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.

Pick up the frickin’ phone

June 8, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 11:41 am

I was recently talking with a fellow consultant about disengaged boards and, in particular, Executive Directors complaining about disengaged boards.

We quickly agreed on one point in particular: many Executive Directors share some of the blame for their disengaged boards because they don’t pick up the frickin’ phone.

They rely upon board meetings and/or emails to communicate with their board. In their over-reliance on board meetings and email, they never engage in meaningful one-on-one conversations with the board to get to know them, to share personal stories, and to make specific requests when appropriate.

So if you’re an Executive Director facing a disengaged board, your first task is simple: schedule a half hour phone call with every board member. You don’t need an excuse for this. Just do it. And if they don’t respond to an email requesting a phone call, just call!

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.

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.

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.

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.

Pros and Cons of ED Transition Processes

September 25, 2017

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:42 pm

I was recently asked to write up some pros and cons for an organization when it comes to different hiring approaches to take for an upcoming Executive Director transition.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.  Interested in additional feedback.

In my mind, there really are three scenarios for any organization:

Scenario 1: Hire from within without an open search.

Scenario 2: Hold an open search with internal candidates welcome to apply.

Scenario 3:  Hire an Interim Executive Director for a 6-12 month period and then figure out whether to move to Scenario 1 or 2.

Scenario 1 (hire from within) Pros/Cons

Pros

  • Maximizes odds the new E.D. will be a good cultural fit for the organization.
  • Minimizes risk that a new E.D. will try to take the organization in a sharply new direction
  • Minimizes the amount of training/on-boarding likely needed.

Cons

  • If there are two strong internal candidates, it often leads to the departure of the one not chosen.
  • Can lead to insular thinking in the absence of new strategic-level leadership.
  • Focus on current organizational culture can limit the ability to achieve a more diverse workplace.

Scenario 2 (open search) Pros/Cons

Pros

  • Has the potential to bring in someone with significant new relationships with funders, partners, and potential board member
  • The search itself can increase the profile of the organization.

Cons

  • Hiring of an external candidate can be discouraging to and even lead to the departure of a strong internal candidate who isn’t selected.
  • An external candidate who was strong on paper may prove to be a poor fit in practice.

Scenario 3 (Interim ED) Pros/Cons

Pros

  • Someone with expertise in the Interim role can help identify organizational challenges with a fresh perspective and advise the board on the best path forward and give a candid assessment of whether there is, in fact, an internal candidate who’s ready.

Cons

  • Additional period of uncertainty for funders/allies.
  • Harder for the outgoing Executive Director to “train” their successor.

Additional Notes

  1. Of course, for some organizations Scenario 1 isn’t even a consideration if there’s obviously no internal candidate potentially available.
  2. Scenario 3 would normally be used when the departure of an outgoing E.D. is abrupt, without time prepare.  But occasionally I’ve seen it selected when the board desires significant change and needs time and expertise to figure out what change is needed.
  3. Regardless of the Scenario, it’s advisable to have a 1-2 month overlap between the outgoing E.D. leaving that role and the new E.D. taking the helm. During this period, the E.D. plays a training and special projects role.

Are there additional pros and cons that should also be considered of the various approaches?

Another technique for being strategic

August 9, 2017

Filed under: Board Development,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:20 pm

I recently blogged about the importance of being strategic as an organization and one technique for being so modeled after Paul Covey’s insight about effective people focusing on important tasks and not just urgent (e.g. time-sensitive) tasks.

Another technique I’ve found useful in being strategic is based on an insight from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and the Social Sectors.

In it, he posits that great organizations find the sweet spot in a Venn diagram consisting of three circles:

  • What the organization can be the best at?
  • What the organization is passionate about?
  • What serves as the organization’s resource engine?

In explaining this, think about the three scenarios where two of these are true and the third is false.

If you’re passionate and can generate dollars, but not excellent, you’ll usually be outcompeted. Over time, even the dollars will fade because donors will figure out your work isn’t excellent.

If you’re excellent and can generate dollars, but not passionate about what you’re doing, your best intent will peter out over the long haul.

If you’re passionate and excellent, but there’s no path to generate resources, you won’t have funds to accomplish what you desire.

Of course, things get even bleaker if you’re only in one of the three circles.

One challenge in implementing this tool is groups are often not self-aware of their own limitations when it comes to excellence.  Finding a way to get candid feedback on this front from those in a position to evaluate the organization is really valuable.

Likewise, a challenge I’ve experienced on the passion front is the exercise is usually about what the most vocal person is passionate about, or the Executive Director/Board Chair.  I’ve had success using confidential interviews as part of strategic planning in a way that generates a more candid sense of where the overall team has its passion.

Lastly, figuring out an organization’s resource engine means taking a hard look at its revenue strategies (whether traditional fundraising or earned revenue) and whether those line up well with the programs being evaluated.

So how does this tool help you choose among various activities?  For each, you can generate ratings on the team’s level of passion for it, the team’s excellence at it, and the likelihood of the activity generating dollars.

You’re not looking for the sum of these ratings, but rather those activities that score well across all three.

One technique for being more strategic

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:04 pm

I’ve recently been thinking about the concept of organizations being strategic.

Being strategic is a choice made by successful nonprofits.

There are a lot of ways nonprofits fail to be strategic.

Some make a list of all desirable things to do and then set out to do them all.

Some do whatever is advocated for by whoever on the board is loudest and most persistent.

Some just keep doing what they’ve always done without reevaluating it.

They are the easy way.

But they’re not the most effective way.

Across many organizational functions (governance, fundraising, program), successful organizations develop systems to make calculated choices where to spend resources (time and money in particular) in order to gain maximum benefit.

That’s because the to-list of worthwhile activities is always far larger than you have time and money to do.

So how do you prioritize your time and money?

There is no one solution for every or even most organizations.

But here’s one tool to consider.  I’ll suggest additional ones in the future.

When you have a list of activities you’re looking to prioritize, plot them on a graph looking at their level of urgency and importance and focus on the upper right quadrant.

This task is taken from Paul Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and specifically his third habit, “Put First Things First.”

In explaining time management, he divides the world into four quadrants based on two continuum.  One continuum is whether an activity is important or unimportant.  The second continuum is whether the activity is urgent or not urgent, with urgency about its time-sensitivity.

Covey makes the point that effective individuals figure out how to prioritize those things that are important, but not urgent.  In contrast, ineffective people get caught up in urgent (e.g. time-sensitive), but unimportant tasks.

Here’s what this looks like graphically and applied by me to nonprofit organizations.

Important
Unimportant

Urgent

Not Urgent

  • Crises
  • Pressing problems
  • Important projects with deadlines
  • Relationship Building
  • Planning
  • Recognizing new opportunities
  • Prevention
  • Interruptions
  • Most phone calls and email
  • Some meetings
  • Popular activities
  • Trivia
  • Busy work
  • Some mail and phone calls
  • Time wasters

Adapted from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, Page 151

Here are three examples of urgent, but not important activities that often bog organizations down.

  • Low performing fundraising events.  Because events come with inherent internal deadlines both in preparing for and running the event, they create artificial time urgency.  Yet, in the long run, many low-performing fundraising events are simply not important to an organization’s financial health.  They create artificial time urgency, but they are not important.
  • Spending board time on short-term policy/politics.  Particularly for advocacy-focused nonprofits, board meetings can become dominated by backwards looking gossip about who said what, where things stand, and what the organization should do next week responding to some policy proposal.  It’s urgent in the moment.  But in the scheme of things for an organization’s board, it’s not important, since the board’s role should be focused on strategic governance and resources.
  • Leadership attending too many meetings.  I’ve repeatedly been told by Executive Directors that the biggest barrier to their raising more money is carving out the time to do so.  Yet, I then witness them attending meetings where their participation is nice, but of limited importance.  Meetings, because they have territory on a calendar, create an artificial urgency.  It has to be done right now because it’s in the calendar.

In contrast, much of the long-term strategic thinking and relationship building required of successful organizations is never particularly time-sensitive, but it’s critically important.  Effective organizations make those happen even if it means some urgent, but unimportant tasks get jettisoned.

Of course, if a team is doing this exercise, you may need some group process to reach a meeting of the minds.  In one past planning process, I successfully had each member of the team rate the activities being prioritized on both the urgency and importance scales from 1-10 with 10 being highest and then we averaged their ratings.

Regardless of the technique used, even having the conversation using the important/urgency framework can be eye opening to teams.

Check out 13 tips for email that gets results

June 14, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — jonathanpoisner @ 9:51 am

Communications consultant Natalie Bennon recently published 13 tips for email that gets results.

If you’re just getting started in email communications for a nonprofit or if you want a quick refresher, it’s worth looking at her tips.

Email remains the most critical means of communicating with most supporters and potential supporters.  It’s worth your time to ensure you’re using best practices to get the biggest impact from your list.

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