When Being “Efficient” Is Not The Primary Goal

Supermarkets price milk and eggs (and turkeys during Thanksgiving) below, at, or just above their cost.  These items (and others) are called “loss leaders” or “leader priced items.”  Every time you buy milk or eggs, your local supermarket is, most likely, losing money on that transaction.  If one were to analyze a supermarket’s value by sampling its profitability when selling milk and eggs, the analysis would be both inaccurate and incomplete.

So, how do supermarkets – both in-person and through on-line stores – stay in business and make money?  They count on shoppers to behave in 2 very specific ways over time.  First, they count on shoppers purchasing more than milk and eggs.  Yes, people need the “staples,” so those goods are offered at a reduced price point to get us in the physical or on-line store.  And, then, once we are there, they provide us with super large rolling baskets, or targeted ads on-line – to pile in far more, higher priced food items.  That’s one way they make money – on volume.

Second, supermarkets count on us being creatures of habit and shopping the same store brands over and over again.  So, their primary concern is never about how much profit they might make from our rolling basket or on-line grocery cart in 1 visit.  They count on us coming back, week after week, month after month, and, indeed, year after year.  They profit from long-term relationships, not from single transactions.

Think about this widely-accepted business model when a board member, a president, a CFO, or an advancement leader, asks about the “return” on an individual direct mail appeal.  Or, the “expense” of a gift officer traveling to visit (when we once again can!) with prospective donors for the purposes of cultivation or stewardship.

When done well, advancement is not about the number of donors, or gifts, or dollars in any single year. It’s not about any single gift from a donor.  It’s about building life-long relationships with donors where charitable giving and involvement accumulate over time to provide a lifetime value for the institution.

Effective advancement programs build those structures, processes, and relationships to encourage habits of giving and involvement over the long-term.  Assessing the “return” on the cost of a single activity – when that activity is part of a well-planned, relationship-based program – is not only unhelpful and wasteful, it suggests that we don’t even understand our “business model.”


Backward and Forward

Our culture is laced with references to both going backward and forward in time.

“Monday-morning quarterbacking,” and “hindsight is 20/20,” are two examples of spending time looking backward. Similarly, “looking into my crystal ball,” or “just around the corner” are idiomatic phrases of focusing on looking forward in time.

While we can’t physically go backward or forward in time, we spend of good amount of time and energy – in our personal, work, and civic lives – in both places. And, if not overdone, there is value in looking backward to assess and looking forward to plan.

There is, though, a leadership approach to looking backward and forward that is most healthy, most compelling and admirable, and most effective.  When we look backward in order to critique our own behavior and actions (to learn from, better ourselves, and make amends as appropriate) and look forward in order to plan how we can better include, engage, and help others, we build teams characterized by trust, integrity, results, and care.

Reversing this approach (i.e., focusing on the behavior and actions of others when we look backward while focusing on our own egotistical goals when we look forward), creates a leadership style characterized by blame, arrogance, and self-centeredness.


Being The Proposer

It’s easy to critique. It’s more difficult to create.

It can feel less burdensome to evaluate. And far more arduous to produce.

It can seem safer to be the respondent. And more vulnerable to be the proposer.

But being the creator, the producer, the proposer, is a role the very best advancement leaders are willing and able to play with the teams reporting to them and with donors. Regardless of your title or position, as you find ways to effectively play the proposer role, you will have more leadership success.

Meeting with a group of colleagues to brainstorm about a solution to a problem can be enhanced almost always by someone sharing a written framework to help shape the discussion.  Or sharing some written initial thoughts on a potential plan.  Or distributing a written, single sheet to identify the key issues and who in the group might initially be best positioned to address each.

Major gift donors and prospects expect to respond to a gift proposal. It doesn’t mean that the donor will respond affirmingly to the gift amount or the purpose of the proposal. But, regardless of any individual response, there is little question in the research that you will receive larger gifts when you ask for specific amounts as compared to when you simply play the role of gift receiver.

Here’s the special sauce: 

Being the proposer means you must be willing to do the work beforehand. It means you must be open to having your proposal critiqued. And it means you must possess the kind of interpersonal influence which emerges from trusting relationships and open, transparent communication.

“Unblanking the page,” for the team or for a donor, is the opposite of acting autocratic. It’s authentically collaborative.




A Brighter Light


We often work in dim light.  There are questions to every problem we are working on for which we don’t yet have clarity.  Sometimes important questions.  And sometimes the problems themselves are important.

You may be finalizing a direct mail piece.  How many segments of that solicitation should you employ to get the highest return on investment without diminishing returns?

You may be creating a campaign case statement.  Which cover photo will be experienced as most compelling and will invite more readers to want to learn more?

You may be rearing a teenager.  Should you let your teen go with her friends to a pool party given the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes, we can study.  We can research.  We can analyze. We can listen to experts. We can use as a guide our own experiences.  And we should use all of those methods to address and respond to the problems we are working through. But our working light can still be dim.

What helps us the most to begin the process of shining a brighter light on any problem is to, first, embrace the fact that we are, in fact, using a dim light. To recognize that our perspective isn’t the only one.  And to know we aren’t seeing the whole picture of the problem.

When we humbly allow ourselves to be open to the possibility that what we believe we know may be incomplete at best and, at worst, completely wrong, we usher in the opportunity for a brighter light to help us see.


The Real Change That’s Coming Post-COVID-19

We should all be imagining how advancement work will be rearranged, adjusted, and altered post-COVID-19.

It’s easy to think of remote-work or work-from-home norms as becoming commonplace policy, especially for gift officers.  The integration of video conferencing and digital technologies with in-person, human-to-human donor engagement is another aspect of our work which, most likely, will become ordinary.

Large-scale special event fundraising may never regain its luster for those organizations that learned during the pandemic there were far more efficient and effective ways to raise needed funds. We might even predict that budget-relieving fundraising – especially for a host of institutions that enjoyed the pre-pandemic luxury of embracing “donor-centered fundraising” – will become more important and prevalent.

Rather than being the transformation itself, though, I would quietly suggest that such predictions are more the precursors to the fundamental change that is coming. In fact, I believe these and other similar predictions actually present a cause-and-effect relationship with the true shift we will experience.

As our world grows conditioned to being more physically disconnected and broad-based concerns linger about gathering in public, shared spaces (as opposed to staying in “safe” private spaces), the need to enhance your institution’s influence and trust with donors will become far more paramount in your work.  The growing importance of the influence and trust you carry with your donors will be the transformation that will most define your advancement success post-COVID-19.

The advancement teams that compellingly and consistently invite influential volunteers (i.e., Board members, Advisory Council members, and others) to help construct personalized pathways of engagement for others will be the ones that grow their donor bases and increase charitable gift totals.  It will be those wise, humble, and open advancement and institutional leaders, willing to create authentic and trust-filled donor partnerships, who will help protect their institutions from future financial volatility and greatly reduce institutional risk.

Our coming world will tend in important ways toward greater disconnection and distrust.  If you aren’t imagining how the future of your advancement work will more directly engage influence and build trust, you may be planning for a post-COVID-19 world that never materializes.


Giving Is Greater Than The Gift

The first 5 months of 2020 have been distressing.  An understatement, I am aware.

Just as the world was beginning to understand how to “re-open” safely from the COVID-19 virus and its vicious health and financial calamities, we were faced over the last week with an even tougher test – one squarely confronting the perceptions we hold of our own humanity.

We all have seen the video of George Floyd, a police officer’s knee on his neck for almost 9 minutes, pleading for his life. We have watched the protests following his death – some peaceful, some not, but all gut-wrenching – expand from Minneapolis, MN, to other U.S. cities, to cities around the globe.

As both the natural pandemic and our humanly constructed disease of racism combine to wallop us, we are staggered by a burst of negative emotions – feelings of unease, disconnection, anxiousness, fear, anger, and intense sadness, just to accent a few. Yes, we feel what we are experiencing and witnessing.  But we struggle mightily to find the right words, the confidence, or maybe even the energy, to discuss with others why it all matters and how we can respond to help heal and rebuild a more civil and economically-viable society.

It is in this moment of reticence that I want to encourage each of you who labor in the vineyard of generosity. While you are rightly and specifically focused on gathering the charitable resources needed to help fulfill your institution’s mission, your work also represents a singular but important thread in the vast quilt of what American ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain called the “sturdy but resilient institutions of democratic civil society.”

Your work has never been simply to invite donors to support just your mission.  Your work has always been far more important and broad-reaching than that. As part of the great voluntary sector, you have the awe-inspiring responsibility to promote and facilitate generosity, self-sacrifice, compassion, and mutual assistance for all of society. By inviting people to give, you are helping strengthen the moral and humane habits which ultimately serve as the antidote for our most vexing problems. Both those we make for ourselves and those mother-earth springs on us.

So, today – especially today – go invite someone to give generously. Invite someone to serve as a volunteer. Invite someone to become more involved in a cause bigger than them and their family.

Your efforts will not only help your institution serve more and better, they also will move us all just a bit closer to fulfilling the highest of humanity’s virtues.


Mission Or Method

If your goal is to increase the amount of gift income you receive, you can:

  • Ask new prospective donors to give for the first time;
  • Ask past donors to give again;
  • Ask current donors to give more.

Those, really, are the only methods (or some combination of these 3) to increase gift income.  Developing plans to implement these 3 strategies is not difficult.  In fact, those plans can be fairly straight-forward.

The most consequential question is almost never, “how can we increase gift income?”

The most consequential question is, “why should givers care?”

When you spend the time, energy, and attention to develop a clear, compelling, and concise case for support, the answer to the question of method becomes far less important.   In general, generosity is sparked by mission far more than by method of solicitation.

However, if you are unable to crisply answer the question, “why should givers care?” you can be technically and tactically effective in your solicitation methods and still fail to meet your gift income goals.

When you and your team meet for strategy planning sessions – for annual, major, or planned giving – instead of spending the bulk of your time focused on answering the “how will we solicit?” question, spend more time addressing this simple question:

“Why should anyone care?”


Believers vs. Everybody

Believers in your institution’s mission give consistently.  Everybody won’t do that.

Believers in your institution’s vision for the future invest charitably.  Everybody won’t do that.

Believers in the leadership and values practiced at your institution remember you through their estates.  Everybody won’t do that.

As advancement professionals, our job is not to invite everybody to give.  Our job is to invite those who believe what we believe to give.  It sounds easy enough.  But we regularly fail to identify, learn about, and thoughtfully invite gifts from those who believe what we believe.

Here are 5 reasons why we fail (at times) to engage our believers:

  1. We don’t know what we believe.  What do you, personally, believe about giving?  What do you truly believe about the need for your institution’s mission in the world?  Are you completing tasks at work or serving a cause?
  2. When we know what we believe, we have difficulty articulating it in a concise, compelling, and clear voice.  Are you practiced and proficient in communicating the positive impacts of your institution?  Can you easily and quickly articulate the need for more charitable gifts at your institution?  Are you comfortable explaining how giving is virtuous and good?
  3. We don’t know what our believers believe.  From whom did they learn to be generous?  What other organizations and institutions do they support charitably?  Why do they support them?  How does your institution rank in their list of charitable giving priorities?  If you struggle to answer questions like these quickly and confidently, you probably don’t know your believers well enough to engage them fully.
  4. We don’t invite believers to give, we receive their gifts.  The more proactive you become in learning more about your institution’s believers, the easier it is to propose meaningful gifts to them.  When you get in the habit of proposing gifts to believers, gift income increases.  When your practice is to receive whatever gifts come your way, gift income will at best stay flat, and usually, will decrease over time.
  5. We don’t offer enough creative ways for believers to experience our institutions.  The more strong-tie relationships a donor has with your institution, the more she will believe in your goodness and champion your specialness.  Are you engaging colleagues and those you serve to help thank your donors?  Are you providing unique opportunities for donors to experience your mission?  Once you know what your believers believe, your institution’s expressions of gratitude should become more personalized and meaningful.

Trying to win support from everybody is tempting.  There are so many (in our database, our community, our alumni ranks, etc.).  But the best work done by advancement professionals is deep not wide.

And understanding beliefs – both yours and those of your believers – provides the most helpful channel to go deep.





The Day-Trading Boss

If you haven’t yet worked for him or her, you probably will at some point.

He’s the VP who focuses more on metrics than on the relationships and processes the metrics are there to measure.

She’s the President who wants to know why gift officers aren’t asking for major gifts during a first meeting.

Day-traders often struggle to understand that inviting gifts is not the same as selling widgets.

There are no “giving markets” with “donors” (buyers) and “recipients” (sellers) transacting gifts based on self-interest.  Donors don’t need – at least not in the same way as buyers do in a marketplace – what recipients are providing.

Among other distinctions between the acts of giving and “buying and selling,” encouraging a generous response in others has an element of time that day-traders don’t comprehend.  Decision-making around acting generously is a complex human process involving emotion, logic, soul, and, yes, time.  Time to grow in the wisdom of why helping others is a benefit to you, the donor.  And time to develop the trusting relationships that help encourage generous impulses.

If you work for (or with) a day-trader, ask her to describe the lead-up to the most generous gift she has made.  How long did it take from the time she first thought of this significant gift to when she actually made it?  What steps occurred between when she first thought of the gift and when she made it?  Invite her to reflect on the process, the relationships, and yes, the time, it took to make that gift.

You will either remind your boss that giving is, indeed, a process.  Or, you will learn that he hasn’t yet made the decision to experience the joy of acting generously.   In either case, you will reinforce the fact that individual generosity isn’t mobilized through the same pathways that motivate day-traders.


What Am I Doing?

The world is filled with leaders in every industry (including advancement/development) who rarely ask themselves this important question.

Posers, caring more about the perception of leadership than the practice of it, almost never ask this question.  Even still, some are able to ascend to high-level, leadership posts (again, yes, even in advancement/development).

It doesn’t matter if you are asking this question in frustration and/or exasperation as in, “What am I DOING?” Or, in a more planful and strategic way, as in, “What SHOULD I be doing?”  The point is that when you ask this question you are focusing yourself on what really matters:  your behavior, your actions, your reactions, how you are spending your time, etc.

It is when we consistently focus ourselves on actually doing what we can — coordinating that trip to see your best prospects, writing that creative and/or heartfelt letter, making those discovery visits, personally thanking a donor for their generosity — that we are authentically rewarded.  What we actually do and the results we get still matter.

Yes, many leaders are in the role because they have posed for the title.  By and large, these leaders worry less about making a difference, leaving a institution better than they found it, or legitimately growing a program.  They worry more about how others perceive their leadership and less about what true difference their leadership makes.  So, they communicate via social media and other channels the perception of leadership.

But, neither the world nor your institution will be better because you pose, or (humble) brag post to social media, or seek out the media.  Consistently focusing on what you are actually doing to advance your institution’s mission is what makes the real difference.  It’s the work that matters.

So, do something good.  The world needs more of that.   And so do you.