5 “Alternative Facts” for Advancement Professionals

Recently, a U.S. political figure who shall remain nameless (only because it would be too embarrassing for her to be named) used the phrase, “alternative facts,” during a heated exchange with a reporter.  And since a fact is, by definition, well, “a fact,” I have no idea what the phrase “alternative facts,” is intended to mean.  However, when I take the phrase at face value, my best approximation at a definition would be that “alternative facts,” are those facts that are not facts in our known world, but, instead, are facts that apply in some alternative universe.

So, then, I thought about that concept – facts that are not facts in our world, but perhaps, could be factual in some other alternative reality – and I came up with the following 5 “alternative facts” for advancement professionals.

Alternative Fact 1:  Donor fatigue.  In our world, donors don’t get tired of giving.  What we know is that giving is a scientifically-proven joyful, health-giving, disease-debilitating, life-extending activity.  People don’t typically get “tired” from being more healthy.  Instead, donors stop giving because they aren’t engaged and inspired to give, not because the proverbial well has run dry.  However, in some alternative universe, perhaps life-forms don’t enjoy healthy activities and giving, does, in fact, become tiresome.

Alternative Fact 2:  Asking for a planned gift should only occur after you know a donor well.  In our world, discussing a planned giving opportunity can happen easily and comfortably early on in a relationship with a donor – even during a first, discovery visit with a prospective donor.  For instance, you could be enjoying a wonderful first visit with an alumni couple, listening to them talk glowingly about what your institution means to them.  And as you get up to leave you could say something like:

“A thought just occurred to me.  You both are so complimentary of our institution and have so many fond memories of your time there.  I visit with donors all the time who share with me the same kind of fondness and care for our institution – and many of them have included our institution as a beneficiary in their will.  It occurs to me that you might have done something like that yourselves.  Is that something you’ve already done or have talked about doing?”

In some other version of reality, it could be an “alternative fact” that planned giving conversations are touchy, sensitive endeavors.  You might even have to wait for a long time before bringing up planned gifts.  But not in our reality.  In our reality, it’s actually kind of easy.

Alternative Fact 3:  The best development professionals raise money by themselves.  In our world, the research is clear, volunteers give more money themselves and, when engaged appropriately, help institutions raise more money from others.  I once had a very wealthy, generous major donor say to me, “The project is important.  Before I give, I have to believe it makes sense and is a good project.  But the asker – the asker is even more important.”  In other words, enlisting people he respected to solicit him was a key to receiving his best commitment.  People give to people.  And in many instances, the very best people in any given circumstance may be volunteers who we coach up.

Yet, in some parallel universe, it may be all about the development officer.  Engaging volunteers meaningfully for campaigns or in major gifts might be belittled or viewed as more trouble than they are worth. But in our world, we know that volunteers can extend a development officers results.

Alternative Fact 4:  Annual giving is not worth our time.   In our world, we understand the research that points to the fact that the largest single gift that a donor might make – a planned gift – is typically preceded by years and years of somewhat consistent modest, annual gifts.  Additionally, we read the research that connects the habit of making annual gifts to making larger, current major gifts.  Finally, we understand that a robust and growing donor base (who, by definition will be making smaller gifts), is a risk-reduction, diversification strategy for an institution’s annual revenue stream.

However, in some other, alternative world, there might be those individuals who are short-sighted enough to cut resources for annual giving.  Or, there may even be consulting firms who suggest that annual giving shouldn’t be an important part of the annual revenue mix for an institution.  Of course, this “alternative fact” could not possibly be accepted in our world. . . right?

Alternative Fact 5:  The “Working Board.”  –  In our world, giving by the members of your governing or foundation board matters.  In fact, it matters a lot.  Not only should 100% of your board members give annually, the total of your board’s collective giving should be substantial.  We know from our research at Gonser Gerber that campaigns are far more likely to end successfully and on time when members of the board give at least 20% of the total campaign goal.  Your board is your institution’s leadership body – and that means philanthropic leadership also.

However, in some “alternative world,” there may be a place for a “working board,” whatever that might mean.  My best guess at a definition for the concept of a “working board,” would be something like the following:  “Members of a working board like to remind others that they roll up their sleeves and volunteer for the institution – that is their ‘gift’ to the institution.  But in reality, they don’t do much meaningful volunteering and they certainly don’t embrace serious giving expectations.”

Yes, a “working board” might be all that is needed in an alternative reality.  But, in our world today, our institutions deserve much better.

My sincere hope is that none of us have to deal with any more “alternative facts” – at least not in this world.


What Is The Work?

What if the purpose of your campaign is not to raise extraordinary amounts of gift income, but instead is to educate potential givers on the need(s) being met by your institution?

What if the purpose of your alumni relations event is not to ensure that people have an enjoyable experience, but instead is to remind them why your institution should matter to them?

What if the purpose of your annual giving efforts is not to raise operational and/or unrestricted gift income from a growing base of givers, and instead is to encourage people to adopt a habit of consistent giving.

What if the purpose of advancement services is not to provide accurate and timely reports and data, and instead is to provide leadership and coaching on how to gather the best possible data and use it effectively?

What if your purpose – whatever your position may be in the advancement profession – is not to raise more more money or enhance your institution’s reputation or get more people out to events?  What, if, instead, your purpose is to help people to see beyond their bubble of self-interest and awaken the innate but rarely discussed need for each of us to be generous?

How would you change your behavior?  And, more specifically, how would you change the actual work you are doing?

Because, in fact, these are the ways in which the very best in our profession view our work.


From “Why?” to “What?”

“Why?” isn’t the thing.  It’s not the building project.  Nor the endowment fund.  It’s not the new program.  Nor whatever the gifts might support.  “Why?” is what will happen once you successfully build that building, or grow that endowed fund, or start that new program.  “Why?” is how the money supports your mission and helps you fulfill your vision.  “Why?” is about how you will serve more and better.  “Why?” is about saving and/or transforming lives.

On the front end of the gift giving process, addressing “why?” in a compelling and clear way is critical.  Research suggests that givers are much more likely to be generous when they understand clearly “the why” and when it aligns with their values and beliefs.  If you are building a case for support, addressing, “why your gift is needed” early and with clarity matters.  Simply asking for a gift for the new building, program, or initiative, is not nearly enough – you will be leaving out the most captivating part of your request!  Passionately appealing to people’s values and beliefs encourages their most generous response.

However, after a gift has been made, communicating the “what?” of the gift becomes imperative.  “What?” describes the specific advances the gift has made possible in support of the mission or to fulfill the vision.  “What?” is the new, flexible space that will allow you to teach better.  “What?” is research that the newly-endowed professor just completed which signals a new pathway for sustainable energy.  “What?” is the new program that will link professional training with the classical liberal arts.

However rational we might wish ourselves to be with important decisions, researchers tell us that emotions still play an integral role in all decision-making.  In fact, recent work suggests that in situations where decisions are made in the best interests of others (as opposed to “self-interest”), moral sentiments, or emotions, serve to help decision-makers commit to others rather than being drawn back toward pure self-interest.  In other words, on the front end of the gift giving cycle, answering “why?” is a key trigger for generosity.

But after the “why?” has been answered and the gift commitment has been made, it is wise to begin focusing on addressing the “what?”  Humans might make charitable gift decisions based on the “why?” but they rationalize the shrewdness of their charitable investment with concreteness and logic.



3 Often-Overlooked Principles for Effective Volunteer Engagement

Effectively engaging volunteers – be they Board members, campaign leaders, special event volunteers, advisory council members, or others – can be a tricky proposition.  On the one hand, influential volunteers have an ability to open doors, leverage personal relationships, and tell the story of your institution with an authenticity that can be unmatched by those who are paid by your institution.  But, on the other hand, working with volunteers can be exceptionally messy and time-consuming.  Unfortunately, there is no formula, no template, nor science that adequately explains how best to engage non-paid, but influential and sometimes high maintenance partners.

In our firm’s work with non-profit institutions and organizations, we regularly experience advancement professionals who struggle to adequately engage and utilize the value of their volunteer resource.  At some institutions, volunteers are persona non grata – viewed as “not being worth the effort.”  While at others, they are engaged, but with a good deal of murmuring and frustration from advancement leaders.

At Gonser Gerber, we wholly endorse the engagement of influential volunteers.  Not only do they extend your institution’s reach and invite new donor relationships to be nurtured, the appropriate engagement of volunteers will serve to deepen their own relationship and sense of ownership at your institution.  Here, then, are 3 guiding principles to help you engage volunteers more effectively, artfully, and with much less frustration.

  1. Being unprepared is provocative. The quickest way to invite volunteers of influence and affluence to begin telling you what and how to do your work is to be perceived as being unprepared for meetings or other interactions.  Influential volunteers have typically enjoyed a great deal of success in their professional lives and are used to “calling the shots.”  If meetings are called without a crystal clear purpose, if expectations for their roles are not written and stated plainly, or if you struggle to articulate what “success” looks like for the term of their engagement, you run the real risk of volunteers coming up with work for you to do.   And typically, because volunteers are not advancement professionals, what they ask you to do is work that is neither helpful nor needed.
  2. Volunteers need to be led in order to provide leadership. There is a fine line between leading volunteers and encouraging them to adopt ownership or leadership of the campaign, event, or other activity for which they are assisting.  But here is the reality:  Advancement professionals should not be in the defensive position of regularly responding to volunteer requests.  Instead, you should be educating and leading volunteers in a way that answers most of their questions before they are asked.  In other words, you should be, at least, a few steps ahead of your volunteers.  It is only when volunteers are led effectively that they can adopt an attitude of leadership.  In other words, when you lead your volunteers well (starting with being prepared for their engagement), they will leave your meetings feeling supported by professionals.  This allows them to be more eager to leverage their influence in ways that will assist your institution.  You have educated and led them well.  Therefore, they are more inclined to represent themselves as champions of your institution to other constituents.
  3. More data is almost always unhelpful. One of the tell-tale indicators that influential volunteers are sensing less-than-effective leadership from advancement professionals is the request for “more data.”  This request typically emerges in the following way:  A volunteer might say, “Before I can go out and invite others to learn more about supporting this campaign/special event/etc., I need more information, more data.”  The problem with this request is that you know that “more data” is not a strong motivator to encourage someone to give or give more.  Research clearly tells us that data isn’t nearly the philanthropic motivator as compared to a personal connection (even through a volunteer) to an institution.  So, complying with their request is not only unhelpful, it perpetuates a falsehood about giving.  When a volunteer leader asks for “more data,” the effective advancement leader will pause to deftly explore and educate.  For instance, she might say, “Since we know from research that people give to people, and clearly you have strong relationships with these prospects, help me better understand how we can help you encourage their support.”

Volunteers are worth it – most of the time. Simply put, you can raise far more money by engaging influential volunteers than simply by doing it all yourself.  But volunteers only make good sense when you engage the right people (of influence and affluence) and have the capacity to engage them appropriately and expertly.

One final point to always keep in mind — you are the pro, they are the volunteer.


One Simple Way To Make Your Meetings More Productive

Workplace meetings are important.  Studies show that collaboration in the workplace (meaning, when two or more people communicate to share ideas and achieve common goals) leads to all types of beneficial and excellent outcomes.  From increased staff member retention to coming-up with more effective decisions, plans, and solutions, collaboration works.  And while collaboration can happen in a variety of communication channels – face-to-face, virtual, real-time, or asynchronous – research findings clearly state that face-to-face interactions are the most productive.  We engage more and better in face-to-face settings and we communicate more deeply in those settings.

So, we need face-to-face meetings and most will agree we need them to be as productive as possible.

Here, then, is a simple, yet powerful way to make all of your upcoming meetings more meaningful, engaging, and productive.  It doesn’t cost any money.  No one will have to go to any training.  And, it is something you can start doing right now.

Keep your mobile phone completely out of sight during your meetings.  

That’s it.  Don’t bring your mobile phone into sight.  Keep it in your pocket, your purse, or wherever it will be out of sight.  Of course you also should silence the ringer.  But that isn’t enough.  MIT sociologist, Sherry Turkle’s latest book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” is based on her 20+ year study of the impacts of technology on social engagement.  And one small, yet important, finding is that when a mobile phone is placed on a table – even face down and silenced – during a conversation or meeting, people report that the conversation deteriorates.  In fact, 82% of people say that!

Here’s why professor Turkle says introducing technology into face-to-face conversations is troublesome:

“If you put a cell phone into a social interaction, it does two things: First, it decreases the quality of what you talk about, because you talk about things where you wouldn’t mind being interrupted, which makes sense, and, secondly, it decreases the empathic connection that people feel toward each other.”

So, for your next meeting.  Or, perhaps, for all of your meetings, do yourself and your institution a favor – keep the mobile phones hidden.  Not only will you become more productive and effective.  You also will engage your colleagues in a deeper and more meaningful way.


The Most Important Resolution

About half of Americans state a specific New Year’s resolution.  Most of these resolutions are focused, as one might imagine, or enhancing health or well being, gaining more education, or increasing one’s financial situation.  And while all those resolutions are fine and good, I do wonder if focusing on resolutions that endeavor to make ourselves better represents a misunderstanding of how best to achieve a “better life” (whatever that might mean in your circumstance).

Here is what I’m getting at:  Most all of the New Year’s resolutions you hear about, or might make for yourself, are focused on what you could be doing for you:  Lose weight, get a better job, enhance your education, etc.  But, at their core, most of these resolutions have a different, broader aspiration. The broader aspiration associated with most resolutions is pretty simple:  If I achieve my goal, I’ll feel better/look better/experience life better/etc.  In other words, my life will be better.

So, if you are moving into 2017 and have a desire or stated goal with the underlying aspiration to have an even better life, let me encourage you in a slightly different way.  Let me suggest a re-framed resolution for your consideration.  One that is not based directly on you, but provides you with benefits that are enormous and extensive. Here is the most important resolution you can make for yourself:

Give more.

Give more of your time to others.  Be more generous with compliments and praise.  Give more of your money away.  Focus on what you have with gratitude, instead of what you perceive to be lacking (in yourself and in others).  Give more of your attention when you are listening.  Be more helpful.  Be more generous when celebrating someone else’s happiness.  Just be more grateful and practice more generosity when opportunities are presented to you.

When we commit to living our lives more generously, we experience more happiness, confidence, and peacefulness. The more we give, the more we receive.  It’s not opinion or theory.  Wonderfully, we are hard-wired to receive emotional, social, physical, and other personal benefits when we act with generosity.  When we give more, we become the very best version of ourselves.  And when we are operating with an enhanced spirit of generosity, we just might find that we are making progress on our other goals as well.

My every hope for you is that 2017 will be your most generous year yet!


The Real Reason Your Annual Fund Matters

Tactically, and even strategically-speaking, the Annual Fund for most non-profit organizations is credited with serving 2 purposes.  The Annual Fund:

  1. Provides important (often-times budget relieving) annual gift income to fund current organizational priorities, and;
  2. Serves as a (hopefully expanding) pool of future major donor prospects for the organization.

While these purposes are important, they are not the real reason why your Annual Fund matters.

Instead, your Annual Fund is critical to your organization’s long-term success because it is the primary giving channel to affirm and champion the cause of consistent giving at your institution.

To understand how crucial this purpose is, we must remind ourselves that giving is good.  In fact, giving is a fundamental good.  Non-profit organizations regularly refer to themselves as being in a state of “community.”  A robust giving culture makes that “community,” more compassionate, more other-centered, and stronger.  Being a regular giver encourages us to be more invested in concerns bigger than our own.  Individually and collectively, we become better when we give.  As Thomas Plante, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University states,

“Giving to others is adaptive in community living. As social animals, we survive as a species when we cooperate with others and care for those in need. Thus, from an evolutionary and socio-biological perspective, we are wired to help others within our community, and doing so helps all of us survive and thrive.”

Today, more schools, more non-profits, more healthcare institutions are discussing seriously a future without the Annual Fund.  While different funding approaches are being discussed, most all of the scenarios involve the organization becoming more transactional and business-like and less cooperative and caring.

In other words, students will pay full tuition at schools, fees for various services will be increased at non-profits, etc.  The idea is to have less financial need for an Annual Fund.  But, again, I’m not at all convinced that organizational financial need is the primary purpose of a thriving Annual Fund.

When we misunderstand the fundamental purpose of the Annual Fund – an important component of the non-profit enterprise – we run the risk of making decisions that injure the very specialness of the non-profit enterprise itself.  Non-profit leaders should be careful when making decisions based on perceived short-term, financial needs.   Getting rid of the Annual Fund is one of those decisions.

Ultimately, if we strive to reduce the centrality of annual giving within our organizations, we will debilitate the longer-term, qualitative distinctions that make our organizations important to our shared human experience.  We need the Annual Fund.  And not always for the reasons we think.



Don’t Forget To Invite These Donors to Give Before December 31

Over the next 3 weeks, donors will be making far more charitable gifts than at any other time during the year.  It is the season of giving – and donors respond.

As you implement plans to encourage and remind donors to support your mission during this period of generosity, there is a group of donors who can sometimes be overlooked.  If your institution operates on a fiscal year, the overlap between the beginning date of your fiscal year and the end of the calendar year can offer a special opportunity.

Here is how it works:

Let’s suppose your institution operates on a July 1 – June 30 fiscal year.  Currently, you would be working in fiscal year 2017.  Because of the difference between the fiscal and calendar years, you could query your database to run a report of those donors who made their most recent gift to your institution sometime between July 1 – December 31, 2014.   That date range represents the beginning months of fiscal year 2015.

After reviewing this list of previous donors, you might call a few of the larger donors and say something similar to the following:

“Thank you for being a generous donor in support of our mission.  We remain grateful to dedicated donors like you who provide needed resources each and every year.  You last made a gift during our 2015 budget year and as we approach the end of 2016, we wanted to reach out to you to see if we can continue to count on your generosity.  We want to count you among our donors in 2016.  Would you give consideration to continuing your support by making a gift of $____ ?”

Here’s the short take:  Many sybunt donors believe inaccurately that they give in support of your institution each and every year.  The reality is that life gets busy and, sometimes, well-intentioned donors miss years.  In their hearts and minds, though, many believe themselves to be loyal annual donors.

The purpose of the above strategy is to assume that all recent donors desire to view themselves as loyal annual donors.  Your responsibility is to communicate with them accordingly.  By verbally connecting the 2015 budget or fiscal year with the 2016 calendar year that is coming to a close, you are presenting the timing of their most recent gift in a manner that hopefully will encourage their continued giving.

The fact that you are clarifying their last gift time frame by using words like, “budget,” or “fiscal,” or “calendar,” is not nearly as ear-catching as hearing the back to back years of “2015” and “2016.”

An effective strategy with inconsistent donors is to assume they believe themselves to be consistent annual donors.  Then, accurately but carefully communicate with them about their past giving so that they just might be encouraged to become consistent annual donors.

Good luck and finish 2016 strong!



The 5 Questions You Should Be Answering In Prospect Management Meetings

Prospect Management Team (PMT) meetings are often under-utilized as a major gifts program management tool and, sometimes, completely misunderstood.

The purpose of PMT meetings is rather straightforward:  to ensure that all major gift prospect managers within a unit, division, or institution are aware of the prospects with whom other prospect managers will soon be engaging.  Sharing with all team members the purpose and expected outcomes of upcoming donor and prospect interactions helps coordinate visits with prospects who may be involved with more than a single prospect manager and gives everyone a chance to inform or weigh in on a visit or interaction prior to it occurring.

The PMT meeting is a communication and coordination meeting as opposed to a major donor prospect strategy-setting meeting, which should be occurring in regularly-scheduled one-on-one meetings between the prospect manager and her supervisor.  Additionally, because the focus of this meeting is on the prospects with whom major gift prospect managers will be engaging, the discussion is decidedly forward-looking.   There should be little to no discussion about the interactions with prospects that have already occurred as that information can be found in the contact report that was filed and/or distributed.

During the PMT meeting, there are 5 core questions that should be answered by prospect managers reporting on their upcoming visits and interactions with major gift prospects.  The 5 questions are:

  1. Who are the prospects have I scheduled for upcoming visits/interactions?
  2. When, specifically, am I visiting with each of these prospects?
  3. What is the purpose of each of the visits I have scheduled with these prospects?
  4. What is the gift invitation amount that I currently have in mind for them?  (whenever that invitation to give might come)
  5. What is my best understanding of the purpose of their next gift? What does this donor wish to support?

The PMT meeting should not be a lengthy meeting – no more than 1 hour, even for larger teams.  The above 5 questions should constitute the core agenda of the meeting.  However, in too many situations, the agendas of PMT meetings are not well-structured and discussions about upcoming special events, annual giving updates, or reporting on past donor interactions (just to name a few of the diversions), dominate the meeting.  These tangential discussions have the unfortunate impact of frustrating team members and encouraging a general negative attitude of “why are we having this meeting, again?”

When each prospect manager adopts the habit of answering these 5 questions about their upcoming prospect interactions, PMT meetings become far shorter in length, more streamlined and helpful, and, ultimately, lead to stronger coordination between the members of the major gifts team.  And, by practicing a discipline of answering these 5 questions and holding other team members accountable to do the same, you quickly will experience an increase in effectiveness throughout your major gifts program.



The Intersection of Politics and Giving

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election is now behind us (although my Facebook feed would suggest otherwise).  If we can remove the divisiveness from the election for just a moment and look at what the candidates proposed about charitable giving policy, we will see that neither of the major party candidates were focused on enacting tax policies to encourage greater generosity.  In fact, according to the Tax Policy Center, while President-elect Trump and Senator Clinton proposed very different tax plans, both plans would have the impact of decreasing charitable giving in the U.S.

In and of itself, the agreement of both democrats and republicans on tax policy that would negatively impact U.S. charitable giving may be surprising to some, but it is certainly not news.  Leaders of both parties have suggested such changes for a number of years.  I have written previously that the U.S. government should expand, not reduce, opportunities for more Americans to act with generosity.

However, the intersection of U.S. politics and giving becomes a bit more interesting when one looks at a state-by-state comparison of giving.  As the liberal-leaning, “Huffington Post,” reported in 2013, being generous is, “One Thing Red States Do Better Than Blue States.”  The thrust of the article can be seen in the below map which shows the states in which individuals give to charities more generously (red) or less generously (blue) than the national average.  Although the map was produced in 2004, more recent data support similar findings.

Giving By State


So, while some researchers and observers have twisted these findings to suggest that republicans are more generous than democrats (the above map does look familiar, right?), or claimed that this data shows that wealthy people are less generous than poorer people, or that church attending parts of the country are more generous than parts of the country that attend fewer religious services, I believe these claims to be superficial and inaccurate.  Instead, I believe what more insightful analysis has suggested – that Americans of all socio-economic strata give at similar levels when they are made aware of and become connected to the need.   When individuals within communities are meaningfully connected, we give in support of each other.

If we consider the many and diverse health benefits associated with giving, it would strongly suggest that our government would attempt to incentivize such behavior at the individual level.  And when we layer in the findings that connected communities give in support of those in need at higher levels than dis-connected communities, it is fair to question why both major political parties are in favor of tax policies that would discourage charitable giving.

And perhaps even more worthy of questioning:  With all the individual and communal benefits associated with charitable giving, why is this topic rarely lifted up as one of the top policy issues of our day?  Indeed, more giving may be the only practical antidote powerful enough to bind a divided and unsympathetic nation.