On Curiosity

In general, folks can be curious in 3 ways:

  1. Curious about things;
  2. Curious about ideas;
  3. Curious about people.

Typically, we all fall somewhere on the spectrum for each of these classifications. But, the most effective advancement pros lean heavily into the 3rd. (As an aside, some people are not curious about any of the 3 and can fall on the narcissism spectrum.)

Those new to our work – and far too many who have years toiling in the development vineyard – can fail at making a consistent practice of being curious about others. In fact, many actually fail in understanding that being curious about others is the fundamental key to the work.

If you are wondering whether you or your team are practicing the habit of being curious about others, ask yourself how you would respond to the following statements:

  • In general, we wait to schedule virtual or in-person visits with prospects until our case for support or funding priorities are clear.
  • During Prospect Management meetings, we spend the bulk of time discussing donors we have known for years.
  • For most of our current top donors we are unclear about how our institution ranks in their list of charitable priorities.

Responding affirmingly to these statements suggests you and/or your team may not be consistently practicing the art of inquiry.

As we invest our attention in the human lives and stories of our donors, they will be more motivated to invest their resources in the missions we serve. Ask more thoughtful questions authentically and consistently and watch as their interest in your efforts change.


What’s Their Story?

Too often gift officers focus on the donor and miss the human being.

Donors are conduits for gifts.  Donors are assets to be managed.  Donors are, God-forbid, “giving units.”

Human beings, on the other hand, are holistic.  They are complex and nuanced.  They are souls with lived experiences and stories.

When a gift officer shares a gift solicitation strategy with me about a particular major gift donor, I ask, “what’s their story?”  If the responses to that simple question are focused on the gifts they’ve made previously, their financial capacity, their volunteer history, or any other “donor-centered” attribute, I ask the question again.

It’s a research assignment to know a donor’s giving history, capacity, and philanthropic interests.  It’s a relationship outcome which allows you to better understand your donors as human beings.

Tell me about their childhood. How they met their spouse or partner if they have one.  Tell me how they got into their profession or business and what they view as the keys to their successes.  What hobbies do they enjoy?  Tell me about them as individuals, as family members, as, well, humans.

If the gift officer has trouble communicating the donor’s more personal narratives, then perhaps, I suggest, the timing of a major gift solicitation is premature.  Perhaps they need to ask more thoughtful questions and spend time gaining an understanding of the donor as a complete person.

It is, after-all, your friends – not mere acquaintances and certainly not single-dimensional “donors” – who will invest most substantially with you.

Asking donors to make gifts defines the lowest level of gift officer activity.  Engaging individuals as whole human beings and, then, inviting them to experience the joy of giving in support of a worthy mission, defines gift officer success.

If you want “donors” to care more deeply about your institution’s story, it’s best to start by asking about theirs.


2 Ways To Know

Dollywood’s Wild Eagle is one of my all-time favorite roller coasters.

The initial drop is a smallish 135 feet and, while the ride lasts only 2 minutes and 22 seconds and hits a modest speed of 61 mph, it does have 4 inversions.

It’s the smoothness of the ride, though, that makes it so enjoyable for me.

While it wings you around the track, you experience a smooth sense of soaring (like an eagle!) and the inversions are just enough to give your stomach that enjoyable floating sensation that makes you smile, laugh, and scream all at the same time.  I find it so enjoyable that I’ll ride it at least 3 times every time our family goes to the park.

I knew about the Wild Eagle before I ever rode it.  I went online and looked up its stats (as presented above) and even watched a number of on-ride YouTube videos to get a better sense of the ride.  I knew what it looked like, how fast it went, the layout of the track, and a whole host of other information.

But it wasn’t until I experienced the Wild Eagle for myself that I fell in love with it.  That’s when my knowledge of the ride went to a whole different level of understanding.  The data and statistics about the ride were one form of knowledge, but experiencing the ride – feeling the tightness of the straps across my shoulders, my feet dangling loose over the landscape, the smoothness of the track, the turns and the drops –  gave me a richness and thickness of knowledge that data alone could never provide.

Providing your donors with quantitative data about your programs and outcomes is fine.  It’s good to have those answers when asked – or to be able to quickly find out.

But data doesn’t motivate generosity.

Your work as an advancement professional is not about providing data.  It’s about helping donors experience your mission in action.  It’s about inviting them to authentically encounter those who are receiving the benefit of their generosity.  It’s about guiding them on a path to more fully experience the joys of giving.

Anyone can get data about the ride.  But getting on the ride is what makes all the difference.


Acquire vs. Inquire

How do you prepare for donor visits – either virtual or in-person?

What steps do you take to identify the purpose of the visit?  How do you go about establishing specific goals for the visit?  What overall mindset are you bringing to the visit planning process?

The most effective gift officers plan for donor visits using an “inquiring” mindset.  While, in many instances, less effective gifts officers plan for donor visits utilizing an “acquiring” mindset.

Is your planning focused on:

  • the amount of the gift/potential gift?  Or, on what is motiving the donor to make the gift/potential gift?
  • the restriction of the gift/potential gift?  Or, on how the donor envisions their gift meeting the needs of those you serve?
  • getting as quickly as possible to gift closure? Or, on understanding how a life-long partnership may be forged with this donor?

The gift officer who uses the “acquiring” mindset to donor visit planning tends to focus on the first set of questions.  While the gift officer using the “inquiring” mindset tends to ask the latter questions more consistently.

If you want a gift, focusing on the transaction of acquisition might work.  If, however, you want a donor who charitably invests with you and your institution over time, the inquiring mindset will always serve you more fruitfully.

While many new gift officers often struggle with this concept, learning to ask thoughtful questions of donors is far more helpful than learning what needs to be told to donors.


Consistently Small

One year ago this morning none of us had any idea what the next 12 months would hold.

Similarly, today, none of us knows what the next 12 months will hold.  All we do know is that we have limited control over all ways life will impact us.

Some of you are waking today with goals for 2021.  For others, with 2020’s dysfunction close in the rear view mirror, the thought of establishing goals seem ludicrous.  Or, if you have goals, you are dialing back the ambition a good bit.

It’s important to keep in mind though that significant change rarely happens quickly or boldly.  Instead, real, significant, and lasting change occurs most often when, over time, we repeat small steps consistently.

To paraphrase Hemingway, “change happens gradually and then all at once.”

So I’ve set big goals for 2021 – both personal and professional – and I would encourage you to as well.  But, and this is important, I’ll be working hard to create smaller, bite-sized steps to implement toward my goals.  By making my changes small I’ll be more apt to implement them consistently and, thus, will have a much better chance of making my changes become habit and stay on course to meet my goals even when life throws chaos my way.

It is said that Beethoven walked through Vienna each and every morning with a sketch pad to gather his inspiration for the day.  Likewise, many famous painters make sure to paint something each day – even for only a few minutes and when they don’t feel like it.  It is from the consistency that change occurs.

Life changes typically start slow and small and stay slow and small until those changes become noticeable.  And, then, they seem as if they happened overnight.

Of course, significant change rarely happens overnight.  Instead, change happens in the small, consistent habits and rituals we create over long arcs of time.

And no matter what 2021 might throw at us, committing to being consistent and small in our implementation will give us the best opportunity at making a big impact.

Happy New Year!





The Harmful Allure of Point-Making

Influence matters a great deal in the achievement of fundraising goals. The more influence an institutional leader, a gift officer, or a volunteer has with a donor or prospect, the greater the opportunity to encourage generous responses from that donor or prospect.

People give to people.

But the process of enhancing one’s interpersonal influence is generally misunderstood. For many – especially those in leadership positions – the myth is that point-making is the most efficient way to increase influence with others.

The thinking goes like this:

“Influential people are those who are experts, those who have clear and concise answers. Therefore, the more clearly and concisely I communicate my points, the more influence I will accrue with others.  I will be viewed as the expert.”

And so, a habit forms.  A habit of point-making.  Of talking more than listening.  Of stating more than asking.  Of telling more than understanding.

In addition to elevating a sense of personal influence, point-making also makes us feels good emotionally – at least in the moment. For many people, there is a rooted sense of discontented satisfaction in communicating one’s perspective and point.  (If you do not believe this to be a wide-spread truth, simply look at the ubiquitous use of social media.  Regardless of claims to the contrary, social media has not “increased connectivity” among people nearly as much as it has provided a platform for people to make their points known to the world.)

But point-making rarely gets us what we claim we want – which is more influence.

Instead, the habit of point-making creates the opposite impulses in others.  The habitual point-maker is viewed as imperious, arrogant, overly-dramatic, disrespectful, condescending, and even, ignorant. Perpetual point-makers cause people to view them as less influential over time.  People avoid point-makers if they can.

What has proven over time to enhance an individual’s influence is the opposite of expert point-making.  True influencers are curious.  They ask questions about others.  They listen and respond. They position themselves in the minds (and hearts) of others as being interested learners.

If, in 2021 and beyond you want to become more influential (and, thus, more efficacious) – with donors, with prospective donors, with colleagues, with your supervisor, with your Board – then become a skilled, open-ended questioner.  Adopt a more curious disposition when it comes to the stories of others.  Pursue more understanding not more point-making.

To reinforce the impotence of point-making vs. the power of understanding, take some time to watch Daryl Davis talk about his experience as a black man with Ku Klux Klan leaders.

There is an easily accessible and beneficent way to influence others for good.  And as advancement and development leaders, we should be leading the way.


Committing To Quiet

Last night – Christmas Eve – we had snow in East Tennessee.  This is a uncommon occurrence for us but a welcome one, especially given the holiday.

Falling snow is mesmerizing to watch as it dances toward the ground under the watchful eyes of street lamps.  And I spent some time bundled up on our front porch watching it snow.  Not only was it calming, it also was quiet.  The snow blankets and quiets everything.

I was reminded that we pause to celebrate holidays because we need the quiet.  Not only do we need to slow down every so often. Not only do we need to rest regularly.  Not only do we need to relax from time to time.  We also need the quiet.

To think more clearly.

To reflect more productively.

To daydream more creatively.

To focus more intently.

And to listen more earnestly.  Not to the outside world with all its noisiness, but to our own small but powerful internal voice.  The one that speaks truth to us.

So as I sat and watched the snow fall, I committed myself to finding more quiet in the New Year.  I invite you to join me.  In a boisterous world where projecting a perception of constant busy-ness is viewed as success by many, be a contrarian with me.

May 2021 be the year that we commit ourselves to authentically embracing and prioritizing the quest for more quiet in our lives.  If we allow ourselves to seek quiet more often, we just might find we also are able to make a more positive impact in our crazy, cacophonous world.

Happy Holidays to each of you.  And thank you for reading – some of you since the beginning way back in 2009!  I appreciate you and wish you all the best in the year ahead.


7 Words That Hinder Your Advancement Success

  1. Donate – inviting people to “donate” is akin to asking for hand-me-downs.  People donate used items.  They donate old clothes, or used cars.  Generally speaking, donations are second-thought give-aways, not charitable investments in your mission. Use give, giving, and gift, instead.
  2. Appointment – advancement professionals don’t have appointments with donors.  We have visits or meetings.  The difference?  Appointments are reserved for experiences we typically don’t enjoy – think doctors appointments, dentist appointments, an appointment to have your car repaired, etc.
  3. Ask – when you ask for something, you feel a relationship imbalance – with you being on the “less than” side of the equation.  This reality of human relationships is why so many volunteers (and even many advancement professionals) do not like asking for gifts.  It makes us feel unequal to the one who is being asked.  However, when we invite donors to give, there is a different thought process and feeling.  We invite people to parties, and other enjoyable activities we’d like to share with them.  When we invite others, we are offering something, not asking for something.  Invite donors to give.
  4. Fundraiser – probably the most ill-conceived descriptor of a professional role that has ever been promoted.  We are not fundraisers any more than a business person is a “profitraiser.”  The purpose of any sound business model is to serve customers — the profit is the benefit of that service. For us, the funds we raise are the benefit of thoughtful engagement strategies designed to educate donors on the opportunity to give.  Use advancement, or development, or stewardship instead.
  5. Cultivate – this is what farmers do to crops or how you might train someone or something.  No part of that definition sounds appropriate nor accurate when compared to our work with donors.  Instead, use involve or engage.
  6. Culture of Philanthropy – perhaps the most overused, misunderstood phrase in our industry.  What exactly does this mean?  I’ve literally thought about this for years and I can’t concisely say.  In any case, I have used as replacements, the more straightforward and understandable, culture of giving, or, the more action-oriented, culture of invitation, or, the more ethereal, culture of encounter.  Simply put, when our institution’s culture becomes more other-centered and welcoming, gift giving increases.
  7. Qualification – from a major gifts perspective, the qualification word choice suggests that there is a pseudo-application process that prospective donors either meet or do not meet. Qualification suggests the process of learning about the prospective donor is little more than a formulaic algorithm to translate.  The truth, however, is that learning about prospective donors is richly qualitative and as much art as it is science.  It’s astute question-asking, active listening, and probing.  It’s being mindful of what is being said, not said, how its said, and paying attention to many broader contexts.  It’s a skill to be learned, not data point to be used.  In short, it’s discovery – use that word, instead.

Words matter.  And the way we talk about our work matters.  When we pay attention to our language choices, we may just find that we are sabotaging our success before we even get started.


Strategy vs. Enthusiasm

How should we go about inviting Mrs. Howard to make the lead gift?

You might be inclined to respond to this strategy question by seeking to know more about Mrs. Howard as a person and as a donor.  You would probably want to know more about her history with your institution, her financial capacity, the amounts and types of gifts she has made previously, her project interests, or her circle of influencers who may need to be part of the conversation.

And while all of these details are clearly important, never overlook the fact that the strategy which resonates most enthusiastically with the inviter can be the most important.  If the person doing the inviting is not enthusiastic about the strategy, the chances of receiving an affirming response from Mrs. Howard are greatly reduced.

Yes, she must believe in your mission.  Yes, she must believe in your institution’s leadership.  Yes, she must believe her gift will make an impact she cares about.  But the inviter has to believe in the strategy crafted to invite the gift.

So, instead of attempting to foretell which gift invitation strategy might work best with Mrs. Howard, it may be far more wise to ask the person making the gift invitation which strategy he is most enthusiastic about employing.

Enthusiasm is contagious.


The 7 Most Important Reminders For Advancement Leaders

  1. Your donor database will always have more inaccurate or missing data than you think is acceptable.  You can still raise more money.
  2. Your institution’s brand and messaging could always be more concise, clear, and compelling.  You can still raise more money.
  3. Your case for support does not need to be completed for you to contact donors.  You can still raise more money.
  4. Your annual giving and planned giving programs do not need huge investments in creative design to be effective. You can still raise more money.
  5. Your major giving program will not stop producing because in-person visits are being curtailed by the pandemic.  You can still raise more money.
  6. Your understanding of your major gift donors’ capacity will never be as transparently clear as you would like.  You can still raise more money.
  7. Your focus on sharing data and numbers in an effort to “convince” prospective donors to give will not work.  You can still raise more money.

Donors give because they come to believe in the goodness of your mission to make the world a better place. They give because they develop an authentic trust in your leadership.  And they give because someone influential to them personally invites their deeper involvement.

Healthy adult humans give because we have a deep-seated need to help others.  Tap into that motivating factor – with trust, authenticity, and influence – and you will raise more money.

When we fail to remind ourselves of these truths, we can easily fill our time with interesting but debilitating distractions.