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!

COVID-19 Has Been Good for Philanthropy

Things are difficult right now in countless ways — for us as individuals, and for countless organizations. But in the midst of COVID-19, there are bright spots: neighbors are checking in on neighbors and delivering groceries; organizations are shifting quickly to meet their community’s needs; pollution has declined while wildlife is flourishing … and the list goes on.

Today I want to celebrate those bright spots in philanthropy, because donors and fundraisers are stepping up in countless ways.

Relationships are more authentic. Did you reach out to your donors when COVID-19 began? So many of the fundraisers I talk with wisely did just that: they picked up the phone (and keep picking up the phone … as data is already showing a much greater number of donors and prospects are taking our calls than before the pandemic) to connect with their donors. Many of these conversations are markedly different than those in the past— talking more openly, taking more time, sharing more personal stories. We’re being more vulnerable and getting to know each other in different, deeper ways, building relationships with more depth than ever before. And yes, these relationships will often lead to additional generosity, but they also bring additional joy and meaning to those participating in them.

Mentorship is changing. Mentorship has a common pattern: a more experienced professional advises a newer professional. But with social distancing has come greater reliance on technology, which means greater reliance on colleagues who are more comfortable navigating technology. As newer professionals provide guidance to their more experienced colleagues about using tools like Zoom (both technically and to build personal connection), our understanding of what a “mentor” looks like is changing, and we are developing new, valuable skills. Every opportunity to expand our tool kit is important, and a greater understanding of the new tools needed for continued success is critical to our professional growth.

Donors have increased interest in our organizations. As our world becomes more uncertain, those who care deeply about our organizations want to know how we’ll face this uncertainty, and what we need to do it. Donors are asking about those needs and how they can help, leading to a deeper exploration of our organizations’ priorities and our donors’ interests.

And, our supporters are giving. Right now, the future is uncertain. It would be so easy for our supporters to play it safe and cut back, or even halt their giving preemptively. But so many are doing the exact opposite. Many of those who have the ability are giving, and giving generously — reinforcing the most foundational, important reality of philanthropy: donors give because they care, and because it feels good.

At some point in the future, the incredible challenges we face will fade. As they do, let’s make sure we don’t lose these bright spots at the same time.

A Word to Fundraisers

As the college admissions scandal has played out over the past week, we’ve heard a refrain that hits close to home: that many other students have been admitted to elite universities through the “back door” of their parent’s philanthropy. Like many of you, I was first dismayed, then angry, and now sad.

It’s clear that higher education is facing a challenging conversation that will unfold at the highest levels – a conversation about how our educational institutions often reward privilege while at the same time providing the primary engine for social and scientific advancement.

But it’s also clear that this conversation will happen far beyond the individual advancement professionals who work day in and day out to support that latter, loftier, critical vision.

And it’s you who I want to address this to: the advancement professionals who will now face increased scrutiny of your cause, your motivations, and your professionalism. We know the good we do in partnership with our donors – the vast majority of whom are motivated by their passion to impact a cause – and now more than ever, we need to be vocal about that good.

We see first-generation college students on scholarships funded by donors who care deeply about access and social mobility. Life-saving research into the public health issues of our time made possible by donors who want to see fewer suffer from those crises. And outside of higher education, we see our organizations provide health care to low-income populations, save homeless animals, support families with critical childhood illness, and so much more – all because donors care deeply.

Our work has often been misunderstood. Too few people do not comprehend the skills, thoughtfulness, and passion on our part that fuels it. I worry that now, this misunderstanding will deepen.

Which is why I offer this: we are doing honorable work every day that makes the incredible possible and encourages individuals’ most generous instincts. And we must stand proud in that. Rather than allowing this scandal to taint that work, we must continue to educate about the power of philanthropy, talk loudly about the transformative impact that giving has, and speak proudly of how philanthropy brings about incredible change, innovation, and inspiration.