It’s alive

For your next sales-and-storytelling practice session, try this.

Think of your favorite popular song, one that everybody knows. Then tap out the tune on the table with your hand, and have the rest of your team go around in a circle and guess what the song is. Try it a few times and see how many times the song gets guessed.

How’d it go?

The answer is: terribly.

You can’t guess a song by just hearing the rhythm. But even so, when you’re the person tapping that “tune,” you can’t help but hear the song in your head. Nor can you help wondering (just a little bit) “why don’t they hear it too?”

This is your storytelling problem in a nutshell: you can see something that your audience can’t.

This something has a color and a smell and a texture, it is just about to burst with feeling and emotion and meaning.

Picture it.

Your stories need to help us see what you see. As your audience, we are begging you to paint this living, vibrant thing for us, to help us see what you see so we can feel what you feel. Let us, first, experience its texture and shape and possibility.

That’s your one and only job at the outset.

Once that’s complete we have a real, shared conversation about whether and how to make that picture come to life.

Fundraising Parable

A fundraiser asks for advice about how to get more access to the institutions who give money to her sector.

The conversation that ensues is about seeing this work not as a series of transactions, but about building real relationships, about making connection, about building a network that you value and feed, that you give to first rather than ask for things.

This conversation runs long. The fundraiser takes copious notes, nods a lot, seems excited.

And then you never hear from her again.

Pomp, circumstance, or access

The strangest thing happened to me the other day. I wasn’t feeling well and I emailed my doctor early in the morning.

And.

He.

Emailed.

Right.

Back.

Not just once, but twice, all in less than an hour.

It got me thinking about other places where there are mismatches between what we really want (a responsive doctor who we can occasionally hear from without making an appointment) and what we get.

If you were an alien visiting from another planet, sent to understand the relationship between funders and social sector organizations, what would you tell your superiors on the Mother Ship? You’d likely explain that people who give away their hard-earned money are mostly interested in fancy meals in expensive settings, supplemented by the occasional, sorta boring glossy report.

We throw resources at the wrong solution because it is safe: no one will get fired for putting on next years’ Gala that raises $75,000 more than this year’s, or for publishing an annual report that is good enough and mostly looks like everyone else’s.

So, you can keep playing that game, and come in neither last nor first.

Or you can decide to win at a completely different offering.

It’s the offer of permeability. The offer of the quick response. The offer that makes available useful and relevant access to your team that’s doing the work. The offer to open up the gritty, imperfect details, and the hard-earned insight and experience: things that are easy for you to share but priceless for the person on the other end of the line.

My doctor’s day is more productive when he spends more time with more people who can only be helped by a visit to his office. My day is better when I have a first-line plan of action right away, not after four hours waiting at urgent care or a week waiting for an appointment.

Providing the right kind of access is better for everyone.

Not Sales mode, Amazing Interesting Allies Mode

The biggest challenge we all face in terms of nonprofit sales isn’t how to win people over, it isn’t how to pitch, and it’s not how to close.

The biggest problem is access.

We are not selling a product with a defined market price, which is why it can take the same (or more!) time, effort, passion, and skill to raise a $1,000 donation as it does a $100,000 donation. What matters is how big that donation is for each person.

So the question arises: how do we get access?

The only real answer—which on some days feels energizing and on others relentless—is to generously, consciously, and actively be in always-on sales mode.

“Generously” because the only way to make real connections is to actively, deeply, and truly care about creating value for the people you’re connecting with, with no expectation of return.

“Actively and consciously” because this requires clear and deliberate prioritization in the midst of an already too-full agenda. That can be hard if the yield isn’t immediate: this next person simply is not going to write you a check for $100,000, so, do you meet her anyway?

It helps to remind ourselves that our most valuable connections are “weak ties”—the ones at the edges of our social network. This means that what we’re really doing in this next hour is taking another step in our multi-year project of creating a strong, connected, personal web of shared values, purpose, and mutual support. The web we are weaving creates real and lasting value for all of its members, including, hopefully and eventually, for us.

Tangibly, this means things like:

Always, every time taking the extra conversation that might lead to something that might lead to something.

Keeping your antennae up for people with the same type of passion that you have.

Remembering that your job is not to get the next lead, your job is to collect allies and advocates, the kinds of people who make things happen with verve and joy and passion, because that’s the virtual army that your life’s work deserves.

Because, when you boil it all down, people who do amazing interesting and important things know other people who do amazing interesting and important things.

And, if you find and add value to enough people doing amazing interesting important things, and if at least some of them become wildly passionate about YOUR amazing interesting important thing, eventually they will roll up their sleeves for you, eventually they will lend their best thoughts to you, eventually they will become part of your journey.

Bit by bit, over time, those relationships will lead to more relationships that will eventually get you in the room with a person who can write a 10x or 100x bigger check and who is positively disposed to the conversation they’re about to have with you, because they’ve heard about you from one or three or five other amazing interesting people doing important things. Then you need to close that sale.

It’s a long road from here to there, but you distinguish yourself on Day 1 by committing to walk this path.

And, if you’re just beginning on this journey, and especially if you think of yourself as “results oriented,” I’d encourage you to be a little less discerning, a little less linear, and a lot more energetic and generous, and see where that path leads.

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.

Don’t save the best for last

Because the meeting might end before you expect it to.

Because hiding is just that.

Because you overestimate your own fear and underestimate our openness.

And, most of all, because your best deserves better.

Impresario fundraising

It’s very easy for fundraisers to forget that they have a superpower.

The best fundraisers are network hubs, people who build strong relationships and who make change happen by connected trusted people to meaningful opportunities to do good in the world.

And yet many fundraisers feel stuck. Stuck in a role that they might like (or that they are good at) but that feels too narrow. Stuck in a career path that doesn’t obviously lead to the top. Stuck hearing an unspoken story that the people who “really” do the work are someone other than them.

Here’s a playbook to get unstuck.

Recognize that the relationship currency you have invested in and built is an underutilized asset.

See that the funders you know and trust – and who know and trust you – nearly always feel like there’s more they could be doing in addition giving money.

Also see that there’s an important new set of things your organization could be doing if it had the right kind of capital to make that happen.

And realize, most importantly, that the story that’s been handed to you about what your organization is, and the boundaries around what it does and does not do in the world, is just that: a story.

Your opportunity is to reconfigure these resources in a new way. And it is YOUR opportunity because the hardest-to-acquire and most important pieces of this puzzle are the trust and relationship currency you and only you have with funders.

This is a trust that you can translate into a conversation that pulls together all of these pieces in new ways: trust that will get 10 funders into a room for a real brainstorming conversation; trust that gives you license to talk to folks internally about what they could do if they had new, different, more ambitious funders; trust that allows you to dream of new products that people could invest in, new structures that would allow you to take on more risk, new stories that could make sense of what your organization is and does, and new relationships that could actually change all of those things for the better.

Great new things happen because an existing set of relationships and ideas are brought together in new ways; because we discard old stories (of self, of our organizations, of how these pieces fit together) and dare to write new ones together.

The fundraising impresario is the person who picks herself, who sees the unique role she can play in painting a new picture of what is possible, and who takes the first steps to reassemble the puzzle pieces. She is a person who is willing to go out on a limb to host and curate the conversations that make crazy, new, important things happen. And she is the person who discovers, the moment she gets out on that limb, all the people who thank her and say, “finally, here’s something we can all get excited about!”

Fundraisers in the Digital Age

One of the characteristics I don’t see people talk about as much when looking for successful, modern-day fundraisers are writing skills and digital proficiency.

It’s easy to think that the traditional job interview is a great way to find good fundraisers, and it is a good place to start. Fundraising meetings have a lot in common with job interviews: the potential funder is trying to figure out your story, your motivation for being there, and whether she connects enough with you and with what you’re saying to make a commitment to investing in a relationship with you and, over time, with your organization. A lot like hiring.

But it’s a mistake to stop there.

We know that today everyone lives on their devices. This means that a big part of the modern fundraiser’s job is to maintain and feed a web of relationships: a good fundraiser invests heavily in a core group of 20 relationships but is keeping a lower-touch pulse on as many as 100 relationships at various stages. This has gotten much easier thanks to technology – if you do it right.

The modern fundraiser’s secrets weapons are things like the ability to quickly craft a great email before or after a meeting; to sift through a lot of information online and find that one story that’s going to further the conversation you just had with a potential funder; to know when to call or to text or to write a handwritten note, and what tone and style to use in each medium.  If you can do this all fast and without breaking a sweat you can feed the network and be present and top of mind in many people’s lives.

This means that great fundraisers do more than just create connection in the room. Great fundraisers are a sense-makers, companions on the philanthropists’ journey to understand context and where their own philanthropic efforts fit in and can make a difference.

Put the gloves down

What does it mean to say that real fundraising is about building long-term partnership?

It means that some of the most important meetings you have with long-term funders are the ones that cover topics that don’t require their funding support:

The amazing, fully funded project that you’re just kicking off with a few other partners.

The great piece of work that you both know is outside of their formal strategy that you’re really excited about.

The new initiative where you’d value their experience and input.

Some funders are so used to – and so tired of – being pitched constantly that they end up behaving protectively, as if the only thought running through their head is, “how many times will I have to say ‘no’ in this meeting?”  I’ve had funders start sentence after sentence with, “we’re not doing any new funding this cycle” long before I’ve asked for anything. There’s no hope of building a relationship if someone has their gloves up protecting themselves from an onslaught of asks.

Fundraisers can be part of the problem, acting as if that every meeting should include a financial ask, and fearing that they’ve made a mistake if they don’t ask for money each time.

Every meeting should help deepen the relationship and, even better, should give everyone around the table the chance to contribute meaningfully to making positive change happen. Often that’s not about money.

Taking a stance that you’re not constantly, desperately on the lookout for funding is one of the best ways to allow the partners you hope to work with to put down their gloves and actually listen.

How philanthropists really decide where to give

The natural place to start, as a fundraiser, is at your desk. You judiciously read every webpage, article and report about a potential funder’s strategy in search of the best fit between a donor and the work you are doing.

And then, research completed and grant application submitted, you’re surprised to figure out that the fit isn’t there after all. The pieces don’t snap together cleanly, your proposal has been turned down. Then what?

Perplexed, you may head back to your desk to do a little more research.

Please don’t, because the answer you’re looking for is not somewhere on the screen or hidden away in a Google cache.

Philanthropy – whether a $25 donation to an Indiegogo campaign or a multimillion dollar grant from a huge foundation – is always personal. The published philanthropy strategies you are researching are a sensible narrative that pulls together a bunch of threads, but they are not the whole truth. Far from it.

Think of it from the other side: there simply is no such thing as the best place to give a donation (heck, there’s no such thing as a best car) so there’s no analysis that gives the philanthropist the right answer no matter how much they spent trying to figure out the problem.

All the best philanthropists I know have a healthy dash of angel investor in them. Angels invest in people above all else, because they know that when you can find that rare combination of grit, belief, tenacity, vision, people skills, humility, audacity, courage, and, and, and….

You see, that’s the point.

The list is too long, the unicorn-like combination of attributes so rare, that it’s always, fundamentally, about someone’s belief in you.

(and, for those keeping track, ‘you’ is not just the founder or the CEO.  Not by a long shot).