Ghost Light.


At the end of every workday in the theatre, each load-in, rehearsal, donor tour and performance the ritual remains come quitting time—rolling out the ghost light to the darkened stage before locking the doors and making for home, a late dinner or the pub. The ghost light is a safety feature of course, a light to illuminate a space filled with trap doors, rigging, cables and any number of tripping hazards on the stage.

Those of us who grew up in the theatre are both deeply superstitious and traditional. I helped to open a $100million+ concert hall with state of the art technology that could drive a spaceship, but at the end of each day the production staff rolled out a quaint metal stand with a single incandescent bulb, as was proper. The ghost light is about safety, but more importantly it is a totem of our faith in tomorrow, a beacon and a promise – our work today is done, but we will return to bring our art to live, tomorrow, and the day, week, year and decade after that.

A dark theatre is unsafe, bad luck, bad form, and bad for business. Our work is in the light, for the audience, for our communities. This has never changed since the days of Bach and Shakespeare. Days after 9/11, and probably in your town as well, Broadway theatres were open again, for that is our work, what we do, who we are as artists and artisans. We play. We perform. We inspire.

Through war, depression, down times, and good, the work goes on. Our plays, performances, exhibitions, master classes, concerts and everything else has always proceeded because THE SHOW MUST GO ON. This is universal to our industry, from the actors, singers, technicians and concessionaires. From the stagehands to the playwrights, the marketers, the box office, the custodians, the consultants. All of us.

And for now, at least, it cannot. Important, inspired, rehearsed, beautiful works being cancelled worldwide and livelihoods and careers in jeopardy. This is our darkest hour.

Are we down? We are. Are we out? We are not. Despite personal hardship, concern for health and safety, and grave a outlook for financial stability, our work continues. Online, streamed from living rooms and rooftops. Songs sung, poems read, plays produced, in your town and mine.

Our artists and organizations are creating content for the stay at home children while taking care of their own kids. They are doing beautiful, important, relevant things because this is what we do.

Will you help? Can you buy a subscription now for next year? Can you donate those tickets? Can you make a $100 gift to the performing arts organization of your choice? Will you help this industry that makes our communities vibrant, inspired, worthwhile?

The artists, singers, actors, directors, box office staff, ushers, designers, lighting technicians, stagehands, custodians, administrators, educators and their families need you. Today. It will not wait.

Please, today. Help.

The ghost light is lit for now. We will return. We must.


Posted in Philanthropy | Leave a comment

With Gratitude.

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One of those internet memes asks us, “Instead of ‘I don’t have time’ say ‘This is not a priority’ and see how that feels.

In my life of late, this feeling of “I can’t do that right now” has not felt wonderful. I’ve never been the sort to brag about my level of busy, though I sure have had a full plate since a seismic life change in 2007 and the years that have followed. That’s coming up on twelve years of pedal to the metal busy. And I’ve always loved being busy.

But now, more than ever, too much so. Starting a family, in a grand adventure as a new (old) Dad to two beautiful babies being the biggest change in my life, of course. But also the growing professional obligations with amazing clients that keep me traveling weekly, friendships to maintain, and a healthy marriage to steward. It is a whole bunch of bounty. More than I could possibly deserve. And I am grateful for all of it.

When I can’t take time for coffee or lunch with dear friends to catch up, no matter how far in advance we plan, it is time to adjust some priorities. This will be my last Artful Fundraiser post for now. After 100 little essays over five years, time to take a year or so off of the blog.

I began this project five years ago with no specific agenda beyond finding my own consistent voice as a writer and thinker, and to fill the evening hours of hotel time in other ways beyond a 9th viewing of “The Wire”.

I would encourage my fundraising friends to do the same in whatever forum makes sense. When we ghost write in other’s voices (one of our main duties as fundraisers) it is interesting to find our own voice as professionals. And we get better at writing by writing, writing, and writing some more.

Whenever I meet someone who says, “Hey, I read that thing you wrote!” I am always surprised and a little embarrassed. It didn’t occur to me that folks were out there reading and sharing my stuff, but you have been, year after year, and I thank you.

Looking back over the 100 posts, I stick by most of what I’ve said and thought, especially a call for lunchtime salads during personal solicitations. And I am 100% sure that you shouldn’t be messing around with Facebook’s giving portal. I wish I had gone a little easier on my alma mater, but they seem to be doing okay. Those we care for the most can hurt us the easiest, and I love Indiana University with all my heart.

It is a good time for a hiatus. In philanthropy, and in society, we need more space for new voices and perspectives. The biggest life lesson I can point to from seeing the world in 2018 is that it is time for men, including me, to listen more without commentary, to give space and oxygen to other voices. And so, I will take the next year or so to watch and to listen, to encourage where I can, and grow as an advocate and an ally.

For reading, for your friendship, and for the good work you do to make our world a better, and more civil place, thank you. American philanthropy, for all of its imperfections, is the best system the world has for connecting people to causes, for helping others, for building generational legacy. Your work matters more than ever.

Keep in touch, let’s do schedule that coffee or lunch, and happy fundraising in 2019, and beyond.


Posted in Philanthropy | 1 Comment

Your Online Giving Page Makes Me Sad.


I read every darn direct mail solicitation that is delivered to my home mail box, but more and more I make my gifts online, even in response to a traditional written letter. I find it less trouble not to fool about with writing checks or keeping stamps during my few free hours at home, plus I like the instant gratification of giving online. And, like a lot of us, I have an airlines miles accumulating credit card for that future trip to Costa Rica.

So I give online more often than not these days. And mostly I am bummed about what I see on your online giving pages. When I give, I want to find a simple and foolproof platform for making my donation. Wha makes me so very sad when I make online gifts?

  1. Clunky Webforms. Overly complex, outdated, lengthy web forms that require more than one page to fill out are everywhere for non-profits. And some of you have 2004 webpages still that creak along, cannot easily accept credit cards, and so on A good giving page should be just as easy to navigate on my mobile as my notebook. Keep it simple!
  2. A requirement to create a log-in. If, in order to make a contribution, I have to create a password, confirm that password, confirm the creation of my account via a later email, give you my mom’s maiden name and my grade school address or any combination of the above, I probably don’t want to bother. I get that certain types of transactions make sense to create an account/membership, etc. but there should ALWAYS be an option to bypass this whole ordeal and simply give you my money.
  3. A Shopping Cart. Similarly, shopping carts are the pits, and confusing. I understand that many organizations are constrained by ticketing and other systems that want to treat contributions as a form of transaction, like concert tickets or family memberships. But the last thing we should do is make philanthropy look like a transaction. Get rid of shopping carts for online gifts.
  4. Anything at all to do with PayPal. I won’t give via PayPal any longer. Look into those guys before you commit to an online giving portal with them. Many, many ethical and bad PR challenges for Elon and Co. Generally, if you can, avoid taking your donors to 3rd party pay sites to transact gifts. It doesn’t feel good, not knowing if the money is getting to the charity. And avoid Facebook as well. Gross.
  5. Pages and Pages about your Fundraising on the Give Now page. The fact of it is that most of us go to the internet for very specific things. We don’t tend to wander websites to learn about your Case, Benefits, Donor Listings, Sponsor Logos, Planned Giving Opportunities, etc. So if you have a “Give Now” Page, and you should, make it SIMPLY that. Don’t make us scroll past Gala sponsor logos or planned giving vehicles. And would you please remove Charitable Gift Annuity as a planned giving option? You are not doing this. No one is doing this in 2019.
  6. Treating me somehow different as an online donor vs. a traditional donor. I will even make larger pledge payments online, simply for convenience. Why would you think I’d be satisfied with an online gift receipt email rather than a personal thanks from your organization? Treat every donor the same, regardless of the vehicle of giving. Are you doing this now? Are you sure?
  7. Endless, dreary emails after the gift. I have a professional interest in donor communications, and I can still barely stand most of what you are sending out. Do you think I care about the Guys Standing in Front of Their Cart from the Golf Outing or the Development Director Standing with a Big Check? I don’t. I don’t care about this. If you can’t tell compelling stories about philanthropic investment that benefits the community, don’t say anything. Don’t send donor emails unless they are good.

What do I want when I make a gift online? A simple, elegant webform, an immediate email response confirming my gift, and a thank you call after the fact. Check out Seattle Symphony – a simple interface (I don’t know anything about Stripe but I’d want to learn more if I was setting up online giving) for an example of how to do it right.

Easy breezy. Good luck with your fall fundraising!


Posted in Annual Fund, Fundraising, Philanthropy | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Hiring Major Gift Officers is Almost Impossible. Be Your Own MGO.


The most challenging position in any fundraising program is the Major Gift Officer. The most difficult to hire position in any fundraising program is also the Major Gift Officer. Why?

In a typical non-profit, the MGO has sizable responsibility for revenue and high-level relationship fundraising, but (usually) none of the authority of decision making, establishing the fundraising targets, and getting access to high level organizational leadership.

This is not a job that most would want, nor be particularly good at. Great MGOs are rare and very well-compensated, when they are successful. They tend to thrive in large institutions with plentiful prospects. They are self-starters, don’t need a lot of coaching, and are fearless in asking and closing.

Probably you cannot afford to hire a qualified major gift officer as a solution for your fundraising program, and even if you could, no truly qualified professional would want to come work for you.

The temptation is great to hire a major gift officer to tackle a fundraising challenge (campaign, budget shortfall and so on) is common. Why? Often board members have had lovely experiences with MGOs from their alma mater or the hospital foundation, and have the reasonable belief that if your organization could hire a person like that, the money will soon follow. And so I’ve had many a conversation over the years with board members who think that we simply need to pay (bribe?) enough to steal away the university’s all-star fundraiser. That might mean a $150,000+ salary, unlimited vacation time, a private office, and so on.

Forget about it.

Instead of offering a massive salary to the long-tenured gift officer from the local hospital, let’s reconsider. You probably cannot afford top shelf talent. Even if you could, it is difficult to recruit talented gift officers (the hospital will probably match your salary offer to keep their talent) and even harder to retain good gift officers given the year by year challenges and heavy expectations of most fundraising programs.

Leaders of non-profits, It is time to become your own Major Gift Officer. It is cheaper and more fun to do the work yourself, but it won’t be easy to begin. You will need to:

  1. Reassign as many administrative duties as you can. That might mean you need to hire an operations person to run the day to day. And you know what? That’s a lot easier (and cheaper) to hire (or better yet, promote from within) a managing or operations director as an organizational number two to free up fundraising time. It also gives your operations and people opportunities for growth, including potential future leaders (you aren’t getting any younger). And when you do promote an Operations person, DELEGATE as much as you can, even the stuff you love dearly.
  2. Hire an Executive Assistant. Almost gone are the days of Assistants who manage schedules, coordinate activity and calendars. Get one of these unicorns while you can. The easiest way to schedule a meeting between busy presidents is to get two Assistants working on it. Magic.
  3. Dedicate yourself to fundraising activity EACH and EVERY day. Every day should include fundraising activity and personal contact with individual donors. Why not spend 30 minutes per day calling donors at every level? How about an hour? Did I tell you about the plumbing company CEO that called me to thank me for my business?
  4. Keep your Calendar open to the Development Department. Whenever I hear of a CEO or ED whose calendar is difficult to access by the fundraising department, I know there is trouble engaging the leadership into vital fundraising. Open your calendar. Let your staff fill your days with meaningful cultivation activities. And asks. And stewardship with the old ladies. And $5,000 lunches.

Or you can underpay and underperforming major gift officer and anticipate a mixed result. Be your own Major Gift Officer!





Posted in Leadership, Philanthropy | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Fundraising Job #1.

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I had some electrical work done in my basement recently, installing a new dedicated circuit for a sump pump. It was a $500 project by most accounts that I got a deal on for about half that via Angie’s List. You know the sort. Pure transaction for a Good Deal.

So the company didn’t make much money on my little project, which took almost every minute of the two hour maximum to complete.

And yet that very evening the owner of the company called me personally, leaving a detailed voice mail, to thank me for the work and to inquire as to my satisfaction. It was a thoughtful, personal call, detailing the project, the name of his electrician who did the work, and his mobile should I have any follow up questions or concerns.

Does this sound like something your organization’s CEO tends to do on a daily basis?

Let’s say it again – the owner of the company called me the same day as a recently completed project booked online via Angie’s List. As a low bid, with me looking to pay as little as I could to complete the work.

And the owner called me that same day.

To say thank you. And to seek my opinion and input.

Who am I calling the next time I need an electrician?  Those guys.

Last year I supported around 25 organizations philanthropically. I got a written acknowledgement from about all of them, as well as some nice emails where I have a professional or personal relationship. Lovely.

But I got not one personal thank you call. Zero. In the past five years I can recall perhaps three thank you calls for gifts at any level.

In the end, what is the actual purpose of the Development office? Do we do magical persuasion, casting spells of generosity? Are we gala organizers? Are we simply the department who argue with marketing about the calendar? The folks who complain about the Board’s generosity?

This work really isn’t that complicated. As fundraisers, we share opportunity. We cultivate relationships. We seek out investment based on a clear mission and alignment with a community’s needs and values. We share with our prospects and supporters our good works. We host $5,000 salad lunches. And we say thank you.

But do we say thank you often enough? In working with nearly fifty organizations over the past 17 years I can honestly that regular thank you calls are almost universally inconsistent at every organizational size and budget. It simply is not the priority it should be, anyplace. The intentions are there to prioritize regular thank you calls, but not the will, nor the commitment.

I wonder how this can be. And increasingly I am afraid it is due to a lack of sincere gratitude to donors for what they do. Not what they could do. Not what they should do. What they’ve done.

We work so hard to ask and ask and ask. Our beautifully crafted solicitation letters. Our vodka infused themed special events. Our 40-page sponsorship proposals. It is a lot of work. And, secretly, we are mad and hurt and confused that so few donors actually support us. And so we take for granted those that do. And we don’t call our donors to say thank you.

This isn’t about millennials (though it is true that younger professionals need to work on their phone game) but about all of us. No one is making enough thank you calls, anywhere.

How many thank you calls did you make last week? How many did your CEO make on your organization’s behalf? What would be the impact upon your shabby donor retention if someone made a thank you call for every gift, even the little ones?

What is more important than this?

Posted in Annual Fund, Fundraising, Philanthropy | 1 Comment

Neck Tattoos and Our Fundraising Future


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.


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.




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