Sunday, July 24, 2011

Worst Practices

For the past few weeks, an interesting LinkedIn online discussion among Professional Speakers on Philanthropy has revolved around “worst practices” in philanthropy. Here are some thoughts offered by experts with decades of experience:

The practice that traps so many nonprofits is looking for new donors rather than focusing on their current donors and stakeholders, and especially looking for rich people, when the people who are already connected to them could be turned into major donors if they were thanked well and engaged more deeply in the organization

Recruiting board members for reasons other than their utter passion for the organization's mission. "We need some big hitters on the board" = kiss of death.

Hiring a professional fundraiser and then expecting that person to raise three times as much as they ever have before and to do it without board or senior leadership involvement...guaranteed to fail...

Many small organizations warp their missions chasing money. It's easy to get diverted when it's possible to successfully pitch a grant for an ill-fitting program or a shotgun partnership encouraged by a funder…"Any dollar" is not necessarily a "good dollar" if it derails the organization or subjects it to the whim of a self-serving donor.

Another common mistake is using anecdotal "evidence" to guide decisions. I see many organizations that are too eager to grease the squeaky wheel when that squeak is coming from just one or two constituents. Often, these constituents have limited involvement with the organization and mission, but they exert outsized influence on the board and executives, because they make the most noise. If complaints raise concerns about organization practices, programs or policies, it's time to gather real evidence to guide decisions rather than to respond in a knee-jerk fashion to a constituent who may just be a jerk.

The lack of being very definitive of expectations when recruiting Board members. Plus, allowing members to serve for too many years - terms. On the flip side, someone who has served the Board well, including the fund raising process, should not be "dismissed" after reaching the maximum number of years of service. Give those productive individuals an "emeritus" title and invite them back for periodic updates on what is happening - - in essence don't lose that good advocate!

One of the worst practices is the lack of a definitive and complete "case for support" that has the vision to excite in both the short and long range and the proper financial expectations and resources to make the organization successful in the eyes of the donors and other stakeholders. This would apply to small and large organizations.

Neither being successful in one's professional career nor having a personal stake in the mission nor being "connected" are enough to make someone a good, skillful board member. But those are often the key criteria by which board members are identified to govern. For-profit professional experience is only vaguely related to nonprofit board governance, and yet many (not all) successful professionals feel as if they come to the table as turn-key board members. Their well-intentioned ignorance can manifest in many ways.

I see some organizations replicating and expanding practices that have not been show to actually produce good results, or at least not better results than other practices they could be doing instead.

Breaching donor intent after gifts are made or "changing our minds" about key funding opportunities having pitched case initially.

In monitoring this important discussion, I was intrigued to see how many comments focused on boards – especially board recruitment. Yet, I agree that if one is looking for either best or worst practice, the wellspring is the board of directors. For that reason, my nomination for “worst practice” would be that board that sees advancement as an out-of-body experience, something they look down on but have no influence over. In healthy environments, board members do far more than evaluate or, even worse, flog the CEO and/or advancement leader. They understand that leadership is not a matter of telling people what to do or demanding that things be done; it is a matter of holding themselves to the highest standards, demonstrating what needs to be done, then asking others how they can help them accomplish the same. Human achievement does not flower in us-them environments but it does when “we the people” commit our lives and fortunes to forming “more perfect” societies.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


If you did not know me and I approached you on behalf of a good cause, would you write me a large check, say the equivalent of one month’s rent or mortgage right then and there? If you did, you would be most unusual. Chances are you would not give more unless or until you got to know me and, through me, the cause I represented.

If I asked you to give me a list of your loved ones and closest associates so I could solicit them, would you immediately comply? Chances are you would not no matter how much you admired the cause. You wouldn’t like it if your friends did that to you so you apply the Golden Rule.

If I asked you if I could use your good name to solicit others, would you agree? Chances are you would not despite your belief in the cause. Since you did not know me, you would have no idea how I might use your good name.

If, on the other hand, I approached you on behalf of good cause and asked if you might lend your talents to it, might you not be inclined to ask exactly what I had in mind?

If I were able to show how you could make a difference to that cause and, in so doing, a concrete difference in the lives of others, might you not be willing to learn more?

If I involved you in that cause and you were able to see the difference you could make, might you not naturally share your joy with your loved ones and closest associates? Would you not readily lend your name to that cause without qualm especially if the person who brought you to it proved to be so emblematic of it?

If, through your involvement, you could see where your money would make a difference, might you not be more than willing to write a check that was the equivalent of one month’s rent or mortgage? And the person who brought you into the cause and showed you the difference you could make before asking for your support, would you describe him/her to others as a “fundraiser” or as an agent of a most worthwhile and rewarding cause?

And, finally, if you were asked to help raise money for the cause that had become so important to you, would you just go ask others to write a big check?

Just asking.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Fund Raising Carts and Relationship Horses

The vast majority of philanthropy-seeking organizations profess a desire to “build a relationship” with those that might support them. All too often, however, the only part of the institution professing it is the fund raising arm. That places a powerful condition on the proposed relationship. The real message is, “We want to have a relationship with you if and as long as you give.” Or, to put it even more baldly, “We want to have a relationship with you as long as you do what we want.” Change those “we’s” to “I’s” and imagine the same thing being said on a first or second date with someone with whom you aspired to have a second or third date. If you were on the receiving end, I submit it would not warm the cockles of your heart or cause you to want the courtship to continue. How many of us would enter into, or stay long in, such a one-sided, conditional relationship?

It is one of the greatest and most prevalent weaknesses of many philanthropy-seeking organizations. They profess the right things but behave like a bad date. They advance their conditional agenda before a relationship has had a chance to form. Ironically enough, all the evidence shows organizations will raise far more money and over a longer period of time if they lead with the relationship horse but many continue to put the fund raising cart before it. It makes for a useful mental image – a lot of nags nudging errant but ornate carts from behind while being routinely out-paced by a few horse-driven carts, with the caption over the former saying, “Do they have better carts than us?” rather than musing “Maybe this would work better if we pulled these wheeled things behind us.”

What do you think? Am I being unfair? Well, let’s look at higher education. The colleges and universities that have done the best job of building relationships with their students and sustaining them with their alumni enjoy the highest rates of annual alumni giving year after year, decade after decade. There is so much to be learned from them about creating and perpetuating communities of shared purpose and shared rewards. Yet, as alumni participation across all institutions of higher learning has declined for seventeen straight years, notwithstanding some creative accounting done by some to improve their rankings by U.S. News & World Report, most of the institutions going in the wrong direction have not studied the exemplary learning communities or surveyed their own students and alumni to gain an honest assessment of the state of those relationships. I cannot feign insight into every institution or pretend that I have studied them all but I have interacted with hundreds in conferencing , training, consulting and researching capacities; there the trend is quite pronounced: The fancy carts continue to draw far greater attention than the magnificent creatures pulling them.

Yes, I know institutions have to be practical. Those that lead them have to be wary of investing in abstract ideals at the expense of practical return. They can’t go around building relationships with anyone and everyone and hope it will bring in more support. But if they do well by the constituents currently within their fold, if they listen to them and attempt to respectful and responsive in building communities of shared purpose, and if they selectively and substantively sustain engagement with those who believe they have an obligation to society, they will realize the greatest returns. Doesn’t it make sense that the better we care for our horses, the faster and farther our carts will go, week and after week, year after year, decade after decade.