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.

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