Saturday, December 31, 2011

Making This a Truly New Year

“To regret deeply,” said Thoreau, “is to live afresh.”

There is as much meaning and wisdom in those few words as there is energy compressed into the nucleus of an atom. One could commission books of essays explicating the fuller meaning of those seven words and happily engage our greatest minds in the task to great literary, spiritual and psychological effect. Doing justice to them in short form is impossible but, for philanthropy’s sake at the cusp of a new year, I will try.

Erring, to paraphrase a poet, is innately human. In fact, it is essential to learning. The value of experience is derived largely from what we learn from the accumulation of mistakes, punctuated with the occasional failure. It’s much like quantitative analysis, a field of study born in World War II when some brainy types sought ways to increase the survival rate of Allied bombers conducting raids over Germany. When the bombers returned, they analyzed where enemy flak had done the greatest damage so they could advise the aircraft manufacturers where to increase the armor plating. That was until some particularly bright soul said, “Wait a minute. It doesn’t matter how much damage was done; these bombers made it back. We won’t learn where the fatal weaknesses are unless or until we dredge the failures out of the sea.” We learn a lot more from the gaping holes of our failures than from the inevitable flak that we catch, and survive, in the day-to-day pursuit of our ambitions.

If we take honest stock of ourselves and regret those times we let others down, when we fell well short of what we could be, or when our petty emotions overruled what Lincoln called “the angels of our better nature,” we can begin to convert failure into wisdom and growth. The more deeply we regret our shortcomings, the firmer we are in our resolve to learn from them and to make amends.

According to custom, we reserve this time of year, when old earth comes into the last bend of another lap around the sun, to review and reflect. At the moment when one year turns into the next, we sing of “auld lang syne” or “times gone by,” then formulate our resolutions for the new year. In so doing, we try to ensure that the next revolution around the sun will have more meaning than the last.

The strongest leaders of philanthropy-seeking organizations will use this time to reflect on and regret those times they allowed themselves or their charges to lose sight of their founding mission and those who were to be served by it. They will ask themselves if they might have fallen prey to vanity and become caught up in the trappings of their office or the pursuit of status. They will reflect on where they might have missed the chance to make a bigger difference or failed to make a modest sacrifice that would have inched their cause closer to its ideals. Yes, in every human organization, the initial resolve to prove its societal worth and to justly earn the support of others can gradually erode into complacent expectation or even righteous entitlement. Few can see it happen. Fewer still can acknowledge when it has and begin to turn it around. It is easier to claim to be a victim of circumstance than to own up to a pride-induced fall.

The strongest of us will use this time to ask how much of the past year we lived for ourselves and how much for others. We will ask how often we used our God-given advantages, both personal and cultural, for our aggrandizement or to ease the load for the least of us. If we take the time to reflect, we will realize how much we have been given and regret that we did not do more. We will resolve to do more in the new year, to use our unique talents to make difference where a difference most needs to be made.

The tougher the questions we ask ourselves, the more honest our answers, the deeper our regret for our failings, the more firmly we will fix our resolve on making this a truly new year afresh with purpose, possibility and meaning.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rethinking "Naming Opportunities"

What’s in a name? Well, when it comes to fundraising, it all depends on how it’s offered and to whom.
What doesn’t work well is the wholesale offering of “naming opportunities.” Distributing a list of buildings or programs that you are willing to name at a particular price is, quite simply, counter-philanthropic. In other words, the practice is not only inept and ineffective, it undercuts institutional dignity and, as a result, diminishes its perceived philanthropic stature. Let’s consider why this is so.
Throughout time, what do human societies assign the most value to? That which is most rare. The rarer the element, the commodity, the privilege, or the access to a social group, the more we prize it. I’m not arguing this is the way life should be, only the way it is. If institutions of higher learning seek to distinguish themselves through highly selective admissions, awarding precious slots to only the most accomplished and qualified students, why wouldn’t they apply the same logic to their naming policies?
If a thoughtfully chosen group of donors is carefully and quietly approached, and told, quite genuinely, the institution would prefer their names on important buildings and programs because they embody the institution’s highest values, a true compliment is paid in the process of soliciting gifts. And, when an institution announces and confers a donor’s name on one of its structures or programs, explaining how that donor is exemplary of what the institution stands for, the institution and donor are viewed with higher esteem. Yes, most people understand that money was a part of the consideration but the also know the institution didn’t just shop around the honor either.
Imagine, for instance, if you were trying to raise money for a new business school building. You could disseminate a list of naming opportunities to try to attract a set of donors who might like to see their names prominently displayed or you could ask which business leaders possess the personal and professional qualities you would most like to see manifest in your graduates. You could then approach these exemplary business leaders saying that you would like this new structure, and next phase of your business school programming, “to built on the example of the most ethical and effective business leaders in the community, like you.” You might do that by creating a “business hall of fame” in the atrium of the building with busts and personal histories of no more than five remarkable leaders (the fewer the honorees, the greater the distinction). You might also add the business school would also like to be the repository for the oral histories and professional papers of these five critical figures so that business school students of the future could continue to learn from their successes. You could approach the business leaders themselves, or the chairs of their boards, or their closest associates, or their widows and children with confidence and an easy conscience knowing you were trying to do the right thing in the right way. That’s the difference between expedient, short-term fundraising and practicing true philanthropy.
But even when taking this thoughtful and genuine approach, please remember that no one makes a considerable donation just to see his or her name on a structure or program. They want their name associated with something of lasting value. You must, therefore, make a compelling case for the how the requested funds are to used. You must make it clear that its not just about a building itself but about the people and programs it will empower, the higher level of service it will make possible, and the enduring impact these new initiatives will have. You can’t just say it; you, and the institution you represent, must be prepared and determined to live to your word.
No it’s not about “naming opportunities,” a phrase and concept that’s too cute and by half, but about what your name and reputation stand for in selecting the names of those you can stand by and with over a long time.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Moral to Our Fundraising Story

Too many leaders of philanthropy-seeking organizations seem stuck in a pre-recession mindset. They treat the economic contraction like an unwanted guest in their once-comfy home, grousing about how long its been lounging about, lapping up the contents of the liquor cabinet and running up the grocery bill. They never actually confront it but hope and pray it will go away.

But even when this lead-footed economy finally trundles off, new realities will remain, realities that have been creeping in on little cat feet for some time, their claw prints barely noticeable on over-stuffed, mortgage-backed recliners.

Consider, if you will, the wise counsel of Bruce McClintock, former chair of Marts and Lundy, one of the most highly-regarded voices in institutional advancement, and one who has thoughtfully and consistently guided scores of institutions, over several decades, to higher philanthropic ground.

McClintock provides real insight into why fund raising performance across institutions remains so uneven. “While the sluggish economy and the re-distribution of wealth are certainly key factors in what we are seeing, “ he says, “I believe a third factor is also impacting results - institutional perspectives and allocation of resources within the advancement program.”

“I am concerned that donor attitudes have shifted dramatically over the past decade and that institutional messaging and engagement has been slow to adapt to new realities,” McClintock observes. “Some non-profits act as though they are simply victims of circumstances beyond their control. Conversely, other institutions are seemingly defying all odds and are enjoying record years. I suspect the distinguishing characteristic between these two groups is the quality of enlightened leadership (within advancement and within the institution).”

“I am also concerned that too many institutions are measuring success in their fund-raising programs on short-term results only – raising the most money in the shortest period of time for the least cost. A few of the unintended consequences of this approach seem obvious to me:

1. The drop in alumni participation (among educational institutions) over the past 15-20 years;

2. A “cash is king” mentality that relegates planned giving to a lower-priority status;

3. An under-investment in identifying, developing and achieving mid-range gifts (six-figure gifts) as an important first step in building long-term principal gift capacity;

4. Fast-tracking (or short-cutting) the relationship-building process with prospective donors (one client refers to this as “speed-dating”); and,

5. Positioning annual giving as the development office’s jayvee program for modest donors and inexperienced gift officers (thereby underestimating and/or undervaluing the potential impact of current support).

Not every institution is a victim. There are non-profit organizations that are way out in front of the others in building strong and effective advancement programs.”

Hmmm. Do I not hear this modern, avuncular Aesop telling us the tortoise of long, broad deep and authentic advancement is running in front of the hare of expediency yet again? The realities may be new but the moral to the story goes way back.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A One-Question Advancement Assessment

Could you accurately assess the health of advancement culture and predict the probability of its success if you had never stepped foot in the organization before and could ask only one question of one person? I think so.

The one person I would ask is the president or CEO and one question would be, “What does it take for an advancement operation to reach and sustain peak performance? “ If the CEO described the keys to success largely in terms of short-term, aggressive fundraising conducted almost entirely or exclusively by the development staff, I would know the organization was well under potential. In addition, I could predict that operation had, or was about to, experience a loss of productivity and a high rate of staff turnover.

The red flags in that CEOs answer include making “advancement” synonymous with “fundraising,” divorcing him/herself from the keys to success, and the failure to relate the activity to a collective drive toward specific institutional goals. Moreover, that CEOs answer does not address the building of a long-term funding pipeline much less the community of understanding that feeds it. This CEO seems to think aggressive fundraising is self-sustaining; it is not.

The CEOs depiction is utterly predictive of present and future advancement functioning because operations shape their strategies and tactics to comport with CEO expectations. CEO expectations over time become cultural assumptions. The longer the CEO serves, the more rigid those assumptions become. If the assumptions are reductive or self-limiting, advancement will be relegated to the role of a hand-off function. In this scenario, the attitude from the top is expressed, in so many words, as, “It’s your job ask for the money. Don’t bother me with that vision and mission silliness. And don’t expect us to support aspects of your operation that aren’t about asking for money or directly facilitative of it. “ In higher education, the relative prevalence of this attitude has contributed to an 18-year decline in alumni participation which, in turn, has left many institutions with shallow prospects pools and diminished chances of securing the support they desire.

When ask-obsessed advancement operations begin to falter, the culture concludes quite falsely, “We must not be asking enough!” They then require their advancement staff to conform to more rigorous asking metrics, which turns off donors, leads to gift-accounting mischief and the loss of conscientious staff. There is little one can do to turnaround this kind of situation, short of getting a new CEO who is resilient and patient enough to nudge the culture in a different direction.

If, on the other hand, a CEO with a more expansive, long-term view of advancement creates a clear sense of mission, and fosters a collective sense of commitment to it, much is possible. In this scenario, CEOs lead by example, making sure they do not ask of others what they are not willing to do themselves. Even if there is a lack of tactical or technical mastery, these operations can perform at a high levels because they draw and retain talented professionals who can speak with natural conviction about the organization they represent. That rubs off on donors. And, problems within those organizations can be readily fixed because the search for, and implementation of lasting, long-term solutions is not constrained by self-limiting assumptions. Further, these operations are often highly innovative because the CEO is open to broad ways of thinking.

In human psychology, this phenomenon is called self-fulfilling prophecy. We achieve what we think we can. We go only as far as our assumptions will allow us. The fewer the assumptions and the more we believe in larger possibilities, the more we achieve.