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.

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).

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!”

Buying Solutions Instead of Efficiency

At a recent conference I attended, Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, bravely took another stab and debunking the nonprofit overhead myth.

Antony’s simple framing was that we – as nonprofits, as funders, and as partners to both – need to decide which question we should be able to answer:

Question 1 is, “Are you efficient at delivering your programs?”

Question 2 is, “Are you effective at turning funding into results?”

Further paraphrasing the example Antony gave, he described two conversations a funder could have with a homeless services organization. In the first conversation, the funder asks the service provider, “If I give you this money, will you, in fact, put in 10 more beds to the homeless shelter, as promised?” Alternately, the funder could ask, “If I give you this money, will you make a dent in the homelessness problem?”

It’s easy for us to smile and nod and say, “Oh, but of course, it’s question 2!” but that is not how we behave. “Don’t waste my money” is the prevailing message coming from most funders who demand “accountability,” a conversation that often ignores the distinction between efficiency and effectiveness.  And most social sector organizations are all too willing to play the game, communicating back, “Look! I’ve done what I told you I would do!”

This is such a low bar and is so fundamentally disappointing.

And while it’s easy to point fingers at funders who “just don’t get it” or at social sector professionals who either can’t be trusted to aim higher (so why are you funding them?) or who aren’t able to explain exactly how they are in fact delivering results (again, why are you funding them?), the truth is that the only way we get out of this dance is if we all truly pull up a seat to the table and do real work together.

The real work of deeply understanding the problem.

The real work of exploring what it would take to make progress on that problem.

The real work of recognizing that our organization, no matter how great we are at what we do, is probably not going to make much progress alone.

The real work of pulling together the people and organizations who could make some progress if they found the right ways to work together.

The real work of being honest about what we do and don’t know, about what part of the problem we are trying to chip away at right now, and about what success would look like now and in the future .

As we have these much deeper, more honest conversations, it will become clear that things like how much an organization spends on fundraising and management (aka “overhead”) could either be excellent or terrible proxies for judging the organization’s effectiveness.

For example, imagine you really, truly understand the problem you’re working on and discover, together, that you’ve got all the answers but are $100 million short of being able to make the change you’ve been trying to make. In that case, a massive investment in fundraising, or in a partnerships strategy, could be the single smartest thing you could do.

Or, imagine that you discover that what looks like an expensive and inefficient services model is actually a conscious strategic choice on the part of a nonprofit to focus on the hardest cases because that’s where they can make the most difference.

The list of examples goes on and on.

It’s time to stop talking about overheads and ratios, and it’s also time to stop talking about how efficient we are at doing what we said we would do.

We must hold ourselves to the much higher standard about turning money into solutions and about creating results, not activity.  The people you aim to serve will thank you for it.

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.