Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Cause Makes the Best Case

In his recent New York Times article, " Alma Mater is Asking. Do You Give or Not Give?(Saturday, November 29, 2008)," Ron Lieber quoted me as saying, "Schools need to start acting like a cause and stop acting like an institution. They need to learn lessons from the Obama campaign, which had a powerful and unifying message that made people feel like they wanted to be a part of it." Allow me to develop that thought a bit more.

A cause, according to one dictionary, is "a series of actions that advance a principle or tend toward a particular end." To act like a cause, then, would entail articulating a powerful principle and a specific set of actions to advance it. World peace, for instance, is a cause well worth moving toward but defining concrete, achievable actions to advance it is quite difficult. A powerful principle without a set of actions won't inspire strong support, nor will a set of actions that are not unified by a powerful principle. We need both.

To act like an institution, on the other hand, is to make the crux of your case for support around the physical needs of a facility and the development of the talents of those who people it. A university that acts like an institution, for instance, makes a case for new construction or renovation, faculty excellence and student support. It looks inward and asks for donations so that it might persist and thrive, and further distinguish itself from other institutions. It calls primarily on the loyalty of its alumni to make their alma mater better so that the value of their degree will increase and their pride of affiliation will continue to grow. It assumes that its right to exist is unquestioned and that many who benefited from its excellence will respond to periodic calls to give to the institution's priorities out of some combination of gratitude and obligation. And it's all those assumptions, I would argue, that result in a relatively weak case for support.

An institution asks for support to create a better institution; a cause asks for support to create a better world. The latter is far more enticing particularly when donors have less to give. The best way to determine if a case is institutional or cause-oriented is to see if it motivates the uninformed, un-involved, non-loyal prospect to give. So, if you are writing or reviewing a case for a university, try reading it through the objective eyes of a non-alumnus who has had no previous interaction or involvement. If that prospect had no prior knowledge of, and no contact with your school and received a degree from another institution, what in your case would motivate him or her to give? The plain truth is that in most cases for most colleges and universities, there is very little. Since they rely on alumni support, they fail to make the case for the non-alumnus or the independent philanthropist. Since they assume a high-degree of built in loyalty from potential donors, they tend to plead or promise more than they they reason or persuade.

And here's the rub: Most analyses I have seen put the segment of alumni who give out of loyalty alone at 10-15 percent of your potential base of support. The rest, while they may look back with gratitude, give to bring about some specific improvement. In short, their philanthropy is far more future-oriented and cause-oriented than loyalty driven.

When I began planning the launch of a campaign at the University of California, San Diego, in 1998, I was advised by professional fund-raising counsel that we did not have the base of alumni support to raise our goal of $1 billion. They were right -- in part. At the time, the University was only 38 years of age and the vast majority of its alumni were very young. The "older" alumni had little history of giving to their alma mater. So we raised 98 percent of the proceeds from non-alumni. Yep, that's right -- 98 percent. How? We didn't write a case for alumni alone. We didn't call on loyalty. We advanced a set of bold ideas that captured the attention of those that had a stake in the greater community, including high tech leaders and venture capitalists. Our case and our cause was about fueling innovation under the rubric "Imagine What's Next." We cast ourselves as a start-up, not an institution, and sought support primarily for people and new programs. As a result, UCSD became the first university established in the post World War II era to raise over $1 billion.

So, if you want to prepare a truly persuasive case that appeals to a wide spectrum of potential donors, first define the cause that you seek to advance, a cause with a broad, unifying message that makes people feel like they want to be a part of it, even if they were never a part of your organization before. A cause creates and sustains a sense of community; it enlivens the imagination and feeds the soul. It lays out a practical path to a noble end. It becomes a foundation of enthusiastic support. It taps into the deep cultural core of American philanthropy -- "we the people" trying to create a more perfect union and a better world.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Seminar in Chicago

I'll be presenting a seminar in Chicago on February 23 and 24, 2009. Many of the ideas I have shared in this blog will be incorporated into this seminar but the block of time will allow me to go into much greater depth and to offer specific examples of how to better understand and advance the philanthropic process. I will, of course, tailor the curriculum to speak to the adjustments we all must make in the face of our current economic struggles.

Even if you have attended this seminar before, rest assured that I will be bringing new research and recent innovations to enliven and update the topic. You can find more information on the conference by clicking on the link below.

I hope I will see many of you there. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving. We have much to be grateful for even in these difficult times.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Seven Secrets to Successful Volunteer Engagement

1. Be Grateful

No one wants to work for an organization that just expects others to give their time or, even worse, that acts as if it is doing the volunteers a favor. Too often
I have seen organizations treat volunteers only as a force to be managed. While management is required, volunteers also need to be valued and inspired. Begin each meeting with volunteers the way some airlines end flights, by saying that you realize they have choices and you are glad they have chosen your organization. The best of volunteers are the most involved and most courted. Don’t make the mistake of taking them for granted.

2. Be Selective

Take your time in building volunteer bodies. Look for constructive people who share your organization’s values and purposes. A small, highly-engaged group will be far more effective, and will have a far more satisfying experience than a large, unwieldy body. The more selective you are in choosing volunteers, the more complimented they will be and the more others will vie to join. If you depend heavily on volunteers and use your most effective front line staff to manage them, remember that your organization can move no faster than the most obstinate, obdurate volunteer. One bad choice slows the entire fleet and diminishes the impact of your most accomplished professionals. Take the time to get to know a potential volunteer. Asking volunteers to serve on a board at the first meeting is like asking someone to marry you on the first date; you look desperate if you ask and they look desperate if they agree. Desperation is not the stuff of lasting, productive relationships.

3. Be Strategic

An effective volunteer body, like a good organization, is created by assembling people of varying talents. What’s the right skill set for your board? Do you have the right balance of creative, legal, financial and entrepreneurial talent? Do you have the right gender and geographical balance? Do you have too many people with similar backgrounds? If so, you may not be getting the variety of perspectives you need despite the size of your board. You may be getting the same viewpoint over and over. That could cause blind spots for your organization. The result could be poor decisions and market losses. Conversely, nothing is more impressive to a potential volunteer to be told, "We have a gap in our volunteer organization that needs to be filled with someone of your background and ability -- and we know of no one we would rather have."

4. Be Honest

Yes, there is powerful correlation between the time and the amount one gives to philanthropy. That clear and compelling fact has caused some organizations, however, to make up volunteer duties in hopes of raising more money. It won’t work for long because discerning volunteers soon realize that there’s really nothing for them to do; that they’re being shined on so they will give. Increasingly, I see donors growing suspicious of all volunteer requests for this very reason. The best of them don’t need or want to be humored. They understand the need for money; they just wonder why organizations have to be so oblique in their approaches. If you’re building a volunteer board, focus on the talent that your organization most needs. And, yes, there’s no problem in looking for a confluence of talent and generosity. But if you really have no need for volunteers, or no inclination to really make use of their talents, be honest – with them and yourselves. I see too many boards with too little to do. And I don’t believe in fund raising boards; the simple fact is that most people are not good at it. There is no better fund raiser than an accomplished professional. They don’t need volunteers to help them ask; they need volunteers to open doors, to advocate, to host events and convene meetings. In short, their need volunteers to advocate gracefully within their sphere of influence. They need to find the comfort zone of each volunteer and work within it. As I have written earlier, there are many ways of engaging volunteers for the purpose of fund raising without making up boards or faux volunteer duties. These options include conducting interviews to reveal prospects’ animating passions or to test the feasibility of a project, offering invitations to strategic planning sessions, urging involvement in brainstorming around new project creation, and making requests to review drafts of project white papers.

5. Be Creative

Make full use of your volunteers’ talents. When we become too short-term in our thinking and try to focus volunteers’ efforts only on fund raising, we restrict their ability to engage others, to advocate, and to fuel our cause with their passion. Ask volunteers to share their expertise on our behalf. If we have a tax expert on our board, ask her to conduct a seminar exclusively for other donors, prospects and volunteers. If one of our volunteers is a great cook, ask him to prepare a meal for top donors as a part of our stewardship program. If we have an amateur historian, ask him to lead a tour or give a lecture as part of our creative engagement of new prospects. The possibilities are endless but we really don’t know what assets we have until we explore what our volunteers have to offer, including otherwise hidden talents or insights.

6. Be Open

We say we want our organizations to “friend raise” but we often practice a weird form of friendship. We talk more than we listen and we brag incessantly about our virtues and accomplishments, often acting as if we have no real problems or challenges. Is that how we treat friends in real life? Don’t we confide in the best of our friends? Aren’t we complimented when a friend confides in us? So confide in your volunteers. Share real struggles and challenges with them. Let them help you with the tough stuff. I once asked a highly sought after volunteer what my organization could offer him that would make him want him to come on board. He said, “A clean shot at a really important problem.” Good people want to make a difference. Give them a chance.

7. Be Precise

It’s as important to let your volunteers know where you don’t need their help as it is to let them know where you do. I hear some professionals complain about an over-reaching board or an intrusive volunteer but, in many cases, the problem can be traced back to their own lack of clear direction or a tendency to try to cultivate volunteers through ingratiation and placation. The problem, then, is not one of “volunteer management” but of management itself. Be precise in the duties you want your volunteers to take on, in the term of their service, and the expectations you have for their giving. And the best time to be precise is when a volunteer is being recruited. You should have a "Vision, Mission and Goals" statement for every volunteer body and a job description for every volunteer position.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Importance of "Modest" Gifts

I'm sure you've heard it or even felt it yourself. "I'm not really in a position to give." Yet most of us are in a position to give something, even if it is very modest. What we really mean is, "I can't give a significant gift and, therefore, what I can give will have little impact." And the way we determine the significance of our gift is by comparing what we can do to what others have already done. When we see an organization that we care about celebrating the receipt of multi-million dollar gifts, we assume that we are no longer needed, that anything we might give is like a drop in the ocean. Perhaps that organization has never told us what small or modest gifts mean to them other than the usual, "Every gift counts!" Counts toward what?

Philanthropy-seeking organizations must, as I said in my previous post, not only make case for each and every gift, but for all gifts, no matter how modest. That case might include the following points:

1. We don't think in terms of large or small. We are grateful for every gift. Each one touches us. Each is a vote of confidence, of solidarity, of hope. The more votes we receive, the more heartened, encouraged and emboldened we grow in pursuit of our cause.

2. While we occasionally single out the major investor in our literature, we also celebrate all those who give according to their means. We realize that a $1,000 gift from someone of modest means may be as, if not more, generous than a gift of $1 million from someone of exceptional means.

3. A large, diverse portfolio of modest gifts is our biggest gift. It gives us a breadth and depth of steady support that allows us to persist over time. Large gifts are wonderful but they are, by definition, unusual and are given more occasionally and irregularly.

4. We revere the loyal donor, the one who may only be able to give modestly but gives again and again. While we will never take any gift or any donor for granted, we are so fortunate to know that we have donors that we can count on as long as we continue to live up to our promise. (Remember, long-term loyal donors are also the most apt to leave bequests to their favorite philanthropies.)

Obviously, philanthropy-seeking organizations should not just say these things. They should mean them and ingrain them in their ethos. This can be done by constantly striving to create a culture that eschews entitlement and begins each day by reflecting on the fact that no one owes us anything, that we are fortunate to receive each and every gift that comes our way, and we are blessed to live in culture where so many assume an obligation to achieve a greater good and to bequeath a better world than the one they inherited. Those of us who are fortunate enough to receive the philanthropic support of others should not think of ourselves as merely an organization or an institution, no matter how long we have been around, but a cause that will live only as long as we inspire the strong support of a few and the sustained support of many.