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.

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