Building Sustaining Donor Relationships

Many of us who have the honor of working in philanthropy profess that we want to see our business elevated in professionalism, while we unconsciously continue patterns that create the exact opposite. One example of this tendency to sabotage our larger vision is when we focus our donor strategy on the next solicitation, rather than on building a relationship that grows affinity and philanthropy year after year, even decade after decade.

The reality is that we need both. In taking this two-prong approach, we will develop the relationships that ultimately lead to greater generosity over time, and that demonstrate the very best of our philanthropic industry.

For example – during my tenure at a university, I joined a meeting about the strategy to solicit an alum. This alum, only in his 30s, was already a multimillionaire. In all the discussion of what the solicitation should be – how much, for what, asked for by whom – no one mentioned that the alum easily had 50 more years of giving ahead of him. That to focus just on this next gift rather than a lifetime of giving would both reinforce the worst stereotypes about fundraisers and fail to maximize the opportunity.

So how do we do a better job of thinking about our donors’ long-term relationships with our institutions? Here are some ideas:

  • Ask probing questions about your donors’ values, goals and experiences, and then listen, allowing for true dialogue.
  • Expand the relationship circle by involving institutional colleagues, leaders and others. The more touch-points between a donor and your cause, the more the larger institutional relationship has meaningful opportunities to grow and can weather staff transitions. Then develop ways to measure, recognize and celebrate this type of activity among your team.
  • Introduce your prospects to a variety of areas across your organization, not just the one you want to solicit for next. A greater exposure to, and understanding of, our work will allow for a broader and deeper relationship. Measure and celebrate this work as well.
  • Recognize loyalty giving by celebrating first gifts, anniversary gifts (time), milestone gifts (amount) and completed pledges.
  • Ensure every individual strategy includes not just what you hope to accomplish now, but also goals for two, four and more years out. Use these goals to inform donor stewardship.

And while we’re talking strategy, make sure you build time into your calendar to be thoughtful in how you build those strategies. Written strategies almost always guarantee a win-win relationship for your institution and the donor.

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The Power of the Briefing

You’re a development officer, looking forward to a prospect meeting next week. The location is booked, prospect confirmed, and your faculty champion has agreed to join you. You’ve discussed this meeting with your faculty partner, so now you’re good to go, right? Not quite… a meeting without a strategic and thoughtful briefing is a waste of time for both the donor and the champion.

The written briefing document is an irreplaceable tool in staffing faculty, physicians, volunteers and organizational partners/leaders who are so important to our work with prospects and donors.

As someone who has staffed leadership, and been staffed as leadership, I have seen too many briefings that miss the mark. These briefings missed desired outcomes, sought after goals, or why my presence in a meeting is important. I have reviewed briefings intended for key institutional leadership, and could not discern what role they should play, and why that might be important to the overall strategy. I have read pages of background information, none of it tied to the purpose or reason for the meeting. Or worse, too much background with no connection of dots. I have received briefings an hour or two before a meeting … far too late to be able to contribute to a strategy, let alone be prepared for the meeting I was to attend, lead, or otherwise add value to.

However, briefings can be a vehicle for us to do some of our best work. Are you ensuring they serve this purpose?

When our partners give their limited time to development efforts, we must steward that time effectively. This means preparing them to be as effective as possible, and demonstrating confidence in our strategy and our use of their time. The written briefing accomplishes both of these items in one efficient tool.

Why? Because a briefing document ensures you and your institutional partner are on the same page, with key messages, goals, and information recorded clearly. It demonstrates the larger strategy by including context and vision, further building respect for the process and the expertise of the development officer. And, it clearly demonstrates thoughtfulness for the role of this partner, and a respect for his or her time.

The written briefing must incorporate key elements to achieve all of these goals. To serve your prospect/development strategy, it should include:

  • Purpose of the meeting or event – placing it in the context of an overall strategy
  • Role of the partner in the meeting or event and in the larger strategy – demonstrating that his or her presence is a good use of time
  • Key talking points – who is responsible for carrying which key messages
  • Anticipated outcomes – and how to get them

And, don’t forget the logistics too:

  • Dress code
  • Location and parking instructions
  • Critical times for participation (if an event)
  • Phone number for a staff member who will be available that entire day in case of emergency or last-minute request or question

Remember, our prospects and donors want access to leadership, and including institutional partners in our work provides this entrée. Access helps move relationships, and our job is to make it as easy as possible for our partners to provide it.

When we implement this tool of the trade, we get rich returns. By putting our most professional foot forward, we earn the respect of our colleagues and secure the strategic outcomes we need. Our partners and our donors deserve this effort!

 I challenge you to implement or retool written briefings and share your successes here!

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Do You Need a Detox?

We’ve all been there. We’re making dinner with the family, or out for drinks with friends. A few minutes in, we sneak a look at our phone. And again a few minutes later. And then we realize – or perhaps someone tells us – we’re not really present. Rather than being fully engaged with friends and family, we’re keeping an eye (and our mind) on our work.

If you know me, you know I can be a workaholic. I know exactly what it’s like to feel the need to constantly monitor and respond to my email. The constant tug of “just one more reply.”

Which is why what I really needed was a cell phone detox. I needed to set limits on my availability for work, and restore some balance to my life. I had that opportunity in February, and forced a cell phone/electronics detox upon myself.

Study after study tells us the same thing: working more than 55 hours per week is directly correlated to negative health outcomes. And all for naught: according to the Washington Post article “Stop Touting the Crazy Hours You Work. It Helps No One,”

Studies have shown that after about 50 hours a week, productivity actually decreases, and it plummets after 55 hours, leaving no detectable difference between those who work 56 hours and those who work 70.

So, I decided to set limits. While on vacation, I get one hour per day of phone use. Then the rest of the day, my phone is on airplane mode so I can take pictures. And, my husband and I have instituted a weekly phone-free date night.

Once I got through the initial withdrawals (and they were not nearly as awful as I thought they would be … It was actually liberating!), I realized something important – that I have control over my time, and that there are solutions to the constant pinging of the phone, and logging in more and more hours. When I exercised those solutions, I felt less pressure to always be available, and less stress.

This isn’t surprising – just this summer, a group of researchers released “Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect,” a study that shows workers are exhausted not just because they respond to emails in their off hours, but more so because of the drain of being constantly available. The mere act of being at the ready, phone by your side, just in case is even more damaging than sending the email response itself.

For those of us who are supervisors, this study shows the need to disconnect for ourselves, but also for our teams. We can set the example that some companies are now enforcing, limiting hours that workers can email.

My techniques won’t work for everyone. But there is a solution for each of us, whether we’re setting time for ourselves, setting an example for employees, or setting boundaries with employers.

And from a former cell phone addict, I urge us all to give ourselves permission to unplug, unwind, and recharge. Our industry, colleagues, and work will benefit!

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And for the first 50 who need an extra push, email me and I will mail you a cell phone sleeping bag! We all need to start somewhere. Use this bag as a reminder, and your permission to unplug!

Powerful Probing Questions

Is there anything more impactful to a meaningful philanthropic solicitation than truly understanding your prospect’s motivations, feelings, and values – not just about our organization, but about their lives?

These factors are the very foundation of helping our donors achieve their fullest giving potential, and in turn create the greatest impact.

The use of probing questions is one of the best tools in a fundraiser’s kit to make such solicitations. These questions are critical to the three keys to bringing allies on board for our organization: Assume less. Accept more. Listen well.

What are probing questions? They are follow-up questions that ask for additional information on what your prospect has said, or ask your prospect to give even deeper insights into her thoughts. By “going deeper,” you demonstrate your interest and desire to understand your prospect, and you are able to:

  • Set the stage for a successful strategy by obtaining information that will lead to better decisions and outcomes
  • Assess situations from a variety of vantage points
  • Move a relationship from conversational to transformative, built on creating trust with your prospect
  • Ensure you see issues from your prospect’s perspective, including anticipating objections to a solicitation
  • Open a dialogue where your prospect asks you questions, allowing you to best match her passions with institutional priorities

Probing questions are transformational. Imagine if we all accomplished each of the items listed above in our prospect meetings – our giving conversations would increase in both efficacy and frequency! So ask yourself in your next meeting, “Am I truly seeking to understand? Did I ask How did you decide…, Tell me more about…, Why do you think…?”

We should remember that when we authentically ask and listen,

  • We are fully attentive to the other person
  • We ask questions that are not leading, diagnostic, or confrontational
  • We listen to comprehend
  • We expand our ability to match the passion and mission of our donors to the passions and missions of our organization

The more we ask thoughtful questions, the more thoughtful our donor relationships become … and the more effective we become in raising the critical funds that our institutions rely upon to do their good work.

I will be sharing more about probing questions in my book, Productive Conversations with Donors: A Handbook for Frontline Fundraisers. It shares specific questions that I’ve seen used to great success, discuss how these questions can help overcome objections, and more.

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Transitions: The Power of the Shadow Visit

When was the last time someone on your team joined another fundraiser on a visit with a prospect – not to collaborate on a strategy, but to learn from each other?

Shadowing on prospect visits is a powerful tool we can use as fundraisers and leaders, and one we can implement immediately.

Why should you incorporate shadow visits into your team’s professional development?

  • These visits give a platform for our best talent to share their “secret sauce” with members of the team who are hungry to learn more.  Our high-performing professionals who have honed their skills often want an opportunity to mentor, and shadow visits are a perfect venue!
  • Want to onboard new team members in a meaningful way? Partner them with the development staff who tell your story best, and help them rapidly grow their ability to represent your institution.
  • When you need to expand the approach or style of an employee, having him or her watch another professional in action is a holistic way to do this. Remember to have them build in a debriefing conversation to discuss what they learned.
  • Reverse shadow visits – having a more seasoned team member shadow a junior colleague – are a great way to provide meaningful feedback to our growing team members on their skills.

Shadow visits can support a changing culture in a meaningful way, by facilitating a culture transparency, collegiality, and ongoing learning. It will also support high performance: those who role model strong frontline skills will provide leadership through this tool, and you will see both metrics and numbers of visits grow.

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Transitions: Moving from Conversational to Transformational

Every fundraiser I know has left at least one meeting with a prospect and asked themselves, “What just happened in there?”

One of the most common ways we get sidetracked, and leave without accomplishing something meaningful, is when the conversation gets off track and we are unable to bring it back. This is usually accidental – although we’ve all known prospects who seem quite skilled in diverting the topic from philanthropy!

We’ve also seen our leaders and allies get sidetracked in prospect meetings. Our faculty, volunteers, physicians, and others can be hesitant to move from the comfortable warm up to the business at hand, or from business to philanthropy.

When we lack the ability to make progress in our meetings that move a strategy forward, we lose the momentum in our strategies. Transitions give us the ability to create momentum, focus, and ultimately – more successful strategies AND meetings!

These transitions for common conversational road blocks will help you make the most out of your prospect meetings, whether you’re representing your organization alone or staffing a leader through the dialogue:

  • I know you said you only have 20 minutes, and I want to be respectful of your time.
  • It’s wonderful to get to know more about you, and I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on our work at our organization.
  • I promised when we spoke on the phone that I wanted to discuss how you can be a part of this, so may I share some ideas?
  • Would you be comfortable if we shifted the conversation to this project we’re seeking community support for?
  • Your feedback on this new initiative is critical to our next steps, would you tell me about…
  • You’re right, it is a big project. Would you be open to learning how you can be a part of it?
  • It sounds like you’re excited about this program – I’d love to share how you can support it.
  • It’s been great to hear about your story as an alum/patient/etc. May I ask about you as a supporter/community leader/etc.?

Transitions are most effective when they match your style and feel natural. As you noticed in the examples, asking permission to transition can be an effective technique if it suits your approach.

Regardless of style, however, the skillful use of transitions can lead to more impactful prospect meetings – and ultimately, more success.

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The Art of Listening

A development colleague recently relayed a story to me. She had invited a faculty member to join a prospect meeting, and as they sat down with the prospect, the professor immediately launched into a discussion of the initiative at hand.

After a few minutes, the prospect interjected and said, “I’m sorry if I seem particularly effusive today. My granddaughter was just in town with her fiancée, and we spent the time together hiking and catching up. It was wonderful.”

The professor paused, took a breath … and then picked up the spiel on his initiative right where he’d left off! Some serious coaching about getting to know our prospects occurred on the car ride back to campus.

What does this story have to do with those of us who think we know better? Our stories don’t matter as much as our prospects’ stories, and we forget that all the time.

We say that we know this. We talk about “story listening” and “asking strategic or probing questions.” But let’s be honest – how often do we talk on in meetings, doggedly committed to our talking points, to making the case, to wowing the prospect with just one more exciting ranking or award? This is no better than the professor’s mistake.

Our role is to assist donors realize their passions, dreams, and interests through meaningful giving. To do so we have to understand their passions, but also their concerns, what motivates them, their self-perception, and more. The only way to do that is to ask the right probing questions and listen.

The following techniques will help you make sure you’re not talking your way out of a meaningful donation, and more importantly, a meaningful relationship for our organizations:

  • When developing talking points for a prospect meeting, or a larger prospect strategy, ask yourself, “What don’t I know?” Identify the gaps in your knowledge, and then write out the questions you need to ask. Draft your meeting talking points around the story you need to hear, not data you need to deliver.
  • Practice asking questions that go beyond the surface. You can do this by reflecting after each prospect meeting – what did you learn about the prospect’s deepest interests and concerns, and what gaps still exist? And then ask yourself what questions you could have asked in the moment to forge a deeper understanding and connection. Begin to notice whether there are themes to the type of questions you wish you had asked.
  • Develop your own question-asking style. We are asking prospects to open up to us in very personal ways, and we should each have techniques to encourage this. How do you develop this kind of rapport? Some fundraisers share an aspect of their own personal story before asking a similar question of the prospect. Others may explain their curiosity – prefacing a deeper question about giving with an explanation such as “Can I ask more about that? There are so many great nonprofits in town, and I love learning how people choose where to share their generosity.”
  • Watch your prospects when you’re talking in a meeting, and be mindful of how they’re responding– are they engaged, nodding, enthusiastic? If so, stop and ask about what’s resonating. Or has your prospect leaned back, crossed his or her arms, started looking around or down rather than maintaining eye contact? If so – stop talking even more quickly! Give space to your prospect by stopping and saying “I don’t want to go on and on – what are your thoughts so far?”
  • Teach your faculty, leaders, physicians, and volunteers to listen. How often do we tell our allies that their role is to persuade, endorse, or explain – and how often do we tell them their role is to demonstrate curiosity and seek to understand our prospects?

In my recent Golden Rules blog, I recommended that we speak for only 25-30% of a prospect meeting, and that we help our prospect fill the rest of the conversation. By using the techniques above, you can help ensure that this conversation provides the type of deeper understanding that is foundational to the most effective strategies.

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Donor and Prospect Meeting Essentials: The Golden Rules

Many fundraisers thrive on the feeling of walking away from a prospect meeting having made a meaningful connection and envisioning the possibilities before us.

This dedicated, thoughtful time to build a relationship face to face is irreplaceable – which is why we so often ask ourselves, “Am I at my best in these meetings?”

Over the years, I’ve seen my colleagues be successful in meetings across many individual styles in working with donors – new and experienced, extroverts and introverts, creative dreamers and practical thinkers. And, they’ve been successful because they’ve built their styles on a shared foundation of key behaviors.

What shared foundation do the best fundraisers have in common in how they meet with donors and prospective donors? They all practice these four Golden Rules of Prospect Meetings:

  • Silence is golden. Not once have I seen a development officer, physician, or organizational leader talk someone into making a gift. No well-crafted sentence, researched data point, or honed appeal will lead someone to make a thoughtful gift they do not truly want to give you.What does work? The age-old concept of story listening. Let your prospect tell you what they care about, what motivates them, what deeply held belief your organization can align with. You can’t get there without asking questions and listening. But that answer is always the prospect’s story, and that story is the roadmap to a gift.Research shows that we remember what we say in a conversation, not what someone else says. So ask the questions that allow your prospect to tell you how your organization supports their vision for the world. Ideally, you should speak 25-30% of a meeting, and allow your prospect to fill the rest.
  • Materials just don’t matter that much. I know this statement may meet with strong disagreement from some corners. But here’s what I can tell you from first-hand experience: materials do not make a case. Not even expensive, glossy case statements truly make the case. Brochures, white papers, proposals – these tools are at their most impactful when specifically used to underscore a meaningful conversation.If you hope your written material, or your video or web site, will have an impact – set them up accordingly. Use them as take-aways to underscore a conversation you’ve had, a visual aid to illuminate the finer details of a proposal, or in some other manner that is secondary to the dialogue. Plan in advance for when you present materials in a meeting. If you put a brochure on the table, does that facilitate the dialogue, or distract from the person-to-person connection?
  • The institutional relationship matters immensely. Development officers tend to be pretty friendly – we enjoy talking with our prospects, forming connections, and building relationships.However, no relationship matters more than that between the donor and the institution we represent. Therefore, our interactions with donors must always represent this fact.What does that mean? It means representing the institution’s interests over any personal or short-term interests. It also requires us to think about the longevity of our donors’ relationships. Perhaps you’ve been with an organization for six months – your donor may have been involved for six years. Be sensitive to how often they’ve had to tell their story, and that they may perceive themselves as more expert on the organization and its cause than you are.No matter the circumstances, your first and last responsibility is to represent your organization professionally – and we should commit to being as organization-centric as we are donor-centric.
  • Respect the value of time. Whether during a meeting or at other points in the relationship, demonstrating your commitment to the value of time, and keeping to time commitments, demonstrates integrity to your prospects.How does this play out? When you tell a prospect that you want to visit for 30 minutes, you demonstrate that you are conscientious and trustworthy by keeping to 30 minutes – making it more likely that you’ll get the next meeting.When you promise to follow-up with a key next step or information in a certain timeframe and you do so, you demonstrate that you are reliable – allowing your donor to feel that he or she will be well-stewarded throughout the relationship you are building.When you are thoughtful and strategic about timing, you build momentum into your strategies – leading, ultimately, to more gifts.

There is no one “right” way to be a fundraiser. Our individual styles and personalities can be our greatest assets when we build from the Golden Rules.

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3 Ways to Provide Growth Pathways for Retaining High-Performing Fundraisers

Throughout my career as a fundraiser and manager, I have interviewed countless candidates who told me the reason they are leaving their current position is a lack of opportunity for growth. Whether the individual works for a non-profit, healthcare institution, or university, I’ve heard that statement time and again.

Don’t let this happen to you and your organization! As you recruit and retain high-performing fundraisers, take steps to advocate and create pathways for these valuable team members. They want to know they make a difference and have a future with your organization. You can use these three strategies to provide growth opportunities for the employees you want to stay with your organization.

  1. Identify whether your high-performing development officers are ready to take on more of a leadership role. Opportunities to lead can come in several forms, not simply giving someone the title of “director.” For example, assign a team member to lead a taskforce or work group. Or, perhaps you can charge the individual with best practice development, such as standards for fundraising travel. Looking externally, are there community groups or committees the individual can join to represent your organization?
  2. Use the power of mentorship as a growth pathway. If your employee aims to eventually supervise staff and become a manager – but they need to expand their approach or style first – ask them to serve as a mentor to a colleague or new hire. Or, perhaps you can put them in charge of developing the on-boarding process for your department. If management is not a goal, identify a mentor for the development officer who is a leader in ways outside of management. For example, provide an opportunity for them to your high performer can shadow you or another leader on an important project to see how you staff a board, build a fundraising initiative, or partner with programmatic staff.
  3. Carve out ten percent of your high performer’s job description for special projects. This is a great way to invest in your super stars while benefiting the larger team. And, your employee will know that you are willing to make a true investment in her when you specifically make time for it. For example, find projects that grow skills in management, volunteer leadership, mentoring, or complex gift strategies.

Your most valuable employees are in high demand in the development community, and regularly see outside opportunities that will allow them to grow. This environment demands that managers be proactive, creative and dedicated to these employees in order to retain them and best serve their organizations. Creating growth pathways is one of the single-most effective ways to ensure your top players will want to stay and continue performing at their best.

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5 Strategies for Retaining High-Performing Fundraising Staff

It seems like every few months, a new survey reveals that the top concerns of nonprofit chief executives is the loss of high-performing development staff. It’s a sad state of the industry when the majority of development officers plan to leave their position within 12 months of being hired. And there’s plenty to suggest that more fundraisers are leaving the industry than joining.

Yet even with this information presented to us, our industry continues to focus on recruiting rather than retaining the very staff we say we want to keep – the staff that know our organizations, our donors and leaders. If building a high-performing team is a priority for you and your organization, you must shift your culture so your team members actually want to stay.

But how does an organization do that? These five strategies will change the way you retain skilled staff in a culture that demands high-performing fundraisers.

  1. Add “WOW” into onboarding. Most new staff will decide within 90 days if they made the right decision in joining your organization, so make those 90 days count! Onboarding new staff is much more than providing a parking space and keys on a first day. Meaningful onboarding means creating “WOW” (Welcome, Ongoing, Warmth) tools that make new employees feel they are set up for success. If you are not formally ensuring introductions to key colleagues, access to mentors, and clear best practice tools, your new employees will quickly wonder whether they made the right choice.
  2. Agree on clear plans and expectations. Staff do best when you are in agreement about what is expected of them. When welcoming a new staff member, create a 90-day plan to define where they should spend their time, and what deliverables are expected. Add an annual plan to ensure that you both have a clear, shared vision. This also ensures an objective way to check progress, reinforce expectations, and build accountability and growth into their performance. Asking your employee to develop an annual plan is an excellent way to facilitate growth and buy-in.
  3. Don’t just review – discuss! Performance reviews should not be a one-way conversation. They are most productive when they are a mutual reflection on the past and they set a roadmap for the future. Asking employees for their opinions, along with accomplishments, hurdles and opportunities for improvement, makes them feel invested in the process and to give you invaluable insight as a manager. Make sure to pose specific questions to them in advance of the review so they have time to reflect and come prepared for the conversation.
  4. Put away your cookie cutters. Every staff member is different, which means you need to adapt your management. Actively assess the management tools you use, and whether they are equally effective for each employee. Where you lack efficacy, think about how you can change your approach. In managing employee differences, identify the individuals’ unique strengths and techniques to help them maximize those strengths. Remember that the crucial act of celebrating those individual strengths requires understanding differences too!
  5. Create and customize professional development. High performers want to continually up their game. Obvious opportunities exist in conferences, webinars and online learning. But think the less apparent approaches: site visits, small group cohort conversations, time with peers, and fundraising coaching. Employee milestones – meeting goals, tenure in position – are perfect for providing special opportunities to grow their talent.

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