The Law of Supply and Demand – For Development Programs

We all recognize the “law of supply and demand,” as a basic economic construct in free markets which states that ultimately, the price of a good or service will be determined by the supply of and customer demand for that good or service.  But I believe there is a development program version of “the law of supply and demand” as well.

It’s quite simple.

Either you are “supplying” your donors and prospective donors with proactive, consistent, well-planned, inspirational messages about how you are meeting important needs today, will meet more needs tomorrow, and how, specifically, they can (and should!) give through you to help meet those needs, or. . .

Or, you are you regularly are responding to the “demands” of your donors.  What does a donor-demand environment look like?  Well you probably are receiving gifts more than inviting donors to give them, which means they may not be gifts that your institution actually wants/needs.  You probably are communicating gratitude for a single gift 3 times more often than you are inviting specific gifts.  And you probably are accepting gifts with so many strings that it causes problems within your institution.

If you aren’t strategically “supplying” your donors with the plans, the whys, and the hows of their giving – in other words if you aren’t educating them, guiding them, and encouraging their best giving in ways that most benefit your mission, you are most likely operating in a donor “demand” culture.

Receiving more gifts for the purposes that your institution truly needs to best meet the needs of those you serve doesn’t just happen.  It happens because we consistently “supply” our donors with the education and inspiration to respond most helpfully.  Over time, the more we proactively focus on our “supply,” the less we will have to react to “demands.”

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A Perspective on Purpose

It is well known that, given the choice, younger people will opt to meet new people and participate in new experiences as opposed to spending time with a sibling or other family members.  Conversely, older folks tend to prefer spending time with those closest to them – family, long-held friends, etc. – as opposed to expanding their circle of friends or seeking new adventures.  A macro-level task of youth, it would appear, is to expand boundaries, friend networks, and experiences.  Meanwhile, the task of old age, it seems, is to embrace those family, friends, and patterns of behavior most comforting to us.

But why does this shift in mindset from expansion to contraction happen as we age?  Stanford Center on Longevity Director, Laura Carstensen, has a theory.  Over the last 20 years she has researched this psychological phenomenon extensively.  And, here is what she has found:  It is not necessarily age that causes us to become more focused on and desire to spend more time with the ones closest to us – the ones we love.  Instead, it is our perspective – our individual sense of how much time we have left in this world.  Regardless of age, it appears, when we are confronted with the limits of our own lifespan, we tend to home in on what is most important – our deep and abiding relationships with family and friends and the activities that bring us most meaning, joy, and comfort.

Tucked away in Professor Carstensen’s research on longevity is a gem of insight for development professionals.  Simply put, the more we can remind people about the value of a life well-lived, about what brings meaning to their lives, and about what matters most to them, the more open they will be to considering supporting causes bigger than themselves.  This is not to say, of course, that we should engage our donors in depressing and morbid discussions about the brevity of human life!

However, Professor Carstensen’s work should serve to remind us that our individual and unique perspectives on life and longevity impact our decision-making and behavior in profound ways.  Perhaps our role as development professionals should be far less about asking people to support our cause and far more about inviting people to consider what lasting impact they want for their lives.  Instead of asking questions to glean more about their financial capacity, it may be that encouraging conversations about what is deeply meaningful and gives purpose to their lives will more effectively trigger their generosity.

We often ask our donors questions about why they chose to support our institutions and organizations in the first place.  Or, what they think about our proposed new program or facility expansion.  And these are fine questions.  But, first and foremost, they are questions about us, our institutions, and, our plans.  If we would consistently turn the questions around and ask about them, as whole and complex individuals, we would pour the relational concrete for a strong gift-giving foundation.  Questions like:  “As you think back on your accomplishments, to what or to whom do you attribute your greatest successes?”  Or, “Tell me about the most meaningful gift you’ve ever made.”

Not only will such an approach provide us with rich, deeply-personal information about our donors, it also gets them thinking about what and who is truly important to them and how giving is good.  This approach also does something else that is powerful:  It clearly communicates the message that, “your perspective matters to me.  What is meaningful to you, is important to me.”  And that message is what enhances trust between human beings.

It’s not a bad thing to be reminded that each of us has precious little time on this earth and that we should focus more on meaning and what matters most – people, experiences, and how our lives can leave a lasting, positive impact.  In fact, encouraging others to reflect on this fact just may be critical to inspiring their generosity.

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The New Tax Bill and Charitable Giving: Another Take

This week the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed the much-discussed tax cut and reform bill, which focuses, primarily, on reducing corporate tax rates and re-organizing the individual tax code. In the charitable giving sector, non-profit leaders have expressed concerns that the greatly-increased standard tax deduction levels included in the bill – from $12,700 for married couples in 2017 to $24,000 in 2018 – will reduce the percentage of individual tax-payers who itemize deductions.  In 2017, approximately 33% of tax-payers will forego the standard deduction and itemize, while estimates suggest that only 13% will behave similarly in 2018.

The reason this substantive decline in itemizing tax deductions concerns non-profit leaders is due to a belief that fewer itemizers will equate to fewer donors and dollars given away to 501 (c) 3 organizations.  Put into question form, the clear concern is simple:  If more individuals are not going to receive a tax “credit” for their gift, will they still be motivated to give?

It’s a fair and important question, to be sure.  And while most analyses suggest that charitable giving will be negatively impacted by the changes incorporated within the new tax bill, I don’t believe this is the most concerning outcome of the tax bill even if it comes to pass.  In fact, even if charitable giving should decrease by $10 billion or $20 billion as some analyses suggest, I still don’t believe this short-term result is the most concerning development related to this tax bill.

My deeper concern stems from a broader observation about policy and civil discourse today in our society.  The tax cut and reform bill only evinces my unease, it is not the cause of it.

We live in a political and social context today in which there is no serious discussion about the role of philanthropy, the importance of giving personally, in support of the common good.  Instead, we have treated all questions related to what makes a healthy, cohesive society as a binary choice:  either the answer is government intervention or the answer is free-market capitalism.  And while both of these institutions are critical to a high-functioning, free, and healthy society, they, alone, are not the full answer.

The U.S. has long been the world’s leader in generosity.  On average over the last 50 years, Americans have given away approximately 2% of disposable income annually.  No other country comes even close to that record of generous support.  Historically, Americans have acted so generously in support of the least among us and in support of other communal concerns because of a broadly accepted ethos – that giving is good.  That it is better to give than to receive.  That being generous is a healthy, valuable, and esteemed trait in humans.

But this “generosity ethos,” is being questioned now more than ever during my lifetime.  Politicians are questioning the appropriateness of gifts in support of educational institutions (and, now, through this tax bill, beginning to tax some college and university endowments).  Additionally, in my consulting experiences, I’ve witnessed a rise in governing board members and other influential supporters pushing and jawboning non-profit leaders to seek “efficiency,” and “profit-making,” as if they were leading for-profit enterprises.  In some settings, the non-profit mission itself is being called into question.

Quietly, I do not believe giving totals will be injured in 2018 because of this tax bill.  I believe the analyses of this tax bill suggesting a negative impact over the short-term in charitable giving are wrong.  Charitable giving, broadly-speaking, tracks very closely to market returns.  So, if the financial markets continue to do well, charitable giving will probably fair well in 2018, and perhaps, for the next few years.  Longer-term, though, I do have concerns.  When the important role of personal giving is de-emphasized in our tax policy, we are heading down a pathway that leads not only to fewer Americans making charitable gifts, but more importantly, fewer Americans believing that they should.

This broader and longer-term loss of focus of what, truly, has made America great will be the impact of this tax bill that is most concerning to me.  It’s not just our democratic government, and its not just our version of capitalism that has made the U.S. special.  It is also our historically-agreed-upon “generosity ethos.”  What has made and will continue to make America unique is an emphasis on helping each other, supporting those who have less than us, and, through our private giving, showing deep care for the common good.

This “generosity ethos,” though, isn’t a birthright.  It must be nurtured and consistently reinforced.  It must be taught throughout childhood.  It must be modeled in communities.  It must be celebrated by honoring generous individuals.  And, yes, it must be affirmed in our fiscal and tax policies.  When we consistently reinforce the “generosity ethos” in our families, our churches, our schools, our communities, and our political policies, we all benefit.  Not only do those who need the care, support, and encouragement get assistance, but the givers are transformed too.  It truly is better (and healthier) to be a giver than a taker.

Additionally, we end up being the envy of the world because we do not simply rely on either government or business to solve all our problems, to care for those who might fall through the cracks, or to enhance the communal experience for all.  We have this third sector, this non-profit sector.  This other beautiful, vibrant, robust, personal, and caring component of society which is supported in patchwork fashion by millions of generous people who are compelled to respond to needs larger than their own.  The non-profit structure which encourages the expression of the impulse to help each other is as much a part of the American success story as is any political or business-related accomplishments.

So while many are focused on the short-term impacts of the tax bill on charitable giving totals, I’m not.  What concerns me is not hearing any political, business, or other social leaders consistently and fervently raising the issue that we are in a longer-term trend of minimizing the role and importance of private giving to the health and well-being of our society.  Over time, when fewer and fewer of us are encouraged to give in support of each other, we all lose.  And not just financially.  We lose what has made our society the envy of the world.  We lose our capacity to relate to our common humanity.

This tax bill is not our primary problem, it’s just another expression of it.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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