The Mythology–of self

We’re passionate, focused, determined to do good and–dead wrong. Huh?   Charitable organizations are no different.  A noble vision results in worthy actions.  Worthy actions bespeak solid reputation.  We’re convinced of our own rationality, our “rightness”.

And so the story goes.  When was the last time we tested this “reality” with those on whom we depend for our continued existence—our donors, our investors?   Do they share this view of our organization?  Is our view their view?  Are we really so clear in our perceptions and self awareness that we can simply replay these to our potential investors and expect them to invest in us?

Principle 1 of The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising® is Donors are the Drivers™.  Nonprofit leaders will do well to remember that our investors’ mythologies are far more important to understand than simply replaying our own tapes in the hope that hearing them again will spur our investors to continue to invest.

Belief–and truth

Many of us become our own worst enemies when we begin to believe our own press releases.  Nonprofit leaders are no exception.  Witness the recent hang-wringing and urgent calls to action regarding proposed changes in the charitable deduction and possible cuts in public grants to charities.  Such concerns are often manifestations of a fundamental pessimism regarding the motives of philanthropists and a scarcity mentality—if you get yours I won’t get mine.

Let’s set the record straight on both counts.  First, although I believe it is a noble and important impulse to enshrine the value of philanthropy in our tax code, research consistently demonstrates that receiving a tax deduction for a gift is not a serious motivator for philanthropists.  This finding is confirmed in my own experience as an encourager of giving—a fundraiser, if you will.

Second, research also has shown that philanthropy is elastic.  For us non-economists, that means that the amount of money given philanthropically is not fixed, but rather is a function of the level of engagement of the donors with those nonprofits that they are inclined to support.  What’s more, we’ve not even approached the theoretical maximum.  The idea that nonprofits are “competing for scarce dollars” is a red herring.

Where is truth?  Principle 1 of The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising® is “Donors are the Drivers™”.  Bank on it.  Listen to what your donors are telling you—not your preconceived beliefs, however strongly held.  Stop and think the next time you’re tempted to think or say “don’t give me the facts, I know what I believe.”

Donors Buy Feelings—not stuff

In a recent post, Seth Godin makes an observation concerning consumer buying behavior that translates well into the philanthropic arena.  Principle 1 of The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising® is “Donors are the Drivers™”.  Donors are the driving force behind all philanthropy.  It is about them, not us.  Those organizations that possess worthy purposes and visions can be a catalyst to that force, however.

Consider the psychology of buying something on sale—even at clearance.  What’s being purchased here?  According to Seth, it’s not a thing, rather it’s an emotion.  It’s the old rational—irrational conundrum.  Donors are moved, first and foremost, by their desire to fulfill a deeply held personal need or value.  We in the nonprofit and charitable world often miss this fact when we attempt to generate gifts with statistics—or worse—by offering a good or service in exchange for a gift.

Donors don’t want things.  They want to feel I and know that their central values and visions for a better community are being fulfilled.  To encourage greater and more lasting investments from your current donors and first-ever gifts from your soon-to-be-donors, first remember that they, the donors, are the decision makers and, second, they are seeking for a feeling, not the stuff.

Magic Kingdom Fundraising—it works

When I use the words, “magic kingdom” you’re probably thinking of what I am—Disney.  That name brings many things to mind—Mickey, Minnie, a world apart.  For those of us who have had the opportunity to visit one of the Disney theme-parks we know that they, also, are a world apart.  Optimism, and customer service are the cardinal virtues at Disneyland and Disneyworld.

These virtues manifest themselves in a number of ways.  Seth Godin, recently pointed out that one of these ways is in clean bathrooms.  So why is this important—for Disney, not the customer?  It certainly isn’t a profit center; there’s no charge to use them.  It’s important to Disney to provide these spotless facilities because they want to remove any reason for someone not to return.  How low tech is that!  Hmmmm. . .

Take a good look at your current fundraising program.  Have you provided clean bathrooms?  Have you given your donors every reason to give again? Do you thank—really thank—your donors in ways that are meaningful to them?  Do you say “It’s my pleasure when an investor or customer says “thank you” or do you use the commonplace “no problem”?

So, if a donor ever says to you “This place is just like Disneyland”, take it as the highest compliment you will ever receive.

Ask and You Will Receive–not!

The year-end has just passed and we’re into a new year of fundraising goals and aspirations.  If you are like me, you’re on everyone’s list with your Christmas and holiday cards competing for space in your mail box with numerous solicitations from worthy charities.  It can all be a bit overwhelming—and actually become a turn-off.

This flood of last-minute requests for gifts is not all that unusual—or necessarily unwelcome.  What is troubling, however, is that many of the organizations from which I receive end-of-the-year requests have already been soliciting me—sometimes multiple times per month—during the rest of the year.  In addition, a goodly number of these well-meaning asks make very little attempt to connect with me, the donor, my interests or past history with the organization.  Rather they are full of program-urgent needs.  In a phrase, it’s all about them.

Principle 1 of The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising® is Donors are the Drivers™.   Investors in charitable causes are the driving force in philanthropy.  They make the decision as to how much, when and to whom.  Yes, having a worthy purpose, meeting a critical need and showing results are all important.  Ultimately however, it’s not about the organization—it’s about the donor and his or her priorities and values.

There is an organization in which I firmly subscribe to its mission.  They do valuable work in the community they serve.  I have ceased supporting that organization two years hence, however.  The reason?  I was—and am—being subjected to a barrage of direct-mail solicitations.  There were 32 direct mail solicitations with letter, urgent appeal flyer, response card and envelope sent to me by this organization in 2012.  That’s almost three per month.  Is there a problem here?

It’s not just my experience.  The donor research continues to show that the number one negative for donors is being solicited too often—especially when such asks for support are without apparent connection to each other and with the donor’s past history, values or interests.

As you put in place your fundraising plans for the coming year, before you do anything else, consider what the implications of Donors are the Drivers™ to your organization.

Where’s Your Focus–outcomes or income?

It’s unfortunate that the perennial debate about nonprofits and charitable organizations is about the revenue they receive—how much, from whom, and whether it will continue.  Witness the recent federal budget negotiations in Washington.  Nonprofits and their association surrogates got into the action to “preserve” their income by lobbing for continued charitable gift deductions, federal subsidies and even higher individual taxes (under the presumption that such would lead to higher federal subsidies).

Wouldn’t we all be surprised if—for once—the nonprofit community engaged in a debate about the effectiveness of their outcomes and whether they were achieving their visions rather than bemoaning the status of their income?

There’s a paradox here.  In Simon Sinek’s words, “Focus on the vision and the numbers will thrive.  Focus on the numbers and the vision will struggle.”  Time and time again I see this truism at work within charitable organizations.  When nonprofits place their emphasis upon their visions and celebrating their achievements, the “numbers”— sufficient revenue to achieve these visions—virtually takes care of itself.  When these same well-meaning organizations are constantly in the public square lobbying for more money and lamenting their scarce resources, the actual work of these organizations suffers and fails to achieve the promise.

Philanthropy is elastic.  It always has been.  Philanthropists-small and large-respond to an expansive vision articulately communicated and validated by outcomes.  They give more because the organization they support dreams bigger and achieves more.  Principle 2 of The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising® is Begin at the Beginning™.  It begins with the vision.  How bold, how energizing to your donors is your purpose?

When you devote your energies to achieving your vision of community betterment, communicate that effectively to those who, through their values are inclined to support your cause, and ask them to join you in fulfilling this vision, you won’t need to pander in the public square looking for handouts.

Good Fundraising–bad fundraising

When you get counsel on how to fundraise—from colleagues, friends or even a professional consultant—stop and think.  As Agatha Christie once said, “The difficulty with good advice is that it is almost never taken.”  Why?

Most nonprofit leadership is remarkably risk-adverse.  Never is this fear of being “different” more on display than in their efforts in fundraising.  Stick with the tried and true (what we think is effective).  Focus only on what you can see and that which generates immediate, concrete results.  I find it a deep irony that those among us who advocate for a better world and better communities and urge others to adopt a fundamentally new viewpoint on society are often devoutly rigid and short-term in their business planning.

What’s true in life is also true in fundraising.  If it’s comfortable; if it’s what you see others doing, it if doesn’t challenge you or cause you discomfort, you can be sure that it isn’t providing the philanthropic revenue growth that you believe you deserve—and that you can achieve.

Those that encourage you to play it safe, to remain with the status quo—these good souls give you advice that is almost always dead wrong.  Philanthropy is not static.  To the contrary, it is very elastic.  Money is left on the table every day.  Why not reach out and claim it?  In the words of Seth Godin, “discern useful good advice, so you don’t insulate yourself in the bubble of the self-deluded.  Self-validation is a killer—for organizations as well as individuals.

Think about that as you make your fundraising plans for 2013.  Will you simply repeat your efforts of last year?  Will you continue making the same, unquestioned assumptions?  Or—will you look afresh as to what is truly possible and reach out and claim it?  Principle 8 of The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising® is “Invest, Integrate and Evaluate™.”  Never forget the “evaluate.”

Asking With Purpose—yields success

As we come into the home stretch for year-end giving I believe it’s worth reminding all those who work for charitable organizations that it’s never too late—to ask.  It is a true irony of philanthropy that the number one anxiety-producing event for a volunteer or even development officer is actually asking for a gift.  And yet, the research shows over and over again that not asking is one of the top reasons donors don’t give.


I can hear the pundits now.   “Asking too much, research always shows, is the number one negative for donors.”  Yes it is.  So how do these seemingly incompatible bits of data get reconciled?  When you know your donors, you’ll know when and how to ask.  Hmmmm. . .


Principle 4 of The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising® is “Learn & Plan.”  That is to say, first learn who your supporters and would be-supporters are and then plan how and when to approach them.  Way too often, solicitation methods, timing and even the content—the reason to give—is driven by an agenda or needs of the organization.  But we do have needs, urgent needs, you say.  True enough.  It is one of those paradoxes of life, however, that by seeking first to understand and satisfy the needs of others—in this case your supporters—you will in turn have your own needs satisfied.


So, let me sum up by saying that there is definitely not enough asking.  Not enough asking that is tied to donor needs and aspirations as well as organizational purposes and goals, that is.  It’s not tough to do; it just takes a different paradigm and then acting on that perspective consistently year after year.  You’ll wonder what you ever did without it.

Give Now—are you dead yet?

In his feature article in The Wall Street Journal last Friday, December 7, Joe Queenan relates his experience with the Metropolitan Museum of Art that may take the cake for ill-timed, random solicitations.  With appeals like the one he describes—that donors continue to give at all is a true testament to their generosity and high-motives.

Briefly, the story goes thus.  The day after Thanksgiving, Joe received from The Metropolitan Museum of Art a letter asking if he would like to “fine tune” his estate planning.  Totally out-of-the-blue as he has had no prior connection with the Met and on Black Friday—of all days.  Needless to say he was a bit taken aback and “racked his brain” searching for a reason he  would receive such a letter.  Recognition dawned when he remembered that earlier in the month, he had attained the magic Social Security retirement age of 62.  Looks like back-office bureaucrats at the Met have been working overtime.

Oh—but it gets better!  Apparently, what really turned Joe off was the fact that along with this clueless, tactless solicitation for assets was an envelope for the pledge card that contained no postage.  His read?  “Here you are telling me that I am going to die and choosing the holiday season to raise the subject of my demise and asking me to name the museum in my will and you don’t even have the common courtesy to include a stamp.”  Insult to injury.

Not to pick on just the Met, Joe hastens to add that he gets the same treatment from any number of other charities.  Ouch.

The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising® identifies two characteristics that every prospective donor to your charitable organization must have—ability and affinity.  Financial ability goes without saying, and it’s fairly easy to assess.  Affinity—the emotional connection and values congruence between the donor and your charity—is just as important, if not more so.  Although not as straightforward as determining financial ability nonetheless, assessing a potential donor’s affinity or connections to your organization is critical.

Principle 1 of The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising® is “Donors are the Drivers.”  It is donors and not the development office that is the engine that moves philanthropy forward.  Putting yourself in the mind and situation of your prospective investors is essential.  Remember, it’s not about us, our programs or our priorities—however worthy they may be.  It’s the donors who invest in our worthy purpose and that own it with their values and resources.

The Boogeyman—donor advised funds?

Recently, in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, an op-ed appeared bemoaning the growing number and size of donor advised funds.  Donor advised funds have been with us for a very long time vis a vis the many community foundations across the country.  With the entry of investment firms into this market, the growth has been almost explosive and continues to escalate.

The author of the op-ed strongly suggests that these investment firms are not appropriate places for donors to create their philanthropic funds and even went to so far as to urge that government do something to “discourage” the growth of or “restrict” the use of such funds—that is those held by private investment firms.  Hmmmm.

It is true that donor advised funds are experiencing dramatic growth.  And, true, the trend is upward.  The salient question however, is why?  In answering this question I submit that it’s more about what nonprofit organizations aren’t doing rather than what private investment firms are.

First, an implicit assumption in the “bad guy-good guy” argument is that philanthropy is static.  It is not.  The econometric research clearly shows that philanthropy is elastic and is directly responsive to the level of engagement of the donor by the charitable organization. Therefore it is not a matter of re-dividing a predetermined pie of “giving” toward someone’s idea of more “acceptable” giving.

Second, the implication is that somehow, some way, donor advised fund managers can convince donors to do something that—in their right mind—they wouldn’t do.  Donors drive philanthropy.  Indeed, Donors are the Drivers(TM) is the first principle in The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising®.  Donors make their own decisions.  Donor advised fund managers aren’t Svengali’s and donors aren’t zombies.

Although I’m not a “fan” of donor advised funds, neither do I think they are the boogeyman.  The money that is flowing to these funds isn’t, for the most part, money that would be given to philanthropic purposes elsewhere.  It’s also not money that will come to current operations as these funds are quasi or permanent endowments.

Donor research continues to demonstrate that donors would–and will–give more IF they are properly engaged by charitable organizations.  Therein lays the real challenge–getting charitable organizations to engage donors rather than continually enticing them with transactions, attempting to “convince” them with draconian statistics and keeping them at arm’s length, rather than treating them as the organizational owners that they really are.  This, to me, is the real tragedy.

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