Do Not Solicit

Recently, I was with a client and we stumbled upon my donor record in their database.  “Do Not Solicit,” it read.

“That’s interesting,” I observed.  “Why would you have me classified as a “do not solicit?”

“Well,” came the response, “we didn’t want you to receive all our phonathon calls and direct mail solicitations. . .”

“Why not?”  I asked.  And then, the jumbled response: “Well, we know you are busy and you are a special case because of your work with us. . .”

Think, with me about this scenario.  This organization has decided to label a donor as, “Do Not Solicit,” for what they believed to be a good reason – whatever that reason might be.  But they made a decision for the donor – and, in the process made a mistake.

Our role as advancement and development professionals is to invite more people to give generously more often.  It’s to ask questions to learn more about our donors’ interests, values, aspirations, and inclinations.  It’s to educate people on the joy of giving.  Our job is not to make decisions for our donors – and certainly not decisions that decrease opportunities for them to support a mission they find worthy.

So, I said to my client, “Please change my status.  I want to be solicited.  I believe in your work and it is a joy to support your mission.  I enjoy the phonathon calls because I get to talk to people who benefit from my giving.  And I look forward to receiving your direct response invitations to read about the personal stories my giving supports.”

“Of course we can make that change,” was the response.  “But most people don’t view giving that way – your response isn’t what we normally hear!”

“And that,” I said, “is what you are really here to change.”


Guilt or Grace

Which culture characteristic animates your advancement team’s efforts?  While there are a number of ways to assess team culture, assessing your team’s placement on the “Guilt or Grace Continuum” can lead to helpful understandings.

In the Guilt Culture, the fundamental assumption is that an organization gets better when problems or gaps in performance are identified and specific individuals are assigned blame.  People’s shortcomings, limitations, and lesser strengths are the focus of discussion – often surreptitiously.  Because talking about people and their deficiencies is a hallmark of the Guilt Culture and because most people want to appear to be nice, another hallmark of this culture choice is passive-aggressiveness.

“That is not my job,” and “us v. them” mentalities are quickly adopted in the Guilt Culture.  Coalitions are built.  And posturing for political purposes becomes a large component of the work (if not the work).  People working in a culture animated by guilt are dissuaded from being creative and entrepreneurial because making things better isn’t rewarded (being on the “right” coalition is far more rewarding).  Additionally, attempting to become a better professional runs the risk of making others appear lazy or incompetent – a quick way to be a member of the “wrong” coalition.

On the other hand, in the Grace Culture, the fundamental assumption is that an organization gets better when strengths and opportunities are identified and built upon and thoughtful risks are taken.   Organizations operating with a Grace Culture focus on how people can be best positioned to help create better outcomes.  Instead of talking about people’s shortcomings, the greater strengths of individuals are identified and put to good use.

In a Grace Culture, people are encouraged to try new and creative solutions to help meet the mission more effectively and/or efficiently.  And because grace is the foundational characteristic of this culture, when mistakes are made or creative solutions don’t perform as anticipated, the focus isn’t on the failings of people but on the strategy’s shortcomings or the implementation flaws.  Individuals are encouraged to try another thoughtful approach.  In this culture, while there is not perfection, there is excellence – because people who want to get better will be attracted to and will stick with this culture.

If you wonder which culture predominates in your shop, ask yourself which type of question get asked most often:

  • Who is responsible for the poor outcome?   OR  Why did the idea not work?
  • What are the gaps in our performance?  OR  What are we doing exceptionally well, and how can we do more of it?
  • Why is he still here?   OR  What is he really good at?

There are two cultural approaches a team can take when it aims to get better.  One is to assign blame for the identified the problems, the gaps in performance, and the bottlenecks in the process.  The other is to encourage strategic risk taking by playing to people’s greater strengths, identifying opportunities, and chasing creative and innovative ideas.    By focusing more on the second question in each pair above, your team will become more vibrant, fun, and productive.


3 Differences Between Nonprofit and For-Profit Boards

Nonprofit organizations, including colleges, universities, and schools, seek financially-successful, influential, and generous individuals to serve as governing board members.  In seeking individuals who fit this profile, nonprofits will regularly pull from a pool of successful for-profit leaders.  Not only do many leaders in the for-profit world have access to significant financial resources, they also can develop important spheres of influence, and, as a perceived added benefit, many come to their nonprofit board service with significant for-profit governance experience.

And while for-profit governance experience might first appear to be an unqualified bonus in volunteering as a nonprofit governing board member (governance is governance, right?), it is helpful to be reminded that the two organizational types are, in fact, different.

There are many similarities between for-profit and nonprofit governance.  But, there are also a number of important distinctions.  Distinctions, that, if not well-understood and embraced, can cause unneeded confusion and tension around roles and responsibilities.  In addition, attempting to treat nonprofit governance as a facsimile of for-profit governance models can lead to significant problems in achieving the organization’s mission.  Here, then, are 3 important differences between nonprofit and for-profit governing boards.

1.  Board Size – For-profit governing boards can be small, sometimes very small.  Some corporate boards seek to stay around 5 members and the average size of governing boards for publicly traded companies tends to be between 8 and 11 members.  Meanwhile, nonprofit governing boards can be much larger – perhaps 25-30 individuals.  Some organizations have unique governing structures that include boards with over 100 individuals.  New nonprofit governing board members with experience in for-profit governance may openly question the need for so many people.  “There are too many people here to get anything done!” can be the refrain.  However, the larger size of the nonprofit governing board serves two very important purposes.

First, the nonprofit mission is focused on meeting and serving a public need that is neither fully addressed by government nor business.  Therefore, nonprofit governing boards tend to want members of their constituencies involved in the governance process.  A variety of voices need to be at the governing table so that the decisions made are sensitive and responsive to the needs of those who are being served. Second, the nonprofit governing board has a unique duty that does not fall to the for-profit governing board – namely, the duty of fundraising.  All things being equal, the fundraising prowess of a 30-person board will far outdistance the capacity of a 5-person board

2.  Mission – while both nonprofit and for-profit organizations should have mission statements, mission takes on a central and commanding role in the work of a nonprofit.  Regardless of whatever product or service it might produce, it can be said that the mission for every for-profit organization is to earn an appropriate return on invested capital for shareholders.  That is not the case in the nonprofit world.  Simply put, services that lose cash, are, in many instances, the key components of the nonprofit’s mission.  So, while for-profits may “mission-morph” from one product, service, or an entire business to others over time in an effort to chase a greater return on invested capital, the nonprofit mission will stay relatively stable – feed and clothe the poor, educate the next generation, care for the sick, etc.

What this means is that everyday operations and decision-making in the nonprofit world are focused on the achievement of mission in the longer-term.  It can even be argued that some nonprofit decision-making does not make logical financial sense.  For instance, what kind of education would a school provide if the only disciplines offered where those that were financially-profitable?  No more arts, no more philosophy, no more history.  So, while one can argue that keeping a money-losing history department is not financially-sound, cutting the department would injure the school’s ability to achieve its mission of providing a well-rounded education for the next generation.  Conversely, for-profit decision-making can and does happen much more quickly and with a much simpler benchmark for success.  If money is not being made, it is time to change!

3.  Leadership – In the nonprofit arena, there is typically a paid CEO that serves at the pleasure of an all-volunteer governing board led by a non-executive chair.  In the for-profit arena, it is not uncommon to have combined board chair/CEO.  This distinction is what causes much of the confusion around nonprofit governance vs. nonprofit management.

It can difficult for individuals with significant for-profit board experience to fully appreciate the nonprofit governance model.  However, when nonprofit volunteer board members confuse their role and attempt to manage the enterprise, there are any number of problems that will arise.  As examples, because nonprofit boards are significantly larger than for-profit boards and because the concept of “mission” is so central to decision-making in the nonprofit setting, having volunteer nonprofit board members attempt to make operational decisions for the organization is not only unhelpful, it is unfair to the board members.  The most helpful ways that nonprofit board members can impact the day-to-day work of the nonprofit is to leverage existing personal and professional relationships to gather needed resources for achieving the mission and fulfilling a compelling vision.

In the nonprofit world of governance, there is a phrase that characterizes individuals who serve ably as volunteer board members.  These are the folks who “get it.”  Part of “getting it,” is being financially-capable and generous.  But another part of “getting it,” is understanding that one model of governance doesn’t fit all purposes.



Getting Ready. . . To Ask – A Professional Development Opportunity

There are two questions consistently asked by serious advancement professionals:

  1. “How can our institution get better prepared for our next campaign?” and
  2. “How can I get better at asking for major gifts?”

These questions, of course, are linked.  Consistently soliciting gifts effectively will help ensure that an institution is well-prepared for a campaign.  However, there are many follow-on questions stemming from these first two that will lead to whole set of new and different issues.  For instance, “now that we know how prepared we are for a campaign, what is our game plan to ensure campaign success?”  Or, “now that we know the best ways to solicit a major gift, what are some of the best practices for identifying and engaging major donor prospects?”

To be sure, these two short questions can stimulate long, involved, and important answers.

For these reasons, Kent Huyser and I will be leading two important Gonser Gerber Institute 1-day workshops to address these often-asked questions.  These are two separate workshops designed to be participant-centric and packed with information.

The first workshop is focused on Campaign Readiness and will occur on Thursday, April 21.  The second workshop is focused on Asking for the Gift and will occur on Friday, April 22.  You can sign up for one or both and each will be held in our offices in Naperville, IL.

For those who have attended our workshops at the Gonser Gerber offices previously, you are aware that we keep the number of participants below 20 so that we can have a true discussion-oriented experience.  I can promise you will leave these workshops with a clearer understanding and specific plans for how best to utilize a campaign readiness study and how best to ask for that next big gift.

Sign up today – we have a few seats remaining for these workshops and I sincerely hope you will join me and Kent next month for either – or both! I can’t wait to see you in Naperville and you’ll be glad you attended!


What Are You More Afraid Of?

  • Setting goals and not meeting them  OR  Realizing that your work isn’t important;
  • Not knowing the right answer  OR  Not knowing the best questions to ask;
  • Feeling as though you have failed  OR  Feeling as though you didn’t try hard enough;
  • Being made fun of  OR  Being unable to make a significant difference;
  • Giving your best effort and realizing it wasn’t good enough  OR  Doing work that doesn’t matter.

Everyone experiences fear, apprehension, angst, concerns, etc.  But if the first phrase in each of the above statements is the one that stirs your most deeply-held personal fears, you will struggle to get better and lead a professional life of significance.

Comfort is rarely compatible with growth.  And even when you don’t fully reach ambitious goals, it is never failure if you make progress on work that is significant.


“This Needs To Be Run More Like A Business!”

Recently, I facilitated a focus group populated with private higher education governing board members.  One slice of the discussion included a board member lamenting, “Our business model in higher education is broken.  I simply do not understand why our tuition and fees are not sufficient to cover our costs.  We need to be run more like a business!”

Statements like this are not new, of course.  But, as a consultant, I will say that I am hearing this sentiment more and more.  And from people who should know better.

On its face, this concern sounds like it makes good, common sense.  “Be more efficient.  Keep costs down.  Run the institution more like a business.”   But, when you chase that “run it like a business” line of thinking just a bit, you realize it comes with some very deep problems.  Problems, that, at their core, are prompted because non-profit higher education is not simply a business and treating it as such is wrong-headed and causes more issues than it fixes.  Here are two troubling developments that are occurring in non-profit higher education, in part, because more and more institutions are attempting to be “run like businesses.”

First, the business model approach to higher education is helping to discourage giving.  The connection between the business model thinking being advocated and the motivations for charitable giving is rarely, if ever made.  But, the very move to a more business-like, transactional, customer-oriented approach discourages giving.  And the more our higher educations are “run like businesses,” the more giving will be reduced.  If we aim to treat public and private non-profit higher education like any other business in which students are viewed as customers and the activity of keeping costs low and prices higher is the first priority, then our students and alumni will view us like Walmart, not like their “alma mater.” And giving, especially from the masses of alumni will continue to decline.

Want proof?  Alumni giving participation, which the Council for Aid to Education’s Voluntary Support of Education report tells us has decreased year-over-year for 16 years now, will continue to decrease as board members and others misguidedly encourage institutions to view students as customers.  As those students graduate and become alumni, why should they not view their alma maters as “educational Walmarts” from which they purchased their degrees?  A transactional business model undermines the whole process of giving because it reduces a life-changing experience to a pay-for-services transaction.  There is a reason no one makes charitable gifts to Walmart, Target, or the local supermarket after going through the check-out lane.  There is a reason no one even thinks to make a charitable gift to their internet provider after paying their monthly bill.  We purchase goods and services from businesses.  We don’t give to them.

Charitable giving participation increases when alumni view their institutions emotionally – as alma mater – the place filled with people who cared enough and gave enough to help them successfully transition from childhood to a richly-lived adult life.

Second, and underlying the fact that a business model approach applied to higher education will kill giving, is the fact that giving makes us better as individuals and our communities stronger.  I have noticed that some of the most vocal proponents for higher education adopting a more the business-like, transactional approach are also the same people who struggle with their own giving.  They either give infrequently or give much less than they could.  But here is what research tells us:  Helping others – financially or in any other way – is good.  It’s good to receive the help when it is needed.  And it’s even better to be the helper.  We know that research has clearly made the connection between emotional health, physical health, happiness, longevity, etc. and regular giving.  We know that developing a giving spirit is one of the healthiest habits we can adopt as adults.  It makes us better individually and it makes our communities stronger and more meaningful for us.

And yet, when people talk about changing the business model so that tuition and fees cover the full cost of education, they ultimately are advocating for a culture that values giving less.  When we give less we become more disconnected from each other and we find less meaning in our human interactions.  Simply put, a community that gives less is not as healthy as a community that gives more.   Giving in higher education should be valued, protected, and encouraged at every turn, not viewed with antipathy.  We when give, we aren’t losing something of value, we are gaining something that truly is priceless.

No, we don’t need to change higher education to become “more like a business.”  We need board members and other leaders who understand that higher education is a community of care that is much “more than a business.”  And we need to do a much better job of educating people on why generous giving should continue to be a hallmark of that community.


Fundraising Is Not A Commodity

A lot of the services we experience from businesses today are commodified.  For instance, there are 3 “legacy” airlines now – United, American, and Delta.  While each has its own strengths (United has the best mobile app., Delta still serves the best free snacks on flights, etc.), the overall experience of air travel has been commodified.  The seats are about the same, the boarding process is about the same, and the planes are about the same.  A flight is a flight is a flight.

There are many other examples of commodification.  Major hotel chain experiences have been commodified.  Rental car experiences have been commodified.  Your internet provider offers a commodified service.

When a service or product becomes commodified, two things happen.

  1. The companies that provide the commodified service match what their competitors do. They benchmark against the competition excessively.  Over time the product or service becomes more similar and less distinctive.
  2. The consumer in the marketplace looking for a commodified service or product makes her choice almost exclusively on price. Why pay more when you are going to get essentially the same service or product from any vendor?  Low cost wins.

But, not all services are commodities.  For instance, a personal fitness trainer is not a commodified service.  Your physician does not provide you with a commodified service.  Education is not a commodity.

With a non-commodified service or product, the consumer might be willing to pay a bit more because of the perceived extra value and benefit of that particular service or experience.  For instance, you may be willing to pay more for your personal trainer because her unique energy and coaching encourages you to push yourself further than anyone else could.  She provides you with a qualitatively superior experience so price is no longer the only reason for making your decision to purchase her service.

Far too often in advancement we act like we are in a commodified environment.  We benchmark ourselves against other institutions (which we believe are “similar” to ours).  We create performance metrics for gift officers that are not designed to encourage relationship-building with donors, but rather serve to standardize the giving process (as if that is possible).  We hold up the value of “big donor data” and “analytics” while treating as secondary the immense power derived from gathering and analyzing the “little data” of personal relationships and experiences.  And we are, I’m afraid, focusing our donors more on the transaction of giving than on the joy of giving.

I have heard so-called “consultants” propagate the awful idea that there should be a specific number of visits a gift officer should complete with a donor before asking for a gift.  That’s like suggesting one should go on 7 dates and then make a marriage proposal.

When our strategies point us in the direction of sanitizing the giving process into a standard process, formula, or template – when we start to commodify the giving process – we are going down a wrong, bad road.  When we focus more on trying to find the magic mechanisms of fundraising and focus less on the uniqueness of our institutional mission, we are not understanding what drives generosity.

If we want to raise more money, our strategies should encourage us to delight our donors.  And delighting donors means that we recognize that each is unique.  It means that we must get to know them – not as equivalent points in a larger data field.  Not as a herd of homogeneous cattle. Not as robotic “giving units.”  But as individual, idiosyncratic people with unique interests, motives, and values.

Giving is a highly personal experience. It’s the opposite of the commodified experienced.  There is no formula that can be equally applied to all donors to encourage their generosity.  Just like there is no formula for the personal trainer, the doctor, or the best teachers.  Yes, there are principles that are time-tested and effective, but no template.  And the most important principle to effectively raise more money is simple:

Your best donors aren’t consumers and their giving isn’t a marketplace transaction.


An Open Letter To A Governing Board Member

Greetings Board Member:

We are writing today because recently we’ve been discussing our institution’s engagement of you as a member of our board.  Simply put, we recognize that we have failed you in the following important ways:

  • When we recruited you, we failed to share with you a clear, written position description which included a list of board member expectations;
  • When you accepted a position on our board, we did not provide you with a substantive on-boarding process that included institutional leaders sharing with you their inspirational strategic visions and plans for our institution;
  • We have not provided you (nor your colleagues) with consistent and ongoing education focused on how you can be a more effective board member;
  • We have consistently reminded you to not “get into the weeds” of management, but have failed to provide you with substantive opportunities to do work that is more helpful;
  • We have failed to talk transparently with you about your responsibility for providing philanthropic leadership for our institution;
  • We have consistently prepared board meeting agendas that include too much time for reporting to you and far too little time inviting you to answer strategic questions and discuss generative issues.

We apologize that we’ve failed you in these fundamental ways and, yet, continue to assume and expect that you should give generously every time we ask.  It is this faulty assumption on our part that is most problematic because it causes us to take you for granted simply because you are on the board.  Moving forward, we promise to strengthen our efforts to involve you meaningfully and in such ways so that your giving will be a natural reaction to and reflection of your significant engagement with our institution.


Institutional Leaders


Tickled Pink

As I type this message, most of the world finds itself rushing toward the apex of the “Season of Giving.”  More personal gifts between family and friends and more tax-deductible charitable gifts will be given over the next 7 days than any other week during the year.  Giving is the omnipresent message.

And yet, even in the context of such a positive, loving message of giving, so many of us will experience frustration due to the busy-ness of the season, the crowded-ness of schedules, and the exhaustion that can follow.  In fact, sometimes we allow ourselves to focus more on the frustrations of the season rather than the good message that giving has for us all.

That’s where two words – “tickled pink” – come into play.

Just the other day I read an article about an anonymous donor who gave $50,000 to a charitable organization to help children.  He placed the check under a nativity scene and called the organization and told them where they would find the gift.  ABC News was able to track down the donor and he said,

“My whole life has been immensely blessed. . . I’m tickled pink to be able to do it.”

From time to time, all of us can allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the minutia, the mundane, the frustrations, or even just the trivial or less-important matters of life and work.  Sometimes in our work as development professionals, we allow ourselves to become overwhelmed or bogged down by the day-to-day, routine aspects of our work and miss the bigger, extraordinary impacts we are making.  We allow ourselves to focus more on meeting metrics than creating meaning.  To focus more on our “to-do list” rather than our “with who list.”  To focus more on achieving goals rather than spreading the simple but powerful message that giving is good.

We get distracted from the real story – that when we do this work of encouraging others to give generously, we aren’t taking anything from them.  We aren’t asking them to give us something of great value.  We are seeking to give them something of great value.  We are giving them an opportunity.  An opportunity to align their support with their values.  An opportunity to save or transform a life.  An opportunity to feel better about themselves and our world.  An opportunity to make a difference with their lives that satisfies more deeply than just about any other decision they might make.

So, as you rush through your year-end giving activities and make those final phone calls and visits and send those last emails and letters, remember that our focus shouldn’t be on meeting specific goals and metrics – those are simply outcome measures.

What we really are doing is giving more people more opportunities to become “tickled pink.”

Blessings to you during this most important Season of Giving.




The 3 P’s of Discovery

“I finally have a visit scheduled with Dr. Smith for tomorrow!”

This was the joyful exclamation made to me recently by a gift officer.  I smiled and congratulated him on the achievement.  Dr. Smith had been one of those prospects who made himself very slippery.  He was believed to have the capacity to make a substantial gift, perhaps even a transformational one, if he so chose.  But the institution never had a meaningful relationship with him.

He gave, but they were mostly token gifts.  If he was caught at an event, he would agree to the notion of meeting with the gift officer.  But when the actual outreach was made to confirm a date and time, he went into dark mode – rarely responding, or responding in such a tardy fashion as to be unhelpful.  This went on for almost 2 years and became a running joke among the team of major gift officers.  But, now, it appeared the visit would happen.

I was genuinely happy for the gift officer and for the institution because of the possibilities associated with this visit.  So, I asked the gift officer this question:

“When you finish your visit with Dr. Smith, what do you hope to come away with?”

The gift officer paused and said, “I want to share our funding priorities with him and see what he thinks.”

“Ok, so the primary purpose of the visit is for him to learn more about your plans?”  I asked.

He struggled to articulate a response.   “Well, yes,” he said, “and to ask him what he thinks of our plans.”

“Ok, I’m with you.  Let me encourage you to go a step or two further with that questioning part of your visit.  What if you think of your time with him as an informal interview of sorts?” I asked.    “What if, instead of sharing with him during this first visit all of the exciting plans the institution has, you ask him well-crafted questions that will help clarify the ‘3 P’s of Discovery’?”

I continued, “It seems to me that you still need some important discovery questions answered about Dr. Smith.  For instance, before moving too fast with sharing your case statement, it could be very helpful for you to gain more clarity about him and his interests. Specifically, I would encourage you to seek more understanding about his:

Prosperity – what size gift could he make if he were really engaged with you?  Does he really have the capacity that you believe he does?

Propensity – how generous, in general, is he?  Especially since he hasn’t given much to you over the years.  Has he made major gifts elsewhere and, if so, what motivated those gifts?

Passion – what is it, specifically, about our institution, program, or project, which aligns with his values and interests?

So often gift officers feel pressure (real and perceived) to share the case for support before learning what needs to be learned about the prospect.  A few well-articulated, open-ended questions, such as those below can be exceptionally helpful:

  • “I’d love to hear more about the other institutions you support. What has encouraged you to get involved/stay involved with them?”  or
  • “As you think about all the gifts you’ve made, which ones stick out as being especially meaningful for you?” or
  • “From what you know of us right now, which areas/programs/initiatives/projects/etc. do you believe are especially important?”

People will tell you many important facts about themselves when you ask in a way that communicates sincere interest in them and their stories.  And after you gain more clarity on the 3 P’s, you’ll be in a much better position to invite them to transform your institution through their giving.