Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Defining Alumni Engagement

A colleague was kind enough to write yesterday and ask if I had a definition of “alumni engagement” that could be shared with a campus task force looking into that issue.  Here’s what I offered:

Alumni Engagement -- the totality of means by which a school, college or university seeks to engage strategically the time and talents of its most conscientious and capable alumni for the purposes of:

•Fostering a greater sense of shared purposes around the mission, vision and direction of the institution;
•Extending the benefits of community (to be welcomed into, valued by, and made to feel an integral part of it) beyond those boundaries of campus to all those who share, support and live out the ideals of institution;
•Reviewing and refining institutional priorities to ensure core values remain intact as adjustments are made to preserve and enhance institutional relevance; and
•Creating "a more perfect institution," one that seeks to make an ever greater and more lasting impact on the lives of those it educates and on the society is serves in the most creative, foresighted, and cost-effective manner possible.

Please note some critical word choices:  Schools, colleges and universities should be more assiduous in seeking out and engaging their most conscientious alumni, those who exemplify their highest ideals. Developing shared purposes among critical constituents creates a “we the people” impetus and dynamism – one of the greatest social constructs and forces for good in human history. Striving to create a true sense of community and making exemplary alumni feel welcomed, valued and integral to it is of greater importance than ever before given the steady decline in alumni support over the past 18 years.  Reestablishing the relevance of an institution’s core values from one generation to the next is the key to lasting impact. And, the pursuit of more perfect unions is what has driven American ideals and American philanthropy from our very beginnings. And, finally, we will not win back alumni or broaden substantially our bases of support if we insist all of this is about more – more people, more programs, more buildings, more endowment and, therefore, more money.  We must seek to perfect more cost-effective models of delivering quality to those we serve.

P.S.  My monograph, “Fundraising for Presidents: A Guide,” is available on the Academic Impressions we

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fundraising for Presidents: A Guide

My monograph, "Fundraising for Presidents: A Guide," is now available on the Academic Impressions website.  For readers of my blog and attendees of my seminars and classes, this is what you have asked and encouraged me to do so many times -- to develop a comprehensive guide on my philosophy of advancement that includes various cases studies and specific illustrations of how to implement key concepts.  I have written the monograph for presidents since the ultimate responsibility for advancement falls on their shoulders, and because they are often met, upon assuming the office, with myths, stereotypes or reductive notions about the field.  This monograph, then, seeks to give them a sensible and satisfying unifying theory of advancement and to demonstrate how sustainable communities of support can be built in systematic fashion through the employment of sophisticated, research-based strategies. The work incorporates and builds upon the ideas and innovations I have shared with you in recent years.  I am very grateful for your support and dedicate this work to you.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Reciprocity in Alumni Relations

Reciprocity is defined as “the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit.” It is all to often missing from the alumni relations programs of many schools, colleges and universities.

If incredulity is your first response to that statement, I can understand.  But bear with me for a minute.  You would be right to point out that most institutions afford their alumni a host of services from career counseling to events and activities tailored to their specific interests.  Yet, as we delve into the reasons why alumni support declined over 20 consecutive years, we hear an increasingly common plaint: “The only thing my alma mater wants from me is money.”  That sentiment is making it increasingly difficult for institutions to establish and maintain contact with a majority of its alumni.   Only a tiny fraction of e-mails from alma mater are opened.  Telephone calls, direct mail, invitations and other means don’t fare much better.  Large segments of alumni believe them to be one in the same – direct or indirect means of fundraising.  They don’t see reciprocity in the offerings of alma mater as much as a quid pro quo - “a favor or advantage granted or expected in return for something.” And what’s expected, they say, is money and it is expected immediately.

While it is unwise and insensitive of institutions to reduce their alumni to ambulatory ATMs, , especially those still paying off student debt, it would unrealistic and selfish of alumni to expect alma mater to provide goods and services over time without asking for their support in return.  The relationship can’t always be about money, nor can be never be about money.  The question, then, is the how to strike a reciprocal balance.

Think of it this way:  If you are asking your alumni to pledge their support to you, what are you pledging them in return?   Chapman University (a client of Langley Innovations) has created and promulgated a compact to its alumni in which it pledges to:

Maintain a lifelong interest in, and affirmation of the personal, professional and spiritual milestones of its alumni;

Afford alumni a formal, valued voice in all critical institutional matters; 

Engage the alumni in all key facets of University life including signature events and activities;

Offer the means for alumni to discover one another, either to re-form bonds or create new alliances;

Provide information, programs and services that correspond with the strongest alumni interests and needs;

Seek the individual and collective expertise of alumni to enhance the University’s impact, reach and stature; and

Welcome them back, through various avenues, and celebrate their return home.  

Chapman’s office of Alumni Relations has built its annual operating plan around ensuring that those pledges are fulfilled. Each pledge has multiple actions, responsible persons, and deadlines associated with it.  It is a genuine effort to establish a more reciprocal relationship with its alumni.  And everyone committed to and associated with the compact at Chapman knows it will take years before that goal is achieved.  But, it serves as a good example of what can and should be done, a very promising step in the right direction.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Promised Land

The title Jay Parini chose for his study of the “thirteen books that changed America“ could not have been more apt.  He called it “The Promised Land,” after a title of one of the books selected and because it was a powerful theme that ran through the other twelve.  The story of America – past, present, future – is the search for promised lands of all manner and imagination.  The most successful philanthropy-seeking organizations make themselves integral to that narrative.

I liken the role of CEOs of philanthropy-seeking organizations to the masters of wagon trains, those that led waves upon waves of settlers in “prairie schooners”, across the country, usually from Independence, Missouri, to various parts west.   The wagon master could not marshal the resources necessary if he could not define the destination and how long it would take to get there.  It could not be a dream or a hope or a catchy slogan or an enumeration of ideals; it had to be an actual place that could be reached within a reasonable time.  And it had to be a place worth the sacrifice required.  If wagon masters promised too little, the settlers would not be motivated to endure the hardships ahead.  If they promised too much, they would ultimately disappoint if not embitter those entrusted to their care.

As wagon trains jostled west, wagon masters learned the ways to keep settlers’ morale high was to maintain steady progress toward the promised land.  If wagon masters became indecisive or captive of the councils of camp elders, or content to settle down too soon, wagons would break away from their trains and join others.  If we substitute purpose and progress for process, or set our sights too low, we lose our supporters.

The path to the promised land was not a high speed highway but a sinuous, often tenuous and sometimes treacherous trail whose markings could be washed away by prodigious floods or obliterated by blinding blizzards.  The way could be threatened or slowed by no end of natural disasters or by hostile or disaffected tribes. Wagon masters, for all their organizational and political skills, learned to rely on scouts, usually mountain men, who knew the terrain “like the backs of their hands.”  Scouts rode well ahead of the wagon train, making sure the trail was intact and in a condition to accommodate the weight of all that would follow.  They also sought out fresh water, hunted game, identified edible roots and berries, and negotiated passage with various tribes.  

I liken the role of advancement leader to that of scouts.  They must ride ahead of the enterprise and help it see how the landscape is changing.  They must let their wagon masters know when the train needs to change course to avoid insurmountable rockslides or obstinate mud, or when there is an opportunity to secure more plentiful supplies of food and water.  That often entails diverting institutional imperatives away from the short run so that progress can be sustained for over a long journey. They cannot do their job by staying encamped or being content to ride alongside the settlers. They cannot assume that the resources that were available to previous wagon trains will be theirs for the mere asking or taking.  They must spend much more time powwowing with those that will make the passage ahead possible than hobnobbing around the campfires of the encircled wagons.

The best of scouts never went it alone; they knew their knowledge, no matter how deep, must be supplemented by the even deeper and more specialized knowledge of indigenous tribes along the trail.  They recruited Native Americans to help them at crucial stages of the journey to perform critical functions.  The advancement scout must think of the volunteer in the same way.

If we in the advancement field are to help our organizations move steadily toward a promised land, we need to be less concerned with building out our organizations and more with augmenting them with select specialized volunteer talent.  We cannot recruit the best volunteer talent if we don’t realize how crucial they are at certain points in our journey and if we are not willing to allow them to perform critical tasks on our behalf.  We must scout first for talent, then just money.  We can no longer afford to look only for the conspicuously monied and try to humor them by insisting that we’re really interested in their talent. We must look harder and longer for inconspicuous skill and substance, irrespective of money.  We must believe, and treat them as if they are essential to our enterprise.

The more time we spend scouting out skills and incorporating substance into our enterprise, the more we can ensure it will make steady progress toward the promised land.  And there is no better case for that enterprise than having defined an audacious but attainable promised land, having a clear but adaptive plan for getting there, demonstrating initial progress toward it, and showing where additional investment will quicken its pace and ensure the probability of its success.

The move west, contrary to myth, was not a function of rugged individualism but of enlightened collaboration.  Success was born of a practical realization of the need for interdependence and reciprocity, an often uneven and unruly phenomenon in its day-to-day manifestation but absolutely essential to reaching the promised land.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Getting Out of the Entertainment Business

In my work with various institutions – educational and nonprofit – I often encounter impressive professionals putting forward impressive efforts in the name of wishful thinking.  Their intentions are the right ones – to find interesting ways of attracting more people to their cause and thereby build stronger communities of common interests.  But they’re overly reliant on big events and too concerned about making them entertaining.  

To entertain, the dictionary says, is “to hold the attention of with something amusing or diverting.” That runs counter to what a cause must project to strengthen its philanthropic value proposition: gravitas.  And that is defined as “substantive, weightiness” or “a serious and dignified demeanor” all of which covey seriousness of purpose.  So why do we continue to believe that we can attract and sustain the interests of substantive philanthropists, and induce them to make considerable investments in our cause by expending significant sums and loads of labor on essentially amusing and diverting events?

Yes, I understand that we read in society news about an endless array of tony events attended by very wealthy people in very fancy clothes but that should tell us:

1. Our society is not afflicted by a shortage of entertainment options;
2. The wealthy don’t suffer from a shortage of invitations to tony events;
3. The bar for lavishness has been set very high, therefore,
4. We’re not likely increase our market share of philanthropic support by out-entertaining the completion or out-entertaining the everyday entertainment options available to most people.

Even if we could come close to competing or catch some wealthy folks otherwise engaged on some evening when their were only four galas rather than the usual twelve to choose from, we need to remember that being wealthy and being philanthropic are not one in the same; therefore:

1. We may be spending a lot to attract the wrong people and repel the right ones;
2. We may be sending the signal that we’re far better off than we are thereby undercutting our larger case for support.

I could say, “Entertaining events simply are not worth the time and money” but it would be more helpful to say, “The same amount of time and money applied to weightier efforts will yield a far greater philanthropic return in the short and long run.”

So, back to the original proposition, how do we attract the right people to worthy causes?  By asking ourselves what might cause someone with a social conscience and a philanthropic heart to look at our invitation and conclude, “Of all the requests and invitations that have crossed my desk in recent months, this seems particularly important because:

1. It might offer some fresh insight into an important issue,” or
2. “It offers a way to advance my beliefs or value system,” or
3. “It has the potential of making a difference where a difference really needs to be made,” or
4. “It would be wrong me to not be there.”

Our plans should seek reverse engineer those conclusions.  It’s not as if we have to rule out the possibility of doing something joyous.  Seriousness of purpose doesn’t require us to be somber.  Defining the difference your institution can make and delivering on that promise will bring endless joy to your days and to those who help advance your cause.  

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Engaging By Means Other Than Fundraising

A recent issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek tells the story of Jason Kapalka, a 1994 graduate of the University of Alberta, who has gave his alma mater a $100,000 for endowment.

“As Kapalka’s career started to take off,” the article says, “the university cultivated a relationship with him—inviting him back to campus, honoring him with a special award, and putting him in touch with one of his former professors.

“They didn’t ask me for anything,” Kapalka is quoted as saying. “It was me who wanted to give to them. Although being in touch with them again definitely made it easier.”

Ah, there’s so much in those few sentences.   First of all note, that it says “the university” engaged Kapalka, not the advancement or development office.  Second, he was invited back to campus and recognized for his achievements, presumably by the president.  Third, the university facilitated his reconnection to a favorite professor.  Therein lies a formula for the successful engagement of alumni.

1. Re-engage in a non-fundraising context: All too often we consign alumni to “prospect” status and have the first institutional contact, often after years of no communication or interaction, made by the advancement office.  What does this say to the alumnus?  “Your alma mater has a conditional interest in you.”   Fundraisers should contact only engaged alumni; a fundraising call, no matter how adroit the fundraiser, is not a good first point of engagement strategy.

2. Recognize achievement: There are so many untapped and under-employed means by which alumni can and should be recognized.  What does it say about an institution if it recognizes only the financially successful? What about alumni who have performed admirably in the realms of public or community service? What about alumni who have achieved literary, artistic, intellectual, or academic distinction? No, an institution cannot and should not conduct ceremonies for each but it can recognize them by publishing their achievements in “class notes” or “service notes.”  It can feature the more notable accomplishments in its publications and on its websites. It can determine which achievements warrant congratulations from the president.  It can call them to the attention of faculty members and ask that they write personal congratulations to former students.  Many alumni impute a parental significance to their alma maters; what they value most, therefore, is the occasional nod of approval from those they most respect, those who they see as keepers of institutional values.

3. Reconnect through substantive means: Institutions that sustain the highest level of alumni support offer multiple means of substantive engagement, including the opportunity to access the faculty through lectures, webinars, real and virtual book clubs, alumni college days, and education-vacation opportunities.  They do not try to park them off campus in an alumni house to wax nostalgic over beer kegs; they expect their alumni office to develop the means by which graduates can be kept current on institutional activities– and help keep their alma mater current in their areas of expertise and spheres of influence. Great institutions develop the mastery of helping students learn and learning from their most accomplished alumni.

When these things are done well, alumni like Jason Kapalka say, “They didn’t ask me for anything.  It was me who wanted to give.”  But I have a sneaking suspicion his engagement was masterminded by someone in advancement.  I congratulate him or her on the very deft and patient way it was done.   We all stand to learn from this success.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Of High Morale and Meaningful Work

The way to sustain the high morale of valued staff is to:

  • Remind them of the higher purposes that your organization is working toward
  • Define goals that constitute tangible steps toward the attainment of those higher purposes
  • Show them how their labor will advance those goals and, when progress is made, how their efforts contributed directly to the outcome.

Yes, workers want to be fairly compensated and recognized for their achievements but what they want even more is meaning in their lives.  In our workaday world meaning is derived from seeing the results of our efforts, especially when they benefit others.

Years ago, I spent a Labor Day weekend cutting, splitting and stacking wood for my aging mother and father in-law.  Wood was their primary heating source for the winter.   For three days, my brother in-law, a neighbor rose at dawn and worked until dusk.  We ate heartily without fear of putting on an ounce and slept, appropriately enough, like logs.  At the end of the three days, our muscles ached but we had the immense satisfaction standing back and admiring three cords of newly cut, cleanly split, neatly stacked wood along the rail fence that ran adjacent to their garage.  We could see how much we had accomplished and take enormous satisfaction in knowing our work would keep Pauline and Cash’s house warm throughout the cold months.

Yet for too many, work is like a run on the treadmill. They expend a good amount of energy but never get anywhere.  They see few or no results and rarely know how they have bettered the lives of others.   The best workers find only limited satisfaction in meeting metrical or monetary goals.  They don't mind working hard or putting in extra hours if they can tell themselves or their loved ones that it was worth the effort.

High-minded ideals are wonderful but they need to be coupled incisive strategies that illuminate the way forward.  Without the path of a plan that tempers our organization’s aspirations with the realities to be faced, we wish and wander and wonder if we’re making a difference.  If we are not show a way to lend our talents and labors to those most in need of them, we work toward ends that feel empty when attained.

If you identify with these sentiments, let me ask you a favor.  Go back over the preceding paragraphs and substitute “philanthropists” and “donors” for “staff” and “workers.” You will see the same holds true.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Letter to All Students and Alumni

Dear Students and Alumni Everywhere,

Some of you might have heard of me but may wonder if I am nothing more than a sentimental construct of the past. Some of you know me by name only. Some, I fear, know me not at all.

I am unmistakably present at fewer institutions than I would like but part of me can be found in many. I represent the part of a learning institution that cares for you, that delights in your presence, that thrills at glimmers of your potential and imagines with great hope what you might someday be, that smiles at but sees beyond the excesses of your youth, that senses your struggles, and seeks to comfort and correct in equal measure.

I can be found in the affirming academic standards of professors and the attentiveness of food service workers, and in the diligence of administrators and administrative assistants, librarians and campus safety officers. You will see me in the long hours they devote to doing well by you, in the way they not only grade your papers but seek to strengthen your powers of reasoning, in their intuiting of, and attendance to, your emotional state, and in their encouragement of your efforts and individual aspirations.

Perhaps you do not always see them or what they are trying to do for you. If not, you do not see me in them. Perhaps you are more sensitive to those who are gruff or distracted by their own ambitions or disappointments. But if you look for me, you will find me in the simple actions and quiet dedications of some people at most institutions. If you seek and discover these traits, you will carry them in grateful memory throughout your life and you will see the institution in a kinder light.

When you graduate, you will find me in those who hope to hear from you, to learn of your trials and triumphs, both personal and professional. And, yes, they will always appreciate it when you reflect on the gift you were given when you first set foot on campus; the gift from everyone past and present who built equity in the institution, who believed in giving more to the next generation than the previous generation had given them. And they will be grateful when you decide to the same for the coming generations, in any way you can.

But you will know where I reside in truest form when you see the greatest pride taken in the way you live your life, in the way you seek to serve others, in the manifestations of any obligation you may feel to “give back,” to society, to use anything you’ve learned or earned to ease the way for those with less. Then, my daughter, my son, ah, then your mother’s unabashed pride will burn bright.

And as we get older, I hope your memories will be sufficiently fond to keep an eye on me. Just because I have been of one generation does not meet I will be of the next. The hearts of those in whom you saw me will grow old and die. I can only hope that they will have inspired others to bring me to life again in their own way and time. But if you are not attentive, I can slip away. If you do not reflect on who or what made a difference as time goes by, and do not let them know how your success relates to their actions or encouragements, they will be left wondering if they made much of a difference, or at all.

So, you see, a part of me resides in and depends on you, too. If I was not a present in your life as I should, if I was crowded out by the pretentions of prestige or incessant calls for financial support, you can choose to hold that against me, to be indifferent, or aloof, or you can be for others what you hoped I would be for you. I am as mythic or as real as each generation makes me. All it takes is a few who understand the difference I can make in the lives of so many for so long.

Fondly yours,

Alma Mater*

(*Latin for “Nourishing Mother)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Long and Short of It

As I work with clients to help them see the greater philanthropic return that can be enjoyed from engaging in values-based, long-term strategies, some become gripped by anxiety.

“This sounds good,” they say, “but what about now?” “What about our results for this year?”

I realize that some see long-term strategies as coming at the expense of short-term results. But it isn’t an either-or proposition. Taking a long-term approach can have an immediate beneficial effect on the bottom line because it offers the philanthropic investor a stronger value proposition. On the other hand, if you don’t take a long-term approach, all the prospective donor sees is urgency, expediency, opaque objectives and, in some cases, desperation. That will only diminish their enthusiasm and curb their willingness to consider significant investment. Put yourself in the donor’s position: Which is more attractive? The request for more money now for unspecified or broadly-defined purposes or for a strategic investment in a project or initiative that will advance the institution’s mission in concrete and compelling terms in a finite period of time?

In their book, “Great By Choice,” Jim Collins and Morten Hansen limn the uncommon characteristics of CEOs who have led companies to remarkable achievements despite significant challenge and adversity. All of these ultra-high achievers,” they say, “started with values, purpose, long-term goals, and severe performance standards.” Yet, when you read the case studies, each of their companies also made considerable and consistent progress year-in, year-out.

You see, if you commit yourself to enduring values, by definition you commit yourself to a long-term course. But, because the end point is true, because it has and will stand the test of time, any progress you make, on even the most difficult day, puts you closer to great and lasting achievement. If, on the other hand, you have no value-driven objectives, how do you know if you have made progress from day to day, month to month, or year to year? If your objective is only to achieve certain short-term, fund-raising measurements you may indeed reach them only to discover that you have wandered well off the course to long-term philanthropic sustainability. And that is exactly where many philanthropy-seeking organizations now find themselves.

Collins and Hansen illustrate, with one vivid example after the other, how those who commit themselves to regimens of steady progress toward long-term goals invariably outpace those who sprint to immediate gains. The key, they say, is discipline.

“Discipline, in essence, is consistency of action – consistency with values, consistency with long-term goals, consistency with performance standards, consistency over time… Discipline is not the same as measurement. Discipline is not the same as hierarchical obedience or adherence to bureaucratic rules. True discipline requires the independence of mind to reject pressures to conform in ways incompatible with values, performance standards, and long-term aspirations.”

If you assume your institution is going to be around a long-time, your best fund-raising strategy is to show donors how each and every gift adds up to something lasting and larger than all of us. They will most certainly notice the difference, and you will see an immediate impact.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mattering Matters to Philanthropy

I interviewed a young alumnus of Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC), who had graduated at the very top of his class after having dropped out of a community college years earlier, so I could understand what had turned his life around. He – let’s call him Brad -- explained that he started GGC with good intentions but soon lapsed into an old pathology – he skipped a class. But at GGC, it was only a few minutes into that first skipped class that Brad received a call from the professor in the classroom.

“Where are you?” asked the professor.

Brad stammered out something lame and largely incoherent.

“I’d like you to come back,” said the professor.

“Now?” asked Brad.

“That would be great.”

Brad made his way to the classroom and opened the door with sheepish apprehension fearing he might be subjected to ridicule or shame. But the professor greeted him warmly and as if nothing were out of place, as did his classmates. That moment, he said, turned his life around.

“Why ?” I asked.

“In the past, I didn’t care because I didn’t think anyone else cared,” said Brad. “But at GGC, I realized my being there mattered. After that, I never again wanted to let down my professor. It went from there to not wanting to let down my classmates, and then to not wanting to let down my school.”

Note the progression of thought. Because one person told Brad that his presence mattered, he came to see himself as having a responsibility to his classmates and to his school.

Georgia Gwinnett is a new public, open-admission college, the first established in Georgia since Reconstruction. The new president, a Vietnam war hero and graduate of West Point, was given a mandate to innovate. He stipulated that all professors share their cell phone numbers with all students, and vice versa, and that all calls were to be returned in 24 hours. That policy engendered a feeling of close connection and mutual obligation between teacher and student. It ensured that students couldn’t skip class or drop out unnoticed. Their being there mattered.

So what’s the applicability of this to advancement and fund raising? Well, what happens when our donors “skips” giving? If they have given for one or more years, then cease, do we let them walk away unnoticed? Do we let them know that we noted their absence, that we wish them to come back, that their presence in our organization matters? If we do contact them, does the call or letter come from someone who represents the heart of the enterprise or just the fundraising arm? And if it is the latter, what does that say about why they matter to us? Do we miss the person or the contribution? Do we stress the importance of what we can achieve together in the years to come or just what our institution wants to accomplish now?

In higher education, we have witnessed a 20-year decline in annual alumni participation. Because we were able to raise larger amounts of money from fewer and fewer donors, some argued that alumni participation didn’t matter that much. Then the economy shrank, and the feds and state governments cut back funding to higher education. The leaders of some of some institutions of higher learning then announced they would have to turn to their alumni to make up the difference. That’s hard to do when you’ve left them feeling that their leaving a long time ago didn’t matter. Now, alumni say, (according to research done by Engagement Strategies Group), the major obstacles to their future giving include the lack of a “strong emotional connection” and the widespread belief that their alma maters “haven’t done enough to connect with me beyond asking for money.”

Institutions that enjoy the highest levels of participation, and therefore the highest rates of long-term support through major, principal and estate giving, have created a sense of community, of personal connection. If you asked their donors why they give, you would receive a variety of reasons and motivations. And while none of them may say it, the real reason, at the end of the day, might be a strong sense that they matter to that organization.

Distance learning is not the key to a greater achievement in education; closing the distance between teacher and learner is. And the key to more productive models of philanthropy is making donors feel as if they matter to the mission and to those most responsible for advancing it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Where Credit Is Due

I’ve been fortunate enough to be in positions where I was able to help a number of organizations secure a large number of private gifts. Some of those gifts were remarkably large. Some were awe-inspiringly generous when contrasted to the donors’ means. All of them were a privilege to witness.

And, yes, I fell into the trap of saying, “I raised” those gifts. When others congratulated me for doing so, I was all too eager and happy to take credit for them. It was a trap because the more we, as fundraisers, take sole credit for private gifts, the more apt others are to assign us sole responsibility for securing them. The more that happens, the less effective we will become because the organizations we represent will fail to attend to the conditions that truly inspire, sustain and grow philanthropic support over time.

If, on the other hand, we think of ourselves not as fundraisers but as agents of philanthropy, we can help create a virtuous cycle that will promote the growth of a culture of gratitude and accountability, which will make our work more productive and rewarding.

When a gift commitment is made, we must give great credit to the donor. But we must also acknowledge and be grateful to live in a culture where so many donors feel an obligation to “give back” to society. Nowhere is that obligation felt more, or expressed more generously, than in North America. We must understand how that came to be and make sure that fundraising practice or institutional smugness do not chip away at an unparalleled human phenomenon.

Second, we must give public credit to all those who built value into our organization through their dedication and hard work over many years, if not generations. Their efforts greatly strengthened our organization’s relative societal worth and, in so doing, convinced others that it is worthy of significant and sustained philanthropic support.

Third, we must honor and acknowledge all those in our organization who contributed to the building and deepening the relationship with the donor. The giving of significant support is not an impulsive act; it evolves as a result of numerous positive impression and interactions with our institution’s representatives and beneficiaries. The alumnus who gives a million dollars to his or her alma mater, for instance, has been giving and interacting with various college representatives, on average, for 15 years previously. If we take credit for a big gift because we asked for it or cultivated that donor for months or years, we cause others to believe that the key to securing such gifts is to have a fundraiser ask for them, not commit themselves to building mutually productive and satisfying relationships over time.

If we choose to be agents of philanthropy, not just fundraisers, we take the least credit for the gifts we help secure, no matter how long or hard we work on them. We do so not to be falsely humble or self-sacrificing, but to educate our organization about the anatomy of private support. We do so to encourage others to continue to add value in the organization and to work with us to develop productive, multi-faceted relationships with those who have and might support us. We do so that we create a richer, deeper culture of accountability and gratitude so that our efforts might be more productive and our lives might be more full of joy and meaning.