The Best Donor Love is Birthday Donor Love.


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 | 4 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.


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 | 2 Comments

Some Concerns about Facebook’s Donation Platform.

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This new thing is showing up on my FB feed. It looks like a happy thing, should be a happy thing. My friends asking their friends to donate to non-profits. For things that matter. For birthdays. For legitimate organizations, vital to the public interest. From people I care about, and for things I care about. Ugh.

Will I participate in these calls to contribute? I will not. We need to all say “No” to Facebook’s online donation platform, however much this might hurt feelings.


Listen, looking back, was Facebook a good idea? It seemed innocent enough ten years ago when I joined up, but if it wasn’t a part of my professional and family life I’d probably bail on it. The case against Facebook is broad, though this, from a recent NY Times article, How to Fix Facebook, sums it up:

“The cloud over Facebook extends far beyond Russia. Critics say the company’s central role in modern communication has undermined the news business, split Americans into partisan echo chambers and “hijacked” our minds with a product designed to keep us addicted to the social network.”

What else? Let’s start (and this should be enough) with permitting paid advertising, again and then a second time, targeting Holocaust deniers. Not enough of an argument?

How about permitting the spread of Fake News in the last election to at least 100,000,000 American citizens, and this ongoing mess we are currently in, from which America may not recover. More?

How about generally eroding our discourse. You don’t need a URL to know that reality. How many of you regularly take Facebook Breaks?

Finally, how about making content of us all? With Facebook, we are the product that is being sold. Our preferences, our families, our habits, secret crushes, and our biases. Every click, every unfriending, every post, every log-in, all being mined in an unprecedented experiment in making all of us products to be sold to big business. For profit. This effort is dismantling our media and journalism, to the point that newspapers may end up as charities, forced to raise money from patrons to survive.

And the true crime here is that Facebook has no idea what the consequences of this grand experiment will be. They cannot possibly know, or we wouldn’t all be cocooned on our micro world views, seeing only the things that support our own biases.

Which brings us to non-profit fundraising, and, my friends, the very future of philanthropy.

Give to a non-profit via the Facebook platform and what have you done? You’ve participated in an experiment that will have very real consequence for the non-profit sector, for no good reason. Encourage your friends to make gifts on your birthday to the Red Cross and:

  • You’ve eliminated the “middle man” of traditional communication and stewardship between donor and organization, where there are established norms and ethical practices. Facebook is new at this. They only care to disrupt and gather data. They aren’t working with professional fundraisers. Check out their guidelines. Pretty thin. Do you think that they really know what they are doing?
  • You’ve bought into a disruption of our American Philanthropy. Facebook appears to permit most any sort of organization to join the platform, and this is eventually going to get nasty. Do you want your donation part of a platform that can segment by Hate? Do you want to be affiliated with a platform ripe for inevitable fraud and malpractice?
  • You’ve given your giving preferences to an organization that will sell this information, targeting you and organizations you support in frightful ways. How will this work? Facebook advertising by non-profits is already a big business, allowing micro-targeting of incredibly specific market segments. Now Facebook will be able to go directly to non-profits and sell datasets, promising to promote content by those charities who pay up, or limiting the organic reach of those organizations who do not play ball. Is that what you want for your donation? Or maybe Facebook will eventually suggest that they should handle all fundraising activity, targeting the right donors for non-profits. Is that a good idea for our sector?
  • You’ve given Facebook another way to subtly manipulate you going forward, where the company applies its sorting methods to who we see, when we see it, and how often, all in a relentless effort to make us spend more and more and more time on the application. Is that what you want in exchange for your donation?
  • You’ve provided cash to a platform that charges at least 5% overhead, with varying payout terms and all sort of nonsense like sales for donations (no fees on Giving Tuesday!) that are beyond the norm of our industry. Gross.

I don’t think Facebook is out to do Evil. I think that they don’t know what they are doing, nor the long-term consequence of their strategy. No one does. Facebook embedded sales teams into US presidential campaigns last year. Was that good for America? Of course not. Facebook was simply attempting to make more money.

This is not good for our non-profit sector. We simply cannot risk the long-term endgame of having our organizations participate. The consequence is too grave. What instead? Embrace established online platforms, of which there are many, competently managed by professionals who understand our sector, and who act with high ethical standards.

For your next birthday, encourage your friends to donate in your honor by sending them directly to the website of your favorite charity. Or have a party with a donation jug at the bar, where you can accept cash. Or clean up the river with your Amigos. Think globally. Act locally.

Facebook is about turning all of us into product, just as Arby’s is all about turning cows into dinner. Let’s keep fundraising for our vital non-profits away from it.

Posted in Philanthropy | Tagged , , | 19 Comments

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