Sunday, June 28, 2009

Before You Ask

Let's start with a very simple assumption -- we want each and every solicitation to be successful. The question then becomes what we can do to ensure they will? Here's my check list.

1. Choose the right prospects. Are your prospects real philanthropists or just wealthy people? Do they have a philanthropic record? Have they given before to your organization or any other, or been involved in some civic, community or charitable affairs? If those prospects are over forty years of age and the answer those questions is "no," your chances of securing their support is low, even if they have been somehow engaged in your organization. If those prospects are given to highly conspicuous consumption and an opulent life style, the probability is even lower. True philanthropists begin giving in their early adult years, become involved in various causes, and don't wear their wealth on their sleeve. Indeed, many very significant philanthropists live lives that belie their true wealth. If you have found a true philanthropist, look for a pattern in their giving. Do they give primarily to art, medicine, education or some other area? And if they have a philanthropic focus, do they correspond with the strengths of your institution?

2. Interview the prospect. So you think you've found someone who gives to something your organization does well. Now find someone to interview that prospect to further probe the possibility of that alignment. Who does that prospect know and trust? Who will he or she open up to? Who can conduct that interview in a graceful, non-threatening manner? All too often philanthropists are reluctant to meet with development professionals because they assume every call on them will be a solicitation. They are wary of every request and weary of being suddenly solicited by representatives of organizations or causes with whom they are not familiar or for whom they have no real interest. Capable practitioners now have to go to great lengths to get an appointment and convince prospects that they will not be ambushed, or to find intermediaries who can meet with those prospects on their behalf. If you are able to get appointments with viable prospects, in person or by "staffing" someone else, the keys are to clarify the prospects' philanthropic priorities, their awareness of your organization's relevant strengths, their opinion of your organization's capabilities, and whether they would be receptive to learning more -- again, reassuring them that getting involved in an exploration of common interests is not a subterfuge for soliciting them at the next meeting.

3. Find the right project. If you have solid prospects with an interest in learning more about your institutional strengths, carefully select the projects you put in front of them. First of all, is it really a project or just a category of funding? How well can you define the difference to be made if you receive the support you need? How precisely can you describe who will benefit, how and when? Who is spearheading the project? Why should the prospect have confidence in the project leader's ability? What other resources will your organization bring to bear to ensure this project's success? How carefully have you calculated the costs and the potential return on investment? The greater the precision with which these questions can be answered, the higher the likelihood that you have a project worthy of discussing with you most carefully chosen prospects.

4. Preview the prospectus. Put your promising projects in front of your prospects in draft form. If you've already developed a four-color brochure for the project, you're telling the prospect that there is no room for negotiation or improvement. In effect, you're saying you've got it all figured out and all you need is their money. It is far better to present your prospects with a draft prospectus and to invite their candid reactions and specific suggestions for improvement.

5. Align expectations. If the prospect suggests specific ways the project can be improved, a true opportunity has been presented. If the suggestions are eminently sound, they can be incorporated into the project plan which can only impress your prospect. And by incorporating those suggestions, you have taken a fateful step toward joint project ownership between your organization and that prospect which is highly predictive of forthcoming philanthropic support. If the suggestions are a bit off base, it is a great opportunity to negotiate with prospects so that they can better understand what you organization can and cannot do given the realities of the situation. You can explain the difference between what you would like to do and what you would have to do and see if you can bring the prospect along. It is far better to surface any potential difference in expectations and to negotiate their resolution early in the process than to blur them over until the gift is received, then try to placate an angry donor.

6. Review project preparedness. Before taking the next step with the donor, make sure your organization can deliver on all the promises implicit in the pending solicitation. This is no time for wishful thinking. The credibility of your organization is on the line. We live in a time where the public has less faith in ALL institutions than ever before. Philanthropy-seeking organizations must take great pains to ensure that they are capable of immediately using the money for the intended purposes and agreed outcomes before soliciting the gift.

7. Preview project timetable and budget. Now take the prospect through all the necessary details, including a detailed time line so he or she knows what to expect and when. Present a budget that demonstrates precise planning and fiscal accountability. Make sure to only ask for what you need. Don't throw out nice round numbers. Show that your organization can be resourceful with a sharp pencil.

If you and your organization have done these things, you are ready to solicit with a high probability of success. You have also increased the probability of project success which will produce a satisfied donor, one is likely to give again, and to spread the word of your institution's effectiveness to other influential personages and affluent prospects.

Yes, this approach requires us to spend more time, both in selecting our prospects and developing their support, but it will require us to spend less wasted time with those who are not inclined to give, and to engage in fewer awkward unsuccessful solicitations. In short, the long way will prove the shortest way to more rewarding results -- for donors and those who solicit their support.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Scouting Function

In a recent post (June 7, 2009), I referred to advancement as a "scouting function." I did so to make several important points:

1. Those in pursuit of philanthropic support should not expect the world to come to them or to their organization. They should escape from the confines of their own culture, plans, hopes and expectations, and meet others, open-mindedly and objectively, on their own terrain and their terms, then begin the process of exploring common interests.

2. The world is changing --economically, environmentally, culturally, demographically. We must anticipate, understand and adapt to change that is coming our way. We cannot afford to wait until it arrives at the gates of our complacency or denial. We owe this not only to ourselves but to those we serve. One of my favorite quotes (and I've never been able to find the source) is, "Revolution kicks down already rotted doors." In other words, that which we call revolution is really a long-ignored evolution, or devolution.

3. Philanthropy is a social compact. The creation of lasting compacts requires expressions and acts of respect. Listening is one off the best ways of demonstrating respect. When I deployed a group of Student Ambassadors, who's sole purpose was to interview peripherally engaged alumni to better understand the "animating passions" of their life, I saw enormous good will accrue to the institution. And, even though the letter from the President preceding those interviews stipulated that the alumni would not be asked for support, after the interview they become involved and gave at a significantly higher rate.

So, in practical terms, how turn these precepts into more effective practices? Here's a few ideas.

1. Create a "listening culture." Use whatever affordable means you have at your disposal. Whenever I stress the importance of market research at a professional conference, there is always someone who says, "Oh, we can't afford that." I then ask if they have a telefund office; in most cases they do. I then ask why if they have paid callers asking for money, why those same callers can't occasionally ask for the opinions and attitudes of those they seek money from? I ask if the calls from those institutions might be better received over time if they were not as genuinely inquisitive as they were assertively acquisitive. It's about an attitude, a desire to listen, and a determination to learn from others. If that is in place, you will find a way. You will turn traditionally one-way communications (direct mail, telephone calls, e-mails, tweets, lectures, and other events) into interactive vehicles (questionnaires, telephone polls, comment options on e-mails and websites, town halls and event debriefs). And when you begin to make this transition, you will see that your constituents feel much more respected and appreciated, and, therefore, more favorably disposed toward your institution. You will also see, if you are like most institutions, that you have underestimated the intelligence of your audiences and over-estimated their knowledge of your practices, purposes and aims. You will want to reverse that equation.

2. Create "conversational venues." While people love a good talk on a topical issue, I would posit that they love a good conversation even more. When you think about how your organization presents information -- whether it is through letters, e-mails, web articles, lectures or events -- ask yourselves, "How quickly can we turn this into a conversation?" If your president or CEO is speaking, how long should his or her address last? How quickly can your president tee up a topic, conclude with an interesting set of questions, and engage the audience in a lively Q and A? Your CEO doesn't need to get all of his or her points out in the original presentation, only enough to get the conversation started. Other critical points can be gracefully introduced in the form of answers to audience questions. Spreading out key points over the course of a conversation is a better way of having them retained then by pouring all of them out at the beginning. One of my favorite vehicles is to ask a small group of very significant prospects and donors to join me and a "thought leader" from campus around one table in a private room (at a restaurant, club or campus setting) for a conversation around a lively topic. After the meal has been ordered, the "thought leader" takes 15 minutes to tee up an issue and then invites feedback. We often stage these events so they begin at noon and promise in advance that we will make sure that everyone will be able to leave promptly at 1:30. At the appointed hour, I call the question and let everyone know that they are welcome to stay but that we will keep our promise and let all those that need to, go. And, you know what invariably happens? Very, very few people go. The conversation usually continues for another half hour and when attendees leave, they ask, "When will you do this again?" I have also discovered that our "thought leaders" love the combination of social and intellectual interaction.

3. Sustain and space your programming. "Feast or famine" is not a good approach to staging programs. Without proper planning, we may stage too much in a short period of time and then allow months and months to elapse before the next burst. That's not a good way to build a following. We should look at where the largest concentrations of our constituents lie -- whether it is one city, state, region or country -- and ask ourselves how we can create identities for them in each of those locales (clubs, alliances, discussion groups) and what sort of programming we can deliver to them on a regular, predictable basis, being careful not to promise too much at the outset. In my case, I can isolate 74 percent of our alumni in and around eight cities. My ideal is to offer some substantive engagement and interaction in each of those locals once a month, and no less than once a quarter. That isn't easy to do. Different organizations with different imperatives will create different strategies. The key is to emphasize the sustained, well-spaced substantive conversational venues.

This structured approach to listening, observing, and substantively engaging is a part of a scouting function that is proving increasingly important to building lasting communities of common cause and communities of support.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

In the comment section of this blog, I received the following:

"As a volunteer at this year's reunion, I encountered several alumni at the registration table who took a look at my name tag and asked "what is the office of advancement?"I answered with something like "it advances the university through x, y and z."Do you have a one or two sentence definition that you use when you get that question?"

Thank you for asking. Here's how I would answer:

"The office of advancement is made up of a number of functions that help the University advance its mission by articulating and aligning its interests with those inclined to give their time, talent and treasure to a worthy cause. Those functions (in this case) include marketing and strategic communications, alumni relations, development, research and records, gift accounting and stewardship."

At that point, the questioner may say, "Well, isn't that really an indirect way of saying you raise money?" I would respond by saying:

"Successful fund raising is one of the outcomes an advancement office strives for but that can't be achieved if people don't understand, believe in and identify with the University's purposes and goals. Advancement doesn't just ask people to give their time, talent and treasure. It listens to and engages its potential supporters in a discussion about the future of the University. It seeks to involve them throughout their life in its struggles and dreams. It strives to create a greater and more vibrant community of active, well-informed stakeholders that extend well beyond the boundaries of the campus. And it is from this mutuality of interests and sustained interaction that support flows. Yes, we raise funds but we build community first. And after people give, we seek to sustain their trust and participation in our community by helping them see how their time, talent and treasure are advancing the University's highest and best purposes, how we, together, are making a difference where a difference most needs to be made."

What do you think? How would you answer those questions? Such questions present a huge opportunity to help people understand the ideals and aspirations of advancement -- if we are prepared.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Advancing Our Interests

I like the term 'advancement' because it suggests what must be done to advance, and in advance of, an institution's forward movement. It includes articulating an institution's particular strengths and how they relate to emerging challenges and opportunities; the building of communities of interests, coalitions, and strategic alliances; the development of moral and financial support and the stewardship of resources and those who make them possible.

The secret to keeping institutions great is to think of them not as static or fixed in a specific place or time, but moving across an ever-changing landscape toward a better place and a greater good, perhaps like a wagon train heading to a promised land. The wagon master, like the president of a complex organization, must know when to keep the wagons, or units under him or her, in tight formation, when to let them scatter, and when to circle. And wise wagon masters knows the importance of scouts; they know the terrain is ever-changing and that the coalitions that allowed the wagon train to move forward in the past may not necessarily be there in the future. They send out scouts to not only seek provisions but to study the landscape and negotiate with critical populations.

Advancement is that scouting function; it rides in front of the enterprise. It serves the organization by looking ahead, by anticipating the path forward, by figuring out where and how to secure critical resources, by being alert to and trying to mitigate potential hostility, and by building understanding wherever and whenever possible.

Wise wagon masters don't just ask their scouts to get provisions, they ask them to bring back intelligence ; they listen and make adjustments according to the information received. The best of scouts know when they can act on their own and when they must call the wagon masters forward to interpret great challenges and opportunities, to help secure important resources, negotiate treaties or reduce hostilities. And wise wagon masters respect good scouts. The collaboration is key to progressing toward the promised land.

In my next post, I'll build on this metaphor and give specific examples of an effective scouting operation and how it opens a better way forward and a better day ahead.