.  Or, they simply find meaning and alignment with the values that your institution projects into the world.

When you talk with these donors, you regularly will find that they experience their relationship with your institution as deeply personal.  They will tell you that their giving is of bigger benefit to them than it is to those you serve.  We often talk in terms of how a donor’s major gift might “transform” some part of our institution or program.  But, in a very real way, your best donors will report that they have been transformed by their giving in support of your efforts.  These donors personify the statement that is better to give than to receive.

Why, then, when we traditionally think about “qualifying” major donor prospects do we typically seek to assess only two variables that have little to do with their personal experience with giving.  Traditionally, when we are attempting to qualify a prospect, we will seek to learn more about their:

  1. financial capacity to make a gift and;
  2. interest level in making a significant gift.

Why don’t we also seek to assess the degree to which these prospects might be willing to be transformed through their giving?  We know this to be a key part of the profile of our most helpful major donors, so shouldn’t we be asking questions in the discovery and qualification process to assess the degree to which they are ready to be transformed by their own giving?

I can think of a few questions that would be very helpful in learning more about your prospective major gift donors and their willingness to be transformed through giving.  For instance, you could ask the following as you are working in the discovery and qualification process:

  • Tell me about the organization or institution that is at the top of your priority list for giving – why do you support them?
  • As you think back over all of the gifts you’ve made to other organizations or institutions, I’m interested to hear about the one gift that really stands out as being special to you or your family?
  • What was the reason or the primary motivating factor behind the largest philanthropic commitment you have made?

If we begin to integrate open-ended questions like these into our regular discovery and qualification work with prospects, I am convinced that we will learn more (and learn more quickly!) about our prospects.  When we work to identify those who are open to being transformed through their giving, we are assessing information about a powerfully-predictive variable for major charitable gifts. Unfortunately, researching your prospect’s financial capacity and understanding her philanthropic interests do not, by themselves, give us the best and most complete picture of how ultimately generous she might be.


5 Important Tasks of a “Working Board”

Occasionally, I confidently am told by education or non-profit governing board members that they serve on a “working board.”  This statement is most often uttered as the follow-up to another less self-confident admission – namely that the board is not one that focuses on the topic of philanthropy.

During these conversations, I am reminded that the concept of a “working board” can get skewed by well-meaning but unhelpful board members.  Specifically, when board members accentuate the nobleness of “work,” they strangely leave out of their definition any aspect of philanthropic work.  As if getting more major gifts in the door in support of your mission is not “real work.”  Instead, the concept of a “working board” usually refers to members who provide their volunteer time as their primary gift to the institution.

The problem, of course, is not that being a “working” board is an ineffectual way for a governing board to operate.  The problem is that the highest, most effective form of “work” for non-profit boards occurs in the philanthropic vineyard!  The most important job a board member can do is to advance your institutional mission and vision by partnering with paid staff members to increase philanthropic gift income.

So, the next time you hear a governing board member lift up their “working board” status as a way to deflect the conversation from board giving and the board’s responsibility to provide philanthropic leadership for the institution, please feel free to share with them the top 5 ways all boards should “work:”

  1. Participate in a peer screen session and alert the institution to donor prospects who have annual, major, and/or planned gift potential;
  2. Arrange for an institutional leader to make a presentation at their local civic, community, church, workplace, or other venue;
  3. Accompany development personnel on cultivation and/or solicitation visits with those donors or prospects with whom they have influence;
  4. Host a dinner or event at their home, civic or country club, workplace, or other venue with the purpose to introduce new major donor prospects or board members to the institution’s leadership;
  5. When called upon, speak publicly with passion and authenticity about the reason why they are involved and the difference your institution makes in the world.

Showing up for board meetings, participating in committee work, and volunteering to assist with special events does not fully qualify as the definition of “board work.”  Instead, governing board members should be encouraged to help their institutions reach their far edge of promise by rolling up their sleeves and engaging in the real work of philanthropy.  Not only will the results be significant, but board members will find this work much more meaningful.


21 Advancement Truths

  1. The success of your ask was determined during the cultivation.
  2. Donors don’t give to institutions, they give through institutions.
  3. And they give through institutions to people they trust.
  4. Doing the fundamentals consistently is “the silver bullet.”
  5. Generous people don’t grow tired of giving, they grow tired of being solicited.
  6. When it is time to ask, be bold — ask for their best possible gift. Those you serve deserve that from you.
  7. You have a case for support only when you can concisely answer the question, “why should anyone care?”
  8. What your donors believe about your institution is far more important than what they know about your institution.
  9. In making your most effective case for support, keep in mind that too many numbers numb, but stories are stored.
  10. If you do not know the other causes your prospect supports and why she supports them, you are not ready to ask.
  11. With only rare exceptions, special events represent the most inefficient and ineffective way to raise money.
  12. If you want money, ask for advice. And if you want advice, ask for money.
  13. It’s not about you #1: Your job is not to strengthen your relationship with the donor.  Your job is to strengthen the donor’s belief in the goodness of your institution’s mission.
  14. It’s not about you #2: If a prospect tells you “no,” it is not a personal rejection.
  15. Engagement isn’t sending out the magazine. True engagement is the process of asking meaningful questions and actively listening to the responses.
  16. A gift officer can have many visits and not be successful. But rarely can a gift officer have only a few visits and be successful.
  17. Performance metrics are not the work, they are only a poor proxy for the work.
  18. Major donors dislike “wish lists.”  Strategic planning is the foundation of successful campaigns.
  19. How you treat donors after they make a commitment says far more about how you value them as people than how you treated them before they committed.
  20. The most robust and helpful prospect research is not done electronically.
  21. Giving is good.

AIM To Communicate Effectively

If your goal is to educate, engage, and delight more donors, friends, supporters, or funders through communication vehicles, ask yourself if the AIM of your message is on point.  For every written solicitation, every webpage, every special events invitation, every magazine article, and every newsletter story, etc., ask yourself if what you are communicating is:

Authentic – is the message you are communicating true and genuine to your institution?  Does the message affirm and support your institution’s mission, vision, and values?

Inspiring – is the message you are communicating motivating and encouraging others to action?

Meaningful – is the message you are communicating worthwhile?  Does what you are talking about make a difference in the world?  Does it matter?

When we communicate using the AIM framework, our messages are worth reading, they extend the brand of the institution, and they help broaden and deepen the base of supporters.


Annual Giving and Major Giving: Key Distinctions

If you want to enjoy strong results through your annual giving program, you should focus on educating/reminding people why your institution/program/service matters.  The well-crafted annual ask encourages people to look back on the value of your institution/program/service and reflect on its importance.  Donors make annual gifts to your institution because they have come to believe that the world is better today because of your work.  In other words, your institution makes a difference.

On the other hand, most successful major gift programs regularly lift the gaze of the prospect toward a horizon of “what could be.”  The well-crafted major gift request inspires prospects to look forward and imagine a promising future that will be shaped by your institution and based on their leadership giving.  Donors stretch to make major gifts to your institution because they have come to believe that their giving will provide for a tomorrow that is better than today.   In other words, your institution has great promise to make a difference.

More often than not, sustained annual giving is borne out of a reflex of generosity — a reflex that has been perfected through philanthropic branding and the shaping of personal beliefs.  On the other hand, major giving is borne out of a voluntary decision-making process in which the donor has come to believe that giving to your institution/program/service has the potential to change the world (or at least an important part of it!).

For both your annual and major giving programs, the more consistently your institution engages and solicits donors based on an understanding of these distinctions, the more money you will raise.








Writing Contact Reports That Matter

One of the most important and yet most misunderstood responsibilities of a development officer is to write helpful prospect contact reports on a consistent basis.  Most development folk understand that they should write contact reports, but only some recognize why they are so vital to effective fundraising, and even fewer grasp how to write them well.  Unfortunately, from a professional development standpoint, there has been little attention paid to this important component of our work.

That’s a big reason why I partnered with Academic Impressions to pen, “Writing Meaningful Contact Reports: A Handbook for Fundraisers.”  In this new book, you will find clear ideas about when to write contact reports, how to write them, and why they ultimately matter — to you and to strengthening your fundraising results.

The purpose of this book is to encourage you to look at contact reports in a fresh way and to give you and your team the specific tools and tips to make contact reports easier to write and more useful to the reader.  Ask yourself these questions to see if you could benefit from this book:

  • Do you wish the gift officers on your team wrote stronger contact reports more consistently?
  • Does your prospect management process need to be more effective?
  • Would it help your fundraising results if you had a better “system of contact reporting?”
  • Do you wish you had better “institutional/historical knowledge” about many of your donors and prospects?
  • Do you need to strengthen your system of performance metrics and gift officer evaluations?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, this new book will be helpful.  Because, “Writing Meaningful Contact Reports”  A Handbook for Fundraisers” is not just a book about making your contact reports better – it’s a book about helping you strengthen the culture of philanthropy at your institution and raising more money.

Give it a read and let me know what you think!


Which Story Are You Seeking?

When I was a higher education vice president some years ago, our institution was asking important questions about student retention.  We brought in experts from around the country to look at our retention efforts and implemented a number of first-year and curriculum-wide programs to help more students persist until graduation.  While we made some progress, I was troubled by one aspect of our approach to increasing student retention.  Specifically, our institution went to great lengths to interview students who were leaving or who had left in an effort to assess the factors that influenced their decision-making.

While the stories of those who made the decision to leave could be helpful, I offered at the time that we were missing a more important story.  Namely, what about the students who were staying, excelling, and having a fantastic experience with us?  What was their story?  Why were they delighted with us?

Understanding why people choose to join you, give to you, and become a champion for your cause is a powerful form of appreciative inquiry that helps to clarify your strengths and opportunities for explosive growth.  Conversely, understanding why people reject you, your programs, or your institution may encourage some leaders to go to great lengths to develop strategies focused on “fixing” your weaknesses.  This approach is the basis of “gap analysis” — determine the extent of the distance your service might be from “excellent” (i.e., “the gap”) and then work to close that difference.

The problem with “closing the gap” is that you may end up pouring a ton of creative energy and financial resources into enhancing your sub-standard areas, only to find that you are now merely “average” in those areas.  And “average” won’t create delight in your students, donors, or anyone else you serve.

You are better off asking questions that will help you understand the stories of those delighted with you.  Then, you can identify your institutional strengths and develop strategies that amplify those characteristics across the enterprise.   When you build on your current strengths you will attract more people who fit your preferred profile.


Solving The Wrong Problem

It is rare that the first problem presented in a team setting is the most crucial to solve.  In most instances, the first problem presented – usually in the form of a complaint – may have an urgent quality to it, but, represents only a symptom of a deeper, more fundamental issue that needs solving.

When complaints are raised, the freedom to ask questions becomes invaluable.  If questioning is not an appreciated characteristic of your team’s culture, the loudest complaint will get addressed first.  And, instead of dealing with the larger, more significant problems that led to the complaint, you will spend time racing to put out one fire then another.

If your team doesn’t encourage the asking of questions, you will solve the wrong problems – the symptoms.  Rarely will you pause to reflect on the bigger, more strategic issues causing those symptoms.   In essence, you will be employing the use band aids when you should be looking at more holistic treatments.

If you want to solve the right problems, encourage the use of questions in all circumstances.  A good and helpful question to start with is, “why do we do it that way?”  Hint:  If the first answer is, “because we always have,” you may quickly find that you are onto the larger problem that needs solving.