Steward your prospects, cultivate your donors

What is the difference between cultivation and stewardship?

For people in the fundraising realm, this seems like a no brainer.  Cultivation is the process of bringing donor prospects closer to your organization.  Stewardship is the process of helping them feel so good about their donations that they’re inclined to give again.  These are very simplistic definitions and they omit a lot.  However, they’ll do for the purposes of this essay.

I’m asking this question because I’ve seen non-profits miss the boat on either end.  Following are true cases.

Organization 1:  This is an excellent organization whose good work is well-known.  They fundraise aggressively.  They are constantly on the lookout for new prospects, and they burn through them quickly.  They spend a lot of time and attention strategizing on the best approach for each prospect.  They bend over backwards to do whatever a prospect requires to help him or her come to a gift decision.  Some gifts have been years in the making.

However, such a high percentage of their fundraising resources is dedicated to prospecting, cultivation, and making the ask that the fundraisers complain that they can’t steward their donors properly.  Indeed, quite often a fundraiser will encounter a past donor who is very angry at the organization for “taking the money and running.”

Sometimes donors will make requests or even demands that the fundraiser has no time to fulfill.  Or, the fundraiser tries to fulfill a request, but is stalled by fellow staff members who don’t put the donor’s request high enough on their own priority lists.

Organization 2:  They are relatively new to fundraising, but because they are also a very good organization well known for its work in the community, they should be a good “sell.”  They have hired fundraisers in the past, with the simple directive of “Go out and bring back money,” without providing the fundraiser the internal support and endorsement required.  Being a small nonprofit, they have very little cash flow now, and the fundraiser’s salary maxes them out.  They have no time to assist the fundraiser, nor do they want to “trouble the Board” with what they perceive as administratia.  There is no time or patience with the cultivation process.  Gifts should start coming in within weeks of a fundraiser’s coming on board.  And the executive director is reluctant to divert resources on a group of people who “haven’t given us anything yet.”  In other words, when the prospects ante up, then they’ll feel the love.

What is the difference between cultivation and stewardship?  It’s all a matter of which side of the gift the organization is willing to show that love on.

But to a donor, it makes no difference.  They see the pre-gift love and attention as an implied promise of how they’ll be treated after they’ve made a gift.  If the love is lavished during the courting process, they will expect great joy and an enhanced relationship after the gift.  If there is no pre-gift love and attention, a donor will assume that they will be treated with the same disinterest after a gift is made.  Therefore, there’s not much motivation to make a gift.

Cultivation and stewardship are just about the same.  Love your prospects, love your donors.  Give them everything they need to know about your organization before and after their gift.  Invite them to events.  Make them feel important.  And more importantly, make them feel heard.  Let them know that their opinions count.




A new direction

Yes, it has been a very long time since I’ve posted here.  I’ve spent the past couple of years soul-searching on a variety of topics that I probably should have blogged about.  But there were sensitivities to consider, and blogging on these topics in a public venue would have been ill-advised.

In a nutshell, I believed I was becoming weary of the field of philanthropy and fundraising.  I took a look at some other career directions, but none really excited me.  I decided to dissect my lack of enjoyment, thinking that if I could isolate the elements that I didn’t like, I could change them.

So I did just that.  And I discovered that none of the elements I disliked are directly related to philanthropy or fundraising.  In fact, the idea of directing resources to make the world a better place is still very exciting.

The elements I did not like had to do with being a part of an organization, to be told to march in one direction while being nudged in another, to be mandated to execute plans that I didn’t have faith in – – basically, to be an employee.

I’ve realized this about myself for quite a long time, actually.  However, I passed it off as immaturity on my part.  After all, I really was working my dream job.  I had a lot of flexibility, did not have to punch a time clock, was able to take time off if my daughter was ill, and could even occasionally sneak off to a hair appointment if I needed to.

I had great coworkers, great bosses, and compared to many non-profits, a great physical space in which to work.

I lectured myself for quite a few years on my resistant behaviour.  I asked myself what in the heck did I possible want?

The ridiculous answer kept whispering itself to me:  freedom.

And so I submitted my resignation to this wonderful organization, said goodbye to my rather nice paycheque, and have hung out my own shingle.

And suddenly, philanthropy has become a fascinating topic again for me!

Stay tuned for further updates, such as my website (under construction as of this writing) and more.

How can we ask for money?

People unfamiliar with the resource development profession wonder how we have the courage to ask for money.  Assumptions are made about the kinds of people we must be that we are completely comfortable holding out our hats in supplecation, and in fact, are shocked that we’re actually proud to do this.

This is because they believe the following myths:

1)  We’re asking money for ourselves. 

If you had a friend who was in need, would you have a problem asking others to help your friend?  Probably not.  You would probably be very passionate about making the case, and you would probably easily persuade others to help your friend.  Are you being greedy?  No!  You’re not asking on your own behalf. 

This is how fundraisers operate.  We’re not asking for ourselves.  We’re asking on behalf of organizations that we believe in enough to either volunteer for or take employed positions with.  And no, we don’t get a commission on donations.  This violates the ethical principles of our profession.  (AFP Code of Ethics)  If you’re ever solicited by an organization that pays its staff bonuses based on a percentage of gifts raised, print off the ethics document & mail it to the organization’s executive director.

2)  We’re begging.

If we have to beg, the cause we’re begging for must not be very compelling or relevant, and we’re wasting our time.  We’re asking.  There’s a difference between begging and asking.  We have to ask.  Our causes are too important to not ask.  You can say no.  If a fundraiser starts begging you, tell him or her to bugger off, and report him or her to the organization’s executive director.

We’re offering an opportunity to make a difference.  We’re offering something good. 

I had the privilege of attending the AFP International Conference on Fundraising in Baltimore this past April.  The highlight of the week was attending the keynote speech delivered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  He said that we are in a very noble profession.  We do noble work.  We alleviate hunger, build hospitals, bring families out of poverty, allow people to pursue their passions, enable all forms of art to be accessible to those who hunger for it, and more.  (That last sentence was mine, not Tutu’s.)

How can we ask for money?

How can we not?

What’s your organization’s story?

I thought the word has been out for quite some time now.  People like to hear stories.  Yes, they want to know that you’re stewarding their donations, and yes, they want measurements and accountabilities.  They want to know that you’re working for the long-term good of your clients and that you’re not just the “band-aid solution.”  But they don’t want to know this until after  you tell the story.

Some people try, bless their hearts.  But they embed their stories deep into the description of their organization. 

People are interested in people. 

People aren’t interested in the homeless population.  They’re interested in Bob, who’s been clean for nearly six months, even though he’s still living on the street, and really wants a stable place to live.

People aren’t interested in hunger.  They’re interested in Hannah, who used to have behaviour problems at school until someone figured out she came to school hungry, and then got her involved in a school breakfast program.

People aren’t interested in your new building plans with state-of-the-art technology, open spaces, ergonomic design, and view of the river.  They want to know how Jose’s university experience is going to be enhanced and made more valuable by your donor’s contribution.

Okay, SOME people are interested in your new building plans with state-of-the-art technology, open spaces, ergonomic design, and view of the river.  But that probably won’t motivate them to donate unless there’s a clear line of sight between their donations and the value to your students.

After you tell the story, then  you can move into the details of your organization, because now they’re interested.  Wow them with your various programs.  Impress them with your outcomes measurements.  Win their trust with your organization’s transparency and commitment to good donations stewardship.

I continue to hear people pitching their causes with something like this:

“The Happiness Agency has four programs.  We have the X Program for thus and so problems.  We have the Y Program for people who need thus and so.  We have . . . . ” and so on.

Your organization is doing such phenomenal work on so many levels that it’s no wonder you want to tell everyone everything about it.  After all, how can they appreciate the full scope and the interconnectivity of your programs unless you provide them with the whole picture?

Additionally, how can you ensure your message resonates with the most people unless you offer something for everyone?  Maybe some people will be interested in this program, while others will be impressed with that one.

What does any of this matter if you lose the bulk of your listeners before you’re 10 seconds in to your presentation?  (If it’s printed material, they’re not even going to start reading.  They’ll just see blah blah blah, oh yeah, it’s that organization I donated to once, well, I already know about them, so into recycling it goes!)

Get to your story within the first 10 seconds.

“Thank you so much for letting me tell you about the X Agency.  I’d like to start by telling you about Mary.  Mary is a single mother of three.  She lives in a small apartment and works full time, at minimum wage.  One day, she came home from work, and found an eviction notice under her door.”

Hopefully, X Agency offers a happy ending for Mary’s story, one that demonstrates how X Agency not only prevented Mary’s eviction, but also set her on a course for a better life for her family.

Okay, you say, but what about organizations like the Humane Society, or Ducks Unlimited, or Greenpeace?  I think all three of these organizations have found their “people stories.” 

The folks at the Humane Society know that animals are people, too.  Okay, they’re not really people, but by focusing on the individuality and the sencience of animals, they accomplish much more than they would by focusing on animals as simply huge populations of beings.  The lesson here is that if you don’t actually serve people, you must humanize whatever it is you do serve.

Ducks Unlimited exists to preserve wetlands.  What a clever idea it was to go with the duck concept!  Imagine what would have become of them had they decided to name themselves “Wetlands Unlimited?”  How much attention and support would they have garnered if their brochures and website featured photos of wetlands? 

Greenpeace humanizes the whole of the Planet Earth into a single entity:  “Greenpeace exists because this fragile Earth deserves a voice.”

Now go out and tell your stories.

What’s an old Hawaiian healing practice have to do with you?

I’ve been learning a little bit about an ancient Hawaiian healing practice called ho’onponono.  (You think it’s hard to say?  Try typing it 10 types very fast.)

One of the core philosophies of this practice is that you are responsible for everything that comes into your awareness.

I’m not asking you to buy into this philosophy.  Just consider what it means.

When you hear stats about homeless people or child abuse, it’s your responsibility.  When a friend is hurt or in an accident, it’s your responsibility.  If you know anything at all about the war in Iraq, it’s your responsibility.

Notice I didn’t say it’s your fault.  It’s your responsibility.  Sometimes things that aren’t our fault are still our responsibility.  This is a hard notion for those of us of 21st century Western society to accept.

You’re also responsible for all the good stuff, too.  Your plane lands safely.  Your child’s new tooth comes in.  You get a tax refund.  You and your partner had swell sex last night.  You’re reponsible for that too.

And what do you do about all this stuff that you’re responsible for?  You pray.  There’s a very special prayer that ho’onopono healers recite, and it involves asking forgiveness, thanking, and expressing love. 

I admit that the idea of praying for forgiveness for something that isn’t even my fault is hard for me to get my head around. 

But just for a moment, imagine what the world would be like if we all bought into this philosophy.

For everything wrong in the world, the masses would say “Oh, we have to fix that.  Sorry about that.”  For everything wonderful in the world, the masses would celebrate, even if there was no connection between what most of these people did and the wonderful thing being celebrated.

This is just me, musing.

If you’re interested, I heard about ho’oponopono in a book called Zero Limits by Dr. Joe Vitale. 

And by the way, if you purchase the book through the link, I don’t get commission or anything.  I lifted the link from Dr. Vitale’s own site, so he’ll get the “credit.”

I talk a little more about ho’oponopono in one of my other blogs, Gifts from the Universe.  This blog reveals my New Agey side and might be a bit much for some people.

Put your own oxygen mask on first.

My six-year-old daughter is a flying veteran.  She’s racked up more in-flight miles in her short life than I did by the time I was thirty. 

If you read my previous post, you know that my family made the journey to my hometown for a two-week vacation.  During the safety demonstration on the return flight, my daughter noticed the instructions to adjust one’s own safety mask before helping someone else.  The illustration on the safety card showed a woman with her oxygen mask in place assisting her child.  She had never noticed this before.  Or perhaps this was the first time she realized the significance of it. 

“Mom, why do you have to put your own mask on before helping me with mine?”

I looked into her beautiful face and wondered if, in an emergency, I would actually do that. 

“Well,” I said, “if I don’t get mine on first, I might get woozy or pass out, and then I wouldn’t be any use to you!  I would get mine on very fast so that I could be all set to take care of you.”

It occurred to me that those of us in the business of helping others would do well to heed this advice.  Those who are involved with a charitable organization, be it as a donor, volunteer, or staff person, know all too well how draining it can be to continue to face the Big Need every day.  If you’re a frontline worker, you’re particularly vulnerable. 

This extends beyond the charitable world, of course.  People who come to mind are health care professionals, teachers, emergency workers, law enforcement officials – the list could go on and on.

It’s critical that we keep our own reserves stockpiled so that we can deliver our best selves to our causes.  We have to get enough sleep, take our vacations, spend our free time doing what brings us joy, take our vitamins, drink enough water, and do all those things that we know we must do. 

 Attending to ourselves isn’t selfish.  In fact, it’s selfish not to.

Consider the addictions counselor who can’t be fully present when a desparate client needs someone to encourage and believe in her.  The over-extended board member who fails to do necessary research, resulting in a poor board decision that costs the organization’s clients access to critical services.  The nurse who is dead on her feet and accidentally administers the incorrect medicine.  The fundraiser who fails to read important non-verbal signs from a potential donor.

Take a quick mental inventory of your reserves.  If you had to pull an all-nighter tonight because of an emergency, how well would you function?  If your campaign appears to be critically short of goal, do you have the energy and the creative juices to maximize all opportunities and be alert enough to recognize last-minute new ones?  Or are you slogging away, hoping for the best?  If the number of clients who walked through your door each day suddenly doubled, do you have the capacity to respond, make fair decisions, ferret out new resources, and take your advocacy work to a new level?  (Better yet, do you have the energy to keep on top of trends to be proactive?)

Are there any changes you could make today?  Could you take a walk during lunch instead of plowing through at your computer?  Eat more vegetables?  Go to bed earlier?  Start kicking the caffeine habit?

Those of you who lead organizations, take heed.  Encourage your staff and volunteers to take care of themselves so that they can be better and stronger.  Read up on leadership so that you can foster the best in your people.  And most of all, take care of yourself.

The plane landed without a hitch, and my daughter was relieved that we didn’t need to use our oxygen masks. 

And in a few moments, I’m going into the office.  It’s my first day back.  I needed this vacation.  And now I need to get back to work!

What could renewal accomplish?

We’ve just returned from a 2-week vacation.  It wasn’t to Hawaii or Acapulco or any vacation hot-spot with a beach and balmy breezes.  We just went to Ohio to see my family.  We also spent time in Windsor, Ontario, visiting old friends (because we lived there for awhile), and in northern Michigan, where my sister & her husband built a luxury chalet overlooking a lake.

It wasn’t the kind of vacation you’d find packaged on Travelocity, that’s for sure. 

What did we do? 

We drank some of the best margaritas north of the Mexican border at a little place called Oler’s in Findlay, Ohio.  (I’ve had margaritas all over the place.  The only margaritas I ever had that were as good as the ones at Oler’s were actually IN Mexico.)

We spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on books in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (The Canadian/US dollar is at par these days, but the Canadian prices haven’t come down to match.  So we went on a bit of a spree.)

With my sister, we took our child and three of my sister’s grandchildren to Chuck E. Cheese’s in Toledo, Ohio.   Yes, we have a Chuck E. Cheese’s here in Calgary, but we don’t have my sister’s grandchildren.

I drank vodka and played Scrabble.

I hugged aunts and uncles and cousins and a whole bunch of really little kids who hadn’t a clue who I was.

You get the picture.

So what am I blathering about, here?  Do I have a point?  Well, yes, I do.

A week before I departed for this vacation, I got snarky with a co-worker.  I found myself becoming impatient and ultimately stuck on projects I was trying to push forward.  I, who generally get along with my colleagues and in fact consider many of them good friends, found myself not wanting anything to do with any of them.  Frankly, I was sick of the lot of them.

I even wondered if it was time to look for a new job somewhere else, with new faces and new challenges.  But that couldn’t be the solution, because the very thought of new faces was annoying to me. 

I really needed this vacation.

Now, here I am, two weeks later, on a Saturday morning, faced with the prospect of going back to work on Monday.  And guess what – I’m looking forward to it!  I’m on a committee for an upcoming event (and it was very annoying and bothersome to me two weeks ago) and I find myself really curious to know if anything has happened with the committee, or if it went on hiatus for the holidays.  There’s a box of papers and files that I spent the entire fall ignoring, and now I want to dig through it and see what’s there.  And most importantly, I’m thinking about what I could get my teeth into this year to really make a difference for my organization.

So now I’m starting to get to my point, and if you’ve read this far, thank you very much.

Let’s think about the people who are so enmeshed in their problems that there is no escape (or not any that is apparent to them, anyway).  Consider a single mother living below the poverty line, trying to make a day’s food last a week.  Consider the difficulties in providing opportunities for her children and the guilt she must feel.  Consider how overwhelmingly exhausted she is at the end of each day, while school and society bombard her with the advice of reading to her children every evening.  Consider how she not only has to work her butt off at some low-paying job, but she has to haul around during her free time to take advantage of this and that service (often at opposite ends of the city), dragging her children with her, to try to make sure they have shoes for school, coats for winter, medicine for an ear infection, and so on.

There’s no vacation from this.

I flatter myself that I’m a reasonably sharp, logical sort of person with self-discipline and direction.  Even I succumbed to some attitude problems and apathy that impeded my efforts just as if the impediments had been external. 

With no vacation in sight, I probably would have burned out, failed to execute, and perhaps even lost my job.

So, let’s go to Fantasyland for just a minute.

Suppose we could pluck that overworked and desparate mother and plop her into a safe, relaxing place for just two weeks.  She could decompress, and maybe even have a chance to get her head around some things.  She would have time to consider her life, make some plans, and allow her creative side to lead her to some solutions.

Imagine we could do this for homeless people, people living in situations of abuse, people with addictions, and so on.

Can you imagine the response to the proposal?  What a waste of money, allowing these people to just relax for a couple of weeks with no expectations on them!  By God, their problem is that they need to take some responsibility, be accountable, step up to the plate, develop some work ethic.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to challenge that assumption and just see what happens if people struggling in dire situations could be given a vacation?

No one questions that those of us living the good life need vacations. 

Maybe those of us struggling on the bottom of the ladder (or those trying to even find the damned ladder) are presumed to already be on vacation.   Stupid bums anyway, right?  Trying to suck off the system.  Trying to get a free ride.  Or maybe they’re just too stupid, which is why they’re on drugs or why they had babies without a husband or can’t get anything better than minimum wage.  So if they’re stupid, in a sense, they’re already on vacation, right?

It sure would be convenient to believe that.

Unfortunately, I’ve met too many people who are caught in vicious cycles, and all they really need is a break, and someone to believe in them. 

And they could also use a vacation.