Thoughts

Got ABS, bro?

Abs are great and all, but have you ever tried being a great steward of the trust your donors put in you by contributing to your organization?

See for me, that’s abs: Always Be Stewarding. It’s somewhat of a lifestyle for me, the way exercise might be for others. I write about it a lot, though I’m not sure it can be overstated.

Over 15 years in and around nonprofits, one sees myriad ways of demonstrating appreciation. Some organizations barely scratch the surface (thank you letters/emails) while others are utter rockstars with full stewardship programs (donor newsletter, event invitations).

Forever I worked in arts and culture, before transitioning to other types of nonprofiteering. Different sectors appreciate their donors differently, though I’ve consistently found a foolproof practice of sharing what you might consider “mission moments.” In this way, rather than telling donors what they get for their giving, show them how their generosity makes a difference.

I tried this at the end of last fiscal year a simple one-page letter with five short paragraphs, each spotlighting a different area of our work. I titled it simply, “impacts and benefits.” Nowhere in the letter did it ask for anything, rather, it was straight appreciation. This wasn’t novel, and in fact, it was a lightbulb idea after talking with a friend who’s a donor to the organization. And something funny happened.

A few weeks later, we started getting checks in the mail. And most of them were additional gifts beyond what the donors had already gave — not renewals of previous gifts, but increases. Again, we reinvented no wheels, but we put some gas in the car. This was sort of wonderful, and rather affirming to know people felt strongly about our efforts.

So how are y’all getting your abs?

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Thoughts

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

Most of us are familiar with the classic holiday Andy Williams song. But the song was actually co-written by George Wyle and Edward Pola. Behind the scenes, the two crafted possibly one of the most well-known Christmas songs, ever. A lot of great things happen behind the scenes, and the movers and shakers often get less credit than they deserve.

As a nonprofiteer, I think about that a lot during the holidays. I think about all the terrific things happening throughout the year, and I certainly think about the equally terrific people who make those things happen. In our world of fundraising — especially as it relates to corporate and foundation partners — those people are not always the top figures. They might be coordinators, executive assistants or other complementary collaborators.

Each year, at some point between Thanksgiving and December 31, I always make it a point to set aside a good chunk of time to not only reflect on the past year’s meaningful experiences, I make sure to thank each and every one of those complementary collaborators. I pick up the phone, I write notes, I send e-mails. Some I’m closer with, and some I’ve never met, but in no small way, they have all made my life easier and better, and they deserve exceptional appreciation.

So as we inch closer to December 31, won’t you all join me in sharing thanks with these superheroes? Because really, it IS the most wonderful time of the year.

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Thoughts

The Calligraphy of Gratitude

Note: This is an update from a 2017 piece on the topic of being thankful, sharing again under the guise of Thanksgiving!

In my last office kitchen there was a microwave. This wasn’t a special microwave, though when your food was ready, the screen flashed: ENJOY! Not DONE or FINISHED—instead, it displayed a warmer sentiment. It was a light touch, though every time I warmed my food, it was a pleasant surprise.

For me, it’s the same when someone shares a “thanks” when you hold the door, or a “gesundheit” after a sneeze. Expected? Maybe. Typical? Not so much. It’s 2018 and things are only moving more and more quickly — like Brooks said in Shawshank Redemption, “…the world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” We sometimes forget, while these little social graces are pleasant, they are meaningful.

If we think in terms of business, like a meeting, a donation or any transaction, we have a tendency to rely on quick, standard, electronic-only gratitude — a “thank you” e-mail, a social media post or the dreaded e-newsletter auto-signup.

I challenge that we give thanks in a more personalized way.

This can be difficult with today’s pace. We get so fixated on quantity over quality,  at times we feel fine with complacency. Truth be told, our stakeholders (defined however you do in your industry) are generally fine with it, too. Though, who ever really shined in their efforts by being “fine?”

Thank You

Matt Jones (Unsplash)

So, what can we do? You can start by spending a few moments more when you show your appreciation:

  • Sending one of those “thank you” e-mails? Personalize the header from “Dear Mr. So and so” to “Dear Bill” (if appropriate) and make it an actual letter or card. Mailing addresses are pretty easy to find these days.
  • Posting some social media love? Share the appreciation more publicly in a way that stakeholders will see, like in-office, in-store or elsewhere.
  • Auto-signing someone up for that flashy e-newsletter? Pick up the phone and share some exciting news about a program or product.

And another thing, while we’re on the subject…

  • Something not go exactly your way? Take the opportunity to travel the high road and—even in response to an unfortunate experience — share your gratitude.

I believe these are things we can do with ease, and even begin to enjoy. Think about calligraphers and how they spend their time meticulously crafting their words in a creative, meaningful way.

So, be calligraphers of gratitude. You’ll thank yourself for it later.

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Thoughts

The Dying Art of Asking Questions

By nature, I am a curious person — annoyingly so. My parents never complained about it, though I was definitely the “why?” child. While I’m sure this can be outwardly irritating, as an adult this practice keeps me well-informed on things of immediate or peripheral importance; a valued skill in nonprofits.

In recent years, however, I have noticed a downward slope with regard to asking questions, and this comes on all sides. Board members who express little interest in knowing what’s happening; staff who miss opportunities to learn more about the organization’s direction; “leaders” who make decisions based on internal feelings rather than seeking input. While not attempting to break this down on a systematic or psychological level, from my direct experience I’ve surmised a few roads which lead to lack of questioning:

  1. Time. “There are only so many hours in the day; I don’t have time to seek feedback and input when things just need to get done.”
  2. Fear. “Gosh… what if I get an answer I don’t want, or don’t like?”
  3. Ignorance. “Oh, wait, was I supposed to ask someone about this?”
  4. Ego. “I know better than everyone, so why would I waste my time asking questions to which I already know the answer?”

Those things all read badly, though not all of them come from a bad place. How many of us enter a situation where — sorry for using this phrase, but — we don’t know what we don’t know. The people before us didn’t keep running records or manuals, the staff has 100% turnover so there’s no institutional knowledge, and the Board are nowhere to be found for inquiries.

For whatever reason, we are losing the drive to be curious. Lack of creativity and inquisition are an issue in schools with children, but gosh, it’s an atrophying skill in adulthood too. In organizations, some of this is a top-down issue. Years ago I worked in places where questions were frowned upon, because how dare you question the all-knowing executive director.

I am, however, finding pockets of hope. I very recently joined the Board of a scrappy (their word, not mine) creative nonprofit, which has been enlightening. At each meeting, I talk with the team about fundraising, future planning, etc., and to my surprise… they ask a lot of questions. There are things about which they don’t know, and they want to know. As a volunteer, it’s kind of amazing to see the lightbulbs go off, but that really only happens when people ask genuine questions, and genuinely want to know the answers.

AskAway

This is creepy but cute, right?

As a fundraiser, I believe there is an art to asking questions. Some of the best visits I’ve had with donors and prospects end with the people saying things like, “Gosh, it was so nice learning about you!” In reality, I’m simply asking questions about them (some guided, some open-ended), which get conversations moving. It’s not simply “What are you interested in supporting and can we have your money so we can do that?” Rather, it’s asking about their experiences, what interests them, what organizations they believe are doing great work, where they see philanthropy making a difference, and so forth. Little of that is about “me” or “my work,” yet at the end of a good conversation, you can paint a nice little picture, simply by asking questions.

So ask away, friends! Ask genuinely and honestly. People want to share, and sometimes it simply takes a little prompting. “The smart ones ask when they don’t know,” mused Malcolm Forbes, “…and sometimes when they do.”

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Thoughts

Donors and Pets

I was recently talking with a nonprofit board about the importance of continuously and consistently engaging with donors. “Because it’s a good thing to do” wasn’t cutting it, so I attempted a metaphor.

There are steps in the donor cycle — identification, cultivation, solicitation AND stewardship. It’s not solely about asking for money. Not that asking isn’t important, though it’s not where you generally spend most of your time. And it most certainly shouldn’t be the only time your donors hear from you. You go to an ATM when you need cash, not your supporters.

But where were we? The metaphor, right.

For anyone with pets, one thing you do with some frequency is take them to the vet. Sometimes for illness, others for a routine checkup. Either way, most people probably travel to the vet in a car, and for some, it’s the only time little FooFoo goes in the car. So when little FooFoo sees the car, little FooFoo knows what’s up.

Dog

Other people take their pets for car rides all the time. To the store, to the park, to pet play dates, etc. In those instances, when little FooFoo sees the car, it may just not be a wholly traumatic experience. In this metaphor, here are the players:

  • Little FooFoo: Your donor
  • The Car Ride: Your engagement with the donor
  • The Vet: The once-a-year solicitation

This seemed to resonate with the group. And it’s not meant to be silly, it’s reality-based. Long gone are the days when one touchpoint a year is adequate with your supporters. In a time when information is available in a flash — and over one million nonprofits are vying for the same dollars — your people need to hear from you. You need to take them in the car with you all the time (or at least often), and not just to the vet.

You’re doing a new program in-line with some of your donors’ interests? Shoot them a note! You just voted on a great new board member who will help really boost some aspect of your work? Let your donors know! You reached some sort of epic programmatic or financial milestone? Tout it!

There is such a thing as over-communicating, though we’re in the field of feel, and our donors are engaged for reasons of personal significance. More often than not, I’ve found if people don’t want to hear from you, they’ll tell you — either directly or by unsubscribing to your mailing lists. We have such opportunities to be stewards of our organizations’ missions, and in doing so, can be really great stewards of our donors.

So let’s do ourselves a favor; let’s take little FooFoo all over the damn place. The more familiar with the car ride, the less stressful, and you may just clean up less pee along the way — and isn’t that the goal?

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Thoughts

Getting it Done > Your Title

I’ve mused on the idea of “getting it done.” Go with me now please on another journey: worry about getting it done… not your title.

SillyWalks

Friends, Romans, countrymen… in the grand scheme of things, your title is insignificant. As nonprofiteers, the identifier on our business cards should be infinitely less important than the work we do — unless you are the Minister and your business is Silly Walks — though nevertheless, often the opposite is true.

For me, this idea became obvious just about three years ago. At that point, I had spent over a decade building up my experience and titles — coordinator to manager to program director to director — and then, shifting careers, overnight I again became a manager. Only then did it really begin to gel for me: my work was simply more important than what followed my name in my e-mail signature. [Note: this was around the same time I realized I was not seasoned]

Look, I won’t begrudge anyone for being proud of their accomplishments. If you’ve put in the time and energy, and have ascended to a certain position which carries a certain title, I’ll be your biggest cheerleader. #CelebrateSuccess, or whatever. But your title isn’t the whole of your job, so #chill with the self-aggrandizement. “Leadership” titles are important, as they identify achievements, tenure and hierarchy. Though at the end of the day, they really don’t mean much — if there are 1,400 Assistant Directors of Silly Walks at an organization, what does that even mean?

Another way to look at this is considering personal aspirations. By this, I suggest, the trajectory of one’s career shouldn’t necessarily be tied to ascending titles. I’ve taken a particular path which came with marginal title bumps, though now (as an associate director) in many ways I’m having a far more meaningful experience than I ever did with “higher” titles.

If it’s not clear, this is something that really bugs me. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even ask new acquaintances about their work or titles. At the end of the day, I believe titles say more about what people think about themselves rather than anything else. Instead, I prefer icebreakers like “[So and so], what’s your passion?” I like how this throws people off, and gets them a little off their high horse.

So next time this idea of titles presents itself as a potential topic of discussion, just remember:

NoBody

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Thoughts

Be On Time, Leave On Time

I like to think I’m unique, though there are so many ways in which I’m not. I’m not the shortest man on the planet, I don’t have the tallest hair. However, many professional experiences are solely mine, and where I find the latter most comically true is in some of my experiences in nonprofit fundraising.

Those in development (fundraising) may be familiar with the idea of the “reverse ask.” Picture it — you’re out with a donor, having a great talk, enjoying your coffee, then right as you’re about to shift into solicitation mode… the tables turn.

SurprisedSurprised

I hilariously remember once, a colleague and I visited a prospect at her home to discuss supporting a cultural initiative. After about one hour, my colleague gave me the look, implying, “alright, let’s do this, let’s get ‘dat money.” Misreading the room, I changed the subject — and took the donor up on her offer for cookies — which extended the visit another hour.

So there we were, entering hour three, and just as we’re about to make our ask, the donor pulls out some papers and flat out reversed the conversation — she asked us for financial support of a project she was producing. It was truly artful.

The colleague and I no longer work together, but we’re dear friends, and to this day we joke about that experience. We shake our heads in jest and say:

“Never take the cookie.”

But really what I mean is: in any given situation, know when your time expires. As nonprofiteers, I find this is something we do exceedingly poorly. Time as a gift, or at least a non-renewable resource, and it helps to fully know how much you want to offer any person or situation. It’s as respectful to leave on time as it is to be on time. When I feel something stretching longer than it should, I like to say, “So-and-so, please allow me to give you back as much of your day as I can,” which is usually understood and acknowledged.

So, folks, unless the purpose of your donor visit is to talk about pastry philanthropy, take it from me and don’t take the cookie.

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