The Most Important Question To Ask Yourself

Here is the most important question a development officer can ask himself:

“Am I more focused on how I look or on what I see?”

How I look vs. What I see.  Where is your focus?  On your own presentation or on the prospective donor?

When you are more concerned with “how you look,” you’ll spend too much time getting your case statement “perfect” before going on that visit.  If you care more about “how you look,” you’ll be more apt to talk too much during a discovery visit.   And you’ll be less likely to listen well.  You’ll ask too early and for the wrong reasons.  And you’ll be frustrated more easily when your results suffer.

However, if your primary focus is on “what you see,” you’ll approach donors and prospects with an openness and a curiosity about what makes them tick.  You’ll ask better questions.  And you’ll listen to comprehend, not to respond.  You’ll be viewed as “authentic,” you’ll understand more, and you’ll develop trust with prospects more quickly.

A focus on you – your institution, your campaign, your goals, your talking points – is, at best, a moderating variable and rarely an explanatory variable when analyzing why donors give.  But a focus on “what you see” is a fundamental key to advancement success.

A gift has never been lost because the donor felt valued.


Why “Going Viral” Shouldn’t Be Your Goal

The #ALSIceBucketChallenge has been a tremendous success no matter how one might define the term.  The challenge began in July and, within the last month, the awareness of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease as it is still known, is sky high.  In addition, ALS is now reporting that the challenge has raised almost $80 million dollars from over 1.7 million donors.  During the same period last year (July 29-August 25), ALS raised a meager $2.5 million.  Simply stunning numbers.

In the rush to congratulate ALS for their social media success, I have heard non-profit leaders lament, “I wish our organization could come up with something like this that goes viral!”  And it is understandable that others would want the same success that ALS has enjoyed.  Those are eye-popping numbers.  But, I’m still not convinced that “going viral,” should be a goal.  In fact, I’m quite certain that it should not be.

In today’s tech-vernacular, “going viral,” means,  “becoming very popular by circulating quickly from person to person, especially through the Internet.”  Clear enough.  And becoming popular isn’t really a bad idea.  We all want our organizations to become more popular and for the importance of our missions to circulate quickly from person to person.  This all sounds pretty good.

However, upon a closer examination of the word, “virus,” one finds definitions that focus on the idea that the infectious agent (or a popular idea) only finds life within a host.  Think of the viruses that spread illness from person to person.  Or even a computer virus.  They need a host in order to live and replicate.  Without a host, the virus dies.

In a very similar and sad way, many causes that have employed viral promotion through social media have not focused on the importance of their mission.  Instead, they have traded the importance of understanding and supporting their mission for a viral activity that makes the host/participant the most important aspect of giving.  Where the focus should be on mission, values, and vision, it becomes about the viral activity and, more importantly, the host/participant.

The act of pouring ice water over one’s head does not have a meaningful, natural, or understandable connection to eradicating ALS.  Neither does it cause the participants nor viewers to become more educated about ALS and the mission of organizations that fight the disease.  It does, though, encourage a focus on the host – the person getting cold water poured over their head.  Because, as is the case with any virus, it’s the host that matters most.

For us in development work, it is easy to go down this path of lifting up the importance of the host/donor.  It’s easier work than meaningfully engaging or educating someone and it makes the donor feel good in the moment.  But placing the donor at the center of our work leads to problems.   I have written before about the wrong-headedness of “donor-centrism.”  Simply put, our donors don’t belong at the center of our work, our missions do.  The best and most successful development efforts are mission-centered and donor-engaged, not vice versa.

Compared to the “viral model” of fundraising, a “mission model” of fundraising encourages us to do our hard and important work as educators and engagers.  When our our central theme is mission and we invite donors to be a part of that mission, we win long-term.  We may not raise $80 million in one month, but we build sustainability.  And, once the ice bucket challenge runs its course, I sadly doubt ALS will raise anywhere close to that amount again.  You see, there is another problem with viral campaigns – they don’t last.  Anyone seen any good pictures of #planking lately?


On Fundraising Attitudes and Aptitudes

Being an advancement leader brings with it the responsibility to “teach up.”  Whether you work with a Dean, a Chancellor, a President, a CEO, or a Board member, getting the best possible results means working with and through others.  In many instances, donors will respond more generously when an institutional leader plays a meaningful role in their giving experience.

Below is a quick typology based on an institutional leader’s attitudes and aptitudes around the fundraising process.  Both their emotional disposition as well as their abilities play a role in how you should engage them.

Fundraising Attitudes and Aptitudes of Leaders and How to Engage:



This 2×2 model suggests that the “Eager-Unskilled” institutional leaders should be coached by advancement professionals and that the “Eager-Skilled” leaders are ready to go raise a lot of money and should be fully engaged by advancement!  For those leaders that are “Reluctant-Unskilled,” we want to involve them strategically only in donor activities that are identified as low-risk and high-enjoyment.  And for the “Reluctant-Skilled” leaders, we need to better understand their reluctance and then provide the leadership, education, encouragement, and motivation to enhance their fundraising comfort-level and enthusiasm.

Of course, Presidents, CEOs, Chancellors, Deans, etc., fall somewhere along the continuums between the two ends of these attitude and aptitude variables.  But, this model is a helpful reminder that our work as advancement professionals involves teaching, engaging, and encouraging not only our team members and our donors, but also those to whom we report.  We must use a variety of tools to get the results our institutions need.  And understanding better the development attitudes and aptitudes of our institutional leaders helps us get those results.

So, where does your institutional leader land in the model?  And, more importantly, how will you engage her differently once you decide?



The Value of Art and Donor Appreciation

Refrigerator artwork is deeply personal and meaningful to the owner but, to the outside world, may not hold much value.  The value of the crayon-colored rainbow scribbled on a piece of paper flows from the little person who drew it and their relationship to you, the owner of the refrigerator.

On the other hand, we may have no personal relationship with a world-renowned artist and, yet, can still find value in her bold and moving use of color or his lifelike and emotional depiction of human drama.  In many instances, we assign value to this artwork based on perceived expertise of the artist, which is informed by the assessment of others.

We assign value, then, based on some measure of personal sentiment (the refrigerator art), on some measure of world-acclaim (the expert artist), or some mixture of the two.  This issue of how we assign value to art (or anything else) should be important to us in advancement because we should aim to provide our donors with personal and meaningful experiences and expressions of our gratitude for their generosity.

For many institutions, saying “thank you” to donors includes some form of “artwork.”  Perhaps you provide your best donors with a beautifully-designed, engraved, crystal desktop award.  Or maybe you give away less expensive chotskies.  Perhaps you give your donors some version of “Platinum,” “Gold,” “Silver,” or “Bronze,” lapel pins based on giving levels.  If your institution expresses its gratitude to donors in these or similar ways, let me quietly suggest that you could do better.

When we say thank-you by adopting the world’s assignment of value (e.g., the crystal award or the platinum lapel pin), we are suppressing the valuable impact of personal sentiment.  But when we extend our gratitude in the form of something more meaningful from our institution, we increase the likelihood that our personal relationship with the donor is enhanced.

For instance, perhaps there is painting or sketch by a student or client that can be duplicated and framed.  Or maybe there is an inspirational photograph of your campus taken by a professor.  Or perhaps you can create a tradition by saying thank-you to donors at a specific level with the same gift each year that has special meaning at your institution.

When the value of our donor “thank you” is derived from who we are, what we do, and our relationship with the donor, the world may not place much value on it, but our donors will.   Just like that crayon-colored rainbow on their refrigerator.


Why Prospects Don’t Respond

Recently, I served as a faculty member during a Gonser Gerber Institute webinar entitled, “Five Effective Strategies to Secure Visits.”  This was a webinar I had long wanted to present as the issue of securing visits can, in many instances, be the most challenging facet of prospect engagement.  I know many advancement officers – beginning and seasoned alike – who struggle with “getting visits.”

As the webinar was focused on effective strategies, we bypassed robust discussion on the reasons why prospects don’t respond to us in the first place.  And while at first blush the reasons for non-response may seem as varied and unique as the prospects themselves, there are really only three fundamental reasons why a prospect goes to “radio silence:”

  1.  The prospect is not interested;
  2. The prospect is indifferent and has yet to make up her mind;
  3. The prospect is interested but finding the time to visit is an issue.

Really, that’s the sum of all the parts.

The prospect has proactively made up his mind that he is not interested and, thus, he is not responding.  Or, the prospect has not made up her mind and she isn’t yet sure how to respond to you.  Or, the prospect wants to meet with you but life is getting in the way.  For this last group, perhaps the prospect has different priorities at the moment, or he is going through a busy season, or maybe he is just a poor time manager.  But, in the end, he can’t seem to find the time to set up a visit with you.

If you look at these three broad reasons, you will note that only one is wholly negative (the prospect is not interested).  The other two options skew positive or have the promise of a positive outcome.

And yet, when I visit with gift officers and listen to their assumptions as to why prospects aren’t responding, the take is almost always negative.   “Jason, she just isn’t interested in us,” is the complaint.  Or, “I’ve tried and he just doesn’t want to be visited.”  Or, even, “It’s clear she isn’t interested or she would have responded by now.”  And, as a byproduct of these, perhaps, faulty assumptions, the creative energy and positive attitude needed to get the visit becomes dulled.

But think with me on this.  The odds are in our favor – by a 2 to 1 margin.  I’ll take those odds over the long haul – and you should too!  The key to getting visits, as we discussed in the webinar, is to be an artist of multiple mediums of engagement.  To carefully and artfully utilize existing relationships, creative invitations, and thoughtful messages.   I call it the “multiple chances, multiple choices” strategy.  We want to give prospects multiple chances and multiple choices to say “yes” to a visit with you.  And when you approach this work knowing that the odds are in your favor you will find that, over time, most prospects will accept the visit.  The visits will come.

Similarly, I have heard from a number of you – the readers of “Jason’s Blog” – over the last few months.  Thank you for reaching out to me, offering kind words about the blog, and asking when it would return.  Just like many of the prospects with whom you are trying to secure visits, I can tell you that my “radio silence” was not due to a lack of interest.  I care deeply about you, our craft, our calling in this work, and writing this blog.  But like many of your prospects, this spring and summer brought with it a work season in which my consulting schedule engaged all of my creative energies.  And while professionally that has been satisfying, I am excited about having the space, once again, to write about our craft.  Thank you for continuing to reach out to me through this unusually busy spell.

Yes, I will always be interested!  Life and work sometimes just cause the very best prospects to not respond.


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Constantly Distracted

Back in the mid 1990s the word “pizzled” was coined.  It was a mix between “puzzled” and “pissed” and was used to describe the feeling you might have when someone you were with decided to start talking on their mobile phone.  Today, such distractions in the social arena are common and accepted.

Have you been to a college campus recently and watched as students walk across campus in packs of 2, 3, or more – in complete silence?  They are physically with each other but psychologically they are far removed.  They are texting, or engaged in a phone call with someone else, or even listening to music with earbuds – all while walking side-by-side with classmates.  They are plugged-in, but tuned out.  I recently watched as a group of college-aged friends – about 5 of them in all – spent approximately 15 minutes in the same space, but didn’t speak one complete, thoughtful sentence to each other.  Instead, they each had their smartphones out and they alternately pointed to status updates on their blue-hued screens or laughed at jokes they were reading.  And when they did speak to each other, they did so in short, staccato bursts of words that imitated the 160 character limit of twitter.  It was a sociologically interesting scene.

But, it’s not just college students or younger people who are engaged in this “constantly distracted” culture.  I’ve been in many advancement meetings and watched as professional team members checked their phones (sometimes addictively) with each notification buzz, answered emails and texts, and even answered their phones – all while others were talking.

Here’s the point for us in advancement:

The very best advancement professionals are emotionally intelligent – especially deft at being plugged in to the moment and to those around them.  They pay attention and listen.  They learn.  They show genuine interest in other people.  The pros are the ones who are tuned in to how they are being perceived by others and are open and aware to what is going on with those around them.  They are engaged with the here and now of the interaction with donors and prospects.  In other words, the truly successful advancement officer is expert at paying attention and focusing attention – on themselves and others –  for lengthy periods of time.  

And becoming expert at these skills takes practice – lots of practice.  It takes being able to focus for periods of time without giving in to the distractions of technology.  Like any other skill, the more we work at it the better we become.  

Some like Miss Manners might decry the use of technology in the social space as rude or boorish behavior.  Perhaps.  But I’m more concerned about its impact on our effectiveness as advancement officers.  So, the next time you have a team meeting, try using the time to practice staying focused and present with the people around you.  Keep the phone out of the meeting.  It just might help you become a more effective advancement professional.


What Is Valuable?

What We Are Told To Value What Actually Is Valuable
Task Accomplishment

Relationship Building







Problem Solving

Question Posing



Through culture and institutions, our western world encourages us to value the items in the left column of the table more than the items in the right column.

But the best leaders, the best gift officers, the best colleagues (and the best spouses, friends, etc.) value the characteristics on the right more than the left.  If you wish to become more effective, focus on what actually is valuable.


Authentic Inquiry

To fully live into her promise, a development leader’s most valuable skill set is what I refer to as “authentic inquiry.”  Here is how I define the concept:

Authentic Inquiry is the gentle art of relationship-building through the process of asking well-framed questions based on your sincere interest in the other person and to which you do not already know the answers.

That’s it.  It’s that simple.  To build relationships well, you must ask thoughtful questions which are born out of a genuine interest in the other person and to which you do not already know the answers.  This is the behavior of exceptional gift officers as well as exceptional leaders.

The problem, of course, is that Authentic Inquiry as a skill set is not taught.  It’s not taught in primary or secondary school.  It’s not taught at university.  And it’s not taught in any robust way at professional development seminars for advancement folk.  The best way to learn it – at least at the present time – is to watch and learn from exceptional mentors and successful colleagues.

If you are aiming to become a better development officer, if your goal is to become a leader, or if you wish to grow into a stronger leader, there is nothing more important you can do than develop the skills of Authentic Inquiry.  The hallmark of effective development work is that it gets accomplished by mobilizing and activating others in support of a worthy mission.  When you care sincerely about others and you display that care through the asking of thoughtful, real questions, the relationships needed for success will be strengthened.


The Meal, the Menu, the Recipe, and the Grocery List

Meals are an experience.  Good meals activates us.  Exceptionally delectable meals with family and friends during special occasions are stored and relived as indelible memories for years to come.  Some people (perhaps you!) can recall with fervid clarity the over-the-top chocolate dessert they had at a special restaurant a full 10 years later!  When they retell the story, their smile broadens, they ooh and ahh, and their eyes get wide with excitement.

Reading a menu usually is not an experience.  Although effective menus  help us choose our meals by portraying food as appetizingly as possible with savory descriptions, we don’t remember the menu.  We don’t retell the story of reading the menu.

Even less memorable and rousing is the reading of a recipe.  This is almost never an experience  – even when it does create the “to-die-for” dessert!  Most of us simply can’t envision the scrumptious outcome from reading the recipe.  It is too technical to elicit great emotion.

Finally, at the lowest level of positive impact is the grocery list.  For most of us, we don’t even want to see the grocery list because shopping is a chore.

So, here’s the point:  To get the diner interested in the meal, the restaurant shares a well-crafted menu, not a recipe and, certainly, not the grocery list.  But as development officers, we spend much of our time telling donors and prospects about our grocery list of needs.

For instance, whole case for support statements have been developed that are little more than a list of needs.   We do the equivalent of telling our donors we need egg yolks, cornstarch, dark brown sugar, cocoa powder, bittersweet chocolate, and heavy cream and expect their mouths to water in anticipation of our delicious chocolate pie.  And, in the worst cases, we don’t even suggest that our needs will be combined into a good recipe.  We simply list a bunch of needs like an unfocused grocery shopping list and then wonder why our prospects are not making significant investments in us.

At the most basic level, we should be preparing giving menus that artistically paint the pictures of appetizing outcomes their gift choices will help us achieve.  And when we do our work exceptionally well, we should go beyond the menu.  We should offer experiences to our prospects and donors.  We should give them opportunities to experience for themselves the work of our institutions and organizations.  We should connect them with those we serve, ask them for their advice,  invite them to participate in fulfilling our mission, and engage them with others who believe what they believe.  We should give them memories that they will want to share – even 10 years later.

Yes, you need donors to help you get the egg yolks, the cornstarch, and the cocoa powder.  But you will have much more success getting those ingredients when you make the compelling case for the chocolate pie.


On Becoming A Fundraising Artist

In David Bayles and Ted Orland’s book, Art & Fear, they tell a great story about becoming a better artist.  Here it is:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the “quantity” of the work they produced, all those on the right solely on its “quality.”

His procedure was simple: On the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work in the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B” and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot–albeit a perfect one–to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busy turning out piles of work–and learning from their mistakes–the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

The moral, of course, is that practice makes us better.  We learn and are shaped by practice.  We are changed when we practice a craft and are disciplined in our practice.  There is nothing that makes you better more quickly than focused, disciplined practice.

Fundraising is the same way.  It’s a craft.  It’s a practice.  So, today, don’t wait for that campaign collateral to be completed.  Don’t tell yourself that you don’t have enough information.  Don’t procrastinate.

Call up a donor or prospect – and go practice.

** Thanks to Tara Friesen at Athabasca University, Canada’s Leading Online University, for sharing this story with me.