From Conduit to Conductor

If you are a successful gift officer, you might view your role as a bit like a conduit – a connector that weds donor interests with the needs of your institution.  The best gift officers have carefully crafted questions and strategies designed to engage prospective donors so that deep understanding of values, beliefs, and interests can occur.  This is a skill of “story-listening” that I’ve written about before.  It is a skill that all high-level, productive gift officers possess.

However, when the best gift officers grow into leaders of the advancement enterprise, there is an additional and different skill set that is needed.  Specifically, the best advancement leaders aren’t solely conduits, they serve their teams as conductors.

Conductors guide and encourage the best from others in a team environment.  They persuade and influence and they interpret context in order to keep the team moving forward toward an agreed upon goal.  Think of the choral or orchestra conductor who provides encouragement, direction, guidance and leadership to a team of musicians, all with a nuanced wave of his hand and/or baton.

Being a conductor means that you must possess a vision and set a course – a plan and direction for where you desire the team to go.  While conduits can work ably once a direction has been set, conductors must set the direction and then provide the creative energy which encourages others to move forward in an integrated manner.  Leadership isn’t simply implementing plans. It is creating compelling plans that others are enthusiastic about helping to implement.

Both the conduit and the conductor are vitally important to an advancement team’s success.  The two roles are very distinct with contrasting skill sets.  But, the very best conduits and conductors do one thing exceptionally well:  they both actively listen to others.



A Hypothetical Letter to a Non-Profit Board Member

Dear Board Member:

I am back in my office having just completed our most recent Board meeting.  As I reflect on our work together in support of our institution’s mission and vision, a number of thoughts are occurring to me.  The most important of these thoughts, I believe, involve offering my sincere thanks and an earnest apology.

First, the thanks.  Thank you for your service.  You believed enough in our mission to accept a position as a Board member – to become an “owner” of this institution – and to accept all of the fiduciary responsibilities that come with that role.  This is no trivial commitment and, on behalf of our institution, I am grateful for your willingness to serve.  Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom which strengthens our entire institution.  Thank you for your financial support.  And most of all, thank you for your time.  In today’s world, all of us are regularly reminded that time is our most precious asset.  Because you gladly share all of these valuable resources with our institution, I thank you.

Second, the apology.  I am sorry, truly, that your recruitment to our Board was neither as thorough nor as thoughtful as it should have been.  We did not provide you with a written set of roles and responsibilities and we did not talk with you candidly and transparently about our expectations of you.  Instead of a recruitment process, you experienced more of an enlistment.  And that was not fair to you in many ways.

As an example, while we are grateful that you have given in the past, the expectation for all Board members is that this institution is one of your top three philanthropic priorities.  We set this as an expectation, instead of specific gift amount, because we recognize that Board members bring a variety of important contributions to our institution.  If we desire to populate the Board with individuals who possess an affinity for giving away large sums of money, it is up to our process of due diligence, prior to inviting Board members to serve, to discern their giving habits and potential.

It is a point of some embarrassment for me that our Board giving expectations were not discussed openly with you so that you could have made an informed decision about joining our Board.  Furthermore, it is problematic that we have not established a routine in which there is significant Board meeting time dedicated to discussing the importance of Board giving and the philanthropic leadership responsibilities of the Board.

In addition to being discourteous to you and the Board as a whole, our failure to engage you candidly in discussions regarding the Board’s important leadership role and the associated giving expectations leads to an unhelpful and inappropriate assumption on the part of the administration.  Specifically, we sometimes assume that since you are a member of the Board, we should not need to spend the time, energy, and effort engaging you and inviting you to give.  We assume that you should simply make your very best annual gift available each year and, when we are in a campaign, you should increase your giving substantially.  We assume that “you should know” to do these things.  These assumptions are, of course, completely unfair and based on our shortcomings, not yours.

My hope is that now that you are on the Board, you do not feel as though the expectations, especially around giving, have been changed on you. I also hope that we can work together to make the joyful topic of giving one that is regularly and openly discussed at Board meetings.  As you know, we serve a mission that matters.  And our institution’s vision is inspiring!  We have good and important work to do together.

I look forward to making your service on our Board more meaningful each day.  We are grateful you are here and we will begin acting like it.

With all best wishes,

Your Chief Advancement Officer


The Tyranny of Knowing

What do you know about your work?  I mean, really know?

The reality is that we all believe we know a lot more than we actually do.  In fact, in all facets of life, we walk through situations believing we have more knowledge than we do.  It’s part of being human.

Each day our brains take in almost incalculable amounts of data and discard the vast majority of it as irrelevant or duplicative – non-essential to what we need to function in that moment.  Think of all the visuals, sounds, textures, tastes, temperatures, movements, etc., that our brains take in as data and respond to every moment.  Right now, for instance, as you read this, your brain is translating these words on your screen, you are aware of a conversation out in the hall, your fingertips are feeling the warmth of your coffee mug, etc.  The diversity of data we receive is incredible and the sheer volume is staggeringly massive.

Imagine if we had to question, re-learn, or re-understand every piece of minute data that we experience each time we experience it.  Every move.  Every interaction.  Every texture.  Every communication. Every symbol.  Every word.  Every sound.  Every stimuli.  Our senses would quickly overload our brains and our lives would grind to a paralytic halt.

So instead, our brains automatically construct and consistently refer to patterns of data and experiences so that we can make decisions in a timely manner.  These patterns help us quickly make sense of our worlds by, in part, discarding the non-interesting or irrelevant data and information.  By using these patterns to quickly discard data, our brains make efficient assumptions which encourage us to believe we know a whole bunch more than we actually do.  Sometimes these assumptions can be huge.  For example, can you make out the famous individual in this picture even though it is upside down?Screen-Shot-2016-03-04-at-14.52.44

Of course you can!  It is Angelina Jolie.  Pretty simple, right?

And, if you are like most people, you didn’t really notice much of anything wrong with this picture.  Instead, your brain quickly utilized its pattern recognition ability, threw out what it deemed meaningless information, and gave you the answer.

But now, look at the same picture right-side-up:


Yes, that’s freaky.  If you’re like most people, your brain glossed right over the fact that her lips and eyes were upside down in the first picture.  It wasn’t scanning for that kind of information, it was just using previous patterns to identify the individual.  So, your brain didn’t pay close attention to some data and instead, gave you a clear sense that you knew the answer.

A tremendous amount of what we think we “know,” is made up of the beliefs, assumptions, fears, and opinions based on the many patterns our brains have created and stored from our previous experiences.  And in most cases, those patterns are incomplete and sometimes completely inaccurate when viewed from another perspective.

As professionals, the problem with “knowing” is that the more we believe we know, the greater chance we have to dismiss opportunities to be exceptional.  Why should I listen to the idea from that new person on our team when I already “know” how this event should go from past experience?  How can a younger team member offer anything to me when I “know” more than she could have yet learned?  I “know” my portfolio of donors better than anyone.  How can someone else help me create donor strategy?  Our brain’s patterns and the assumptions they create are critically important to being efficient and effective.  But being mindful that those patterns are operating is equally critical.

When you hear yourself proclaim:  “What I know is. . .” or “I’m certain that. . .” pause and ask yourself, “do I really know this, or is it an assumption at work?”  You might just find that you don’t know as much as you think.  None of us do.  And you’ll be a much better professional when you make that assumption.


Making the Invitation

If there is one word in our work that captures people’s imagination and interest more than, “asking,” I don’t know what it is.  Gift officers are conditioned to talk unremittingly about “making the ask,” presidents and CEOs wonder if they are “asking” enough and for enough, Board members want the development team to “ask” more, and donors wonder if your next visit will include “an ask.”

For such a seemingly important word in our work, I’m not sure that we’ve spent much time “asking” if it is the right one.  Upon closer inspection, the definition of the word, “ask,” and the ideas we attach to it, just don’t seem to be the most helpful. defines, “ask,” in the following ways:

  • to request or petition;
  • to solicit from another;

“Begging” is listed as a synonym.

In general, the concept of “asking” brings with it the notion that we are requesting to receive something from someone else.  If we have a zero-sum mindset, it means we are seeking to gain something while encouraging another to lose the same.  In the worst way of thinking about “asking,” we are begging to get  something of value from another.  These notions are wholly inaccurate ways of thinking about what the process of giving is all about.

When people give, they don’t lose anything, they gain.  We know from research, that givers are healthier, happier, live longer, and report feelings of greater joy in their lives.  When we give, we are a direct (and one could argue, a primary) beneficiary – the giver truly does benefit as much if not more than the receiver.

Over the years in this work, I’ve asked at least 1,000 significant donors about their giving experiences.  And over and over again, I’ve heard the same emotional response as they have reflected on their generous behavior:  “Our giving means far more to us than it could ever mean to the institution.”  They feel better because they acted on their impulse to be generous.  In fact, they are better because they acted on it.  When we “ask” donors, we aren’t taking anything from them. . . we aren’t begging. . . we aren’t soliciting.  We are giving them an opportunity.  In fact, we are providing one of the most meaningful opportunities one human can offer another.

Instead of talking so incessantly about the misguided concept of “asking,” let’s begin to talk differently and more accurately about our work.  Let’s start talking about “inviting” donors.

Inviting donors to do something that will transform them.  Inviting donors to be happier, healthier, and feel better about themselves.  Inviting donors to align their giving with their values in support of a purpose bigger than their myopic self-interest.  Inviting donors to respond to that quiet but penetrating voice to act nobly and with care for others.

In fact, let’s not just talk about it.  Today, let’s start “inviting” more donors and stop “asking” them.


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.