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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

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!

Overcoming the fear of rejection

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 10:36 am

When people say they are “afraid” of making fundraising asks one-on-one with a prospective donor, there are many facets to that fear.

One is the age-old fear of rejection.  Everyone fears rejection to some degree.  We fear it in our personal lives when we ask people to do something or in our professional lives.

Even the most magnificent major donor fundraiser will feel rejection.  Indeed, if they don’t sometimes receive a “no,” it undoubtedly means they aren’t asking enough people to donate.

There’s no magic solution to this challenge.

But there are some mental techniques that have helped other fundraisers get past this fear.

For one, we can recalibrate in our minds what we mean by success.  Don’t judge success by school standards (90% = an A, 80% = a B, etc.).  Judge yourselves by major donor fundraiser standards (anything better than 50% yes is pretty darn good).

Another tool is to recognize that most “no’s” are really “yes” to something else.  You may be “selling” hamburgers while they want hot dogs.  You may be selling environmental protection while they want to feed the hungry.  In other words, they may have other nonprofits or campaigns they wish to prioritize.  Or, in other cases, really valid personal needs that they need to prioritize.  It will be an exceptionally rare circumstance where someone will say “no” to you while saying they’re going to invest their dollars in something you actively oppose.

Another thing to always bear in mind is that many “no’s” are actually “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.  Your success is having primed the pump for a future ask that will succeed.

And even beyond future gifts, you can learn to recognize the many other positive outcomes that can come out of a relationship-focused donor meeting even if no gift materializes.  They can volunteer.  They may have offered ideas you like for how the organization can do something differently.  You may learn about something else happening in the community.  You may get leads or referrals to other donor prospects.  I’ve experienced each of these outcomes and by focusing on the positive, the “sting” of rejection quickly faded.

In the end, all the mental tricks in the world won’t fully eliminate the momentary feeling that something is awry when people tell us “no.”  It’s still part of our human nature.  But by thinking consciously about it, successful major donor fundraisers can quickly go from “fear” of rejection to embracing the good that comes out of any one-on-one donor meeting.

If you have other techniques you have used to get past your own fear of fundraising, please let me know!

A primer on nonprofit dashboards

June 6, 2016

Filed under: Fundraising,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:29 pm

What’s a nonprofit dashboard?

Why should my nonprofit consider getting one?

And how should we develop one?

These are some of the questions I address in a recent guest blog for The Databank.

In addition, I recently gave a presentation on dashboards for the Nonprofit Network of Southwest Washington.  Here are the slides from the presentation.  

Check them out and then let me know what you think.

Thoughts on developing a culture of philanthropy

May 12, 2016

Filed under: Fundraising,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 11:59 am

Beyond the nuts and bolts of fundraising, one topic that often emerges when I work with clients is how to imbue the organization with a culture that supports fundraising growth.

The term we often settle on is “culture of philanthropy.”

Why does culture matter?  Management guru Peter Drucker famously wrote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

As a strategic planning consultant, I’d be the last to tell you that culture trumps strategy.  But it’s also the case that culture is incredibly important over time.

So what is a culture of philanthropy?

Ask 10 fundraising consultants for their definition of this term, and you’ll likely get 10 different responses.

For me, it boils down to the following.  If an organization has a culture of philanthropy, then everyone in the organization, including staff, board, and key volunteers:

  • Can articulate the case for giving to the organization
  • Understands the importance of fundraising to the organization
  • Happily serves as ambassadors for the organization
  • Has at least some explicit role in the fundraising process

In addition, two other things need to hold true:

  • Where an organization has a culture of philanthropy, donors are valued first and foremost for the relationships they offer, and not just for the money they donate.
  • Development is viewed as an engagement process that is integrated with the organization’s programs and communications rather than operating in a silo.

This is as much an attitude and mind-set as a specific system.

So how does an organization go about creating a culture of philanthropy?

There’s no magic formula, but here are a handful of the most important steps in my mind:

  • There must be leadership from the top.  The Executive Director and Board need to champion the culture and model it with how they behave.
  • Everyone brought into the team must enter with clear expectations (preferably in writing) that matches up with a culture of philanthropy.
  • Planning should take place that consciously evaluates how programs and communications can be used as tools to engage current and potential donors.
  • The whole team must receive training so they feel confident in their ability to participate in the fundraising process.
  • Fundraising plans should be developed with an aim towards strategies that maximize the long-term value of relationships with donors and not just short-term revenue.
  • Cheeleading and celebration should be consciously used as tools to elevate and thank those who’re embracing the culture.
  • “Violations” of the culture should receive an appropriate response.

Of course, each of these steps could be worthy of a separate blog post about how to put them into practice.

In the end, generating a culture of philanthropy from scratch is a multi-year endeavor that requires commitment.  But the payoff for those organizations who achieve this cultural transformation can be huge.

Essential Major Donor Toolkit Workshop

May 5, 2016

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 3:17 pm

On June 2nd in Portland, I’ll be offering a special 3 hour workshop I’ve put together on the essentials of an effective major donor program.

It will be tailored for no more than 20 participants.

Learn more about the workshop and register online.  

Should your nonprofit use a Resource Council?

March 23, 2016

Filed under: Fundraising,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 2:20 pm

A Resource Council. A Council of Leaders.

These are two names I’ve experienced as alternatives to an “Advisory Board,” which is more common in the nonprofit world.

What I like about the alternative formulation is you’re more explicitly naming the group for what it most should provide: resources.

The Council should be a group of 6-12 non-board volunteers who’re committed to doing something to help your organization secure more resources.

As a Council, they are probably only brought together once a year to meet with the organization’s other leadership. Perhaps one extra time if the organization is going through strategic planning.

The Council should have a written job description and some leadership –whether provided by a staff member, the Council Chair, or both. The Council should have an annual goal or goals — usually based on the resources the Council will help the group obtain.

This is a great way to involve those people who are in a position to help an organization, but don’t want to wade through all the nitty gritty of board governance.

Has your organization used a Council (by whatever name it’s called)? What’s worked well and what hasn’t worked well?

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