Sunday, November 15, 2009

Notes From the Field

I thought I'd share with you some issues that came up in the last week and my response to them.

1. A donor was nice enough to offer her apartment in Paris for an auction. It's a wonderfully generous offer from an exceptional person but I tend to steer clear of auctions for all the reasons mentioned in my last few blogs; it suggests philanthropy is about getting something in return. I know; I shouldn't be so picky. In this case someone has offered a property that can be converted into cash for philanthropic purposes but, if you do too much of that, doesn't it contribute to a culture of "so what do I get for my giving?" Silent auctions are preferable but I wonder if events that rely heavily on them have a tendency to attract more "bargain hunters" than a philanthropists, and if we bring out too many of the former do we scare away or turn off the latter? Live auctions are more troubling to me. They seem to detract from the dignity of a philanthropic event which should be much more about the spirit of giving, the love of humanity and how the organization in question has made a lasting difference in the lives of those it exists to serve. I worry about making a spectacle of bidding on luxuries when we should be promoting the quiet contemplation of how we can work together to help those in need. Finally, I'm very skeptical about the efficacy of one-time or stand-alone fund raising events like galas and black tie events. The overhead for such events is usually very high, sometimes as much as one-third to one-half of the proceeds. If one took the same amount of money and invested it in field work (discovering and engaging prospects), it would generate more philanthropy in the long run. The best events are those that a highly substantive, that showcase the most selfless activities, and are part of a much longer approach to community building.

2. Several members of my staff did some exceptional work in looking at the number of prospects required to run a successful $2 billion campaign, then comparing that goal to the number that we currently had at all levels, where the largest gaps were, how many leads would be necessary to generate a sufficient number of prospects, how many discovery visits it would take to convert leads into qualified prospects and how many development officers would be required to complete the task. The exercise proved to be a great management tool and a teaching aid; it vividly demonstrates the time it takes to build a broad prospect base and how labor-intensive it is. It also demonstrates the need to keep a portion of an organization dedicated to discovery even during the most intensive campaigns so that there is the potential of greater sustained support after the campaign than before.

3. Though our work at Georgetown University over the past few years has produced a much broader field of prospects, appointments with those prospects are proving more and more difficult to secure. Where it once took about 10 calls to secure one face-to-face appointment with a new prospect, it now takes 20. And, we still see a large number of donors who, because they are very skittish about the stability of the economy, are reluctant to make multi-year pledges.

4. Donors continue to ask what institutions of higher education are doing to keep their tuition in check. Today's New York Times has an article about universities who have hired Bain Consulting to find ways to reduce their costs. Such efforts, whether they are guided by external consultants or the result of rigorous internal reviews, constitute a responsible reaction to changing times and growing public concern.

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