Norms, tipping, generosity and scarcity

Buy a sandwich from the deli, or a hot dog from the guy on the street, and the rules of the game are clear.  You’re told a price, you pay cash, done.

Reroll the tape, but this time you pay with a credit or debit card.  Depending on the machine they’re using, there might be a spot for “TIP _______” and you find yourself wondering whether and how much to tip for that same sandwich.

When a friend emails you about a cause that’s dear to him, there a normal set of responses you have to that situation – nothing, something, it’s up to you, but the steps you take follow a well-worn path.  Same story if you’re, say, at a Wall Street firm and a colleague asks you to buy a table at the benefit where she’s being honored – the numbers are just bigger.

On and on we go, hurtling through life with shorthand response to situations, because that makes things so much easier, because it feels like the only sensible way to process everything that’s coming our way.

But, just to be clear about what’s going on here, that shorthand is a function of norms, previous practice and social expectations.  Scarcity and real economics have very little to do with how we act.

The fun part – a piece of Generosity Day – is turning these norms upside down to see what that feels like: a $20 tip on a $5 taxi ride; telling the hot dog vendor to keep the change; telling your waiter that you’ll also pay the bill for the couple sitting next to you; agreeing to help a person who emails you out of the blue even though you don’t feel like you have the time.

My bet is that breaking these norms feels totally outrageous, that your heart races a little when you do it.  That’s the feeling of acting differently.  Then, when the rush passes, your head has the chance to process how glib you often are with that extra $20, but right here and right now, at the hot dog stand, handing over a $20 bill for your $5 hot dog – and not getting the change back – feels ludicrous.  Let the introspection begin.

One reason to give this whole thing a try is as an exploration of the norms and limits you’ve set around your life and your actions.  They may be just right for you.  Or your generosity experiment might afford a glimpse into how you could behave differently all the time – whatever “differently” means to you.

20 questions every fundraiser must be able to answer

(subtitle: this is why I can’t for the life of me understand how “fundraiser” became synonymous with “not totally integrated with the core work of the organization”)

  1. What are your top three priorities right now?
  2. Where will the organization be in 5 years?
  3. What’s your annual operating budget?  Walk me through it.
  4. What does success look like for the organization?
  5. How will my donation make an impact?
  6. How much do you spend on overhead?
  7. What’s your long-term vision for sustainability?
  8. How much cash do you have on hand?  Is it too much or too little?
  9. What is your organization’s theory of change?
  10. What are your biggest challenges?
  11. How much cumulative funding has your organization raised since inception?
  12. Help me understand social impact and how you measure it?
  13. What else can I do to help you – I want to give more than money?
  14. Who are your competitors and how do you compare to them?
  15. Can I meet your CEO?
  16. How much did you grant/fund last year? How and why did that differ from prior years?
  17. If I support you, I’d like your organization to do ___________ [this project/in this geography/with these partners].  Will you?
  18. How can our organizations work together?
  19. Why are you passionate about this work?

[UPDATE: thanks to a copy-paste slip-up, two of the items on the list were the same.  So #20 is now blank so you can add your “best question” in the comments section!]

More or less, but not the same

There’s lots of stuff out there about how to make really great powerpoint (and about terrible PowerPoint).  What I’ve observed is that people read these great suggestions and think “I could never do that” (which isn’t true) and use that conclusion to do nothing different.  Because the leap to “No more than six words on a slide.  EVER.” is a big one.

I’m actually a big believer in taking that leap, because once you leap, your audience has no choice but to listen to you, the presenter, instead of pretending that the most important thing up there is the slide (it isn’t).

On the assumption that lots of people won’t make the big leap (yet), here’s a baby step: the amount of words on your slide should NEVER be the same as the amount of words you say.

Ideally your slide has very few words and you have a lot of interesting stuff to say.  Another extreme would be that your slide is full of a lot of really rich content (I admit, I fear this really is “too many words”…) and you just say a few words and let people read.

But when you have a bunch of words and a bunch to say it is totally confusing to your audience.  Are they supposed to read or listen to you?  Not only do they not know, you don’t know!

Number of words you say ≠ Number of words on the slide

(And hopefully once you start down this path you’ll end up at 6-word slides.)

Today: T-shirt, Causes, and Volunteer needed

We’re just three weeks away from Generosity Day, and we have a lot of fun things in the works!  You’ve probably already seen the great Generosity Day t-shirts by our friends at Selfless Tee, so we wanted to remind you that TODAY is the last day to buy them for guaranteed delivery by Valentine’s Day (they make amazing thank you gifts to your volunteers, or to your spouse or your co-worker or just for you!).  You can get them here:

Also we’ve quietly launched a Causes page for Generosity Day, so if you haven’t yet please sign up for the cause and take the Generosity Day Pledge:  (and tell us what you think about the site via email to generosityday [at]

Finally, we’re on the lookout for a virtual volunteer.  It will probably be around five hours (potentially more) of work to help get the word out about Generosity Day, just over email.  We probably only need one person so if you’re interested please send an email to: generosityday [at] with one paragraph about what you love about Generosity Day – or just leave a comment on this post. (Note: it’s also OK to comment and NOT volunteer).

How do you find a great Head of Development?

I’ve been asked this question a lot, and was asked it again the other day by the CEO of a growing, successful nonprofit, so here are some thoughts.

First, let’s clarify who’s asking the question and what this means about what they’re looking for.

For a long time I’ve argued on this blog that the nonprofit sector has radically misunderstood what fundraising means, what fundraising jobs are, and, consequently, how to staff the fundraising (“development,” whatever) department.  To recap: it’s not separate from “the real work.”   It is core to your strategy, to who you are, and to how you deliver on your promise to the world.

There’s a lot of talk about what “traditional fundraising” is and isn’t, and whether in the brave new nonprofit world in which we live, we need to re-imagine fundraising (yes) and what a fundraiser looks like and does (probably).

I think part of the reason we’ve ended up walking down the wrong path is because professional fundraising was born in a university setting – which unfortunately is a poor model of what most nonprofit fundraising is really like.  Referring to the 2-by-2 matrix below, I’d describe university fundraising squarely in the bottom-left corner: “existing constituency” and “primarily execution.”  That is, there is an established constituency (alumni) with an existing ties to and strong relationships with the university, and the role of the professional university fundraiser is largely to execute on a set of giving targets for this constituency.  University fundraising for really big donations can certainly drift to the top left corner of the matrix – think new chairs, new fields of study, new departments – but by and large the ability of the Development team to regularly and significantly impact the overall university strategy in the short- to medium-term will, in most cases, be limited because of the sheer size and scope of the institution.

Contrast this with the world of the startup / growing nonprofit: it has no constituency and its strategy and aspirations are evolving, expanding, taking sharp turns.

Suddenly it’s obvious that you’re looking for a different set of skills than what’s needed in a big, established institution.  An organization in the top-right corner is mobilizing resources against an idea with no defined constituency in place, and it is going through a period of its evolution in which there will be a constant interplay between the financial resources that can be mobilized, the promises made to funders and the overall organizational strategy.

So how do you find a successful top-right corner fundraiser?  There are no simple answers, but I think that this role is different enough from the traditional nonprofit fundraising path that you don’t need to put “demonstrated track record” on the top three list of things you have to see (great if it’s on the list, but you have to decide in advance if the absence of that disqualifies folks.  I’d say it doesn’t).

This is a terrifying notion if you don’t know what you are looking for, so I put together this list of things I’d be on the lookout for when scouring those non-traditional resumes:

  • You want someone you want to be with, someone who has both the gumption and drive to get the first meeting and who is consistently interesting, personable and engaged enough that he’ll consistently get the second meeting.
  • You want someone who cares deeply about your organization’s mission, who has a personal reason for being there
  • You want someone who can tell the whole story of the organization, who can dive in and across the organization and get into the weeds with folks, but who naturally thinks in and talks in terms of narrative.  The person absolutely doesn’t need to be (and won’t be) an expert in everything you do, but they have to have the intellectual facility and curiosity to get their hands dirty.
  • Inevitably you will want someone systematic, because when you have a few people (your team) managing a lot of donor relationships, you’ll need to build some sort of systems to make the whole thing work.  The level of sophistication of these systems will vary, but if you want to build something lasting for your organization, you’ll need to build more than your funding base and your funds raised – you’ll need to build out HOW you do this in the long term.
  • Gumption (whoops I’ve said that twice now…maybe I should say it a third time), fearlessness, drive and passion go a long way
  • Obviously they have to be articulate
  • And finally, if you’re looking for nontraditional cues that might indicate success, you might look for people who have an element of performance / “it’s showtime” in their background.  This could be artistic, athletic or even military, but some element of: “the lights are on…now go!”

How did you raise all that money?

“I hustled.”

“Yeah, but what else?”

She already answered your question.

Six types of blogging days

  1. “This is such a great idea!  People will love this!  I’m a wonderful blogger!  It’s so easy!”
  2. “What the #*$%# is wrong with my  #%*$%$ computer!!”
  3.  “I’m not used to writing here/at this time of day.”
  4. “Gosh I thought this post was going to be easier to write.  This is taking forever and it’s still not there yet.”
  5. “Is this post good enough?”
  6. “I have nothing to say.  I’ll never have anything to say. It’s all been said before.”

The hard part is: you have to post on all of these days.  And the dirty little secret is that no one, not even you, can tell which is which.

Keep at it.

(p.s. this post isn’t just about blogging)

What your Board members are thinking

Here’s what people do in groups: they look around to figure out the normal way to behave.

Your Board members do it too.  They are looking around the Board room to figure out what’s normal – especially around giving and really especially around fundraising, since fundraising makes most people hugely uncomfortable.

So, unless yours is one of the 1% of Boards that is totally committed to giving and to fundraising, what you need to do is change what is normal when Board members look around the room.

Wearin’ generosity on your sleeve

So here’s a cool idea – there’s a Generosity Day t-shirt, and you can get yours today. The shirt is lively and fun and a conversation-starter.

I like the idea of the shirt being an instant Generosity Suit that gives you generosity superpowers.  You wear it, you’re reminded that you want to say yes….so you do.  And that makes you, and the people around you, a whole lot happier.

Super Generosity Powers, just for the price of a t-shirt.  Can’t beat that.

And the sooner you get one, the sooner you have an excuse to talk about Generosity Day when people come up to you and say, “Hey, nice t-shirt.  Where’d you get it?”

Think about the fun uses:

  • Give them to your kids and start a conversation about all the different ways to say “Yes” around the world
  • Buy a stack of them for your donors as a thank you gift for saying YES to your cause
  • Or for your fundraising team for knowing how to get people to YES day in and day out
  • Or maybe for your hubby so that he has no choice but to say YES the next time you ask him to take out the trash

The fabulous +acumen chapters together with Selfless Tees made this all happen.  $7 from each shirt goes to Acumen Fund if you buy in the next two weeks.

Please spread the word by sharing this link: (how cool is that URL?!)

The right time

There is a right time to have that direct, elephant-in-the-room conversation with a respected colleague.  The one where you say out loud what both you and she have been thinking.

That time is now.  Right now.  Today.

Conversations swirl around in every which way, between everyone but the two people who need to sit down and talk.  As if that truth is somehow not really out there if we don’t look it in the eye.  As if we can get anything – anything – of substance done if we don’t get this out of the way first.

I promise, it will be a huge relief to everyone to talk about this – that thing that matters most, that thing that’s keeping you from getting from here to there.

These conversations need to be rife with respect and dripping with caring.  You can’t fake wanting the other person to succeed.

And you can’t wait another day.