Overcoming fear

September 23, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 10:28 am

For many of those responsible for securing major gifts for their organization, it’s one thing to know in theory what should take place when meeting with a donor.  It’s another thing to overcome their “fear” or “discomfort” that gets in the way of asking.  This is true both in-person and virtually.

In my experience there are five primary fears – three that are openly acknowledged and two that are more under the surface.

Commonly stated fears:

1.            Fear of harming relationships

2.            Fear of receiving reciprocal asks

3.            Fear of looking foolish/don’t know what to say.

Common unstated fears:

4.            Fear of rejection

5.            Money as a taboo topic

Each are worthy of discussion.

Fear 1:  Damaging relationships

For some fundraisers, relationships are like a cup of water and asking for a donation is like withdrawing water from the cup.  In reality, meetings done properly should add “water” to the relationship, even if they say no. 

This is because:

  • They will learn your story and you will learn theirs.
  • You will have shared with them something you care about, making the relationship more authentic.
  • They will most likely respect you for having the courage to make the “ask” (since most people who haven’t done it much fear fundraising).
  • They will often feel flattered that you felt they were the type of person who’d make a major gift.

Of course, if meetings are mishandled – heavy handed, language around guilt used, no effort made to listen to them, etc. – these benefits might not accrue.   If the only time you ever speak to someone is when you ask, relationships could fray.

The good news: avoiding those downsides is entirely in the control of a well-trained major donor fundraiser.

Fear 2:  Reciprocal Asks

Some of those I train, particularly board members, worry that if they ask friends for a donation, the friends will turn around and make a reciprocal request.

This is a relatively small risk.  The universe of those who fundraise is vastly smaller than the universe who give, so the odds start out low that those you’re asking have some other organization for which they will be raising funds.

Beyond this small risk, two other factors mitigate against it.  First, you’re not obligated to say yes if the cause they pitch to you isn’t a priority for you.  You do have an obligation to be authentic – to say no to a request that doesn’t match your values or priorities.  I’ve had to do this a few times over the years and I’ve never felt damage to a relationship because I was able to frame my “no” in a respectful manner.  

Indeed, in a few instances I very much appreciated the reciprocal ask as they introduced me to organizations doing great work.  To that extent, one could just as easily see reciprocal asks as an opportunity rather than something to fear.

Fear 3:  Looking Foolish

Nobody likes to do something where they feel inadequate and may appear foolish or incompetent.  Having talked with many board members, I’m convinced this fear is both overblown and straightforward to address when it comes to donor meetings.

For starters, there are many resources available to boards (and staff) to develop basic skills for fundraising.  When you combine training with some degree of ongoing support/coaching, pretty much everybody who would otherwise be an appropriate board member should be able to avoid looking foolish while fundraising.

Board members should also understand that those asked do not hold board members to the same standards they would staff.  The value of board members as fundraisers is from sharing passion, not expertise.  And for both board and staff, it’s always acceptable to tell a donor “I’ll get back to you” if they ask a question you’re not equipped to immediately answer.

In the end, adequate training and support should be able to get all board members (and staff) to the point they should be able to make an effective ask while coming across positively.

Fear 4:  Rejection

Major donor fundraisers will feel rejection.  Prospects will say “no.”  As much as half of the time.  Indeed, a useful maxim is that if nobody is saying “no” to you it means you’re not asking enough people for money.

Some techniques that have helped other fundraisers get past this fear:

  • Recalibrate in your mind what is meant by success.  Don’t judge yourself by school standards (90% = an A, 80% = a B, etc.).  Judge yourself by major donor fundraiser standards (anything better than 50% yes is pretty darn good).
  • Recognize that most “no’s” are really “yes” to something else.  You may be “selling” “racial justice,” while they’re prioritizing “climate change.”  Or they may be prioritizing personal/family needs at this point in their lives.  It will be an exceptionally rare circumstance where someone will say “no” to you while saying they’re going to invest in something you actively oppose.
  • Recognize that many of those who say “no” are really saying “not now.”  They may have already given away all they can during the period in time, but perhaps you’ve set them up for a big gift next year.
  • Recognize that other positive outcomes can come from meetings where those solicited say no, such as volunteering, new ideas, more knowledge of other things in your community, and/or leads/referrals to other prospects.    

Fear 5:  Social taboos around money

Lastly, some fear of fundraising actually stems from a more generalized social taboo around money that exists in American society.  It’s generally considered rude to ask people how much they make for a living.  Or to talk too much about money.  So asking for a donation is bringing money into the conversation in a way that makes us uneasy.

There is no magic formula for overcoming this taboo other than practice.  From talking to a lot of fundraisers over the years, those who make a series of asks almost always get past this taboo rather quickly if the asks are done properly.

Getting above the passion versus fear line

I’ve separately blogged about the passion versus fear line.

Imagine two intersecting lines.  One horizontal line is “fear of fundraising.”  Another line running from the lower left to upper right is “passion for the mission.”  When fear of fundraising exceeds passion for the mission, fundraising doesn’t take place.  When passion for the mission exceeds fear of fundraising, it does. 

The techniques discussed above are all aimed at lowering the “fear of fundraising” line.  A separate way of overcoming fear is to raise the “passion for the mission” line.  The more excited board members and staff are about what the organization can and needs to accomplish, the more likely they are to push through their fear and fundraise.  After all, people do things they’re afraid of all the time – if they want the outcome badly enough.

So take time with your boards in particular to keep them jazzed about the mission.  If your board meetings are dry affairs focused just on finances, that can be deadly to fundraising because a board member who’s bored with your organization is unlikely to step out of their comfort zone. 

Feedback for me

Have you encountered fundraising fears I didn’t mention. If so, I’d love to hear from you.

Or if you have additional techniques you’ve used to address fear, please do share them with everyone.

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Tips for Virtual Donor Meetings

August 11, 2020

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 4:33 pm

Donor Meetings in a Pandemic

Previously, I’ve blogged about Donor Stewardship Amidst a Pandemic.

Of course, stewardship of donors only matters if you eventually solicit them.  And the gold standard for solicitation of major donors has historically been the one-on-one in-person meeting.

Given the pandemic is continuing – and in all likelihood will remain uncontrolled until we have new leadership in DC that takes science seriously and is willing to make tough decisions – nonprofits who wish to solicit their major donors must move on from the gold standard and continue to solicit major gifts.

So let’s talk about “virtual” donor visits as something more than a phone call and less than in-person.

How do you get them?  And how are they different from in-person?

How do you get them?

You get them the same way you would an in-person meeting.  By picking up the phone and calling to request it.  Sure, you can email/text an attempt first.  But in my experience, it’s easy for them to give a quick “no” to an email/text, while a phone call is more likely to yield a “yes” in response to a meeting request.

It may seem weird doing a short phone call to schedule a video meeting, but I’ve done it. 

Start the call by thanking them.  For past donations.  For past volunteering.  For something else they’ve done in the community.

Be passionate/upbeat, but not scarily so in light of the pandemic.  You want them to want to spend time with you and people, in general, want to bask in the passion of those who’ve excited about something. 

Make clear you’re looking for their input and to see how they can help. 

Some potential language to use: “I’m trying to stay connected with our donors and it really helps me to have face to face communications.  Would you be open to doing a zoom or google hangout with me next Thursday to learn about what we’re up to, give us feedback, and figure out if now’s a good time for you to support the work?”

Based on what you know about the donor, you could pitch this as a virtual coffee or a virtual happy hour (if aimed at the late afternoon and you think that would appeal to the prospect).

Notice the suggested language is to ask for a specific date.  Use the “assumption of yes” to focus their attention on when to meet, not whether to meet.  Sure, they may still decline, but they’re less likely to do so.

The good news: in general, the pandemic has allowed for most people to have more time available and more flexibility than prior to the pandemic – with the exception of parents with school aged kids, who’re often busier.    

Be prepared to re-ask if they initially decline to schedule a meeting.  If they ask you to mail them something, you can say: “I’d be happy to mail you something.  But I’d really appreciate the chance to talk in more depth.  It’s really important for me to speak with potential supporters to get feedback on what we’re doing.  Can you make a little time on [DATE]?”

If they say they’re already planning on giving and it would be a waste of your time, say: “Thanks, but in no way would it be a waste of my time.  Meeting our supporters is one of the things that keeps me excited about being involved with ORGANIZATION.  We’re at a critical juncture and we think it’s important to talk with our supporters as we enlist your renewed support.  Can you make a little time on [DATE]?”

Assuming you get to yes, ask: “While we can do this as a phone meeting, I much prefer to do a zoom or google video call.  Does one of those options work for you?” (The percentage of people who’re familiar with at least one of those services is now very high).

Then send them a follow-up email or text confirming the appointment and including the link for the meeting.  Or just with a time/date for a phone call if that’s all they commit to doing.

What about the meeting itself?

A virtual donor meeting should generally follow the same outline I recommend for in-person. 

  • Chit chat; relationship-building. 
  • Tell your story
  • Get their story/get to know them.
  • Three stories:
    • Why the organization exists
    • Why the organization is successful
    • What’s urgent now
  • The ask
  • Re-solicitation/follow-up as necessary
  • Thanks and referral requests

So what’s different about doing it virtually during the pandemic?  Not a lot; but a few things come to mind:

1. The chit chat should start with some expression of care/concern given the pandemic and a check-in regarding whether they and their family have been able to stay safe.  This could very well lead to a side conversation that lasts a few minutes, but it’s important to treat your prospects as human beings and not checkbooks.

2. It’s always important to keep these meetings interactive and not monologues, but this is particularly important in a zoom meeting.  You need to keep this a conversation, bearing in mind that the virtual context may mean slight pauses since not everyone’s internet is equally speedy. 

3. Consider turning either the Why we Exist or Why we’re Successful stories into a 2-3 minute slide show where you screen share.  This is something you can’t easily do in an in-person meeting, but online you have an opportunity to do so if you have some great visuals.  But 2-3 minutes is tops.  Just 2-5 slides to help illustrate your story. 

4. The urgency story needs to take COVID into account, either in addressing what you’re most focused on your specific funding needs for the next 6 months.  It would be weird not to acknowledge the impact the pandemic has had on your finances.  Or if it hasn’t, to acknowledge tat it could. 

If that’s the meeting substance, what about everything else that surrounds the substance.  Here’s some basic tips:

  1. Send a reminder email/text with the log-on info the day before. 
  2. Log on 5 minutes early to make sure everything’s working.
  3. Make sure you have adequate light for the time of day. 
  4. Have the background be professional, but it’s okay if there’s a personal touch.   I’m not a fan of the zoom backgrounds that make you look like you’re somewhere you’re not. 
  5. Dress professionally or semi-professionally, appropriate for the donor in question based on what you know about them. 
  6. Before doing any of these, test out your sound ahead of time with a friend.  If the sound is good without a headset, don’t use one.  But if the sound is appreciably better with one, then do use one.  This will vary based on the quality of your laptop’s built in microphone.
  7. Have water handy in case you get dry mouth and need to drink something.  Or, as noted above, you could make coffee or some other libation a theme of the meeting that comes up in the chit chat. 
  8. Try to talk looking at the camera and not your own face on your screen.  This means knowing where the camera is on your computer/tablet. 
  9. Don’t freak out if you have kids or a spouse or a pet that interrupts the call.  It will just make you seem more human.
  10. Be prepared with a plan B should the technology fail – e.g. if one of you can’t connect online, plan on giving them a phone call during the same time.

Have you done any online donor meetings?  If so, what’s worked well and not well.  I’d love examples and feedback on my advice.

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The passion versus fear equation

July 16, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 3:54 pm

When training boards (and sometimes staff) on fundraising, I often refer to the passion versus fear equation or line.

Often, I’m asked to help a board get past their fear of fundraising. There are tools to address their fear.

But there’s another side to the equation: passion.

Imagine two intersecting lines. One is fear of fundraising. The other running from the lower left to upper right is passion for the mission.

My maxim: when a board member’s passion for the mission exceeds their discomfort/fear about fundraising, they will raise money. Lowering their level of discomfort/fear is one way to make that happen. But the other is to increase their passion.

After all, people do things they’re scared of all the time if their desire is strong enough.

So how do you increase a board’s level of passion for the mission:

  • Make sure board meetings aren’t entirely dry affairs focused on finances.
  • Find opportunities to have the board members experience the positive benefits the organization is generating. That could be meeting people who’ve been served, experiencing a location saved, etc.
  • Make this collective: do an exercise where board members share their “personal story” of why they’re involved. They will feed on each other’s passion — not just their own.
  • Create a sense of teamwork and camaraderie: to the extent they are passionate for their fellow board members, that will also count.

None of this discounts the importance of training as a tool to help board members past their fear. But don’t forget the passion side of the equation.

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Donor stewardship amidst a pandemic

June 4, 2020

Filed under: Fundraising,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 4:17 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot about effective donor stewardship in the midst of a pandemic.

Some strategies that traditionally are used for donor stewardship aren’t feasible during social distancing.

For starters, you’re probably not taking out donors to coffee or lunch to brief them on your work.

And you’re not hosting big gatherings where you can mix & mingle with your donors.

But while the tactics might change, the fundamentals of donor stewardship don’t.  So it’s worthwhile to start with some basic principles and then flesh out a pandemic donor stewardship plan accordingly.

In my mind, effective donor stewardship is a three-legged stool.

Leg 1: Helping donors better understand the work you do and its importance/impact.

Leg 2: Making donors feel appreciated by the organization as an individual, not a checkbook.

Leg 3: Strengthening personal relationships between the donor and organizational leaders.

When thinking about potential stewardship tactics, you should only use tactics that accomplish at least one of these outcomes, and preferably at least two.

So what potential cultivation tools can you use with the limits of social distancing?

For starters, general communications can continue, whether via email or postal mail, updating donors on the work of the organization.  The annual report, for example.  Or a twice-per year update to organizational insiders, with hand-written notes as appropriate.

In addition, you can still provide opportunities for top supporters to engage in the work.  Some types of volunteer activities are no longer possible. But you can still ask people to take actions online, respond to surveys, or otherwise spread the word about your organization’s work.

And for your top donors, you can still think about more personalized donor stewardship tools that could work with individuals, couples, or small groups.

Creative examples I’ve seen so far from my network:

  • Beyond requests for meetings via zoom (or a similar platform) as a replacement for a coffee/lunch, consider a Zoom “fireside” chat with organizational leaders or experts and a limited attendance – no more than 10 people. (Okay – fireside may not make sense in the summer, but you get the idea).
  • Set google news alerts for your top 30 donors and send emails acknowledging them if and when they are in the news.
  • Try to match a top donor’s expertise with an organizational need and ask them for some very targeted volunteer assistance.  If a top donor is a lawyer, is there a legal issue with which they can be asked to help?  If they are a marketing expert, are you looking for input prior to creating an updated website or refresh of your brand?   Don’t create work that won’t actually help you, but if it will help, asking a top donor to help can both help you advance the ball and build the donor’s commitment to your organization — even if they decline to volunteer!
  • Can’t invite a donor on an in-person tour of your facility (for organizations that have facilities). Consider doing a video tour instead.  Pretty much every phone is capable of playing this role if you practice.  
  • Send extra handwritten thank you notes to your top donors telling them how much you appreciate the support they’ve provided.
  • Invite a donor to go on a socially distant “walk” if you live somewhere this is appropriate.  Just tell the donor that you’re looking to update donors about the challenges and opportunities facing your organization and you’re hoping to combine that with walks in parks or natural areas, so long as you suggest a location where it would be relatively easy to maintain a distance of 6 feet between you.

In the end, I think the pandemic actually creates an opportunity for nimble organizations who’re able to think beyond the box to explore new stewardship tactics that could strike a chord with donors because of the novelty.

If you have other ideas on effective donor stewardship during the pandemic, please share them using the comments below.

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Planning and Management Amidst a Pandemic

April 28, 2020

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 1:42 pm

I’ve worked with quite a few clients over the last few years developing strategic plans.   A few have called me and asked: what now in light of the pandemic?

I always start with the question: has the lay of the land materially changed in a way that renders key strategies unworkable and/or goals unobtainable? 

Every time the answer has been “yes.”  Usually, it’s because they fear (accurately I assume at this point) that their plans hinged on fundraising that will not materialize in light of the pandemic.  Other times, the change to the lay of the land isn’t about money, but rather the fact that their programmatic work depends heavily on in-person forms of outreach or other work that has become impossible.

Here’s four pieces of advice I’ve given Executive Directors and Board Chairs who find themselves in either or both of these predicaments.

1. Hug your donors, just not literally.

Any reasonable fundraising strategy involves a combination of maintaining and upgrading existing donors (both individual and institutional), while also seeking new ones.  During the immediate health crisis and the economic fallout, organizations are going to have more success with their existing donor base as compared to attracting new donors.    

That means using multiple avenues to communicate with them (e.g. email, phone, online briefings, etc.).   And for those donors who love you the most, be really candid with them about where things stand for you.  They are the most likely to dig deeper to help you get through the crisis.

2. Don’t forget to plan

There may be a temptation in a crisis to mistake activity for productivity.   It may feel “good” to get really busy, but it’s critical that you focus on the right things.  That means reevaluating your goals (the ends you’re trying to achieve) and your strategies (the major types of activities you’re undertaking to achieve your goals).  What priorities have shifted?  What strategies are no longer tenable and what can replace them?   

I recently facilitated a team meeting planning for a 2021 grant and we had a robust conversation about the ways in which the world will look different and what that means for their programs.  We touched on everything from changes to volunteerism, to how people engage politically, to whom people are willing to talk.  They may not have accurately predicted all these shifts, but it’s far better to have the conversation than to just plunge forward without thinking.

3. Don’t throw out the whole past plan

Some people are tempted to just throw out their strategic plan and start from scratch.  There may be a few organizations for whom that may make sense.  But for most, if your plan was solid before, ask yourself:  do you just implement the same plan just over a longer time period, assuming everything takes longer?  Or have the fundamentals changed such that some of the goals or strategies needed to change? 

In most cases, starting with the old plan and editing it makes more sense than a blank slate.

4. Give your staff (and yourself) time and space to grieve and experiment

Your staff are your most precious resource and it’s important to recognize that they need special handling in this environment.  Beyond the obvious shift many organizations have to go through of suddenly managing an employee working remotely, staff are likely to feel agitated, upset, uncertain, etc. 

While not everyone has experienced the loss of a loved one or even someone they know, there is a degree to which nearly everyone is mourning the loss of the world as we knew it.  You should find ways to give people the space to share their feelings and concerns, even if that costs you time and productivity.

The flip side is that the new context for some people provides a burst of creativity.  I’ve seen this first-hand with another one of my clients where a staff person came forward with some really interesting and implementable ideas for taking real-world activities into the virtual world, with some potential amplifying affects for the group’s ability to communicate – at least in theory.   As a manger, it’s imperative that you keep an open mind towards new ideas that are worth an experiment.

Have you had some experience managing or planning amidst the pandemic you’d like to share? I’d welcome additional thoughts or experiences.

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Does your nonprofit pass the marshmallow test?

November 18, 2019

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 2:59 pm

One of the most famous social-science studies was the marshmallow test.  Put a marshmallow in front of a preschool aged child and tell the child they can have a second marshmallow if they wait 15 minutes before eating the first one.  Leave the room and observe. 

The study, which tracked kids for years after the test, purports to show that those kids who, at an early age, had the self-control to double their payout (by waiting for the second marshmallow) do better in life (as measured by various objective means).

Serious doubts have since been raised about the reliability of the study and its purported conclusions when it comes to childhood development, taking into account differences in demographics.  But I want to draw upon it as an analogy to something I’ve seen time and again in the nonprofit world:  many Executive Directors struggle because they are eating their marshmallow too soon.

What do I mean by this?

My thesis:  smaller nonprofits who have the discipline to hold off on eating the marshmallow are more likely to thrive than those who partake right away of the marshmallow.

In the nonprofit world the marshmallow is your program.  Just as eating a marshmallow feels good to a child, it feels good to nonprofit employees to do the organization’s program.

You know what doesn’t feel good?  Doing less of the program work that directly advances the mission, especially when there are obvious community needs you can meet. 

There’s always a time trade-off.  Time you spend on program is time not available for organizational development (fundraising, board governance, administration, etc.).

If you do too much program as a small organization, you’re eating the marshmallow. What do I mean by “too much program?”

I know one nonprofit Executive Director who’s been running the same small nonprofit for the last decade who expresses frustration that other organizations have outgrown theirs.   But when I give advice about ways to raise more money, their answer is always: “I don’t have time because there’s so much of the work to get done.”

And it’s important work.  And they’re getting it done well.

But they’re eating the marshmallow too soon. 

Their theory: do great work and the money will follow.

Alas, it doesn’t work that way since good fundraising takes a real time commitment.

A small organization for whom growth is important should do the absolute minimum level of program work required in order to keep faith with donors.  And then focus every remaining second on fundraising and other essential organizational development activities.

That means leaving marshmallows on the table in the short run.  So that you can get to far more marshmallows — and make a bigger impact towards achieving your mission — in the longer run.

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Relentlessly Focus on Relationships

November 30, 2017

Filed under: Fundraising,Leadership,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 11:23 am

This is a republication of Chapter 1 of Why Organizations Thrive.  

Organizations that thrive relentlessly focus on relationships.   This must begin with the Executive Director and the Executive Director’s relationships.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that successful organizations are constantly expanding their pool of relationships and strengthening existing relationships.  Then they consciously activate those relationships.

To understand why, it’s helpful to take a giant step back and talk about network theory and social change.  A wide variety of books have come out in the last decade detailing the various ways in which social change happens via networks of people connected by relationships.    The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, is a good example from this genre.

While people receive information outside of relationships, relationships have a powerful role in how people react to information.

People listen more to people with whom they have a relationship.

People are more likely to be persuaded by people with whom they have a relationship.

People take action more when requested from people with whom they have a relationship.

Of course, the quality of the relationship matters too.   The deeper the relationship, the greater the odds that we will listen to someone, be persuaded by them, or take action at their request.

As a practical matter, the power of relationships can impact organizations in many ways.  One example related to Executive Directors:  An Executive Director may give a pitch-perfect donation request to John Doe.  A board member may give a mediocre donation request to the same John Doe.  If the board member and John Doe are friends, the mediocre board request is more likely to succeed.

Yet, it would be a mistake to think of relationships as just about fundraising.   Relationships impact an organization’s interaction with volunteers, media, allied organizations, elected officials, and people the organizations are working to serve.  Any time you’re trying to shape behavior, relationships matter.

So how should an organization systematically expand the number of relationships its Executive Director and other key leaders have with those that matter?

Here are a few examples of ways I expanded my pool of relationships as an Executive Director.

  • I attended fundraisers for peer-organizations, if possible sitting at the table of people I didn’t already know well.
  • I instigated lunch or coffee with the leaders of current and potentially allied organizations, particularly those I didn’t already know well.
  • I asked board members to invite me to any non-fundraising parties they were throwing so I could meet more of their friends.
  • I asked elected officials for advice, as a way to get to know them.
  • I attended conferences more with an aim towards meeting new people during breaks and social times than out of a desire to tackle the subject matter of the conference work sessions.

None of this would have worked if I hadn’t been genuinely interested in getting to know these people.  You can’t fake authenticity in building relationships.

Of course, relationship building isn’t just about the Executive Director’s relationships.

In planning programs and fundraising, relationships by everyone on the staff and board should be front and center.   Some Oregon LCV activities, for example, never made sense as stand-alone activities.

Examples:

  • Hosting brown bag lunches to compare notes with allies;
  • Volunteer appreciation parties;
  • Trainings for members of the community;
  • Hosting happy hours.

While they had some value, their primary value was to build relationships that our staff could subsequently tap into in other ways.

If you’re using this approach, staff should know their role at events like these is to get to know new people rather than hanging out with existing friends.

There are three other practical implications that follow from relentlessly focusing on relationships.

First, you need to be systematic in planning for relationship-building and tracking relationships.  As an Executive Director, that means setting specific goals (e.g. 5 per month) for how many new relationships you want to develop in the most important categories (e.g. peer Executive Directors, elected officials, potential major donors).  And it means actually using a “database” – whether your donor database or otherwise – to track relationships.

Second, you need to recognize that not everyone is equal when it comes to relationships.   In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about three types of people who play a particular role in social change:

Connectors have an unusually large number of relationships.

Mavens have a strong need and ability to help solve other people’s problems.

Persuaders are particularly likeable and charismatic.

In hiring, in recruiting board members, and in recruiting volunteers, Executive Directors should keep an eye out for people who fit these descriptions and put an extra emphasis into developing relationships with them.

Lastly, the organization should think hard about how to maximize the value of relationships once they are generated.

In my experience, the key step in maximizing the value of relationships isn’t the initial “ask” you might make of someone (e.g. donate, volunteer, etc.), it’s in having your relationships tap into their own relationships on your behalf.

As I write this, I have 581 people in my Linked In network.   Those 581 people have 127,965 direct LinkedIn connections.  Of course, LinkedIn is just being used as an illustration of a point:  the people with whom any individual has relationships open them up to a vastly larger network of relationships than they can ever tap directly.

Organizations that thrive don’t just systematically build and activate first-order relationships – they get first-order relationships to tap into a further network.    As a practical matter, thriving organizations tend to turn donors into fundraisers and volunteers into volunteer recruiters.

How do you make that happen?  In the online world it’s seemingly easy – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and dozens of other sites are specifically geared to allow people to spread information and “asks” throughout their social network.   But while easy to spread information and asks, online response rates are abysmal.

The real payoff comes when people spread information or make requests where two-way communication is happening in real-time – which usually means on the telephone or face-to-face.

How do you get your first-order relationships to turn around and ask their friends for donations, to volunteer, to attend an event, to write their Congressman, or just to talk up your organization when at a cocktail party?

At the simplest level it’s by having a compelling message that motivates them.   (More about this in Lesson 13, Know and Tell Your Stories).

But beyond message, you need to structure their involvement in ways that motivate.  At Oregon LCV, we did this first and foremost by organizing teams of volunteers at the local level who took ownership of certain organizational decisions, thus motivating them to act.  With their help, we grew from an organization with a few dozen volunteers in 1996 to more than 1000 by 2004.

Of course, you can have all the relationships in the world, and your organization won’t thrive without many other elements.  But organizations that thrive almost universally place a very high value on building and strengthening personal relationships.

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a lesson from my yoga instructor

March 13, 2017

Filed under: Fundraising,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:33 pm

My yoga story told a short story that she applied to life, but my mind immediately applied to nonprofit organizations.

Chapter 1: You’re walking down a street, and you fall in a hole.  It’s dark.  It takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 2:You’re walking down the street again, you pretend the hole isn’t there.  You fall in.  It’s dark.  It takes awhile to get out.

Chapter 3: You’re walking down the street again, you see the hole, but you still fall in.  It’s dark.  You get out quickly.

Chapter 4: You’re walking down the street, you see the hole, and carefully go around it.

Chapter 5: You figure out where you want to go and get there by going down a different street.

My yoga instructor’s point was that eventually you want to get to chapter 5 so that you avoid entirely the situation that puts you in peril of falling in the hole.

My application of this story to nonprofits:

Chapter 1: You hold a fundraising event and it’s a bust.

Chapter 2: You hold a fundraising event and give yourself a pep talk that this time it won’t be a bust, but it is.

Chapter 3: You hold a fundraising event, recognize why the last one failed, but it still does.

Chapter 4: You hold a fundraising event, recognize why the last one failed, and manage to make it a success.

Chapter 5: You take the time/energy you put into a mediocre fundraising event and meet with individual donors, raising far more money.

Okay — just one example, and perhaps not a great one.

But the central lesson I think is sound: sometimes when we find ourselves failing at something, the answer isn’t to ignore it, or work really hard to avoid the pitfalls involved.  Maybe the answer is to go do something else entirely that better achieves your goals with fewer risks.

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Personal stories in fundraising

January 9, 2017

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 10:22 am

Telling Personal Stories when doing Fundraising Meetings

Often, we spend so much time honing the stories we’re going to tell to donors about our organization, that we fail to also think about what personal story or stories should become part of donor cultivation and solicitation meetings.

We’re excited to tell the prospect about the organization’s work.  So we rush ahead of the important step of forming a genuine relationship with the prospective donor.

Most good fundraisers understand that relationship-building means doing a lot more listening than talking during donor meetings.   But even good fundraisers sometimes find it difficult to draw out prospects.

About 5 years into my own fundraising odyssey, I learned there’s an important first step that can really help – tell your own personal story.

Why tell your personal story during a fundraising meeting?  And what makes a good personal story that sets up a fundraising meeting?

Fundraising is about Relationships and Stories are Key to Relationship-Building

At its heart, good major donor fundraising is about relationships.  People are far more likely to make a major gift when the ask is by someone with whom they feel comfortable and where they feel you are a person and not just a “position” within an organization.

That means getting to know the donor.  And that’s only possible if they get to know you.  It can’t be one way.

Yet, if we start a donor meeting with just asking the prospect a series of questions, that can be off-putting.   Unless you’re exceptionally gifted, most prospects will keep their guard up when faced with a series of opening questions.

A trick I learned about 5 years into being a major donor fundraiser really changed the dynamic for me when it came to the quality of meetings.  Before I learned this trick, my meetings were successful, but I always felt something was missing.  Afterwards, it was like a switch had been turned on and I found donors far more revealing of themselves.

The trick was to start by telling my own personal story.   After some introductory chit chat and thanking them for something they’ve already done, say something like:

“Thanks again for taking time to meet with me to talk about THE ORGANIZATION.  Before we dive into it, I want to share with you why I’m so glad to be WORKING/VOLUNTEERING for THE ORGANZIATION.”

And then tell the story.

The role of this story is to demonstrate to the donor prospect:

  • That you’re a real person with values motivating your fundraising and not just a cog in the organizational machine.
  • To identify something you value that they probably value too.
  • To create a space in the conversation where it’s natural and appropriate for you to ask about the prospective donor’s own story, background, values, etc.

I’ve heard dozens of effective personal stories over the years.  My own story when fundraising for conservation causes has to do with growing up amidst suburban sprawl and losing easy access to nature.

A good personal story for a fundraising meeting:

  • Answers the question: what in your background motivates your involvement with the organization.
  • Speaks from the heart, and not just the brain.
  • Takes place in time prior to your involvement with the nonprofit.
  • Usually has the structure: “When I was . . . , I . . . ., and then . . . . , and that’s why . . . . .”

After telling the story, it’s much more natural to start asking questions of the prospect.

“So tell me your story  — how did you first become interested in X?”

X will vary wildly based on their career, volunteer interests, etc.

And then you’re off to the races.   Almost always, their answer to the opening question should allow for follow-up questions that can be used to get to know them and their interests.  And occasionally, it will be useful for you to tell another story about yourself to further the relationship.

And then you gradually transition into telling the organization’s stories (why it exists, why it’s successful, what’s urgent).  Now that you know them better, you can also tailor stories about the organization around their interests.

Of course, it may also be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway:  this technique isn’t just useful for fundraising.  I’ve used it doing board recruitment meetings and more general volunteer recruitment, for example.

If you have a personal story you’ve written up and want to run it by me to see if I feel it’s on the right track, feel free to email me.

 

 

 

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Some thoughts about donor stewardship

September 22, 2016

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 11:05 am

They gave!  Now what?

You want donors to have an ongoing, steadily deepening relationship with both you and the organization.

So you should steward that relationship.  Hence, donor stewardship.

Stewardship starts with the thank you

It may be obvious, but bears emphasis: stewarding the relationship starts with a genuine thank you.

For anyone who’s taken the time to meet with you, that means a handwritten thank you.  Even for major gifts that otherwise come in, a handwritten thank you is advisable.

The alternative: a phone call thank you when the gift comes in.

Either way, this is an opportunity to show genuine appreciation separate from the formal letter the donor should receive thanking them and including any information appropriate for tax purposes.

Stewardship after the thank you

Good stewardship encompasses three primary goals:

  • To strengthen the personal relationship between the prospect and most likely next solicitor,
  • To educate the prospect about the work you do and its importance, and
  • To help the donor see themselves as part of a community of like-minded supporters.

In designing any stewardship activity, you should always be able to point to at least one of those three goals being achieved or else you should rethink whether it’s worthwhile.

Stewardship Tactics to Consider

What activities accomplish these purposes?

  • Sending them information is always a good place to start.  Personalized emails or general email updates can help.  Many organizations still mail major doors an Annual Report or similar document demonstrating the organization’s impact.  It may be a personalized letter once or twice a year aimed at organizational “insiders.”
  • Creating a branded program to recognize and generate community among major donors. For example, a “Leadership Circle” or “Presidents Council.”  A donor belongs to this when they give annually at greater than whatever dollar figure is your threshold.  Those within the program should ideally receive at least a couple communications per year specifically aimed at them.
  • Whether or not you have a branded program, major donors should ideally be given one or two opportunities a year to attend a non-fundraising event. The point of these events is to give them opportunities to engage with leadership, community leaders, and each other.  If they attend these events, it’s important to use the opportunity to get to know them and learn about what motivates them, rather than just talking “to” them.
  • Ask for advice. This can be online, in-person as part of small listening sessions, or in a more formal setting like strategic or program planning.
  • Ask them to volunteer. This could be basic volunteering, serving on a committee or task force, or for those most engaged, service on the board.
  • Give them recognition.  This could be as simple as including their name(s) in an Annual Report along with all similar donors.  Or it could be specific to them, such as giving them an award (hopefully for things they’ve done beyond just their donations).
  • Provide them a personal, one-on-one opportunity to catch up over coffee, lunch, or even on the phone. As with cultivation, whenever you are engaged one-on-one, use it for an opportunity to ask them questions about why they’re interested, what motivates their support, what specific aspects of your work they find most appealing, etc.
  • Send them personalized emails if/when you read about them in the press or come across an article that you feel they would be particularly interested in. (If they have a somewhat unique name, set up a Google news alert to automatically email you if they are mentioned in the news).

In the end, there will almost always be more good stewardship ideas than you have time to do, so it’s important to identify tiers of donors.  Some will get basic stewardship.  Others will get much more personalized stewardship.  When I was an Executive Director, we planned out personalized stewardship for our top 30 donors and all other major donors were folded into a general stewardship plan.  What’s appropriate for your organization will depend on the level of development staff time that is being devoted to major donor fundraising, which in turn should be related to what you can reasonably expect to raise from major donor prospects over time.

If you have additional creative ideas for donor stewardship, please do share them with me!

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