Fundraising with Generosity

Katya Andresen, who writes the awesome Nonprofit Marketing Blog and is also one of my co-conspirators for Generosity Day, made a great point on last week’s generosity economy post:

I have been thinking a lot lately about the latest research on the mind – and our mirror neurons – which shows the extent to which we’re hard wired for empathy and, by extension, generosity…Yet giving to charity isn’t growing at the pace of other elements in our generosity economy.  I think one aspect is that many of the people in charge of unleashing generosity (fundraiser, namely) have failed to fully understand and embrace this landscape.  We as a sector must engage with supporters in a more meaningful, connected and GENEROUS way ourselves if we hope to inspire the generous actions that come to people naturally…rather than treating them like walking wallets.

In many ways, this observation was the nagging worry that led me, two years ago, to my generosity experiment: I was spending my days talking to people about connecting with their passion, about being bountiful in their thinking, about being generous, yet I hadn’t moved my own relationship with generosity forward much in the three years I’d been doing my job as a fundraiser.  And without that connection, I didn’t feel like I could do my job in an authentic way.

Sounds good, you may say, but let’s get real for a second.

OK let’s.  For example, I just talked to a colleague who is getting on an international flight on Monday for a fundraising trip.  If she doesn’t raise $400,000 next week, a branch of her nonprofit is going to be shuttered.  With that looming, how hard is it going to be for her to see those potential funders as anything but walking wallets?

The answer is that it’s hard.  Really hard.  But it’s the only way to be really successful.

The first thing we need to do is reframe what we’re doing here.  Last week I talked to the new class of Acumen Fund Fellows about how to mobilize resources behind their ideas.  I started the session with a a free association around the word “fundraising.”  They were wonderful and honest, throwing out words like “storytelling” and “connection” but also a healthy dose of “hitting up your friends,” “draining,” and “begging.”

But here’s the big secret: great fundraising is a fair deal for everyone involved.  You (the fundraiser) are connecting people to their passions and giving them an opportunity to do something great in the world.  You are helping them express their dreams and maybe, just maybe, connecting them with an organization that will be transformational in their lives.  You are giving them the chance to change the world.

Of course what you have on offer won’t be for everybody.  But that’s OK.  For the people who you do fundraise from, you are offering something of (at least) equal value to the donation they are giving.  In fact, by definition that’s what they’re saying by giving to you!

Approaching fundraising with generosity, to me, is about approaching each conversation with the attitude: “let’s figure out what great things we can do together.”  It’s not about your need, not about separating a well-meaning person from their money, and it’s definitely not a zero-sum game.

Best of all, it is incredibly empowering to wake up and realize that, as a fundraiser, you have something of great value to offer.  If you can couple that feeling of empowerment with a spirit of generosity, I promise it will transform your fundraising, transform how your donors experience you, transform your ability to connect great, meaningful, powerful ideas to the resources they need to come to life.

Thanks, Katya, for the inspiration.


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P.S. This post is about fundraising but there’s nothing special there – most of these conclusions apply to more traditional sales and business development when done the right way.  The greatest salespeople bring joy to their work, and the knowledge that they are making their customers’ lives better.  The thing they’re selling – and their attitude – is a gift to the customer.

Generosity economy

In the ultimate world-colliding evening, last night I attended the graduation for the Class of 2011 Acumen Fund Fellows.  These 10 Fellows, selected from 700 applicants from more than 60 countries, are a humbling and inspiring assembly of talent, commitment, grit, drive, and empathy, and they spend a year working with Acumen Fund investees in India, Pakistan and East Africa as a training ground for lives in social change.

Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conference and all-around deep thinker and mind-bender, gave the Fellows graduation speech, and he led it off saying, “Thanks to a nice talk featured on the website last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about generosity and the role it plays in our lives.”  I couldn’t feel more humbled, or more honored, that Chris took the time to reflect on generosity – he’s the one who helped us all understand that taking the most incredible, insightful, and (at the time) exclusive content in the world and giving it away for free was the right business strategy and the right thing for the world.  He’s the ultimate generosity inspiration.

Chris started off talking about the evolutionary and biological bases for generosity, and all the research that has been done on the value of reciprocity, especially amongst pairings of individuals and groups that have reason to believe that they will have multiple encounters over time.  But he went further and shared research from experiments in which one subject was given $100 and had the option to give away any amount of that money, with the knowledge that the amount given away would triple.  Many subjects gave away all $100, and, even better, many recipients then gave back $150 to their donor.

Generosity begets generosity.  Trust begets trust.

At the same time, it’s incredibly easy to break the cycle – all you need is one shirker and the whole things spirals into a “no trust” equilibrium.  But the cycle can be broken: someone can take a generosity risk and reset the system.

At any moment, we have the chance through our individual actions to transform others’ behaviors.

Going further still, Chris observed that the best way to create generous action is through transparency: tell people to behave however they want to behave, but add the caveat that how they acted will be publicly known, and people act much more generous.

Transparency transforms behaviors. 

Chris’ final observation is that we can be generous in infinite ways, not just in sharing our money but in sharing our thoughts, our ideas, our wisdom, and that today the friction around sharing what we have to give has reduced dramatically.

It’s easier than ever to give (= spread ideas)

And suddenly we arrive at the big conclusion (not Chris’ exact words)

Increased transparency (e.g. living in a Facebook world) + frictionless idea-sharing (e.g. living in a blogging, YouTube, TED world) = We are living in a generosity economy