Neck Tattoos and Our Fundraising Future

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I got to spend time in St. Louis recently at the Opera America conference, and it was terrific. It might be difficult to imagine a true diversity of age, ethnicity and background in the field of Opera, but there it was. A beautiful and diverse group of professionals, with at least four generations represented, and folks of every background, talking about issues that matter including access, community engagement, and sexual harassment. Plus, some art thrown in. Good stuff.

I’ve always appreciated the neck tattoo. Men and women with neck tattoos are fully committed in a way that I am not, having decided as a young adult I am not the fellow for this particular and permanent sort of personal statement (what tattoo would I get….will it hurt….what if I feel silly later…really, it looks painful). I admire the boldness and clarity of purpose represented by this most bold personal statement.

But I have often wondered how those neck tattoo enthusiasts would emerge in the professional worlds of banking, lawyering, accounting, and my business, fundraising. I worried that a bold personal statement like a neck tattoo might be a barrier to future professional opportunity, that these good folks wouldn’t get the same opportunities to shine and might not easily escape the stigma of looking different than the norm.

And I was wrong.

Ours is a world of diversity, and, increasingly barriers are dropping. Years ago I attended my first ever meeting of Development Officers at a university where I got a job raising money. And I wore a brown suit to the meeting, not knowing that the University Gift Officers wore black suits, and black suits only. Everyone kind of gave me the stink eye. They all looked like one another, talked like one another, and stuck to the script. A bunch of mostly ex-athletes, hired based on a physical type. The early 2000s were overrated.

More of this remains that not, I am sorry to say. Non-profits tend to move more slowly than many other types of organizations in embracing change as they tend to be led by older, whiter, more conservative leaders. A question I truly despise when board members are asked to evaluate fundraising candidates is, “Who would you like to have a beer with?” the implication being, who do you kind of like in a personal way, that makes you feel comfortable, without explaining exactly why you say that, you know, because that might get us into trouble if we said out loud what we mean when we ask this loaded and silly question.

Top Ten Terrible Reasons For a Non-Hire (ALL TRUE):

  1. She wore sleeveless.
  2. He sighed too much.
  3. She hasn’t worked in enough places (having served more than five years in the same job, bucking the industry trend).
  4. I just wasn’t feeling you in my gut. 
  5. I know her sister, and there are concerns.
  6. I talked to so and so off the record, and he confidentially torpedoed the guy. 
  7. He salted his lunch before tasting it.
  8. She reminded me of what’s her name 15 years ago.
  9. He doesn’t have the “Foundation” look in his eye.
  10. He is not Superman. We need Superman.

This is a really crappy way to evaluate talent. I enjoy beverages with my friends the most, who tend to share similar social-economic backgrounds, of a similar age and education level. And we riff for hours on “Empire Strikes Back” and make funny voices and talk about countries yet to visit. But friendships aren’t hires, and your board feeling “comfortable” with this or that candidate is limiting at best, dangerous and morally unsound more likely. If you don’t get sued for your lack of vision, you will at least miss out on capable candidates who aren’t grandchildren of your board members.

So let us embrace an absolute diversity in fundraising talent. Rather than Looking the Part, today’s successful fundraisers are Acting the Part, as confident leaders, as change agents in their communities, as innovators.

And so it is up to all of us to nurture true fundraising talent wherever it comes from, to grow our own leaders, to support diversity of every kind. Our organizations must escape the “I’d like a beer with him” thinking if we are to thrive, yes?

Wear a black suit if you want, but show off that neck tattoo with pride.

Posted in Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy | 1 Comment

Hitting the Bullseye. On Preparation.

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At breakfast in a hotel lobby not long ago, I watched a CEO, a sales director, and a project manager talk through the day ahead over oatmeal and watery coffee. Traveling alone most of the time, I am always interested in group dynamic among colleagues. This group was together to pitch some gigantic contract involving networked gadgets of some complexity (it is always about computers) and they appeared relaxed and confident in advance of their meeting.

Not taking anything for granted for the pitch, the CEO was all business with his subordinates and laid out, in detail, a scripted plan for the meeting. Who would say what, and when. He asked each colleague to rehearse aloud their part of the presentation, listening intently and offering feedback and encouragement. The group wrapped the session with a list of possible questions and answers that might come from the prospect, and who would say what in the close.

I have every confidence that this group won their big contract and, are at this moment, installing routers all over Eastern Nebraska. Good for them. It was a large enough piece of business that the CEO flew in at considerable expense, along with two senior staff managers. So they didn’t talk football at breakfast. They prepared, precisely and carefully, for the day’s work.

When was the last time your fundraising office was this prepared for a major gift solicitation? When did you last rehearse the actual words everyone would say to a prospect at an upcoming meeting? When was the last time you asked a Board member to take her fundraising responsibilities with as much seriousness as a major contract at her business?

As Fundraisers, the most challenging part of our job is engaging board members and senior staff in the process, and especially in the Ask. Soliciting major gifts is challenging work, and most of us aren’t naturals. Increasingly I see a lack of focused, thoughtful preparation in these efforts. We are much too casual in preparation for the most difficult and nuanced conversations. What is the result of an ill-prepared, unconfident solicitor? Too often, we blow the Ask, relying ultimately on an emailed written proposal to do the heavy lifting for our best ideas, because we aren’t committed to a well-executed personal solicitation.

What can help? Preparation. Rehearsal. Reinforcement.

It is time we quit assuming our Board members and volunteers are fundraising naturals. They aren’t. I am done listening to fundraising staff whine about their Board’s efforts when there has been no coaching or preparation for their work.

Instead of complaining about their efforts on our behalf, let’s prepare them for success. Let us script our prospect meetings in advance, detailing who plays what role. Let’s rehearse our meetings in advance, roleplaying the scenario, the script, and the possible outcomes, including overcoming potential objections.

Everyone gets weird about roleplaying in front of others. No one wants to look silly making pretend solicitations. But practice works. By practicing, through guided rehearsal, the task becomes easier. The talking points become more natural. The pause we should take after a financial ask is made becomes effortless.

What’s the easiest way to encourage volunteers to practice? Volunteer to go first. Show them the way. Before anyone goes asks on your behalf, prepare a written solicitation plan outlining roles and talking points. Rehearse, in person if you can, in advance of the meeting. If its important enough to ask for personally, it should be a no-brainer to meet in advance to prepare. Ask your volunteer to take their fundraising responsibilities as seriously they would their very own business.

An acting teacher shared some wisdom once:

Your talent and your face is out of your control. Are you handsome enough for the role? You may or may not be. This is not the Actor’s concern. Instead, focus on what is fully yours – your focus, your attention, your committed effort, and, most of all, your preparation.

Will the Donor give the $1million?

Our Case can be meticulous, dialed in to the Donor’s interests and sincerest desires to help build a better world.

Our Timing can be immaculate, aligned with a period of intense cultivation and appreciation, drawing our prospect closer to our mission week by week.

But if we screw up the ask due to a lack of preparation, none of this matters at all.

Practice!

 

 

Posted in Board Development, Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy, Volunteers | 2 Comments

An Open Letter to my Alma Mater, who sent me Decoder Glasses, and asked me for $2,400.

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An Open Letter to My Alma Mater

To my Dear University:

Please know that you mean all the world to me personally. I can say without hesitation that higher education has been truly instrumental in my life’s success. I would not be the professional, nor the man that I am, without you. And so this letter gives me no great satisfaction.

Paying forward this gratitude is the one and only reason I have supported you philanthropically each and every year for at least the past 10 years. Helping, in a small way, today’s students to have (hopefully) some of the same opportunities that I received as an undergraduate and grad student is, for me, a moral imperative. There is nothing more. This is why I give. That is the only reason I continue to support you financially, why I guest lecture at least once per year, why I will always help a student network and job search. Moral obligation to give back, for what I have been given.

Last fall, this fiscal year, I made a gift of $500. This is not much money at all to a place routinely raising $1Billion+ for this and that campaign. I understand this. But $500 is also the largest check I wrote philanthropically last year. I have a young family, and I began saving for retirement later than I should, which limits my ability, but I do what I can, and this $500 was a meaningful gift in my life stage.

It is vital to me to support you, so that others have the opportunities I received. All I could ever ask in return is prompt, accurate, and sincere acknowledgement.

And so I was mystified and baffled by a bit of direct mail I received from you not too long ago. Inside the envelope was a pair of Decoder Glasses, along with a request to increase my current year gift by at least 50% to start and by 250% as stretch gift. I must take considerable objection to this request for funding, and must politely decline.

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This is shabby, impolite, unsegmented, nonsensical, and beneath you. This is tacky. Simply garbage fundraising, unworthy of the legacy of Dr Wells.

Let’s establish the facts here and contemplate them one by one, together:

  1. I am a current fiscal year donor
  2. I have been a loyal donor for at least 10 years, and maybe closer to 15
  3. I do not need Decoder Glasses.

I am a current fiscal year donor. Asking a current year donor for support a second time in the same year is okay, I think, as long as the initial gift has been referenced and some rationale or opportunity is suggested, such as a match or challenge. For a modest $500 donor like myself, perhaps a $100 suggested ask would be appropriate. Asking me for $800, $1,200, $2,400, etc. out of the blue, for no good reason beyond the Decoder Glasses bums me out. What was the consideration here? That I would be so moved by the Decoder Glasses that I would more than double my current year gift?

I have been a loyal donor for at least 10 years, and maybe closer to 15. I ask my clients to pull from their database a report of donors who’ve made contribution steadily for 10 years or more. I ask them, “How many of these donors do you know personally?” as these are your planned gift prospects. At my age, and loyalty, wouldn’t a better strategy than the Decoder Glasses be planned giving materials? Or one on one conversations about interests, priorities, passions, and opportunities? Or was this invitation to dialogue the “Super Secret Message“?

I do not need Decoder Glasses. This is the big one, my friends, and the reason for my letter. I do not know who needs these Decoder Glasses, but it is not me. I expect this is a Millennial Engagement strategy, a way to get the younger graduates involved early with the university. I cannot know this for sure except to note that the young adults I encounter often enjoy quirky eyewear, which is terrific.

Last year you sent stickers. And that’s just fine and dandy as an acquisition strategy for non-donors or by age or demographic, if it encourages gifts. But I must ask, where did you draw the line with this solicitation? Clearly above $500 for current fiscal year donors, and clearly you mailed this to graduates from at least the 1990s. How high did you go and how far back? Did $10,000 current year donors get the Decoder Glasses? Did graduates from the 1980s get Decoder Glasses? The 1970s?

In my experience, a very common mistake in direct response fundraising is to send everyone the same thing at the same time, and this is where you need to reconsider your approach to direct mail. It is too easy to say, “Hey, why not send it to every current year donor and ask for a fivefold increase. Maybe some will say yes. Plus Decoder Glasses

I understand this impulse, to blast out the Decoder Glasses mailing to One and All, but you should not have asked a current year donor of $500, who graduated 20 years ago, for $2,400 in this way. If you feel otherwise, let’s chat about it, could we?

Careful segmentation mitigates the risk of alienating a loyal donor, of a certain age, who wants to support students, and who does not want Decoder Glasses.

And so, beloved alma mater, I will not be supporting IU Day on April 18, though I am a fan of Day of Giving campaigns. I suggest you take a close look at Oklahoma State’s Give Orange campaign to see how this can be done properly.

You blew it this year. You are on timeout, for now. Let’s try again this fall. Good luck with the Decoder Glasses campaign.

Sincerely Yours,

Jeremy Hatch, Class of 1996

Posted in Annual Fund, Fundraising, Philanthropy | 3 Comments

The Best Donor Love is Birthday Donor Love.

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What’s the best way to say thank you to a donor? Personally, promptly, sincerely, and with perfect accuracy. After that’s it’s gravy.

What’s the best time to send happy wishes to a donor? After they give a gift, to be sure. As the anniversary of their gift approaches, to remind them of your appreciation? Certainly. Ten times per year, if you can? Yes.

My favorite is the good old, “Happy Birthday!”

There aren’t many bad ways to say thank you and steward donors, but there are some better ways than others. Instead of holiday and Valentine’s day greetings from your organization, why don’t you learn your donor’s birthdays and develop systems to send truly personal and timely greetings?

An excellent stress test for any donor facing development program is asking, “Do you know your donor’s birthdays, and what do you do with that information?” A fundraising program that learns birthdays, institutionalizes birthdays into donor records, and is able to act with timeliness to provide good stewardship via a sincere “Happy Birthday” is place doing good work. It is the grandson who calls his grandmother on her birthday every year without fail, and has his college tuition covered.

Holiday cards are fine, though tricky in 2018, and maybe played out at this point. Years ago organizations would send formal Christmas cards, and that was well and fine and good until it wasn’t. And so now everyone sends Thanksgiving cards, or general Holiday cards, or Happy New Year cards. And no one feels really great about it. My personal favorite is the Holiday card that isn’t printed by the organization until December 23, and then is frantically mailed on December 27 between Christmas and New Year’s, and is often received by the donors after the first of the year.

Sure, send Holiday cards if you wish, though I am not that into it. At my house we display all of our (mostly) Christmas cards on the mantle. It is our current life stage, and maybe yours as well, but the vast majority of the cards we receive are photo collages of families, with babies and dogs and more babies.

So, compared with those meaningful photo cards from friends and family, the generic holiday card from the Food Pantry is not bad, but not great. Blah.

If you want to impress your donors, learn birthdays. It is easier now than ever, with Facebook and other online sources (though note this handy guide to Facebook donor friendships from our friends at Bloomerang). Who do we reach out to on their birthday in our personal lives? Our closest friends and families. Wouldn’t we want our donors to think of us in those terms?

Once you know the birthday, send a card, signed by the staff the donor knows. Better yet, make a phone call. A birthday is a fine time to touch base without asking for anything (asking for a gift on a birthday is surely bad form). Maybe drop off a treat, or, for your closest donors, arrange a special lunch or visit. Loneliness and isolation are a societal ill for our older friends and donors. We can do something small to help.

That’s love, That’s family. That is authentic and lasting stewardship. Learn your donor’s birthdays. Act accordingly.

Posted in Philanthropy | 3 Comments

“I did a little work with those guys.” Gigging Our Fundraising Future

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My father worked as a Civil Servant for 30+ years, retiring with a full monthly pension after a one employer career, grinding it out every darn day at a clunky desk and sad overhead lighting. On Fridays, he would treat himself to a Snickers bar as a reward for another week in the can. When I left the cushy life of a major gifts job in higher education years ago, citing boredom, he seriously thought I’d lost my mind. Similarly, when I went freelance full time a few years back, turning down offers to lead organizations, he assumed the worst for my health and happiness, wondering when I’d ask to move into my parent’s basement.

The working world is changing in a hurry, and these changes are likely to be permanent. Short term project teams, outside specialists, and employee contractors are the future paths for most Americans. This impacts all of us, when employers see less value in lasting relationships with employers, showing less and less loyalty to staff.

Even the most accomplished non-profit leader is a bad meeting away from a Friday morning escort to the parking lot. Most non-profit workers I know keep a spare box around, just in case, or are actively (often desperately) looking for the next full-time opportunity to escape the impossible expectations of their current responsibilities. It is a frosty working world out there.

What does this constant flux mean for career professionals, when the essential value of our profession has been developing close personal relationships with funders and donors?

What will a freelance fundraising world look like when we stop fearing change and embrace inevitability and opportunity? What if your job could be the thing that you love to do the most, and not a pile of other duties as assigned?

In a Freelance Fundraising World, let’s make some assumptions:

  1. Fewer full time workers will be required, as technological advances eliminate the need for staff members for various functions. Think about the Vice President’s full time administrative assistant of yesterday. In all about the rarest organizations, this position no longer exists. So let’s assume a smaller cadre of actual staff members will be required to come to the office each day, working exclusively for one specific organization. Wouldn’t serving several organizations in specific, helpful ways been more rewarding than the daily grind? Yes, I think so.
  2. More part time workers and freelancers will be employed, managing tasks and revenue areas directly. Event coordination, annual fund management, stewardship fulfillment can and eventually will be outsourced for many organizations. Consider the annual fund, where staff members cycle through continuously for many organizations. Does it make sense to hire, train and support an annual fund manager who will stay 18 months, or would it better to hire a specialist or outside company to manage these programs, particularly when technology is increasingly important to our rapidly changing means of communication? Wouldn’t it be more fun to manage galas for a living exclusively, if galas are your passion?
  3. Some relationship fundraising will remain a staff function, but does it have to be this way? What if corporate sponsorship was outsourced to specialists? That might mean we have to reconsider our ethical standards related to compensation. It seems inevitable that we need to rethink our prohibitions against commission based compensation, when it is a perfectly ethical (practical as well as rewarding) in every other kind of profession. If people perform, they should be well compensated. Wouldn’t it be better for truly gifted salespeople to be rewarded handsomely for producing truly strong results in corporate support and sponsorship?
  4. Boards of Directors will need to step up meaningfully again. In a freelance gig model, with fewer and fewer permanent staff resources, board members are going to have to TRULY do their job, accepting responsibility for advancing, cultivating and stewarding relationships, less reliant on the crutch of staff who, too often, do all the work. This is a return to how Boards functioned years ago, where volunteers led most of the fundraising, before paid staff members became the norm. And I think maybe it was better. So a major gift gig fundraiser might have a new job, teaching and coaching Boards to do their vital work. Doesn’t that sound like more fun than 100 assigned major gift donors in the portfolio?

For the fundraisers, time to embrace this reality. Consider freelancing, side work, and outside contracts. Our organizations will only benefit when we all find the right hustle.

 

 

Posted in Fundraising, Philanthropy, Sponsorship | Tagged , | Leave a comment

2018. Time to Stop Giving Donors Tax Advice.

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No one really knows that will happen with the new tax bill, though I suspect it represents another blow to the slowly shrinking middle class (read this excellent Washington Post article for the specifics). I doubt it will make an immediate difference right away for our fundraising efforts in 2018. The economy remains quite strong, wealthy people continue to get wealthier, and Americas tend to be generous when asked. So, for most of our organizations, it should be full speed ahead, focusing now more than ever on relationship fundraising, stewardship (call everyone who gave a gift over the holidays. Everyone.) and making a compelling case about the impact of donor’s generosity. Do good work. Take care of your donors, who will support you as they are able.

2018 is also the year we can finally stop giving our donors tax advice. With the new tax bill, the gist is that, for most people in the middle class, itemizing deductions to non-profits won’t be feasible. Their standard deduction will be higher, and the tax deductibility won’t be an benefit or a liability. Philanthropic prognosticators claim that this will cost our non-profits Many Billions of gifts, which assumes that a tax deduction is a meaningful incentive to charitable giving, when study after study have proven that it is not. Regardless, it is the law now, and nothing to be done about except to vote next November.

And yet this week I received 25 emails from various non-profits reminding me that December 31 was the deadline to receive a tax deduction for 2017, but only if I gave before midnight. And so I ask, “How do you know that about my tax situation?” and “Why is this any of your business about my taxes?” and finally, “Let me get off your damn list. I wish I hadn’t given that memorial gift in my neighbor’s dad’s name three years ago.

I happen to own a small business, and so my tax situation is more complex that most. It is also my own concern, and no one’s else, particularly yours, you Fundraising Superstar. And so is the case for everyone. Lots of middle class folks don’t need a tax deduction, but they do want to help their neighbors, support their communities, and feel good about their lives. We can help.

I am going to now let you in on the Biggest Secret About People with Some Money. Don’t tell anyone. It’s that they Know Their Money. It is as simple as that. Wealthy folks know about money. How to make it, invest it, and how to keep it away from the IRS. They don’t need your advice, I promise. There are countless ways to preserve wealth and limit a tax burden. Giving way your money is so far down that list in terms of return of investment that it doesn’t really matter.

Donors don’t need your tax advice. They need your prompt and accurate thanks, your partnership in showing the results of good work, for you to keep your promises, and for your courage to show them opportunity. That’s the work of a fundraiser. Let the tax guys and the politicians sort the taxes.

Of those 25 year-end emails I got around New Year’s, I responded to exactly one, from a personal friend. We are in midst of record cold right now in my city with ten days plus of Arctic weather, right at the holidays when staff resources are spread thin. Of all the folks impacted by this very dangerous weather, families with children are the most vulnerable to homelessness. A friend pointed out that only one organization in my city helps families with children get off the street in emergency cold. And so that’s who I supported. That’s the Case, the Reason, the Opportunity.

Suggesting that your organization is somehow a resource for tax advice is hubris at best, and possibly dangerous. What if you are wrong in your claim that my gift is deductible? What makes you the expert my a donor’s situation? Why claim otherwise?

So let’s stop emphasizing tax deductibility. Let’s fundraise instead. Happy 2018.

Posted in Philanthropy | 3 Comments

Sorting Through the Stacks, Giving where I can.

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Being a philanthropic contrarian, I give most of my smaller donations in response to direct mail the Tuesday BEFORE Thanksgiving, a week prior to Giving Tuesday. Why? I am usually home from the road, and like to de-clutter my stacks of mail and papers that have been stacking up the past months.  And also because the tree will be purchased this weekend, decorations will come up from the basement, and less paper around makes me generally happier.

But I read every piece of Direct Mail that I receive, though these days it is so much that I do it a bunch at a time. I am a fan of the $100 gift, being big enough (for me at least) to have some impact and start a relationship. Here is what I learned this year, sorting through my stacks:

  1. Timing is everything. I give my small gifts, for whatever wacky reason, before Thanksgiving. So this means that your year-end solicitation might be deliriously well-written and compelling, but my cash is spent. Get out Earlier.img_8629
  2. Visuals matter. Color printing is cheap enough that everyone should be able to add a little color for impact. The best way to show your organization is to show the people who benefit from it. People comes in all shades. Print your people in color!img_8636
  3. Message still counts. I am not naming names in this post, but a very large, very wealthy non-profit in my home city of Indianapolis wrote to me with, “I’d like to introduce myself. My name is BLAH BLAH, and I am currently serving as the Interim CEO of BLAH BLAH.” If you think I care, BLAH BLAH BLAH. Make the best sentence in your letter the first one.img_8637
  4. Envelopes Must Compel My Interest. The biggest obstacle to any donor or prospect making a gift is actually opening the envelope. When I get lots of mail I tend to sort it by the recycle bin, tossing catalogs and junk right into the shoot. Compel me to open your envelope, or I might not. And please, DO NOT make the addressee on your envelope to an existing donor, “OR CURRENT RESIDENT”. To the bin you will go. Say something amazing on your envelopes.img_8632
  5. Personalization is the BEST. My favorite fundraising letter arrives every November from a wonderful Indy organization, the Harrison Center. Someone fills the letter with joy and fun, underlining and adding little notes about impact. I am a sucker for personalization. I love this approach. I will renew my gift, even though I haven’t been active with this organization for some years. For your existing donors at least, personalize letters in some way.img_8631
  6. I care not at all about Benefits. Professionally I spend a lot of time on benefit cards, but I find them loathsome and a bore to read. Is there anything that your organization can give me that would compel my renewal or increased support? Maybe, but a too small to read table of benefits that includes $5,000+ gifts won’t do much to convince me to make a $100 check. What might? A specific, timely premium or opportunity, described in plain language. Simplify your Benefits, or better yet, strengthen how you describe your case.img_8638
  7. Matches still count. It might sound old-timey, but Americans do like a deal, and the chance to have your gift go even farther is compelling. Get you a Matching Challenge.img_8639-1

Good luck with your year end fundraising, though if you hit me up in December, the money is probably spent.

Posted in Annual Fund, Fundraising, Performing Arts, Philanthropy | Tagged | Leave a comment