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.

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