Saturday, April 24, 2010

Barriers to Alumni Giving

The Annual Giving Directors Consortium, representing 36 prominent institutions of higher learning, recently commissioned the Collaborative Innovation Network for Engagement and Giving to sample the opinions of alumni from the top 100 universities in the nation to better understand what they saw as the barriers to giving to their alma maters. The researchers first asked the directors to rank order what they thought the concerns of their alumni would be, then compared their answers with the actual answers from the alumni. The directors guessed that alumni would rank their concerns in this order:

  1. I don’t think the school really needs the money.
  2. I feel like a small gift won’t make a difference.
  3. They haven’t done enough to connect with me beyond asking for money.
  4. I feel like donations go into a “black hole.”
  5. I haven’t been given a good enough reason to give.
  6. I feel that I’ve paid enough already for tuition.
  7. I’m confused about the difference between the various fundraising programs.
  8. I want my donations to go for a specific purpose and don’t have that option.
  9. I’m unhappy with the direction in which the school is headed.
  10. There has been bad publicity about the school.
  11. I don’t feel a deep emotional connection to the school.
  12. They haven’t been aggressive enough in asking for money.

I applaud the Annual Giving Directors Consortium, first and foremost for conducting this study; it is precisely the kind of research that our institutions and our field need. Secondly, I congratulate them for having good donor radar. Their answers were close to being in the same order as the alumni but, in three cases, were fairly wide of the mark.

So, let’s all test our own instincts. Take the list of statements above and see if you can rank them in the same order as the alumni. I will publish the correct answers next week, then we’ll talk about the implications.

If you’re feeling confident, feel free to post your answers in the comment section.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Evaluating A Development Operation

Let’s pretend we’re development detectives. Our job is to audit and assess the development operation at Theoretical University. We arrive on campus and begin conducting a series of interviews with academic, administrative and advancement leaders. A divide soon emerges. The president believes the development operation isn’t capitalizing on the institution’s potential while the folks in development claim to be working night and day and doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances.

Where do we go next? Do we:

Start amassing and crunching internal data on various aspects of development performance so we can see if the staff is being properly measured, motivated and evaluated?

Collect external data from Theoretical U’s peer group, asking each to submit performance data by category (major gifts, special gifts, annual giving, planned giving, etc.) or by donor group (alumni, parents, corporations, foundations, friends, etc.) or by performance criteria (how many prospect in each development officer’s portfolio, how many required prospect calls, how many solicitations, dollar goals, etc.) or by return-on-investment criteria (how much is spent on development vs. how much is raised by it) so we can see how Theoretical U compares to “best practice”?

Conduct market research, if it does not exist, to determine how Theoretical U is viewed by current and prospective donors?

The last choice is the right answer. We conduct market research. Why? Well, what’s more predictive of fund raising potential than the relationship between Theoretical U and its current and prospective supporters? If there is not a widespread affinity with, an affection for, or an understanding of Theoretical U’s vision, mission, and goals, the raising of funds will prove quite difficult and expensive.

What’s the point of comparing the fund raising tactics of Theoretical U to those of its peers if it isn’t well connected to its key constituents? If I invited a hundred family members and friends to a party and five came, would I create a peer group of party hosts of a similar age, height and weight to see how many invitations they sent, how far in advance, using which key words and for a party on which day? Or would I check in with my family and friends to see if I had gone too long without communicating, or grown distant, or said something unfortunate, or failed to listen?

So, the market research we conduct for Theoretical U is a way of checking in with family and friends. It will help reveal why its fund raising is falling short of expectations or if those expectations are unrealistic. If the results show residual affection for the place and a broad understanding of its goals, we need to take a closer look at development operations. If there is residual affection but the goals are not understood, we need to question the efficacy of institutional communications. If there are no goals or they are neither well-developed or well-articulated, we need to counsel the president. If there is a lack or significant loss of affection for the institution, we need to counsel the president and the board that something dramatic needs to be done, that the institution needs to engage in a deep self-study, and announce that is has listened to its key constituents, searched its soul, internalized its shortcomings, and set itself on a path of radical reform.

But make no mistake about it, what the philanthropic market most wants to know is “what’s the president’s vision” and “what is the school trying to achieve?” Those are the questions that greet most development officers when they pay their calls on prospects, particularly on first visits. Without a compelling response, the second visit is harder to get, no matter how capable the development officer. Yet, according to a recent proprietary poll, a preponderance of advancement leaders, when asked how their academic leaders could be more helpful to them, said, “formulate or better articulate a vision.”

A lack of vision, or a poorly articulated or weakly documented one, therefore, constitutes a great strategic weakness in and of itself. But a president’s inability or unwillingness to project a vision may also mask a reluctance to restructure or make other difficult decisions. In some cases, administrations may have insufficient revenue to cover existing commitments but instead of righting the budget they task the development operation with making up the difference. Rather than acknowledge the inherent weakness of this case, they demand greater performance from their fund raisers. But, the harder a vision-challenged institution drives its development staff to ask more prospects for more money without a compelling case, the more disenchanted or alienated its prospects become. This eventually leads to the loss of development staff, particularly high achievers, in a field where turnover is already too high. Their replacements will tend to be weaker because the most talented fund raisers will find better opportunities. Key constituents will become increasingly dismayed by the turnover and less likely to engage with less impressive staff. And the gulf between institutional expectation and staff performance will continue to widen.

Successful fund raising institutions, on the other hand, display a higher rate of cohesion between the president and the advancement operation and greater sense of shared enterprise among other academic and administrative leaders. With more of their senior officers in the market interacting with donors and prospects, these institutions are better able to pick up on, and respond to, questions about vision and direction. When many senior leaders and faculty work actively to listen and establish greater mutuality with their key constituents, the development staff is more apt to be seen as empowered liaisons and relationship brokers, which enhances their effectiveness and improves their retention.

I am not saying that some fund raisers don’t need prodding. Those who make endless excuses for not engaging prospects are probably in the wrong field. Others may be capable but in need of more structure and discipline. But, when fund raising is faltering for ill-defined reasons, it is illogical to conclude that the entire problem resides with the entire advancement operation. In every operation there is the classic bell curve distribution of human talent, with a relative small number of extraordinary achievers on one end, the great middle composed of “willing workers” who require the right measure of love and discipline, and a small number of low achievers on the other end that need to be told to measure up or leave. But, if the whole operation is under-achieving, it can only be attributable to a deeper flaw in the system or culture.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Recruiting and Retaining the Best Volunteers

Having shared the fact that volunteers give ten times more than non-volunteers, and having focused on the board of directors as our most important volunteer opportunity, let’s now look at the criteria by which we can choose the best volunteers and ways that we can employ their talents and altruism to the greatest effect.

In a nutshell, the volunteers we should be looking for are “aligners” -- they align their beliefs with their actions, they seek alignment of purpose with others in their personal and professional lives, and they align with institutions that represent an extension of their deepest held values and, through them, to share the meaning of their lives with others. “Great,” you say, “so where to we find these people?” To which I say, “Well, you have to begin every search by first knowing what you’re looking for.” We must look for this specific characteristics:

  • Those who live their beliefs. Research shows that religious people (and it doesn’t matter what religion) give more and that regular attendance at church correlates powerfully with generous philanthropy. But we should also be alert to those who live their beliefs through community service and other sustained actions.
  • Family people. Many wonderful volunteers are rooted in strong families and/or see volunteer work as a “family of purpose.” Again, research shows that those who have multiple family connections within a institution of higher learning volunteer more and give more. The institution and the family are aligned. I believe far too many institutions fail to recognize and reinforce these multiple family connections and fail to recognize and recruit families of purpose around specific strategic initiatives. Obviously, through effective parent programs schools, colleges and universities have a way to not only engage productive volunteers but to “adopt” whole families. Specific volunteer opportunities and programs for couples who met and married on our campuses allows them to still be together while giving to others. Similarly, family events allow our volunteers to serve others without sacrificing their time with their loved ones.
  • Unassuming people. The best of our volunteer donors are not given to conspicuous consumption. As we have seen in so many instances, they often live understated lives and surprise us with the depth of their generosity. And, because they are unassuming, they don’t always come at us; we have to go find them. They do not make loud statements about the themselves but they will speak up for what they believe in.
  • Team players but not lemmings. Remember aligners work both ways; they will subordinate their egos to achieve alignment of purpose but they will become distressed when an institution’s deeds start to wander from its ideals. And, this is what we want. We want our volunteers to tweak our consciences and remind us of our founding purposes. Yet, too often, I have seen a tendency to recruit compliant volunteers who are less animated by principle -- and the result is predictable; they don’t make many waves or many contributions.

“Okay,” you say again, “now that we know what we’re looking for, where do we find these people?” To which I say, “You will find them by their deeds. Look within your research. Which of your prospects manifest these tendencies? “

You say, “Um, er, we don’t have that kind of information in our research.”

To which I say, somewhat obnoxiously, “So what does that tell you? That you’ve been chasing wealth and ignoring true philanthropic propensity?”

You say, “Save the sermons. Offer solutions.”

“Touche,” I say, “Then, let’s start conducting a better kind of research. Let’s develop smart questionnaires and interview techniques that will lead us to those who possess the most desired volunteer traits. At every point of engagement -- telefund calls, event interactions, development calls, alumni surveys, focus groups -- let’s start asking more probing and productive questions.”

And you know what? I bet when the word gets out that you’re being very discerning, that you’re looking far and wide for solid, unassuming aligners, that you’re being highly selective about the kind of people that you put into your most important volunteer slots, interest in your institution will grow and you’ll attract better and better volunteers. But this is not the “happily ever after” part of the story. You still have to find interesting and substantive work for these exceptional volunteers if you want to keep them aligned with your institution.

The best way to make the best use of the best volunteers is to give them the institution’s most important work. Putting them on a fund raising committee and providing them with the occasional dog-and-pony show won’t do it. If you want them to give more and, perhaps, raise more, you have to let them closer to the core. Standing volunteer bodies or task forces (and I think most of us could do with more task forces and fewer standing bodies) should be asked to help us reach enrollment goals (e.g. a higher yield of high achievers or great socio-economic diversity in the face of demographic change), grateful patient yields, improvements in campus life (including a candid examination of student frustrations and crises), curricular reviews, accreditation visits, changing research emphases, and strategic opportunities and challenges.

Life is about who we spend time with and what we work toward. If we take the time to think about who we’re looking for, we’re more likely to find them and, if we make them partners in the core enterprise, we’re more likely to keep them and ourselves working more happily, and productively, ever after.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Volunteer Selection and Engagement

In my last blog post, I shared the findings from the landmark study conducted by the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund and VolunteerMatch, the most of encouraging of which was the verification that volunteers give more than non-volunteers and the quantification of that phenomenon; they give ten times as much as non-volunteers.

So, all we have to do is recruit volunteers, and wait for the 10x payoff, right? Well, not exactly. We have to select the right volunteers, assign the weightiest roles to the most promising of them, and craft interesting, important tasks for them so they assume ownership of the enterprise and give generously and enthusiastically of their time, talent and treasure. So that should be a snap, right? Well, not exactly.

The most important volunteer body is the board of directors. Since the CEO and senior administrators will spend more time with that body than any other, it must be filled with highly capable and highly philanthropic people. If board members are capable and wealthy but not philanthropic, the board experience, no matter how strategic and interesting, will not make them so, and this is where a lot of organizations make costly mistakes. They recruit board members because of their wealth and stature and assume that philanthropy will follow. But, if board members gave nothing before they joined the board, ten times zero will still be zero. If they gave very little before the board, ten times very little will still be insignificant. And, if they gave little or nothing before, even stating a philanthropic expectation during the recruitment and receiving a head nod back, will not ensure their future philanthropy. You have to narrow your recruitment to those with a considerable philanthropic record, preferably with your organization. If not, your CEO and senior leaders will be caught giving most of their time to volunteers who that will never make large donations, thereby limiting the time they could be spending with more philanthropic prospects. In the worst of all worlds we find boards with little philanthropic propensity and presidents who are over-managing or somehow captive of them and, thus, spending too little time with more promising prospects, while both question why their advancement operation isn’t raising more money. Ay, chihuahua. No campaign or initiative can come close to reaching its potential if most of the administration’s attention is lavished on the least philanthropic volunteers.

So, if we’re prudent enough to recruit true philanthropists to our board, all we have to do is park their carcasses in that nice board room and wait for the checks to be written, right? Well, not exactly. If the brine of board experience is not rich enough, even the plumpest and most promising cucumbers will never turn to sweet philanthropic pickles, no matter how long we wait. Board members have to be given real work and accept real responsibilities. Presidents who exert too much control over their boards or who spoon feed them too much self-serving, self-protecting pablum remove them from the institutional challenges and opportunities that are most likely to motivate their greater giving. A board that is deeply engaged and challenged to set strategic direction and to accept ownership of its goals is far more likely to give in larger amounts. Board members should not only be assigned to committees; each committee should work toward a specific task with a specific set of institutional goals. Those goals should include a clear articulation of what defines, differentiates and distinguishes that institution, the production of a limited set of compelling projects that will inspire significant philanthropic support, and regular reviews of major gifts received to ensure they are being used and managed for optimal strategic impact.

Only if we do all these things -- select the truly philanthropic for the most important volunteer slots and give them the weightiest tasks of the greatest strategic import in authentic pursuit of a greater good -- can we expect to see their giving grow and to realize the 10X phenomenon.

In my next blog post, I will speak to other ways of ensuring that we match other important volunteer slots with the most worthwhile philanthropists.