Best Practices or Best Thinking?

As an advancement professional, you see the hackneyed phrase, “best practices” a ton.  Professional development opportunities tout the teaching of “best practices” for this advancement function or that one.  Members of your team may spend time benchmarking other shops to identify, “best practices.”  Perhaps even you have sought or are seeking the silver-bulleted “best practices” as a way to immediately enhance your advancement results.  Truly, it is a ubiquitous phrase in our profession.

But what if authentic, sustained advancement improvements and results come not from copying “best practices,” but instead emerge from how we think about our advancement work?

The problem with “best practices,” of course, is that what works for the university on the other side of town may not work as well for you.  Or, activities which improved results at another organization could actually be detrimental to your advancement results.  Every institution – each organization – is unique.  Each has its own history, giving culture, greater and lesser strengths, leadership  capabilities (and shortcomings), and donor interests.  Each institution has its own opportunities as well as its own threats.  So, as a profession, we probably should be critically questioning how beneficial the seeking of “best practices” really is for the progress of our individual advancement programs.

I’m not totally against “best practices,” mind you.  Understanding the general idea of advancement “best practices,” can be helpful.  As an example, learning what works for envelope teaser language in order to get the envelope opened is helpful.  It’s just not what is most helpful.

I’m concerned that our profession touts “best practices” as some sort of “progress panacea.”  “Do these 8 things,” the “best practice” elixir suggests, “and your online giving portal will produce more gifts.”  “Best practices” provide guidance to our work around the edges of effectiveness.  They do not represent the building blocks of longer-term success and enhanced advancement results.

Regularly, my encouragement to advancement professionals is to spend less time seeking “best practices” and far more time reflecting on “best thinking.”  If you want to create environments in which donors give generously and consistently, here are 3 “best thoughts” to commit to memory and work by:

  1. Being Generous is Good . . . for the Giver – When you really buy-in to the notion that giving is good for the giver, you will give strenuous scrutiny to gimmicks, give-aways, and other transactional maneuvers designed to raise money.  You will put far more energy into creating compelling reasons and ways to invite donors into the wonderfully meaningful experience that comes with acting altruistically and generously.  You will focus on your mission and why it should matter to more people in the world.  And, you will bring a passion to your work that performance metrics and goals, alone, will never animate.  Simply by looking at the strategies and tactics of some advancement programs, one would wonder what the leaders of those programs really believe about giving and generosity.  I can assure you that the best, most effective advancement programs are led by people who fully embrace the truth that giving is good.
  2. All Giving is Personal – Recently I co-presented at the Association of Healthcare Philanthropy International Conference with a dear friend, Tim Self, Executive Director of AnMed Health Foundation.  As we were preparing for our presentation, Tim reminded me that years ago, I invited him to make his first “major” gift – an annual gift of $1,000.  “Jason,” he said, “I’ll never forget the satisfaction I had in making that commitment and then bringing that gift to your office.”  Here’s the rest of that story:  I consider Tim a good and dear friend.  And I have absolutely no recollection of inviting him to make that gift nor of his fulfilling it!   To Tim that gift was beyond a “major” gift – it was meaningful – and that is all that really matters.  The best, most effective advancement programs are led by people who fully embrace the notion of viewing all that you do through the eyes, ears, and perspectives of the prospective donor.
  3. Educating Donors is Your Primary Role – Yes, you are supposed to use the art of inquiry to learn about prospective donors.  Yes, you are supposed to listen actively to discern their interests and values.  And, yes, are supposed to invite donors to give.  But, eclipsing all of those activities should be a realization that you are an educator first.  Educating donors on the need, on why they should care, on how they should make their gift, even on what amount they should consider giving.  Too many in our profession fail to recognize their appropriate role in shaping gifts through donor education and, instead, are content to receive whatever gifts emerge from donor interactions.  The best, most effective advancement programs are led by people who fully embrace the role of being a donor educator.  And like all good educators, they lead.  They encourage.  They correct bad thinking.  They challenge.  And they do it with a deftness that inspires.

Cultivating habits of good thought in order to drive better practices should be our goal.  When we embrace “best thinking” like the 3 examples above, we put ourselves and our advancement programs in the best possible position for long-term success and positive results.  In the end, it will not be the employment of random “best practices” which will secure our success.  It will be the employment of practices that are driven relentlessly by a habit of “best thinking.”



  1. What a refreshing perspective on the art and science of fundraising. We need both, and we need professionals who know how to use both in their adaptive leadership of distinct organizations. One size does not fit all. Thank you Jason!

    • Thanks Jim – I had a bit of a glitch in my blogging software and didn’t see your comment until now! My apologies. Your kind words are much appreciated and I’m thankful you are a subscriber. I’m looking forward to 2018 and promise of a partnership with you and Goshen! Merry Christmas!

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