Monday, October 15, 2018

Iced Coffee and Mini Horses: Turning Events into Experiences

It’s no secret that I love Starbucks. L-O-V-E. My family and anyone who works or travels with me can attest to this. I’ve often been caught running “latte” to an appointment so that I could squeeze in a stop. It’s not just about fueling my caffeine addiction — Starbucks is an experience. I know I’m paying more for my iced coffee with a light splash of coconut milk (“light splash” is a technical term, BTW; I’m not that high maintenance). And to me, it’s worth the extra cost to have this experience — from ordering to tasting to just being in the store, there’s an intentionality to how I’m engaged in the process. 

There’s a technical term for this, too: it’s called Experience Design. Experience Design has been around for decades and has been a huge factor in driving economic performance for whole sectors of the hospitality industry, from hotels to theme parks to — that’s right — coffee shops. Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore expertly captured the theory behind much of this success in their 1999 book, The Experience Economy. I first picked it up about 12 years ago and just devoured the principles they outlined. As someone working day and night to think of new and creative ways to engage donors through events, applying Experience Design to my work just made sense. 

Of course, I work in higher education, where creative ideas must first slay the We’ve Always Done It This Way dragon before ever hoping to see the light of day. This is why I drink so much coffee (and wine, but that’s a different blog). It’s also why I arm myself with information to help sell ideas. For example, we know from the feedback they give us that donors want hands-on, immersive experiences that connect them to the impact of their philanthropy. They don’t want another rubber chicken dinner in a ballroom. 

Personal tastes and politics aside, it’s also hard to argue with the market differentiation of some of the world’s leading experience designers — from Starbucks to Disney. They must be doing something right. And in the world of engagement, how do we not take cues from Disney?! 

But, short of bringing Walt himself back from the great beyond, even the most compelling background information doesn’t always provide an immediate green light on new ideas. That’s when I reach into my bag of tricks for another well-sharpened tool for effecting change: go slow. 

One of the simplest rules in experience design is to Engage All Five Senses (See-Hear-Smell-Touch-Taste). Seems easy enough for a live event — we’re already doing these things, right? Sure, we might check the boxes, but the next step is to think creatively about how to make each sensory engagement an experience. And one step further is to consider how they all tie together — creating harmony around a common theme. Once we do, it’s easy to identify a number of opportunities for enhancements at nearly every event. 

We’re serving food and beverages at the reception, right? How about bringing in the fermentation science students to create a fermented food and beer pairing and explain the process to donors while they indulge? They see, they smell, they taste, they touch, they hear. And they learn about the impact their gifts are making in a new academic program.

Success with small enhancements then opens the door to long-needed overhauls in programming efforts. Instead of trotting our star veterinary ophthalmologist on stage to tell everyone about saving the eyesight of a therapy miniature horse named Snuggles, let’s show a video chronicling the journey, and then bring out the doctor and Snuggles (wearing tennis shoes!) for a reunion in front of everyone. Instead of inviting the VP of Research to the stage to talk AT everyone about the cool enhancements virtual reality is bringing to labs, how about we bring the VR lab to the event and let students show our donors what they’re working on. 

“If you tell me, it’s an essay. If you show me, it’s a story.” – Barbara Greene 

Success in bringing experiential programming to life at events then opens the door to donors wanting more. That’s when the real fun begins. And bonus — we make terrific new partnerships along the way with colleagues who enjoy being part of generating ideas for the next event. 

In our DRG webinar on Nov. 13, Bring Your Events to Life: How to Create the Interactive Donor Experience, we’ll explore the tenets of Experience Design in further detail and how to use these in creating unforgettable donor experiences at your events. I’ll share examples of what’s worked (and some that didn’t) and discuss important steps for creating partnerships to make it all possible. I hope you’ll join me. While I can’t offer everyone an iced coffee, I can promise a picture of Snuggles, the miniature horse. 

With gratitude,

DRG Group member Matthew Helmer serves as Executive Director of CSU Events & Community Engagement at Colorado State University. He thinks the Starbucks mobile app is life-changing and will never apologize for ordering a light splash of coconut milk. Follow him on Twitter @ExperienceGuru or LinkedIn for more musings. Register here for our November webinar, Bring Your Events to Life: How to Create the Interactive Donor Experience or join Matthew to explore the power of purpose-driven events in person at the upcoming Academic Impressions Conference: Advancement Events Strategy, November 28-29, in San Diego. 

I'm so grateful to everyone who has followed this blog for so long. Thank you! I've decided to switch to a new platform to give you the best reading experience possible. You can find the new DRG blog here. We will try to keep this page updated as often as possible, but please make sure to bookmark the new page to ensure you don't miss any posts or updates.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The First Step in Improving Your Acknowledgement Letters

Thoughtful, personal, and timely gift acknowledgement letters are the very core of donor relations and stewardship. They are a mandatory baseline activity that any organization, large or small, should be doing and doing really well. If you are doing nothing else in the donor relations space, acknowledgements will always be a top priority.

But why is it so hard for so many of us to get our arms around this seemingly simple activity? Working in complex and decentralized organizations, we know the pitfalls of inconsistent stewardship and donor communications and the impact they can have on a donor’s giving experience.

At the end of the day, we as donor relations and fundraising professionals are responsible for ensuring our donors are properly thanked and recognized for their giving. But where do we start if we know there are improvements to be made?

The first step is a full-blown acknowledgement audit of all parties across your organization or university that are generating thank you letters. (Btw, we are talking about thank you letters and NOT tax receipts. Two different communications that should not be combined.)

You are going to look to collect data on levels, types, signatories, turnaround time, etc. This comprehensive view will allow you to see trends including your strengths and areas for improvement. This work will be challenging and likely frustrating to get done, but will pay DIVIDENDS in the end. In the ideal world, acknowledgement audits should be completed every 5-7 years to ensure your recognition systems are sound.

Based on those audit results, you will need to develop best practices that can be rolled out to your various contributors. This will help bring some consistency to the donor’s experience and hopefully simplify and streamline processes for our team members. While this may vary by organization (slightly), here are 6 rules you should follow when developing your basic thank you letter standards:
  1. Tax receipts are different than acknowledgements and should be sent within 72 hours (3 business days) of the time of the gift
  2. Acknowledgement letters should be mailed no later than one week (5-7 business days) from the date of the gift
  3. You should thank every donor, for every gift, regardless of gift amount 
  4. Gift amounts should NOT be included in your thank you letter (that’s what the tax receipt is for)
  5. Acknowledge the donor in the same manner in which they engaged with you – i.e. if they gave online, send them an email; if they sent in a check, mail a hard copy letter, etc. 
  6. Update letter content at least twice per year (preferably quarterly)
Stay tuned for a future DRG webinar on how to complete an audit and overhaul your acknowledgement program – based on real life case studies from your peers!
In order to be able to execute these standards and meet these expectations, consistent definitions and levels will need to be created and rolled out. This will dictate what the thank you letter says, what it looks like, and who signs it from annual gifts all the way up to presidential $1M+ recognition.

There is so much more to cover in the acknowledgment letter space – this blog hopefully serves as food for thought and may be a good reminder to stop procrastinating that audit and take the first step in improving this critical component of our work!

This post was written by DRG Group member, Sarah Sims. Sarah is a consultant, speaker, and the Executive Director of Donor Relations at the University of Florida.

I'm so grateful to everyone who has followed this blog for so long. Thank you! I've decided to switch to a new platform to give you the best reading experience possible. You can find the new DRG blog here. We will try to keep this page updated as often as possible, but please make sure to bookmark the new page to ensure you don't miss any posts or updates. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Farewell to the Myth of Summer

August 1. I circle this date on my calendar every year, and I dread its arrival. August 1 is the day that summer ends.

Not literally, of course; it’s still much too warm to bust out my beloved sweater collection (believe me, I’m tempted). But quite officially, it’s the day of reckoning for all my summertime hopes and dreams. And more to the point, it’s the deadline for any and all “summer projects” that have even the slightest chance of being completed. As August arrives, so do the days of nonstop meetings, the crush of high priority to-dos, and the many crises du jour.

This coming academic year marks my 19th in higher education, and I’m still clinging to The Myth of Summer. Legend has it that summertime on a university campus was once this magical wonderland where time slowed down and all those time-intensive, well-intentioned, “long-term” projects finally received the attention they deserved. So, for 19 years, I’ve had a list of “summer projects.” And every year about this time, I start alternating between a sense of sheer panic and a fast-paced downward shame spiral as I look at the same list with very few boxes checked off. What is supposed to have been a season of recovery and recommitment suddenly becomes a symbol of underachievement. Yet, every year, I still make the list – call me optimistic? A glutton for punishment??

This year, rather than giving into the disappointment, I’m tossing this myth into the dustbin of history. Instead, I’m celebrating all the things I accomplished that weren’t on the list of “summer projects,” and I’m discovering that perhaps I’ve just been making the wrong list for too many years.

#1 – I grew as a professional. From training with my team, to attending conferences, to not just starting, but actually finishing multiple books, I invested in my own and others’ learning throughout the summer. As a result, I’m entering the new year reinvigorated and ready to tackle some of the “same old challenges” with a fresh perspective.

#2 – I planned ahead, thoughtfully. Freed from the incessant drumbeat of what has to be done right now, my colleagues and I were able to engage in deliberate conversations about why we do certain things. Revisiting that purpose has set us on the path to a more engaging collaborative effort in the coming year and sparked spontaneous ideation sessions that not only feed my soul but also, ultimately, result in an elevated donor experience.

#3 – I was reminded that we are more than our jobs. My family and I were fortunate to take an awesome vacation, and I had some really amazing conversations with my teammates about their own summer travels. I took my kid to swim lessons and gymnastics class. We enjoyed a few spectacular Colorado sunsets with friends and family. More than usual, I ended my days reflecting on and humbled by life’s sheer awesomeness, not the size of my to-do list.

Now, as the clock winds down on these last days of July, I’m letting go of the panic, the frustration and the burden of The Myth of Summer. Instead, I’m feeling incredibly grateful for a list of summertime accomplishments that have me reenergized about the people I serve and the work I do.

How about you? Are there things you’ve checked off your list that really filled your bucket and left you feeling inspired for the coming year? Take a moment to celebrate these and join me in toasting the arrival of summer’s end. After all, this ending marks only the beginning of a whole new year of opportunity. And maybe some of these endeavors were meant to be “winter projects” all along.

By Matthew Helmer

DRG Group member Matthew Helmer serves as Executive Director of CSU Events & Community Engagement at Colorado State University. He attributes his long tenure to the amazing community of leaders, colleagues, students and donors at CSU, a truly special place to work, live and learn. Follow him on Twitter @ExperienceGuru or LinkedIn for more musings.  

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Why is Asking For Help So Difficult?

Seriously – why is this so hard? We are a society that can help ourselves with just about anything. If we are sick we can look online and self-diagnose. If we want to buy a house we can do it all electronically and not even bother to talk with an actual realtor or lender. Everything is self-serve so no need to ask for help. Why will we ask Alexa anything and everything but not our own colleagues?

I have been giving this a lot of thought lately – researching and even asking my own friends and colleagues about the topic. According to a recent article I read in the Harvard Business Review, these are the top three reasons people don’t ask for help:
  1. Asking for help is often perceived as a sign of weakness or ignorance.  
  2. People are worried that if we ask for help we will be indebted to those who offer it. 
  3. People highly value self-reliance so they want to do it by themselves. 
I get the fear of asking for help. I understand it and can even relate to it.  It is much easier for me to help someone than to ask for help myself. But I learned early on that while I might want to do it by myself, if I worked with others I could produce much better results. I learned that in the classroom, I learned it on the athletic fields, and I learned it at work. But first, I learned it at home.

Let me share a story - one year my dad gave each member of my family a wooden dowel and asked us to write our name and birthdate on it. He then handed a blank one of my nephews and asked him if he could break the dowel. He easily snapped it in half. Then dad took all of the dowels we had written on and put them together in a bundle. He handed the bundle to that same nephew and asked him to break it. He tried and said it was not possible. My dad said “you are right – we are always stronger together than we could ever be apart.” My dad sent all of us a strong message that day – we could try to do things by ourselves and we were at risk of bending and even breaking. But if we work together, lean on each other, share our own gifts - there is really nothing we cannot do.

And if my dad’s sweet story didn’t convince you to be bold and ask for help then here are a few more reasons to consider:
  • Asking for help gives you an opportunity to learn something new - to grow and develop and push yourself.
  • Asking for help gives you an opportunity to gain new insights, perspectives, and opinions.  All of this will help you think differently and maybe generate a better idea.
  • Asking for help is a great way to show someone you trust their ideas, value their skills, and cherish their advice. That is a win-win in my book. You get the information you need and you make someone feel great in the process.

Next month we are going to continue this dialogue about working together during Donor Relations Guru’s webinar entitled “Help Me Help You.”  We will share advice, ideas and stories of how we have successfully turned our faculty members, organizational leaders, researchers, and even physicians into great partners in our development work.  I hope you will join us.

This post was written by DRG Group member, Angie Joens. Angie is a nonprofit consultant, executive coach, speaker, and the Assistant Vice Chancellor of Development Outreach for the University of California Davis.