Sunday, May 30, 2010

Values As A Means of Building Emotional Connections

In earlier posts we learned that the lack of emotional connection is a major reason why many alumni don’t give, or give more, to their alma maters. So let’s explore ways of overcoming that barrier by identifying and igniting emotions that could reestablish long-term connections.

The key is looking not just at the emotions of alumni but what might prove to be the basis of an emotional connection between school and alumnus, especially over time and if the alumnus has fallen away. That basis is shared values. We channel our passions through them and use them to determine our course of action throughout life.

With that in mind, I randomly selected from the CASE directory one four-year university (in this case with technological focus), one community college, and one independent school. Then I went to their websites to review their stated values. The university’s included integrity and ethics, diversity and pluralism, and teamwork and collaboration. The community college also listed integrity, as well as “service excellence.” The independent school spoke of citizenship, personal responsibility, and moral character. Bravo. They are all laudable virtues that have the potential of engaging alumni and inspiring their support.

Then I went further into the website of each to determine how alumni might be instructed on ways they could help advance those values with their time, talent, or treasure. In no case, could I find such options. The closest was that the university and the community college spoke to the need for scholarships and, a few cases, there were scholarships that promoted diversity. In the case of the independent school, there was no explanation of giving options, only a payment form and a list of giving level societies.

I don’t presume that the website is the sum and substance of those institution’s alumni relations or fund-raising strategies but you take my point. Values are the animating force of institutional life and purpose, and the means of building strong, sustained community and support. But we cannot build communities of support merely by stating values; we have to show how we are instilling values, and deepening them through practical applications and values-based outcomes. And we have to show others how they can help us get there.

So, let’s focus on one value expressed by all three of these schools -- integrity (or moral character) -- to see how it could be employed to build a greater sense of community and inspire support. For instance, what if any of those institutions put forward an “Integrity Plan”? What if that plan called for a series of events or rituals that would help stress the importance of that virtue, whether it was freshman convocation, an an integrity pledge, or a celebration of “acts of integrity” in which all members of the community could take part? What if teachers of art, literature, history, religion and other disciplines were asked to incorporate “exemplars of integrity” in their lesson plans or to speak to them in some other way? What if students were assigned to read stories that highlight real or imagined acts of integrity, and their parents were asked to read them as well and facilitate a family discussion? How about organizing alumni activities around the reading of certain books or the viewing of plays and movies that speak eloquently to that value? How about having a student video contest on the theme of integrity and asking an alumni panel to review the submissions and determine the winner? How about creating an integrity chat room or billboard by asking students to find and submit their favorite examples from real life? How about asking alumni to speak to students under the theme of “Integrity in Question” citing examples from their their personal knowledge or business experience where a lack of integrity led to disastrous consequences? Again, you get my point, whether like my examples or not. I think many of you would agree that raising money for an imaginative “Integrity Plan,” or any part of it, would be a wonderful way of engaging volunteers and donors. Wouldn’t the same be true of institutions that created a plan for diversity, or citizenship, or service excellence? If it involved all segments of the community, included a variety of interesting projects and drove toward certain outcomes, would it not allow more alumni to say, “I care about that. I want to be involved. I can see how I can help and make a difference”? And wouldn’t that make a great difference, particularly if their alma mater said, “Thank you for sharing and embodying these values. We need your help in making them come alive and be embraced by this generation of students”?

Wouldn’t it?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

An Urgent Need to Better Relate

It has become axiomatic to say fund raising, particularly at the major gift level, is “about relationships.” Yet practice too often lags that pronouncement.

The most effective, sustained fund raising is not just about a relationship between donors and development officers but between donors and an institution. The more multi-dimensional and multi-faceted those relationships the better. As a number of recent studies have illuminated, larger numbers of constituents are expressing dismay at the tendency of many institutions to define them only as prospects or donors. If the reason for every visit, every contact, ever interaction with every constituent is fund raising or some thinly disguised pretext for it, it matters little if all visits are conducted by one or many representatives of the same institution. It’s one-dimensional and one-sided. The message is “we’re interested in you -- as long as you give.” In human relations terms, it’s like the person who only comes to see you when he wants something. You eventually see through him and find every reason not to meet.

Nor do constituents want to be parked, literally or figuratively, in the alumni house. For instance, when I was at Georgetown, we asked graduates what they wanted most from their alumni association. They came back with a very clear answer. They did not want the alumni association to be an end unto itself but a facilitative portal to the larger university -- its students, faculty, and administrators as well its signature programs and significant events.

That’s why the best development officers help prospects build multi-dimensional, multi-faceted relationships with the institution. They do not prowl for prospects like lone wolves unless they are forced to, unless they work within a cultural expectations that say, in effect, “Just get the money and don’t bother us with the details.” In such a culture, everything the front line development officer suggests to strengthen the institution’s philanthropic hand is, at best, met with a “is-this-really-necessary” sigh or, at worst, derision and indignation. It goes something like this (DO stands for Development Officer, RIA for Relevant Institutional Authority):

DO: We could stimulate more philanthropic interest if we had a more compelling vision.

RIA : Aren’t you supposed to just listen what we want to do and turn it in to something that donors want to hear?

DO: Our donors want more detail about where we’re heading and why.

RIA: We tried strategic planning years ago and it didn’t work.

DO: Our case for support sounds like a long wish list; can we get it down to a handful of institutional priorities?

RIA: If we do that, somebody will be upset.

DO: The alumni would like to see more of the faculty and to be engaged in more substantive events and activities.

RIA: The faculty say they never see any money after they do those things.

Too many university or academic leaders think the key to raising more money is to simply add development staff and/or task them to reach ever higher goals. They point to the proceeds of the most philanthropically productive institutions and ask, “Why can’t we do that?” They need only look behind any one of those successes to see that the building of philanthropic support is an institutional obligation that begins at the top and permeates the whole. It is not delegated to an isolated, culturally-distinct part of the organization.

With alumni participation at its lowest recorded rate, with only one out of every ten giving annually (and that’s after tens of thousands of non-giving alumni have been deleted for the sake of U.S. News ratings) we need to acknowledge that too many of our practices have been too one-sided and short-sighted. We’ve been too nakedly on the make. The smart, sensitive people that we educated are pushing back or, even worse, walking away. We need to change our ways. We need to commit ourselves to more considerate, reciprocal relationships. The longer we wait, the more we will have to spend on remedial relationship-building with ever more remote prospects for success, or watch the alumni participation rate continue to decline and hope that ever larger individual gifts will make up the difference. But what does it profit an institution if it relies increasingly on the largesse of a few while losing the hearts of many? And what are the real costs if we don’t contemplate and calculate those consequences very, very soon?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Upcoming Conferences

I’ll be presenting a two-day seminar in Chicago, June 21 and 22, on “Building a Fundraising Partnership Between Development and Academic Leadership.” Ultimately, successful development requires the right person to deliver the right idea to the right prospect at the most opportune moment, and that demands a high degree of collaboration and coordination within our institutions. Check out the content-packed conference by clicking on:

On August 5 and 6, Terry Handler and I will present an “Advancement Master Class: Uniting Vision, Strategy and Systems.” In this class, I will explain my “phase and flow” approach to development while Terry will address the opportunities and challenges associated with adopting this innovative system. You can get a flavor for the master class by listening to this podcast:

If you’ve been to one of my conferences before, I look forward to being with you again and appreciate your support. If you’d like to make it but can’t, please pass this on to those you think might benefit. And, if this will be your first conference with me, I am eager to learn how I can be helpful to you.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Ethics of Fund Raising for "Replacement Dollars"

Philanthropy is a compact between a doer and a donor to get something of mutual interest done. The compact requires both parties to state their intentions clearly, to agree on an outcome, and to keep their word. If those conditions are met, the agreement is ethical. If, however, the doer induces support from the donor on false pretenses, that is a violation of every known code of professional fund raising ethics.

What, then, should we make of the use of the increasingly common practice of raising “replacement dollars”? Let’s look at a few scenarios.

  • An institution asks for private support to build a new structure. It has already fronted some or all of money for that purpose. As new private dollars come in, they replace fronted funds, freeing them up for some other use. Is that ethical? Essentially, yes, if the donor knows that debt has already been incurred and their support is alleviating that debt. If the institution fronts the money and is prepared to see the project through but tells prospects the building won’t go forward without their support, an element of deception has crept into the compact. Some donors want to make sure that the private contributions are absolutely essential, either to meet a critical need or an important opportunity. If the institution has the ability to front the money, some donors will reason, they don’t really need my support. That’s why it is imperative that the institution be frank and forthcoming; donors have the right to determine the role they want to play and the criteria they wish to apply in making their gifts.
  • An institution announces a drive for additional financial aid both to respond to greater student demand and to remain competitive in their admissions. The institution has already committed $20 million per annum from its annual operating budget to financial aid. As donors respond to the call for more financial aid support, the institution redirects the investment in direct proportion to the new dollars thereby maintaining a $20 million annual commitment. Ethical? Nope. The institution claimed there was a greater need and a new opportunity. In that case donors would assume that new dollars were building greater institutional capacity, that their support was augmenting existing commitments to meet new challenges. Further, if the institution implied that new money was creating new levels of opportunity but did not cap or control the expenses that drive up tuition, they failed to tell donors the fully story. New donations might never keep pace. Indeed, in such a case, ever larger amounts of money given to financial aid might only serve to cover lax fiscal management. Even if the financial aid campaign were successful in meeting its stated goals, the institution’s competitive posture, in terms of its ability to give greater amounts of aid to more students, could have actually declined. The push for “new” dollars to meet greater challenges was a ruse for maintaining the status quo. Okay, so what if the institution just asked for financial aid without making any claims about the need or improving its competitive posture? Well, that would certainly be preferable but there should be no implication that the overall financial aid picture will improve, only that donors will have the joy of giving to an area that provides a lot of psychic rewards. The trouble with that approach is that it’s not likely to generate significant support. Again, there’s nothing wrong with an institution saying “we could use your support; anything you give will make a difference, just pick the portal of your choice.” But, in general, the more a donor gives the more s/he wants to know, in precise terms, the difference made or improvement rendered.
  • An institution hosts a number of heads of state each year and the tab for doing so keeps growing. Someone in development locates a donor interested in underwriting a high-level speakers series and the president says, “Rather than create something new, maybe we can put her name on the existing speakers program in exchange for budget relief.” In this case, the replacement seems to work; the donor wants to bring in and be associated with prestigious speakers, and it would be hard to surpass what the president’s office is already doing. The donor knows exactly what she is getting and the institution knows it can deliver. The donor gets prestige and performance; the institution gets budget relief. Yes, the money being used for that institutional purpose will be redirected but, presumably, not in such a way to lessen or undermine what the donor seeks to accomplish or to pretend that gift will achieve something that it cannot. Candor is the key.

As I have detailed in earlier posts, Americans' trust in their institutions is eroding. They see them as bloated, poorly managed, and aloof. In such an environment, we need to recommit ourselves to the highest ethical standards in our fund raising practices. Every new gift puts either more rock or more sand in our foundation.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Barriers to Alumni Giving (Part II)

In my last post, I shared what annual fund directors guessed would be the most significant barriers to alumni giving. Now let’s compare their guesses to the actual answers of alumni. The greatest barriers, in order of importance, as perceived by 500 alumni, donors and non-donors, from the 100 most prominent universities, were: (vs. the ranking the annual fund directors assigned to each statement in parenthesis):

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

So the biggest disparities between the feelings of the alumni and the guesses of the annual fund directors were around the issues of tuition, emotional connection and the importance of small gifts. Tuition was the greatest perceived barrier of the alumni, save those age 65 and older, and by a wide margin over the next answer. And that’s what makes this survey particularly worthy of our attention. A deeper examination of the alumni responses shows that young alumni have a stronger emotional connection but spend ten years after graduation paying off their student loans. But, by the time they have retired those debts, they’ve lost emotional connection. Then, when they reach their peak earning years, the are solicited more actively for ill-defined purposes from an institution to which they no longer feel connected. This explains, as vividly as anything I have seen, why alumni participation has steadily declined over the years, despite more strenuous fund raising efforts, to its lowest recorded ebb.

Yet, we should note that nowhere in this list of barriers did we see, “I don’t have the money” or “I don’t believe in giving.” Given the impact of economic contraction of the past two years, those are remarkable omissions. Other polls, particularly the Fidelity/VolunteerWatch survey, show most Americans still very willing to give their time and money to what they see as important causes and institutions. And, while I can’t prove it by these data alone, I believe these alumni are expressing disillusionment with the absence or loss of emotional connection. I believe they want their “alma mater” to be what that Latin phrase actually means -- “nourishing mother.” They want to believe in her, to understand where she is going, what she is struggling against and striving for, and to know where they can make a real difference with their time, talent and treasure.

The colleges and universities that have the highest rate of alumni participation already know this. The ones that are listening, learning and responding have the best chance of turning the situation around. And, those that continue to turn a deaf ear to the concerns of their sons and daughters, who think they need only ask for more and more often, will exacerbate the frustrations of their alumni and continue to erode their potential base of support.