Monday, March 29, 2010

Volunteers Give More

It’s the kind of study that should have prompted strategy sessions in advancement offices across the country and caused some consternation among non-profit leaders. The study, released by Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund and VolunteerMatch on December 3, 2009, showed those who volunteer at non-profits give 10 times more than non-volunteers.

Here are some other important findings:

Americans are committed to service; 43% volunteered in the previous 12 months; 72% volunteered at some point in their lives. Two-thirds (67%) generally give to the organization where they volunteer. Those same volunteers are more likely to increase their charitable donations in 2010 than those who have never volunteered (but only 32% to 26% -- the real message being that most don’t see themselves giving more this year) Those that do plan to increase their giving say it is because they have seen (my emphasis) the good their donations do.

Reasons for not volunteering include lack of time (46%), lack of interest ((32%), too much pressure to give more time than people want to give (32%), and the inability to find the right match for their interests (30%).

Despite their inclination to serve, Americans view non-profits with more concern; 60% say they have become too big while 56% believe their management is disorganized. These attitudes are especially prevalent among people 55 years and older.

Interesting enough, 47% said they are more motivated by the experience they get than by helping others while 51% said they are more likely to volunteer where there are volunteers of a similar age. This is particularly true of those under 35.

Yet, Americans remain idealistic; 63% cite a renewed sense of the value of community service among their family and friends; 66% believe “true philanthropy” involves giving both time and money; 84 percent believed that no incentive or rewards should be offered in return for volunteer service.

Reasons for volunteering include supporting a cause they care about (72%), it’s the right thing to do (69%), filling an unmet community need (54%), and setting an example for family and children (53%).

Though the majority say they are not likely to give more money this year, 31% say they are more likely to volunteer time.

Mission and purpose are the main reason most (61%) choose a particular organization, while meeting local community needs (59%) ranks a close second. Roughly half say an organization’s reputation and its ability to put their specific set of skills to good use greatly influences their volunteer choices.

Volunteering rates increase with education -- 36% for high school graduates, 56% for college grads and 61% for those with post graduate degrees. Adults aged 35 to 54 years are more likely to volunteer (54%) than those younger (33%) or older (38%). Women are more likely to volunteer than men, 54% to 43%.

There’s still a remarkable reservoir of good will among Americans but philanthropy-seeking organizations would be wise to:

Review existing volunteer structures and disband or revise those that do not match the needs of the institution with the interests of the volunteers;

Imagine new, adaptive, strategic, interactive structures that would draw forth the most capable of volunteers and make the best use of their time;

Review and revise mission statements to ensure they not only sound good but make a convincing case for how they are advancing a compelling cause;

Be proactively accountable in showing they are a lean, close-to-ground, service provider; and

Demonstrate in some detail, through profiles and anecdotes, the difference that gifts are making in the lives of those they serve.

Organizations who pay no attention to this survey and the many others that show an erosion of public trust, who fail to make the difficult decisions to contain costs, and who put all their hopes in more aggressive fund raising will be disappointed by at the end of the year.

In subsequent blog posts, I’ll build on this study’s findings and address the role of operating and advisory boards, creative volunteer constructs, ways of identifying and engaging the very best volunteers, and building communities of interest.

Monday, March 22, 2010

When To Ask

How do you know when it’s time to ask a prospective donor to give a major gift? It’s kind of like asking when’s the right time to propose marriage. The answer would be the same -- when you have a very good feeling that the other person will agree, preferably gleefully, and if the answer is yes, you’re ecstatic about the prospect of being together for a long time.

The problems with a sudden solicitation and a precipitous proposal are the same. The more sudden it is, the more likely you are to be rejected and the more awkward it will be for both parties. Or, if the other party complies with a precipitous proposal, you’ve just agreed to a substantial relationship with someone you barely know.

It’s much more sensible to take sufficient time to ensure that the relationship will be lasting, if not joyous. There has to be some evidence of mutual interest. If you keep asking without signs of encouragement, it’s time to ask yourself if this is the right one. If you get a few encouraging signs, persist. An assiduous suitor can sometimes supplant a smug front-runner. If you continue to pursue after being repeatedly rebuffed, you’re becoming stalker. Few stalkers live happily ever after.

So, what are the signs of mutuality? Well, think about it -- a willingness to see you more than once, a growing interest in what you like to talk about, manifest by an increasing number of questions and an interest in increasingly long answers. If it gets serious, exclusivity reigns; the other party has lost interest in others and holds other suitors at bay. “Ifs” turn to “whens.” It seems as if you are speaking the same language and finishing each other’s sentences. Your goals and purposes seem to become one in the same. And, then some enchanted evening -- okay maybe I am getting a little carried away.

But I am serious about good relationships needing the benefit of time. Oh sure, there’s somebody out there saying, “Langley is such a romantic. I’ve asked and gotten commitments on the first visits many times.” To which, I say, “Okay, you’ve gotten a few dates but the alignment of souls brings so many more joys and enrichments.” And I also say, “Which of us will have more to show for our efforts at the end of our day and doesn’t time always prove the romantic the greatest realist?”

And then there is that literal minded person thinking “But even the best of advancement professionals is trying to win more than one hand or one heart at a time.” To which I say, “Yes, but still be selective and take your time to achieve the more productive form of philanthropic polygamy.”

I better leave now. If I stretch this metaphor any further it will snap and people will be hurt.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Out of the Mouths of Students

One of the most successful fund raising strategies I ever employed was not designed to raise money.

The strategy was the Student Discovery Initiative (see Oct. 3, 2009 blog post) at Georgetown University which entailed training students to interview thousands of alumni about their animating passions in life. Within a year, giving from those interviewed increased 43 percent; 21 percent of whom gave their largest gift ever. Before sitting for the student interviews, the alumni received a letter from the president assuring them that they would not be asked for money. And, despite not being asked, they gave in surprisingly large numbers and amounts.

Let me put those results in even clearer perspective. Prior to the launch of Student Discovery Initiative, only 19 percent of Georgetown alumni gave annually. This was after a successful campaign, years of efforts and multiple approaches. Further, the alumni we asked to participate in the student interviews were not the regular givers but those who gave only on occasion. Their philanthropic response to being asked for only their opinions was far greater (in terms of the percentage of increase) than to anything or any combination of things that university had ever done in the name of overt fund raising.

So I ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what does this tell us? Might it not suggest that philanthropy-seeking organizations would be wise to spend less time soliciting and more time eliciting the opinions of their supporters? Why did the Georgetown alumni give in larger numbers and larger amounts after a one-hour interview by a student than they did after hours and hours of appeals by professional fund raisers? Did the students, by their mere appearance, take them back to their undergraduate days and remind them of all the hopes and dreams they once had? Did the students embody and convey the quality of the institution in a way that no literature ever could (many of those interviewed wrote or called to say, “You couldn’t have sent a more impressive representative”)? Did the deployment of students make the alumni feel more valued and respected by their alma mater (many also expressed pride and gratitude that we were sending someone “just to see me”)? And did the demonstration of respect cause the alumni to see the relationship -- too often defined by “we ask -- you give” -- as more reciprocal? Or was their response a combination of all those things and more?

Determining exact donor motivation can be quite difficult but the University of Michigan, through its College Connections Program, a similar effort, is achieving new levels of alumni interest and giving. If you’re getting results, you don’t have to chase motivation. If something is working, keep doing it.

Anyone who has been around philanthropy for awhile and is a reasonably astute observer of the process knows that the solicitation is one of the least important steps. So much more depends on taking the time to discover a prospective donor’s animating passion, on exploring the extent to which it aligns with the institution’s mission, on and finding a project that allow donor and doer to get something of mutual interest done. And, yet, so much energy in so many operations is still expended on “the ask.” Too many hire advancement professionals on their perceived ability to ask for money and too few on their ability to ask intelligent questions that allow them to orchestrate the alignment of donor passions with institutional imperatives. I even heard one prominent consultant in the last few months, when pressed by members of the Board of Directors to identify the one thing that institution could do to secure more private support, answer “Conduct more solicitations.” I couldn’t disagree more. His advice could not be more unsubstantiated and more out of touch with the times and best practice.

We need to ask a lot of questions of prospective donors and engage in a lot of active, respectful listening before we ever ask for their support. And, yes, there is a time to ask directly and explicitly for a gift. In my next blog post, I offer some advice on how you know when it’s that time.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Degrees of Englightenment

Okay, so if you buy the premise of my last blog -- that philanthropy-seeking organizations would be wise to spend more time understanding how current and prospective donors relate to their organizational culture and less time on importing fund raising techniques from other institutions -- let’s talk about how to achieve the former.

Achieving anything of any significance at any institution begins with recognition at the top. In this case, we need the person at the top to understand that philanthropy is reciprocal. Yep, donors want something in return and philanthropy-seeking organizations need to figure out what their donors want from their particular culture.

Most organizations know the arrangement has to be more than “we ask -- you give” but too many err on that side in their day-to-day behaviors. It is not as if they are willfully neglectful or ungrateful; it’s just that they have not fully grasped what it means to incorporate donors as silent partners. Some institutions even view their relationship to donors with the moral condescension “since we represent a really important, noble cause, we ask-- we expect you to give -- and if you question us or want more you really don’t support our great cause.” Marginally more enlightened organizations subscribe to the policy of “we ask -- you give -- we thank you profusely as a strategy to get you to give again.” That’s still too one-sided though some institutions have enough of an “awe factor” to get away with it more than they should. More sophisticated institutions think in terms of “imagine what is possible -- get buy in -- we ask -- you give -- we thank --we share progress and results -- you give more when we fulfill our promise.” That’s better but still a bit self-referential if not self-reverential. The most sophisticated organizations proceed more along these lines “we scan the environment asking how our core competencies correspond to a growing social need or opportunity -- when we see a possible powerful correlation we propose a plan of action to key stakeholders -- we listen, incorporate the best suggestions and adjust -- then we, the proposing institution and its incorporated stakeholders, seek broadeer investment -- when an investment is secured we incorporate the investor into the fabric of our institution and the continuity of our cause -- we expect to retain you, the investor, not merely by thanking or remaining accountable but by adopting you as a shareholder, by giving you a voice, and by making you a part of our culture.”

And, yes, there are donors of various degrees of enlightenment. There are those who think “the more I give, the more you dance to my tune.” Then there are those that work from the model of “you ask -- I ask what I get in return before I give.” Slightly more evolved are those who assume “you ask -- I give a modest amount -- and expect extraordinary things to be done.” And, of course, there are the over-awed, unquestioning, loyal donors who give and ask nothing in return. Yet they, too, are far from optimal. No relationship gets better if one side asks too little of the other -- no vision, no accountability, no direction, no consideration. A weak side does not make the other strong; it weakens the whole. More sophisticated donors proceed along the lines of “life has been good to me; I should give back -- when asked I will give and use my success to make important institutions even better -- and I will let my generosity and success be used as an example to others.” That nice, maybe even very nice, but it’s still a bit self-referential if not self-reverential. The most sophisticated donors approach the process more along the lines of “there is meaning and purpose in my life -- I can employ philanthropy to extend the meaning of my life to others -- I can make a difference where my values direct me, where I believe a difference most needs to be made -- I will develop relationships with organizations who most unselfishly serve the causes I believe in. I will invest the most in those that deliver most frequently on their promise and I will try to serve them as unselfishly as they serve others.”

So reciprocity is sought by even the most magnanimous of donors. It is the reciprocity of joining together, of being equally committed and equally unselfish, or respecting and being respected, of giving of one’s heart and soul, and, as a result, belonging to a collective of purpose greater than any single interest or individual.

When the most enlightened organizations and the most sophisticated donors find common cause, the remarkable occurs. I have seen it happen. I know it is possible. But surely we must see the inverse is also true. We must consider what will happen if an institution of noble purposes engages in short-sighted, selfish fund raising practices. Expedient, unsophisticated fund raising will attract expedient, unsophisticated donors. The latter will eventually drag the former down.

Does the adoption of the most sophisticated, enlightened philanthropic policies and practices guarantee the attraction of the most sophisticated, enlightened philanthropists? Well, it certainly increases one’s chances just as the adoption of the inverse approach decreases one’s chances. But I don’t know that success is ever guaranteed. I just know it would be easier to live with struggles and setbacks borne of the best intentions than it would be to achieve a tenuous success cobbled together from the weak pieces of selfish means.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Right Direction

"We're lost," Yogi Berra is reputed to have told the passengers in his car, "but we're making good time."

And so it is with many fund-raising organizations. They're "making good time." People are working hard and putting in long hours. They're grinding their way way through the usual tactics -- identifying and rating prospects, assigning prospects to portfolios, developing solicitation strategies, making calls, and determining next steps. But very few are asking if the "effort-to-outcome" ratio is right or if the whole approach makes sense. They just keep grinding away, spending more and more time at the office.

Some assume they're making particularly good time because they have done some benchmarking, zeroed in on "best practice" and are implementing tactics borrowed from the most successful organizations. They're certain they are not only making good time but that it's only a matter of time before their numbers go up. But wait a minute. Is 'best practice" a result of tactical efficiency or cultural advantage? Take a look at college and university annual funds. Most of the most successful can be found at relatively small liberal arts colleges. So what is the secret to their success -- the tactical mastery of the annual fund staff or the intimacy of the undergraduate experience? If we really want sustained best practice, wouldn't it make more sense to study cultures that promote closeness and the long-term loyalties that flow from it more than it would to examine and emulate the various and assorted techniques of successful telefund operations?

And wouldn't it be more productive to ask your alumni or patients or whoever you want to give what it is in your culture that attracts or repels them rather than using someone else's technique on them? If my wife weren't as close to me as I would like, should I go ask my friend Joe what he does for his or ask mine how we can be closer? And if I spent too much time trying to learn from Joe, wouldn't my wife grow even more exasperated? With me so far?

Okay, so wouldn't we be more assured of going in the right direction and making good time if we knew why our closest constituents were giving or not? Wouldn't listening. learning, then amplifying the strengths and minimizing the weaknesses of our culture improve our chances of success more than the evermore assiduous application of imported technique?

You'd probably never guess where I'd come out on those questions.