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.

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