Today’s Legacy

We talk often about “leaving legacies,” in development work.  Mainly, of course, we talk about this concept with donors who might have an interest in making a planned gift of some sort.

Another way to think of “leaving legacies,” though, is not nearly as future-casted and is focused on your choices as opposed to the choices donors make.  It’s the legacy you are leaving each day you toil in the philanthropic vineyard.

Through our work, we have more than an opportunity – we have the responsibility – to invite into action the most virtuous of human impulses.  We encourage generosity.  We promote caring for others.  And we advance causes that make our world more beautiful.

How we go about doing that work matters today and it matters to the broader legacy we leave for the organization we serve.

Will you choose to bring an attitude of eagerness and intensity to your calling?  Will you be the positive voice in the meeting that seeks to raise the aspirations of the team?  Will you be the colleague who goes the extra step to ensure success?

Your choice matters not only in that moment.  It also becomes part of a broader mosaic of choices that lead to the culture you help create and pass on.  A strong organizational culture of philanthropy is cobbled together over time through a collection of seemingly inconsequential decisions and always grows inside-out.

Regardless of our position, your title, or your role, you are serving a noble calling.  Your attitude as well as you aptitude matter.

Only you can choose how your legacy today will be remembered.



The Most Useless Fundraising Metric. . .Usually

In any given year, most advancement shops that work smart and with effort will focus on increasing either gift income or donor numbers. Those two metrics – gift income and donor numbers – are, easily, the most important when assessing the success of any given fundraising year.

Occasionally, though, I’ll hear an advancement leader proudly lead with the proclamation that, “our average gift size increased this year!”  Typically, this means that they didn’t raise much more money (if any) as compared to the year prior and their donor numbers actually decreased – sometimes dramatically.

Average gift size is a not a direct nor a consistently accurate measure of effectiveness.  You can have an average to even poor year with donors and dollars and still see average gift size increase.

The truth is that most advancement teams do not implement specific strategies to increase average gift size – it simply fluctuates based on what happens with donors and dollars.

But. . .if you increased gift income and the total number of donors and increased your average gift size all during the same year, you’ve done something special.  When taken together, these results strongly suggest that your team strategically asked more donors for more money – a combination that, while sounding simple, is achieved by very few.


Programming Note:  For the last few years, my Gonser Gerber colleagues and I have talked about creating a more meaningful educational experience for higher education vice presidents.  I am pleased to announce that we’ve just started marketing the Community Colloquy For Private Higher Education Vice Presidents.  The Community Colloquy is designed as part support group, part reading group, part discussion group, and part professional cohort.  We will meet virtually for 3 days in 2021, and enrollment will be strictly limited to ensure group engagement.  Enrollment is on a first-in basis and is open now.

If you (or someone you know that serves as a private higher ed. vp) is interested in leadership growth and exploring a rich landscape of perspectives on important advancement leadership issues, this is the opportunity!


The 3 Most Important Variables To Successfully Inviting Gifts – And How You May Be Thinking About Them Wrong

  1. The Messenger
  2. The Message
  3. The Medium

Those are the 3 most important variables when inviting a gift.  In that order.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a modest annual gift, a major gift, or a planned gift.  That’s the order of importance.

Who does the asking is, without fail, more important than the message.  And the message is more important than the medium or channel.

But most development shops approach soliciting donors by answering these questions in the reverse order.  For instance, we spend countless hours in meetings and discussion about whether our direct mail solicitation letter should be one or two pages.  Or, whether picture A or video B is the most compelling for use in our upcoming email solicitation.

Simply stated, development professionals pay far more attention to the “hows” than to the “whos.”

And, while “how” is important, it isn’t even close to the most important variable.

Who matters more.  And who matters because people give to people.

Maybe its your president.  Maybe its another well-known (to your community) donor.  Maybe its a recipient of your institution’s services.  Maybe it’s a national or international individual with influence.  Maybe it’s person employed at your institution.

We are moving quickly to a moment in history when influence and tribe matters most.  Who is compelling to your tribe of donors and supporters?  Who do they trust?  Who will they believe?

Spend the bulk of your strategy time answering those most important questions.


You Will Raise More Major Gifts If You Do This 1 Thing Consistently

If you want to raise more major gifts – especially during our disrupted world of 2020 – the path is simple:

Invite more prospective donors to make them.

That’s it.

Sure, you can fret all you’d like over the impacts of the pandemic. You can spend your time commiserating with colleagues about the disruptions caused by social justice protests.  You can worry yourself and others sick by projecting potential negative impacts of our current and very divisive election cycle (at least in the U.S.).

Or, you can embrace the concept that your work is not to solve those concerns directly and recommit yourself to inviting more donors to give generously.

Even with all the headwinds of today’s environment, the institutions that are continuing to raise significant major gifts are those with gift officers continuing to grind – even from a distance.

Yes, they are being creative with outreach and engagement.  Yes, they are using technology in ways none of us really were just 8 months ago.  Yes, they are working from home while trying to educate children and manage daily life differently.

But, the simple fact is that they haven’t stopped personally inviting donors to give generously.  And the results and research are clear:  They are being rewarded for their perseverance.


(Inspiration credit for this post goes to my longtime friend, consulting colleague and business partner, Chad Jolly.  Chad remains one the sharpest minds in the advancement field today and I always come away from interactions with him feeling just a bit smarter.)


Actually Doing The Work

A class I had in graduate school still resonates with me.  It was a research methodology class and we had just completed reading a series of research articles about educational leadership that, seemingly, didn’t provide many fresh or new insights on the topic.

In class one evening, a classmate of mine spoke up to our professor and stated, “This research is fine. But all it does is confirm what we already know.”

Our professor took a moment and then responded:  “You think you know.  But the work these researchers did provided evidence. They actually did the work.”

It can be tempting to reflect on someone else’s efforts (a colleague, another institution’s advancement program, etc.) and opine on how easy or simple it was for them.  We can look at their work and suggest that they had some built-in advantage that we don’t possess – they are bigger, more resources, different giving culture, wealthier donors, etc.  We can even promote the idea the work didn’t really accomplish much or wasn’t worth doing at all. Or that, “it wouldn’t work for us.”

Or, we can cast aside our defensive and envious tendencies which keep us beholden to the status quo.  We can commit to learning from others.  And we can roll up our sleeves and do the work ourselves.

Every day is a choice.


The 3 Questions Major Gift Officers Confuse

  1. “What amount could this donor give if she was enthusiastic about this request and our institution was her number 1 charitable giving priority?”
  2. “What amount am I going to invite her to give?”
  3. “What amount do I think she will give?”

Far too often, major gift officers either do not know or are vague in their answers to the first 2 questions. And far too often they spend too much time and energy attempting to answer the third question.

But, when major gift officers spend time and strategically focus on answering the first two questions, a larger gift commitment is possible. And, conversely, when major gift officers focus excessively on the third question, the next gift made by the donor tends to be uninspired and smaller.

We are responsible for enhancing our institution’s status as a charitable giving priority in the minds and hearts of our donors.  And we are responsible for inviting donors to consider aspirational gifts. It is the donor’s responsibility to respond.

Grind on your responsibilities and good things happen.


What Volunteers and Donors Don’t Always Know

Steve Jobs, the former CEO and co-founder of Apple Inc., is quoted to have said,

“Get closer than ever to your customers.  So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.”

I’ve reflected on this counterbalance to “the customer is always right” perspective for years.  I can recall, for instance, the first time I encountered the internet when a work colleague signed up for AOL service at his apartment back in the early 1990s. He excitedly took me to his computer and began showing me images of newly-released cars and trucks on and I was dumbfounded.  I simply couldn’t figure out how those pictures were getting into his computer in real time!

As I think back on that experience, if someone had asked me in the late 1980s if I, as a consumer, would have “wanted or needed the internet,” I could have very well said, “no.”  I hadn’t experienced the internet so I wouldn’t have had much of an idea regarding how it could impact me, my work, and my life.

My guess is that most everyone would have answered the same way about Mr. Jobs’ iPhone prior to its release in 2007. We wouldn’t have known that we wanted all that functionality and connectivity in the palm of our hands because we hadn’t yet experienced it.  And today, well over 2 billion on those devices have been sold.

Recently, I was presenting a virtual workshop through the Gonser Gerber Institute on the topic of volunteer engagement in the higher education setting.  During one point, a participant spoke up and said, “We have surveyed our Board members and they do not want meetings to go beyond 2 hours.  So, we don’t have meetings that go longer than that.”

“But, what if,” I responded, “you had a meaningful, well-planned, interactive Board meeting which was designed around a compelling and strategically-important theme. A meeting which included a well-respected, engaging presenter who educated them on how other institutions are adapting with respect to this theme.  A meeting in which you placed them into small groups so that they could respond to carefully-crafted questions regarding how your institution could better maximize your resources in support of the stated theme. A meeting in which you thoughtfully built-in social time so that Board members could get to know each other much better. And, what if that meeting I’m describing took 4 hours or even most of the day?”

“Do you believe that your very best volunteers – your Board members – would still complain because that meeting took longer than 2 hours?”

Volunteers (and even donors) can’t always know what they want because it’s quite possible they haven’t yet experienced it.

This is the same reason why leading a donor with a, “how do you want to make an impact?” type of question isn’t always the most fruitful approach.  While such an approach appears thoughtful and “donor-centric,” the reality is that many donors simply have not yet been introduced to the experience of making a gift that aligns with their values and is meaningful for them. They simply don’t know.

But, on the other hand, as advancement professionals, we’ve seen how other donors get emotional when they meet their endowed scholarship recipient. We’ve witnessed donors express deep satisfaction listening to a professor share the impact of their current gift to enhance a program or help start a new program.

We know (or we should know) what is needed for volunteers and donors to have high-satisfaction experiences.  The research on volunteerism and donor-satisfaction (and decades of practice) is clear.  People want meaning, engagement, and opportunities to make a difference with institutions that share their values.  Those are the variables that drive volunteer and donor satisfaction, not our blind adherence to a request volunteers and donors might make out of their unawareness.

Our role has never been to simply do what volunteers or donors demand or even suggest. Our role is to creatively propose and implement experiences that we know from practice and thoughtful study will give us the best opportunity to leave volunteers and donors delighted and ready to do it all again.

Or to re-phrase Steve Jobs:

Our role is to be “so close to our donors and our volunteers that we understand what they need well before they realize it themselves.”


Unstated Expectations

When each was recruited to serve, what percentage of the members of your institution’s governing or Foundation Board were invited into a conversation about the giving expectations associated with Board membership?

How many of your institution’s major donors have affirmingly stated, “we will continue to be supportive,” after finishing their most recent major gift with no invitation to talk further about what that specifically means?

How many prospect management meetings have you attended in which a gift officer said confidently, “Oh, they will make a gift,” with no follow-up questions asked about how she came to that conclusion about that donor couple?

As advancement leaders, it isn’t enough to get the initial, vague “yes,”- to Board membership, to the next major gift, or to a first gift.  In many ways, that’s the easy part of our role.  We happily accept a broad, fuzzy response onto which we immediately place an undeserving dollop of optimism.

No, the real work occurs when we clarify with the donor what comes after the initial “yes.”

At first glance, these follow-ups can seem like difficult conversations.  But, the reality is that they are not.  The initial “yes” has opened the door.  All we have to do is walk through it.

“When might be a good time for us to talk further about some of the expectations regarding Board membership?”

“I’d love to hear more about how you are thinking of making an impact next. . . .”

“Have you given thought to making a gift that. . .”

Clarifying expectations (both the donors and yours) is a key skill of effective advancement professionals.

Because more often than not, hearing a definite “no” from donors or volunteers is not nearly as frustrating as wondering why unstated expectations were never met.


A Broker For Hope

The very best, most successful advancement folk never confuse what they do with how they do it.

You aren’t a fundraiser.  You aren’t a gift officer.  You aren’t a relationship-builder.  You aren’t even a development professional (whatever that might mean!).  Those are all examples of how you do your work.

When you work exceptionally well, what you do is far more important than any of those titles.

Fundamentally, you promote the joys of giving.  You make our world better by encouraging everyone you come into contact with to be more generous.  You operationalize caring for others.

You are a broker for hope in a world that surely needs more.

Embrace that role and your job becomes a calling.  And your work becomes a cause.





The Delusion of the In-Person Visit

If we’ve learned anything over the last 6 months its that development officers and performance metrics’ systems myopically focused on meeting in-person donor visit goals have struggled to adapt.

That’s because the real work has never been about the in-person donor visit.

The real work has always been about creating learning opportunities and experiences so that others become better educated on the need.

The real work has always been about helping others understand the authentic joy and peace that comes with behaving generously and encouraging them to decide to receive that joy and peace.

The real work has always been to believe in the awesome personal and communal power of generosity ourselves and, then, serve as a sort-of generosity-sherpa  for others.

The real work has always been creative, intuitive, affective, collaborative, demiurgic, and instructive.

And yes, of course doing this real work is easier when we can be in-person with donors.

In more “normal times,” the in-person donor visit can help determine if the real work is being done. But a short-sighted focus on in-person donor visits has always been a delusion.

The visit itself was only a pathway to the real work.  The visit was never the real work.

What has come into fantastic relief today is the fact that skilled and willing development professionals are doing every bit of the real work from a distance.  Discovery, cultivation, gift invitation, and stewardship all are being done without the stepladder of in-person visits.


By embracing the fact that the goal was never to be in-person.  It was always to do the real work.