Friday, January 29, 2016

Gift Goes Awry, Donor Sues

In our industry, one of the things I always explain to folks is that donor relations and stewardship, or the lack thereof has real world consequences. This week, we saw an example of that with the Suder Foundation. It reached the New York Times and news of the lawsuit quickly spread across the country and beyond. After giving over ten million dollars away, the Suder Foundation has now seen their programs closed once the money stopped. The problem is, no one informed the foundation in a reasonable and meaningful way.

This speaks volumes for the need for good gift acceptance policies and clear communications when the gift is being brokered. If the money creates the need for additional staffing and programs at your organization, is this something your organization can sustain? If you can't sustain it, then you must make the hard decision of walking away from the money. It is much more costly to have bad press and be sued by a donor than it is to leave the original investment on the table. 

Eleven days after cashing the Suder Foundation's last check, the university terminated the program, stating the need for it to be self sustaining. The donor learned about it in a letter. A letter? Mr. Suder didn't deserve a phone call or a meeting to discuss this? It's interesting the communication path they chose. 

One of the points that should not be lost in this tussle, is that one of the reasons that there is so much confusion is because none of the original staff that negotiated the deal with Mr. Suder and his spouse work at the University. Turnover has come home to haunt our industry in more ways than one. With the average lifespan of a front line fundraiser being 16 months, and the average payment plan for a major gift 5 years, those two things are conflicting and can cause problems way beyond changing relationships. This also speaks to the need for thorough documentation of the negotiations and conversations, each and every one in the database of record. 

I would like to note here that there are more than a few institutions involved here and the donor has had mixed results at many of them, partially because the higher education industry is a complex and ever changing one and the donor didn't understand the process of implementation at universities. He wanted to help first generation students have access to college. I find it sad that in this case those best intentions have gone awry and disappointed the donor. This could discourage others from setting up similar programs. There are many lessons learned here about relationships and the complexity of those. I look forward to hearing about the resolution in this case and hope it is a positive one.

What are your thoughts? How can this help your fundraising administration? This isn't the first lawsuit from a donor and won't be the last. I would enjoy hearing your opinions.


Friday, January 22, 2016

Knowing your Donors Differently

Many fundraising professionals build deep and meaningful relationships with donors. Understanding what motivates someone's generosity and passion is crucial. We spend a great deal of time researching prospects, cultivating relationships and achieving success closing gifts. But how well do we know a donor? We may know their capacity, their giving history and the story of their success. But do you know what makes them tick, the things we need to learn in order to surprise and delight the donor? I would challenge the assumption of how well our profession does knowing our donors in another way. Are we asking the tough questions that sometimes make us uncomfortable?

One of the exercises we often go through in order to build custom stewardship plans entails having those with a relationship with the donor all in one room to discuss that donor. We ask questions like:
What does the donor want their legacy to be? Give three adjectives to describe the donor. Who is their favorite and least favorite person at the organization?  and there are many more. We hold off on building a custom plan for that donor until we can answer all 10 or so deep dive questions, looking at the donor in a new and intriguing way in order to match their passion with our donor relations, engaging them in the process. 

Sometimes it takes a simple exercise like asking those important questions, sometimes it's about doing research in a new way. For example, many of our top donors also serve us in a volunteer capacity, by sitting on a board or volunteering. Why not have a professional come in and do some personality exercises to get to know them on a deeper level? For example, Meyers Briggs with all of your board members or DISC or Strength finders or predictive index. I keep all of those handy for me so that when I work with clients or on speaking engagements, people can read those and learn a great deal about me from those results. Or have you heard about Crystal? Check it out here: you can view the best way to communicate with a person based on empathy and the information available in their public profiles. Try it on yourself, you may be surprised and how much it reveals about your personality just from your online communications.

Once you get to know donors in a more authentic and multi-dimensional way, record that information for posterity in your database of record. Remember the average life-span of a fundraiser at and organization is 16 months, so make sure that institutional knowledge isn't lost when staff turnover happens. How do you get to know your donors better? What questions do you ask in order to learn about them in a different way? I would love to hear your thoughts.



Friday, January 15, 2016

Count von Count!

As we begin a new calendar year and close out 2015, we are constantly compiling reports and making our calculators sweat from usage. Or, for those of you excel formula whizzes, the sum function is humming! It matters how we count, what we count and the integrity of our counting. Many listservs are filled with, "so and so wants me to count this, but I don't think it's right." It is very frustrating when conflict arises over numbers. We all want to look good, we all want to be the best fundraisers possible, but not at the cost of our integrity.

I have a few common examples. Say for example you run an online giving day blitz, or partner with #givingtuesday to run a one day campaign. But then two days later your organization gets 5 or 6 nice checks in the mail. Someone might suggest that you add those checks into your total, saying that they were a result of all of the awareness. But are they really something you want to count in your totals? I would argue that these can corrupt your numbers and not give a true reflection of your efforts. I believe that you should follow the intent of the day, if it was an online and social effort then checks that come in the mail a week later can't be lumped in because they make you look better.

Here's another one. You're running your employee giving campaign and an employee comes to you and says, I'll give a dollar for everyone in my department so we can reach 100%. Yeah, no. Not only are these not voluntary gifts on those employees part, but it also doesn't give readers of the report a true gauge on your success. 

Or for those of you trying to raise alumni giving rates in higher education. Counting a portion of every paid alumni event registration as a gift. Not a good idea. Not only can this confuse your alumni, but a gift is a voluntary deed, you can't "force" a gift on someone just to raise your US News ranking. Imagine how your retention rates will look in the future and do you have enough event attendees to even change the percentage by a full point or two? Either way it's a surefire way to anger your gift processing staff.

These are only a few examples I've seen over the years. Fundraising isn't a game or a sport. It is about generosity and joy, not fiddling with numbers until they give you the result you desire. If you need further cautions against fudging math, look at the news stories of those who have, it's not good folks. You will lose the trust of the donors you do have. I always look for integrity in numbers when I work with fundraising clients, I would rather raise less money honestly than know that at the end of the day my numbers were living in the grey zone. If you need help on how to count and how to gain assistance, CAE, CASE, VSE, AFP and others have guidelines. In fact, there's a new book from CASE that can help you including a couple of chapters by me. Shameless self promotion here but it is a solid book from some of the best professionals in the country. 

What do you think of when you think of counting? What are some of the sticky situations you have been faced with? I welcome your thoughts on the topic.


Friday, January 8, 2016

Your Donor's Journey

Happy New Year!

I hope your Holiday season was a fabulous one and you didn't come back to a massive inbox but instead came back to a wonderful pile of gifts to thank donors for. And this brings me to this post.

Now is the time for you to perform an exercise in experience. Take this year and commit to yourself to experience the year through the eyes of your donor. Imagine, you've just made an end of the calendar year gift and now you anticipate the gift receipt, the thank you letter or email and hearing from a nonprofit you invested in. What will the year hold for that donor? How many times will they hear from you? How many times will we ask them for more? How many expressions of gratitude will we send them and how will they be worded? Will we ever tell them what we did with their $25, $500, or $5000? What will their journey be with us? Is this their first gift or are they a repeat, loyal donor?

My new year wish for you is that you actively track a donor's journey. Set up a sample donor in your database with a dummy gmail address and mailing address then wait and watch. What happens? Who talks to them? Have you read the communications they receive out loud and then say, so what? How does this move me closer to my gift?  You see, I think far too often we lose sight of the bigger picture. Especially at large organizations with multiple moving pieces or those that are decentralized. Did that one email newsletter sent at the same time as a solicitation push the donor away? What about the envelope we carelessly stuck in a magazine or report, what does that say to the donor.

It's not about just one thing that may drive your donor away, it's an experience, a journey that they are on with your organization. What is that journey like? Do they feel warm and welcome, do we hold them at an arm's length? More importantly who is the most important person in the relationship? Do we talk about ourselves or the donor more? It's the entirety of the experience, not just one communication at one point in time.

Sometimes the journey is the reward, the destination. But we must walk that path with our donors, not just plan calendars in a conference room and stick rigidly to what we think we know about them. We must immerse ourselves in their world and walk side by side with them through the experience of investing and supporting our organization. One of those realizations along the journey must also be that we are not the only organization they're on a trip with. Our donor experiences must stand out among the rest and emerge from the pack.

It all starts with one step. Take an exercise in experience, start the journey with your donor together now.