Monday, February 15, 2010

The Interview as Art and Science

I would hate to be given the challenge but if a client told me I could pick only one specific skill to teach his or her staff, I would select, "The Interview as Art and Science." Allow me to explain why.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I define philanthropy as a social compact, an unwritten culturally-held agreement between donors and doers to get something of mutual interest done. Defining what is of mutual interest is the key and the process best begins with an interview of the potential donor by the organization proposing to get something done (although I know of potential donors who interviewed representatives from a number of organizations before making a gift). Interviews are effective tools in broad discovery exercises, such as those conducted by students at Georgetown, or propensity screening interviews which I would recommend as the best way for an advancement officer to engage a prospective donor on a first visit. However, if these interviews are to yield strategically insightful information, a great deal of forethought and planning is required. In particular, the interviewing organization needs to think about the attributes it is seeking in its donors, the questions that will best reveal those attributes, and how to catch, record and develop follow-up strategies from the most telling answers. Of course the person being interviewed has to care enough about the institution represented to give thoughtful, candid answers if the alignment-seeking process is to be productive. So, let's take a closer look at each part of that process.

Key Attributes

The most important attributes organizations should be looking for in their prospective donors include:

Evidence of a committed life. This comes from people who believe in something larger and greater than themselves and commit themselves to it. For instance, many might describe themselves as religious or spiritual but the studies show that the person who attends church regularly is much more likely to give. The linkage between word and deed is important, in this case, between faith and observance. I worry that some could take church attendance too literally. What we should be looking for are those who live their beliefs.

Believers in reciprocity. This is often manifest in the notion of giving back. We should look for those who see themselves as beneficiaries of a faith, culture, political system, way of life or institution and who believe they have an obligation to pass that gift on to those who will come after them. Again the linkage is important. Many will express gratitude for what they have been given, fewer will feel a deep moral obligation, much less develop a plan of action, to pass it forward.

Meaning seekers. Those who think deeply about or see meaning in their life will be more motivated to share it with others, to hope others will learn from or build upon what life has taught them. In another earlier blog post, I cited the case of Ben Franklin who, having struggled as a printer's apprentice, established through his will a loan fund to help young tradesmen set up their own businesses.

Reformers or "better world" architects. This thread runs deep in the American psyche and American philanthropy. It seems to have been first expressed very early in American history when Governor Winthrop spoke of the new country as "a city on the hill" that would set an example for others and light the way for humanity.

Attribute Revealing Questions

I know many people would like me to write out a long list of questions to make the aforementioned attributes just pop out but it doesn't work that way. The interviewer may have some broad questions in mind but will have to make many adjustments to first put their subject at ease, then intuit from the way the subject's narrative unfolds, in substance and style, when to dig deeper and when to go easy. If one goes after the key attributes in too linear or too aggressive a fashion, the subject may feel as if the questions are prying or presumptuous. The interviewer is often a guide to the subject's own self-discovery. This is where the art comes in. One must know how to guide, and neither pull or push. Yes, I do believe this can be taught, not with a list of questions but by helping naturally curious and sensitive people prepare for a highly-individualized interview from a template of possibilities. Interviewers don't conduct psychoanalyses; they ask questions about the person's outlook and attitude toward the vision, mission and strategy of the institution they represent, then pay acute attention to which of the various lenses people choose to see those things through and which of the various portals they access in interacting with that institution.

Catching the Most Telling Answers

Most people don't reveal their innermost thoughts to a stranger at a first interview. Yet, if that interviewer is skilled at asking and listening, he or she can glean some very important information. The interviewer must listen for word choices and think about what they say about the speaker. It matters whether a person says "I think" or "I feel" or "I believe." The first may be an indication of a conceptual/analytic mind, the second of an intuitive type and the third of a spiritual person. A well-trained interviewer can learn whether the subject is an introvert or extrovert, whether they are deductive or inductive, whether they have a strong belief system, and whether they tend to think in tactical or strategic terms. The key is to understand how all those things come into play as the subject explains and explores the relationship of his or her value systems to the purposes of the institution. That is, or is not, the basis of alignment.

As with so many things in life, it is wise to begin with a strategic reconnaissance, and that is best begun by asking the right questions.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Shared Enterprise

Some of the most rewarding training sessions I have conducted have been all-day events on university campuses that engage academic and advancement leaders in an exploration of the best ways to achieve a greater sense of shared enterprise in the pursuit of private support.

When I begin these sessions, I see anxiety and apprehension in the face of many academic leaders. They fear I have been brought in to harangue them on the need to raise money or to drill them on mindless fund-raising mechanics. When I begin to articulate a role for them that is consistent with their calling -- that of a teacher, or one who explains the value or application of new knowledge, or even as one who embodies or explicates the ethos of their institution -- I see most of them relax and, by the end of the day, become positively enthusiastic.

So, let me offer a truncated version of that session by offering one “shared enterprise” scenario to demonstrate how academic leaders and advancement professionals can and should work together in ways that marry their respective talents, foster enjoyable collaboration, and lead to repeated successes.

I begin with these assumptions:

The university or academic unit in question has imagined ways in which private gifts will allow them to leverage their core competencies to provide greater services to worthy beneficiaries (and there’s a lot in that sentence that I would unload and explain during a training session).

They have translated these concepts into a compelling set of projects, characterized by precise definitions of the benefit to be provided, to whom, when it will be realized, and at what cost.

There are academic leaders in place to implement each of these projects; if not the first fund raising priority will be to raise sufficient funds to recruit them (if you are raising money for a project designed by a committee for which there is no leader, you’re in trouble).

With these predicates in place, let’s focus on one project and explore in a broad ten step process the appropriate division of labor between the academic and advancement sides of the house:

Step One

Advancement conducts research to see which donors’ propensities best align with the project (i.e. if the project is environmental in nature, the advancement research office, working with the front line fund raisers, looks first for donors with a proven passion for the topic, then those with a possible interest). Advancement develops a prioritized prospect list using a scoring system that puts those with the highest financial capacity and most proven passion for the topic at the top of the list. It then determines if the total capacity and propensity of ranked prospects is of sufficient critical mass to begin active fund raising. There is always an element of risk in such judgments, or an element of judgment in such risks, but one generally hopes to have enough depth in the prospect pool to assume the project can be successful if only one out of three give.

Step Two

Advancement develops a project roll-out plan focusing on geographic areas thathave the largest number of the most promising prospects.

Step Three

Advancement deploys staff to those regions to meet individually with the best prospects, preview the project with them and encourage their attendance at an upcoming salon event (an intimate gathering on a substantive issue with major prospects, academic leaders and advancement professionals preferably hosted by a donor or prospect in his or her home, private club or workplace).

Step Four

Academic leaders review the roll-out plan, coordinating their calendars with advancement to ensure there is at least one significant academic leader and one senior advancement professional at each proposed salon event.

Step Five

Academic leaders and advancement professionals conduct a series of salon events in targeted areas that go something like this: The host welcomes the group and provides a personal testimonial as to why he or she believes this particular topic is of great importance; the academic leader provides a 15-minute inspiring overview of the project trying to relate it to the lives and concerns of the prospects; the academic or advancement leader then leads a conversation on the topic by asking a series of questions designed to bring out the opinions of those in attendance; the academic leaders and advancement professionals listen intently to see if the project is well-understood and greeted with enthusiasm or if there are other issues in the way; the advancement professional makes sure the event is well-paced and that the conversation is not cut off too soon or allowed to run too long: the host closes the event by thanking everyone for gathering around such an important topic and lets the prospects know that a member of the advancement staff will debrief with them soon.

Step Six

Academic leaders and advancement professionals meet shortly after each salon event to engage in an open, critical review of what worked and what didn’t including if the opening presentation was as effective as it might have been and if questions were well and succinctly answered. They also share impressions of which prospects seemed most intrigued, most confused or most negative.

Step Seven

Advancement professionals secure follow-up appointments with prospects who attended the events, ascertaining their level of interest and determining follow up actions for each. Academic leaders should understand that this can be a highly iterative process over many months as the advancement professional responds to each individual’s questions, concerns, suggestions and decision-making style while trying to determine which prospects are deserving of the most time and attention.

Step Eight

Advancement professionals “call in” academic leaders as certain prospects move toward gift commitments. Academic leaders should remember that they can be most effective early in the fund raising process by helping the prospect see what is possible and late in the fund raising process to assure the prospect of the importance of his or her support.

Step Nine

Advancement professionals run drafts of gift proposals by academic leaders before submitting them to prospects to ensure all parties are aligned. Any changes suggested by prospects should be reviewed by academic leaders to ensure they can be implemented and stewarded over time.

Step Ten

Academic leaders, in accepting gifts, accept responsibility for stewarding the most generous gifts and for deepening relationships with the most significant donors, including attending gift recognition ceremonies and helping to personalize stewardship reports.

While this is only one scenario for one project, it should underscore that collaboration between the two sides of the house is absolutely essential, that no advancement office can cast itself as a “go it alone” operation and no academic unit can afford to relegate its advancement effort to “just go get the money and leave us alone” status. Shared enterprise is the key to satisfying sustained success.