Generosity Day – first reflections

I’m still trying to process everything that’s happened over the last 72 hours, but I’m pretty sure we did it: we created Generosity Day!

It’s too early to dissect all the lessons learned from this experience since in many ways we’re still in the middle of it, but here are a few thoughts from the eye of the storm.

First, Scott Case is 100% spot on in the theme he chose for the Social Media Week panel that inspired this whole thing: social media successes start and end in the real world.

On the panel, Scott rightly focused more on the “end” part of the equation – to remind us that since we are in the business of social change, a nonprofit’s social media campaign by definition cannot be a success if it doesn’t result in honest-to-goodness social change in the real world.  The rest is just idle (online) chatter.

What I’ve seen since last Friday is how the “start” part of the equation must also be firmly rooted in the real world and in personal connections.  This campaign may have exploded online and in the Twitterverse but it would never have happened if Scott, Katya and I hadn’t spent a day brainstorming together last year with a great group of folks that Jennifer McCrea pulled together (the brainstorm resulted in the creation of the Executive Education course in Exponential Fundraising that Jennifer will be leading at Harvard this year.  I highly recommend it for nonprofit CEOs).

Once Scott, Katya, Ellen and I hatched the idea on Friday morning (4 days ago!) and committed to support it, we each reached out personally to people with whom we have real-life relationships of trust and mutual respect, and we did it quickly.  Within minutes of my first post going up, I was emailing folks like crazy to tell them about the idea; so were other members of the initial brain trust, as was my colleague James Wu (who created the Search for the Obvious site for Acumen, which itself helped inspire Generosity Day) and many others.  As we started to gain momentum over the weekend, we continued to share to let people know about our progress, to give everyone a sense that momentum was building, and to recruit new folks to the cause.

The first slew of bloggers was enough to give the idea critical mass, but that’s just dead weight if you don’t have velocity.  The idea itself –  of rebooting Valentine’s Day as Generosity Day – determined the velocity.  Chip and Dan Heath wrote the book on sticky ideas (and I’m sure they have a mini version of sticky social media ideas in the works), but “Reboot Valentine’s Day as Generosity Day” has a lot of sticky characteristics: simplicity, concreteness, unexpectedness, emotion….  Without an idea that had its own legs and was built to spread, this never would have gotten out of the starting gate.

Taking a step back, and moving beyond lessons about success in social media, I’m left reflecting on some broader themes.  Why has there been so much enthusiasm for Generosity Day – with no marketing budget or PR firm, and virtually no lead time?  It’s not just a social media win, it is a reflection of a particular idea and its power at a particular moment in time.

My take is that Generosity Day was successful because there’s an increasing yearning for genuine connection and a deep desire in all of us to be the people we know we can be.  We’ve been oversold and over-pitched, we’ve bought too many boxes of expensive chocolates and too many pieces of jewelry because there was a holiday that said we should – instead of seeing the perfect thing at the perfect time (a gift, a meal, a thank you) and sharing it right then and there.  There’s nothing wrong with holidays, and certainly nothing wrong with romance, but we’re maxed out on fabricated emotion and are craving things that are genuine.  Generosity Day is a chance to get in touch with what we’re longing for: to be the best version of ourselves, to connect with one another, to help.

My first Generosity Day was absolutely incredible.  I can’t wait for the next one!

Is fundraising the same thing as sales?

For anyone who is interested in nonprofits, how they mobilize resources, how to do world-class fundraising, I have good news:  Jennifer McCrea, who has done as much as anyone to revitalize and reposition philanthropic fundraising, just started blogging.  Jennifer has worked with the Boards of scores of top nonprofits, she teaches a wonderful course called Exponential Fundraising, and she brings more joy, energy, conviction and purpose to fundraising than anyone I know.

In the interest of doing more than just pointing to Jennifer’s blog, I’d like to jump into a conversation she started yesterday, in her post titled “Fundraising is not Selling.”  It’s an important question, because how we answer informs our mindset, attitude, the teams we build, the activities we engage in, and where we look for lessons.

So is fundraising selling?  It’s tempting to say it’s not, because selling can appear to be about transactions, about pulling a fast one, about a sucker being born every minute.   Selling is the guy with the big fake smile as you walk into a car dealership, it’s the manufacturers’ coupon that you can’t really redeem, t’s the spam that’s cluttering your Inbox,  right?

Sure it is.

What about when you crack open your new iPod box and every last detail of the packaging is just cool and perfect?  When you arrive for a vacation you’ve been looking forward to and the concierge does something special to make you feel welcome?  When the Zappos customer service rep upgrades you to free overnight shipping?  When LL Bean takes returns on 15-year old shoes?  When a realtor finds you the house of your dreams, for less than you were willing to pay?

Well that’s selling too.

Just last week I was cleaning out my Inbox, frustrated with all the junk mail I still receive, when  I opened an email from Dollar Rental Car.  I was planning to hit the “Junk” button, but the email had an offer for specials on midsize car rentals.  I had reserved a rental car an hour before, and by clicking on the link in the email, I saved $150.  It didn’t feel like I had been “sold” anything.

The point is, when you sell something in the right way, you are helping someone get more value from something (a product, an experience, a donation) than what she is paying.  You are solving a problem for her.  You are meeting a need that she has.

So no, I don’t think that fundraising should be transactional, should be a one-time sale, should be about the money.   But I’m not ready to go to the other extreme and say that “selling” is a dirty word, because the nonprofit sector is – technologically, tactically, strategically, in terms of execution – in the dark ages in terms of how we sell the incredibly valuable things we have on offer.  And there is a whole world out there of people in other sectors who do the best, highest level, most value-creating, partnership-enhancing kinds of sales imaginable, and if we throw out the notion that we have something to learn from them, we close ourselves off to a generations’ worth of learning and experience.

It is true that philanthropic giving, especially large gifts, are by definition deeply personal, and that the job of the best fundraiser is to be present, to listen, to understand, to sit at the same side of the table as the philanthropist and help her both understand and realize her goals and and connect her philanthropy to these  goals.  And that process of discovery has many characteristics that are absent from sales of almost any other product.

But I think we’ll serve ourselves better by putting a finer point on what makes philanthropic fundraising (“philanthropic sales”?) different from other sales, and what makes it the same.  Because I for one believe that there are great salespeople – whether they call themselves salesmen or marketing directors or CEOs or slam poets – from whom I have a lot to learn.

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