Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Asking and Answering the Most Important Questions

Donors can help organizations reach higher levels of achievement, and make philanthropy an even more important social force, by asking the right questions before they give. In my estimation, those are:

1. What difference will my gift make?
2. Who will benefit?
3. How will they benefit?
4. When?

Wait a second, you say, “what about vision, mission, goals and objectives? Aren’t those the things that donors should be asking about?” Well, yes, but just asking about them and getting broad answers in return doesn’t yield the most productive philanthropic compacts. For instance, a leader of an organization may be able to articulate a compelling vision for an organization and that vision may be backed up by a thoughtful mission statement, strategic plan, and even a set of objectives. But go to that same leader and ask, “If I brought you a donor capable of making an unrestricted $100 million gift (or even any eight-figure gift) who only wants to know how it will transform your organization and those it serves, what specific plan would you put forward?” In my experience, most leaders of most major organizations cannot answer the question when first asked. Many say, “Oh, I can think of lots of things” but can’t articulate one truly transformational concept. What most do is bundle a set of smaller needs or ideas. Of the very few who can, I have met even fewer who could at the level of detail required by my first four questions. So vision, mission, strategies and goals are of little impact unless we are able to explain how specific gifts will make a specific difference.

For philanthropy-seeking organizations, the four questions can serve as a great test of your case for support or even an important proposal. Let’s say you set a campaign goal of $180 million and then put together a gift pyramid to determine how many gifts you need at various levels to reach that goal. Can you, for each and every gift level, answer those four questions with a compelling degree of specificity? How specific can you be even for the most modest gift levels on your pyramid? The more specific, the better.

Okay, maybe you’re worked up again. You’re thinking, “Is he really saying that I should be able to make a specific case for a $1,000 gift or even less?” Well, that would be ideal – and I think the organizations that can best show how modest gifts can put to specific use will raise the most money. But, if you can’t make a specific case for a $1,000 gift, can you make one for $10,000? If so, you can show $1,000 donors how they can get you one-tenth of the way toward that goal – and that should be far more satisfying than giving to a fund with very broad purposes.

Remember, philanthropy is about investment; donors want to provide the margin of excellence, to move an organization from good to great, not from intensive to critical care. They want to know that their gift leaves the organization and those it serves better for their contribution. If you can show how every gift will have a specific impact, you will introduce an powerful element to your case for support that will make the statements of vision, mission, strategy and objectives seem so much more appealing and attainable.

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