Be the Asker. Seek the Connector.

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Among the many daily challenges for the modern Development department is the care and feeding of fundraising volunteers. “Challenge”, though, does not even begin to describe the difficulty in recruiting, training, tasking, and stewarding the precious few souls willing and able to assist in the critical, but daunting, task of raising funds. It is perhaps the most difficult part of our work as fundraisers.

What does an ideal fundraising volunteer look like? Let’s see…independently wealthy (but also generous), widely known and deeply respected in the community (but also approachable), well versed in the organization’s case and mission (but not a micro-manager), capable of asking for anything with confidence (but not arrogant)…you get the idea.

The ideal fundraising volunteer does not really exist. Busy people know a lot of others in a community, but lack the time to dedicate to learning a case and actively managing solicitations. Generous donors are often uncomfortable asking others to join them. The result? Too often a fundraising committee of ill-equipped volunteers and a frustrated staff who cannot count on predictable output and effort.

What to do? For a start, let’s consider the two main functions of volunteer fundraisers: Connecting and Asking. Can volunteers be Askers? Some can. Most cannot. Salespeople are born and not made. I believe that in my soul, whatever your consultant is telling you. Asking requires rare courage and determination, and often, the unpleasant prospect of a No. It is why good salespeople make great livings, despite the internet age of instant information and access. It is why that goofy looking dude mysteriously has an amazing and beautiful girlfriend. Askers face No, and live through it. Most of us cannot accept this sort of rejection on a regular basis. We cannot.

Are there effective volunteer fundraising Askers? Of course. There are some rare volunteers out there who will ask, and from time to time, ask well, at the right time, in the right way (in person) for the stretch gift. But most will not, and cannot, whatever they promise you. And this means that you are wasting lots of time with your fundraising committee by assigning solicitations to volunteers who simply cannot perform the expected tasks. And so what happens? Activity languishes. What should have been a person-to-person conversation becomes a letter, prepared by staff, with a personal note at the end, probably mailed late because the meeting was never scheduled. And on and on.

What’s the alternative to expecting our fundraising volunteers to become magical Askers? Let’s stop wasting time chasing that Unicorn. Let’s seek out Connectors instead, those volunteers who are well-known, well-regarded, and with a network. These are the fundraising volunteers who can make things happen by opening doors, making introductions, and facilitating proposals.

So what do you need? A Connector to open the door, make an introduction, attend an initial meeting, follow up on your behalf, and help say thanks. A good Connector is someone who can say, “I know a guy at that Company. I can get you a meeting.” It is also sometimes, “I know a guy who might know the guy at that Company. Let me dig into it.If there is something more valuable to us than a personal introduction to a prospect, I don’t know of it. That’s way better than someone will just Ask. That’s a Connection. Galas are often chaired by good Connectors, but fundraising committees, seeking magical philanthropy beans, are not. Right?

What does this new focus on making connections mean for your fundraising committee? How about fewer meetings (spending the time making connections instead) and much less frustration (staff and volunteers agreeing to specific next steps rather than passing out names to solicit)? It also means a whole new opportunity for your volunteers. Rather than lengthy meetings (difficult for busy people) a good fundraising Connector can make one or two big things happen for your organization a year, and then call it a day.

Listen, if your organization is large enough to have a fundraising staff, or even an individual paid fundraiser, you already have an Asker. It is you. You are the one getting paid to hear No, and you are the one who understands the case, the mission, and the specifics of the opportunity.  Embrace this role. Be brave, and practice. Asking gets easier over time, and hearing No isn’t as bad as you fear. PRACTICE!

Expecting volunteers to Ask for you is a recipe for jumping between five jobs in seven years, always blaming the lack of a philanthropic culture for your career woes.

Worry less about assigning solicitors. Find some Connectors.

Posted in Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy, Volunteers | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Some Observations about Your Board Meetings.

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Whenever a non-profit colleague leaves a job, or is dismissed, and reaches out to me, the first thing I say is, “Well, at least you don’t have to go to the next Board Meeting” and that person’s spirits are immediately cheered. Is there anyone out there who truly loves the traditional, stuffy, overstuffed and dry board meeting? I haven’t met you. Why is it this way?

Some Observations about Your Board Meetings:

  1. Quarterly Might be Just Fine. If there are high functioning committees (executive, development, programmatic, but not marketing, hopefully) accomplishing the work of your organization, and if there is consistent conversation between staff and board members on an ongoing basis, a monthly meeting is likely a waste of time and resources. Why? One of the great secrets of non-profit management is that board meetings require an enormous amount of staff time to produce. No one wants to admit this. Assembling reports and summaries, preparing the meeting itself, organizing each committee member’s report, and so on requires hours of staff time that could be better spent doing literally anything else. Monthly board meetings mean lots of your staff are spending a DAY or TWO a MONTH prepping. Is this wasteful? Yes.
  2. The Chair must Chair. Good meetings need effective conveners. This means moving purposefully through the agenda, knowing when to let a valuable, but off topic, discussion continue, and when to wrap it up. It means encouraging participation from the introverts. Meetings should start on time, and end when they must. And, for all the hassle, I don’t believe it is worthwhile to dial members in by phone. It is almost universally disruptive for everyone actually attending the meeting, the dieal in participant rarely feels truly engaged as an active participant, and speaker phone technology has not advanced meaningfully since the 1990s. Until we have hologram communications, let those who cannot attend simply not participate.
  3. Staff should be Seen and (rarely) Heard. Or, even better, Back at the Office, Working. Having four or five (often even more) staff members in attendance at your board meeting is an expensive waste of time and resource. Board members should be giving reports whenever possible, with staffers there to answer follow up questions and share Mission Moments (see below). Or staff should stay, mercifully, back at the office. If you are an Executive Director who feels that the whole staff team needs to attend each and every board meeting, let’s sit and talk about your priorities.
  4. Consent Agendas are Your Friend. 40 page all-but-the-kitchen-sink printed board packets are not your Friend, however. The consent agenda is a wonderful development in non-profit work as it eliminates simple information sharing at meetings. Use it. But don’t print out a 40 page board packet of consent agenda filler and hand all that crap out in a three ring binder every month. Forests are literally disappearing. Send a pdf of the full report by email if you must. Do not PRINT ALL THIS DEBRIS.
  5. The Development Report Cannot Wait. When your Development Report is the 9th item on the agenda, no one is going to pay attention. Your Board is an active leadership group for your fundraising program. Prioritize this on your agenda. Prep the Development Committee chair to present a concise report outlining recent successes, progress to date, and areas of focus in the coming 60 days.
  6. Create a Mission Moment, for the love of all that is Decent. The average Board Meeting I attend has no magic, nothing specific to connect the necessary (but boring) business of governance with the mission and life of the organization. This is such an easy fix. Devote five minutes near the start of each board meeting to your Mission. Five Minutes! What to do? Introduce a new staff member from the program side, who briefly outlines their work. Sing a song. Share a impact story from a program recipient. Play the new marketing video. One of the best Mission Moments I’ve witnessed was showing off a new light board in a theatre. Are light boards interesting? You bet.
  7. Avoid Open Ended General Discussions. The worst board meeting is one that goes on indefinitely, based on squishy questions with no real strategic direction. “How can we better market to millennials?” “Which corporate contacts can each of us provide to fundraising today for immediate solicitation?” “What is our executive transition plan?” “How can we recruit a more diverse Board?” are all interesting questions but have no place for a typical board meeting agenda. There is a time and place for strategic discussions. Save the, for the annual retreat.

Board Meetings can be drag, but think about the opportunity they represent: a group of committed volunteers focused on your non-profit, bringing diverse skill sets and backgrounds to your vital work. Start with this list for improving yours!

Posted in Annual Fund, Board Development, Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The One Hour (daily) Fundraising Challenge


I was in Nebraska this week, with one of my favorite all time clients, and where the Marketing department is working hard to secure subscription renewals for next season. All day long, on the phone, one relationship at a time, one renewal at a time. Answering questions, upselling packages, gently encouraging the sale. It is a beautiful thing.

I guess that no one told these folks that subscription campaigns are dying, because this organization is in midst of a multi-year sustained audience growth trend. One relationship at a time.

What is the secret to this success? The Lowly Telephone. The most efficient method of communicating that has ever existed, in the history of everything.

What is the one thing that you can personally do to make your fundraising results stronger? You can pick up the phone. One hour a day. In four 15 minute segments.

Is this easy? No. There are many distractions to our work day. Will it get easier with practice? Yes. Will other priorities and distractions fade away? Yes.

Friends, spend one hour a day on the phone and your fundraising will improve, regardless of budget size or staff resources. If it doesn’t work, I will buy you lunch.

What do you do in that daily hour?

  1. Schedule a Personal Visit. 15 minutes. Your goal is to schedule one personal visit every single day. Thank you coffees. $5,000 lunches. Meetings with board members to follow up on prospects. Tours of the new tree house exhibit. You get the idea. Schedule one visit, on the phone, every single day and success is yours. Can you schedule one personal visit per day? You can.
  2. Say Thank You. 15 minutes. What if your fundraising program thanked every single donor for every gift by phone? That would make you singular in your stewardship. I made about 20 charitable gifts last year, and I got a single thank you call (great job Hoosier Environmental Council). Can you make 10 thank you calls a day? You can.
  3. Engage your Volunteers. 15 minutes. The Development Committee of any organization has a difficult task. If we are lucky, volunteers prioritize our work after their families, own jobs, friends, religious commitments, and so on. So helping to raise cash as a volunteer is hard, and we need to coach, encourage and inspire our volunteers at every opportunity. Can you call one volunteer a day? You can.
  4. Ask for Money. 15 minutes. As a follow up to your direct mail solicitations of increasing desperation, how about a simple phone call as a follow up? Do you know why a phone call is effective as a solicitation tool? It invites a conversation, back and forth, to learn from one another, to overcome objections, to subtly influence. Can you spend 15 minutes per day asking for money? You can.

I am fortunate in my professional life to work with many young professionals in the first third of their careers, which I find energizing and inspiring. Millennials are tremendous fundraisers, deeply committed to our work and in acquiring new skills. But they don’t like to pick up the phone. And I get this, for people don’t talk on the phone these days. But you, my young friend, can. You will get better at it. With practice.

When should you make your one hour of calls? I don’t care. The time of day does not matter. I like to make calls for 30 minutes in the morning, and 30 minutes in the early afternoon. Schedule the time on your calendar and close the office door (if you have one). Do the four things, and then get on with your day.

Will you try this for a month? Take one hour a day, and pick up the phone.

Improve your fundraising. Change the world. One hour a day!

Posted in Annual Fund, Fundraising, Philanthropy | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Donor Retention is (probably) Not Your Biggest Problem.

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We talk a great deal about donor retention in our fundraising programs, and with good reason. Acquisition is an expensive and time consuming endeavor, and donors who don’t return bum everyone out. But let me throw a Hot Take: we are worried too much about donor retention, and for the wrong reasons.

Our friends at Bloomerang recently published a major study of donor retention trends, and it is a fascinating summary. The key takeaway? “Donors are up. Retention is down.”  Much angst and hand-wringing is taking place about these trends, including from my sober minded colleague Michael Rosen, who is deeply frustrated with retention rates and wonders if anything at all can be done.

To all of this I say, let’s examine our specific data and segmentation before we declare a national crisis. For most of us, the sky is not falling, and in fact, lowered retention rates for certain segments are inevitable by-product of growth, and should be expected, planned for, and embraced. Why?

Innovation, mostly via technology, is driving first time giving, and is today changing the very nature of philanthropy. This means we are attracting first-time donors in new and creative ways. Social media is only about ten years old in the world, not yet a teenager. Online fundraising is even younger.

Philanthropy and technology together is still a baby, and yet still producing amazing results. Online giving, peer to peer fundraising Facebook campaigns, text to give, Day of Giving programs, and the rest are rapidly emerging as brilliant ways to attract first time donors in ways we could not have imagined back in the days when broad base fundraising was limited to direct mail, telephone solicitation and event attendance.

These are exciting times. Donor growth is very real. But a low likelihood of a renewal is the reality of a first time donor, most of the time, since fundraising began:

  1. First time givers tend to give smaller gifts. Why? Sometimes they are responding to a critical issue or trend (see the ACLU’s rapid growth these past weeks). Other times donors want to kick the tires and try something new. Whatever.
  2. Smaller gifts make up the majority of donor pools, for most organizations. That means a broad percentage of your donors are less likely to renew support. Why? Maybe the urgency is there, or priorities change, or something else comes along.
  3. A lot of the first time smaller donors will not return, and so will need to be replaced. Is this good or bad? Neither. It is a byproduct of marketing reality, and not an existential crisis to our industry.
  4. We are attracting new donors to our causes in new ways. Good for us! Some will return, lots will not. That’s a reality of any marketing effort. We accept this reality in other sorts of business. Coca-Cola introduces some new sugar free soda via a splashy Super Bowl ad. We try it. We don’t buy it again. First rule of sales: some will, some won’t. That doesn’t mean we did anything wrong.

However. Good Stewardship (and the lack thereof) does impact retention. And this is because donors are more savvy than ever before at about how they should be treated (a rapid and accurate written thank you, for example), how often they should be solicited, and how they want to be communicated with going forward. That donors are becoming more sophisticated and demanding about their philanthropy is a good thing for our sector. My pal The Whiny Donor reminds me of this weekly.

So, what should we really worry about when it comes to donor retention? Renewing mid-size and major donors through individual cultivation and stewardship should be your chief concern, and if you aren’t retaining 70%+ or so of our $1,000 (or whatever your leadership annual giving level happens to be) you have a real problem.

Instead of worrying so much about overall retention, let us focus upon retaining and growing our mid-sized donors. Why mid-size donors? Because they are much more likely to renew.

Instead of wave after wave of direct mail do every donor from last year, at every level, how about a laser focus on incentivizing upgrades. I am not a fan of stickers or tote bags as incentive to increase my giving, but I am responsive to experiences: backstage tours, special previews, and the opportunity to learn more about an organization up close and in a special way.

So, what if my local public radio station made some effort to increase my giving (every year, the same $100, for the past ten years) with an idea above, instead of sending me at least twenty direct mail solicitations every year?

How many of your $100+ donors do you talk with regularly? Try this test. Run a report of donors who’ve made consecutive $100+ donors for two or three straight years. These are real people who’ve made a real investment in you. How many names do you recognize? How many how you connected with? Why not?

Instead of all the hand wringing, let’s get to work on upgrading our entry level donors to higher levels and developing stronger relationships. Some smaller donors (maybe the majority of initial givers) will fall away after making that first gift. That’s okay.  Not everyone is going to drink the new Coke.

Posted in Fundraising, Philanthropy | Tagged | 3 Comments

Keeping it Moving: Continuous Improvements for Good (fundraising) Health


I was at the doctor last week, following up on some fluid checks as one must after age forty, and despite a Holiday of many sugar cookies, I had continued the positive momentum against my junky metabolism for the second straight year. Am I bikini season ready? Not quite yet. But better than last year.

Can the New Year be a spark for transformative change? I used to believe that anything is possible. But now I think, probably not, for most of us, with stretched resources and human limitations. The best most of us can manage is some better practices and continuous improvements, doing better each week, each month, and each year.

And that’s really okay. Doing it a bit better than last time is a worthy professional and personal goal, and if you do this, and nothing else this year, I expect good things will happen. Here is what I am thinking about:

  1. Perfect the Fundamentals. I love fundraising disruption as much as the next guy, but what about good application of best practices as a place to focus this year? Before you go blowing up the paradigm again after reading some thought piece on UK fundraising twitter campaigns, let’s all please commit to the consistent, the repeatable and the simple. If you are asking your board development committee to do more than three things, for example, that’s probably too complicated. Keep it simple. Develop a strong plan, and stick to that plan. Do it better, each and every time.
  1. Accentuate the Programming. I was with a group of performing arts professionals recently, and I asked them, “In ten words, what are you raising money for in 2017?” And the answer was sputters and terror. It is a difficult question, I grant you, for most of us, but especially so when we are so caught up in our fundraising world, that we don’t seek out the amazing and beautiful things happening in the day-to- day of non-profit life. Let’s talk to donors more about our good work, and how their gift makes a singular difference. Got a new elephant? Talk to donors about it. A new Barber of Seville? Talk to donors about it. A new nacho machine? You get the idea. Donors want inspiration. What does that mean for your fundraising efforts? Get in there with your program people. Hang out in the lunch room with the staff who wear name tags and uniforms. Develop trusting relationships with the people doing the actual work in your organizations. Bring them some bagels. Interesting things will happen.
  1. Seek out the Terrestrial. The internet is lovely, and I enjoy staying connected on the socials as much as anyone, but this year I am going to better connect with actual human beings more often. For me, the easiest meet up is a coffee appointment. Offer me a 20 oz. Dark Roast, and I will take your meeting. But I’ve done less of that the last couple of years, with increasing travel and family obligations. So I will do better, and spend time with more of you in person, talking, networking and sharing fellowship. As an example, I interact all the time online with my friend and colleague Steven Shattuck, the Resident Brainiac of Bloomerang, but I don’t think we’ve ever actually hung out in person, even though we both live in the same city. So I am going to fix that.

What else?  Stay Nimble. Have Fun. Ring the Bell when you win. Ask.

We work!

Posted in Philanthropy | 1 Comment

2016. Travel Postcards From an Unsettled America.

What can be said about 2016? A look back at another year of Traveling, Consulting, and Writing in the Americas:


The signs for a challenging 2016 were evident in early January, when I was very nearly struck by a fast moving bus in Rochester, NY. With short daylight hours, wide streets, and few downtown residents, there is no more dangerous place for pedestrians than the cities upstate New York. But Rochester has a beautiful river system, ballpark, and the stately old Kodak Building. In January, dodging buses, I wrote about making Incremental Progress in your fundraising program, including making a personal commitment to your job. Decide now for 2017 if you want to stick around. Our industry needs longer tenures.


I have been traveling regularly to Omaha for five years now, including every month in 2016, but only this spring traversed the walking bridge between Nebraska and Iowa. In February my friend and colleague Stef of Heart Project challenged me to a good old Blog Off. After walking across bridges, I questioned the notion of fundraising as a true profession and the pursuit of philanthropic purity. The consensus is that Stef won the contest with her call for organizational clarity in fundraising.


In March I got to spend time in Belize, my 3rd trip to South America in recent years. Belize is a beautiful place with friendly, English speaking faces and good vibes. A vacation gave me time to consider sponsorship and recognition. We cannot easily compete with for profit marketers. Let’s stop trying.


In April I took my first ever helicopter ride, a dazzling trip through the Grand Canyon. It was extraordinary to experience the desert from this vantage point. Seeing that vastness, I contemplated the common void in many fundraising programs, the lack of a dedicated focus on Mid Sized Donors.


In late spring I began working in South Bend, Indiana, home to a beautiful Notre Dame. Walking around a campus booming with philanthropy funded construction, I appreciated the grit and determination of the fundraising professional, full of Love, Humility and Fire.


Early summer included a business trip to one of North America’s great cities, Montreal, where I attended the Opera America conference. I was reminded of the enormous value of conference participation and other professional development in retaining fundraising staff. Send your people to a conference in 2017!


In my travels I’ve visited at least 50 ball parks over the years, and this summer experienced Yankee Stadium for the first time. Creating a culture of excellence, as the Yankees achieved until recently, is about consistent habits and best practices. I examined the good and bad habits of fundraising programs, and again reminded everyone how much I hate fundraising staff eating lunch in the office.


This fall I got to visit Charleston, South Carolina, a shining city full of history and hipsters, living together. During that adventure I wrote about fundraising’s biggest challenge, following up opportunities and promised next steps. We must do better.


Huntsville, Alabama is home to our rocket industry, and is a town full of quiet engineers and scientists doing brilliant things and leading strong non-profits. I was inspired by the power of introverted fundraisers to get the job done. This was my most widely read essay for 2016.


This year I began working in Detroit, a beautiful and resilient city whose story is still being written. Detroit is everything you’ve heard – gritty, determined and inspiring.


I was on 168 airplanes and 1 helicopter this year, split between client destinations in Blue and Red America, including flying over a massive forest fire in the mountains of North Carolina. The haze in the air extended over hundreds of miles in the southeast US.

What can I say about 2016? The Cubs won, but Prince died, along with Gene Wilder, David Bowie, and maybe our democracy. But we do our best, and we love each other, and we move forward.

Together, We work.

Posted in Cultural Entrepreneurship, Fundraising, Life and Travels, Philanthropy | 2 Comments

Confessions of an Introvert Fundraiser.

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Someone wiser than me said, “A fool at 40 is a fool forever” and I believe that is true. So it was one afternoon approaching my 40th birthday that I said, out loud for the first time, “I am in introvert. And I am okay.”

I had this realization after a particularly exhausting conversation with a former friend, a total blowhard who talked and talked, carrying on about this and that, never asking after me or my affairs. Every time we would hang out I’d want to hide under the bed afterwards. My Dad say that folks like this talk to hear their heads rattle.

An introvert? How could this be, as a fun loving urbanite, with many friends and busy weekends? How was this possible as a former major gift fundraiser who loved securing $5,000 commitments over lunch above all else?

So I started thinking about it. The best fundraisers I know, for the most part, are thoughtful, articulate listeners. We are people who wait for something worthwhile to say before they talk. We prefer meaningful conversation to endless small talk. We aren’t always great working a room of strangers. We need quiet time to recharge. And that’s okay.

Now, as a coach to fundraising staff and executives, I contend that introverts (almost always) make stronger fundraisers. Why is this?

Introverts listen. This is the big one. Most of quality fundraising is listening carefully to donors, learning about their interests and concerns. What I learned during this gonzo 2016 is that it is almost impossible to convince anyone of anything. Our job is to share opportunity and align with values. People who listen impatiently just to talk themselves aren’t usually strong major gift fundraisers.

Introverts stick to the plan. We have all been on the right appointment, at the right time, with the right prospect. And the Ask never happens, or we make a mess of it. This is often due either to a lack of preparation, or because someone ignores the game plan. Who goes off script the most? The Chatty Ones, who can prattle on for a full hour about this and that, leaving no time for the business at hand.

Introverts are purposeful in speaking. Asking is actually pretty easy when you do it right – by the right asker, at the right time, for the right amount and project. The work is in the cultivation. An introvert fundraiser can make the Ask, at the right time with simple words, and then start listening again.

Introverts let others talk. The best solicitations often pair staff and volunteers, each making a meaningful contribution to the Ask. Is there a secret sauce to asking for money? I don’t think that there is, but you could do worse than a board member sharing their own story with a peer, while the staff member presents a specific opportunity. But the reverse can work just as well. But when a staff member talks for an hour straight (and CEOs can be the most guilty of this), leaving the board member or volunteer to nod along, no one is going to feel good about the meeting and the outcome.

Introverts are physically capable of shutting their mouths for two seconds. I kid my extrovert colleagues. But seriously. Work on your listening. Ask active questions. When you ask, shut your mouth. Let the prospect respond first, even if it gets awkward.

The best boss I ever had was a true extrovert. Warm, charming, and an ace relationship fundraiser. We did a big endowment campaign together. She would make the case. I’d ask for the money. I told her that I would kick her under the table if she said a single word after we presented the opportunity. She learned to listen better, and learned when to stay quiet.

Together, we raised millions.

Posted in Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy | Tagged , , | 2 Comments