Offer Some Encouragement (Today).


I got to hang out with my soul sister Renee Harness last week, talking leadership. If you want something magical to happen with your team, check out Harness Leadership (and thank me later). I was reminded of how beautiful leadership can be: accountability, trust, humility, encouragement. And that’s really about it. Nail those, and you will have a team willing to strive and struggle on your behalf.

Friend, when was the last time you told someone, directly and in person, “Really wonderful job!” or “I appreciate you, your talents, and your effort!”. Or simply delivered a High Five to someone to celebrate a victory, great or small?

Okay, now when did you last do this at work? With a subordinate? When did you really do this in person, and not another LIKE on the socials, or via Reply-All email? Think on it.

We have myriad challenges in our non-profit organizations. One of the biggest is that we seem to have the most difficult time celebrating success, and in simply declaring victory. The needs are so vast, and the financial strains so wearing that we forget to acknowledge our own achievements, let alone others.

Whenever I network with someone considering a transition to a non-profit career, I caution them on this reality. Our challenges are so great that we can easily forget to take care of ourselves and others. I’ve seen too many good professionals burn right out, and become realtors or wedding photographers.

This is not just a fundraising problem, but we certainly have that urgent issue in our Development departments. How are you going to encourage staff and volunteers, when most of you cannot be bothered to pick up the phone regularly to thank donors?

Which of these is best relatable to you in the past six months?

“We made fundraising goal. But marketing didn’t hit the mark, and so we missed our revised, stretch goal for June 30, and now everyone is SAD.”

 “That board member only pledged $50,000 to the campaign. That’s a blow-off gift.” (Be horrified if you like, but I’ve heard this more than once.)

 “The Managing Partner agreed to a measly $10,000 table, and not the $25,000 lead table we asked him for. ”

“How much money did you raise today?”

 “Our Board of Directors needs to lead this. It’s not my job to get them do theirs.”

 “Your thanks is in your paycheck.”

Increasingly, I see this lack of generosity a key factor in our sector’s shabby retention of both donors and staff. Of course, all of us should be self-motivated achievers, working for the job of service to humanity, in addition to a paycheck. But for many, that’s not enough to keep us around. Acknowledgement, celebration, and encouragement of wins good and great should be the foundation of communicating with all of our constituencies in non-profits.

Let’s begin today. Celebrate the next small victory you see, acknowledging as publicly as you can a job well done.

Tell your annual fund manager, “Bravo on that Direct Mail draft. Really sharp and focused.”

Tell your MGO,Nice work on that upgraded renewal. Good progress towards the big capital ask.”

Tell your Development committee member,Thanks for writing those thank-you notes. Hearing from a volunteer really impacts renewals rates for us.”

Tell your CEO,Thanks for asking that Board Member. Even though we didn’t get the full $50,000 we requested, we have made progress.”

Tell YOURSELF,I did good work this week. Time for some pork tacos.” Wait, that’s literally me.

Can you try it, even if it feels strange? Three times per week. Tell someone what a great job they are doing, and how much you appreciate their efforts and gifts. Tell yourself that as well.

Thanks for reading!

Posted in Advancement, Ingrate Donors, Stewardship, Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy | 3 Comments

Reconsidering the Racist Donor.

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I’ve had two different bosses over the years share the same response when questioned about the ethical implications of accepting this or that donation, “You know, there is cocaine on every dollar bill.” Which is to say that our job in fundraising is not to judge, but to share opportunity, encourage generosity, and fund our critical non-profit missions.

And I’ve largely held that belief myself. I worked once for a university art museum, and we accepted a project grant from Altria, the parent company of Phillip Morris cigarettes, for an academic exhibition and related publication of Italian line drawings. Did anyone start smoking as a result of the modest recognition we provided for a six-figure grant from a company that has done some really terrible things? I did not think so then. Wealthy people and institutions generate wealth in myriad ways, and the unpleasantness of building empires is a by-product of our American system.

I have tended to have considerable tolerance for generous donor’s politics and belief systems. I have enjoyed soliciting investment from donors of every political bent over the years for educational programs, arts and culture, and community projects. For me, the end has largely justified the means. How do you value the impact of building the only outdoor pool for a largely African American part of town, where kids will have the chance to learn a vital lifesaving skill like swimming? I will (and have) listened to foolish political opinions all day long to get that done.

Or at least I used to believe all that. Now I am not sure. About any of it.

The question for today, asked brilliantly by Vu Le and others, is this: Should philanthropy be a tool for creating equity in the United States?

Is our job to help create a more just world for everyone? If that’s really the question, philanthropy is failing. We are working on the margins, treading water. The rich are getting richer (which is okay if everyone is doing better, but everyone isn’t), and being less generous (which is their business but not great for philanthropy). Human services working directly in communities are struggling to win general operating support, while our wealthiest private universities get outrageously wealthier each year. Our non-profits must focus time and energy with the most affluent donors by necessity, meaning generous, but not wealthy, donors are often ignored. None of this is making America a more fair place for all of us.

And then, what we do about the racist donor, the man (almost always a man) who makes casually cruel and bigoted remarks to staff? Those guys are out there. Your gift officers are dealing with them, and worse: The misogynists, the homophobic, and the wildly inappropriate. You listen to them because they give you cash, or are on your board, or might be someday.

A few years back I had to listen for an hour to a board member carry on about President Obama, his true religious affiliation, and the various freeloading ethnic groups who voted for him.

The Executive Director and I were there to accept a sizable check insuring a critical fundraising target. Did we do the right thing in ignoring his behavior while accepting the money? The organization almost shut down that year, but has come back strong, doing amazing work since in a community that needs its services. Should we have argued? Walked out of the meeting? Reported his behavior to the board chair and demand his expulsion? Called the media?

I don’t know. I can tell you what we did, which was to take the check, get out of there as quickly as courtesy allowed, and shake the whole thing off over margaritas an hour later.

But maybe there is a new way.

Recently the organization Black Girls Code turned down a $125,000 gift from Uber, citing an insincerity to change their recent history of misogyny and regrettable corporate culture.

The non-profit wisely took their story public, explaining why they turned down such a large grant, while soliciting (and raising) at least that much and more online in direct response. Good for them.

What would I have done? Probably said to Uber, “If you are serious, add a zero to that grant, make it for three years at $1.25million a year, and let’s hold a press conference next week to announce a national expansion of our programs to encourage and train African American women as coders. Let’s change the world.”

And my way is probably wrong for our shared American future.

A $125,000 one time grant to help a PR challenged tech company redeem themselves probably won’t change the world. But standing up for what’s decent, for values larger than cash in the door, might just change philanthropy in this country.

I am making a gift of support to Black Girls Code. May they change the world, and may the rest of us working in non-profits learn from that example. What would it look like if we kept the courage of our convictions with every donor? We would lose some funding, surely, but what opportunities might come out way?

Is it time to try?

Posted in Philanthropy | 6 Comments

Raise Cash. Save Lives. Embrace the Major Gifts Buddy System.


I was with a non-profit Executive Director not too long ago, who had this observation about building relationships with the organization’s key supporters, “I feel strongly that fundraising staff shouldn’t meet with our biggest donors, since they won’t stay around here anyway.” And so his solution was to keep his staff away from his donors.


I have said quite enough (and have the hate email to prove it) about relatively short tenures in the fundraising profession, but let’s examine this statement. The Executive Director is keeping all the key relationships close, going on calls by himself, doing the asking himself, following up by himself, and generally keeping his own counsel. That sounds like a recipe for failure. What happens when he leaves or gets hit by the subway?

Major gift fundraising is the most delicate dance of planning, listening, and boldly asking. It is also the ultimate team exercise, where bringing as many organizational assets to the table as possible is smart practice. Do you want your major gifts program to soar? I say, employ the Major Gifts Buddy System.

The Major Gifts Buddy System could not be simpler and works like this: virtually every donor or prospect visit should be staffed by two organizational representatives. Why?

  1. Fundraising is HARD. Spreading the work to multiple staff/board/program folks makes it easier, and much more fun. We need to do a better job spreading joy around our non-profits, encouraging each other and celebrating wins. Want to be the hero in your office? Take your CEO along for a slam dunk sponsorship renewal. Let her walk out with the check or signed agreement. Everyone is going to be happy.
  2. Fundraising is about LISTENING. We all hear things differently, and make daily judgements and biases based on our own experience. A two person visit means the organizational will be much more likely to hear what the donor or prospect is actually saying, instead of what we want/hope/wish to hear. And I think it is okay for one of the two to take notes while you talk.
  3. Fundraising is SCARY. Many CEOs are brilliant at discussion specific programs and the vision behind a strategic plan. They can often get hung up on the Ask itself. By partnering with a staff fundraiser, someone can be ready to circle back to the Ask if the conversation drifts off. Someone Asking is always better than no one asking.
  4. Donor relationships must be institutionalized for follow up and posterity. I am nervous whenever a CEO or ED goes and meets with a key donor to discuss something important without a staff member along. Why? Who is going to take notes about the conversation and follow up? Who is going to make sure that a promised next step is planned and accomplished? We drop the ball too often in fundraising. A two person call prevents that.
  5. Two person calls are a perfect way to engage volunteers. Board members generally have the best of intentions. They want to help you raise money, but they don’t know where to begin. By bringing board members and fundraising volunteers along for a carefully planned conversations with donors and prospects, we model behavior. We teach by doing. We build confidence. We win.
  6. The Buddy System is even better way to grow your own staff fundraising talent. I am a huge believer in the development of fundraising staff. Your entry level annual giving person can only grow and mature through the opportunity to see senior staff in action, meet donors, and to learn first hand relationship fundraising. Your organization will save a lot of cash down the road by promoting from within as staff turnover inevitably happens. I like to see the CDO and CEO spend time in the field with as many fundraising staff as possible, bringing them out to donor visits (where appropriate) as an investment in human capital. What better way to inspire confidence?
  7. You can engage program staff in a useful way. The Holder and Keeper of our missions in the program staff. They know the best stuff, and have the best stories. But we cannot send them out to meet donors solo. Instead, invite them to participate in donor and prospect interactions. You will be surprised by what happens. Even the most shy program manager can shine when discussing her work and the impact to clients. It can be magical.

Make your donor visits more joyful. Go in pairs. See brilliant results. Email me your success stories!

Posted in Cultural Entrepreneurship, Fundraising, Philanthropy | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

How (not) to Hire a Development Director


Summer is always a hot time for hiring, as fiscal years wrap up and professionals look to make their next career moves, or are bounced out for not meeting expectations. This is a particularly challenging time to find fundraising talent, as we approach full employment, and well qualified candidates have lots of opportunity in front of them.

Much has been said about the relative professionalism of fundraisers and the constant turnover in our industry. Change will happen, and your non-profit will have openings. So, do yourself a favor and avoid these avoidable errors with your next fundraising hire. Your search will inevitably be a costly failure if you:

Ignore internal candidates: Hiring from outside is expensive and costs time and relationships. Is there someone internally you can promote, who is worthy of coaching and investment to grow into a real leader? This lack of imagination for growing internal talent is one of the biggest mistakes non-profits make. Consider, strongly, internal candidates for your next opening, and what support they might need to be successful.

Don’t put a premium on candidates who care deeply about your Cause. Almost everyone who works in non-profits cares specifically about the mission of their organization, except (too often) the fundraising staff. Look for qualified candidates who care deeply about your work, and not those who just want more money or less hassle then their current job.

Accept candidates who’ve moved three times in five years. Or more. The average tenure is 18 months for any fundraising job, but not for everyone. Why, then, do non-profits keep hiring these guys who bounce from job to job. What do you think is going to happen, that you are the One, at last? Forget it. Bouncers bounce. You will get burned again and again.

Put Higher Education experience as Holy and Sacred. There are many college fundraisers who are quite good, but so what? Are they worth the money? I don’t know. What I do know is that colleges and universities have gigantic engaged alumni bases and staggering resources to bring to fundraising programs. Does that mean that a couple of years of university fundraising experience makes your candidate viable for a CDO job of a complex program? Doubtful.

Make “who would I most like to have a beer with?” a deciding factor. This is so stupid as a consideration, and often what reinforces barriers of entry from marginal populations. We tend to have beers with people like ourselves, and if this is a factor, you are going being unfair. Drink beer with your friends. Hire qualified professionals for your fundraising programs.

Embrace Youth at the expense of competence and experience. I get that there is a youth movement underway, and it is a positive thing for the most part. But I also see organizations ignore experienced professionals in favor of attractive youngsters. This is a mistake.

Ask, “What is the biggest gift you’ve closed?” Of all stupid interview questions I’ve heard in my career, this is the stupidest. It has been asked of me in every single job interview since grad school. Major gifts take years to develop for the most part. Someone is going to be there to secure the gift. Compared with progressive management responsibility, a history of successful engagement of board members and community leaders, and the ability to communicate in person and in writing, closing a couple of fat gifts should matter little.

Don’t know what sort of leader you seek. This is where organizations fail so often, in not knowing what they seek to begin with. Do you need a Gift Closer, who will Lone Wolf all the giving, never visiting the office? Do you need a manager who will keep all the program elements moving along? Most fundraisers are good at one but not both of these things. One of the best bosses I ever had led a big staff and complex program, but was just bad in a room with donors. And because you don’t know what you want, you will hire the millennial university fundraiser with modest experience (but good looks), and pay them too much. You will enjoy chatting with them at cocktail parties. Until they quit.

Your next staff opening in the fundraising program is an opportunity, but only if you are thoughtful and realistic. Wonder Woman does not exist, and if she did, you could not afford her.

Posted in Philanthropy | 12 Comments

Towards a True Professionalism in Fundraising

I asked this question a year or so ago, and others are starting to ask as well, is fundraising a profession? Compared to accounting, with a similar emphasis on revenue, we cannot really say yes to that question. We lack the training standards, the professional development expectations, and the established best practices of a true profession.

Today if you call yourself a professional fundraiser, then you are a professional fundraiser, even if you work five different jobs in seven years. Heck, have someone pay you once for a side gig, and you can call yourself a Consultant.

Friends, this needs to change. The needs are too great, and the stakes are too high for our non-profits to keep up this shoddy and amateur status quo. As a new fiscal year begins, the time has come to embrace a new and true professionalism in fundraising.

The Professional Fundraiser shall:

Commit to Our Organizations. Fundraising is about relationships and impact over time. It is impossible to have meaningful results in 18 months. Major gift fundraising is an exercise in patience, love, and education. But far too many of us cannot help ourselves. We jump to the next thing at the earliest possible moment, for a little more cash, or because we stopped liking the Marketing Director, or got our feelings hurt at the Annual Meeting. When you leave for the next shiny dime, consider very carefully there is real consequence to your actions. Donor relationships are damaged and organizational credibility is diminished. All of us working in fundraising are a little less credible every time one of us jumps ships.

Show Ownership and Leadership. I have heard just enough of fundraisers whine about the goals given to them, and the board and executives who aren’t helpful. The whining must cease. I argue with Marketing staff from time to time, but they rarely blame others when sales goals aren’t met. Fundraising is everyone’s job – okay, fine. But it is the fundraiser’s responsibility to inspire effort and action from board members, committee members and executive staff leadership. It is our job to seek a path to a revenue goal, and to rally others to action. If not this, what?

Be Collegial. The last person who should pick any sort of fight in a non-profit is the fundraiser. Every dollar that fundraising staff get paid (and they are the highest paid non-executive staff members in most organizations) could be applied to programming – serving kids, serving the community, taking care of the exhibits, and so on. What that means is that you are the most expensive overhead of all. Be a partner to your program colleagues. Learn their names and their roles. Thank them for their efforts. Show them that overhead is worth it.

Look and Act the Part. Jeans on Fridays in the summer? Maybe. But not if you are spending time with Donors. You are the best paid staff members. Act like a professional. Dress like a professional. Don’t be sloppy, in person, on the phone, or by email.

Show Grace. I remain enthusiastic about our millennial colleagues, hard working and motivated in my experience (for the most part) but this is a group too quick to be offended, to take exception, to hold a grudge by day to day interactions and inevitable conflicts. This won’t do. Fundraising is as much art and science. We made bad decisions and we use bad judgment. Accept responsibility when you screw something up. Forgive others when they do the same.

Get Out of the Office. Go. Don’t eat lunch at your desk. My goodness. If you want to play around with computers all day, go learn machine code. It pays better.

Seek out Mentors. It is unfortunate that learning from experienced professionals is increasingly uncommon in our industry. Is is shameful, really. The internet is a delight. College is fun. But you can learn more from a good mentor in this business than in any other way. Like masonry or car sales, one learns fundraising by doing, through experience. This is a dated notion in our late era America I know. Seek a mentor, and your career will benefit.

Put the Donor First. Most of the challenges our organizations are having in retaining donors is due to simple application of stewardship. Are you talking to donors every day to say thank you? Are you engaging them before you ask them for things? Are you increasing your donor’s interest in your programs through personal engagement?

Ask, Without Apology. As much as I admire the ideals of “Philanthropy” our job is to engage, to steward, and to ask. It isn’t complicated. Asking is hard – that is why organizations hire someone to do it. They hired you. Ask – some will say “no” and that’s okay. Some will say, “Not right now” and that’s okay. Many will say “yes” and the world will change. That’s worth the fear.

We can advance our work. We can show pride. We can become, at last, a Profession.


Posted in Philanthropy | 4 Comments

Get Off the Internet and Raise More Money.


It is much, much to easy to dump upon Development Directors in today’s non-profit environment. Yours is an almost impossible job, responsible for Herculean revenue targets but without the authority to set priorities and budgets. Add all the bosses in the form of CEOs and Board Members who are difficult to engage and lead to success, even on the best day, and we wonder why the average tenure for a Development Director is still hanging at around 18 months?

For some perspective on this check out, Wild Woman Fundraising, who has sacrificed economic stability (and the rest of the benefits of full time employment) to be a happy freelancing author and consultant. I made a similar move myself six years, and I cannot say I miss the fundraising office.

So this challenging work. There has been plenty, much, written about the things you Development Directors should be doing – getting out of the office, engaging volunteers, networking endlessly for corporate support, picking up the phone every five minutes, and so on. But what shouldn’t you be spending your time on? What habits and tasks can you drop today to free you to raise some actual cash?

Want to Raise More Money? Start by:

  1. Getting Off the Damn Internet. We don’t often speak of this, but today’s office culture is a giant time suck of non-productivity, as everyone is screwing around online, all day long. Facebook. Twitter feed. Instagram. Video Games. At work. And don’t even get me started at the chasm of wasted professional energy that is Linked-In. Father Puff Puff tried to link up with me recently. Awesome. Whatever efficiency has come into our professional lives via technology and the internet has been cancelled out by the hours and hours workers spend screwing around on their phones and computers. Stop playing reindeer games on your computer all day long.
  2. Forgetting About Donor Research. Another classic time wasting exercise in our profession is the search for Capacity in our donors. How much could that Magical Prospect Give to Us? This can lead to an endless chase for clues, including expensive and unproductive wealth screening systems. I found my name in one such expensive system not too long ago. It reported a current marriage from a ten years gone by divorce, board service from the late 90s, and a most recent gift in 2006. I am not a wealthy guy by any means, but this is some nonsense. Instead of seeking out mystical formulas on the capacity of your donors, how about we get to know them personally? The generosity will follow. The rich are getting richer.
  3. Bagging the Internal Meetings. In you meet with your marketing department more than once a month as a fundraiser, that’s much too much. Skip the meetings. As many as you can. Lie about it if you need to get out of attending. Or, better yet, schedule meetings out of the office. With your donors and prospects. “Do I need to attend that internal meeting?” NO. No, I do not. 
  4. Chasing Small Sums. Grants take much time and energy. Corporate gifts are increasingly competitive. If it isn’t worth your time, don’t go after it. Focus on individual gifts instead. An eight page grant application for $5,000? Why not simply ask five people for $1,000 each? This is the wealthiest moment in the history of the world, and tomorrow will likely be an even wealthier day. Seek the cash.
  5. Stop Worrying So Much. Yours is such a stressful job, and I am sorry for that. And I see colleagues who are frozen professionally by the demands of the work. Worrying won’t help, not one time.

Breathe. Get off the Internet. Get After It.

Posted in Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy | 5 Comments

Donor Centered Fundraising Is Not The Real Problem.


I’ve read, re-read, and then read a third and fourth time Vu Le’s recent broadside against the donor centered fundraising model and its moral limitations. Please study it if you haven’t already, for the issues raised are fundamental to our industry, and if you consistently read one non-profit blog, make it this one.

Placing a donor’s wishes and biases above all else in our fundraising programs is a slippery practice, and that’s just the start of Vu Le’s concerns about our current zealous focus on the wealthiest to make the largest investments.

We absolutely need, as a society, to recognize that there is only “we” and “us”, and that those with more have a moral duty and obligation to support those who have less. Vu Le rightly relates our industry to the larger inequities of our late age America, a time when most of us wonder if our civilization, like the Romans and the Pharaohs, is coming to an inevitable conclusion sooner rather than later. Everything has a beginning, middle and end, and where does American society look to you these days, reading the paper on Sunday morning?

So I get it. But let’s give a gentle pause to holding up philanthropy as an example of all that is wrong with America. Much of the criticism I see about philanthropy is an argument against wealthy folks getting buildings named after them for things that they should be doing anyway. But this much too simplistic. There are many, and better, ways to avoid taxes than by giving one’s money, and if giving away cash was the most efficient way to get one’s names on buildings, our President would be in the philanthropy business, and not the real estate game.

What does any single wealthy person owe your organization? Nothing. Not one single thing, regardless of your mission, moral certainty or good works. Is this fair? It is not fair. It isn’t. One of the giant challenges of today’s philanthropy is the near impossible necessity of potential donors to care about things as a precursor to support. And this really sucks, unless you are the beneficiary.

Let me give you an example that happens all the time in America: The Disease That Impacted Our Family:

The Wealthy Smiths are lovely people. The Wealthy Smiths also have strict guidelines about philanthropy, via the private Smith Family Foundation (focused on animal welfare and various scholarly publications) and, when asked to contribute or engage in most galas or fundraising campaigns, politely and privately decline almost always, citing current priorities and the vast number of requests received annually.

But then, a grandchild is born, with a grim medical diagnosis of pediatric diabetes, and the floodgates open. Grandma Smith organizes a gala, endows a position at the hospital, and joins the Board of Directors of the National Pediatric Diabetes Foundation. She becomes an unstoppable advocate in the community about this terrible disease, and a powerful force for good. As a direct result of her grandson’s unfortunate medical challenge, thousands of other kids will benefit from treatment and research, and the world is a little better place for it.

Did Grandma Smith have a sudden moral awakening that all children deserve good quality medical care? She did not. She had a personal encounter with a tragic childhood disease, and as a direct and singular result, opened her heart, network and checkbook. There was no educating her before the sick child arrived. She supported scholarly publications and puppies.

And so, what should a fundraiser do with this Gift from the Gods? Are you kidding? Embrace it. Ask for more. Start the Smith Family Matching Challenge Campaign. Make Grandma Smith the Hero of Children’s Diabetes. Name the program after her. Create a Donor of the Year Award. Anything else would be professional malpractice. 

And Yet…does this random chance occurrence (a child with a disease born into a wealthy family) demonstrate any sort of cohesive public policy or sustainable framework for society? Of course not. We’ve allowed wealthy citizens to pick and choose their pet causes, based on personal interest and preference, if they decide to engage in philanthropy at all.

And so none of this is working particularly well for society, but it is not really our fault as fundraisers. The fight here, truly, is not with non-profits, simply doing their best in very challenging circumstances. In our industry, we should be gentler with each other, accepting that we work in an a very imperfect society. This gross inequity of late stage America, of sickening wealth accumulated by the few at the expense of the rest of us, isn’t about overuse of the word “you” in fundraising letters, or overindulging in placing donors at the center of solving our problems.

The real question over what’s fair or sustainable for all is a much larger one, as the rich get ever richer. It is about regressive tax structure, and debating government’s singular reach to bolster (as in the 90s and the decades prior) a healthier middle class. It is about health care for every single one of us, so that the youngster born with type one diabetes gets the care he needs as a human right. There is no change we can make to philanthropy to solve this moral crisis, no way we can engage foundations or educate donors that will truly solve this dreadful inequity.

So, we do what we can in philanthropy, accepting that the system is deeply flawed. We celebrate Grandmother Smith in the battle against pediatric diabetes, and we cash the Smith Family Foundation check.

And, if we are serious about solving true inequity, there is but one solution. We Vote.

Posted in Fundraising, Philanthropy | Tagged , | 4 Comments