Monday, January 24, 2011

Caught Downstream

The most difficult part of being a consultant is being called in where most or all of the powers-that-be, if not much of the organization, have lost confidence in their vice president for advancement. Even though I ostensibly have been asked to conduct an objective analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the operation, it soon becomes clear that I have been brought in to confirm the hopelessness of the situation. The execution seems imminent and all I can do is plead for leniency and urge the powers-that-be to fix the circumstances that were beyond the current vice president’s control before bringing another one in.

It’s the most difficult part for me because I was a vice president for advancement for 21 years. I know how unchecked expectations, or the responsibility for almost everything, can roll into that office and inundate even the most capable and conscientious practitioners. But whatever I feel is an ounce of what that vice president is going through. And sometimes all I can do is commiserate, help that vice president take heart in the effort put forward, and advise how to orchestrate an exit with personal and professional dignity intact.

But now I’m starting to see a pattern to these situations. The embattled vice president once enjoyed better days, perhaps in at another place, perhaps in the same position in the same place only a few years ago. The place that was flush with well-developed prospects at the time. All that needed to be done was to assign those prospects to the fund raisers’ portfolios, and establish, monitor, and enforce performance metrics. Giving was taken for granted so advancement just focused on the getting. Then our vice president moved into this place where a generation or more of advancement leaders and many others had not built relationships with thousands of prospects, where the getting wasn’t automatic. Or our vice president stayed here in the same place and position but the stream of prospects began to run low, in part due to the recession, in part to the fact that too many people assumed for too long that the stream would magically stock itself. One way or the other, what worked so well once, ceased to, in some cases gradually, in others more drastically. The masters of downstream fishing were caught in the slow accreting insidious silt of of complacency.

There’s a larger ecology to philanthropy than many people realize. It pays to have leaders who see the larger cycles and interdependencies, who wander upstream from time to time, check the spawning grounds of giving and make sure that the stream hasn’t been polluted with wishful thinking. When change occurs, upstream wanderers see it first and adjust the fastest. When things go wrong, they don’t wait downstream hoping the fish will come back until all confidence in them is gone. They go upstream at the first glimmer of change, and devote their energies to restocking it and to keeping the water running clear.

Downstream fishing isn’t nearly what its used to be. Still, it’s heartbreaking to see folks getting caught down there and to realize it’s too late to be of much help.

Monday, January 17, 2011

At Philanthropy's Heart

The vast majority of advancement leaders identify staff turnover as their greatest concern. And well they should. The average tenure for a fund raiser is about two years. Consider the damaging consequences of that reality; fund raisers say it takes them 10 to 12 months to assimilate to the environment and establish themselves with prospects and donors; a year later they’re gone. Prospects and donors with strong affiliations to an institution weary of saying good-bye to someone they’ve just gotten to know, only to see another fresh face show up to start the process all over again. From the institution’s perspective, it is terribly wasteful to bear the costs of searches and staff training for such abbreviated tenures. Yet the pattern persists, it seems, virtually unabated. It makes you wonder, as Will Rodgers once said about weather, “Why everyone complains about it but no one does anything about it.”

Well, Penelope Burk of Cygnus tried. She conducted a three-year study, concluding in 2009, to determine why fund raisers leave their jobs. Her findings:

  • 48% – to obtain a higher salary elsewhere
  • 39% – because they felt they had achieved all they set out to accomplish in their current positions
  • 31% – to get away from the “old-school culture” of fundraising
  • 15% – to reduce commuting time / to work closer to home

The “old-school culture” of fundraising encompasses a number of issues identified by survey respondents, such as:

  • lack of appreciation for the time it takes to cultivate donors and raise increasingly profitable gifts, often expressed by Boards or CEOs as, “We have to have the money now.”

I’ve learned, when reviewing research findings such as these to focus on the ones that reveal the emotional, not the rational, elements of decision-making. That’s where the truth is. Rational reasons are rationalizations of emotional feelings. Emotion runs deeper than reason. For instance, entering freshmen claim year-in and year-out that their over-riding reason for enrolling in a particular institution of higher learning is it’s “academic quality” -- no matter what school they choose. That’s a rationalization; it’s what they think they’re supposed to say. But, if you can remember your seventeen-year old mind, you’ll recall that there was a lot of “Will I fit in? Will I belong? Are there other people like me?” Well, of course. You don’t want to spend some of the most formative years of your life feeling awkward, out of place and or just plain lonely. That’s why it is wise for young people to visit and get “the feel” for various campus cultures. That’s why campus tours led by current students have such an impact on the decision-making of prospective students. And, it has little with what the tour guide actually says. The prospective students sees the guide as an exemplar of that culture and decides if that is the kind of person that he or she would like as a friend. And, you know what? I think that’s just fine. Emotionally-intelligent decision-making yields more lasting emotionally satisfying results.

So when I look at Burk’s survey, I zero in on the 31 percent who say they leave to escape an “old school” culture. I simply do not believe that most people leave for the sole reason of getting more money or a feeling they’ve accomplished all that they set out to do. Those are rationalizations. Further, I ask myself, not just why most leave their jobs but why the very best practitioners do. And who are they? In my estimation the very best are those who relate most deeply to the cause they represent and who care most deeply about the people who align with it. In other words, the seek to be true to both the institution and the people they engage on its behalf. They don’t mislead or manipulate people for their own gain. They leave prospects and donors feeling as if they are in hands of conscientious professional who will do right by them. When allowed to act of our the values systems, these professionals convey the moral substance of the institutions they represent. What could be more important? Mastery of some fund raising technique? Please.

So what happens when these kind of professionals find themselves in a culture of “We have to have the money now”? The imperative of “now” suggests desperation, that the need for money is based on exigent operational circumstances not on vision for a better way to serve the cause. Desperation is not a foundation for a lasting relationship of any sort in any circumstance. Desperation clouds judgment and foreshortens perspective. And so those conscientious, cause-driven fund raisers find themselves in soul-depleting environments with little opportunity to develop the deep bonds with prospects and donors that lead to the most persistent, productive philanthropy. Instead, they are given lists of hundreds of names and told to convert those prospects to generous donors in the shortest possible time while asking as little as possible from the institution. Vision? The exact use of the requested money? Who will benefit? The lasting difference to made? How the money will advance the interests and values of the donors? The answer: “Make it up as you go, just get the money. Meet your metrics.”

The institutions that raise the most money over the long run do so by creating the conditions that attract, continue to inspire, and amply feed the soul of the best fund raisers. The greatest reason for the highest rate of turnover of the best fund raising professionals, for the disillusionment of most donors, and, therefore for the sub-optimization of most fund-raising operations, is the “get it now” imperative. True philanthropy doesn’t work that way. Good people don’t work that way. Prospects and donors deserve better. And, however our heads may try to rationalize the opposite, in our hearts, we know this is true. Philanthropy requires its adherents to follow their hearts.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Beyond Vision Statements

“Democratic nations care but little for what has been, but they are haunted by visions of what will be; in this direction their unbounded imagination grows and dilates beyond all measure,” said Alexis de Tocqueville, the prescient observer of early 19th Century America. Indeed, that’s why vision is such an important element in making a philanthropic case. Americans are still far more interested in what will be than what has been.

And, yet, vision is hard to come by. When advancement leaders confide in me about the challenges they face within the institutions they proudly represent, the most common, by a wide margin, is a “lack of vision” at the top. Their most promising prospects, particularly on that all-important first call, frequently ask, “What is your president’s vision” or “what is your president trying to accomplish?” In those moments, they struggle to do justice to their leader and to be true to their prospects. In fact, in my experience, most vision statements originate out of the advancement office, not out of the office of the institutional leader. Advancement leaders, and the front line representatives of the institution, feel the need for vision virtually every day -- in igniting the interests of key constituents, in establishing unifying themes for their communications, in planning and staging of events, and in allocating human and financial resources. The more clearly an organization can define where it going and why, the more effectively it can be administered. And, of course, the less clearly it can define where it is going, the less efficiently it can be administered.

Efforts to substitute for a lack of vision, no matter how well-intentioned, inevitably prove unsatisfactory. Sometimes, for instance, a writer will be hired to write a campaign vision statement, often to create a construct that gives coherence to the wish list of requests submitted by various internal stakeholders. But, since it is an after-the-fact overlay and not a cornerstone of direction-setting, and has not emanated from the top or been echoed in the policies and practices of the institution, much less the speeches of the president, it can have little internal or external impact. In other instances, someone from outside will be brought in to lead a “visioning process” but in my estimation that phrase is an oxymoron. Vision is not the product of process. Whether a vision statement evolves out of a process or is created elsewhere and vetted through a process matters little. Process politicizes and dilutes vision. It yields one of two results: the generic vision (e.g. “We will be increasingly green, global and interdisciplinary” ... a claim now being made by scores of universities) or the Goldilocks vision (“we won’t be too big or too small, too student-oriented or too research-oriented, too urban or too rural; we’ll be JUST RIGHT!).

A vision is not a string of grandiloquent phrases or an ethereal rumination. It is a means of defining an ambitious but attainable goal, or a small number of goals, for an institution based on a calculation of how current assets can be best leveraged, in the face of external challenges and emerging opportunities, to deliver greater value to those it exists to serve. It is the way an institution correlates the difference it can make to where society most needs a difference to be made.

All of this leads me to conclude that the best way to help institutions is not to say, “We need a vision” but “we need to define with as much precision as possible how we intend to use every philanthropic dollar from this day on.” Yes, it would be nice to have a clear, choice-making, courageous vision coming from the top but, absent that, every institution must be able to define the role that philanthropic support is playing in improving the institution’s delivery of service. Decades ago, the University of Michigan defined it as the “margin of excellence.” It was and is an especially apt phrase because it speaks to what American philanthropy is about -- making an investment in what will be, in allowing an institution to better serve, to take its delivery systems from good to great. In the psychology of our culture, we see charity as the margin of survival and philanthropy as the margin of excellence. We give generously to charity but our largest investments go to philanthropy.

If we mix philanthropic support with other institutional funds, we miss the opportunity to define the difference that philanthropy makes. We dilute its impact. Institutions of higher learning, for instance, would be wise to treat tuition dollars, whether they come directly from the payers or the state, as the means of funding basic operations and allowing the institution to provide good service, while making it clear that private support will be used to carefully augment those dollars in pursuit of selective excellence. They would be wise to make sure that tuition dollars allowed the institution to be good across the board, and to cut operational expenses, including programs, if that standard could not be maintained with current levels of tuition income. In that way, the institution could always demonstrate how private support was being used to pursue greatness.

That’s what vision is all about, to define and seek, no matter what the conditions, the margin of excellence in the context of service. And that’s the kind of vision that always has, always will inspire strong, sustained philanthropic support, no matter what.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

From the Vista of a New Year

The year ahead will be one of modest, tentative philanthropic recovery. We will need to be more attuned to donors’ emotional rate of recovery (as measured by their faith in the broad economy and their belief in the security of their personal finances) than the actual rate of economic growth. The former will lag the latter for some time.

Though we are seeing evidence of slowly increasing rates of real and emotional recovery, philanthropy-seeking organizations will need to set realistic expectations and patiently nurture connections with their current and prospective supporters. According to a recent survey done by Vision Critical, 40 percent of Americans plan to give the same amount as they did last year (versus 46 percent in 2010), 21 percent intend to give more (up from 8 percent last year), 15 percent say they will give less (compared to 46 percent last year) and 21 percent say they will not be able to give at all. While 56 percent say they will need to be in better financial shape to give more, 16 percent want more specifics on what organizations actually do to help people, and 14 percent want to have a better understanding of precisely how people in need would benefit from their support. “Although these are tough times for non-profits, marketers and fundraisers need to find even more ways of telling their story and making a personal connection between those that are in need and those that can help,” said Justin Greeves, head of Vision Critical’s public affairs division.

The challenges remain, as I have characterized them before, the three Cs: Connection, Case and Cost. Philanthropy-seeking organizations must focus their energies on making donors feel more emotionally connected to the cause they represent, on creating clearer cases for support that spell out in more compelling detail how private dollars can make a difference in the lives of others, and on demonstrating how they are managing and containing their own costs to ensure that the largest possible portion of every dollar contributed will go to delivering the greatest possible value to those they serve.

Yet, too many organizations spend too much time and money trying to secure support by touting their virtues, achievements and possibilities rather than understanding, aligning with, and celebrating the values of those who might support them. Too much of institutional communication still comes down to, “Hey look at us! Are we great? Shouldn’t you be impressed? Surely, you feel the need to support us.” There’s much to little of, “Tell us what you care about. Help us understand what you would like to achieve with your hard-earned money. Let us work together to make a difference where a we believe a difference most needs to be made.”

Human connections are essentially emotional. Enduring personal relationships are not based on one party being impressed with other but on shared values and purposes, respectful interaction and mutual support. Sound institutional relations are nothing more than sound human relations writ large. I can think of no better way to retain current donors and to attract new ones than to change the organizational tone, to place a far higher value on eliciting the hopes and concerns of the extended philanthropic community than on relentlessly soliciting its support. Though a significant body of research and a huge amount of anecdotal evidence supports this assertion, far too many philanthropy-seeking organizations are not aware of, attuned to, or strategically aligned with the most deeply held values of those that support them. Yet, all they need do is ask -- through simple,cost-effective market research that seeks to understand those values and to explore key constituents’ level of emotional connection to those institutions. The barriers and gateways to greater connection are quickly revealed and gap-closing, relationship-strengthening strategies all but suggest themselves.

If the majority of donors say they will need to strengthen their financial position before they can give more, and we know that for most of them that will take another year, wouldn’t we be wise to spend the intervening period doing more eliciting than soliciting? And would that put us in a far stronger position to receive more when more Americans feel they have more to give?

I’ll be building on these themes in the year ahead in my speaking and writing, and developing tools to helps client arise to these challenges and opportunities through my consulting practice. My first chance to speak to them in a broad public venue will be through a free Academic Impressions webcast, “Looking Ahead to 2011 in Advancement,” 1 to 2:15 p.m. EST on Tuesday, January 25, 2011. I look forward to catching up with you then.

Happy New Year.