Why the signs matter

Check out the signs in your office, the photos, how clean the kitchen is, whether the clocks are set to the right time.

Or, pay attention to what happens when you have a visitor. Who greets them when they come in? No one? Just the receptionist? Or anyone who walks by?

When you boil it down, there are two kinds of organizations in the world: ones in which everyone acts like owners, and ones in which people just do their jobs.

In ownership cultures, people lean in on tasks big and small — because it’s ours, not someone else’s, and every last detail matters.

There’s no in between. Choose.

Spring

Right here.

Right now.

At this moment.

I stand.

My feet are on the ground.

Breath enters my nose.

I hear.

Birds. So many of them, in wild conversation. As I keep walking, I notice more and more. Are they always there and I just don’t pay attention?

Cars. The sound of their tires humming against the pavement, each wave of sound a bit different from the last.

I see.

Branches swaying gently. Leaves emerging, daring to show themselves after a long, long winter.

I breathe. In. Out.

I feel.

My clothes on my body.

A first spring breeze on my face.

A hint of heat.

Look what happens when I stop, just for a second.

Look how much is around me.

This kind of moment is always here, available to me. This quality of attention is something I carry with me.

If only I remembered that more often.

I am. Here. Now.

Four Steps in Selling

  1. Great to meet you
  2. Asking questions
  3. Making the pitch
  4. Closing

It’s amazing how often, as salespeople or fundraisers, in our breathless urgency to make our pitch, we skip to step 3.

Ultimately there’s a wrapper around this entire conversation, and that wrapper is our true intention.

Every moment we spend demonstrating genuine curiosity, we make clear that we care most about meeting their needs, and will pursue a sale only in service of that end.

Yes, our future customer wants to know that we are smart, capable, and that we have a great solution for the price, but the first thing she wants to know is: what’s this guy’s true intention? If we don’t pass that test, we never get out of the gate.

The truth is, today everyone has a nearly infinite choice about who they are going to work with, or what organization they are going to support. The deeper truth is that no product, service, intervention, or charity is so much better than everything else out there that it wins solely on the merits.

This is why we begin with courtesy and basic good manners.

We follow that with genuine curiosity around the problem someone else is trying to solve, and, from that deep interest, we explore if, how, and in what ways the thing we have on offer today might solve that problem.

These aren’t boxes to check so we can get on with our sale, these are the first steps towards building a partnership on a foundation of respect and service.

No skipping steps.

How coaches help

When we coach in a professional setting, it’s easy to focus on the giving of advice. After all, “coaching” feels like the preferred activity of the coach.

Just as helpful, though, is sense-making. Most bright, skilled people will know what to do if they can figure out the situation they’re in. So, rather than, “you might want to do this,” a more useful approach as a coach is to say things like, “I’ve seen this pattern before, this is how to make sense of it, these are the twists and obstacles that might be coming next.” This way, the person being coached is being made aware of her biases, or omissions, or wishful thinking, and is shored up against her inexperience facing this particular situation.

Also, by sharing “here’s what I think is going on” rather than “here is what I think you should do,” you shift the locus of accountability back where it will have to be in the long-term: with the person being coached.

Underpinning all of this is a quality that cannot be faked or glossed over: seeing someone, fully. This is the heart-felt activity of appreciating someone for who they are, seeing their full person, and, having seen and understood that, standing firmly beside them in their corner–not at the expense of anyone else, just with them.

Most folks can count on one hand the number of people with whom they feel fully seen, and increasing that count by one is a deeply powerful, validating and human stance to take.

Oh, and don’t forget, if you have employees, teammates, colleagues or classmates, you have already donned the hat of “coach,” even if you can’t see it yet. It will be a bit easier to carry that mantle when you remind yourself that there are lots of ways to be useful beyond simply doling out advice.

A Bad Joke About Marketing and Communications

A marketer and a communications professional walk into a bar.

“You have any new stories?” asks the communications professional, harkening back to his days as a journalist and imagining breaking news.

“I’ve got this story,” replies the marketer. “And this other one and a third one.”

The communications professional shakes his head and sighs. “Not new!” he barks. “How many times do we need to go over this? We already wrote about all of those. Don’t you understand? We need NEW stories to tell, to keep our audience engaged.”

The marketer looks down, chastened.

And then she takes a deep breath, musters her courage, and says, “But…even though we’ve told those sorts of stories already, our audience isn’t behaving differently. Not yet. Some of them are, just a few. I think we should keep at it.”

“Keep at what?”

“Keep pushing to make a change – in their actions, in their perception, in the conversation they’re having. That’s what matters, isn’t it?”

 

It’s not a great joke. It’s a pretty terrible joke, actually.

But, if you’re a producer of content, or working in a nonprofit or a business that has a story to tell, you see these two characters have this conversation every day (even if just in your head).

The died-in-the-wool communications professional, properly trained as a journalist or an editor, thinks about phrases like “exclusive” and “this just in!” He imagines big stories with new angles, things that have the chance to break through all the noise and get everyone’s attention.

The marketer, on the other hand, is thinking on a different level. She’s more interested in speaking to a very specific audience and chipping away, day by day, with a consistent message designed to drive a specific set of actions with that audience. She doesn’t care much about “everyone.”

Both the communicator and the marketer trade in stories, and both of them have important roles to play. The risk is that the hunt for the ‘next big story’ brings with it lots of places to hide, since 99% of stories (no matter how good they are) don’t break through, and since even breakthroughs are often like fireworks—beautiful, but ephemeral.

In the end, it’s really really hard to let yourself off the hook if your metric is demonstrable change in the attitudes and behaviors of the people who matter most to you.

And that’s no joke.

10 Minute Meeting Hack

The next time you mess up your schedule, get wires crossed, or are simply slammed for time, turn your hourlong 1-on-1 meeting into a 10 minute one.

“I’m sorry, I messed up, we only have 10 minutes, what do we absolutely need to cover?”

Then cover it.

And see what happens with those remaining 50 minutes, for both of you.

This isn’t a profound idea, but it’s a really useful one.

Unless, of course, you file it away under “someday.”

Headspace

Customer experience design requires us to take a barbell approach.

For example, I’ve recently started using Headspace, the meditation app, at home with one of my kids.

While meditation content and podcasts have been around forever, Headspace is a living example of the night-and-day difference between available and seamless: the Headspace experience is oh-so-smooth, the videos crisp, fun and engaging (whether you’re a kid or an adult), there’s a flow that keeps you engaged and continuing to meditate daily, with no distractions. Because the interactions have no bumps, the experience shifts from “try this a few times and drop it” to getting loads of busy newbies to meditate daily. Plus, the Ellen Degeneres show.

When we take the barbell approach, we move uncomfortably fast at the beginning: putting out products that don’t feel ready, testing like crazy, falling down a bunch, and iterating.

And then, at some discontinuous point, we must cross over from “messy and fast” to “seamless.”

This involves relentless focus to smooth off every edge, flatten out every bump, until our customer or our funder has to take as few steps as possible, and each of those steps is a joy.

The pitfall for nonprofits and social sector organizations is our habit of living in the middle of this barbell: we go much too slowly and are far too precious at the beginning, and we never get to that beauty at the other side.

Hint: if you haven’t ever sat with your team to map each and every step in your customers’ / funders’ journey, now is a good time to do that.

And, once you lay them out, see how many of them you can circle and describe as “Delightful!”

(p.s. for those of you who were paying close attention, no, I’m not planning to add the word ‘excellent’ to every blog title. Darned copy/paste gnomes!)

 

Fundraising Programs and Fundraising Products

One of the best, most under-utilized ways to give leverage to a fundraising team is by creating fundraising products.

That’s products, not programs.

Nonprofit fundraising is a constant uphill battle: to raise enough money, and to raise the right kind of money. And since most philanthropists choose not to give when they believe there’s a risk they won’t have an impact (“people look for any excuse to avoid giving a donation and then rationalize their skinflint behavior to avoid feeling selfish” says HBS professor Christine Exley), nonprofits respond by creating projects.

Project-based fundraising can work, but just as often it pushes an organization off mission; or it doesn’t provide enough money to pay staff and keep the lights on; or it obliges the organization to keep a program going when it’s not working; or it results in an organization that is so constrained in what it must deliver that it never creates new things.

The better solution is to create fundraising products.

First, some definitions.

Think of a program as an existing, understood and defined set of activities. The activities-based orientation lends itself to highly-specific budgeting, and setting expectations around “we will do these specific things in this way at these times.” Uncertainty is low, as is freedom.

Conversely, a fundraising product is a narrative that sits comfortably between “fund our entire organization” (unrestricted giving) and “fund this set of activities” (a program). It as an initiative around which you create a compelling narrative, one that mobilizes a set of people to make something (new) happen.

Some of the ingredients in a successful fundraising product are:

  • Clarity about what will be built in a specific time period (e.g. “over the next 24 months we are building a new initiative to support income-generating activities among a group of high-performing grantees.”)
  • A defined total fundraising amount (e.g. a few million dollars)
  • A compelling narrative that clearly connects the dots between the funds being raised and the change that will result, and an underlying business logic (this one’s up to you)
  • A minimum threshold for funders to participate (“our core group will each give a minimum of $250,000 over three years”)
  • Clear roles for the funders in the co-creation of this initiative: how they will help shape the initiative, how information will flow to them, exclusive opportunities to come together as a group and with your team/the people and organizations you’re investing in. (e.g. you’re creating a virtual board for the initiative)

The beauty of this approach is that it empowers both the organization and the funders, plus it gives the fundraiser the tools she needs to mobilize more capital: the bigger story has been created (narrative), there are a limited number of seats around the table (scarcity), the fundraise for this program will start and end (deadline), there is a defined funding amount to be part of that group (dollar thresholds), and the role of the philanthropist in the work that will unfold is well-understood (membership in a group).

When done right, a great fundraising product supports everyone’s success: the funders (who get a real hand in creating and accompanying something new and meaningful); the fundraisers (whose effectiveness you’ve just tripled); your organization (which will get the flexible capital it needs to do something important); and your beneficiaries / customers (who are more likely to participate in an offering that, by design, can flex to suit their needs and feedback).

The Blog With No Pictures

My kids have a fabulous book called The Book With No Pictures by BJ Novak.

As you can imagine, it doesn’t have any pictures.

Its premise is that the rules of grown-up/child book-reading state that parents must read whatever is written in a book, no matter how outlandish:

This got me thinking about expectations, and when we meet them and when we don’t.

Take this blog: it also has no pictures. It also has a certain tone, norms, style. There are types of posts that I write and types that I don’t. Ways that I speak and ways that I don’t.

I’ve been thinking about what I choose to write, and how that interacts with the expectations I’ve set for you as a reader. There’s an unspoken contract here, one that I am keeping by writing the way that I do, and that you are keeping by reading, by applying ideas that you find helpful, and by sharing posts with others.

Mostly it feels right to write into the expectations I’ve created: I am sure I wouldn’t show up with nearly as much care or attention were it not for the pull of meeting (and hopefully exceeding) your expectations.

On the other hand, those expectations also set limits: things I might want to write but don’t, ways I might want to speak but don’t, topics I might want to cover but don’t.

This means that I’m making a choice when I come across an idea, or even a sentence, that falls outside of the lines. And it’s possible that I’m making the wrong choice, since those lines are both real and imaginary, a projection of my and your understanding of where they are drawn.

I could, instead, ignore them.

I could choose to write GLuURR-GA-wocko ma GRUMPH-a-doo, or I could shout out with anger, or I could choose to share a deep, real fear.

The thing I need to keep noticing, each time I sit down in front of a blank page, is that I am dancing with freedom and with expectations. I owe it to myself and to you to remember that it is indeed a dance.

You’re dancing too. Dancing with the expectations of those around you—whether friends, family, colleagues or customers—dancing with the lines you feel you’ve drawn, dancing with the lines you feel they’ve drawn.

Most of the time those lines are in the right place, they are useful.

Except when they are not.

You have more freedom than you think you do.

Without that freedom, a Book With No Pictures would never have been written.

 

Story Gardens

Whether you’re a writer, a blogger, a trainer, a facilitator, a coach, a speaker or a fundraiser, you need a story garden.

These are stories that illustrate and illuminate important concepts you want to share with your audience. These are stories they will be drawn to, understand and remember.

Like all gardens, they don’t come out fully formed. Gardens require care, cultivation, time and patience.

We begin by finding a place and a time to plant the seeds.

Most of the time, for most people, it doesn’t work to set aside big chunks of time to come up with fully-formed, engaging and useful stories. The pressure is too great, and the habit unfamiliar. High expectations and low output create frustration, so we quit.

Instead, take the pressure off and begin with a commitment to awareness, observation and capture.

Awareness of the concepts you’re carrying around that are looking for stories.

Observation of small moments—in conversations, books, memories, articles—that might become bigger stories.

And capture, so you can hang on to those moments quickly and easily, before they vanish. This might be a notebook, an email address you set up so you can send yourself ideas, the audio recording feature on your phone.

My capture process often involves just a headline and a few words. I include the moment I noticed, and a few words (max 1-3 sentences) about what it might become. I write down details about the moment that sparked the idea, so that these details, and the thoughts surrounding them, can find their way back to me.

Then you need a “going back” process: dedicated, regular time to turn those snapshots into somewhat-developed stories. The process is up to you, but dedicated, regular time plus deadlines will help a lot.

And then you need time to practice telling these stories. The sooner and more often the better.

For example, recently some members of Acumen’s Fellows team who facilitate seminars started holding hour-long Story Garden meetings. They sit around a jar filled with slips of paper, each with a core teaching point from an upcoming seminar. One team member at a time pulls out a slip and then tells a 60-second personal story to illustrate that concept. They’d give it a go, get feedback, and move on to the next person.

You could easily imagine doing the same thing with your fundraising team: pick 10 key selling points or examples about your nonprofit or social sector organization, get 5 fundraisers in the room and start picking pieces of paper out of a jar and telling your stories. Take and give feedback. Repeat.

A number of years ago I noticed that the best communicators I know speak in stories—all day long. What I’ve realized since then is that process of story capture, development, practice, refinement, selecting and discarding is both iterative and self-reinforcing. Once you start down the path and see that stories land with your audience, you’ll realize that this is something that you, too, can do. Then, one day, you’ll get to a point when you can hardly remember talking any other way.