5 Ways to Maximize Professional Development and Energize Your Team

Hiring and retaining talented staff has long been a challenge in our industry. However, with workforce trends that some are calling “The Great Resignation” currently underway, the need for advancement leaders to create an environment that attracts, nurtures, and retains talent has become urgent.

Luckily, there is clear data showing what advancement professionals are seeking in their careers, and professional development is high on that list. And investing here not only improves employee satisfaction, it also improves your results by elevating team skills, contributing toward a culture of excellence and creating a talent pipeline for your institution.

With intentionality and thoughtfulness, you can create professional development opportunities that enrich individuals and contribute building your larger team. Some of my favorite ways to do this are:

1. After a webinar, have team members debrief together and discuss next steps. Meet again in a few weeks to discuss what’s been implemented, what’s working, and what’s not.

2. Staff members who attend a conference should present key learnings to the team, and then ask the team to brainstorm how those learnings can apply to your team.

3. Invite employees interested in growth to identify roles they’d like to learn more about and have them job shadow. Afterward, ask what appealed to them and what didn’t; and discuss the skills they should develop to obtain a similar role.

4. For those who want to become managers, or strengthen their management skills, ask them to identify a monthly management topic for you two to talk through, identifying strategies and styles.

5. Most importantly: invest in your own knowledge about how to develop team members. Join me for a complimentary webinar on January 5 to explore how you can use webinars, conferences, coaching, and trainings for your staff to grow results, build performance, and increase retention. I’ve seen what works (and what doesn’t) and will provide practical and easy-to-implement advice to ensure that you and your team are getting the most out of your professional development investments.

How are you creating development opportunities, whether for your team or yourself? Share in the comments so we can learn together. And don’t forget to join me on January 5!

It’s Time to Invest in Your Philanthropic Champions

It’s a nearly universal truth among gift officers that expanding our portfolio is a critical — and often challenging — part of our roles. Volunteers who are passionate about philanthropy can be incredibly impactful partners in this work. But despite this clear potential, cultivating truly effective philanthropic champions often gets lost in our day-to-day shuffle.

Today, let’s take some time to reflect and recommit to identifying and cultivating philanthropic champions with clear next steps — because the potential is endless and our programs deserve it!

Step 1: Identify potential philanthropic champions

Seek out champions with a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds, and who have three things in common:

  • True connection to the cause
  • Deep belief in our institution and its ability to impact the cause
  • Commitment to the power of giving

Step 2: Develop your champions

To strengthen their connection and effectiveness, invest in three areas:

  • Relationships: These individuals should have strong relationships with multiple representatives of your institution, spanning the advancement team, program staff/faculty/physicians, and institutional leadership.
  • Deep knowledge: A true champion is in open and honest dialogue with the institution about its challenges and opportunities, and about their own role.
  • Meaningful gift opportunities: Champions should be giving in deeply meaningful ways that reflect a stretch commitment as defined by their own circumstances.

Step 3: Activate champions

Work with your champions to identify opportunities to expand the pool of prospective donors, including:

  • Hosting salon events, inviting their peers to learn more about your institution
  • Participating in peer screenings
  • Hosting regional events
  • Being a social media champion
  • Demonstrating gratitude to existing donors through phone calls, emails, or note cards
  • Opening doors at their workplace (to corporate giving, alumni networks, and more)

Step 4: Support and celebrate

Like every strong partnership, this one requires mutual support, lots of communication, and celebrating wins. Make this role fun and rewarding, and enjoy the relationships that result!

Consider your own priorities and goals, and the role the champion model can play in moving those forward. Whether you’re seeking to put a fundraising project “over the top,” brainstorm a new project, introduce a new leader, or any other strategy, strong champions can help achieve those goals while building a stronger portfolio. What steps can you take today to build and implement a stronger philanthropic champion model?

Lessons Learned from Six Years of KDD Philanthropy

It’s incredible to think that six years ago this week, I launched KDD Philanthropy as a full-time practice to support the exceptional work that leaders and fundraisers like you carry out at institutions every day. I can still remember the nerves as I sent that introductory email, hit the “go” button on my web page launch, and dove in with both feet.  This path has been filled with peaks and valleys, but it’s also been buoyed by the opportunities, challenges, and sometimes-crazy moments that we’ve shared together.

It is the conversations and partnerships that have been the most rewarding element of this journey, and it’s been a remarkable journey so far! Thank you!

During these six years, I’ve traveled over 475,000 miles, visited over 50 institutions (in four countries), and provided too many impromptu (and rewarding!) advice sessions to count. And, I’ve learned some invaluable lessons too, including:

  • Our work has always been about the people, and will continue to be about the relationship we cultivate, not the programs we build.
  • Many of you know that accountability may be my favorite and most-used word. But over the past six years, I have learned that while accountability is an anchor, HOW you cultivate accountability is what builds teams, relationships, and generosity.
  • Efficiency is important, but in roles where we will never finish everything on our to do lists, it is being effective that truly matters.
  • Consistent donor outreach has always been the hallmark of high performing advancement officers, and our new virtual tools (from Zoom, to utilizing our iPhones for impactful video messages to ThankView) allow for truly organic, authentic, frequent outreach.
  • Your calendar is your fire extinguisher, no matter what: aim it where your time is most valuable. And calendar blocking works just as well in the office as it does from a dining room table or seat 18A on my company plane (Southwest Airlines).
  • Hope is never a strategy. We must work our strategies (and write them down, it does work!) to inspire the most impactful generosity.
  • One of the things that attracted me to this work was the fun! I think we sometimes forget that we can — and should — have fun in our work.
  • We have some of the best jobs in the world, truly. And I am grateful for the many ways you remind me of that each and every day.

Thank you for your support, advocacy, and trust as we work together to build the teams and tools that inspire generosity. I am so appreciative for the opportunity to learn from you, grow our industry, and have laughs, celebration of milestones, and fun in doing something we are so passionate about. It’s an honor to support the institutions and professionals that are working to build a better world, and I look forward to many more years of partnership!

Rethinking the “A”

Last month, I wrote about what to do when we’re in a rut. That blog received a lot of attention and direct emails, reinforcing how universal this experience is. Thank you to so many for sharing that you were feeling the same, and how empowering it felt to say those words out loud (or an email): I am in a rut, and it is OK!

I agree! It’s so easy and normal to find ourselves lost in the daily routine of our work and forgetting to take joy or pride in that work — but beating ourselves up for it is not the answer. We often talk about kindness and grace in our work, for those we love, and in the world, but I find that few I speak with are actually giving themselves that kindness and grace.

I’ve had so many discussions around why we put so much pressure on ourselves to keep reaching new levels of excellence, how we only settle for 100% from ourselves, how we feel unsuccessful or defeated when we do not complete our to-do lists. But none of this is healthy, and it doesn’t work either.

Our overachieving selves need to start looking at this through another lens: Many of us are in higher education, where an “A” is 90%. And I suggest that we might want to use that same grading pattern for our teams, our work, and ourselves. Achieving an “A” is a source of pride, but rarely does that “A” reflect a score of 100%.

Every day I talk with individuals who are hitting 90% plus, and yet I hear about what they do not get to, what they’re disappointed by in their own performance. But when I think of “A” students, I think of an ability to prioritize the most important work, not to add a myriad of other topics to the curriculum.

In advancement work, focus and discipline on the right things lead to success. Which is why rather than trying to achieve 100%, we would be better served to focus on our most important tasks, be honest about the things that do not meet that definition, and then aim for that 90% “A.” And let’s celebrate every achievement on the way: The cold outreach, even though some of it will go unacknowledged — it’s still critically important for building pipeline! The disqualification of a prospect for major giving — they’ll still feel more connected in the support they do provide. And so many more opportunities to find and celebrate our success along the way.

I suspect that redefining how we give ourselves an “A” will help so many of us feel much better about our achievements and truly focus on our most important work: advancing relationships that lead to generosity. And isn’t that what this is all about?

Are You in a Rut?

I’ve had a number of conversations in recent weeks with folks who are in a rut. This is completely understandable with all that is happening in the world. So how do we stop the feeling that we’re on a treadmill and losing the joy in our work?

I’ve seen first-hand the strategies that can help folks move out of this space. But first, we have to acknowledge that ruts are completely normal. Really! They’re normal in normal times, and they’re particularly common now, when so many of us are navigating or recovering from the emotional and practical challenges of our world recently. What matters is being able to recognize when we are falling in to one, and then taking the steps to get out of it. Being able to say “I am in a rut” takes courage. But it is also the first step in continuing to thrive.

In my years in the industry, I have found those who face the rut head on tend to be the highest performers. They recognize, adapt, and create tools to strengthen their work for their organization — and often come out of the rut feeling even more committed and energized about our work and our organizations.

If you think you may be “losing steam” in your role, consider how these strategies may help:

  • Ask a colleague for a 5-minute pep talk and be prepared to return the favor for them. Fundraising is a team sport, and having a colleague who can re-energize is a gift.
  • Review your calendar and see where you have been spending time. Most often, burn out happens when we get stuck in the mundane, less-important tasks. Be honest with yourself, and then clear time on your calendar to focus on your most important, impactful work. Make sure you focus every day on building authentic relationships that that inspire generosity.
  • Who inspires you? A faculty member? An organizational leader? A program director? A student or program beneficiary? Find a way to connect, whether it is reading their blog, watching a video, or participating in a class/lecture/program. Reconnecting to the values that drive our work is a great way to remind ourselves why we do what we do.
  • And my favorite strategy: Set up a video call or a meeting with a donor whose strategy is ready for the next step. I found that my ruts came when I was not meeting with donors and had been in too many internal meetings. Sit with a donor, hear their passion, and feel the accomplishment of enriching a relationship while moving a strategy forward.

Recognizing early when you’re in a rut, and taking proactive steps to address it, is critical to longevity in our roles. Otherwise, rather than staying at an institution long enough to truly build skills and sustained success, we look for a new opportunity and begin the cycle again on a new team.

We owe ourselves, and our causes, our best and most engaged selves. What tips or tricks do you use to re-motivate and refocus?

Gratitude: It’s Critical for More Than Just Donor Relationships

Gratitude is an anchor that all of us at KDD Philanthropy feel is an imperative in our fundraising work. Affiliate Carol Spychalski does a beautiful job in outlining the importance of gratitude within organizations, our teams and with each other. I would be remiss in sharing Carol’s blog, if I didn’t share my immense gratitude to each of you who bring the fabric of the KDDP online community to life. We are incredibly grateful for your contributions, your support and your feedback. Thank you.

“Thank you. You matter.” This is the essence of the words I say, to those who support my organization, constantly. And if you, like me, are an advancement leader, you know why: because demonstrating gratitude is absolutely foundational to effective donor engagement.

We live and breathe gratitude for our donors in our work. Whether we plan events, process and acknowledge gifts, are major gift officers or any other role within our field, we regularly demonstrate our supporters’ impact and our appreciation. Thoughtful messages, milestone celebrations, customized gifts related to the cause, lunches with leadership … it’s nonstop!

We do this because it matters — and yet, somehow, we often forget that gratitude matters every bit as much for our teams and colleagues. We’re busy, or distracted, or mean well but just never get there. However, the internet is rife with articles about why leaders should regularly and actively thank employees for the value they bring: research has demonstrated that doing so increases productivity, retention, and morale.

As advancement leaders, then, one of the most important activities we can undertake is to apply the same intentionality we have for donors to our own teams:

  • We know that not every donor wants public recognition, or lunches with the dean. Every employee is different too. We should work to understand and honor their preferences.
  • We would never thank our impactful donors only through group messages. That’s why activities like telling the entire team at a staff meeting that they did great isn’t enough. Gratitude should also be individualized, shared one-on-one and specific.
  • Just like with supporters, milestones are an easy way to show an employee they matter. Whether it’s a birthday or work anniversary, something as simple as a note card can go a long way.
  • Gratitude is built into our language with donors: “Your gift makes a difference.” “Thank you for supporting us on Giving Tuesday!”

It should be as natural with team members: “Thanks for taking care of that.” “Great job on that presentation.” “That was a great meeting you ran.”

  • Impact is critical for our supporters. They want to know their gifts matter, and our field communicates that regularly.

Impact is important for team members too. “Your creativity in coming up with new engagement opportunities is really building momentum for this initiative.” “Your willingness to take on extra projects really makes it possible for a lot of things to move forward that wouldn’t otherwise.”

And let me be clear: We’re not going to be awesome at all of these. I haven’t celebrated an employee anniversary … ever. It’s just not how my brain works. (I’m sorry, team!) And I’m more comfortable sharing gratitude one-on-one rather than in front of a group. But if each of us is intentional in finding expressions of gratitude that do work for us, while honoring the styles of those we’re thanking, I’m positive that our teams and our cultures will be stronger for it.

For a deeper look at how to express appreciation to your gift officers, sign up to join us for KDD Philanthropy’s Leadership, Management, and Fundraising webinar series!

Building Relationships Differently

Think about the relationships in your life — the ones with those you’re closest to, or who you most enjoy engaging with. Do these relationships focus on key milestones like events, or visits if they don’t live nearby? Or do those activities just provide added value to a relationship that flows naturally, following the rhythm of your conversations and lives?

If you’re like many of us, your personal life is full of this more natural relationship style. So why is it that so many of us in fundraising are wed to a style that instead creates donor relationships based on external opportunities rather than natural, internal momentum?

We know what a typical donor strategy looks like. It’s built around standard milestones like events and regional visits. But what if we took a page from our personal relationships? We could decrease our reliance on these tools to engage with donors in a more authentic pace, capitalizing on every natural opportunity to engage them further with the mission they care about.

What does this look like?

  • Virtual meetings, regardless of where people live
  • Inviting natural partners and champions into these virtual meetings to bring additional voice to the conversation
  • Smaller, more intimate lab tours, facility tours, and program discussions that are easily replicated to engage more people in invigorating discussions
  • Faster follow up on discussions in meetings to more quickly build momentum
  • Not relying on a once-per-quarter “what do I do now” process, and instead using the inspiration and alignment from each conversation to take the next step immediately

The benefits of such an approach would be numerous. Relationships would be more authentic, allowing you to craft more effective engagement strategies. Relationships would move more quickly, as they don’t wait on external events but only internal momentum — having the potential to significantly reduce the model of 12–18 months to a major gift.

We saw this approach work in the midst of stay-at-home orders, as in-person events and face-to-face meetings were cancelled. We spent time on the phone with donors, and we scheduled virtual meetings for whenever we, or the donor, wanted (in alignment with our strategy) … not during a regional visit we take every quarter. The approach we took during COVID may be becoming less and less necessary, but that hasn’t changed its efficacy. We built some wonderful new skills that brought both vulnerability and authenticity to our donor relationships.  And in doing so, we saw new heights of joy from our donors.

Take this opportunity to consider your strategies. Can you change those where external milestones are the foundation your strategy is built on, and instead make those milestones value-adds that enhance a natural conversation? Doing so can allow you to build more authentic, and more fruitful, relationships — and isn’t that what we’re all here for?

Share your tips for more authentic donor relationships in the comments!

You’ve Changed, and So Have Your Donors

How have the last 15 months changed you? Have you been impacted by the political and social justice developments of recent years? I can tell you that I’ve felt significant effects — everything from my business and my husband’s business, our conversations around the dinner table as our kids were sent home from college to attend remotely, to distance from family during health challenges, and so much more. I know we all have our own stories to tell.

Our donors have the same stories: stories of evolution, personal reflection, trauma, and so much more. As more and more fundraising teams are returning to in-person engagement with donors, we must make sure that we don’t also return to outdated assumptions about donors’ personal circumstances, world views, or causes they care about.

Instead, we must re-discover our donors, re-qualifying their philanthropic priorities, capacity, and personal circumstances. Re-qualifying is one of the most important and timely tools in your toolbox to ensure relationships are authentic and evolving.

The right questions will allow you to grow your relationship based on how your donor experiences the world today, not 15 months ago. Consider how the following questions might support your donor strategies:

  • The last 15 months have been hard, but I talk with a lot of people who have also found some unexpected positives. When you think back over this experience, what has been your silver lining? Your family’s silver lining? Your professional silver lining?
  • How did you use this time differently, and how will you carry that forward?
  • This time has been really challenging, and not just because of the pandemic. Has it changed how you think about the causes you care about?
  • This was a difficult time for a lot of businesses. How is your company doing?
  • I feel like we all found different ways to connect during quarantine: virtual events, phone calls instead of meetings, etc. Do you feel like you might carry any of those into the future?
  • I know I spent a lot more time with family during COVID. Did you end up doing the same?
  • When you think about your engagement with us now, how do you want to engage (virtually, in person, a combination)? Note: we should know how every person in our portfolio wants to engage with our organizations. If you have not asked, build this question into your strategies, and ensure that the information learned is captured in your database! And then, respect the wishes of our donors/volunteers!

Taking the time to thoughtfully re-discover our supporters creates space for openness and reflection and will enrich our relationships and our strategies. And if we skip this step, we may be surprised when some of our most generous friends fade away. By staying connected to your donors’ motivations and personal circumstances, you can make sure your cause fits into their future, not just their past.

What questions will you be using to re-discover your donors this summer? Share in the comments!

Five Things Gift Officers Need Right Now

Beginning this month, KDD Philanthropy is pleased to add another voice to our offerings. Our blog, “Five Things Gift Officers Need Right Now,” is the first from affiliate Carol Spychalski.

In her monthly writings, Carol will bring her perspective as an in-organization fundraiser and leader to the opportunities our field faces every day. She’s passionate about creating cultures that allow advancement professionals to do their best work, and believes strongly that an institution’s mission is best met when leadership, staff, and donors work together in mutual respect for the value of each role. (Learn more about Carol here.)

See what Carol identified as the top five needs for every gift officer today, and let us know what you would add to the list!

I’ve just returned to the office, and to seeing donors in person, for the first time in more than a year. And it’s a hard transition! Yes, I’ve spent 17 years doing this exact thing every day without questioning it. Yes, I love my organization, my role, and the people I work with. But still: it’s stressful!

Maybe you feel stress or out of sorts right now too. So many people I speak with are for wildly varying reasons. While some of us have long-since-returned to the office, some of us aren’t returning, and some have never left, recognizing this moment is critical for all of us as employees and as managers.

This moment is critical for fundraising teams for numerous reasons: A greater emphasis on portfolio diversification requires rethinking prospect identification and qualification. Greater attention on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion have raised the bar for employers to truly embrace these values. Those of us whose organizations experienced a “COVID boom” in giving are grappling with how to maintain momentum as we move past the urgency created by crisis — and those who didn’t must find a way to build back. And that’s just the beginning of what fundraisers are experiencing right now.

That’s why this is a critical time to re-invest in ensuring every gift officer has what they need to stay connected, motivated, and effective in five key ways.

1. Re-connection to the cause: If you work at a university, consider sitting in on a class. If you work at an animal welfare organization, walk the halls and visit with the animals. Or do whatever works for you — but what’s most important is that in the rush to get work done, your work is grounded in passion for the mission.

2. A clear vision in a post-COVID-crisis world: Institutions whose work have been directly or tangentially COVID-related will need to prepare for the inevitable waning of interest as COVID moves from peak crisis. Those whose work has not been impacted by COVID still face a public profoundly changed, and will need to be able to articulate their value in this new world, with the needs it exposed.

3. Clear giving opportunities that align with impact: The shared crises over the past year+ (COVID, social and racial injustice, etc.) created a sense of urgency, and giving was a clear way to help. Donors who felt a more-concrete-than-ever sense of “doing something” do not want to go backwards. The better you demonstrate the impact they can have through a gift of any amount, the better positioned you are to capture prospects’ passion and move them to action.

4. Engagement opportunities: Just like clear giving opportunities, donors are looking for ways to get involved in the communities around them. This nation’s experiences have inspired in many a greater sense of collective action and responsibility. Make sure you can provide an avenue for those desires.

5. Grace: It’s critical to remember that we are not “back to normal” — and that “normal” was still deeply flawed for many. The last few years have exposed deep fault lines across our society. Many lost family members and weren’t able to properly say goodbye due to COVID. Schools may be open, just to close again for quarantines. Whatever the details, real trauma was experienced. If you’re a manager, and you’re not making space for your team to be distracted sometimes, to struggle with coming back to the office or returning to in-person donor visits, to expect their workplace to demonstrate a greater commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (in practice, not principle), etc. — you’re missing the boat. And manager or not, each of us should be making space for ourselves. We can be our harshest critics, and we must give ourselves the grace we would ask of others.

For a deeper look at how to set gift officers up for success in today’s climate, sign up to join us for KDD Philanthropy’s Leadership, Management, and Fundraising webinar series!

What are you doing to prepare for a return to the office, or what did you do if you’ve already returned? Share your tips in the comments!

Integrating Today’s Fundraising Trends Into Your Work

Fundraising, like so many other aspects of life, adapted quickly over the past year. We tried new strategies and reinforced old strategies that worked best. Below I explore six fundraising trends that will continue to inform as we continue to navigate this year, and strategies to assess how well we are adapting these trends to our work.

Trend 1: Stronger connection between donor strategy, engagement, and relations. Perhaps the most important development over the last year was the greater understanding that the longest, most generous relationships require a holistic approach to creating a meaningful donor experience.

Assessment 1:

  • How is your team formalizing this approach?
  • Do you have regular, cross-department strategy sessions?
  • Do your written strategy templates require input from multiple functions?
  • How are multiple teams or functions credited for gifts secured?
  • Are you discussing donor nuances/likes/dislikes/interests in addition to strategy (and incorporating this information into your database)?

Trend 2: Virtual events are here to stay, despite the increasing return of in-person opportunities.

Assessment 2: We’ve now had a year or more of testing these events, providing enough experience to evaluate and build for the future.

  • Are your virtual and in-person audiences different or the same? How does that change your approach going forward?
  • What types of virtual events were most successful? Which were least?
  • Have you surveyed your constituents for their preferences moving forward — and how might you meet the needs of those on both sides of the virtual/in-person divide?

Trend 3: Giving days keep getting stronger. To be most effective, giving days must be integrated into your larger fundraising and donor engagement program.

Assessment 3:

  • How does your giving day fit into individual donor strategies and support the larger movement toward greater donor engagement?
  • How do you build on the momentum of giving days through individual donor follow up?
  • Does your giving day fit into your ongoing donor strategies? If not, what steps need to be taken to use these more effectively?
  • How do you continue to build meaningful touchpoints for new donors? Continuing donors? Loyal donors?

Trend 4: Artificial intelligence. While some of these tools used to be niche, they are now becoming more and more common — and more and more accessible. Whether in-house or outsourced, there are more resources available now than ever.

Assessment 4:

  • How can you use donor propensity scores to prioritize your outreach?
  • Has your institution explored the development of donor personas, allowing you to create more effective communication and outreach tools?
  • How does data support your trends? How are you discussing these trends in every part of your advancement shop?

Trend 5: Diversifying portfolios. We all know the stereotypical image of a donor, but it’s time to move beyond this. Individuals of color, women, and younger audiences all represent critical voices for a seat at the philanthropic table.

Assessment 5:

  • Are you using all available social media platforms? Facebook is now commonly used by institutions; but less commonly used by younger and more diverse audiences. Are you on Instagram? Tik Tok? Others?
  • How are you engaging key ambassadors to a variety of communities who can inform your strategies?
  • While artificial intelligence is an exceptional tool, it can also represent human bias. Does your team understand the factors this technology takes into account, and whether those exclude non-traditional prospective donor audiences?

Trend 6: Nimbleness. If this last year has taught us anything, it’s the need to adapt quickly; to innovate. The programs that did so have seen fundraising gains to match. And while necessity is the mother of invention, we can’t allow our transition to a more “normal” time to slow this trend.

Assessment 6:

  • Write down any new approaches you tried over the last year, and assess what worked and what didn’t. What themes exist in each category? How can you learn from those and carry those lessons forward in your work?
  • What internal/team dynamics, if any, contributed to a spirit of trying new things, and how can those factors be repeated in the “new normal?”

Fundraising, just like the world, is undergoing tremendous change. By staying informed and engaged with its evolution, we can continue to inspire generosity and generate tremendous good. And, let’s continue to inspire each other: share the trends you and your teams are building on in the comments here.

To take a deeper dive into the state of philanthropy today and explore tools for success in its future, check out KDD Philanthropy’s series of three webinars, Philanthropy’s Thought Leaders.