When a Board Asks Questions

“It’s the board’s responsibility to ask questions.  And it’s the staff’s responsibility to respond.”

We were discussing the roles of a non-profit governing board and the relationship between a board and an institution’s administrative leaders, especially as it relates to strategic planning.  The Executive Committee Board member who made this statement is new to non-profit governance, but not new to board work.  He serves on a number of boards that govern internationally-recognized for-profit corporations.  He is sharp, sophisticated, and sincere in his service.  His statement attested to an understanding that has emerged for him after years of for-profit board work.

We were seated next to each other and he looked at me for a response.

“Yes,” I started, “it is the role of the board to ask questions.  But, just as importantly, board members must understand what types of questions will lead to the most fruitful discussions and outcomes.  Some questions are more productive than others.  And some can be  downright unhelpful.”

In my experience, board members – those who are well-meaning and truculent alike – can ask 3 types of questions:

  1. Questions focused on the staff and their work
  2. Questions focused on the institution and its mission, vision, and values
  3. Questions focused on the board and their work

Questions that fall into category 1 can be the most unhelpful.  Questions in this category tilt the psychological gaze of the board member down to the administration and staff.  Unless there is an emergency or crisis or unless a board member is genuinely attempting to understand how a part of the enterprise works, it is the responsibility of the president/ceo/chancellor/administrative leader to focus questions on the team and their work.  Generally speaking, when board members ask category 1 questions, the board can drift into focusing on operational and managerial issues.  Straying from governance responsibilities into operations is one of the most unproductive, unfulfilling, and frustrating journeys a board can take.

Category 2 and 3 questions are types that are much more helpful and appropriate for a board member to ask.  Questions focused on the mission, vision, and values of the institution encourage board members to lift their gaze upward, to dream, and identify the institution’s far edge of promise.  These questions lead to important generative and strategic discussions.  They help the institution understand and embrace its strengths and move confidently toward a preferred future.  From these questions emerge discussions that help determine institutional aspirations.  In turn, administrators and staff can identify meaningful goals and objectives.

Similarly, questions that focus the board’s attention on the work of the board itself are extremely helpful.  When a board looks inward and asks how they can serve more effectively and conduct their business more efficiently, they generate discussion that will lead to enhanced board leadership.  Likewise, when they ask how to implement a “best practice” board evaluation, they are moving toward helpful accountability.

Yes, it is the responsibility of the board to ask questions.  And it is also true that the very best boards know which types of questions to ask.



If you don’t ask. . .

Despite its triteness, the following platitude regarding our work is true:

“If you don’t ask, the answer will almost always be ‘no’.”

We need to be out of our offices, asking for specific gifts.  However, to do this work well, asking alone is not enough.  To round out this statement, I would add the following:

“And if you don’t engage before asking, the answer rarely will be ‘yes’.”

Engaging your prospect before an ask can be as informal as seeking their advice, feedback, or counsel on a particular topic of import.  Or, it can be as formal as inviting them to serve on an advisory board or a committee.  In addition to increasing the prospect’s buy-in, involving them before you ask increases your understanding of what a successful solicitation should look like for them.  You will have a much better sense of who should ask, when to ask, how much should be asked for, and for what priorities.

If you want more “yeses,” engage the whole prospect, not just their checkbook.


5 Alternate Questions You Should Be Asking

Instead of asking, “what’s new?” ask, “what’s working?”

Instead of asking, “who failed?” ask, “what are our strengths?”

Instead of asking, “how do I feel?” ask, “how are others reacting?”

Instead of asking, “what went wrong?” ask, “what does ‘high functioning’ look like?”

Instead of asking, “why did we make that choice?” ask, “what do we value?”

Conventional wisdom regarding how an individual or group can get better (at anything) is to identify faults, weaknesses, and gaps in past performance, find solutions, and fix them.  But when we ask questions that focus on problems, we tend to reap answers that uncover even more complications.   Or, we might hope that we can get better by focusing on the next new thing.  Perhaps we just need more technology.  Or the new case for support.  “This,” we tell ourselves, “will make us successful.”

Sustained success, though, is rather simple to understand.  When we authentically and consistently seek answers to questions that are future-oriented, positive, and focused on others as whole people, we will get more helpful responses.   And when we persistently apply these responses to our practice, our work, and our life, we get better.

Playing to our strengths, living into our values, and seeking the best in people and in the institutions we serve helps remind us of our many gifts and graces and energizes us to become better.

Appreciative inquiry works.


Your Calling

My hope is that you are in this work we call advancement because you are driven to make the lived experience for others better.

My hope is that you chose this work because you are committed to a meaningful mission.

My hope is that you wake up most days eager to fully live into a cause that has the potential to transform individuals, families, communities, and the world.

My hope is that you are an advancement professional because you believe using your professional gifts and graces to help others become the best they can be is about as worthy as work can get.

My hope is that you read the above statements and thought first not about your institution’s mission but, rather, about the cause of philanthropy and how donors are positively shaped by it.  Advancement is a calling.

And my ultimate hope is that you embrace that.


Getting From “Me” to “We”

A personality trait that most leaders desire in individual staff members can best be described as “being a good team player.”  This trait is a combination of behaviors that, overall, puts the team’s goals and interests above those of the individual.  You will hear people say positively, “he has more ego for the university than he does for himself.”

How best to encourage this team-first thinking and behavior, though, is complex.  People come to the workplace with a lifetime full of lessons that may have taught them to “look out for number one,” or that “nice guys (and gals) finish last.”  For someone who believes that they are the most important beneficiary of any activity or effort, it can be very difficult to re-shape that approach.  The old saw, “hire for attitude, train for aptitude” stays imbedded in our thinking because we know it is exceedingly tough for individuals to change their worldview in this regard.

However, there are some leadership strategies that can help to gently move people from a “me” orientation to a “we” orientation.  It is well known in cognitive psychology that negativity focuses the human brain narrowly.  For instance, when something upsets us, it is common for some (many) people to obsess over it.  Our brains tend to get fixated on negative feedback.

I once had a foundation president who, after I delivered an incredible positive Campaign Readiness Study report to the institution’s leadership team and Board, cornered me for the better part of an hour to complain about one slightly negative comment that was made by a participant in the study.  The report was 100 pages in length and was overwhelmingly positive.  And his focus was on the one sentence at the bottom of page 32 that was less than glowing.

However, when we focus on the positive, our span of attention is broadened.  We feel free to take in more than what is troubling us.  Our friends who study cognitive psychology suggest that we are not as self-focused, self-conscious, or self-involved when we are enjoying positive emotions.   When we feel good, our minds tend to broaden out from “me” to “we.”

Shawn Achor and Marcia Losada, psychologists who have studied high-performing business teams, tells us that there is a ratio that best balances positive and negative feedback in the workplace.  Specifically, in separate pieces of research, they suggest that a positive/negative ratio of at least 2.9 good feelings to every negative feeling makes individuals most productive and happy.

In other words, if a primary purpose of leadership is to establish an environment within which individuals and teams flourish, then part of that responsibility should include balancing positive feedback to negative feedback in a 3:1 ratio.  When we help craft positive moments for our teammates, we help them gain the confidence to move from “me” to a much more helpful, “we.”


A Search for Shared Vision

It is not the responsibility of the CEO to create the institutional vision.  It is her responsibility to see that it is created.  A big distinction.

The next question, of course, becomes how best to create this institutional vision.   I would quietly suggest that the CEO who decides to create the vision herself causes many problems – from bad content to poor ownership with the folks who will work to achieve the vision.   What we should be focused on is a search for vision that is shared among institutional leaders and the many constituents who care deeply about the institution’s future.

Engaging the institution’s internal constituencies will help ensure that a vision’s aspirations, goals, and objectives will be ambitious yet achievable.  These are the folks who see to it that your institution will fully live-into its compelling vision.  And engaging your institution’s external constituencies will help ensure that the vision matters to the outside world.  These individuals provide the needed context and perspective as you seek to answer the crucial question:  “Why should anyone care about our plans for the future?”  In addition, engaging external constituencies meaningfully in the visioning process gives you the opportunity to establish valuable partnerships which will provide the expertise and resources needed to implement bold plans.

There are many opportunities to engage others in this search for a shared vision.  Facilitating discussions with governing and foundation boards, advisory groups, faculty and staff councils, or other important groups around institutional strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and desired results is a good starting point.  Establishing task forces and committees to reflect on institutional values and guiding principles is another.  Conducting individual or small group discussions with donors and other partners focused on your institution’s future and their interests is yet another way to begin the process of seeking a shared vision.  All with many happy, longer-term benefits.

No, it’s not the CEO’s job to create the institution’s vision.   It’s the CEO’s job to see that a compelling vision is created.  And the best way to do that is to establish a process in which we ask humbly what others think.


The Problem with Motions, Seconds, and Votes

Following Robert’s Rules of Order during a governing board or foundation board meeting might be helpful for imposing order on the discussion.  But, it is almost wholly unhelpful in engaging and exciting the philanthropic imagination of your board members so that ambitious goals can be achieved.

If you want to get important things accomplished and fully engage the important volunteer leaders of your institution, ask reflective questions like, “Why did you decide to join this board?”  Or ask generative questions like, “How could our institution more fully live into our values?”  Or ask strategic questions like, “How do each of you feel about the direction we are going in?”

The most creative, insightful, energizing, and helpful discussions will almost always come when you allow the space for improvised dialogue.


Practicing the Art of “Giftfinding”

For all of human history until just very recently, people have used systems-level thinking to navigate the natural world and the opportunities and dangers it presents.  For instance, the ancient people of Polynesia practiced the art of “wayfinding,” which applied a sophisticated understanding of broad natural cues to safely pilot a canoe from one island to the next, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

Using passed-down knowledge about subtle, natural cues like the saltiness and temperature of the water, the type and directional flow of plant debris on the water, the flight patterns of birds, the temperature, direction, and speed of the wind, the positioning of stars, and of the rising and setting sun, they could regularly navigate effectively over the open ocean for days or weeks and arrive at their destination.  Think about that.  You are in a canoe, nothing but open water for as far as the eye can see, and you can get to your island destination just by understanding the natural systems and how they operate.  Impressive, to say the least.

As humans have become more reliant on technology and as knowledge within increasingly narrow areas of specialization has become more prized, we have lost our understanding of the broader systems that impact our lives in real but subtle ways.  Most of us have become completely disconnected from the knowledge and understanding of our planet’s broad systems that give us life.  For example, I would suggest that very few (if any) who are reading this blog possess the knowledge and skills to be expert wayfinders!

Similarly, in our development work, the push over time has been to become more technically reliant, more “siloed” in our activities, and more expert in a single, more narrowly-defined aspect of our work.  Thirty years ago, the distinction between development (fundraising) and constituent relations (friendraising) was about as specialized as many institutions were.  Today of course, there are multiple fields and sub-fields of expertise in both areas and we have added specializations in new areas (for example, prospect research).  And as we continue to move toward more specialization and more technical skills within those specializations, we must ask ourselves if it matters that we may lose the bigger picture – the more subtle and nuanced understandings of how broader systems come together to influence gift giving.

Several years ago, I had lunch with a friend and mentor in our work who was serving as a vice president for development and alumni relations at a major university.  Her university had recently and successfully completed a $1 billion campaign and she was still basking in the glow of that accomplishment.

As we ate lunch, I asked her this question:  “What one accomplishment during your successful campaign brings you the most satisfaction?”   My assumption was that she would talk about one of the many 8-figure gifts received and working closely with those donors.  Instead she said, “I’m most pleased that our development team is now working in a much more integrated way with our alumni relations team.”

She went on to tell me that before the campaign, alumni relations and development operated almost exclusively in their own silos.  However, she understood that a broader, more systemic approach would serve alumni and the institution better.  “Now,” she said, “our alumni folks are asking the development people which alumni we should invite back to speak in the classroom, or to serve on an advisory board.  Our efforts are more focused on how we can integrate or work to make the whole bigger than the sum of the parts.  And we saw the fruits of that integration through increased gift-giving.”

In other words, she and her team were focused on the bigger systems that would result in the better outcomes.

Borrowing from the ancient Polynesians, we could call this type of systems-level thinking in our work, “giftfinding.’”  Specifically, giftfinding could be defined as, “the understanding and embracing of the bigger and integrated systems of our work that influence gift giving.”

We help our institutions find the next big gifts, not primarily because we are becoming more technically and narrowly-focused in our work.  But, rather, because we are engaging prospects in multi-layered, more integrated connections that employ all of the areas of advancement.  In other words, “giftfinding” is about focusing on the overlap and integration of the different areas of advancement (development, communications, constituent relations, and advancement services), and not on the narrow-specializations within those fields.

One of the benefits of focusing on the broader systems of “giftfinding,” of course, is that you will raise more money when you work to understand and embrace a more comprehensive, integrated approach.  Every piece of research conducted with major gift donors tells us that the more involved, the more individual relationships prospects have with people at your institution, and the more diverse their opportunities for engagement, the greater the amount of gift giving.

As we march steadfastly toward an advancement world that values more specialization, we discard at our peril an understanding of the importance of “giftfinding.”


The Illusion of Understanding

Recently, an annual fund officer was talking to me about making calls on past annual fund leadership donors who had not given in the last two years.  This list of donors was not that long, but it was still troubling.  All of these past donors had given at least $1,000+ annually until the 2012-2013 year.  A few of these donors had given consecutively for many years and then . . . nothing.

As we talked about the calls he was going to make, I asked him about his script.  “What are you going to say on these calls?” He replied that he was going to thank them for their past giving and ask them to consider continuing their leadership-level annual giving by making a new commitment.

“I know you want them to make that commitment,” I said, “but I would reconsider your strategy of asking them for it directly.  Do you know why they stopped giving?”

He looked at me quizzically.  I asked him, “If you gave at the $1,000+ level for a number of years and then just stopped, would you want someone to call and ask for your gift, or would you want the opportunity to talk about why you stopped giving?”

The annual fund officer re-wrote his script to focus on two key points.  The new script read:

“First, I want to thank you for your past leadership-level support.  Second, I noticed that you haven’t given during the last two years and I wanted to see if there is anything we could do to win back your support?”

With that simple invitation to share their stories, these past donors opened up to him about a host of issues that impacted their ability and desire to give over the last couple of years.   A number of their concerns had nothing to do with being upset with the institution.  Personal financial issues had made giving difficult. Other concerns shared by these donors did involve the institution but were relatively minor and the annual fund officer was successful in encouraging their renewed giving.  And some concerns were more complex and it was clear more work needed to be done.  “Had I asked for the gift outright like I was planning to,” he told me later, “I’m convinced I would have had a bunch of difficult phone calls that ended with only a few gifts.”

Because he didn’t ask for the gift outright and instead invited their stories, he was able to learn and understand far more about why they had made decisions to stop giving and what could be done to get them to give again.  He gave himself the space to hear their stories, learn and understand more about them, and respond appropriately to their concerns.  In other words he treated them like a valued human being.

When we fail to ask a previous donor about her story, about the thinking behind her giving to your institution, we operate with an illusion of understanding.  We don’t really understand her but we appear as if we do.  Or,  we appear as if we don’t care to know her story.  Either appearance is bad.  Because when we appear to understand when we truly don’t, our capacity to encourage the next gift is significantly diminished.


The Most Important Question To Ask Yourself

Here is the most important question a development officer can ask himself:

“Am I more focused on how I look or on what I see?”

How I look vs. What I see.  Where is your focus?  On your own presentation or on the prospective donor?

When you are more concerned with “how you look,” you’ll spend too much time getting your case statement “perfect” before going on that visit.  If you care more about “how you look,” you’ll be more apt to talk too much during a discovery visit.   And you’ll be less likely to listen well.  You’ll ask too early and for the wrong reasons.  And you’ll be frustrated more easily when your results suffer.

However, if your primary focus is on “what you see,” you’ll approach donors and prospects with an openness and a curiosity about what makes them tick.  You’ll ask better questions.  And you’ll listen to comprehend, not to respond.  You’ll be viewed as “authentic,” you’ll understand more, and you’ll develop trust with prospects more quickly.

A focus on you – your institution, your campaign, your goals, your talking points – is, at best, a moderating variable and rarely an explanatory variable when analyzing why donors give.  But a focus on “what you see” is a fundamental key to advancement success.

A gift has never been lost because the donor felt valued.