What Your Donors Are Starving For

Recent headlines in the Chronicle of Philanthropy have taken a decidedly dour turn. Your annual performance review didn’t go well so you’re down in the dumps. And honestly, there’s not much positive news in our world at the moment.

For fundraising professionals, a consistent focus on what’s wrong is bad medicine. Consider this:

The ballroom was packed. The chairman stepped up to the podium, took a look around and said, “Rather than speak to you tonight, I want you to hear the words that inspire me every day.”

The lights dimmed. The crowd murmured. Faintly, then louder and louder were the sounds of an orchestra and Frank Sinatra singing. On two giant screens to accompany the song were photos of teachers working with students, coaches and their teams, alumni meeting their scholarship recipients, and volunteers at the Phonathon.

The song Sinatra was singing? “Here’s to the Winners.” It lasted two and a half minutes. There was not a dry eye in the house. The entire room jumped to their feet and cheered.

There was nothing left to be said. “Here’s to the winners all of us can be.”

The phone rang. Phil was calling. As always, he got right to the point. “So how’s it going?”

“Phil,” I told him, “it’s going great!”

“You son of a gun,” he said in mild exasperation, “Every time I call you tell me the exact same thing – it’s going great.”

Somehow I was inspired to answer,

“Phil, if I don’t tell you things are great at your alma mater, who’s going to?”

Silence. “You know what, my friend?” he said, “You’re right.”

That’s what our donors want to hear. They want to hear it’s going great. They want to jump to their feet and cheer. They want their association with our organizations to make them happy.

They don’t want to hear about our problems. Or our struggles. They have plenty of their own. Donors want to hear about our successes, our victories, and how their gifts made them happen.

Every donor I know wants to be associated with a winner. The tricky part is that “being a winner” is something the donor perceives about us. It’s not something we can “do,” like making an ask or sending a letter.

What makes you a “winner” to your donor? I think it boils down to four things.

Look like a winner. Stand up straight. Smile when you say hello. Take pride in your personal appearance. Does your building shine? Is the lobby welcoming? Does your communication, down to every single thing the donor receives, reflect how you want to be perceived? None of this is expensive. It just takes a little care and effort. Being “classy” is not the same as “gaudy” or “expensive.”

Think like your donors. They are desperate to feel appreciated. By anyone! Give it to them! Make your donors feel so genuinely appreciated that they want to be with you more than with your competition.

Share the success. Every single day, look for the good in your organization and find someone to share it with. Think of organizations you perceive as winners. Why do you think that way about them? It’s because of good news or success you’re heard from them recently. Your pride and enthusiasm in your organization is a “drug” to your donors and they want some of it!

And finally, live “quiet confidence.” When I told Phil things were going great, it wasn’t just what I said but how I said it. Every great fundraiser I know lives quiet confidence. Not cocky, not even close to that. A quiet confidence in themselves, in the message they have to share, in the organization they represent.

Here’s to the winners all of us can be.

(excerpted from Winning: The Five Truths of Fundraising)

Thoughts on “Team”

Your personal life. Your professional life. At work, your development team is your professional family.

What makes a great team?

The head of the team is, in many respects, the head of the family. That person has the responsibility to nurture the members of the team, to protect, and above all to provide leadership. Just like a family, the members of a team are all at different points in their life, their career. They each have different needs and different goals.

Like families, teams can be small, or big. A development shop of one is like a family of one. When that is the case, the development officer may look to the organization as a whole to create a family, just as the single person looks outside to create theirs.

Not every team is great. Some, sadly, are dysfunctional, just like families can be. But every team has the potential to be great and when that happens, perhaps once or twice in your career, it is very special indeed.

Members of great teams genuinely care for one another. You rarely hear, “That’s not my job.” Team members may not necessarily be drinking buddies (actually, it’s better if you’re not), but you hear “good morning” and “have a good night!” a lot in the offices of great teams. Birthdays are noted with a card and a smile. Low points are noted with empathy. Do members of great teams have disagreements? Bumps in the road? Of course they do, just like families do. But great teams know that will happen and when it does, the bumps are addressed and smoothed out.

Great teams have little customs, little traditions. Not everything is top-down. The great team has all the characteristics you would expect to find. Respect for one another. People who are genuinely nice and who work at it.

The one big difference between a family and a team; team members know they each have a job to do. The success of the team depends in large part on how seriously each person takes their own responsibility to the success of the team, not just their own personal success.

You need to hold up your end of the deal.

So, it’s not only how you relate to the other members of your team but how you regard your own work, and how that work contributes to the success of the team.

The second big difference between a family and a team? You don’t have to love your team. But you do have to respect them. If you don’t, it shows through everything.

Members of great teams respect one another.

The Cafe

In a country far away, old friends sit around a table in a café drinking tea as they do every evening.

“Can you believe what happened in Texas?” asked one.

“The shooting?  Unbelievable.  Those poor children.  Their families.  I can’t imagine the pain. When will it stop?”

They all were waiting for the elder of the group to speak.

“It is amazing to me how America ignores the obvious,” he said.

“What do you mean?” they asked.

“It astounds me that the strongest country in the world, the most generous country in the world finds itself impotent to stop their own children from being butchered.  They will mourn the murder of these innocent babies. They will say what they believe are all the right things but are actually platitudes.

And then they will move on.  Move on? What amazes me about America is that in the face of their children being slaughtered, there is no resolve.

“The shooter?  If there had been no guns available to him, if those who govern America had any modicum of courage, those children and their teacher would be alive today.  There have been 15 mass shootings in America in the last 10 days. 27 school shootings this school year and 198 mass shootings in the last 19 weeks.

In Chicago, children are murdered walking to school.  Children are murdered in their homes, with bullets coming through the windows.  These killings are tolerated.  No other civilized country does.  And yet America accepts this.”

To the elder’s right, a friend said, “Their argument is that guns don’t kill people, people do.”

“That is stupidity,” the elder said.  “There will always be crazy people in the world.  In our country and virtually every other country of the world, we make it very difficult, nigh impossible for crazy people to get their hands on guns.  For anyone to have a gun.  If there had been no guns available to the shooter, those precious children would be alive today. 

“It is as simple as that.”

From another friend, “But what about their Constitution?  It tells Americans they have the right to bear arms.”

The elder smiled ruefully. “Americans, for reasons I cannot fathom, insist on maintaining an archaic and literal interpretation of their founding Constitution, 241 years after it was written.  Do they still believe that God created the world in seven days?  No. Do they maintain the same interpretation of scientific principals they had 200 years ago?  When that amendment to their Constitution was written, Americans did have reason to fear invasion of their homes by foreign countries.  They are no longer under attack. 

“Except by themselves. 

“I think of the children’s tale of ‘The Emperor Who Had No Clothes.’ He was so consumed by himself that he was unable to see how truly pathetic he looked.

“Americans wail about the deranged among them who commit these atrocities, as if the deranged are the evil. They are not.  The evil among them are the guns. And those who allow guns to be as plentiful as loaves of bread.

“What they don’t realize is that the rest of the world is collectively shaking its head at America.  The greatest country in the world? When their absence of will, their absence of laws or enforcement of laws allow innocent children to be slaughtered?

“Don’t make me laugh.”

The Big 7

One of my all-time favorite country songs is by Reba McEntire, “(The World Ain’t Gonna Stop for) My Broken Heart.” It’s had five million views on YouTube, by the way.

Our economy and our world are in a bit of tizzy at the moment. But as Reba suggests, life goes on. Fundraising does too.

At a time when you might be tempted to give up or, at least, to take an early summer vacation, here are the seven things I believe will keep you on the right path.

One. Don’t assume. “Don’t assume what?” you may ask. Don’t assume your donors do not want to give. History proves philanthropy is strongest in tough times. Don’t assume your donors do not have the means to give. Wealthy people spend a fraction of their income on necessities and none of their assets. Don’t assume your donors remember they can give to you via stock, or a Qualified Charitable Distribution from their IRA, or from their Donor-Advised Fund. Don’t assume your donors recall any of the good things your organization is up to these days.

Please. Don’t assume any of that.

Two. Do not wait until after Labor Day to begin a conversation with your donors about their year-end or their major gift. Because if you wait that long, the ship has likely sailed. Most donors make their giving decisions way, way earlier in the year than you can imagine. Many of those decisions will be made with their adult children, when the family is together this summer.

Three. Be a friend. To your donors, and to your colleagues as well. Kindness goes a long way these days.

Four. Have something to peddle. O heavens, I know you never ask a donor for money, you ask her or him or they to help your organization make something happen that is emotionally compelling to them. Do you have enough of those “arrows in your quiver” for the asks you’ll be making?

Five. Be of good cheer. And good news. In these times of distressing news all around, be one of the few people who always wears a smile and always has some good news, something uplifting, to share with your donors.

Six. Of course you do this all the time, but redouble your efforts to make your donors feel sincerely appreciated for their gift. “Mary and George, we’re coming to the end of our fiscal year and I just wanted to write (a handwritten note, that is) to say thank you. I don’t know where we’d be without you.”

And seven, if you need to do this, and many will, make certain you know who your Top 40 are. The Top 40 donors for your organization, or the Top 40 donors you are responsible for. We can’t build relationships if we don’t know who we should be building relationships with! The Top 40 is the intersection of those who have been most generous to you but also, blended with some potential donors of greatest capacity. “Who has the capacity, and who either has or could reasonably be expected to develop the interest to make a gift of consequence to us?” That is your Top 40.

Sadly, Reba’s song does not have a happy ending. Yours can.

Feeling Alone

“I would never admit this to anyone at the office, but it has been a long time since I felt excited about my job.  Most days, it’s an effort to just do the work.”

Is that you? 

There’s nothing wrong with you.  You’re not a bad person or a bad employee.  Everyone has “down days.”

But if it’s been a while since you felt happy about your job, you owe it to yourself to take a look. 

Because you owe it to yourself to be happy. And we are responsible for our own happiness.

There are five reasons we stay motivated in our work.

One, we take a minute every now and then to remind ourselves, “I am grateful I have a job.  A reason to get up in the morning and go somewhere I am wanted.  And I am glad I have a regular paycheck.”

Sometimes we forget the obvious.

The reason I think most advancement professionals lose motivation is we get caught up in the weeds and forget to stay connected with, and committed to, what our organization does.  Another obvious thing.  But it takes effort to remember.

Get up.  Go find that thing your organization does that makes you proud.  You don’t need to make a big deal about it.  Just go. Trust me, it is the most important think you will do that day.

But what if you don’t care what your organization does?  What if you only want to close gifts and it doesn’t matter to you what the gift is for?

You’re in the wrong business.  Get out.

Three, we stay motivated because we have clear and achievable goals we want to reach.  Do you believe in what your organization does and do you want to close gifts to help make that happen?  Now you’re talking!

We stay motivated because we know we’re on the same page as our boss.  Our boss supports us, and helps remove the roadblocks that keep us from doing what we’re there to do.  Believing in your boss and wanting to do a good job for him or her is a fundamental element of staying motivated.

And last, we stay motivated because we feel a part of a team.  Whether it’s a development team or the organization staff as a whole, there is an underlying desire to do well, to “bring it every day” not just for oneself but for others.

When we don’t feel that way, when we don’t feel part of a team, we begin to feel alone.  Isolated.  That’s a bad thing.  No one wants to be alone, whether you are a one-person shop or a member of a big team. 

There are proactive things we can do to combat that feeling of isolation.  Let’s start with the idea that you are a one-person shop, or part of a very small shop.

Most folks outside of development aren’t always sure what we do.  But they’re sure of one thing – they don’t want our job!  Our work is focused on the “outside” while most everyone else is focused on the “inside.”  Put those together and we sometimes feel we’re working alone.

There are simple ways to fix that. Seek out colleagues on the “program side.” Have lunch with them. Ask their advice about something. Best of all, if they have a big something and need an extra hand, pitch in!

The one professional development expenditure that brings the greatest return on investment is a subscription to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.  They do an impressive job of making you aware of “the advancement world around you.”  When you subscribe, be sure to also subscribe to their “Philanthropy Today” daily email.

Visit your donors.  Doesn’t matter if you are a gift officer or the person inputting the gifts.  Say thank you, deliver muffins on their birthday, bring chicken soup if they’re sick.  Stay connected at times when you don’t want to ask for a gift.

Your local AFP Chapter will often have free networking events in addition to the many member benefits they offer.  And there are often other groups of development professionals in your area.  The meetings are not expensive, a solid investment of your time, and a great way to make a new friend.

No matter where you are, at a shop large or small, to me the best way to combat isolation is to work at being a friend.  Always remember, we have to “work at keeping our friends.”  Most development professionals are as eager to make a friend as you are.

Set a goal of one networking coffee every month.  To save time, piggyback a coffee with another appointment out of the office.

Volunteer at another nonprofit.  Do you know someone at another shop who’s having a big event?  Offer to volunteer at the event!

Buy yourself an inexpensive “birthday book.”  What’s that?  A very small pocket calendar.  When you learn a friend’s birthday, or anniversary, or any date important to them, write it in your little book.  The day of the week doesn’t matter, the date does.  When you send a friend an email or a note wishing them a Happy Birthday, they won’t believe you remembered. 

When you get a call or an email from another development professional who’s either recruiting for an open position, or in a search themselves, take three minutes out of your day to really think about how you can be helpful.  That kindness will come back to you many times over.

The point is, to not feel alone, get out there.  Be a friend.  It’s that simple.