Thursday, August 25, 2011

For Amber Waves of Grain

A very competent client asked me how to respond to a trustee who wanted to know how many fundraisers needed to be added to the development staff to secure an additional $20 million per annum. He assumed that the mere adding of a fundraiser guaranteed a significant return so it was only a matter of calculating how many it would take to produce the desired amount.

These are the kinds of questions that advancement leaders need to answer with great care. If one responds too literally by giving a projected ROI per development officer without additional context, one buys into, and helps perpetuate a reductive and presumptive worldview of philanthropy – and there’s too much of that out there already.

Here’s how I would answer that trustee’s (we’ll call him Joe) question: “Well, Joe, that’s like asking how much grain can be harvested by hand in any given day. We could calculate how much one strong, experienced laborer, armed with the sharpest scythe, could reap from sun up to sun down. Let’s say that came out to four acres. Then we could say that five similarly experienced laborers, similarly equipped, could reap 20 acres a day. But all that assumes there’s 20 harvestable acres. It wouldn’t make sense to hire harvesters if we hadn’t planted or cultivated enough grain to produce that kind of harvestable acreage, nor would it make sense to go to all the trouble to plant and cultivate the grain, only to send the harvesters into the field before it was mature. So we really have to look at what has been planted and has been under cultivation before we can answer that question. And we need to decide how much time and money we’re willing to invest in developing fields that will provide greater yields in the future.”

I could build on this metaphor, including relating the sharpness of the scythe to the keenness of vision, the richness of the soil to the ethos of one’s alma mater (which translates from Latin to “nourishing mother”), or the warmth of the sun to an institution’s commitment to long-term relationship building. But you get my point.

The simple truth is this: Reductive thinking about fund raising is the greatest reason why institutions fall well short of their philanthropic potential. We assume the grain will always be there or somehow grow on its own; all we have to do is figure out how to bring in the harvest. Conversely, the key to realizing their potential is rethinking and reimagining fundraising expectations in the light of what it takes to create a sustainable culture of philanthropy. As we sow, so shall we reap.

The effectiveness of metrically-driven fundraising is in direct proportion to the assiduousness of the cultural enrichment that preceded it by decades, and the sowing of goodwill and cultivation of relationship that preceded it by years.

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