Sunday, March 29, 2009

In Tough Times, Spend Imagination

At a recent panel discussion on managing arts organizations during difficult times, Joseph Volpe, the former General Manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera, spoke to the importance of "spending imagination" when money is in short supply. Volpe used John Dexter's production of "Dialogues of the Carmelites" to make his point. Here's the story:

John Dexter first brought Francis Poulenc's opera to the Metropolitan stage in 1977 (it was first produced in 1957). The opera, about the execution of Carmelite nuns during the French revolution, was produced by Dexter for the incredibly modest sum of $75,000. Franco Zeffirelli, during the same period, staged "Otello" at the Met for $800,000.

Dexter's spartan production of "Dialogues of the Carmelites" was born out of both financial difficulty and artistic vision. Since he did not have the money to be literal and build a guillotine or church, he used imagery and symbols to great effect. His set, a simple but huge white cross, caused the audience to gasp when the curtain rose. The production achieved enormously critical acclaim, when it was first produced and each and every time it was revived by the Metropolitan Opera. In one review, a New York Times critic opined "perhaps Mr. Dexter starves our eyes in order to feed our souls." Another critic from the same paper said of its revival, "it was the simple elegance of John Dexter's production that won our hearts." Dexter turned a financial liability into an artistic triumph. The spareness of the set only enhanced the spirituality of the story and the poignancy of the tragedy. When Dexter died, the Times cited "Dialogues" as "one of the great achievements of his brilliant and contentious tenure."

When I arrived at Georgetown in 2005, I inherited an organization with 25 open positions. The exodus of staff after the previous campaign had left many donors feeling as if their connection to the University had been severed. In trying to redress that situation as soon as possible, I landed on the idea of asking current students to interview alumni in their hometowns while on Christmas, Easter or summer break. The interviews would allow me to better understand how thousands of alumni would like to be engaged by their alma mater. I reasoned that the students were already prepared to pay their way home, thereby reducing our travel costs, and would be willing to conduct an hour interview for the handsome sum of $50. Students saw the opportunity that the program provided and signed up in significant numbers. When deployed, the student interviewers proved to be a big hit with alumni. Many wrote me to say, "You couldn't have sent a more impressive representative." Had I waited until my staff positions were filled, our alumni donors would have felt even more disenfranchised. Had I used staff for the purpose, I would have spent at least ten times what I spent on students and to lesser effect.

I welcome your examples of how you or others that you know of have spent imagination during these or other difficult times to great effect. We're all looking for inspiration.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Way Forward

Great leaders, when faced with a crisis, do not just think about a way out for themselves or the organizations they lead; they think of a way forward for those they serve.

We now find ourselves in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The way out seems unclear and a long way off. Some leaders will draw the understandable conclusion that there is nothing to do but accept these hard realities. They will direct their organizations to cut back and resign themselves to a long recessionary winter. Yes, it would be imprudent to ignore these realities but the example of other leaders in even more difficult times might remind us of the importance of looking ahead, no matter what.

The perils and uncertainty of our present crisis pale when compared to those faced by Lincoln in the summer of 1862. Union forces had been bested in most of the Civil War's early battles, sometimes by a lesser numbers of poorly equipped Confederates. To make matters worse, on June 1, command of the rebel army was given to the immensely capable Robert E. Lee who immediately organized his emboldened soldiers to move on the nation's increasingly vulnerable capital. In the Seven Days Battles, beginning on June 25, Lee attacked the main Union army under the feckless command of General McClellan near Richmond. By July 1, McClellan was in retreat. The survival of the Union was now in question.

And, yet, the day after McClellan's retreat, Lincoln signed a remarkable piece of legislation that would forever distinguish the troubled nation and provide unparalleled opportunities for its citizens for centuries to come. The bill he signed was the Morrill Act, named for the Vermont senator who had sponsored it. Today, we know it better as the first of the land-grant college acts. The act allowed for tens of thousands of acres of public lands in each state to be sold to create endowments that would support dozens of new public colleges and educate millions Americans. From this act, 69 colleges were created including those we know today as Cornell, MIT, and the universities of Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

There was no precedent or parallel in human history for such a sweeping concept. No nation or society had imagined educating its citizenry to such an extent or on such a scale. A year later, in his famous address at Gettysburg, Lincoln would ask his audience to remember the sacrifices of the fallen soldiers by rededicating themselves to nation's ideals so that "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth." But, with the passage of the Morrill Act, he had taken a most bold and practical step toward ensuring the success of that form of government. Lincoln and the framers of the Morrill Act saw higher education and the personal and economic development it would promote, as a means of enriching and expanding the democratic franchise. But it is doubtful that they could have fully appreciated how American universities would continue to grow and provide the means for the brightest of youngsters from the most modest of circumstance to rapidly elevate themselves above the circumstances of their birth or how this system would not only bring out the best of those born on American soil but attract enormously talented people from around the globe. It would have been impossible for them to have envisioned how these colleges and universities would give the nation an economic advantage in peace and a technological edge in war, or how the knowledge created in the many classrooms and laboratories would fuel innovation across so many fields of human endeavor.

On the second day of July in 1862, Lincoln had every reason to say, "Not now. We are in the throes of a terrible conflict. The hopes of the future must wait until this conflict is resolved." But he did not. He listened to the voices of the future and responded to the "angels of our better nature." He looked beyond the Confederate encroachment on Washington and saw a way forward on one of the darkest days in American history. And, having benefited so much from the foresight and resilience of our fore bearers, so should we, so must we.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Building a Fundraising Partnership

My next conference presentation will be in Denver, May 20-21. My topic will be "Building a Fundraising Partnership Between Development and Academic Leadership." For more details, please check:

This past week, I spoke to a conference of advancement professionals from schools of nursing. My topic was "Advancing Advancement: An Interdisciplinary Approach." I spoke to the need for advancement to embody the virtue that virtually every university touts these days -- interdisciplinary learning. The organizing concepts of the past -- alumni relations, communications, development -- threaten to become the limiting factors of the present and future if we don't learn how to break down the walls and, in some cases, the competition between them. They are all important functions but profoundly inter-related and inter-dependent. I believe that all these and related functions should be organized under the strategic umbrella of advancement. Those institutions that allow these functions to remain in silos under the direction of different vice presidents who do not collaborate will spend more with less impact than organizations with balanced, streamlined advancement operations. This is not about power or politics; it's about the best way to build common cause and to align purposes with those who would give our institutions their time, talent and treasure.

In subsequent blog posts, I'll speak to how these functions can best inter-relate and what each can learn from the other. It wasn't hard to sell advancement professionals from nursing schools on these ideas. They are deeply dedicated people who live in highly interdisciplinary worlds. They know the most successful nursing professionals of the future will be those that create the most commerce and collaboration between research, teaching and clinical care.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Smart, Tough Donors

I have spent many years watching fund-raising hopes take shape within institutions. They usually begin with what someone inside that institution wants rather than with an obligation to serve someone or some interest outside. Once a want is identified within there is a very human tendency to assume that there are legions of wealthy people outside just waiting to be asked for exactly what we need. After a few minutes of self-reinforcement, the wanters within convince themselves that their ideas are so righteous and so eminently fundable that the only possible flaw in their thinking must be that they are probably not wanting or asking for enough. And those wealthy folks outside? Well, they're probably outraged that the institution has never approached them. And they will only grow more indignant if we don't rush out immediately and ask ... no forget the ask ... just tell them that this is what they should do!

As I listen to such ideas form within, I want to do all I can to encourage aspirational thinking while trying to get everyone involved to understand there are no wealthy people out there just waiting for us to appear with our great ideas. Yes, there are many philanthropists but anyone of any significant means has been identified by numerous organizations through various wealth-screening software systems. Those organizations have then turned their wiles toward the wooing of said philanthropists. By the time we rush in with our bright idea, these philanthropists will have heard every pitch about every conceivable need from no end of glib, garrulous fund raisers. They will have already reviewed and dissected lots of proposals, funded some, monitored the effectiveness of their gifts and toughened their criteria for future support. As we approach they will lay out their conditions in no uncertain term. This, for instance, is the verbatim response from a prospect, introduced by a third party, to my request to meet.

However there is no reason to get together if the strategy is, "Yes, we are already doing a lot of that just sign here," or "That's fascinating we could take your money and design a tangential program that would allow us to satisfy you while funneling capital to areas that are more important." Or, "let's get together so we can convince you to give to another worthy area." Actually, I am happy to meet anyhow on the basis of Scott's high recommendation. I have begun working with three schools, so I must warn you that the odds of doing something are low- but all these have been pilot programs, and none has been super successful yet.

There you go. There's a hardened donor, a generous man who has been through the fund raising mill, who has begun to believe that institutions humor you, take your money and then apply it to the things that they are already doing. He's weary of being approach by those who have not taken the time to study what he's interested in, who only hope to get him to give to what they want. So he fires a shot across the bow of approaching fund raisers. Who can blame him?

I struck up an e-mail conversation with this prospect by convincing him that I would actually listen and only seek his support if we could come up with an idea that aligned with his funding criteria. I sent him an opinion piece from the New York Times about the importance of institutions to continue our conversation. He replied:

Yes, we need institutions, but they are only worth our respect when they are ASPIRATIONAL. When they become utilitarian, no matter how well they serve their purpose, they do not offer us anything of value. Efficiency should be an institutional means not an end. This is what is so awful about our colleges and universities- they have become factories. They are great at producing what we want and awful at producing what we need.

This, I submit, is a good and generous man who is providing us very cogent advice. He is saying, "Stop telling me about what you want. Tell me what you aspire to. Show me how you are listening and responding to what a changing world needs, not what you have been doing all along. Tell me that you are willing to engage me, incorporate my ideas and align purposes."

But are we really listening? As we conceive of plans are we asking if they will stand up to smart, tough donors or are we continuing to conjure up weak concepts in hopes of securing support for the status quo? Do we really want donors who stand to make us smarter and tougher or just a few more loyal, undemanding souls who will give us what we ask for? And if we are not just seekers of support but builders of institutions that will prove their value to future generations, do we really have any choice?

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Long Look at Philanthropy (Part IV)

In my last three blog posts, I asserted that the best way for an organization to raise the most money is to commit itself to rich, long-term relationships with its donors. This is not an idealistic assertion; it is one of pure practicality. Those organizations that engage in only short-term, high intensity fund raising post far less impressive results than those that dedicate a significant portion of their time and budget to patient, authentic relationship building. “Well, of course,” you say, or as my teenage children might say, “Duh!” And, yet, every time I give a seminar, the majority of conferees tell me they work in a “churn and burn” environment in which they are instructed to ask as soon as possible, often on the first visit. That approach fails to acknowledge the time that human beings need to make significant decisions. If we ask before prospects have had the time to convince themselves of the importance of our cause, we greatly increase the probability of receiving a very small gift or just being told, “no.”

After a while the "churn and burn" system begins to feed on itself. Sophisticated, sincere relationship builders are driven away because there is no opportunity for them to do their best work. Turnover increases and donors become frustrated with the institution sending one "hired gun" after the other to secure their support, and giving declines. But "churn and burn" practitioners respond to declines in private support by placing even more emphasis on short-term fund-raising quotas, which leads to more turnover, greater donor dismay and, eventually, significant attrition.

So, in this series, “A Long Look at Philanthropy,” I used higher education as a case study to demonstrate the efficacy of the long-term approach to fund raising, of building and deepening connections even during times when the immediate return will be small or non-existent. Institutions of higher learning, I said, must think in terms of 50-year relationships to fully optimize the potential of their donor base. The most important periods of time within that 50-year period are, in order, the undergraduate years, the first five years after graduation and then any fifteen-year period of sustained annual support. Beyond that, there is no other period that is as important as those three. It’s just a matter of institutions keeping in touch, listening, adjusting and keeping faith with their most loyal supporters. In the early years, colleges and universities “raise” philanthropists, often giving more in terms of counseling, encouragement, recognition and programming than they get back. But, at some point, the young philanthropists must come of age, realize all that has been done for them and begin to “give back” within their means. They must not only give back to the institution that raised them, they must understand the importance of their example. As they were once mentored, they should offer to mentor. As they were once provided career opportunities, they should offer them to others. As they once benefited from programs with little or no costs, they should seek to underwrite programs for those who cannot yet afford them. I don’t mean this to sound like a lecture coming from an entitled institution; I mean it to say that this is the only way the system can work over time. Any of us who receive a gift from a previous generation must give it “back” to the next.

But, the institution still has an obligation to those who are now in a position to give back. It must give them a structure for doing so. It must show them where we can make the greatest difference. It must put them together with those that might follow in their footsteps. It must create an inter-active, inter-generational community focused on a great purpose. It must remind them of the institution's highest calling and how it can be best served. And, most importantly of all, the institution must dedicate itself daily to most cost-efficient, selfless pursuit of its ideals. Yes, the most productive path to philanthropic support is, will, and always has been the assiduous application of institutional ideals, the sheer, sustained determination to make difference where a difference most needs to be made over a long, long time.

And, yes, I realize that very few fund-raisers will serve a single institution for 50 years but that's the point. For however long they do serve and for whatever they seek to accomplish, they must make sure that they do their best in their time to strengthen the set of relationships entrusted to their care. The best fund raisers are not those who raise the most in their tenure; they are the ones who insure that the institution is positioned to raise even more after they leave.