Monday, March 21, 2011

Volunteer Spirit Versus Volunteer Slots

I continue to maintain that organizations that take best advantage of America’s untapped volunteer potential will generate and sustain the most philanthropic support in the second decade of the 21st Century.

We know from research conducted by Fidelity Gift Fund and Volunteer Match that:

Seventy-two percent of Americans have volunteered at some point in their lives;

Seven in ten say that supporting a cause they care about is their major reason for volunteering;

The more years of formal education one has, the more likely one is to volunteer;

Active volunteers are “more likely” to increase their contributions;

Sixty-three percent cite a “renewed sense of the value and importance of community service within their network of friends and family.

Eighty-four percent say they expect nothing in return for the volunteer work;

Sixty-six percent believe “true philanthropy” includes the giving of both time and money, and

Volunteers’ charitable contributions are ten times that of non-volunteers.

So, why aren’t all philanthropy-seeking organizations tripping all over themselves to involve and engage these well-educated, civic-minded, altruistic volunteers? The major reason is that they are locked into three false and related assumptions.

The first false assumption is that boards are the best way to cultivate donors. Too often a board is created for the sole purpose of cultivation. Soon the lack of real work wears on both the volunteers and the staff that has to make up something for them to do. Both come to think of volunteer boards as superfluous or counter productive. The key is to give volunteers real work and to recruit for the purpose of bringing their specific skills to bear on an important issue, problem or opportunity. Give your volunteers specific assignments and tasks. Put them on task forces and blue ribbon panels. Give them finite work to do within a finite time, work that matches the time they think they can commit and the talents they would like to bring to bear, and watch what happens.

The second reason that most organizations fail to take advantage of the vast volunteer potential out there is that oxymoronic function we call risk management. Too often risk management involves grossly overstating the risk to avoid managing it all together. There is no more risk in incorporating volunteers in an organization that there is managing any group of intelligent, committed, conscientious people – which is next to nil.

The third false assumption is that the mere act of putting people on boards will cause them to become philanthropic. And that assumption has led many an organization and many an advancement professional to labor endlessly, and to lecture repeatedly on the philanthropic obligations of board members, with little or no effect. You must award your precious board slots, spend all your care and feeding on those already possessed of a true volunteer spirit, those who believe they have a debt to society, or an obligation to give back. When you put true volunteers into interesting volunteer slots, your investment of time will be rewarded many times over. Remember, even if you find those who have served on other boards or given to other organizations, it does not mean they are true volunteers. Be alert to pseudo-volunteers who may have given only a tiny percentage of their wealth or given for self-serving reasons. Don’t look for just wealth, or even evidence of giving elsewhere; look for those with strong value systems who have a record of acting on them.

Remember, time, talent and treasure is not just a nice alliteration; it’s a sequential strategy. When we find people of substance and offer a way to make good use of their time and their specific talents, they will give generously of their treasure over time. We just have to take the time to find the right people and find a way from them to make a real difference. The rest will take care of itself.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On Earning Support

One of the most productive prospect calls I ever made was also one of the shortest.

I met the prospect, who had achieved distinction in Washington and on Wall Street, in New York after struggling long and hard to get the appointment. He came into the small conference room where I had been waiting and said, “I have very little time. What is it that you would like to accomplish?”

“I would like to learn how to earn your support,” I said.

“Do you mean you’d like to figure out how to get me to give a big gift?” he parried.

“That would be ideal,” I said.

“Well, if I were to give a gift, I’d have to spend time with your president,” he said. “And the only way I could do that is if he came to New York two or three times a year and met with me and two or three other successful CEOs – very significant and substantive people that I would benefit from being with – and engaged us in a very frank discussion about what he is struggling with and hoping to achieve. If he laid it all out for us – I mean warts and all – and gave us an opportunity to offer candid advice and tackle the toughest issues, I’d be far more inclined to give a big gift because I’d have a far better sense of where and how I could make a difference,” he said. “Absent that, I’ll might write a nice check every now and then but it won’t be that big.”

And with that challenge, we parted after a handshake. The meeting was most productive because the prospect, knowing why I was there, had given serious thought to what might induce him to give most generously, and succinctly stated his terms. The ball was then in our president’s court.

Yet, I cite this experience because of its larger lessons. The first speaks to the importance of candor in building trust. We live amid a crises of public confidence, one in which a majority of Americans express a lack of trust in the majority of institutions. Only by being more candid can we convince our constituents of our determination to be more accountable. Engaging in purely promotional public relations and one-sided self-congratulatory communications will have the opposite effect. Intelligent, discerning constituents respond most favorably to responsive institutions.

The second is that we must give what we hope to get back. We must value the experience and ideas of those we hope will make valuable contributions to us. Presidents who genuinely seek out the help of others by sharing their greatest struggles and deepest hopes attract those who genuinely want to help. And, like the aforementioned prospect, substantive people want to help with their time and talent, not just their treasure. And the great irony is this: the more we engage in overt and painfully obvious treasure hunting, rather than talent seeking and problem solving, the more we fall short of our long-term philanthropic potential.

The third is that philanthropic support is not what we hope others will give but what we strive to earn. When we make that clear, and put the proposition directly to our potential donors, we will get very straightforward answers. The ball of philanthropic obligation, which we often serve up to so many prospects, will then be in our court.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Depth of Impact

There is no shortage of hard-working professionals in the field of advancement. They hold themselves to high standards and seek to do more each year with same, or even fewer resources. Those are very laudable traits but increasing the volume of activity does not always achieve a greater depth of impact.

To make my point let’s look at events, which, for many advancement operations, consume the largest portion of staff hours expended each year and the largest chunk of the operating budget. That means events, if improperly conceived and executed, could be the single greatest drain on our human and financial resources and the largest barrier to greater productivity. To ensure that is not the case, I recommend the following steps:

Zero-base your calendar. Over the summer, or whenever you can find the time, look at your entire calendar of events. If you are like most institutions you will find they have accreted over time with little strategic rhyme or reason and are being perpetuated in the name of tradition or through insidious, unchallenged inertia. To determine which events should be discontinued, ask if they deliver a message to an important constituency, or deepen their understanding of your institution, or move them to a more specific commitment to it. For instance, you may have a number of fun events, such as alumni evenings at a professional athletic events that are generally well-attended but don’t really deliver, deepen or move anything or anyone. That is often borne out when you look at the volunteer or giving record of those who have attended those events over the past few years. On the other hand, your scholarship dinner may not have been as well-attended but, when you check the records, has proven to deepen the connections and commitments of those in regular attendance. It’s not how many attend it what they do afterward.

Storyboard your events. It’s a technique used in filmmaking where by the creators sketch out each scene and lay them side by side to ensure that one flows to the next and that each advances the plot. What’s the plot of your year-long calendar of events? What institutional story do they tell? Who do they engage? Does each event advance the plot, deepened the story line, and move the audience from engagement to engrossment to whole-hearted captivation? Does your institution have a dramatic story to tell and is each event move the audience through that story, chapter by chapter?

Personalize your events. Do you use one invitation for everyone or do you segment the intended audience by affinities so that you can invite each group in such a way to make each feel as if there is a special reason for being there? For instance, if you want to make a reunion more successful, you could invite couples who met and, perhaps, married on campus to come back for a marriage vow renewal service. Or generations of the same choral group back for sing-along or performance. Or intergeneration intramurals (the Boomers vs. the Gen-Xers). Or former members of the student newspaper to engage in a discussion about the state of journalism in the virtual world. You get my point. The more targeted the invitation, the more each invitee feels a reason for, a tug to, come back and the higher your attendance will be. In the case of smaller events, like a salon event for 20 VIPs to preview of a new initiative, call or visit each person beforehand to help them understand the relevance of the event of the importance of their being there. Show them how the event will not be same without them. A week in advance, call and ask if they would share some ice-breaker information – their favorite quote, their proudest accomplishment, what gives them the greatest hope and the greatest pause. This will remind them of the event and show that there is an interest in them as individuals. Share the icebreaker information with your senior officers so they can use them as conversation starters as they circulate among guests.

Deepen every event by employing the power of ritual. Have an official welcoming ritual for an alumni reunion – ask them to gather outside the front gates to campus at an appointed hour and ceremonially reopen them with the alma mater playing. Have the president there to welcome them as they come through. Then take them to first event and have them walk through a receiving line of the long-serving faculty. In these subtle but thoughtful ways you can show them the importance you place on their presence. Ritual has a powerful effect in underscoring the importance of an activity and making the participants feel valued.

It’s not about doing more; it’s about having a greater impact with what you do. It doesn’t have to take more time or money; in fact it could even take less.