Episode 49: Recognize Your Three Donor Types… or Leave Money on the Table, with Sybil Ackerman-Munson
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 49
Recognize Your Three Donor Types… or Leave Money on the Table, with Sybil Ackerman-Munson
In this Episode:
“If you approach the wrong donor the wrong way, then you will leave money on the table and you’ll lose them at hello.”
All your donors are not alike. They certainly have one thing in common: they want to support your work. But their motivations and interests may vary widely. Unlike actors, they’re not going to ask you “what’s my motivation?” Rather, that’s a question that you should be asking them.
Understanding why they support you and how they prefer to do so can make the difference between greater support and alienation.
Sybil Ackerman-Munson of Do Your Good has helped funders give away over $45 million to nonprofits whose work aligns with their own ethos. In the process, she identified three donor archetypes, based on their motivations for giving.
Sybil joins the show to explain how nonprofits can better understand and communicate with each type of donor to create better, more beneficial relationships for both sides.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:04.970] – Intro
Welcome to The Nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video broadcasting and podcast where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more heroes for their cause and a better world for all of us. Da Ding!
[00:00:21.070] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome to The Nonprofit Hero Factory. As we do every week, we’re going to try to extract some value from one of our guests on how to help you create more heroes for your cause. Whether that’s through storytelling, technology, fundraising. Well, all of them apply to each other, really. And the data behind all of that.
[00:00:40.760] – Boris
Today we’ve got Sybil Ackerman-Munson, who is the President of Do Your Good. With over 20 years of experience as a nonprofit professional and foundation advisor, Sybil taps into her vast experience and knowledge from working with donors whom she has helped to give away over $45 million in large and small donations to offer you step by step guides, through online courses, her podcast, and resources so that you can jump to the front of the line and waste no time in making a true and lasting positive contribution to the world on your terms. That’s what Do Your Good is all about.
[00:01:14.430] – Boris
When I asked her for her superpower, Sybil says she helps nonprofits hone their pitch to connect with donors at a high level. I’m excited to have her on the show. Sybil, welcome. I want to learn all about all of those things and get as much value as we can for our audience so that they can turn your concepts into action and create more heroes for their cause. Before we get into all of that, though, I just read your bio. Give us your pitch, if you will. What’s your story? Why do you do what you do?
[00:01:45.010] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Thanks so much for having me on. First of all, I’m just really happy to be here. And the reason I do what I do is I think the first thing is I can’t help it. I come from a family of teachers. My parents are both academics. My brother is a professor. I love to teach, and I love to share my knowledge. And so I have, as you said, over two decades of experience working both, with nonprofits, and then in the last decade, it’s been working for donors, getting pitched every single day by nonprofits. And I feel like it’s my responsibility to then create courses and everything else to support nonprofits, to help them raise more money more effectively because of all the knowledge I’ve gained so I can’t help it but be a teacher.
[00:02:35.830] – Boris
Awesome. I love it. I love what you’re trying to do. I obviously have very similar goals, so I’m excited for our conversation today. Let me start as I do most stories with, what does the world look like today and what might be wrong with that world?
[00:02:52.630] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Oh, my gosh. We’re living in a post-truth society. It’s really hard. How do you figure out what’s right, correct in your own mind but that helps change the world, to help make a big difference? And what I notice in the nonprofit sector is that there are good people doing good work all the time, and how do they rise above the noise and make sure that people who want to donate money know the truth—the true truth to what those nonprofits are trying to do. And that’s what I want to help do. And hopefully we can talk about that today.
[00:03:33.560] – Boris
I hope so, because otherwise, what’s the point of doing any of this?
[00:03:38.150] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
No, that’s the whole point is to help all these amazing people do good works in the world.
[00:03:44.710] – Boris
So talk to me about that, then. What is happening when nonprofits are talking to donors? How are they currently talking to them and what’s working and what’s not?
[00:03:56.830] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Yeah, let’s talk about that. So what’s not working? And then I’ll go into what’s working. What’s not working is when nonprofit folks come to donors and they say, “Because we’re doing such good work, you just should give us money.” Doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. What does work is when the nonprofits come to donors with a certain amount of empathy and understanding about where the donor is coming from.
[00:04:25.130] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
The donors that I work for want to give away money. They want to support you in the nonprofit world, and they want to make a difference with that money. The trick is, as a nonprofit person, to be able to come and talk to the people I work with and to me myself—because I’m wanting to give you support and approach me in a way that really addresses the kind of donor that I am. And in my many years of experience working with donors, I see that there’s three distinctive kinds of donors. And if you know the kind of donor you’re approaching, you can raise money. If you approach the wrong donor the wrong way, then you will leave money on the table and you’ll lose them at “hello.” So we can talk about those three different types of donors in a minute, if you’d like, but definitely ask me if I didn’t get into anything else first.
[00:05:16.510] – Boris
No, I think that’s absolutely critical. And talking to people like they’re people and getting to know them and what they’re all about, and really understanding what their capacity is and what their interests are, I definitely want to get into all that. You said that… You mentioned what’s not working and what is working today. So what is working? What is a positive thing that you’re seeing out there?
[00:05:42.670] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Well, what I’m really seeing, especially in this time of COVID and what’s really working well is that in the beginning when we had the shutdowns, a lot of the nonprofits were very worried about what would happen with their donors. And what worked really well and what is working really well is that a lot of the nonprofits that I’ve worked with, they’ve created and they have a really good reserve fund. And they were able to articulate the fact that they have that reserve fund to be able to support their staff and other folks, even in this time of adversity, they’ve been able to leverage that by saying, “look, we are still around and we’re still strong. So donors, you need to give us even more support in this time of adversity.” And they’re succeeding in ways I don’t think they ever thought they would.
[00:06:28.400] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
In the beginning with the folks I worked with or helped give contributions to, they were very worried. They were sort of scaling back a little bit. And then they started realizing, wow, we can do a lot of things on Zoom and on the internet, and we can really bring more people in. And if we’re a little bit more cautious and then use our reserve fund that this is the time that we do it, then we can show our donors how much stronger we are. And they’ve had amazing positive responses from the folks that I work with by approaching it that way. Nonprofits that don’t approach it that way, that instead came to me with doom and gloom messages and negative messages, and “I’m not sure how we’re going to keep it together.” They actually didn’t really keep it together. They weren’t able to raise those kind of—reap the windfalls that some of the other nonprofits were able to do by thinking positively, talking positively, and using their resources in a really good way.
[00:07:21.850] – Boris
So focusing on the potential and then asking for support to reach that potential works better—and I guess this makes sense—than saying, “Hey, everything is terrible. Can you save us?” basically.
[00:07:36.480] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Exactly. And I have a feeling your listeners are saying, “but of course, we never do that. We never talk about the negative, talk about the positive.” But it actually isn’t true. A lot of times, especially when it’s so dire and so hard, like with the COVID situation we’ve been in. It’s easy for executive directors and other folks to get into that negative mindset. And I just want to tell my folks that doesn’t work. But what has worked really well is when the nonprofits sort of leaned into their reserve fund, leaned into supporting their staff, and then said, “Okay, donors, you need to step up even more.” And because of the way COVID happened, though, too, because the markets are doing pretty well, a lot of folks who do have wealth are able to give, and so they want to. That’s the thing. That’s sort of an interesting thing. You’d think that it wouldn’t happen that way. But a lot of the folks I work with are doing even better than they were before and want to give back even more.
[00:08:30.230] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
So, like at the end of last year, I can’t tell you how many of my clients called me up and said, “Sybil, I’ve got more money to give away than I thought.” Who should we give to now? So nonprofits are in this really amazing place where if they position themselves right, they can really get a lot more money than they ever thought they would if they think positively and act proactively at this moment. We have a moment to seize with the markets doing really well, even though we’re in a really challenging time, which is a weird juxtaposition, right?And it’s not pretty—it’s not normal. You’s think that everything would be going down, but that’s not really true. My clients want to give you money.
[00:09:08.770] – Boris
Sybil, I’m sure that makes you a very popular person at nonprofit events.
[00:09:15.890] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
That’s a whole other story.
[00:09:19.130] – Boris
So then let’s talk about, what is the problem with the way that nonprofits are approaching donors. And you did mention that you have three different types of donors that you like nonprofits to think about when they’re talking to donors. But what’s going on right now, basically, are you seeing from your perspective that organizations are treating everyone the same without really understanding what type of donor they might be? Is that what’s happening?
[00:09:51.410] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Yes. So I’ve seen this for the entire time I’ve worked with donors. And when I was a nonprofit person, I wish someone had told me about the three different kinds of donors. What happens is that nonprofits tend to think that they’re in a competitive environment with other nonprofits that are doing similar things to what they’re doing. And that’s sort of where the mindset stays. And so a nonprofit will come to me and talk to me in a silo about an issue that they’re working on or an important thing that they’re working on. But me, as a person who works with donors, I’m probably funding five or six groups that are doing similar things to what they are. And I don’t think of it as a competitive thing. I think, “Oh, my gosh, the donor I work for cares about forests.” There’s eight groups working on forests. The market is booming. Let’s give all those groups working on forests or climate change or houselessness money and let’s support them all or work together. And one of those groups is not going to get all the money because the donor wants to support a community of organizations. So that is a common mistake that I see happen a lot of times where a nonprofit will talk to me in a silo and not bring—and not talk about the collaborations happening.
[00:11:08.800] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
And if they do that, what happens is, I’ll start hearing different stories from different nonprofits. It’ll make that particular issue look like it’s small. People are petty. People usually are saying things that are different, that don’t make sense, and the donor wants to work in community. And there are a lot of cool things going on out there. They’ll just find a different thing where there’s a lot of nonprofits working well together in that different issue. So that’s an important thing I just wanted to bring up. And I know you want to…
[00:11:38.320] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Let’s get to the three different types of donors because there’s a real strategy, too. In addition to not thinking of yourself in the nonprofit world as a competitor with your other folks, but rather a collaborator, then let’s talk about how to leverage that ideal of being a collaborator with the different types of donors that are thinking about how to fund things in the world.
[00:11:58.500] – Boris
I’m in. Let’s do it.
[00:11:59.790] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
All right, cool. Okay.
[00:12:00.450] – Boris
What are these three types of donors and why does it matter?
[00:12:04.690] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Okay, so the three types of donors are, there’s a sustainer kind of donor, a campaigner kind of donor, and a launcher kind of donor. A sustainer donor is a donor who just loves your nonprofit. They want to fund you as a nonprofit year after year. They go on your outings or they’re on your board. They love the community. Their kids are volunteering for your organization. They’re in like Flynn. Every year they’re going to give you money. They’re going to sponsor a table at your big gala. They’re great, okay? Those are the kind of donors I find that nonprofits tend to think everybody should be and is.
[00:12:43.980] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
So a lot of times a nonprofit will approach me in a way that a sustainer donor is. They’ll say, “Hey, you should come to my annual meeting, in our outings and do all these things with us. And aren’t we great?” Good to have a sustainer-donor base, okay?
[00:12:58.470] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
But there’s two other kinds of donors that are equally important that you don’t want to lose. The campaigner donor is a donor that cares more about an issue, like houselessness or climate change, than they do about your nonprofit. And nonprofits, get over it. It’s okay that they don’t care about you as a nonprofit just because you’re there. That’s okay. Be okay with that. Instead, say, “Oh, my gosh, donor, you’re a campaigner type of donor. You care about moving the needle on climate change or houselessness. My nonprofit works on that. And this is the project we’re doing in that area so give us money to do that project.” And only talk to that campaigner donor about that project and how you’re moving the needle on that project.
[00:13:44.870] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
And that’s where this collaboration thing is so cool, too, because you can say if you’re working on a project, I am so certain that you’re not doing it alone, that you’re probably working with six or seven other nonprofits that are experts in that particular area as well. But maybe you are really good at media. Maybe another partner that’s trying to move the needle on climate change in your area is really good at grassroots organizing. Maybe another group you’re working with is really good at the legal strategy, you name it. And so you talk to that campaigner donor about climate change and about how you’re fitting this particular niche, and you need money for this part.
[00:14:20.780] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
And then you bring up all the other groups, and then you maybe have a meeting with that donor. And then that donor says, “Oh, I’ve got friends that want to fund this, too.” And so what happens is you create this great thing that happens with all these different folks that come together. When that works well, and when the nonprofit knows how to use that and knows they’re talking to a campaigner donor, they can raise so much more money. If they don’t, they actually raise $0. They come in… So I’ve really seen it like that.
[00:14:47.020] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
And then I want to talk about the launcher donor, who is similar to a campaigner donor in the sense that a launcher donor cares about an issue more than they do the nonprofit itself. They care about moving the needle on the issue. But where they really get excited is they want to fill a gap in that issue. So they’re like the venture capitalists of the for-profit world. What they want is they want to talk to the nonprofit, “okay, you’re doing this, this and this. But what’s the thing that you don’t have yet that you really need in order to move the needle?” And most nonprofits know that. They’re like, “We’re really good at this and this, but darn if we just had more resources and money to do this thing, we could really make it happen.”
[00:15:30.230] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Too many times I’ve seen nonprofits focus so much on their own budgets and on what they can get done within a certain context that they fail to think about what’s that gap. And maybe there’s a launcher donor out there who wouldn’t fund all the regular work but would definitely fund the gap, and you could fiscally sponsor it as a nonprofit. You know you don’t have to have it as part of your overall budget, but it could really help you then move the needle and all the other things that you’re fundamentally doing at the nonprofit. So that’s why I divided it up into those three key areas.
[00:16:03.970] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
And what I recommend to nonprofits that they do is first, they sort of survey their current donors to find out, sort of do an audit to find out what type of donor they are. Because you might find that there’s somebody who you thought was a sustainer donor, but actually also might be interested in moving the needle on a particular issue. So then you can actually approach them for a project, too, and you might even get more money and support from them. So those are the kind of things that are really fun. I love talking about this. I should stop and see if you have questions. It’s like you’re on a roll.
[00:16:40.650] – Boris
No, you’re clearly passionate about it, and I love it. Where did these terms come from? Are these terms that you created or are these some sort of…
[00:16:45.600] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
I created them.
[00:16:47.030] – Boris
You created them. Okay. Awesome. So I talk a lot about storytelling and about avatars specifically. Just, you know, every story needs a hero, and all heroes are not created equal, they’re not equal by design, not equal by intention. And oftentimes a nonprofit will think that they only have one avatar and that’s the donor. And what I like to break down for them is there’s a lot of avatars, not just donors. But there’s also within donors, different avatars, and you’re breaking them into categories that I actually hadn’t really thought about before. Although interestingly, I’ve had people on the show talking about some of these different avatars, including I’ve had a couple of episodes with Sarah Lee from New Story Charity and with Greg Harrell-Edge from CoachArt, where they’re talking about having funders that are interested in 10X-ing their mission. And when you’re talking about launchers, when you’re talking about the VC type in the nonprofit space, those are the folks that are excited by innovation, excited by creating something new, that’s going to change things, that’s going to fill a void, as you said, or in startup language, 10X the results. So that’s really interesting avatar for me to think about and to talk to clients about. And I’m glad that it’s coming up now.
[00:18:10.540] – Boris
The campaigner is someone I hadn’t thought about very much, but it makes sense—especially when you say it, because obviously you know what you’re talking about—but that folks want to see organizations working together a lot of times. And I do see, like you said, there’s this scarcity mindset that a lot of organizations have where, “either they’re going to give money to us or they’re going to give money to someone else. So we’ve got to frame our story and we’ve got to just give our pitch that we are the only ones that can do this.” And I do often come back to them and say, “Well, how are you different from every other organization that’s doing it?” And if you’re not the best, why aren’t you collaborating with the best or ceding that ground to them and working together, of course, as a bigger community? I didn’t know actually that there are donors that prefer that type of interaction, that type of organizational effort.
[00:19:02.510] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Yes. And I love this conversation because the other thing that’s really… A nonprofit that does this well, they can really unlock quite a lot of funding and they also can support not only them but their partner nonprofit. So once the nonprofits, like a light bulb goes on and they realize that too, it supports them and working better together, too. And the other thing is that if you know that you are working with a campaigner or a launcher donor, especially a campaigner donor, the other thing that really works well is if you create—so let’s say you’re doing a campaign on something with a bunch of folks trying to move the needle on an issue you care about. You can proactively organize funder briefings and you in the nonprofit community can do that. But you talk with like two or three of the donors that you know are super into it and have the donors co-sponsor it with you.
[00:19:59.040] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
A lot of times as part of that limiting mindset, the nonprofits feel like, “oh, we have our donors, we sort of own our donors. We guard our lists so carefully.” This is a much more open way of doing it. But what happens when I’ve been engaged in this and I work in partnership with my nonprofits—I shouldn’t say mine. They’re not my nonprofits. I just have ownership over loving what they do.
[00:20:21.490] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
I literally was on the phone with one of my favorite grantees the other day, and we’re co-creating a funder nonprofit briefing, where I know my clients and the donors are going to want to come and just hear informally from two or three or four of the leading nonprofits working on a particular issue. And I’ve been really clear with everyone, let’s not make it like all these formal slideshows and things. Let’s have a conversation. That also gets donors… And donors know they’re in the room to give money. I mean, they know it and they’re okay with that. That’s what they want. That’s their role. But having those kind of conversations planned is really helpful. Donors shouldn’t be in the back room strategic meetings, that’s fine.
[00:21:04.530] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
But you want to, proactively as a nonprofit if you’re doing a campaign, really when there’s going to be some major decisions, not only think about the major decision in the terms of grassroots or policy or other things, also say, okay, we know we’re going to have a major decision in June. So let’s plan a briefing and a conversation with the donors that are funding this campaign in July, right afterwards, and then maybe let’s plan one in September when there’s another decision that’s going to happen. And you’d be surprised how many times that doesn’t happen with the funders. I have to ask the nonprofits, when are these decisions, “should we do it?” I shouldn’t be asking. You all can think about it in the nonprofit world and have it as part of the conversation. I think it doesn’t happen unless, like, for example, I ask right now because of this competitive mindset, right? So if, like, one nonprofit says, let’s have a funder briefing, the others might say, oh, well, what are they just going to try to get all the money or blah, blah, blah. So sometimes a donor has to come in and say it. But I feel like I love this idealistic world in the future where I’m pushing the nonprofits to do that proactively, because then it puts it into their hands, not the donors hands about who they want to invite and where they want to go with it. But those are some little tips that I have for how to really engage donors in a way where you can magnify the amount of money you’re getting from them.
[00:22:22.160] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
And again, donors are okay, they want to give money. They’re like, “We understand that we’re here because we can give you money.”
[00:22:32.490] – Boris
Right. Absolutely. And I like the concept of engaging with them and bringing them into the process, opening the curtain, or peeling back the curtain—whatever the expression is—and letting them see what’s going on underneath behind the scenes, how they’re making decisions and why. I actually think the more you can even give them some sort of agency and ask them for their input, the more committed they’re going to be, the more invested they’re going to be as well. I’ve talked about this on the show many times already, but the more someone gives of their opinion, the more ownership feel over something, the more invested they become and the more likely they are to keep supporting it because they are literally invested in the project at that point.
[00:23:21.890] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
And Boris, I wanted to say something in addition to that, which is this is where it matters if it’s a sustainer, campaigner or launcher. If it’s a sustainer, what you just said is 110%, but let’s add some flourish if it’s a campaigner or a launcher. If it’s a campaigner or a launcher, those people who have money, if they’re campaigners or launchers oftentimes, but not always, they may actually have deep expertise in that particular issue, and they may have actually gotten wealthy from working on something. Like on climate change, let’s say there’s plenty of nonprofits working on it, but there’s also plenty of folks making money from innovative technologies that are based on renewable energy. And so you also might be able to tap not only that person’s wealth, but that person’s knowledge in helping move things forward. So that’s what’s also really cool is there could be some partnerships there on the campaigner and launcher side that could happen there.
[00:24:23.230] – Boris
Yeah. And you’re making them feel valued as more than just a source of money, but rather a source of expertise and direction and advice. Absolutely gets them fully invested in your work. So I love all of that. So how do we find out if someone is a donor or a campaigner? What was the first category?
[00:24:50.830] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Sustainer, campaigner, launcher.
[00:24:50.830] – Boris
Sustainer, campaigner or launcher. Obviously, they’re not going to know what those well, some might, but you might, right?
[00:24:55.790] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
You don’t need to use those words either. The general idea is there with the sustainer, campaigner or launcher. The first thing that I recommend you do at a nonprofit is survey your current donors. And you might want to use different terminology, because I think if you’re a nonprofit person, you’re like, oh, I know that donor is probably a sustainer. They’re on our board. They love our group. They just love what we do. This other one is always talking to me about this one particular issue. Oh, they’re a campaigner. So let’s just focus on that. And maybe there’s three other nonprofits that we can have to meet with them with us and that kind of thing.
[00:25:31.470] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
But you want to survey your donors either maybe through a simple thing like a SurveyMonkey. Or if you’re somebody who’s really close to your donors or your executive director, you can go talk to them and say, “Hey, what kind of donor do you think you are with us? Do you love us year after year? Are you just thinking you’re going to keep giving us funding, or is there a particular issue you care about? Are there some gaps you’re worried about filling?”
[00:25:52.950] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
And so then what you should probably do in the background is tag those people as leaning more towards sustainer, more towards campaigner, or more towards launcher. That’ll give you sort of some expertise and experience in being able to figure out what kind of donor you’re talking to. The other thing that that’s good with is like, for example, me… I don’t only talk to one person in an organization. And so it’s really important that everyone in your organization knows the kind of donor that they’re talking to because it really can go badly if an executive director gets the person dialed. But then a staffer will start talking to the person like they’re a sustainer donor when they actually just care about one issue or vice versa. You want to be careful about that.
[00:26:35.420] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
So start getting used to sort of tagging your current donors in those three different categories. Once you get used to that, then when you start meeting new people that could potentially be prospective donors, you can talk to them. It’s actually so not rocket science, right? So if you’re talking to them, if you have a chance to really talk to them, you can say to them, “So do you love what we do because you have a deep understanding and love for planting trees or for watching birds or for any issue that you like? We do those things. Do you like that? Do you want to be a part of our board?” They’ll be pretty clear with you pretty quick. They’ll be like, no, they’ll either say, “Yes, we love that or no, no, no, I just care about this one particular piece. I’m attracted to you because you are working on X.” That is an indication that they’re a campaigner kind of donor.
[00:27:22.090] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
And then you can keep digging in and say, “Well, here are the things we do. Here are the gaps that I see need to be filled.” And if they seem to gravitate towards those gaps, you know they’re more of a launcher donor. And so you can really start exploring those things through conversation. You don’t need to say, “Are you a sustainer, campaigner or a launcher?” They won’t know that, but you can talk to them and tease it out. And that helps you then figure out how to have real conversations with them for the future. So just getting in the habit first by looking at your own donors and then translating that into more of like your future looks for other donors.
[00:27:55.600] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
You can also do that with your… I love your—Boris, when you talk about avatars. So if you’re doing online work or other things like that, you can do quizzes or you can do special outreach, email line inquiries where you can ask questions that will get a donor to answer it in a way that will link them in more as a sustainer, campaigner or launcher. I actually am experimenting with that with my business right now to track donors and see, are you a sustainer, campaigner or launcher? And I’ve created a little quiz on that. So those are the kinds of things you can do that are creative online to then be able to make sure that when you’re approaching them through email and other things, you’re also approaching them in a way that will make them say, “Hello, we want to support you.” Rather than this group is planting a bunch of trees. I don’t care about—if you’re a campaigner, “I don’t care about that. I care about old growth forests or something.” I always use environmental examples because that’s where my expertise lies. But you name it.
[00:28:56.970] – Boris
Absolutely. So we’re ultimately talking about gathering information and data, really, but in a qualitative way, in a lot of ways. So surveys are wonderful, and I’m a big advocate of surveys. One of the most powerful things you could have on a survey, though, is this open-ended question. Why do you love what we do? What is it about our work, right? So you can say, are you most interested in this, this, this or this or rank our three. But you could also, just in addition to that, ask an open-ended question to get their input, not just their feedback.
[00:29:36.040] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
So surveys are great for feedback, but you could get input as well, because that might open you up to realizing something you didn’t know about this particular donor or about the work you’re doing in general and how it resonates with people. And even if you’re collecting stories, which talk to me anytime about collecting stories and using them properly, but then you have the language that they use so that you can turn around and use it with more donors just like them and you can communicate with them more clearly. So you’re preaching to the choir here. I love everything that…
[00:30:08.000] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
So much fun. Love it.
[00:30:10.070] – Boris
So, okay, we are now going to segment our donors. We’re going to put them into three categories of the sustainer, the campaigner and the launcher. I’m glancing back at my notes because I want to get this right. We are now asking them what it is that they love about our work and how we can then segment them. And it might be through fun, interactive quizzes. Absolutely. I’ve deployed those for a few organizations, and it gives you so much data, and people don’t realize they’re giving you data. They’re not getting anything too personal or too private that they wouldn’t want to, of course. But you can then really use that and put that back into your database. As you’re saying, tag people. We have the concept in databases of taxonomy, which is different types of labels you could put on folks. But definitely you do want to track that kind of interest over time, especially so that if you do have a transition between people, one person is talking to the donor, one time one person is talking, and another time. I’ve had customer service experience where they don’t realize who I am from one point to the next. And that’s frustrating. I can only imagine if I’m giving money to a nonprofit and that happens to me how disconnected I’m going to feel, right? How impersonal and alienated I’m going to feel. “Oh, you don’t even know who you’re talking to.”
[00:31:23.830] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Yeah, especially Boris if there’s an executive director transition and then the new either interim or the new ED is approaching everyone from scratch. As a board, you should be worried about that because a lot of money could be lost in that transition if you’re not seamless in terms of helping the next person come into the scene talking to the donors in a way that you know that they want to be discussing the issues.
[00:31:54.330] – Boris
I guess, what should nonprofits do if they’re not already segmenting, how do they get into this? Where should they get started? We talked about surveys. What else could they be doing to get into this mindset? And actually, I think I’m going to ask for some calls to action from you. And I think you’ve got a great suggestion for folks. But I’m also going to add in. I think in this episode I’m going to link to my avatar worksheet because I think this could be perfectly laid out on there as well to get into what you’re talking about. But where should organizations begin if they haven’t done it yet? Should they go through their entire database and send everybody a survey, or is that too cold? What should they do?
[00:32:36.570] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Well, I think that they might want to send everybody a survey. I think that would be really helpful for them. It depends, though, on the nonprofit. There’s so many different kinds of nonprofits. It could be that the executive director of a nonprofit is listening to this right now and they’re like, oh, well, I have like ten top donors. I really need to hone in with them. That would mean coffees with them again. Or they might even know them well enough where they can actually go into their database and tag.
[00:33:04.630] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
To me, the most important thing is in your ultimate database, you have your donors tagged to one of those three. And so doing a survey and writing it in a way that works for you and your donors is key, just as long as you have in the back of your head the differences between the three. That’s I think really important. And Boris, I’m happy to talk to you offline more about your avatar worksheet and how maybe we can work this into that to support your folks in having them think more about that.
[00:33:34.520] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
The other thing that, and we’ll talk about this later, too, if you’d like. But I also have started a little mini course series called be R.E.A.L. It’s a little bit higher level, but it’s to help you as a nonprofit person really work through. There’s four different mini courses, and I talk a lot about how to think through these three different types of donors. And that way you can address it even more.
[00:33:57.650] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
But the number one thing, I think is to really get to know your donors in terms of if they’re one of those three. And I can tell you that almost none of even the grantees that I give to really have that segmented. They’re lucky—the ones that are really good fundraisers are lucky because the executive directors naturally know that. But there’s just a whole bunch of things there… For example, if you’re a sustainer donor, if you know you have a sustainer donor, sometimes they’re so hooked into your group, you can have the development director do most of the outreach to them, versus if it’s a campaigner donor, you as the executive director or the campaign director needs to be meeting with that campaigner. The development director, that’s bad news. Don’t do that. I love development directors, but they’re not the one the campaigner wants to talk to. Campaigner donor.
[00:34:50.670] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
There’s all of these tricks and tools and important things to think about as you tag them there. So, Boris, let’s work more on that together, because I just want to share.
[00:35:00.870] – Boris
I would love to. That sounds fantastic. And I am going to link to your course, the be R.E.A.L. mini course, so that anyone who is listening and wants to take action can sign up and get started with you on that. Any other calls to action? Is there any way that folks should follow you or get in touch with you if they’re interested?
[00:35:18.100] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Please, yeah, yeah. So my business is called Do Your Good for obvious reasons. And you can get on my website at www.doyourgood.com. But I’m also on Instagram and Facebook under Do Your Good and I also have my own weekly podcast, and that’s under Do Your Good. And it’s streaming on all the regular channels. And you can type in my name too Sybil Ackerman-Munson to find it as well. But on my website, I’ve got everything there.
[00:35:46.670] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
And I also have information there for donors. I have mini courses for donors, but as well, like how to think about project funding, how to decide what kind of donor you are, how to fund collaborations. I have templates on how to think through for nonprofits and donors to think through, good funding budget templates, all kinds of things like that. I think nonprofits would get a lot out of those things, too, even though they’re geared more towards donors. But I also have stuff just for you in the nonprofit world.
[00:36:19.230] – Boris
Awesome. It sounds like a great resource. I will check it out as well because I’m always interested to see what other folks are doing and maybe there is some great opportunity for collaboration. I would love that.
[00:36:28.360] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Oh, I know there is. I know there is. I’ve been watching your podcast and you have such great advice for folks. I was talking to myself while I was listening and like, “oh!” And your guest and I’m like, “yeah they’re right!” So everybody who’s listening to this keep listening to Boris’s podcast because he has got it all down.
[00:36:47.430] – Boris
Thank you so much, Sybil. Thank you for joining us today. Thank you for all the value that you’ve shared with our viewers and listeners to the show. I really appreciate everything you’re doing out there to help nonprofits similar to my own mission, activate more heroes for their cause.
[00:37:03.990] – Sybil Ackerman-Munson
Great. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
[00:37:07.240] – Boris
And thank you everybody for joining us today. I hope you enjoyed listening to my conversation with Sybil Ackerman-Munson and I hope you will tune in again next week. And if you do like what you are watching or listening, please go and give us a quick review, a rating on any of your favorite podcast platforms because that’s how more people discover us and more people get this kind of valuable insights from guests like ours today. Thank you, of course for doing everything you do to make the world a better place and we’ll see you next time.
[00:37:38.070] – Intro
Thank you all for watching and listening to The Nonprofit Hero Factory. We hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform and let us know what you think by leaving a review.
Concepts and Takeaways:
- Some nonprofits take the fundraising approach of, “because we’re doing such good work, you just should give us money.” This just doesn’t work. What works is having an understanding of and an empathy towards your donors first. (3:56)
- Know who your donors are, what they want to support and how.
- Sybil classifies donors into three different types, based on what motivates them.
- At the start of the pandemic, a lot of donors were worried about nonprofits shutting down. They were hesitant to give money to organizations that might not be able to deliver on their promise. The organizations that had strong reserve funds gave donors the confidence to keep supporting them and increase their giving. (5:42)
- Focusing on the positive and potential in your messaging with donors is a lot more effective than focusing on the negative and fears. (7:21)
- Even in really challenging times, wealthy donors might be making more money and looking for strong organizations to support. (8:30)
- Nonprofits tend to look at funding from a scarcity mindset, in competition with other nonprofits for donations. The reality is that many donors want to support a community of nonprofits working on an important cause from multiple angles. (9:53)
- Sybil has identified three types of donors, based on how they prefer to support a cause. Each of them will be motivated by different approaches for funding. (12:04)
- Sustainer donors love your nonprofit and the work that you do. They want to become part of your community, supporting your work year after year.
- Campaigner donors care more about an issue than the organizations working on it. They want to move the needle forward and will support any number of nonprofits they believe can do so. This is where being a collaborative organization is beneficial.
- Launcher donors get excited about filling a gap on an issue. They can be compared to venture capitalists in the for-profit world. They respond to a need or an opportunity within an organization that will move the needle in their work, versus funding the work that you do on a regular basis.
- The first thing nonprofits should do is to survey their donors to find out which of the three types they are, so that you can approach them about what they’ll be most likely to support. (16:04)
- Every story needs a hero, but all heroes are not created equal. Within the Donor category of heros, there are multiple avatars. Understanding how to tell your story to each of them will create better connections and raise more money. (16:47)
- The scarcity “us or them” mindset is detrimental to fundraising and to the issues that you’re trying to resolve in the world. Collaboration, leaning into the strengths of multiple nonprofits, can work better and unlock a lot more funding. (18:11)
- When collaborating with other nonprofits, there are opportunities for additional sponsorship and through a joint funder briefing. Launcher and campaigner donors particularly respond well to this. These don’t have to be formal, they can just be a conversation that allows donors to feel involved. (19:25)
- Donors know you want them to give you money, that’s why they’re there. The more you ask for their input and make them feel involved, the more invested they will be in your success. (22:22)
- Campaigner and launcher donors may also have deep expertise on a particular issue that can move your work forward and make them feel valued for more than just their money.
- Survey your donors either in person or through digital tools to determine what motivates them and what type of donor they are. Ask questions about why they support you, what they’re interested in supporting and how they prefer to be involved. Then tag (segment) those people for future fundraising and communications. (25:02)
- Be sure to track your donor tags/segmentation in a way that others in your organization can understand and follow along with, even in times of staff transitions. You don’t want to have the alienating situation where one person is speaking to a donor as a sustainer and another is approaching them as a launcher. (30:48)
- Knowing what type of donor each person is can also help you better allocate staff resources, delegating who on your team maintains certain relationships. (34:25)
- Sybil has developed courses and other resources to help nonprofits and donors better understand themselves and each other. (See the Resource Spotlight and Call to Action for the links.) (35:18)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Sybil Ackerman-MunsonPresident, Do Your Good
With over 20 years of experience as a nonprofit professional and foundation advisor, I tap into my vast experience and knowledge from working with donors who I have helped to give away over $45 million in large and small donations to offer you step-by-step guides through online courses, a podcast, and resources so that you can jump to the front of the line and waste no time in making a true and lasting positive contribution to the world on your terms. This is what Do Your Good is all about.
Episode 48: Using Donor Data to Deepen Relationships, with Regina Alhassan
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 48
Using Donor Data to Deepen Relationships, with Regina Alhassan
In this Episode:
Most every organization keeps records of their donors—whether it’s in advanced CRMs or simple spreadsheets. But there’s a wide gap between keeping records and maximizing donor data to build strong relationships that raise more money.
Regina Alhassan of ResearchPRO joins us to share her strategies for collecting valuable data, tracking it over time and allocating your resources and your requests accordingly.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:03.710] – Intro
Welcome to The Nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video broadcast and podcast where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more heroes for their cause and a better world for all of us. Da Ding!
[00:00:19.990] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to The Nonprofit Hero Factory. Today we’re going to be focusing on the subject of data, but specifically how to utilize it or perhaps start collecting it properly and then turning it into insights so that you could predict donor behavior and maximize it to well, as we like to do every week on the show, create more heroes for your cause. I wonder if that’s become a drinking game yet; every time I say create more heroes for your cause, somebody takes a drink. That’ll make for a fun nonprofit party.
[00:00:50.470] – Boris
Today’s guest is Regina Alhassan, who is the founder and CEO of ResearchPRO, a leading prospect development consulting firm. Regina is an award winning TEDx speaker with total dollars identified in the billions that’s with a B. And Regina’s work has fueled major gift campaigns for organizations across the country, including The Ohio State University, I Am Boundless, Mid Ohio Food Collective, Communities and Schools, and Children’s Literacy Initiative. Her 20 years of prospect, research and management includes wealth analysis, software development, end-user training, leadership coaching, knowledge management, moves management, systems management, donor relations and development operations.
[00:01:33.430] – Boris
Currently, she is the Secretary for the Central Ohio Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. And Regina is also an artist, writer, and philanthropist. She describes her superpower as finding qualified prospects for multi-million dollar fundraising campaigns, something that I’m sure we would all like to be better at ourselves. So with that, let’s bring Regina onto the show. Hi, Regina.
[00:01:58.050] – Regina Alhassan
[00:01:59.530] – Boris
Welcome, welcome. Thank you so much for joining me today.
[00:02:02.260] – Regina Alhassan
Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.
[00:02:04.870] – Boris
It is absolutely my pleasure to try to extract as much knowledge from you today at the end in the time we have together, because that’s what I love to do. Before we get into that, though, I read your impressive bio, and I’d love to just hear from you, though, tell our audience, why are you who you are? What’s your story? Why are you doing this? Why are you the ResearchPRO?
[00:02:26.850] – Regina Alhassan
Yes. Like many other fundraisers, I fell into fundraising sort of on accident. Fresh out of college, my first job as a program assistant in the development office at Ohio State. And so just kind of a light bulb moment really revealed, like, oh, this is how people change the world. This is why there are names on the buildings on campus. This is how I can change the world, make an impact, et cetera, and move the needle on social justice, all the things. And so it was just sort of a field that felt right. Major gifts fundraising was a career that just was the right fit for me, most especially within prospect development. So really digging into the science of fundraising. Certainly appreciate the art of fundraising and that frontline engagement, but there’s also power in the science and the sort of behind the scenes in the strategy and all of that. So that’s what really caught me. Nonprofits really tug at my heart. About four years ago, five years ago now, in 2017, I started my firm, ResearchPRO on my own, decided to launch out on my own and just have not looked back and really enjoy being the CEO.
[00:03:52.450] – Boris
Yeah. I sometimes enjoy being the CEO. And sometimes I tell people that I’ve got the worst boss. He doesn’t give me any breaks—
[00:03:58.340] – Regina Alhassan
Yeah. Getting that, too.
[00:04:04.045] – Boris
No sleep, 24/7.
[00:04:03.890] – Regina Alhassan
Yes. And so along with that, I’m also a wife, a mom, all the things. And I have to say, my 6-year-old would probably say that my superpower is slaying the monsters in the closet and making the best Rice Krispies in the world—best Krispy treats in the world. All the hats.
[00:04:27.890] – Boris
That’s fantastic. You’ll have to teach me your monster slaying techniques some time because I have some kids at home who could use a little bit of that myself. I do love that you are at your own intersection—because I’m at mine—of the way that human beings behave and the science and data behind them, right? How do we get people to take the actions? What does the research and the data say about it so that we can channel it towards creating a greater world for all of us, right?
[00:04:59.380] – Regina Alhassan
[00:05:01.190] – Boris
So let’s look at that. And from your point of view, what is happening in the philanthropy, in the nonprofit space at the moment these days, how’s it looking?
[00:05:11.930] – Regina Alhassan
What we know is that people are giving. It’s looking good. So certainly some organizations are struggling. I have colleagues that are sort of questioning what they’re doing with their lives, the paths that they’ve decided to take in the nonprofit world. But we also know that fundraising and philanthropy is on the rise. Donors are being more generous. New donors are being more generous. First-time donors, et cetera. Millennials are giving in interesting ways. People continue to be generous. That is what continues. And that is what gives me hope. So that’s always exciting.
[00:05:56.240] – Boris
I love that you’re so positive on it, because I do know that there’s also some negative statistics that came out a couple of years ago that average donations per individuals really have gone down, while major gifts have gone up to kind of counterbalance it. So overall fundraising has gone up, but individual donors have kind of declined. I wonder—I’m hoping that new research is coming out soon, actually, that I’ve been hearing about. It’s going to show that it’s not as doom and gloom as people have been making it out to be. I think the pandemic specifically and please talk to this if you’ve got some more insights. But specifically, during the pandemic, more people became more generous because we all felt more like we were in the same boat and we could empathize with others much more so in times of hardship. And so people became more generous at that same time. Do you find that to be the case?
[00:06:49.030] – Regina Alhassan
Absolutely. And so I really enjoy the Giving USA report, and I look forward to that every year. And so that measures and provides all sorts of analysis and data about philanthropy in the United States. And so according the report, giving is up, the numbers are up. Individual giving is up. Corporate giving actually is down a bit. And so that, I think, is a huge queue that we should rely less on those organizational dollars and those grants, et cetera, and really lend our attention and zero our attention on individual giving and prospecting among individual donors.
[00:07:33.230] – Boris
I think you’ve got a great point there. I did have a guest not too long ago talking about corporate giving. And I definitely feel like there’s a huge role for that, too. Hopefully now that the economy is moving in better directions, that’s going to come back up. But we can’t rely on any one source, no matter what. A lot of organizations put their eggs in one hypothetical basket. So I definitely agree with you. We shouldn’t be focusing fully on that as well. So if everything is looking good from a donor perspective, then what’s wrong with the way things are now?
[00:08:08.090] – Regina Alhassan
Well, there are still some challenges, internal challenges that each organization has and that we continue to kind of stay in these ruts. And so the pandemic as challenging and as terrible, as chaotic and disastrous as a pandemic can be, it certainly created some opportunities for us to adjust the way that we go about our status quo.
[00:08:35.030] – Regina Alhassan
But one thing that comes to mind specifically is event-based fundraising. So we had an opportunity really, to move away from that and to get creative and innovative. But more and more, I’m seeing organizations shift right back into that big annual event fundraiser. It’s safe now, et cetera. So they’re starting to do that. And it’s just like, oh, I thought we said… I thought we all kind of collectively agreed we were happy to see those go away. So I think there still are some things that we’re just kind of used to the way that it is, whether or not that’s the way that we do our outreach, whether or not we embrace web-based outreach, a lot of organizations are still shying away from that. Online giving is up. It’s still a small percentage of all total giving, but it’s growing.
[00:09:31.250] – Regina Alhassan
And so that’s an opportunity that organizations still are not latching onto and grasping and fully utilizing. So I think the opportunity is there. Still, we have just about half of all Americans are philanthropic. So that are actually our donors are being counted as donors. So that still is a huge population of people that we are missing. And so I think there’s an opportunity to especially with what we’ve seen as a result of the pandemic. There’s an opportunity to get really creative and innovative about who we prospect and bring in new donors.
[00:10:11.990] – Boris
So I think it’s natural that a lot of organizations are trying to get back to what they’ve known and what they’ve done so well, hopefully, for so many years before. I do agree that the world has shifted and there’s no full going back. And it might be a mistake to try to go fully back. What then should we be doing instead? And honestly, where does data come into this? Don’t we just keep trying new things and hopefully raising more money? What should we be doing?
[00:10:40.530] – Regina Alhassan
Yeah. So all the things that we try we should be tracking somewhere in the database. All the people that we engage, all the names, all the contact information, whether or not they’re donors, they’re fans, they’re members, they’re advocates, they’re students, they’re clients, no matter what their constituency is, we should have that name and that data and be collecting it. We should be tracking the way that we engage with them, the touchpoints, etc. And all of that, so that we can then do some predictive analysis and determine where do we have the most reach? Where do we have the most impact? Who’s engaging the most? And then we can maximize our effort and our strategy in those directions.
[00:11:27.750] – Boris
Okay, those are some great exciting words. I want to challenge you to really let’s break them down for our folks. When you say predictive analysis, I wouldn’t be surprised if, like me, some folks out there thought, oh, AI, is that what you’re advocating for? Are you talking we should start using Artificial Intelligence tools to figure out what donors are going to do in the future?
[00:11:51.270] – Regina Alhassan
So to be candid, most organizations are not ready for AI, big AI. Most of us are still using—many organizations are using Excel or just one step up from Excel, very rudimentary CRMs and databases for our donor databases. So the idea of using big data or AI and adopting that is not realistic. What is more realistic is that we can take a look at past donor behavior, past donor giving history, et cetera, and use that to predict how our donors may behave going forward.
[00:12:32.010] – Regina Alhassan
So a great example is a local arts organization I’ve been working with. And so one of their board members had a fundraiser, a birthday fundraiser on Facebook. And so they generated a lot of new interest, new engagement. I think they got up to over $3,000. They kept surpassing the goal. And so just for fun, he kept upping the goal and they kept surpassing it. And so then there’s an opportunity. Let’s capture that data. Let’s not just say, oh, that was fun. That was cute. Let’s capture that donor information, even if it is just Facebook profiles. And let’s begin to build from there. Let’s reach out to them. If we don’t have their email or address, you have their profile handles. So let’s reach out to them some way and begin to build that data. So we know we have demonstrated proof for next year we’re going to repeat this birthday fundraiser. And in fact, let’s experiment and see what happens when another board member has a birthday fundraiser.
[00:13:43.550] – Regina Alhassan
There’s demonstrated evidence that it works. So let’s try it again. So that’s the type of predictive analytics that many of us are in a position to do and to implement. What has already happened? What have we already had success with? Let’s repeat that. Or what was the challenge, what didn’t quite work the way that we had hoped? Let’s not do that again. Or how can we adjust that and then get to the success we were hoping for? So those are the type of predictive analysis analytics that all of us can begin to engage in, no matter what state our data is in, no matter what it’s in.
[00:14:21.810] – Boris
So I’m glad you said that, because I do think AI is incredibly powerful and helpful. But AI relies on large data sets to even work in the first place. And if you don’t have sufficient data, then you might be coming up with false conclusions. A lot of times that is a problem. And even when all kinds of research is being done, that’s a common issue that’s seen. So essentially you’re saying, let’s look at past performance as an indicator or predictor of future results, even though they might turn out different from year to year, from attempt to attempt. But let’s track that data, let’s see what worked, what didn’t work, and then let’s iterate on that. Am I getting that right?
[00:15:06.170] – Regina Alhassan
Yes. And you have to start somewhere. So many organizations are afraid of starting because they don’t have all of this aggregate information, because they don’t have 10 years worth of information. You must begin—it’s like that saying, “begin to begin.” You have to start somewhere. And I encourage organizations to take that brave step, be brave and just begin. Start with what you have, even if what you have is pretty scrappy. Start there and recognize the holes that you need to fill, recognize the gaps that you need to address.
[00:15:46.050] – Boris
So what are some of the common gaps? Because a lot of organizations do have a CRM that they’re using. It might be one of the big mainstream ones, or it might be an Excel spreadsheet, which if that’s the best you’ve got at the moment, then that’s a great starting point. What are some of the holes that you’re seeing they’re not actually filling?
[00:16:06.910] – Regina Alhassan
Relationships, first off. It continues to be—it surprises me. Like that’s been an issue throughout my entire career. I see organizations struggle with that. So mapping relationships within your database, whether or not it’s spouse relationships, children, familial relationships, company relationships, who works at the same company, what are their positions, et cetera. And these sound basic, but so many organizations really are challenged by that. So that’s one huge gap that I see.
[00:16:44.840] – Regina Alhassan
Along with that, all of this relates to data integrity. So that’s sort of the umbrella gap, data integrity. But under that, tribute, honor, memorial gifts, the way that we track that information and kind of another sort of offshoot to data integrity are the protocols. So because we don’t have consistent protocols, because the way that we enter data and the way that we track information and manage information changes so easily based on who’s actually doing the job, the data integrity and the protocols get lost and then the data, it’s hard to make the insights as meaningful as they could be.
[00:17:35.430] – Boris
Right. If your data is not compiled consistently, then you can’t analyze it across different time periods or just the same time period, but two different people entered it. So you wind up having something different. Are you advocating then… And I think this might be a good solution, with a process doc that clearly states out—
[00:17:54.675] – Regina Alhassan
[00:17:55.350] – Boris
Step-by-step how to enter the data? Is that the answer to that?
[00:17:56.860] – Regina Alhassan
Yes. A process doc that is easily accessible and that everyone has access to. It’s part of onboarding for new staff that no matter what the role is and it’s just something that you use. You can have a process doc, but if it’s just in a shared file somewhere, it’s not meaningful.
[00:18:18.510] – Boris
Yeah. And I like that you’re saying have everyone, every new person on staff to go through it. I think even if they’re not necessarily the people who are going to be entering that data, for them to at least understand the type of data that you’re trying to collect and the way that you’re looking at your supporters is going to be helpful to everybody.
[00:18:36.930] – Regina Alhassan
[00:18:37.860] – Boris
So then I want to take it back to the thing that you said just before, that, which is these relationships—mapping relationships. I can understand how for a nonprofit, especially smaller nonprofits, without a big data department within their development team, it feels cumbersome to try to figure out those relationships and track them. Why is that necessary? What is the advantage that’s going to give us? How does that pay off, I guess is my question.
[00:19:05.250] – Regina Alhassan
Yeah. So there is a quote by John Rockefeller, and he talks all about the relationships and knowing whether or not someone is your friend. Are they a supporter? How much did they give you last year? What do you have in common? How likely are they to support you again? All of that insight requires information. You have to have record of it, some memory of it. And so that’s where the data comes in.
[00:19:39.890] – Regina Alhassan
The data also allows you to get really strategic. So it’s not always about finding the next big donor. Sometimes the data also lets you release some of those donors that are still important. But if we are talking about transformational change and we need transformational gifts, we can automate some of our stewardship. And so sometimes that data helps us segment our donors, our constituents, which then we can put some of our people on autopilot, and it frees up the time to work towards those transformational gifts, those leadership gifts, to work towards other types of impact and program impact, et cetera. So the data has the opportunity to drive so much of our work.
[00:20:36.010] – Boris
I just had someone on recently talking about these onboarding campaigns to set them on autopilot, but still—with data and with proper usage of these autopilot features—still making them personal, still making them interactive as much as possible. Because the relationship shouldn’t just be one way, right? It shouldn’t just be blasting things at you. We are actually also interested in you and really building a relationship in that regard. And how do we though… And maybe there’s no perfect answer to this, but how do we use the data that you were saying specifically about who is connected to whom in terms of a family? Where is that relevant, and how do we then turn that to our advantage knowing that kind of information?
[00:21:25.200] – Regina Alhassan
Yeah. Part of that is just knowing and being able to show your donors and your supporters that you know who they are. Like you said, it’s not one sided. Just like you have a story, your donors also have a story. And so part of it is showing a respect for their engagement and the fact that they do have a story and that they do have these relationships that could be important to both of you. There’s also opportunity to leverage those relationships, especially with board members. Obviously, if we’re looking for connections on the executive level, depending on what your organization is and who your leadership is, but there are opportunities to leverage those relationships.
[00:22:16.580] – Regina Alhassan
There’s also an opportunity, I think, to really just sort of widen the base and demonstrate that, yes, this is an impact. This is a mission that is worthy of all of our investment. And that’s sort of the high level feel good answer. But when we’re talking about specific donor strategy, it is important to know if your board member knows the person on the board at the foundation that is giving the grant and awarding the grant. Those are important connections to have.
[00:22:54.910] – Regina Alhassan
It’s important to know, do you share LinkedIn connections with other potential funders, et cetera? It’s important to track those so that just again, just so you can have that institutional memory and draw upon it for future support.
[00:23:13.430] – Boris
Very cool. Very cool. Okay. So if we do start, let’s say we’re an organization that isn’t tracking all the data that we need to be or isn’t doing a great job of stewarding that data in one way or another. It is a big lift sometimes to get started. What does it look like if we’re successful? What kind of results can we expect if we put in all the time and energy into creating our databases, maintaining our databases, and stewarding our databases?
[00:23:50.490] – Regina Alhassan
Happy donors, happy staff, staff that has direction, staff that is not working above capacity. So I’ll share a success story with you. One of my clients, they’ve been a client for about three and a half years now. When the VP first arrived at the organization, they had never done… they had not really pursued charitable giving before. They only relied on federal dollars, et cetera. So when she got there, they had a collection of records, about 3,500 records, and that was their database. But there wasn’t any really great contact information. No giving information, no real rationale about why these people are—why we even have these records.
[00:24:44.970] – Regina Alhassan
So she was really bold and said, “We’re just going to scrap it. I can’t work with bad data. But what I will do is keep the records for anyone that has given and has a clear indication of why they are connected to us. If that is in the database, then let’s work with them.” But she scrapped the bulk of it, I would say over 90% of the database and built from there. So now they’re back up to closer to 4,000 records. And they know that they are… But this is all within three years. They know that everyone that’s in that database has a strong affiliation with the organization. There’s a reason why they’re in there. It’s clearly documented and all of that. They just went through a software conversion from Bloomerang to Salesforce. They are getting ready to launch go public with the first phase of a larger campaign. The first phase is $10 million, but they have not yet gone public. But they’re already, I think, halfway towards that $10 million.
[00:25:55.880] – Regina Alhassan
And that is with the position being very, very careful about: we’re going to bring in the right people, we’re going to track these relationships. We’re going to build out the prospect pipeline, we’re going to invest in the infrastructure, invest in the right team, etc., so that they can be positioned for within just a few years to launch a $10-million campaign as the first phase of a larger campaign. So that’s what good data can do for you. That’s what good strategy, good planning, good development, good fundraising can do for you.
[00:26:36.370] – Boris
That’s pretty impressive results. Good for them.
[00:26:39.840] – Regina Alhassan
Yeah. So three years is a bit of a wait, but we know the average donor cycle is 18 months. And so we have to put forth that investment and again, we have to start somewhere.
[00:26:53.710] – Boris
Awesome. So speaking of, we have to start somewhere. Where should we start? If an organization isn’t doing what best practice might look like, or they’ve been compiling data into their CRM, whatever that looks like, but not really going to it and strategically looking at it and using it, where should they start to get on this road to success with their data, where they can really maximize it and increase their impact?
[00:27:26.980] – Regina Alhassan
Yeah. So the first place that I tell people to start is screening your data, whether or not you screen all of your donors at once, or you screen them individually and by screening what I mean is to find out what is their capacity. What is the capacity of your donor database? And again, you can screen your entire database at one time, or you can do the individual research to figure out your top donors or start with your board, what is the true giving capacity for those individuals and go from there and match that or not necessarily match, but compare that giving capacity with their actual giving history to your organization. And wherever there are gaps, then we can start to build out some strategy to get people closer to their true capacity.
[00:28:17.710] – Boris
Now that seems to me almost a little cold. What’s their capacity to give, right? It’s putting a potential dollar amount on a person. What does that actually look like? How do you do that? How do you quantify that? And then how do you approach talking to somebody about it?
[00:28:36.130] – Regina Alhassan
Yeah. So the capacity really is internal work, and you don’t necessarily tell someone, oh, I figured out what your capacity is. That’s not the conversation that we’re having. This is very internal so that you can build out a strategy, and it can be cold, to be quite honest. But again, this is not front facing. This is all internal. And so with that, it is a bit cold, but it also allows you to create donor segments and donor buckets.
[00:29:08.540] – Regina Alhassan
And so if you determine that a particular donor only has capacity for $10,000, well, then there’s no reason to try to solicit them or cultivate them for $100,000 gift. Or if you may get a surprise, that, oh, here’s someone that really has a $50,000 capacity, but they’ve only given us $20. Well, why is that? Maybe we should have a conversation with this person or let’s try to engage them so that we make space for a conversation. And so those are the opportunities, those are the gaps that we’re looking for. And having the capacity will allow us to do that. It’s a little cold, yes, but it’s very internal. This is the science behind it, and this is a necessary step to build our strategy.
[00:30:02.830] – Boris
I think even as I’m listening to you talk about it, I think it actually can be not cold, but kind of the opposite of it, which is warming things up. You want to know as much as you can about the folks that you’re speaking to. Now, ideally, you learn as much as you can directly from them. But if you have third-party sources, of course, it’s still valid and valuable information. We have, I’m sure you know, this concept of the donor-size problem where you’re not going to ask just anybody to put their name on a building, for example, just to go to the extreme of it and to be the base of your capital campaign. But if you don’t know who those folks are that you can approach, then you might just be throwing it out at everybody and turning people off.
[00:30:54.790] – Regina Alhassan
Unfortunately, we lost connection with Regina just as we were trying to wrap up the episode there and ask her for some resources, but I was able to get them from her. We were just talking about screening your donors and being able to identify whom you can approach for different types of campaigns.
[00:31:11.790] – Boris
You don’t want to approach folks with a very limited budget and ask them for a whole lot of money. It’ll be actually insensitive. And at the same time, you want to ask the people who are capable of giving you more to give more because you want them to know, I should say, that you understand them and their ability and their capacity. And it’s not necessarily cold to then say, “Hey, I know you care about these things, and I believe that you could really take us much further. And we’ve got opportunities specifically for someone like yourself.”
[00:31:45.850] – Boris
So I had asked Regina what resources she recommends and specifically for screening, Regina recommended the iWave free screening tool. So I’m going to link to this in the show notes where you could go to iWave and screen up to 200 of your donor records to really see what their capacity is and extract whatever data you can. It’s an easy and cheap way, because for free you can do this, to get some information about some of your folks, dip your toe into these waters if you haven’t been already doing this.
[00:32:16.220] – Boris
The other resource that she recommended was actually “The Philanthropy Revolution” by Lisa Greer, who we have had on the show. I’m going to link to that podcast episode as well. I love Lisa and the way that she talks about herself being a philanthropist and how we need to change the way that we talk to people, including deeper-pocketed philanthropists like herself, to treat them more as human beings and develop these relationships rather than as just cold data points or sources of money like ATMs, which I think is a very important mission that she’s on there.
[00:32:49.160] – Boris
AnSd you can follow Regina and get to know her more by following her at @theresearchpro. And she does offer an intro call for nonprofits who are looking for donors, whether they’re high-end donors or just ways to maximize your current database. And I will link to her currently where you can just go ahead and book a slot with her as well in the show notes.
[00:33:12.400] – Boris
Thank you, everybody, for joining us. Thank you, Regina, for being on the show today and talking about all these important things in terms of using your donor data, really developing relationships based on data as a whole. We will hopefully have more from Regina in the coming episodes because I would actually really love to talk to her about how to screen donors and how to find those bigger donor prospects, the bigger philanthropists. That’s a conversation for another time.
[00:33:41.990] – Boris
If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please do share it with your friends. Please do leave us a review on iTunes, on Spotify on YouTube or wherever you find this content so that you can help us help more people create more heroes for their cause. Thank you everybody. We’ll see you next week.
[00:33:59.170] – Intro
Thank you all for watching and listening to The Nonprofit Hero factory. We hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform and let us know what you think by leaving a review.
Concepts and Takeaways:
- Regina hadn’t planned to go into fundraising, but discovered that this was a way to change the world—and that there was some science behind how it works. (2:26)
- Fundraising and philanthropy is on the rise from new and existing donors, but many organizations are still struggling. (5:11)
- The pandemic created some new opportunities for creative fundraising, but many organizations aren’t embracing the new ideas, preferring to go back to the old ways of doing things like having big in-person annual galas. (8:35)
- Around half of all Americans are actively donating to causes. That means that there is still half of the population that we haven’t reached yet. (9:42)
- Everyone who engages with your org should be tracked in your database, whether they’re donors, fans, members, advocates, students, clients, etc. (10:40)
- We should be tracking their names and contact info, but also all of the touchpoints in our engagement with them to be able to do some predictive analysis to maximize our efforts.
- Using donor data to predict future behavior doesn’t have to be costly or involve artificial intelligence. We can simply look at what different donors have responded to in the past to make intelligent guesses about what they might do in the future. (11:27)
- Every time you have an event or raise funds, capture as much data as you can. Look to see what worked and what didn’t, and then iterate on it for the next attempt.
- You don’t need a lot of aggregate data to get started, you just have to start with whatever data you have and build on that. (15:06)
- Regina sees two major issues in nonprofit donor data: relationships and data integrity. (16:06)
- Relationships: How well are you tracking family relationships, network relationships, company relationships, etc.?
- Data integrity: Not everything is tracked and, perhaps more importantly, things aren’t tracked consistently by different people over time.
- Having a process doc that is easily accessible and is part of the onboarding process for all new staff is critical to data integrity and consistency over time. (17:35)
- Using data to understand your donors, you can segment and allocate the right resources to nurturing your relationships, automating some aspects but keeping them personal. (19:39)
- Sometimes it’s better to restart your database entirely than to continue with a database that’s incomplete and ambiguous. Regina shares a client success story of an organization that scrapped their database and rebuilt it over three years, but now is on track to fulfill a $10-million capital campaign. (24:03)
- To maximize your donor database, Regina recommends screening your data to find out their capacity, whether you do it one donor at a time or the entire database at once. This can feel like a cold process, but it can be used to make your relationships stronger. (27:27)
- Knowing what people are capable of giving allows you to focus your efforts more strategically.
- Donor capacity can also be used as a guidepost for engaging them in conversations and approaching them with problems on a scale that they can solve, rather than asking for too much or too little, which could feel insulting.
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Regina AlhassanCEO, ResearchPRO, LLC
Regina Alhassan is Founder & CEO of ResearchPRO, a leading prospect development consulting firm. An award-winning TEDx Speaker with total dollars identified in the billions, Regina’s work has fueled major gift campaigns for organizations across the country including The Ohio State University, I Am Boundless, Mid-Ohio Food Collective, Communities In Schools and Children’s Literacy Initiative. Her 20 years of prospect research and management includes wealth analysis, software development, end user training, leadership coaching, knowledge management, moves management, systems management, donor relations and development operations. Current Secretary for the Central Ohio chapter of Association of Fundraising Professionals, Regina is also an artist, writer, and philanthropist.
Episode 42: The Behavioral Science of Rallying Support in the Digital Age, with Sarah Welch
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 42
The Behavioral Science of Rallying Support in the Digital Age, with Sarah Welch
In this Episode:
The digital age, accelerated by the pandemic, has pushed most activities, including fundraising online. That has opened up our stories to audiences around the world. At the same time, that has removed some of the personal connection that we have to each other and causes.
Sarah Welch is a behavioral scientist and Vice President at ideas42. She focuses her time thinking about—and helping organizations—affect positive change through the principals of behavioral science.
Sarah joined the show to chat about what’s been happening in the nonprofit world. How do we navigate the changing landscape and rally support for causes large and small?
Read the Transcript
[00:00:05.210] – Intro Video
Welcome to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video broadcast and podcast where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more heroes for their cause and a better world for all of us. Da Ding!
[00:00:21.370] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of my favorite topics. I do have a few. I’d love to geek out about many things. One of them is behavioral science and specifically the ways that we could apply the insights of behavioral science that have come out over the last—I don’t know, 20, 30 years now that have really changed the way we understand human behavior, how to apply those towards for good causes like nonprofit communications, like fundraising, like making the world a better place for all of us.
[00:00:56.090] – Boris
Today, I’ve got Sarah Welch with me on the show. She is the Vice President of ideas42, where she helps lead behavioral innovations in two focused areas; improving the way donors at all levels give to charity and tackling climate change. Prior to joining ideas42, Sarah completed a three-year dual-degree program at Yale School of Management and School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where she focused on urban resource management and planning.
[00:01:23.770] – Boris
In her past life, Sarah was an ecological designer, restoring natural habitats in and around New York City, which is pretty cool. Sarah holds an MBA and an MEM from Yale and received her BA in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard. She’d take cheese over cake any day. Sarah describes her superpower as using behavioral science, which gives us a deep understanding of why humans do what they do to unlock better giving by donors to the organizations they care about. And if that’s not an ideal topic for one of our shows, I don’t know what is. So with that, let’s bring Sarah onto the show.
[00:02:00.910] – Sarah Welch
Hi. Hi, Boris.
[00:02:03.390] – Boris
Hi, Sarah. Welcome. Thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate your time. I read your impressive bio with all the impressive schools that you attended. I’m sure you have a lot of great stuff to share with us. Now you have to live up to that bio, of course.
[00:02:17.790] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. Jeez, thanks for setting expectations.
[00:02:21.430] – Boris
But let’s just start with something simple, which is, what’s your story? Why are you doing what you do today?
[00:02:29.050] – Sarah Welch
I love that question. So now I work in behavioral science, right? And I try to understand why humans do what they do. But as you recounted so accurately, I started my career working in landscape design and ecology. I thought I wanted to be a landscape architect, and so I had this kind of did all this work and I eventually went to Grad school, felt a little lost. While I was at Grad school, I discovered behavioral economics, of course, at Yale and kind of had this light bulb moment where I realized the thing that it was so interesting to me about nature and the environment and landscape wasn’t actually… the trees are wonderful. Right. That’s really cool.
[00:03:13.450] – Sarah Welch
But the thing that would be interesting was how humans interacted with that landscape. Right? How are humans taking cues from their environment and then making decisions? And so when I discovered behavioral economics, behavioral science, one of the key tenets of that, is that our context and what’s around us, our environment is influencing our behavior and our biases. That for me was just like, oh, this is it. This is what I’ve been looking for. And so after grad school, I founded ideas42 and I’ve been doing this work ever since. And I still like trees, but it’s a different feeling about them now.
[00:03:51.830] – Boris
Now you help more people understand why they like trees and why they’re important.
[00:03:55.440] – Sarah Welch
[00:03:56.160] – Boris
And why they should value them, because, you know, little thing called climate change.
[00:04:02.310] – Sarah Welch
Right. So I mean, the social impact piece is really important to me. Right? So I could have, I guess, just left and gone and worked in… marketing has a lot of the same aspects to it. But for me, I still had that social impact drive and ideas42, we’re a nonprofit organization also, and we work across the spectrum. So in my time there, I’ve been lucky enough to work on education projects and health projects and criminal justice, climate change, eventually. And now philanthropy and giving, which has been super fascinating.
[00:04:36.990] – Boris
I love, love, love behavioral science. It can be applied to so many different things. It’s really a way of understanding how our brains work and how we respond to things and really take action. Why we take action, why we do the things we do. What are the stories we tell ourselves about the things that we do, which I’m always fascinated about in every single webinar I do, or course that I present, I quote Danny Kahneman who is… correct me if I’m wrong, one of the fathers of behavioral economics and behavioral science as a whole, who said that no one ever made a decision because of a number they need a story. To me, that’s just total validation that, A. Storytelling is critical but, B. That behavioral science and understanding how people think and why they do the things they do will really help us help them make the decisions that are going to benefit all of us in the end.
[00:05:35.700] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. I drink the Kool-Aid. I believe in all that. I find it so compelling personally, too. Right. I mean just right now I told you a story about how I became interested in behavioral economics. And to be quite honest, that’s something that developed after the fact. It’s just something that we all do as humans is we tell our stories afterwards. Right. We have the storytelling urge.
[00:05:55.470] – Boris
Yeah. It’s the way we organize information in our brains. We need some sort of causality. We need a beginning, middle, end to it. We need that moment of discovery or overcoming an obstacle. Otherwise, it doesn’t really feel as fulfilling in a lot of ways. I wish it was simpler because I’d sure be happy to not have to go through several obstacles to get to epiphanies and things like that. But it works, and it’s getting us… society forward for the most part. Occasionally we take a step back, but I’m happy to geek out about all this stuff all day.
[00:06:26.350] – Boris
But let’s focus in on what hopefully our audiences are interested in, which is specifically how to apply this stuff to nonprofits and the work that we’re doing. What are you seeing out there in the nonprofit space these days? I know that lots has been going on, obviously over the last couple of years, specifically. And then with the development and new concepts in behavioral science, talk to us Sarah. What’s happening out there?
[00:06:51.080] – Sarah Welch
Well, there’s so much that I would love to cover. And Boris, I encourage you… I have so many colleagues who are working all sorts of interesting things and so many other people in the space. I spend a lot of my time now focused on philanthropy, which is really saying, why do people give, whether that’s time or money or voice or energy, whatever it is, why are we altruistic? Why do we help others? It doesn’t actually rationally really make that much sense. And so it’s actually quite behavioral and really fascinating to dig into that.
[00:07:24.910] – Sarah Welch
And sort of the overall challenge there is that over the past decade or so, I think household giving has been going down so trending downward people. And to be clear, what we’re talking about when we say that is like tax-deductible gifts that can be recorded that we see. Right. So the pandemic might have contributed to a little bit of an upward momentary blip there. But generally it’s been going downward. And that’s fascinating and challenging for the nonprofit sector that a lot of nonprofits rely on that type of fundraising to carry them forward.
[00:08:03.610] – Sarah Welch
It also means that people who are billionaires with lots of money to give suddenly will continue to have outside voice and disproportionate voice in the sector. And that comes with its own sort of challenges, even if they mean well, they are kind of unelected people with a huge amount of power. So there is an argument to continue to have these individual voices being part of how the nonprofit fundraising sector works. Right. Yeah. In that space, we’ve seen this downward trend.
[00:08:38.830] – Sarah Welch
But then there’s been other things, I think lately that we think a lot about. One is that the pandemic really did shift a lot of things. Right? It caused the whole nation, the whole world really, I think… to have a reckoning with equity and ask questions about like who has power and why do they have that power? And how do we shift it if we need to? What does it mean to be part of a community? How do we interact with people virtually if we have to rather than in person? All those things have come to bear on the philanthropic sector as well.
[00:09:09.620] – Sarah Welch
And so I’ve seen a lot of discussion right around. Like how do we take those questions of power and bring those into giving and who’s donating and to where are they donating? But also what counts as giving? Right. So in the pandemic, we saw this rise in mutual aid, which is not counted when we do the tax deductible giving. Right. But there’s also just like you and I don’t know, being kind to our neighbors or helping someone out or during the pandemic, it became a thing about shopping local, right? Are you supporting restaurants and giving big tips? All of those things all kind of come together into one big picture about what it means to be a generous and kind of person in a community. So there’s been a lot of talking too now about how do we recognize that type of giving?
[00:09:53.230] – Boris
I want to break down a lot of that stuff because it’s absolutely fascinating and critical to understand in greater detail. So I did an episode a little while back with Doug White, who is a philanthropy expert as well. And we talked about this that, yes, overall giving actually has gone up while individual per capita giving has gone down. So philanthropists are the bigger philanthropists, let’s just say, let’s call them billionaires for lack of better word. But honestly, anybody over $10 million that’s giving a net worth, that’s giving so much more than an average person.
[00:10:30.920] – Boris
If the majority of people are giving less and the minority are giving more, then the minority can dictate what programs get funded, which nonprofits they’re interested in and the types of work that they’re doing, that’s what’s going to happen. Even schools and universities get funding from big-name philanthropists who may or may not want their name on a building. And that dictates the direction they could go, because that’s the money that they could spend on certain things. So it’s definitely an issue and a cause for concern in our society today, where we want that element of our network of our… what is it called? The social safety net, if you will. To be more democratic for the entire population in one way or another, to get a say in what we think is most important today for those of us who are perhaps less privileged or for society as a whole. So that’s definitely an issue that I recognize and appreciate that you’re working on to help solve.
[00:11:37.900] – Boris
The other things that you’re talking about in terms of the trade offs in the different types of giving that are going on and how things aren’t measured. Yeah, during coronavirus during the heights of the pandemic, it was a lot more about coming together as a community, protecting each other, hopefully in various ways, even the act of wearing a mask when you’re not afraid yourself you’re going to get coronavirus, but you’re wearing it to protect others. There’s something that gets reinvigorated in our social stream of consciousness, in our social contract to each other, where we feel more responsible to our neighbors and sometimes even to virtual neighbors around the world. Right?
[00:12:22.230] – Sarah Welch
Right. The virtual piece, I think, is super interesting. Right? And that’s another trend that I don’t think it’s going to go away is that, in general, we now have all these digital tools available to us, and in many ways, it makes things like giving much easier. Right? I can text a small number to give 10 bucks to somebody. Right? Or I can find something. I can find any charity I want online and send them a donation. But in other ways, there are trade offs there, too, because the old fashioned way of somebody coming up to you and asking you to give actually has a lot more weight when it’s so social and visible. And we are social creatures. And so I think there’s some trade offs there that we’ve been looking at, too. The rise in digital tools may have some trade offs in the social norm space. I think there’s something we can do with that. But that’s been another tension I think that we see in the space.
[00:13:18.190] – Boris
So dig into that for me. What is it that makes us give if someone is coming to us in person to ask? And I could visualize it in my head right now someone asking me that.
[00:13:30.480] – Sarah Welch
Yeah, it’s normal to feel that… as you describe that, what that feels like.
[00:13:32.300] – Boris
Yeah. It’s hard to say no to someone, to someone’s face unless you’re a New Yorker and are constantly being asked for money on the street. And at some point you feel like it’s overwhelming. It’s too much. You can’t help everybody so you stop. A lot of New Yorkers, and I’m sure homelessness is on the rise around the country. I’m sure not just in New York. But why is that more powerful than a digital ask and then what do we do about that?
[00:14:04.540] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. I mean, we’re ultimately such social creatures. Right. The behavioral economic phenomenon that we talk a lot about is social norms as described, basically refers to the fact that we are always subconsciously, even if not consciously comparing ourselves to our peers, especially in situations where we’re not quite sure what the right behavior is. And giving is full of that. Right. We’re never quite sure. Like, I don’t know. Should I give to this charity? Is this the right one? How much should I give things like that? And so that means that we are, I think, even more susceptible in cases where somebody’s asking you for money, ask you for a specific amount to those types of influences.
[00:14:46.430] – Sarah Welch
There’s research specific to charity about this. It sounds a little bit silly, but people will literally go out of their way to avoid being asked because of the guilt. Right. There’s a level of guilt that comes with saying no. They ran a study in like a shopping mall that had two exits. Right. And people went out of the way to avoid it was literally Santa Claus, I think ringing a bell to avoid that ask. And so, yeah, we’re just ultimately so social that it’s really hard to say no.
[00:15:14.130] – Sarah Welch
But I do think there’s something interesting here too, where, again, you imagine you are that person getting that ask, right. You feel a little icky. But after you make that donation, most of the time you still feel pretty good. You still have what we call “warm glow” from that donation. And that’s true of a lot of other sorts of pro-social activities. Maybe wearing the mask, right. You kind of feel pressured by other people to wear a mask, but you do feel good ultimately that you’re wearing that mask.
[00:15:43.070] – Sarah Welch
And so I think there is—it’s attention. And I don’t know if the answer is totally to get rid of it or rely too heavily on it. But we do see that when you make things sometimes to make things so easy, we put them online. Right? You remove that social aspect.
[00:15:59.630] – Sarah Welch
There’s one example that comes to mind. I think the combined federal campaign, the CFC, right. Sort of famous—or infamous, maybe depending how you felt about it—fundraising effort within the federal government. And the sort of old fashioned approach was people walking around, the pledge captains walking around, the office with clipboards and saying, “Hey, Boris, will you donate this year? How much are you going to give out of your paycheck?” And that’s social pressure, right? You would feel very obligated to contribute. I’m putting my reputation on the line by asking you and the CFC in general have been going down, just like individual giving overall have been trending downward for a number of years.
[00:16:40.690] – Sarah Welch
And I think somewhere around 2017 or so, in an attempt to make it at least easier to give, they put it all online. They got rid of the whole paper system. And that was also the year that they saw the biggest decrease. So suddenly you’ve taken away that social pressure. But you had put it online where the behavior was mostly invisible. And I don’t know, maybe Boris, you’re donating. But maybe you’re also just browsing the Internet on TikTok or whatever people did in 2017. So those trade offs are everywhere. Right. And again, I think there are ways that we can make digital tools still have that compelling social angle. But I think it’s an interesting thing to come to reckon with. Are we okay with that trade off if you’re not pressuring people? And what do you give up?
[00:17:26.570] – Boris
Yeah. So I’m personally all about digital adoption. But I’m also about storytelling and behavioral science and I totally understand. I used to live in Los Angeles, and I’d be walking in Santa Monica or on the streets of New York, and there would be a team of youngish adults with signs and clipboards and saying, “Hey, can I ask you a question? Do you like animals?” Or something like that. They’re just trying to rope you into a conversation. And, yeah, talk about avoidance. I would cross the street to go around them because I didn’t have time and I knew I might get sucked in or because I would feel guilty saying no in that specific situation.
[00:18:04.730] – Boris
I don’t know if there’s a direct translation to the digital version online. You’re right. We keep trying to remove friction. We keep trying to make it as easy as possible, going to the work of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The default option. The easiest option is the one that people are going to take the most. And please correct me if I’m wrong. But I think one of the biggest discoveries that they made in terms of behavior, whereas economics used to think of it as it’s all about reward and punishment, getting people to behave in certain ways and take certain actions. Behavioral economics said, actually, it’s a lot more nuanced than that because we’re not all econs, and the easiest way to get somebody to do something is to just make that the easiest path for them to go down. Right?
[00:18:55.110] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. Hassles are a real problem. They’re a real barrier. Tiny little things that we think don’t matter matter so much.
[00:19:04.610] – Boris
So, in digital fundraising specifically, but in general, in digital marketing and methodology, we’re always trying to make things as frictionless as possible. At the same time, we’re trying to get people to take the actions by telling them stories that help them connect to that particular cause, to a particular person perhaps. How do we find the balance? I don’t think there’s a virtual version of that gauntlet that I might walk down in Santa Monica or in New York where there are people on both sides of me trying to get my attention asking me, and maybe we don’t want that gauntlet. But how do we compensate for what we’re losing?
[00:19:46.370] – Sarah Welch
I know. I go back and forth on this, right? Like, do we want that gauntlet? You do see some of this in social media, right? Like Facebook introduced fundraising a while ago. Right? And that provides social visibility, social norming. During the pandemic we saw a lot of people talking either again online and then mostly or virtually about the actions that they’re taking that are pro-social, that are generous, that are helping people. So you get some of that, right. You’ll get some pressure from that.
[00:20:19.760] – Sarah Welch
I do think—I remember actually talking to one of our partners. She was saying that it’s super easy to get people to share things like lots and lots of people will share things online. So people love—you post something like, here’s a creative way to give back. And people are like, that’s great. Like, like, like. Share, share, share. But then they don’t actually donate. It’s very easy to get people to virtually saying all this, basically. Right. That’s what happens. That can happen in the virtual space.
[00:20:45.030] – Sarah Welch
But I do think there’s something promising. Again, I don’t think we cracked it yet… but I do think there’s something promising there. There are ways to think about, how do you hit that balance so that you can still bring in some of that social aspect? Or, I don’t know—sometimes I’m also like, maybe we need to just find some ways to bring it back into the in-person space as well. I haven’t quite figured that out yet.
[00:21:10.250] – Boris
Well, we’ll give you a little bit of slack on this one. It’s not the easiest problem to solve, but come back to us in a week and we want to you to have an answer.
[00:21:17.500] – Sarah Welch
[00:21:19.130] – Boris
There are of course, most organizations want to go back to the in-person events, to the in-person fundraising dinners and galas, because there is that social aspect, there is that social pressure, the person to the left of me and the person to the right of me just gave X amount of dollars. Well, I feel now that I should do my best, maybe even compete and outdo them, but at least try to match them or present that.
[00:21:45.610] – Boris
Well, I am a person who cares too, in one way or another. I know, actually, as we were talking, I was thinking Zoom recently introduced their in-meeting donation functionality. And one of the great things about it is when you give, it will let you instantly put up a little banner under your photo that says you gave. And talk about social pressure, if you’re seeing a screen of 12 faces or nine in that TV show format that… Where’s Alice? Sorry. If you’re seeing everyone else around you all of a sudden have that little banner. Oh, I gave, I gave, I gave. Yeah. You’re going to feel that pressure. So maybe there are ways to work that back in on the social and the digital side.
[00:22:32.860] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. That’s super interesting. I admit, I didn’t know about that. And now I really want to try it out. That’s awesome. I’m going to check… look into that because I think that yeah, that helps. Right? That’s different. That’s no longer like on a social media platform with some distance. That’s very intimate. That’s very like these are your peers giving in the moment. So I like that. That’s really interesting.
[00:22:52.430] – Boris
So we have the personal side of things. And I know that in behavioral science, and I know you work with this sort of thing. We talk a lot about telling that story, getting across that you can help a specific human being or an animal perhaps that we try to get someone to connect to a specific outcome in a specific person’s or someone’s life. What happens when we’re trying to impact more than just one person or one small community?
[00:23:31.100] – Boris
Now that we’re online, one of the advantages—one of the disadvantages that I should say first that you brought up, is now everyone’s online. And so now it’s who basically has the best marketing capability to get out there in front of people, right? Not necessarily who does the best work and has the greatest impact because we don’t respond to numbers, as Danny Kahneman said, we respond to stories. But one of the advantages is we can now find people around the world that are interested in what we’re doing in our little corner of the world or in the way that we’re trying to help the world to recover or to heal or to progress.
[00:24:14.070] – Boris
So where does behavioral science come in when we’re talking about bigger cause pictures and things that are not perhaps something that I myself can solve with a donation?
[00:24:28.610] – Sarah Welch
Right. And that’s the other fascinating, actually, when you read my bio, the other thing that I focus on is climate change. And climate change is exact… I mean, this is the problem. Climate change behaviorally speaking, is hitting all of the wrong buttons, right? It’s long term. It’s vague. It doesn’t affect me personally, right? It might generally, but not in the same way. The effects aren’t very salient to me. And anything I do today feels like a drop in the bucket. Right. So all of those things make it so hard for us as humans to take action on climate change.
[00:25:04.950] – Sarah Welch
And if you contrast that right with one of the most effective stories that you can tell in philanthropy for fundraising, it’s like the super compelling, specific problem. There’s a classic example from, I think, like the 80s of a baby fell down a well in Texas. I think her name was Jessica. So baby Jessica is stuck in a well and we need some money to get her out. And then it’s like, oh, my God, it’s a baby. She’s stuck in a well, she has a name. And I know that if I give some money, they’ll be able to save her, and the problem will be solved.
[00:25:38.320] – Sarah Welch
And for us as humans, that’s the opposite of climate change. Right. That’s like, take all my money and solve that problem, please. And I will feel so good about it. And so I think the challenge is, how do you learn from baby Jessica and apply it to climate change? Or maybe climate change is… maybe that’s like really, really hard. So let’s step back and at least try something like anti-poverty work. Right. How can we not just raise money to solve the symptoms? Right? Like, it’s great to provide people with food and help children and all that. But can we get at the sort of the underlying causes of poverty instead? And that type of work is way broader. Right. And it doesn’t have that specific, compelling story. But I think this is something we’re hoping to do some work on, actually.
[00:26:25.360] – Sarah Welch
I think that there is something there, like maybe we can take something that is a big social change issue and try to break it down and give it that level of urgency, like do a super urgent, old fashioned. What is it like the thermostat kind of, like type of fundraiser around something that is a big social change issue, like some aspect of climate change or some aspect of anti-poverty work that you can fundraise the same way.
[00:26:52.520] – Sarah Welch
Like, can we bring some of the urgency and specific stories to something that is a big intractable problem? I think there is something promising there. Again, that’s where you see people taking the most action. So again, taking the behavioral features of those challenges and could we try to translate them to these big problems? Don’t have the answer again to that one either, Boris, but I think there’s something there. And yeah, check back with me in like, maybe two weeks, at least for that one.
[00:27:20.300] – Boris
Well, with the holidays, I understand it might be a little backlog. So actually, there are definitely nonprofits that are working on that kind of a scale. One that comes to mind is New Story Charity. They’re working to end global homelessness. And they are innovating, specifically technological answers to homelessness, which doesn’t sound like a technology problem. It sounds like a physical and low on the high or low, depending on which way you’re looking at the pyramid Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s critical. And yet they are innovating constantly.
[00:27:58.130] – Boris
They are famous for 3D printing an entire community in Mexico. 3D printing—I don’t remember how many homes for an entire community in Mexico. And there are definitely people—when I spoke to actually, her name is also Sarah. Sarah Lee from New Story. She was telling me that there are people who will invest in that specifically, they’re attracted to the fact that we can make a difference on a huge scale and tackle some of the sources, but also tackle en masse some of the issues that we’re facing versus helping house one family.
[00:28:40.050] – Boris
What’s interesting is they then still tie the outcomes to a specific gift. So if you give, they will match you essentially with a family within that community that they’re building houses for. And you get to see their story from beginning to end, where they move into their new home. You get to hear from them. And they’re great about delivering the video to the donor, showing this whole process because you might not be there in Mexico to see it. But you get that full reward cycle that reinforces the story of why you gave in the first place.
[00:29:19.360] – Sarah Welch
Yeah, that’s great. And that also reminds me of some other new research I saw that I really was excited by around those narratives. And so the traditional thinking had been that we need to show people… we need to tell really sad stories to people. We need to show people stories that kind of reframing the people you’re helping as like victims in a way that other research that actually ideas42 and others have done like suggest that if you tell someone they’re a victim, that doesn’t necessarily empower them, that can actually be quite a negative psychological experience.
[00:29:54.390] – Sarah Welch
And so there was some new research that came out showing that actually you can still fundraise with these empowering narratives that are… and maybe this fits in with the story you were just telling, right. But something much more empowering showing someone still getting help, but not in the same sort of native troops that we were so used to in the past. So that’s something else I think that we’re also really excited about.
[00:30:14.580] – Boris
Yeah. I’ve talked and worked with organizations that are worried about sharing clients stories because they feel it’s exploitative. And the answer I agree with you is show the empowerment, not the victimhood. And that’s what we all ultimately want to give towards anyway. We want to empower people. We don’t want to feel bad for them. We don’t want to pity them. We want empathy. We want to evoke empathy. But we also want to show that it’s something that we can all solve if we contribute to this cause in one way or another.
[00:30:47.850] – Sarah Welch
Right. Right. Yeah. Absolutely.
[00:30:49.710] – Boris
Well, unfortunately, we’re not going to solve all of the issues that we’d like to today. Maybe we’ll have you back in a little while to see what you’ve come up with and how you’ve been able to solve them. That’d be awesome. I’d love to continue this conversation. But for organizations that are listening for the nonprofit professionals or heroes in this case, that are looking to activate more heroes for their cause, what should they be thinking about? Where should they be evaluating maybe their marketing or their fundraising to help them activate, create more heroes for their cause?
[00:31:21.920] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. Great question. I think that specific space around like where can you take… especially if you’re working one of these big intractable problems. Right. Like, where can you break it down and create that urgency and that compelling narrative? Again, I’m going to go back to climate change because I’m familiar with the space, but I think for so long it’s changing a little bit now. There was such adherence to like scientific language and lots of rigor and how we spoke about it. And that goes against the sort of compelling narrative, human personal touch that we’ve just been talking about is so powerful.
[00:31:55.830] – Sarah Welch
And so taking something big like that, and where can you create that urgency, that compelling narrative and make it the specific—break it down to something specific and that feels solvable? One, if you can do that, that’s awesome. And two, if you are doing it, please reach out to me, and we can work on that more, because again, I feel like this is the thing that we need to do to unlock those more difficult areas of fundraising.
[00:32:19.170] – Boris
You’re reminding me of another study, and I don’t remember. My brain is not great at remembering details… I’m much better with concepts, so please feel free to fill in the blanks here. But there was an experiment done where they were trying to get people to save power, to not use as much electricity in their homes. And in letters that they sent to people from the power company, it basically said something like, on average, this is how you compare to your neighbors. And on average, last month, so and so saved X amount of kilowatt hours versus what you did and suggestions for how you might also lower yours.
[00:33:01.210] – Boris
And I feel like that kind of brings it back to you’re not walking down that gauntlet. And you’re not at an event with a lot of people seeing that they are giving and maybe you’re not. But it creates that social pressure of keeping up with the Joneses, if you will. But in this case, in a positive light of, well, other people are doing more for the environment, I probably should, too. That’s social pressure.
[00:33:27.710] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. That’s a great example, actually. That’s the Opower innovation. You probably get one of those. I get those reports now. They’re everywhere, and they are extremely effective. And it is super weird because nobody else sees you. Literally nobody knows. You could take that report and throw it away and never act on it. But just that subtle nudge of seeing that. Oh, actually, I’m not actually doing as well. Actually, if you interview people, most people think that they are above average about everything, but including energy conservation, but seeing that it’s like, oh, interesting. Good to know. Maybe there’s some changes I can make. Right.
[00:34:03.810] – Sarah Welch
Another interesting thing I will say about it is it’s not a gauntlet, right? It’s not visual, but people do. This is a strong word, but some people hate them. They still get that same visceral reaction, but it works. I don’t know. This is a weird thing about social norms is that they do make us uncomfortable sometimes those sorts of nudges, and yet they are really effective. And yeah, I don’t know. I’m not going to weigh in, I guess, on whether that’s good or bad.
[00:34:30.790] – Boris
Like everything, it could be used for good or it could be used for evil.
[00:34:34.020] – Sarah Welch
Exactly. Yeah. It does get used in both ways. Great example.
[00:34:40.250] – Boris
Awesome. Well, I really appreciate your time and expertise today. Are there any resources or tools that you recommend organizations check out if they want to look into this further, look into behavioral science or how to apply it to their own work?
[00:34:54.830] – Sarah Welch
Absolutely. I’ll list them out for you. I will also mention that the ideas42 website has a bunch of them on there, so you can always find like… you’ll find them there. So there is the Danny Kahneman seminal book on behavioral science, Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you want to get all of it downloaded into your brain, you can read that book.
[00:35:18.750] – Sarah Welch
I will say if you’re in a nonprofit and you’re working with people who are in any sort of scarce resource situation, maybe you’re working with families in poverty. There’s a book called Scarcity that I found that has been again foundational to ideas42’s work and others about how that in and of itself has like a psychological effect that’s important to understand.
[00:35:41.190] – Sarah Welch
But then back to philanthropy, getting more specific here. There are a couple of resources that I found really interesting recently. Earlier, I was talking about all the different ways that people give and want to make sure I give a shout out to Lucy Bernholz has a new book out called How We Give Now that gets into some of that and the different ways that people have been giving and how important it is to count those as well. Right. Those are important, too.
[00:36:07.580] – Sarah Welch
And then if you’re curious in learning more a little bit about some of what Boris you’re talking about about the dynamic of having super wealthy people dictating the direction of philanthropy. There is Anand… What’s his last name? Giridharadas. I’m bad too with last names.
[00:36:36.760] – Boris
Giridharadas, I want to say.
[00:36:37.450] – Sarah Welch
Yes, thank you. Giridharadas. His book Winners Take All, which is a few years old, but it has a pretty good summary of that. And there was actually… I’ll just even if you don’t have time to read the whole book, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but there is a New Yorker summary of the book from 2018 that I found super helpful that also gives some of the sort of history of the philanthropic movement and where it comes from and sort of the challenges there, because I think before I came into this, I was like, great, just make all the wealthiest people give away all their money. Why are we worried about everyday givers and everyday donors? But as I think you so eloquently covered, right. It’s the democratization aspect of it. So it’s actually quite important to have the voices of many people dictating that, where the money goes, especially because philanthropy is so personal. As I talked about earlier.
[00:37:28.410] – Boris
Yeah, we’ll link to all of those resources in our show notes, and we’ll link to both; the full book and the New Yorker article.
[00:37:34.240] – Sarah Welch
[00:37:34.690] – Boris
I won’t judge which one people read. I will try to read both honestly, but time is one of the most precious resources we have these days, and I totally understand why people might not have time to read an entire book and would prefer an article. So assuming that people are interested in this stuff, which I really hope they are, because it’s super important. Where can they follow up with you? What’s your call to action for our heroes at home?
[00:37:59.620] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. So I encourage you to go to the ideas42.org website. Boris, I can give you a link to our actual giving space. We’ve been doing this work for about five or six years, so we’ve published a fair amount of research and pieces covering all the things we talked about today. And we are continuing to do this work going forward, at least for the next few years and excited to kind of explore some of these new areas that have emerged and focus more on volunteering and some of the sort of new ways of giving that we see today.
[00:38:34.830] – Boris
Awesome. I look forward to checking those out. This episode will air after the holidays already, but this is going to give me some fun holiday reading in the meantime. Sarah, thank you so much for coming on the show today and sharing your ideas, your questions. Even if we can’t solve all the problems, even knowing which questions to ask and how we should be thinking about things, I think is critical to ever making a difference in the world.
[00:38:59.670] – Sarah Welch
Absolutely. I fully agree. Again, fully drink the Kool-Aid. I love that type of thinking, so important.
[00:39:08.430] – Boris
Well, thanks again for joining us and thank you everybody for tuning in today, spending some time with Sarah and I learning about behavioral science and how we should be thinking about it and applying it to our work in the nonprofit world so that we can create more heroes for our cause. If you enjoyed this interview or any of the others that we’ve put out, and I hope you check out a lot more, including the one with New Story Charity with Sarah Lee, or another one about behavioral science that I had with Beth Karlin or Doug White talking about philanthropy.
[00:39:38.560] – Boris
I’m loving putting all of these episodes out. I’m learning a lot. I’m hoping you are too. If you’re enjoying them, please share it with your friends. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or on your favorite platform. We try to be everywhere. And if there’s something you want covered, let us know. I’m happy to reach out and find guests that will talk specifically about whatever you’re interested in so that we can help you create more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Thanks, everybody. Bye bye.
[00:40:05.850] – Sarah Welch
[00:40:06.570] – Outro Video
Thank you all for watching and listening to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. We hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform. And let us know what you think by leaving a review.
Concepts and Takeaways:
- One of the key tenets of behavioral science is that our context and environment influences our behavior and our biases. (3:13)
- Stories are the way that we organize information in our brains, and they’re often developed after we’ve taken action, to justify and make sense of the actions we’ve taken. (5:42)
- Over the past decade, average household giving has been going down. Bigger philanthropists are having an outsized voice, giving them greater power over the nonprofit sector. (7:25)
- Since the pandemic started, a lot has changed in terms of philanthropy and equity. The questions that Sarah is concerned with today are: (8:57)
- Who has the power to give and why do they have it? And how do we shift that power if we need to?
- What does it mean to be part of a community today? How can we interact with people virtually?
- And even, what counts as giving?
- As most people give less, larger donors can dictate the nonprofit programs that get to be funded to help the community. (10:30)
- Digital tools have made giving a lot easier, but the decline of in-person asks actually has a negative effect because it’s much harder to say no to someone in person. (12:22)
- Research studies have shown that people will literally go out of their way to avoid being asked for donations because of guilt. Because we are social creatures, there’s a level of guilt that we feel when we say “no” to someone asking for help. And, whenever we do give, we feel good because we know that in a way, we have helped someone in need. (13:32)
- Taking away that social pressure has shown to lead to a decrease in giving.
- Getting people to react to or share something on social media that they feel is a positive message or a cause that their friends should consider is relatively easy. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll actually donate. (19:04)
- The real question now is how to get people to be involved virtually and get them to donate.
- How do we reintroduce some of the social pressure into virtual events? (21:19)
- One of the disadvantages to everyone being online is that often the best marketing efforts will win out, not the org with the greatest impact. At the same time, we have the potential to connect with more people around the world who would respond to our cause and our stories. (23:31)
- It’s easier for people to connect with and feel like they can have an impact on helping a child in need than battling climate change, so they are more likely to support it. So we need to figure out how to bring urgency and specific stories to big issues like climate change and poverty into smaller, more tangible steps that people will take action on. (26:52)
- In episode 17, Sarah Lee of New Story talks about how they are tackling the problem of global homelessness in part by asking individuals to support building a home for one family.
- We don’t need to tell sad narratives of victimhood to engender empathy and support. Telling positive stories of empowerment can actually yield better results. (29:30)
- There was an experiment conducted around energy conservation (Opower) where a letter was sent out from a power company comparing a household’s energy consumption habits to their neighbors. This actually created social pressure and a frame of reference that encouraged savings. (33:12)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Sarah WelchVice President, ideas42
Sarah Welch is a Vice President at ideas42, where she helps lead behavioral innovations in two focus areas: improving the way donors at all levels give to charity, and tackling climate change. Prior to joining ideas42, Sarah completed a three-year dual degree program at Yale’s School of Management and School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where she focused on urban resource management and planning. In her past life, Sarah was an ecological designer restoring natural habitats in and around New York City. Sarah holds an MBA and an MEM from Yale and received her BA in Environmental Science & Public Policy from Harvard. She’d take cheese over cake any day. (Pronouns – she/her)
Episode 39: How to Build and Grow Nonprofit Legacy Programs, with Ligia Peña
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 39
How to Build and Grow Nonprofit Legacy Programs, with Ligia Peña
In this Episode:
How do you build and grow a nonprofit legacy gift program at the most sensitive time in modern history?
Legacy planning can be tough to talk about in general… but during a pandemic that has claimed millions of lives might be the toughest. And yet, we have a responsibility. Not to our organizations, but to the people who care about the issues we’re tackling. We owe them the opportunity to make a lasting impact on the world.
When legacy inquiries spiked 300% last year, nonprofits that had well-established gift-in-will programs found themselves better-equipped to maintain their funding and services. They were also in a better position to honor the hopes of their supporters for a better future.
Legacy fundraising consultant Ligia Peña helps organizations create or reboot their legacy programs systematically. She joins us on the show to share how nonprofits of all sizes can identify and track the most important key performance indicators, creating simple dashboards that assess the health of the program.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:05.150] – Intro
Welcome to The Nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video broadcast and podcast where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more heroes for their cause and a better world for all of us. Da-Ding.
[00:00:21.790] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to The Nonprofit Hero Factory. I’m excited to present a topic today that we haven’t talked about on the show before but is really critical. We’re in the heart of the giving season right now. As you’re watching or listening to this episode, I’m sure your campaigns are in full swing, and you may or may not be really paying attention to one very important aspect of your fundraising at this time specifically, although I hope it’s part of your bigger picture, which is legacy fundraising. And it’s never really easy necessarily to talk about legacy fundraising, especially when it comes to talking to donors about their legacy gifts and well, when a legacy gift might kick in.
[00:01:00.140] – Boris
But we have someone with us today who is not just a professional when it comes to helping organizations develop their legacy programs but also helps them figure out how to talk about legacy programs so that it’s not as awkward and makes it easier to then connect with audiences and get them to… well, take the actions you need them to take so you could create a better world for all of us.
[00:01:22.980] – Boris
Her name is Ligia Peña. Ligia is a CFRE and President of Globetrotting Fundraiser, where she specializes in helping nonprofits with their fundraising and legacy strategy. She’s also a PhD candidate at the University of Kent, researching national legacy marketing campaigns as a tool to change society’s behavior towards gifts in wills. As an AFP master trainer, she’s trained countless fundraisers around the globe. She’s a sought-after and seasoned international presenter who enjoys sharing her knowledge and empowering nonprofit professionals to think about legacies differently by daring to be creative and innovative. Her superpower, Ligia, describes as teaching nonprofits how to structurally build or reboot their legacy program while making talking about death fun.
[00:02:07.760] – Boris
With that, let’s welcome Ligia onto the show to tell us more of her story. Hi, Ligia.
[00:02:13.240] – Ligia Pena
Hi. Thank you for having me.
[00:02:15.510] – Boris
Thanks so much for joining me today. So for those that don’t know, which is probably everybody listening, Ligia and I are in an ongoing consultant’s support network, if you will, for nonprofit consultants. And it’s been great getting to know you Ligia over the last I don’t know few months now that I’ve been involved and frankly to learn from you. So I’m really excited to have you on the show to share a lot of your wisdom that you’ve accumulated over the years with all of us.
[00:02:41.760] – Ligia Pena
Oh, likewise. Thank you so much. I’m very excited to talk about legacy. It’s something that I can talk about for hours and hours and hours. So we’ll try to cram as much as possible in this podcast.
[00:02:54.100] – Boris
Yeah. I wish I could make the podcast as long as it really needs to be to deliver all the information that any of my guests want to share, which is awesome and incredibly valuable. But there’s this thing called life that people want to get on with sometimes. I don’t get it personally.
[00:03:11.750] – Ligia Pena
I know. Phew!
[00:03:14.050] – Boris
Let’s dive in Ligia with your story. So I read your bio. You’re clearly an impressive individual, but what got you here? Why are you doing the work that you’re doing now?
[00:03:26.290] – Ligia Pena
I’m doing this particular work because my work as a fundraiser for the first 15 years was as a small shop generalist. And after 15 years of doing pretty much the same thing over and over again in different charities, obviously adapting and learning and expanding. It became very clear that what I really felt like—the areas of fundraising where I felt that I was working in my zone of genius was in the relationship fundraising element, not the transactional fundraising area of fundraising. And to me, doing planned giving, as we tend to call it here in North America or legacy or gifts in wills is really the epitome to me of relationship fundraising.
[00:04:14.740] – Ligia Pena
And so I started doing planned giving many years ago and then ended up getting this fantastic job working for an international NGO as their global legacy person. And there was no turning back from that point forward. And so now I’m consulting.
[00:04:33.550] – Boris
Yes, you are. And lucky clients that do get to work with you. But for those that haven’t and don’t really know as much as you do, for example, on the subject. Let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on in the nonprofit space and specifically, of course, in the planned giving or the legacy giving world. I’m sure things have gotten a little more intense or shaken up during the pandemic as every other aspect has. Talk to me, what’s going on out there? What are you seeing?
[00:05:04.090] – Ligia Pena
It’s really interesting because, you know necessity… What’s that expression? Necessity is the mother of…
[00:05:12.310] – Boris
Necessity is the mother of invention.
[00:05:13.670] – Ligia Pena
Exactly. And despite all of the elements of the pandemic that have been absolutely horrendous and sad and upsetting and stressful, et cetera, that everyone experienced globally. When it comes… when I look at the impact of a pandemic on legacies specifically, and this is something that I’ve observed not only in North America but across the world, is that it pushed fundraisers and charities to adopt new ways of engaging with donors and new ways to talk about the topic of legacies.
[00:05:52.550] – Ligia Pena
Because what happened? If we go to… if we go back in time to March through June, July of 2020, what happened is charities that would on average receive two or three notifications per month of a legacy, suddenly were getting 20, 50 notifications per month. They were getting 20 or 30 inquiries on how to leave a gift in their will per week. So this is… and lawyers and notaries around the world and online will writing services saw in the upwards of 300% increase in business. And so that just really pushed the sector to look at legacies through a different lens. And that is something that’s super exciting to me as a legacy nerd.
[00:06:52.250] – Boris
So on the one hand, of course, it’s tragic and there’s a lot of tragedy happening.
[00:06:58.310] – Ligia Pena
[00:06:58.310] – Boris
And on the other hand, it’s a critical time for organizations to be looking at their legacy programs, to be optimizing them to figure out better communications, better tracking, better everything in order to really not just benefit from it but honestly—and I’m sure this is how most people including yourself think about it is give people the opportunity to make a lasting impact, whatever may happen during a tragedy like the pandemic that has befallen the entire world at this point.
[00:07:32.630] – Ligia Pena
Oh, absolutely. And I want our listeners to know I’m not making light of the pandemic at all. But here’s what happens is that by looking at the numbers and I’m just projecting here because I don’t think anyone has done the research yet. It’s definitely something I’m interested in probably doing a bit of a small research project on is looking at the charities in 2020 and 2021 that have been able to weather the storm, the pandemic storm, or have managed to continue operating with minimal impact. I wonder how many of those are those who had a legacy program that was functioning, was generating income versus those that did not, my suspicion—and again, I’m just projecting. And my assumption is this, but it hasn’t been proven yet—
[00:08:33.820] – Ligia Pena
My assumption is those that were focusing… who had fundraising programs that were all about small transactions or transactional fundraising. Short-term funding probably paid the price a lot more than those that had their nest egg being legacies. Because when you look at it, if you were to take the concept of fundraise… a diversified fundraising program and you transform that into an example of what it is that—how you invest for your own future. Well, basically, a legacy program and gifts in wills are the equivalent of your 401 (k) in the US, right? Or whatever pension plan you have. It’s that money that in the future is going to come in and when you need it, you can tap into it.
[00:09:24.380] – Ligia Pena
Well, a lot of charities still don’t understand that concept. That that’s what a planned giving program is. So they keep saying, well, my paycheck is in two weeks, therefore, that’s what I live on. It’s not sustainable. You lose your job from one day to the next, and now you’re unemployed, and that’s what a lot of people saw during the pandemic.
[00:09:44.450] – Ligia Pena
Anyway, I don’t want to over extend the metaphor, but that’s basically—charities need to look at planned giving programs through that lens and start doing that. Because let’s look at back in 2009 when the… in 2008 and 9 when the economy tanked. The organizations that weathered the storm as well during that are those that probably had a planned giving program and a major gift program.
[00:10:11.270] – Boris
No, I think that’s really fascinating. I would love to see that study if you would be able to put it together. I think it will definitely bring to light a lot of things. From what I have seen—and I haven’t talked to a lot of organizations about their legacy programs, but I have talked about their individual giving programs over the last year and a half. It’s the ones that were able to pivot or that were already in a position where they were most capable of helping the biggest number of people in communities that were impacted by the pandemic.
[00:10:45.510] – Boris
A lot of them were actually able to grow. Foundations poured more money into it. But I think… And again, really interested if you are able to do this study to see the results, if you could break them out by the category of services that the organization provides, the ones that were not directly or maybe even secondarily providing relief to people during the pandemic and didn’t have a great legacy program, or how did a legacy program impact them? I think that’s going to be where the biggest gap is probably going to be. Again, just like I’m guessing here, but that’s my take on the state of things right now.
[00:11:27.590] – Ligia Pena
That’s definitely an interesting hypothesis that should be layered into that. Absolutely. That’d be really interesting. So we’ll talk after.
[00:11:36.770] – Boris
You and I can gather our data and studies as much as we want. But let’s get back to some of the things that I think our listeners and viewers would really love to learn from you, which is: with these trends that are going on right now with everything happening, what is it that we need to do and can do in order to optimize and really measure our results in terms of legacy giving programs? And I know you talk a lot about data and about dashboards. I’d love to get your insights on that. What are the KPIs that we should really be tracking? What should we be looking for as we’re coming out of the pandemic? What should we be thinking about?
[00:12:23.030] – Ligia Pena
So, and what I’m about to share—it really applies whether we would have gone through a pandemic or not—I think to me is a fundamental thing that needs to change. Like when we started the call is, what are some of the challenges that we see? Well, I think a big issue that I see and everyone reports on legacies differently, but the most traditional way that organizations have been reporting on legacies is income. Well, income is just a really tiny snapshot of how many estates have been settled during the year. But it says absolutely nothing about the effort that your legacy fundraiser is doing today. It basically is reporting on something that you have absolutely no control of.
[00:13:13.690] – Ligia Pena
So how can you be developed as a fundraising director, as a CEO, how can you make strategic fundraising decisions about your legacy program when what you’re using as your benchmark to make those decisions is something you have absolutely zero control of? So go back to the drawing board and define your key performance indicators based on elements that you can control, that you can actually make business decisions to ensure that you continually push and advance your legacy program as well as your legacy professional, because your KPIs need to be evaluating both the program and the professional.
[00:13:59.780] – Ligia Pena
So some of the things that in the dashboard that I introduced to the organizations that I work with looks at some broad-based KPIs and then some specific KPIs. And the specific KPIs are based on the pipeline model that they decide to integrate. So it’s a pipeline of who you inquire… who you acquire from within your database or outside of your database to engage in the legacy conversation. What are the different stages of that journey? And then up until the point where you convert them into a legacy pledger.
[00:14:39.960] – Ligia Pena
So those are the specific KPIs that you should be looking at. How many new inquiries have you received? How many of those inquirers have turned into considerers? How many of those considerers have turned into intenders? And how many of those intenders converted into a pledge? Right. So those are things you can control strategically, through your marketing, through your engagement, through your conversations, through different ways. So those are the specific ones.
[00:15:09.160] – Ligia Pena
Next is then looking at more managerial type of KPIs is how many communications are being sent out? How many engagement… How much comms is being sent out to donors? How many individual one-on-one conversations your fundraiser is having with donors? And so this is done—and there’s additional—there’s like way more KPIs. But if you’re starting from scratch or if you’re currently reporting on things that you can’t control and you want to start integrating this element, start with those things. Look at your pipeline and identify KPIs that challenge you, to grow that pipeline. I know I keep harboring on the pipeline element, but that’s because it’s the most important piece of your fundraising program to ensure that you do get that money.
[00:16:08.430] – Ligia Pena
So it’s not the number of people who have raised their hand, although that’s obviously important, but it’s the number of people that you bring into the funnel, and how many you move ahead. And what happens oftentimes is that organizations are really good at the acquisition element, but then do a terrible job at converting and bringing them to the end of that funnel. And so that’s the key to the success of your legacy program is the conversion element.
[00:16:38.830] – Boris
So I really appreciate you being as specific as you just were. And I understand that you can’t be completely specific because every organization is going to be slightly different. And the way that they’re going to set up their pipeline or funnel—either metaphor—is going to be a little bit different, but it is critical to figure out what the most important KPIs are for each organization. And it sounds like—and correct me if I’m wrong here, you’ve basically broken them down into inputs, outputs, and outcomes. Where the inputs are, okay, here’s what we’ve done: here’s how many calls we’ve made, how many emails we’ve sent, how many follow ups we’ve had, how many conversations in-person meetings we may have have, right? Then the outputs are, okay, here’s how many people responded, here’s how many people were interested and that ladder that you spoke about… three different stages of interested or inquiring, you said?
[00:17:34.690] – Ligia Pena
Inquirers, considerers, intenders and pledgers.
[00:17:37.870] – Boris
Oh, so four levels?
[00:17:39.118] – Ligia Pena
[00:17:40.270] – Boris
Right. And so pledger is ultimately the outcome that you want when somebody has pledged?
[00:17:45.260] – Ligia Pena
Correct. The person that said, “You’re in my will, we’re good.” Yeah.
[00:17:50.350] – Boris
When they do that, do they declare a specific amount?
[00:17:53.950] – Ligia Pena
Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. So what you do want to be doing is having that additional conversation with the donor when they confirm that they have included your charity in their will, they say, “Well, we would love to have the opportunity to honor your gift and to thank you and to recognize you. Would you be willing to share with us the terms or the amounts or is it a specific gift? Is it a residual gift? What is it that you want?” And then that enables you also to have that conversation of, “did you have an intention of having your bequest be dedicated—not dedicated but reserved for like a particular project? Do you want it designated?”
[00:18:39.026] – Boris
[00:18:39.530] – Ligia Pena
Yeah. “Designated to a specific project or program that we’re running?” And so that enables you then to engage in that conversation and et cetera.
[00:18:51.950] – Boris
Right. We map these out, all these KPIs onto some sort of a dashboard, and then we could essentially look and see what results we’re producing long before we get the eventual bequest, the eventual donation?
[00:19:06.290] – Ligia Pena
Absolutely. Because if you’re reporting this, whether you do it on a quarterly basis or at a six-month mark, et cetera, then you can see trends of what’s happening. So, for instance, if I put my fundraising director hat on and my legacy officer brings me this, and I see that quarter after quarter, I don’t see any movement in the conversion from stages to stages. Then that would be the time—that would be a red flag for me to have a conversation, okay, what’s happening here? Why aren’t any of these donors being converted? Why isn’t this flowing?
[00:19:43.250] – Ligia Pena
Because, of course, when you go into legacy fundraising, you’re in it for the long term. This is not an ask and it comes in. Okay? So we know that. But your pipeline has to keep moving. So if I keep seeing that my legacy fundraiser keeps adding a lot of inquiries, but none of those inquiries are moving into considerers or intenders, then I need to have a serious conversation with them. Is it because we’re not investing enough? Is it because they’re overworked or are they just not the right person to be managing the program?
[00:20:15.780] – Ligia Pena
So you want to look at it from a business perspective. Is your program progressing? Because the last thing you want is to have a situation where 20 years from now, you suddenly have very few legacies coming in. Why? Because none of those donors were engaged with. None of those donors were converted.
[00:20:36.780] – Ligia Pena
I can tell you one organization I know for sure in a country they did that. They had a legacy officer for many, many years, and all she did was just maintain the relationship with donors who had already confirmed their gift. But she was not doing any acquisition or any conversion. They ended up being promoted to a team leader position. They hired a new legacy fundraiser. I was brought in to go sit down onboard her and look at their program. And then we realized that for the last ten years, there was no acquisition, no conversion done. And now they were facing a significant funding shortfall because they always depended on that legacy income, and the well had pretty much dried up.
[00:21:25.130] – Boris
[00:21:25.130] – Ligia Pena
And it’s not something that you can replace in five minutes. It takes years.
[00:21:31.070] – Boris
So it’s critical to have this information available and accessible, perhaps reporting to the board, perhaps at least reporting to the executive director or CEO, whatever you have at the top of your organization. How do we do this? How do we put it together? When I think of a dashboard, I’m a marketing and data geek. So I think of a dashboard as something with charts and inputs and outputs already kind of meshed together. And there are tools that I know of for marketing purposes. But for a lot of people that might feel technical or too technical to get set up, what do we actually need to do? What are some of the tools that we could use to make this as simple as possible?
[00:22:14.730] – Ligia Pena
I can’t take credit for the dashboard that I have because it was someone else that had created it from scratch. I just modified it and adapted it to the needs. Excel. I have it on an Excel spreadsheet. Honestly, I went as low tech as possible because I never want to assume that someone else knows how to use these other tools. And there’s a lot of things like there’s a lot of tools out there, Tableau software and all of these other pay services that you can use, and they’re great. They’re fancy, but most people don’t know how to use it. I can’t be bothered to learn it. And the Excel spreadsheet most people do, and most people know how to input formulas.
[00:22:56.570] – Ligia Pena
So on my resource page on my website, I have a template of a dashboard that people can download and then turn into an Excel spreadsheet. And that’s it. That’s all you need to do, really. Keep it as simple as possible. And what I often tell my bootcamp participants or my clients is, you don’t need to report on all of the elements that are in the dashboard that I created. Just pick the first three or four or five however you think is more relevant to your organization, do those really well. And then as you get more and more sophisticated, add new KPIs, add new elements. Don’t think that you need to do absolutely everything. Just do what you can actually control for now, and you can actually report on and then improve from that point forward.
[00:23:47.310] – Boris
So I love what you said about keeping it as simple as possible. The best tool is the one that you know how to use and can use in the moment, that it’s available to you in the moment. If you have the time and bandwidth to develop something custom, to develop something larger or use one of these bigger platforms. And Tableau is probably the biggest one and probably too complex for 99% of people out there. But that certainly shows the range something from as simple as an Excel sheet to a package like Tableau that will do so many advanced things that data scientists can use, but the rest of us don’t really need to. And I know that there’s a data package from Google. I forget what the—Google Data Studio, I think it’s called.
[00:24:30.620] – Ligia Pena
Yeah, it is great.
[00:24:31.750] – Boris
Yeah, and fairly easy to use and then can be easily—you could package reports, basically export reports out of that on any sort of a regular basis and then share them with the team whomever that might be.
[00:24:45.240] – Ligia Pena
That’s actually what we used to use at Greenpeace.
[00:24:48.210] – Boris
There you go. So once you have this report going, and by the way, I love that you offer this. I’ve seen the tool that you offer. I think it’s super simple, straightforward. It doesn’t feel like some fancy dashboard. It feels like, oh, I just need to plug in some numbers over here and track my progress over time. And you offer a lot of great resources on your website. We’re going to link to as many of them as we can. You’ve got most of them on your resources page right there for people. So we’ll be sure to include that in the show notes.
[00:25:18.300] – Boris
One other resource, speaking of which, that you have on there, which I personally love is that you have examples of legacy pages that work on your website. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
[00:25:32.970] – Ligia Pena
Yeah. That’s a work-in-progress, because I often get asked by organizations for examples of good legacy pages or in-memory pages. And truth be told, there’s a lot of really terrible ones. So whenever I come across something that I find fits within what the research tells us of how to talk to donors about legacies, I just put it in there. So honestly, I should go and add like, what are the things that I like about every page and what other fundraisers should be on the lookout for because it has to be educational. Right?
[00:26:14.310] – Ligia Pena
So that’s why… so those are pages that have been sent to me or that when I was doing research, I came across and went, oh, my goodness. But I find when it comes—because this is about a lot of storytelling as well. One organization that honestly is perhaps one of the organizations does storytelling the best is RNLI in the UK. It is absolutely insane how well they tell the story. It’s the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, RNLI. And their web page is fantastic, and their YouTube channel is fantastic for like heartfelt storytelling.
[00:27:00.680] – Boris
I’m excited to check them out. And you got exactly to the heart of why I was thrilled with the pages that you have on your side. I didn’t get to all of them, but the few that I looked at honestly, what makes them great is the storytelling. And I talk about donation page storytelling. I’ve never actually really looked at legacy pages specifically, but it’s the same kind of concept of you need to tell the story. You need to make sure that it connects to your audience. And I saw that the visuals were good, that the videos were right there and easy to see, that the impact was on the page. It had a great complete story on there with ways that people could jump in and get involved.
[00:27:41.260] – Boris
So I’m happy to go through if you’d like to break it down for you and say exactly why it’s working. And even maybe in some ways, that some of them might improve similar to what I do for donation pages for a lot of my clients and occasionally just for fun for people. But, yeah, it’s really the story that works. And you’re talking about… what potentially without your organization, without a nonprofit is the end of someone’s story when it comes to working with a certain cause or cause that they believe in, and you’re offering them—once again, giving them a call to action and offering them the superpower, the ability to have a legacy impact on a cause that they really care about. And it’s critical.
[00:28:27.720] – Ligia Pena
Exactly. And going back to the introduction that you did at the beginning of the podcast where you said that I make death—talking about death fun. A lot of it is that—and to your point about the website is that—in legacies, it’s not that you talk about death and we make it fun. It’s that it’s fun to talk about life and leaving a gift in a will is to talk with the donor about the lives that they live, the values that were important. Because through their gift in their will, they can reach symbolic immortality and academic research.
[00:29:07.160] – Ligia Pena
Actually, one of my research supervisors wrote her PhD thesis on the importance of symbolic immortality in legacy marketing, and that’s what we do. And I think once we understand that, it’s incredibly powerful to know. And I think it’ll take that fear away from fundraisers to say, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t feel comfortable talking about death.” Well, no, you need to understand that this is not about death. It’s about that symbolic immortality that a donor will have through that gift in their will. And in order to do that, you need to talk about the life that they lived.
[00:29:45.490] – Ligia Pena
And that’s why another resource that I really believe that fundraisers should read is this book by Dr. Russell James out of Texas Tech University. Let me see if I can hold it up. Inside the Mind of the Bequest Donor, which is also hyperlinked. A PDF version of the book is also hyperlinked on my research page. I think it’s a must read for every fundraiser that is interested or is currently working in the area of legacies. It’s incredibly important because it talks about the neurological aspect of—the parts of the brain that are activated when donors talk about gifts in wills, or read legacy marketing.
[00:30:27.610] – Boris
Ligia, you must have been reading my mind because the next thing I wanted to ask you was, what are some tools and resources aside from all the ones on your site that we are going to absolutely link to, that you recommend to people. So that book Inside the Mind of the Bequest Donor we’ll definitely link to that. And it’s great that it’s available on your site as well for download. Is there anything else that you recommend people check out in terms of the state of the industry, if that’s an appropriate term for legacy giving?
[00:30:57.610] – Ligia Pena
So, The Giving Institute also published in 2019, I think it was. Yes, I think it was in 2019 or 2020, sorry. Fall of ’19. Leaving a Legacy: A New Look at Planned Giving Donors. So I think that’s a must for fundraisers working in the US and it’s only $69. So click download, boom, you’ve got it. So that’s another great place. Reading anything that comes up. So I’m going to declare my bias here because I am doing my PhD I’m very much about read the academic research coming out. So things that Jen Shang and Adrian Sargeant are writing about donor motivation, donor psychology. Incredibly important. They publish a lot of stuff. You can find them on their website.
[00:31:49.040] – Ligia Pena
Claire Rowley, another academic friend and thesis supervisor. Dr. Russell James, that I mentioned as well. These are academics that are straddling academia and being practitioners. And so it’s important as fundraisers, and it’s incumbent on us to read the research because that’s where we know if we apply what—the researchers have actually done the test for us. All we need to do is apply it in our daily practice.
[00:32:22.570] – Boris
And I love research and figuring out how to apply it, especially when it comes to human behavior, behavioral economics, behavioral psychology, behavioral sciences in general, how we can really help people make the best choices for themselves and for the world around them when it comes to working with nonprofit organizations or NGOs, whatever they might be in your part of the world.
[00:32:45.730] – Boris
Ligia, thank you so much for being on the show today and sharing all of this. This has been a wonderful conversation. I’ve learned a lot, and hopefully the audience at home has too. Do you have any call to action for those of us that—for all of our listeners and viewers that have made it this far and are fascinated by the work that you’re doing?
[00:33:06.010] – Ligia Pena
Keep reading, ask questions. Don’t be afraid to doubt yourself and then seek advice from myself or from others in the sector that work in this realm and keep pushing. Keep the pushing the envelopes. Learn about what’s going on in other markets and then apply that learning to your own.
[00:33:27.190] – Boris
Definitely. Well, thank you again so much.
[00:33:30.410] – Ligia Pena
[00:33:31.690] – Boris
And thank you everybody who joined us today for this episode of The Nonprofit Hero Factory with Ligia Peña. If you enjoyed this episode and learned something that you might be able to apply to your organization, any idea that has sparked in your mind that can help you create more heroes for your cause, then this was a good day for me and for Ligia. Thank you for joining us. Please share, like, and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite platform so that more nonprofit professionals like yourself can discover experts like Ligia and create a better world for all of us.
[00:34:04.450] – Boris
Bye bye, everybody.
[00:34:05.550] – Outro
Thank you all for watching and listening to The Nonprofit Hero Factory. We hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform and let us know what you think by leaving a review.
Concepts and Takeaways:
- Nonprofits saw a large jump and the legacy planning industry saw a 300% spike in June and July of 2020, largely because of the pandemic. (5:55)
- Nonprofits with better-established legacy programs were in a better position to weather the pandemic, even if short-term donations slowed down. (8:33)
- One of the biggest mistakes that organizations make is tracking legacies in terms of income, which says nothing about the current efforts of fundraisers. (12:23)
- Your KPIs should be defined on elements that you can actually control to help you make the right business decisions. (13:31)
- Inquirers – How many new inquiries have you received?
- Considerers – How many of those inquirers have turned into considerers?
- Intenders – How many of those considerers have turned into intenders?
- Pledgers – How many of those intenders converted into a pledge?
- Once your performance KPIs are established, look at your managerial KPIs for your funnel, like: How much communications are being sent out? How many 1:1 conversations are fundraisers having with donors? (15:09)
- The key to the success of your program is the conversion element in your funnel.
- The funnel KPIs should essentially measure your inputs, outputs and outcomes (gifts in wills). (16:38)
- Gift amounts aren’t always specified, but there are several conversational approaches to having them declared. (17:50)
- These KPIs and associated dashboards should quickly show whether you’re making progress and securing more legacy gifts, versus resting on laurels. (20:20)
- You don’t need elaborate custom tools. The dashboard can be set up easily in Excel. If you want to take it to the next level, you can try Google Data Studio. (22:14)
- You also don’t need to dive into the deep end with tracking KPIs. Start with just a few (3–5), and add more as you progress and get more sophisticated with your program. (23:12)
- Ligia curates a collection of great legacy fundraising web pages that are great at storytelling. (25:18)
- You shouldn’t be talking to people about death, you should be talking about the opportunity to extend their impact in line with their own values. (27:57)
- There are great texts and ongoing research being conducted in the realms of behavior and legacy giving. Staying current with researchers like the ones Ligia recommends can dramatically increase your effectiveness. (29:45)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Ligia PeñaPresident, GlobetrottingFundraiser
Ligia Peña, CFRE is President of GlobetrottingFundraiser where she specializes in helping nonprofits with their fundraising and legacy strategy. She’s also a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kent, researching national legacy marketing campaigns as a tool to change society’s behaviour towards gifts in wills. As an AFP Master Trainer, she’s trained countless fundraisers around the globe. She’s a sought-after and seasoned international presenter who enjoys sharing her knowledge and empowering nonprofits professionals to think about legacies differently by daring to be creative and innovative.
Episode 33: The Role of Curiosity in Major-Gift Nonprofit Fundraising, with Rhea Wong
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 33
The Role of Curiosity in Major-Gift Nonprofit Fundraising, with Rhea Wong
In this Episode:
Studies have shown that as much as 88% of a nonprofit’s donated funds come from just 12% of their donors. That trend is only increasing, as a larger portion of all donations is coming from a smaller number of people. Each nonprofit might define a major gift differently, but the need to cultivate and maintain relationships with major gift donors is undeniable.
Unlike clearly defined grant applications or other sources of funding, donors are individuals without instruction manuals, and they want to be treated as such (and not as checkbooks). How can a nonprofit fundraiser identify prospective major gift donors and what does it take to build a relationship?
Major gift fundraising consultant Rhea Wong teaches people how to (and how to love) major gift fundraising. She believes it comes down to having a system and developing a curiosity mindset, and she joins us this episode to lay out an effective approach to both.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:18.110] – Intro Video
Welcome to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video broadcast, and podcast. Where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more heroes for their cause and a better word for all of us. Da-Ding!
[00:00:22.050] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. Today, I’m very excited to have Rhea Wong, who is the founder of the eponymous Rhea Wong Consulting. Rhea helps nonprofits raise more money, which is something I think we all agree is a good thing. She has raised millions of dollars in private philanthropy and is passionate about building the next generation of fundraising leaders. She has become a leader in the New York nonprofit community and is a frequent educational commentator in the media. She has been recognized with the SmartCEO Brava Award in 2015 and the New York Nonprofit Media’s 40 under 40 in 2017.
[00:00:59.130] – Boris
Rhea lives in Brooklyn, my hometown, with her husband and the world’s most spoiled dog, Stevie Wonder Dog. When she is not raising money for causes she loves, she can be found hosting her podcast, Nonprofit Lowdown, or on stage as a newbie stand up comedian in downtown Brooklyn. For more information, you can check out rheawong.com. We’ll have that link later on. Her superpower is teaching people how to and how to love major gift fundraising. So that’s her impressive bio. Let’s bring Rhea on to the show to tell us more. Hey, Rhea. How are you doing?
[00:01:34.830] – Rhea Wong
Hi. I’m good. Thank you, Boris. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting.
[00:01:38.190] – Boris
It’s awesome to have you honestly. And I didn’t realize that first of all, hilarious name for the dog, but I didn’t realize that you were doing your stand up comedy in downtown Brooklyn. I’m in Jersey now, but I’ve got to make my way over. Maybe after the show, we could talk about how to see you do the thing.
[00:01:57.330] – Rhea Wong
Well, the pandemic has definitely put a damper on the open mics, but I like to say I bombed all over downtown Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. So bombing in a dive bar near you.
[00:02:09.450] – Boris
Well, I’m sure it’s made you a better storyteller. I know all my bombing experiences have made me one. So let’s talk today about you and the work that you’re doing. You heard me read your bio, of course. And it’s got some very impressive awards there. Why don’t you tell us your story, though? How did you become the expert in nonprofit fundraising that you are?
[00:02:32.910] – Rhea Wong
Yeah, well, actually, it’s funny. Stand up comedy kind of comes into this, which is that I think a lot of people are really scared of donors and major gift donors. And to that, I say, okay, just do a five minute stand up comedy set and after that you’re bulletproof. If you can do that, everything else is easy. Especially if you bomb, you’re bulletproof after that.
[00:02:58.590] – Boris
I think we just got a million dollar idea, which is acting training or stand-up comedy training for fundraisers.
[00:03:05.790] – Rhea Wong
Oh, yeah. No, I’ve been on that train. I wanna get my students to do five minute stand up routines, but I feel like it would be a mass exercise and they would all quit. So how did I start? So I was actually a 25 year old or 26 year old executive director, which you know, in hindsight, I’m like, that seems like a bad idea to hire a 26 year old. But at the time, I was like, “Yeah, I can figure it out. I’m smart. There’s nothing I can’t do.” I talk about this all the time, which is my first day on the job I did two Google searches. Search one was, what does an executive director do? And the second was how to fundraise. So to say I was an amateur is generous. It would be a generous term. So over the course of twelve years, when I started the budget was something around $250,000 a year. By the time I left, twelve and a half years later, our budget was up to $3 million a year in private philanthropic funds. So I figured it out. But it took me twelve years to do it.
[00:04:07.230] – Rhea Wong
And so when I started my consulting practice, actually, initially, I wasn’t doing major gift fundraising training. I was doing a lot of a little of this, a little of that. And then I thought, like, what’s the thing that I really am good at and actually enjoy? And it turned out to be major gift fundraising. So what I do is I run what I call the fundraising accelerator a couple of times a year where mostly executive directors and some development directors enroll for an eight-week boot camp around how to be a major gift fundraiser. So I’ll pause there. That’s my story. But I don’t know if you want me to elaborate.
[00:04:43.050] – Boris
Well, I think we’re gonna elaborate as we talk. I think first of all, an accelerator sounds pretty great. I’m sure we’ll be able to find information about that on your site, which we’ll link to in the show notes. I also really… I mean, I love the approach, and I love that you were able to learn on your feet. But now I think it’s great that you’re helping other people not have to make all those mistakes for twelve years to get to where you are.
[00:05:11.323] – Rhea Wong
[00:05:11.710] – Boris
So let’s dive in and let’s pull out some of that knowledge that you’ve accumulated, not just in those twelve years, but ever since as a consultant and everything you’ve been doing. From a donor perspective, from a fundraiser, I should say perspective and specifically, I guess in the scope of major gifts, which is what you’re specializing in, what’s going on in the nonprofit world today?
[00:05:34.510] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. So actually, you cited a statistic, which I thought was interesting, which is that overall philanthropic giver, like the smaller donors, are going down at the same time that major gifts are going up. And so I just pulled a couple of data points from 2021. And when we look at it, 69% of all philanthropic gifts given nationally are given from individuals, which accounts for 75 billion with a B dollars. Right? So, obviously, there’s a lot there. I think the challenge that we have is that we…Especially for the smaller nonprofits, there seems to just be like this desperation of like, we just need to get any money in the door. Right? So we do a little bit of everything, but don’t really make a lot of progress on any one thing. So it’s like we have our year end appeal. And maybe we do… Like we’re doing an online giving campaign and maybe we’re doing a social media campaign, and maybe we’re also doing grants. And I think all of those things are important things to do.
[00:06:43.270] – Rhea Wong
I tend to be pretty pragmatic. What is the biggest bang for my buck from an ROI perspective? And so what’s historically true is that 80% of your budget will be provided by 20% of your donors. So I think… And again, some people may disagree with me on this, but it seems to me from an efficiency standpoint that if you could just focus on that 20% that’s giving 80% of the dollars, that’s a really good foundation around which to build a fundraising program for sustainability into the future. A couple of other statistics I just wanna cite to you: the largest growing wealth demographic in the world is actually what they call high-net-worth individuals. So that’s 30 million in assets and above. And I think that grew like 30% just last year alone. And it’s also cited that there are 53.1 million millionaires in the world.
[00:07:36.970] – Rhea Wong
So like statistically speaking, especially since we live in the US, which is the second wealthiest country after Switzerland, PS, just in case you don’t know. Statistically, you probably know millionaires and you just don’t know it yet. So I think there’s so much opportunity out there. There’s such incredible wealth out there. And I think really, major gift fundraising starts with first recognizing that there’s a lot out there. Like there’s a world of abundance. We just have to ready to go look for it.
[00:08:11.030] – Boris
So I’m gonna just push back slightly or actually give the flip side of that argument, which is, yes, I know the Pareto principle 80-20. And the majority of funding often for nonprofits comes from 20% of their donors. Maybe it is 80%. Maybe it’s higher for some organizations. Isn’t that a little bit of a precarious situation to be in though? Because if let’s say that comes from a certain, I don’t know, 15 people and three of them drop out in a given year, that’s a huge portion of your budget that might go away. What do you say to people who don’t wanna be overly dependent on these major gift owners?
[00:08:52.430] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. So I… So a couple of things I would say, I’m not saying to focus on just those major gift owners, but I am saying, have a strategy for those major gift owners. Right? So, as an organization, your goal should always be towards diversification and bringing more people up into that major gift category. So to your point that you’re not depending on those three people or those ten people. Right? And so… But I think the base of building that momentum really has to come from a small group that are like passionate about your cause and then you grow out from there. So I’m not saying you stay small, but you start with something that you can wrap your arms around. Does that make sense?
[00:09:34.610] – Boris
It does. It does. And now I’ll play devil’s advocate to myself and support your argument, too, because, yes, you definitely wanna diversify. And we talk a lot on this show about how to attract more people to your cause. But there’s also the idea that if you could get some major donors, for example, to sponsor some of your overhead so that you could say that all donations go to your programs. That’s a big selling point. And hopefully the types of strategies that you teach, we’re gonna be able to pick up more of the major gift high wealth individuals so that we’re not dependent on as few as we might be currently.
[00:10:15.170] – Rhea Wong
That’s exactly right. Which, like the name of the game, is always about how do we continue to bring people into our community, bring people into our list of supporters and continue? And I think this is where, as a nonprofit sector, where notoriously bad is steward them so that they continue giving year after year. Now, that’s not to say that someone is gonna give to you forever and ever. Right? Like circumstances change, people change their minds, right? So even if you have the best stewardship in the world, you’re not gonna necessarily get to 100%. But I can’t remember exactly. I think across the sector, our donor retention rates are 45%. Like that’s a terrible statistic. And so if we could actually spend more of our time focused on stewardship, we could actually spend less of our time having to constantly attract new donors because we could count on the ones that we have, you know, as we say. And you know, in business, it’s cheaper to make money off of a client you already have than to get a new client.
[00:11:17.450] – Boris
Absolutely. Retention is cheaper than acquisition. Absolutely.
[00:11:20.810] – Rhea Wong
That’s exactly right.
[00:11:21.590] – Boris
So let’s back up for just a second. We’re talking about major gifts, and I realize this might mean something different for different organizations. But can we define what a major gift is?
[00:11:33.470] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. So again, it depends. And maybe there’s some, like metric out there that I’m not aware of. But I think it depends on whatever you consider to be a major gift. So, generally speaking, rule of thumb, I will advise organizations to look at the span of gifts and then look at the top end of individuals. So I’m speaking exclusively here about individuals. I think foundations are a different thing. Corporate is a different thing. Events are a different thing. So there are different strategies for different types of revenue streams.
[00:12:07.190] – Rhea Wong
So let’s talk about individuals, but let’s look at your spread and say, oh, it looks like we have, you know two people who’ve given $10,000 last year and then, you know, probably a few more have given five, a few have given more, et cetera. So you might decide that, okay, ten might be our major gift number. How are we going to steward the people that we have on our pipeline to get some number of them up to this $10,000 mark? So it’s both an art and a science. I’m not going to say unless someone else there has like a hard and fast strategy. Then please let me know. But I think it’s more kind of like rule of thumb and what makes sense for your organization. Obviously, a major gift for a small nonprofit is gonna be different than a major gift for the Met Opera, that’s apples and oranges. We’re not even talking the same thing. The key really is just to have a goal of some sort.
[00:13:00.710] – Boris
I think that’s a great analogy with the Met Opera versus a small organization. Which makes me wonder if maybe there is a number out there and maybe if someone’s listening can let me know where a major gift might be considered anything over a percentage of your budget, like say over 3% of our budget. Well, that’s a major gift or over 1% depending on what the budget is and what your donors are.
[00:13:23.810] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. If there is, let me know. I’d be curious about that.
[00:13:27.710] – Boris
Yeah. So, okay, now that we know pretty much what a major gift is and we can all figure it out for ourselves based on our budget and how many donors we have and what ranges are giving in, what is a major gift strategy then?
[00:13:45.230] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. Well, let me back up, too, Boris. I actually think what’s really interesting to me about major gift strategy and giving is I like to call it kind of the jazz of fundraising. I think things like foundation… And again, grain of salt. I know this doesn’t apply to all foundations everywhere, but to me, foundation fundraising, or even like year end fundraising or corporate sponsorship fundraising or event fundraising. There’s a formula, right? Like we get it. It’s like, okay, you submit the RFP, then the program officer comes for a visit, then whatever. Then they get reviewed by a board and then you get it and then you do reports. So it’s all very laid out.
[00:14:28.250] – Rhea Wong
I think the reason why people feel nervous about major gift fundraising is they are people. And people are unpredictable and you don’t know what they’re gonna say. And everyone wants something different. Right? And so I think that’s why it’s hard to find training around major gift fundraising, because a lot of it can be, you know, I know your acting training might come into play here. It’s improvisational. You’re like, I’m just gonna like figure out what I think the next best thing is, right. And a lot of it is learned on the job. A lot of it is like wisdom that you learn from having made mistakes, honestly.
[00:15:04.610] – Rhea Wong
So, that being said, let’s talk about a major gift strategy. So once you determine whatever you decide is a major gift, and once you’ve evaluated your pipeline, right? So these are people who’ve given to you in the past. These are potential prospects. These are maybe friends of your board members, volunteers. There’s just like a universe of people out there. Right? So you have… There’s a big pool. And generally speaking, your best prospects for a major gift are people who have given in the past. Right. So what’s a likely indicator of the future is past behavior. So if they’re giving you a small gift, they may actually be able to give you a big gift.
[00:15:43.910] – Rhea Wong
And this is…I’m just gonna give a little pet peeve issue here. My pet peeve is when people sit around and they say things like, “Why don’t we just call Jeff Bezos or MacKenzie Scott or Oprah or Mark Zuckerberg?” It’s like, okay. First of all, unless you actually legitimately know them, that is not a useful suggestion. And also, why would some random celebrity or wealthy person give you a gift out of nowhere? Like this doesn’t… Look, obviously, in the case of MacKenzie Scott, yes, she did kind of give gifts out of nowhere. I think we’d all agree that that is a very outlier case.
[00:16:24.350] – Rhea Wong
So what I think you do is once you have this pool of potential people who might be more generous to your organization, then I think you do an evaluation and you do it against four different metrics. You do it against affinity. So is there some evidence that your cause is the cause of your potential prospect? If it turns out that they’re big into the environment and you’re an education program, like I don’t know. This may not be their thing, right? Number two, capacity. And again, there are lots of wealth screening tools out there which are kind of creepy. But you can do a sort of a cursory, especially where a small nonprofit and can’t afford it. You can find out a lot of stuff on Google. So some indications of wealth that I would look at are, you know, are they… What is their job? You can find out on LinkedIn. Have they made any political contributions? That’s public information. Where do they live? That’s usually an indication. So if they live in a particularly ritzy zip code, that’s an indication. Are they pictured at any other fancy galas? Are they listed in other annual reports, right? So there’s data that you can get that you don’t have to pay for. So that’s capacity. So, you know, if you’re trying to identify a major gift donor and they fit all three criteria, but they don’t actually have money to give, then they’re not a major gift prospect.
[00:17:49.190] – Rhea Wong
Number three is relationship. So this goes to the Jeff Bezos thing. Do they have some kind of relationship with your organization or with your board or with your staff? Because if they don’t, then it’s basically like, well, let’s just call Oprah because we’re an education organization, and we know Oprah loves education like people give to people. And then the fourth is recency. And so ideally, you’re engaging and potentially looking at people who have been in contact with you within some reasonable period of time. Six months is probably a good rule of thumb, even a year. But if like someone once gave you a gift and they didn’t hear from you for five years, they’re probably not your hottest prospect.
[00:18:33.270] – Rhea Wong
So you look at all these metrics. And again, you can refine these. Right? It’s not like you have to have everything buttoned up straight away. But you have this list of 20. I like to call it 20 because that feels like a manageable list. And then you do the hard work of actually just like picking up the phone or emailing them and engaging them in the conversation. So if they’re not answering your emails or responding to your phone calls or responding to a letter, I like to try, you know, three different times. If after that, they’re not responsive, then they get dropped down to the B list. Right? Because either they’re trying to tell me they’re not interested or somehow they’re like too busy to actually respond, which means that they’re probably too busy to even meet me in the first place. Right? So it’s just constant refreshing of the list.
[00:19:20.370] – Rhea Wong
And then at every stage, and I like to say, you know, call it weekly, you do a review. Okay, where are we on this top 20? And what do we need to do to move these people forward? And so we think about what kind of opportunities, what kind of cultivation things can we do in order to bring them in closer? Because every move you make should be designed to bring them in closer and to engage them further and to get them more in love with you. It’s like… I use the dating analogy all the time, right?
[00:19:48.150] – Boris
[00:19:48.870] – Rhea Wong
Every date should be moving towards something, inevitably, maybe a proposal, right. In this case, a solicitation. But it’s always about building a relationship and creating more of a bond and being really specific about that. Now, the other thing is and I think this is why it’s tricky, is everyone wants something different. Right? Some people really wanna go on all of the dates and get wine and dine and go to the symphony. Right? Other people are like, just send me an email, tell me what you want. So you’re gonna have to know that. And you’re gonna have to ask the question.
[00:20:25.770] – Rhea Wong
And so I think the theme of this whole conversation was about curiosity. So the curiosity is, find out who your people are. Ask them the question. Ask them how they wanna be communicated with. Ask them if they wanna be invited to events, ask them if they wanna come to volunteer, ask them if they wanna come see the program. You won’t know unless you ask the question. And I think so often we’re so afraid of screwing it up that we don’t even ask the question so we assume. And for us, you know what happens when you assume.
[00:20:57.070] – Boris
[00:20:57.070] – Rhea Wong
And then, you know, once you’ve developed the cultivation touchpoints, I usually like to say about two or three really good touchpoints before the solicitation. Because if you wait too long to ask, then you get into that weird friend zone. No one wants that or a very, very long engagement. No one wants that. And then after you ask, then you have a stewardship strategy. And so again, this goes back to the point of making sure that we plug that leaky bucket. I like to say seven touchpoints of thank you and gratitude before you even think about asking for the next gift. Because if they only hear from you when you want money, they’re gonna stop answering your phone calls. Let me pause there. I just dumped a whole lot of information on you. Does that answer your question?
[00:21:44.230] – Boris
It answered my question in spades. And I didn’t wanna stop you because you were sharing so much great information there. But now let’s kind of go back and look at it and maybe break it down a little bit for folks. So first, you were talking about the affinity and the reasons why they might give based on relationship capacity and affinity and recency. It sounds like a lot of that goes into what we commonly talk about on this show, and I know you talk about a lot as well is, the donor avatar.
[00:22:20.530] – Rhea Wong
[00:22:22.330] – Boris
So what are you gonna put into that avatar? I know when I do one, I’ve got the demographics and psychographics. What are you looking for in those, Rhea, when you’re looking for a major gift donor?
[00:22:36.970] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. That’s such a good question, actually. And thank you for saying that because I think as you’re looking at your pool of prospective donors, that would be a good time to work on your donor avatar. So generally, your donor avatar is a person who is either currently donating to you or that you want to donate to you. And you’re thinking that if I had just like 10 or 20 more of these people, that would be great. Right. So exactly your point Boris, you break it down into two different dimensions. The first is demographic. So the things that you can see they’re, you know, married, not married, living in this like college graduate…
[00:23:16.450] – Boris
[00:23:17.470] – Rhea Wong
Have kids, financial status. Like all of the things that you can see externally. Then the psychographics is about the stuff that happens internally. What do they hope for? What do they fear? What do they dream of? What is their vision of the world? What do they value? What do they wanna leave behind? Right.
[00:23:34.570] – Boris
And that’s where the affinity really comes in.
[00:23:37.150] – Rhea Wong
That’s where the affinity comes in. The way that I recommend people do is that they have a hypothesis, right? Just fill in the sheet. Literally put a picture of a person. This is Liz. Here is what she…This is how she spends her free time. This is where she went to school, et cetera. Then pick up the phone, ask to have a conversation. And it’s not a conversation about money, but interview your donor because I think the other thing that we don’t do in the nonprofit world is that we don’t make time for market research, you know. I can’t visit a freaking website without it asking if I wanna take a survey at the end. The answer is no, I don’t. But they’re asking the question. And so I think we have to be fearless about asking people. We have to ask them their opinions. We have to ask them what they value. First of all, people like talking about themselves. And secondly, it gives you really important insight into how to sharpen your approach and how to sharpen your marketing to attract your ideal donor.
[00:24:38.530] – Boris
So oftentimes, when I’m teaching people how to basically grow their base, I’ve got a course “Growing Beyond your Base.” I have them fill out these avatars, and I have this survey basically that I want them to conduct, and that could be online. But of course, it is better, especially with high touchpoint kind of concierge approaches to the major gift owners. It’s much better to do it in person. And we do. We ask… ideally, you already have one or two people whom you can go to and talk to them and ask them these types of questions. They’re already fans of yours. They’re fans of your work because they’re supporting you. They’re gonna wanna give you some of their time to help you find more people like them…
[00:25:19.867] – Rhea Wong
[00:25:20.470] – Boris
Which is exactly what you wanna do. And they’re gonna feel more valued because you’re not just asking them for their money. You’re asking them for what makes them a person that cares about these things and helping build the organization. There’s just so many wonderful things that come out of interviewing somebody, and you could structure it as a formal interview, or you could just, you know, ask for a conversation.
[00:25:44.530] – Rhea Wong
[00:25:44.530] – Boris
You could just ask questions and really get to know them as a human being. Everybody loves to feel like a human being rather than a checkbook.
[00:25:51.850] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. No one wants to feel like a checkbook, right? And especially now, I think the strength of our relationships and the ability to connect is more important than it’s ever been. I think we all felt really disconnected during the pandemic. And so the more you can show that not just that you understand and care about them as humans, but that you are also a human, just makes it better. I say this a lot, when I started fundraising, I didn’t know anything about fundraising, but I had a good idea and a good personality. I could talk to anybody. Right? Look, obviously, there’s some percentage of people in this world who find me obnoxious and like wanna roll me down the hill in the barrel. But generally speaking, I get along well with most people. And I think that willingness to connect, that willingness to reach out, that willingness to ask questions and engage in conversation goes… Basically, that is major gift fundraising. Here’s the big secret guys. I’m teaching you guys how to have a conversation. That’s it. That’s the secret.
[00:26:53.410] – Boris
And it’s an important one. And it’s actually… I know it’s difficult for a lot of people, and I think that even for professionals who have been at this for a long time, a lot of them, they feel like they don’t wanna bother their donors. They don’t wanna, you know, nag them. They don’t want to basically give them any reason to feel like they’re being annoyed by you. And so they’d rather like be hands off until it’s time to interact with them for a very specific reason. And I think that backfires because, like you’re saying, people want to be treated like humans. They want touchpoints of gratitude. They want to feel like they’re in a relationship with you of some sort that is beyond just, “Oh, it’s time for money. Here you go.”
[00:27:36.430] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. It’s about closing… It’s not about closing a gift. It’s about opening a relationship. So again, let’s have a little dating analogy here, but… by not calling the donor and engaging with them as a donor, they’re telling themselves a story and you’re telling yourself a story. But these two stories are really different. Right? So their story is like, “Oh, they don’t really care about me. They only care about me when it’s time to raise money and they want a check.” The nonprofit’s mind is, “I don’t really wanna bother them. I don’t wanna be annoying, right?” But again, unless you ask the question, herein lies the role of curiosity. You won’t ever know. It could be that someone is like look, I find it annoying when you reach out to me every month. Fine. Great. Thank you for telling me. What would you prefer? Or I think it’s great when you reach out to me. I love getting your emails. Good to know, right? But be curious. You don’t know. You’re just assuming.
[00:28:44.110] – Boris
Absolutely. And every time you say ask good questions… a couple of years ago, when my kids were a little younger, every time we would drop them off at school, I would tell them ask good questions, because that is really how you learn. You don’t just learn by listening to whatever someone says. You learn by asking good questions, and it shows that you’re actually interested and gets that kind of rapport going. So I love this whole theme about curiosity, being curious about other people. That’s one of the things that is true about me, as well. I love talking to people because I love learning what makes them tick. What makes them passionate? What makes their eyes light up? That’s my goal at every networking event, is to talk to someone and find out what… And ask that one question that’s gonna make their eyes light up, because now I know, you know, something about them that’s gonna actually help me connect with them in some way and help me remember them down the line.
[00:29:38.990] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. You know, I’ll share this with your audience. There’s a white paper that some group in the UK put out where they analyze the top 3% of major gift fundraisers, because I think the field is just, like, it’s not formalized, right? You can’t go to school necessarily be a fundraiser. I mean, you can now. But, like, it’s not really been seen as a legitimate profession for very long. Anyway, they analyze the top 3% of performers and the ones who really are the top of their field, they call them curious chameleons. So they’re curious but they’re also able to adapt the approach and the conversation to the donor. So I think we should all strive to be curious chameleons.
[00:30:26.930] – Boris
I’m gonna write that on my desktop somewhere and say, “be a curious chameleon” because it’s a great analogy. It’s similar to what makes someone a successful salesperson, someone who actually makes you feel like, you know, they care about you and they’re not just trying to get something out of you. It’s the same exact thing.
[00:30:43.070] – Rhea Wong
It’s even better because it’s like legit. I genuinely like people. I find people to be interesting and I can find most… For most people, I can find something interesting about them.
[00:30:58.370] – Boris
I think it’s also important to note that these are skills that anyone can learn just through practice. I know a lot of people think, I am not a people person or I am an introvert or you know, I’m too shy. I hear you. I used to be similarly shy, and I still think… I think I’m actually a shy extrovert now, but these are all things that you can learn. And with practice it becomes much more fluid and easy. So don’t get discouraged if you don’t think that you are a curious chameleon right now, just get out there and talk, right?
[00:31:32.750] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. Well, here’s the thing. Actually introverts, I think actually do better because in conversations it should really be 75% of them talking, 25% you talking. So if you can ask good questions… All right, now I’m giving up all my secrets. But literally at a party, all I do when I walk in, I don’t know anyone, I just ask good questions and people think I’m like the best conversationalist in the room because I just stop talking and I listen to people. And I think it’s so rare, especially now. We’re just like inundated with everyone tweeting out at us. How often do we actually have someone who is a good listener?
[00:32:11.870] – Boris
Yeah. So when I was on the dating scene years ago now, I actually once or twice got accused of being an interviewer on dates. And honestly, that was because I was trying to find that thing. I was trying to find what makes someone more loquacious? What makes them more excited? And the people whom I couldn’t find that with, that’s where it really started to feel like an interview because I would just keep asking questions and they rarely had anything to ask back.
[00:32:38.870] – Rhea Wong
[00:32:40.730] – Boris
I think that’s a great analogy. Rhea, I wanna be sensitive of your time and our listeners time. So let’s kind of wind this up a little bit. I think you’ve given us a lot of great value. We’re gonna summarize it all and make it as clear and actionable as you presented it in bullet points for everyone in our show notes, along with links to everything that you’ve talked about. Are there any tools or resources, books, perhaps that you recommend to people who are interested in delving into this further?
[00:33:08.390] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. So I’m a big nerd. So I love reading books, and actually, that’s the other thing I would say for major gift fundraisers. So interestingly, my husband is a bartender. He owns a bar, and he and I find a lot of interesting parallels in our work. He reads widely. I read widely because you have to be ready to have a conversation about anything. Current events, sports, fashion, art. You don’t know what people are gonna wanna talk about. So it’s important to have a wide breath of knowledge. But a couple of books that I really love, Travel Leadership, Brave New Work, The Soul of Money and The Generosity Network. And The Soul of Money, I will flag particularly because I think a lot of the reason people are nervous about major gift fundraising is that they have a lot of stuff about money that they bring to the table. Either they’re like somehow people with money are different, better or worse, like evil. I don’t know. We make up a lot of stories about people with money. People with money just have more money than you. They put their pants on one leg at a time just like you do. Right? And so I think we just have to be really aware of the narrative that we bring to the table that stands in the way of us connecting as humans and as individuals.
[00:34:24.710] – Boris
Absolutely. Absolutely. So if people have been listening so far and I hope they have and they’ve been engaged because you’ve really helped to see what the problems out there are, what the possible solutions are. And so like every good story, now it’s time for that call to action. What do you want our heroes to do to take the next step, whether it’s with you or in their own journeys?
[00:34:48.650] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. So definitely check out my website, rheawong.com. I think you put it in the show notes, and I have a weekly newsletter where I offer weekly tips and tools and resources and it’s a good time. Plus, you know, there’s cute pictures of my dog. So who doesn’t want that in their inbox every week.
[00:35:07.190] – Boris
I love pictures of dogs. Unfortunately, that’s all I’ve been sharing lately in my own social media because everything else, you know, you mentioned several topics that people should be prepared to discuss. The one thing that everybody’s discussing is the one that I don’t wanna discuss right now is politics, but dogs are awesome and …
[00:35:27.650] – Rhea Wong
Dogs are awesome. There’s always people who will argue that cats are better, so you know, can’t believe all the people all the time.
[00:35:35.090] – Boris
I don’t wanna say they’re wrong because I don’t wanna offend them. Between you and me…
[00:35:41.910] – Rhea Wong
Don’t be afraid to have a point of view. That’s the other thing I’ll say too. Don’t be afraid to have a point of view. I think sometimes and I think you’ll probably see this in your work that we’re so afraid to offend that our stuff is just boring. I think it’s worse to bore people.
[00:35:59.190] – Boris
Absolutely no. I teach… You need to have heroes and villains, now that villain doesn’t have to be a person, but it could be a certain mentality. It could be something that’s happening out in the world. You should be able to identify that. And you should have a point of view. And a point of view means you prefer one thing over another. You see a future that other people don’t necessarily. So no, I do think it’s good to have opinions as long as you’re not turning off the people that you want to actually engage.
[00:36:27.810] – Rhea Wong
Right. Right. Have a personality, I think is more of the point. Don’t be afraid to have a personality.
[00:36:34.410] – Boris
Rhea, thank you so much for joining us on the show today and sharing all your wisdom around being curious in nonprofit fundraising and especially when it comes to major gifts. I’m excited to share all the show notes and everything, all the resources that you’ve mentioned with the audience and I hope they will take you up on it. Subscribe to your newsletter. Follow up with you. Maybe connect with you on LinkedIn if you’re into that.
[00:36:56.490] – Rhea Wong
Absolutely. Yeah, connect with me on LinkedIn. That’s basically where I live. That’s my main social media platform.
[00:37:03.070] – Boris
Perfect. And so thank you, everybody who has listened to us today, who has watched us today. If you liked this episode, if you feel like you learned something I know I did from Rhea today, then please, please, please subscribe. Leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite platform. And frankly, just share it with others like you. Because if you like this show, chances are your fellow fundraisers, your fellow nonprofit communications and marketing folks will like the show too, and they can tell two friends and they can tell two friends. And pretty soon we’ll change the world and help more people activate more heroes for their cause.
[00:37:37.930] – Rhea Wong
I love it.
[00:37:39.490] – Boris
Thank you, everybody. We’ll see you soon.
[00:37:41.830] – Rhea Wong
[00:38:01.750] – Outro Video
Thank you all for watching and listening to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, we hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform and let us know what you think, by leaving a review.
Concepts and Takeaways:
- 69% of all philanthropic gifts came from individuals, accounting for $75 billion. And 80% of funding tends to come from 20% of donors. (5:52)
- High-net-worth individuals ($30 million in assets and above) are the largest growing wealth demographic in the world, growing 30% last year alone. (6:49)
- You can build a base for momentum from a small group that is passionate about your cause. (9:17)
- Defining a “major gift” can be different for each nonprofit depending on budget and sources. Look at your own range of gifts and see at what levels you can segment. (11:45)
- Major gift fundraising is not as clearly laid as some other types of fundraising. It’s more about people, who are less predictable, and therefore more improvisational. (13:46)
- Major gift fundraising strategy, step 1 is to identify your prospect pool. Your best prospects for a major gift are people who have given in the past, not wealthy individuals with whom you don’t have an existing relationship. (15:04)
- Step 2: Evaluate your list on four metrics (16:24)
- Affinity – Do they care about your cause?
- Capacity – Can they afford to give a major gift?
- Relationship – Do they have a relationship with your organization, board or staff?
- Recency – Have you been in contact with them in a reasonably recent time frame (six months or less).
- Try to get a list of around 20 prospects, and then start picking up the phone or emailing and engaging them in conversation. At every stage, you should be looking for opportunities to cultivate the relationship, not just ask for money. If they don’t respond after three attempts, take that as a signal and move them to the “B” list of prospects. (18:39)
- Major-gift donors are people. You need to be curious about them as people, interested in their thoughts, their preferences and their interests. Ask them questions. Develop two or three cultivation touchpoints before asking for a gift, but don’t wait too long. (20:04)
- After you get a donation, you need a stewardship strategy to retain your donors. Rhea recommends seven touchpoints of gratitude before you ask for the next gift. (20:57)
- When it comes to affinity and capacity, those items should be key in creating your major-gift donor avatar. Avatars consist of demographics—things that you can see and measure, and psychographics—such as values, goals, and other things that go towards affinity. (22:22)
- Be fearless about asking people about themselves and what they value. Pick up the phone or send a survey, but find a way to interview your donors. (23:37)
- Interviewing your donors is also a great way to find more people like those current donors. Everyone wants to feel like a human being, not a checkbook. (24:38)
- The big secret to major-gift fundraising is this: learning how to have a conversation with people. It can be difficult, but people want to feel like they’re a valued person in a relationship. Curiosity means asking questions, and then listening to the answers to strengthen the relationship. (26:34)
- An analysis of major-gift fundraisers determined that the top 3% are what they called “curious chameleons.” They’re curious, but also able to adapt their conversational approach to each individual. (29:42)
- Anyone can get better at conversations and become a curious chameleon with practice. And introverts might actually have an advantage because they should only be doing 25% of the talking (i.e., asking questions) and then listening the other 75% of the time. (30:58)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Rhea WongFounder, Rhea Wong Consulting
Rhea helps nonprofits raise more money. She has raised millions of dollars in private philanthropy and is passionate about building the next generation of fundraising leaders.
She has become a leader in the New York nonprofit community and is a frequent educational commentator in the media. She has been recognized with the SmartCEO Brava Award in 2015 and NY Nonprofit Media’s 40 under 40 in 2017. FRhea lives in Brooklyn with her husband and the World’s Most Spoiled Dog Stevie Wonderdog. When she is not raising money for causes she loves, she can be found hosting her podcast Nonprofit Lowdown or onstage as a newbie stand-up comedian in downtown Brooklyn. For more information, check out rheawong.com
Episode 21: The Promise and Problems of Philanthropy in the U.S. Today, with Doug White
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 21
The Promise and Problems of Philanthropy in the U.S. Today, with Doug White
In this Episode:
Charity and nonprofits have had a special role in the American system since its earliest days: to fulfill a need that the government is not designed to or capable of meeting. They are an important part of the individualist character of our nation and its development.
While donations to charity have risen in recent years, the average donation size has outpaced the number of donations. It seems that fewer people are giving, with the difference being made up by larger philanthropists. What does this trend portend for the charity world as a whole? Are billionaires the saviors or the villains of our nonprofit ecosystem?
Philanthropy advisor Doug White joins Boris to discuss the trends and pitfalls of organizations increasingly relying on larger philanthropic donors, their responsibility to large donors and the communities they serve, and how to navigate the two.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:19.490] – Intro Video
Welcome to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video broadcast, and podcast. Where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more heroes for their cause and a better word for all of us. Da-Ding!
[00:00:21.480] – Boris
Hi, everybody, welcome back to an episode of the Nonprofit Hero Factory, I’m excited about today’s guest. He is an advisor on all matters philanthropy on both sides to philanthropists and nonprofits. He’s going to give us some inside looks and some things to consider based on recent events and recent news and historic roles of nonprofits and philanthropists. His name is Doug White. Doug is a longtime leader and scholar in the nation’s philanthropic community. He’s an author and an adviser to nonprofit organizations and philanthropists.
[00:00:52.950] – Boris
As I said, he serves as the co-chair of the Walter Cronkite Committee at FoolProof. And as a board member, the vice president of the Secular Coalition of America. He is the former director of Columbia University’s Master of Science in Fundraising Management Program, where he also taught board governance, ethics and fundraising. Doug has published five books. His most recent “Wounded Charity” analyzes the allegations of mismanagement made in January 2016 against the Wounded Warrior Project. I know a lot of us heard about that and were affected by it in one way or another.
[00:01:24.990] – Boris
When I asked Doug what his superpower is, he says, “I try to help people better understand the role nonprofits play in our society and the impact they have on individual lives. I examined the personal stories of charities as well as the broader policy implications of philanthropy.” So with that, I would love to welcome Doug to the show. And hi, Doug, thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:01:48.480] – Doug White
It’s my pleasure, Boris.
[00:01:49.560] – Boris
If you don’t mind. Obviously, I just read your bio and it is impressive, but tell us your story.
[00:01:56.760] – Doug White
I began in the philanthropic world in the late 1970s when someone asked me to come to dinner. They asked me to then go out and talk to some people about raising some money. And I said, sure. It was for my high school. And I went out and talked to these people and they all said yes when I asked them for money. And I was so surprised because they weren’t getting anything back. And I thought this is easier than selling refrigerators or cars or anything like that, even though there’s nothing really tangible there to give to these people for what they’re what they’re paying.
[00:02:31.020] – Doug White
I thought what is going on there? And they said, well, I really had this great experience and I want to give back. All of these things that we now take for granted when we talk about fundraising. But for me, that was brand new. And it was it was so eye-opening. I knew that was my life’s mission at that point.
[00:02:48.470] – Boris
That’s pretty awesome, and I’d love to actually talk to you more about what it is that you think got them to quickly and easily—basically, it sounds like it wasn’t very difficult to convince them to—give. Clearly, that led you into this career of working with philanthropists as well as nonprofits. Why did you decide to go into philanthropy advising?
[00:03:12.570] – Doug White
Because over the years, it’s become clear that many donors want to make sure their money goes to the causes they want to see furthered. And a lot of times they don’t really know what those causes are. And so it takes a process that’s become rather institutionalized in the last couple of decades. But still at the beginning of all of this, it wasn’t. But it takes a process to actually talk to a would-be or a philanthropist about his or her values. What do you want to see changed in the world? How do you want to see your money used?
[00:03:48.570] – Doug White
We’ve gotten to the point on, let’s say, Maslow’s hierarchy to the point where they’re comfortable with their own world. They have what they need and their needs are taken care of. So now they’re saying, how can I look out to the rest of the world and do something about that? Well, a lot of people really don’t know what they want to do. They really don’t.
[00:04:09.000] – Doug White
But when they do know what they want to do, they still have another hurdle to find out what organization is going to best further that mission. So it’s a matter of going through a questionnaire in my case, and I think it’s probably the way most of philanthropy advisors do this, that really examines values. And it also has to do with family issues like what you want your children to be when they grow up in terms of what their value system is, what kind of world you want to leave behind, what kind of legacy do you want to leave?
[00:04:41.760] – Doug White
When I was on the board of what was then the National Committee on Planned Giving, I started this group called “Leave a Legacy”. And I think that’s still going. But it’s a local group. It’s a group that has local efforts around the country where people are encouraged to leave a legacy at a nonprofit through their bequests or some trust or something like that. And that has grown.
[00:05:12.570] – Doug White
That idea has grown and that vernacular has grown, to leave a legacy. But what does that mean? What do I want to do? How do I want to affect the world after I’m gone? People have a difficult enough time to think about dying to begin with, let alone how the world’s going to look like after they after they leave. But that’s the kind of conversation you have to have with people. And they are willing to have that because they’re asking you what can I do to make the world a better place?
[00:05:40.710] – Boris
So I want to touch on several of those things. And I think we’re going to come back to a few of them because they’re definitely on my list of things to chat with you about today. But one of the reasons why this is so important right now, and I feel like—predominantly my audience is nonprofit communications, marketing and fundraisers, and their goal is, of course, to help their organization grow to, as I like to say, activate more heroes for their cause.
[00:06:05.310] – Boris
It seems that over the last at least a few years, there has been a trend in giving where there’s been fewer and fewer smaller donors and more and more philanthropists on a larger scale that are actually more than making up for the losses in the smaller and smaller donations. So overall, giving is increasing while with possibly the exception of Covid last year, which I think did drive a lot more people to open up and and empathize and donate to local organizations or national ones. But aside from that, there’s been that decline and giving has grown regardless of that. So what do you think that trend is about? What’s what’s happening?
[00:06:53.270] – Doug White
I call that—I have a phrase for it—is the de-democratization of fundraising. When I began in the early 1980s with this fundraising gig, I was concentrating on the people who gave low amounts of money. You asked earlier about how I was able to get these people to give money to this school. And I can answer you by saying they basically ask themselves, I was just the conduit. I was just able to release some of their memories and some of their good feelings about the place and how that school helped them become who they were.
[00:07:36.210] – Doug White
I know that’s a bit of a cliché right now, and it’s not entirely true, but it’s true enough. And a school, college, whatever, oftentimes makes an impact on you. And so I was very involved with… those are thousand dollar gifts and that at the time was a big deal. But I was involved with those people who are giving low amounts of money. Today a thousand dollars is almost meaningless to some of these organizations. But over the decades we’ve become enamored with the large donors.
[00:08:10.010] – Doug White
And why not? If someone’s got a potential to give you a million dollars, you’re going to pay attention to that person. You’re going to you’re going to cultivate him over years, maybe, or over years. And why not? Because that’s going to result in more money than cultivating a person who’s got the capacity to give a thousand dollars or five hundred dollars or something even less, if it makes economic sense to take the time to do that. And it makes sense for the organization’s growth to do that.
[00:08:37.700] – Doug White
But, I have also noticed that we are doing that at the expense of paying attention to our smaller donors, and I fear that the pool that we create of smaller donors will not be enough to then turn into larger donors as time passes. And maybe the future of philanthropy is that your big donor will just come in and show up and say, I care about your cause. And so I’m going to I’m going to give you this money, but especially with organizations like, say, heritage organizations like schools…
[00:09:15.020] – Doug White
They grow into big donors. Seniors in college, or are asked to give to their class fund as seniors in college. That wasn’t true when I was in college. And so the idea there is to create a level of paying back, an understanding of how the school works and also to have a participation level. Right now, I’m in my fiftieth reunion for my high school, the school I went to, Exeter, just so you’ll know. And we’re very concerned about having a participation level at a very high level.
[00:09:49.910] – Doug White
And that’s crucial because it keeps people lubricated, if you will. Their philanthropic senses lubricated and keeps Exeter on the front page. And there are so many other competitors for that—the local food bank, their daughters’ schools, the local hospital where they had surgery. And they’re all legitimate competitors. And so what we say in our situation is don’t forget them. But do keep in mind the school that got this all started for you. And even if you can’t give a lot or don’t want to give a lot, then your participation is crucial.
[00:10:25.430] – Doug White
So that keeps that pyramid in the proper level. Still, though, what used to be an 80-20 rule is closer to 95-5 rule. And we are we are paying so much attention to that five percent.
[00:10:39.800] – Doug White
And you are correct, Covid really brought out a lot of the smaller donors. It’s because that’s where the heart strings were. After 9/11, Red Cross brought a lot of smaller donors out. And so a tragedy or an intense situation will get our heartstrings going. And that’s good, but that’s temporary. And so charities have to figure out how to continue that.
[00:11:04.310] – Doug White
And I think there’s a lot of argument to be made to, even though it makes sense to go to the large donor and cultivate that person or the prospect. It also makes a lot of sense to cultivate the smaller donors as well, because otherwise we’re going to get into a situation where it’s seen that philanthropy is only for the rich. In fact, when I make my own phone calls for this reunion, people will say, you’ve got too much of an endowment, you don’t need my money. Besides, you’ve got X, Y or Z famous name giving you this money you don’t need me. What is my one hundred dollars going to do?
[00:11:40.070] – Doug White
And I have to go through the process and say, look, even though there’s a big budget, every dollar is accounted for and the school does do that and it does that very well. And that’s one recommendation for charitable organizations, is to make sure that they are there running their business properly. I say business not in air quotes, but I do say a little cautiously because I don’t want to get people confused between what a for-profit business is and a nonprofit business is. But the way I look at it is that both start with the same premise that you’ve got to stay alive, you have to pay people, you have to have an office, I think even today. You have to have computers. You have to have operational activity taking place.
[00:12:20.720] – Doug White
The difference is that the purpose of a for profit is to make a profit for shareholders. A nonprofit doesn’t have shareholders. It can often make a profit. That’s another issue. But it isn’t meant to go out of business or it’s not meant to go poor or be poor just because it doesn’t sell widgets. In fact, I think what it sells is much grander than widgets or any other widget that we can we can identify.
[00:12:47.990] – Boris
So absolutely, nonprofits do need to function as businesses, as any other business, and they do compete with businesses for the attention and money of people who might support it or might go and spend their money somewhere else in their time doing something else. So there’s a lot of that at play. It’s interesting what you call the de-democratization of philanthropy. I was very excited just seemingly a few years ago when the crowdfunding space first took off, because I saw that as the democratization of philanthropy, where anyone could become a donor to any organization, where any organization can also reach out and capture the interests and hopefully hearts of just about anybody that they could have some sort of affinity with.
[00:13:37.970] – Boris
It was an exciting time. Today, I’m not sure how prevalent that is in people’s mindsets in the organizations themselves. Is it worthwhile for them to run a campaign versus just make a few phone calls, wine and dine somebody if you will, bring them to the gala and get that big check? But it does say something for their future. It also, I think… and you and I agree on this. Possibly shifts their focus and attention away from a more groundswell public want for their services to what an individual or a few individuals might be looking for… the changes that they want to see in the world.
[00:14:23.980] – Boris
Can you talk a little bit about this outsized influence that some of the deeper-pocketed philanthropists might have on the charitable sector today?
[00:14:33.820] – Doug White
It seems to be more and more prevalent. Let me give you a little bit of history on that particular segment of philanthropy. I did a book on this. It was the lawsuit against Princeton University. In 1961, a woman, an heiress of the A&P fortune. And for most of your audience, that is going to be like coming out of Mars. They used to be the largest grocery chain in the United States for many, many decades. Well, the trust dissolved after the death of a grandchild.
[00:15:04.030] – Doug White
And so she inherited directly about a hundred million dollars and she gave about thirty five billion dollars of that to Princeton University, a huge gift, the largest gift to that university at that time. The second largest gift event of any university at that time. To establish the graduate program or to endow the graduate program at the Woodrow Wilson School the International Relations School. Time passes. We understand that the family is not happy with the way the money is spent.
[00:15:36.340] – Doug White
And so in 2002, this was 40 years after the gift was made. The son sues Princeton. Now, by this time that 35 dollars million has grown to about 900 million dollars. The family set up a separate foundation. Princeton was the only beneficiary of that foundation, which is fine. And as a result, Princeton included that endowment in its endowment totals, which is also fine. They were the only beneficiary. So it made sense.
[00:16:04.780] – Doug White
But the son said, you’re not using the money the way my father wanted to. And they said, yes, we are. And so he had sat on the board, there were there was a foundation, a separate organization. Four members were from Princeton, three were from the family. And he contended that a lot of the decisions were being made in their absence and money was being spent without their permission and knowledge, and that a lot of the money was going to the wrong place.
[00:16:30.320] – Doug White
It was going within Princeton. Nobody was walking home with a Cadillac or anything of that nature. But it was just that the donor’s intentions weren’t being served. Princeton came back, said, look, we’re we’ve got a great school here and it’s good. It’s a lot to do with your dad. So let’s not get that wrong. Princeton’s graduate school here is among the best in the world, if not the best in the world. The donor kept saying that’s not the question. The question is, are you using my dad’s money the way you said you would use it?
[00:16:59.960] – Doug White
It was a terrible ordeal. And going back to your question, the donors, that was the first donor that I know of that I know of—and there were others, I’m sure—that ran into trouble with regard to how their money was going to be used. But did they have a right to say this is the way it should be used? Well, if Princeton agrees to it, my answer is yes, they do have that right. Now, fast forward to 2021. And you’ve got a very similar situation taking place right now at the University of Chicago.
[00:17:36.290] – Doug White
So what I’m getting at, Boris, is that there is an environment right now where large donors are expecting that their wishes are going to be granted. And the key thing for me is that the university or the charity agrees to this. And my thinking is not being an attorney and not looking at this through the legal lens, but from an ethical lens. If you’re saying you’re going to do it then by golly, you’ve got to do it.
[00:18:04.580] – Boris
So that’s a specific case with a very large donation. How do we extrapolate that on a national level, it seems like and people are often accusing or I don’t know if the accusing is the right word, but upset with an outsized influence that deeper pocketed individuals or large corporations have on our political system, it seems like there is something similar that might be going on in the philanthropic system. The other side of things, if you will, where the government isn’t directly involved.
[00:18:43.920] – Boris
Is that a cause for concern when a small percentage, as you said, fewer than 20 percent at this point, of the donors are maybe even if they’re not dictating, if they’re not saying here’s a 60-page contract, but they’re saying I’m going to support an organization that’s promising to do this. And then, sure, they might want metrics and performance indicators throughout. But is that, do you think, an issue for us and for most nonprofits out there?
[00:19:21.140] – Doug White
George Washington, in his farewell address, warned of organizations that today would call charities, warned against the influence of charities. And what he meant by that was individuals who may have different designs on the way American society should be from the designs that Congress, the people speaking through their representatives, would say our society should be. And since that day in the 1790s, when he sent that farewell address to Congress, it was actually published in a newspaper. But since that day, we’ve always had that tension.
[00:20:05.180] – Doug White
What role is… what role does charity play in our society? And when we ask that question, we then, in today’s vernacular, also have to ask, what role does the donor play in that whole process? Nobody elected Bill Gates to anything, and yet he’s had massive influence over much of our public life. Now, most people think that his influence has been very, very positive. And I’m going to grant those people that. But it still is not necessarily an expression of the people’s will in the United States.
[00:20:39.350] – Doug White
So I think we always have to take that into account. And any organization that, this is where the tension is, any organization that wants money has to balance getting that money with how strictly they want to adhere to that particular wish by the donor. But I think it’s fair to say at this point that donors do have much more influence over a charity’s mission than they used to and they’re expecting to.
[00:21:11.730] – Doug White
I’m not a psychologist, but I will say that my impression is that the richer you are, the more arrogant you get. In… oh, gosh, I forget the year. But some years ago, Mark Zuckerberg began an initiative in Newark for the Newark Public School Systems, in Newark, New Jersey. One hundred million dollars, and it was going to be matched by other philanthropists and one of the billionaires that I spoke with was part of that group, and he criticized himself as well as Mark Zuckerberg and the entire effort because they knew better. They they could take their private helicopter from a Manhattan heliport, go over and plop themselves down in Newark and say, “here, here’s the money and this is how it’s going to be spent and you’re all going to be the better for it.”
[00:21:58.280] – Doug White
No one talked to the people on the ground in Newark to say, how can this money be spent? No one among the advisors of this came from the Newark public school system or even the Newark schools or the community. So I think there’s a lot of lesson in that. You know, we don’t know better, but who does? The public charities are owned by the public, not any shareholders. So who does? Well, the board of directors is supposed to. There is no real I guess what I’m getting at, there’s no real ultimate arbiter that we can know is going to be right or know everything.
[00:22:41.500] – Doug White
It’s a messy system. Does the donor not know things? Probably not. He or she does know things and could help the organization well. But how much deference should we give to that one person? Is a question that’s probably going to plague us forever. What I think is the best answer and it’s not clean and it’s not perfect, but the best answer is to have a good board of directors who care about the mission, who are intensely engaged in the organization, and who have backgrounds that represent what the mission, the organization’s mission, is all about, deferring to those people as a group. They still might get it wrong, but it’s more than just one person.
[00:23:23.460] – Doug White
And of course, people will say, what if the billionaire’s on the board and just rides roughshod over everyone? Well, that’s a board governance problem. That person shouldn’t run roughshod over everyone. But that does happen. That’s real life. I mean, I do a lot of work in board governance and my goodness, that happens a lot.
[00:23:41.000] – Boris
So, it sounds like you’re saying there’s… That the reality is that they do have an outsized influence and there’s no easy solution to that, nor is it necessarily a problem or something that that needs to be solved. I think that, personally, the solution is to have a broader base of donors and a more, I guess stricter board and adherence to mission so that billionaires or whomever it is can’t ride roughshod, as you just called it, can’t override.
[00:24:26.750] – Boris
Of course, they could also just start their own foundations like Bill Gates did and like so many billionaires do in order to try to influence the change they want to see in the world. I’m a little conflicted on this personally, because on the one hand, I do believe that the greatest good needs to be responsive to the greatest number of people. But I’m also not a direction-by-committee kind of person. I think that often dilutes intentions and often gets nothing done.
[00:25:00.830] – Boris
And in the U.S. system specifically—and you and I talked about this a little earlier—we have this democratic system, this capitalist system where as much as it is complicated and far from perfect today, there is some of this idea of anyone can pull themselves up and rise up. Of course, that’s not true for everyone in this country, unfortunately, at this time. But there are nonprofits working on that, too.
[00:25:31.540] – Doug White
[00:25:33.620] – Boris
So there is definitely a need for private sector funding for charitable causes. And I don’t think that the government is the answer either. Like, we don’t want to I don’t think anybody in the US, except for perhaps actually some billionaires want their taxes raised. Most people do not. So the government doesn’t have the the resources or the bandwidth to tackle some of these larger problems and also isn’t as responsive to smaller things on the ground, certainly not on a federal level. So there’s this need for organizations, charitable organizations to step in and do some of the work.
[00:26:13.840] – Boris
And… without paying taxes, we can direct our own called a discretionary income—call it tithing, call it whatever you’d like—funds to the problems that we think are most important for government or for society to be able to tackle. I think back to the Soviet Union and, you know, in the Soviet Union, there were no charities. And in fact, a lot of immigrants from the Soviet Union to this day do not think that anybody needs to donate to charity because that’s the role of government.
[00:26:48.510] – Boris
At the same time, if you turn it and ask them, they’ll admit that the government in the Soviet Union, which claimed they would provide everything for everyone, really provided nothing for anyone except for the very wealthy elite that secretly stole a lot of funds from the people. So in the US, we need this kind of balance to our capitalist system in a private way. Can nonprofits fulfill that need and how do they approach this need for, at the moment anyway, these these white knights or these whales to come in and fund a lot of their major programing, knowing that it may not be responsive to their entire community?
[00:27:40.190] – Doug White
I’m seeing two questions in there, so let me break those out. Actually, several, actually, but I see two major things running there. What role in the capitalist system that we currently have nonprofits play? And also the role that the white knights play within that? So let me begin with the bigger the first part that you bring up. Congress, in its wisdom, understood exactly what you’re saying over a hundred years ago when they created the deduction for charitable gifts.
[00:28:10.400] – Doug White
So not only are our tax dollars not going to go to these things that we would otherwise want them to go to, we’re getting a tax benefit from this. So if we itemize, we will get a tax benefit.
[00:28:27.500] – Doug White
Now, just as a quick aside, you mentioned earlier we talked about the de-democratization of giving. And one of the factors, I think, in the last couple of years has been the increase in the standard deduction, which means that fewer people are itemizing, which means fewer people are able to take advantage of their charitable giving.
[00:28:46.130] – Doug White
That doubled, I think for married couples, it’s about twenty five thousand dollars now. So that’s huge. So that that that’s taken away a lot of the lower dollar donors from the charitable giving rolls. OK, if that’s an incentive. And there have been discussions as to how incentivizing charitable deduction is. I don’t believe that it’s as much of an incentive as some people do, but it’s there, especially for the larger donors.
[00:29:13.610] – Doug White
But the role of charities in society… It’s an interesting story we have here in the United States. You were talking about the Soviet Union, Europe also in the seventeen hundreds anyway, had a lot of money and they supported a lot of what we now think of as nonprofits, the churches, the art museums, the schools. And in the United States, we were very poor. We had no government money. Our government was bankrupt.
[00:29:43.880] – Doug White
In the 1820s, Alexis de Tocqueville came here from France to look at American society, and he was struck by the number of what he called Associations. And how people in communities would help do these things that in France was done by the government. So we started out very poor. And I think that’s what gave us birth, gave birth to our philanthropic system, which is very, very strong. By the way, this last year, we gave about 470 billion dollars to charitable organizations, a five percent increase over the prior year.
[00:30:12.650] – Doug White
So the role of of nonprofits… excuse me, yes… the role of nonprofits has always been somewhat defined by the fact that we didn’t have any money to put toward these purposes. And as the country has grown, it’s grown richer. There’s still a mindset that the government can’t do everything. I think even if we had all the money to do it the way we wanted to do it or that we could do it, we still wouldn’t take on the old European system where we were just pay for all of these things. Because there’s a sense here that and I believe it’s a very strong one and a very positive one, that as Americans, we’re more individual.
[00:30:48.050] – Doug White
Now that’s had its problems. Nothing’s perfect all the way through. But that individualism has created this nonprofit sector that’s very, very strong. Now, some of the larger problems that the government has to fix or that needs fixing in society, only the government can fix. Nonprofits aren’t going to build roads, they’re not going to create a military. For the most part, they’re not going to take us to the moon. Not going to do a lot of the large, big things that the government does.
[00:31:15.020] – Doug White
But there are a lot of organizations that are doing other things that are big. Cancer research, for example, that’s a nonprofit-government collaboration. The government’s got an interest in this and the nonprofit world has an interest in doing this. And I hope together there can be enough work and research done for that to someday be past tense disease. So I think that going forward, we’re never going to get out of having nonprofit play an extremely important role, nor will we get out of the situation where the government doesn’t want to spend some of these dollars for these purposes.
[00:31:56.260] – Doug White
And I think that’s healthy. I think that’s healthy. And and the government encourages that through the deduction. That’s the only way it can say, yes, we want to encourage you to make these gifts. And I think private philanthropy is a strong, strong, good moral force in society. And I think I know because I’ve been to Saudi Arabia to talk about this, I’ve been to China to talk about this, been to India to talk about this… The idea of how we have grown to be such a philanthropically oriented society is pretty special here in the United States.
[00:32:28.480] – Doug White
And I want to be very clear that that’s different from saying that we are more philanthropic than other people. I believe that’s a human tendency, not one defined by national borders. It’s just that we have a system where that can be better expressed or more efficiently expressed. Now to your second part there, where the large, I think you’re calling them “whales”, these large donors, what role are they going to continue to play in this society as we go forward?
[00:32:57.370] – Doug White
Because if we continue the way we are. We might see a very, very elite nonprofit sector and like we are seeing in the United States right now at large, we’re seeing these higher endowed charities become even better and better off and these lower and doubt charities, if they’re endowed at all, struggling more and more. And that takes away from, I think, the essence of what a charitable organization should do.
[00:33:28.700] – Doug White
And that’s the other thing about this. Charities are public commodities. We’re using public dollars to fund these organizations. So I think there’s an argument on both sides there. But if we allow this mega-donation mania that we have right now going into these larger and larger organizations, I’m afraid the system just may fall apart with such a division between the rich organizations and the small ones. This is where if I may, this is where Mackenzie Scott comes in. Mackenzie Scott, the former wife of Jeff Bezos, is known this past year for having given hundreds of—billions of dollars to underfunded, mostly black, historically black colleges around the United States.
[00:34:19.550] – Doug White
And recently she gave another several hundred million dollars. And what she has done, she’s hired these people to go out and talk to these organizations to find out where the need is. And they’re not overfunded, they’re not over endowed. They need this money. And the money she can give them is a real help to them. I would like to see more of that kind of philanthropy. Rather than saying, OK, I’m going to get more money to Harvard. And I’m not picking on Harvard. They’re a great organization. They really, really are. But it’s just that they have the largest endowment in the United States. But Harvard doesn’t need another building with someone’s name on it right now.
[00:35:01.430] – Doug White
So and as you’ll notice, McKenzie Scott isn’t putting her name on any of these buildings. In fact, she’s keeping that list of those organizations secret. She’s not keeping the organizations from talking about it. And some of them are. That’s how we’re getting the news about who’s getting what.
[00:35:19.690] – Boris
So there’s clearly so much more that we could discuss about this and endless things to learn on both sides of the conversation around this. What are some resources that organizations that nonprofits that might be listening to this should maybe go and check out? Obviously, I think your books are going to be a great resource for both history and some practical knowledge and advice. Are there any other that you would recommend?
[00:35:47.680] – Doug White
I would. And thank you for asking. A lot of the literature and nonprofit and fundraising activity has to do with how great it is or how to do fundraising and how great it is that donors can help charities. And I think we need that and we need more of it. But two books that have caught my eye in the last year, one is called “The Givers” by David Callahan, and he examines who these people are, these givers, these donors and what motivates them. It’s a great book. It’s not at all negative, but it’s not. It’s not it’s not all positive either.
[00:36:25.180] – Doug White
And the other book is “Winners Take All”, by—and I’ve got to look at the name here… he’s very famous, but I still have trouble with— “you’re the hottest who’s very well-spoken, very knowledgeable person.” And his is a critique. It’s an outright critique of how philanthropy and philanthropists really perpetuate the inequalities in American life. And I recommend those books not because of the way they are negative, but because they’re really positive, both of them, because I feel the same way.
[00:37:01.360] – Doug White
I feel like I so cherish the nonprofit world and the role nonprofits play in the United States and the role philanthropists play. I so cherish it. I want to see them all do well. I don’t want to see bad actors come in. I don’t want to see the bad charities take over. Some years ago there was an article in the Tampa Bay Times entitled The 50 Worst Charities in the United States. And there was a scathing review of how some charities really do misbehave.
[00:37:32.290] – Doug White
I want those people gone. I want them out of our sector. It’s too pure and we need good people. And I know we’re not angels. We will never have only angels in the nonprofit sector, even though sometimes we like to think of ourselves that way. But we are and we are human. But we really have to be more and I wrote a whole book about this on the ethical decision making at nonprofits. We have to be better than the rest.
[00:37:57.580] – Doug White
I just I feel our aspirations have to be higher. We don’t have a political environment in which to succeed. We don’t have a for-profit environment in which to succeed. The way we succeed is by really, truly making the world a better place, which I feel is a lot stronger a pull than either of the other two motivators.
[00:38:19.130] – Boris
Awesome. We’re going to link to both of those books and to your works in our show notes, if nonprofits are looking to delve further into this or to start their path down this road, where should they begin? Do you have any calls to action for them to get going?
[00:38:37.430] – Doug White
Well, as a nonprofit, I think I’ve seen the areas of… there are three areas basically that I think need a particular attention: Board governance. And there’s a whole bunch of work within that whole process here. But as I mentioned before, you don’t want one person steamrolling the others. Board governance is a process. It’s a skill. It’s a discipline. And people need to learn how to be board members because they are the ultimate people at an organization. We don’t hear as much about them as we do the CEOs, but they are extremely important. And so the process of board governance is critical.
[00:39:14.540] – Doug White
Ethical decision making at charities. I think we have a unique space to make these decisions. As I said before, we don’t have for-profit concerns that we don’t have political concerns. We’re kind of in a pure space to make ethical decision making as high level as possible. So I think we need to pay more attention to that so we keep our bad actors away.
[00:39:35.510] – Doug White
And finally, I think the question of impact, if I’m a nonprofit, I want to make sure that I can show why I exist. One of the things that I ask a nonprofit when we do our retreats, the first thing I asked them, in fact, is how would society be different if you didn’t exist, if you closed your doors tonight, what would happen? Who would care? And board members have to actually think about that because it’s not intuitive. What would happen if we didn’t exist.
[00:40:06.680] – Doug White
And the answer is, well, we’re trying to cure this disease. That’s what they want to do. What would happen if they did not exist? When you… when I think of it that way and I put this in another book, about 30 percent of our organizations could go away and nobody would notice. So we tout the fact that there are a million. And when I say a million, the 501C3 sector of section of the C3 sector, for profit and public charity, excuse me, nonprofit public charities and foundations, probably a third of those three hundred thousand. And I know that’s maybe controversial, but I would say that that could happen and society wouldn’t be any worse off.
[00:40:53.180] – Doug White
So, if we’re going to get money and if, excuse me, if we’re going to ask for money, I think we have the obligation to tell people how we’re going to use it and the kind of impact the organization is going to have. So those three areas, let me just repeat governance, ethical decision making and impact. If I’m a nonprofit, those are the three things I need to really pay attention to.
[00:41:12.050] – Boris
Awesome. And if people want to follow up with you, what’s the best way to get in touch?
[00:41:16.730] – Doug White
I think LinkedIn I’ve got a public page there. And when it says contacts at LinkedIn, you can click that, and I actually have my own addresses in there, my phone number and my email address. It’s not just the LinkedIn address. So I think LinkedIn would be the best place to go. And I also do pay attention to that and tweak it every once in a while to make sure it’s up to speed up to date, up to speed with what I want.
[00:41:41.780] – Doug White
And so you’ll see what my own value system is in there. And I put that in the introduction of it. And so if anybody wants to further a conversation or have a conversation, feel free to touch base.
[00:41:53.960] – Boris
Awesome. Thank you so much, Doug. Thank you for all your time today, your insights. Thank you, everybody, for joining us for this episode of the Nonprofit Hero Factory. If you like what you see or what you hear, please do subscribe, rate and share our show with anyone that you know that might also benefit from the wisdom that people like Doug are imparting. Thank you again. And we’ll see you soon for another episode of the Nonprofit Hero Factory. Bye bye.
[00:42:40.850] – Outro Video
Thank you all for watching and listening to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, we hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform and let us know what you think, by leaving a review.
Concepts and Takeaways:
- Philanthropists have reached a point in their lives (3:48) where they are looking for:
- Legacy. I.e., ways to improve the world around them based on what they care about.
- The nonprofit organizations that they believe can get them there.
- The de-democratization of fundraising: Fewer people are giving larger amounts and having an outsized influence. Yet, small donors are critical to success. (6:05)
- Tragedies or intense situations like 9/11 and COVID get our heartstrings going and increase donations from donors of all sizes. (10:39)
- That’s good, but temporary. So charities have to figure out how to keep those new donors engaged.
- If nonprofits don’t cultivate smaller donors, philanthropy and giving might start to seem like activities just for rich people.
- Large gifts often come with large strings attached, and failing to fulfill promises to donors can result in disastrous consequences and legal challenges. (14:23)
- A notable early example is the A&P heirs’ endowment of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson school, but it continues today.
- “There is an environment right now where large donors are expecting that their wishes are going to be granted. And the key thing for me is that the university or the charity agrees to this. And my thinking is, not being an attorney and not looking at this through the legal lens but from an ethical lens… if you’re saying you’re going to do it then by golly, you’ve got to do it.” (17:40)
- What role do charity and nonprofits play in American society? And what role do billionaire philanthropists play? (20:05)
- Nobody elected Bill Gates to anything, and yet he has had massive influence over public life. Is his an expression of “the people’s will” in the U.S.?
- The dangers of billionaires hubris donating funds and dictating how they should be spent, as illustrated by a failed reform of Newark, NJ, public schools.
- Nonprofits need a strong board of directors who care about the mission and are intensely engaged in the organizations, to keep them on mission and not kowtowing to deep-pocket donors… including the board members themselves. (22:41)
- The role of charity in the U.S. capitalist system vs. communist countries like the former Soviet Union and socialist countries today (25:00)
- Our system relies on nonprofits to do the work that, in other parts of the world, is being done by governments. And that system relies on individuals to essentially vote for public good projects with their donations.
- The government recognizes the importance of charitable giving and incentivizes it through tax deductions. With the recent increase in the “standard deduction” allowances, smaller donors are not seeing the tax rewards of charitable giving, and therefore dropping off. (28:33)
- There is a danger that mega-donation mania can destroy the nonprofit ecosystem, with big organizations like Harvard only getting bigger. How does Mackenzie Scott’s approach change things? (33:28)
- Three areas that nonprofits need to pay particular attention to (38:37)
- Board governance
- Ethical decision making
- The question of impact
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Doug WhitePhilanthropy Advisor
Doug White, a long-time leader and scholar in the nation’s philanthropic community, is an author and an advisor to nonprofit organizations and philanthropists. He serves as the Co-Chair of the Walter Cronkite Committee at FoolProof, and as a board member (vice president) of the Secular Coalition of America. He is the former Director of Columbia University’s Master of Science in Fundraising Management program, where he also taught board governance, ethics and fundraising. Doug has published five books. His most recent, “Wounded Charity” (Paragon House, 2019), analyzes the allegations of mismanagement made in January 2016 against Wounded Warrior Project.
Episode 13: Thinking Like a Donor to Build Authentic Relationships with Lisa Greer
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 13
Thinking Like a Donor to Build Authentic Relationships with Lisa Greer
In this Episode:
Lisa Greer is on a mission to change the way nonprofits view and relate to donors. As the author of the book “Philanthropy Revolution: How to Inspire Donors, Build Relationships and Make a Difference,” she’s here to share her research and insights.
Read the Transcript
Welcome to the nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video broadcast, and Podcast, where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more Heroes for their cause. And a better world for all.
Boris Kievsky 0:18
Hi, everybody. Welcome to Episode 13 of the Nonprofit Hero Factory. Today we’re going to be talking with Lisa Greer about thinking like a donor to build authentic relationships. And Lisa is the Sorry, my dog is barking in the background. Lisa is a philanthropist. She’s an entrepreneur. She’s a convener, a nonprofit advisor, and the author of a new book The philanthropy revolution, which is currently actually the number one new release in philanthropy and charity on Amazon right now. And so far only the Kindle version is available. The hardcover is coming out I think maybe even this week or within the next few days. We’ll ask her about that. She is a former Hollywood executive who has been an active board member serving on boards, including new Israel fund cedar Sinai Hospital, make a wish Girl Scouts, and many others. She’s also the mother of five and she and her husband Josh live in Beverly Hills. Coincidentally, I have been to Lisa’s house in my former life living out in Los Angeles. For an event where I was a photographer, we discovered that as we were talking earlier, they hosted nearly 200 charitable events. They’re bringing nonprofit stories to donors and influencers in LA, which is part of the perspective that she brings to this conversation and to the book that she wrote. She describes her superpower as helping nonprofits understand and relate to donors with Integrity, Authenticity, and honesty. I’m excited to talk to her today about what that means, why it’s important, and how nonprofits can incorporate it into their strategies. So with that, let’s bring Lisa on to the show.
Lisa Greer 1:56
Boris Kievsky 1:58
so much for joining me today. I’m great. I’m very excited to have you on congratulations on the already successful pre-launch of your book. Thank you. I see it’s getting traction on Amazon. I see you’ve got a quote from Seth Godin, one of my idols right there on the front cover, you must know something about what you’re talking about, you must be doing something right. So tell me and tell all of us a little bit about your story, your background, and why you’re doing why you’re publishing this book and doing what you’re doing.
Lisa Greer 2:30
Right. So I have not been a lifelong philanthropist. I was. I’ve given wherever I could, but we didn’t really have money until about 910 years ago when we were lucky enough, I guess and blessed enough to be able to have my husband’s company go public, and I sold my company. We’re serial entrepreneurs, and we found ourselves in a position with becoming one-percenters I guess. Hopefully, that’s not the bad version, And we The first thing that we thought about and we thought it was natural to think about was, where are we going to give our money? And and and how do we become philanthropists? And what’s the right way to do this? And what we found, we both come from business, from lots of different companies, corporate, small business, etc. And what we found is that there were a lot of just basic business tenets that didn’t exist in philanthropy and fundraising, and we just were shocked about that, it just didn’t seem as, in some ways, it was very professional, but in some ways, it was there was a lot of sort of, are you kidding? Like, are you really doing it that way and, and then there was a lot of just generally arcane strategy and methodology. So we did continue to give and we didn’t we weren’t daunted. Some people might have been daunted and just put their money into a donor-advised fund, but we decided that we would push through and, and after a while, I realized that there were a lot of these problems and that nobody was really there. fixing them. And one of the reasons they weren’t fixing them is because they really didn’t know what the donors thought because the donors didn’t want to talk about it. So we decided or I decided to be that person.
Boris Kievsky 4:11
That’s a great story. Congratulations on your success, both yours and your husband’s. And thank you for deciding to focus so much of your energies on helping the nonprofit sector, seeing that there are issues. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing. I do have a for-profit background, a marketing background. And when I started working with nonprofits, I started seeing the huge disparity between how the worlds operate and seeing how nonprofits aren’t always taking advantage of the latest tools and best practices that are out there. I feel like you’re doing something similar now for philanthropy.
Lisa Greer 4:46
That’s right. We’re doing I think exactly that. And then more specifically, I’m trying to change how philanthropy is taught. And I was a guest speaker at a number of different couple different schools where they taught nonprofit management and specifically fundraising and philanthropy. And I felt like there was a real thirst on the part of the students to be able to hear kind of contemporary versions of how you might do this better and that for me, but I just felt like they weren’t getting it in their classes. So what I’m really trying to do is, is changed the way philanthropy is taught.
Boris Kievsky 5:18
So what is the problem then? What’s the problem with philanthropy, the way it’s taught the way it’s being practiced? What do you What are you trying to fix?
Lisa Greer 5:26
So the biggest problem is that there’s a whole lot of problems but I think it all stems from one very important piece, which is that the fundraisers don’t think of the donors as in my opinion, human beings. They think of them as some different types of alien creatures, and I was sort of the alien among the aliens. So if a donor is an alien creature, somebody who just all of a sudden got money when they were older is a super alien creature, so I can’t quite figure out where that started. There’s a lot of different I have a lot of different theories. A lot of people in my book who the committee about have their theories, but for some reason, there’s, there’s just its sort of like, well, you are a different kind of person. So if I feel like I get annoyed by XYZ subject line, then the person on the other end oh, no, they’re different. They’re not going to see the subject line the same way that there’s something as simple as a subject line in an email. And it’s amazing how many conversations I’ve had with fundraisers where I’ve said, just look at what you’re sending out and think of it as being sent to you. And how would you feel? Would you open that email if it had that subject line? And they think that’s a really strange question. They kind of look at me and say, Well, I don’t understand that these are donors. And so but they’re, you know, sort of, as I said to someone the other day, it’s sort of like, what is it People Magazine and they say, you know, celebrities, they’re just like you as donors. They’re just like you and sure, there might be some quirky unusual people in the group as there are in any group but in general, you need to look at it and say, how would I feel if I got this? How would I feel if I got a phone call? Say Hi, this is so and so from a charity you don’t know, please call me back so I can ask you for money. I mean, really, I okay, they didn’t say they can ask you for money, but it was implied and nobody would answer that phone call. So that is the most important piece. But because donors don’t like to talk about it as most, if not all of the donors I’ve talked to him said when I asked them, Why wouldn’t you just say to the fundraiser that was really annoying, or it was off-putting or it was demeaning the way you talked to me, you know, just talk to me like you were talking to a friend. They just say it’s easier to hang up the phone, it’s easier to just cancel the meeting and not give to that organization anymore. The downside of that of course is that the organization never knows what they did wrong. The fundraiser doesn’t know what they did wrong. They keep doing it the same way and the donor goes on and life goes on the same way and that’s just not okay. So I realized that there was a problem looming when a lot of these well I’ll get to in a little bit more. You know, my thing about the older people who are not going to be here and not talking to millennials, but this is another big piece of my book is that we really need to talk to people as human beings. And if they are millennials, if they are older people, if they are infirm people, if they are celebrities, whatever they are, you need to talk to them as a human being and get to know them as a person. And that will help your fundraising a whole lot
Boris Kievsky 8:16
Donors are people too. I think that’s absolutely valid and critical. A lot of nonprofits are, I think, starting to incorporate some of what you’re talking about. And they’re starting to understand that you need to make a connection, person to person, not just talk about our causes this and our causes that and we’re doing such great work, but more about, you know, we are a group of people that have a similar philosophy to you. We care about similar things that you care about and really relate to them as human to human on a subject that both are passionate about.
Lisa Greer 8:55
Right, right, right. And the funny part is that almost every nonprofit you can think of and every fundraiser uses the word relationship. And I don’t know they must have a different dictionary definition of a relationship, because how can you have a relationship with somebody if you don’t have any sense of who they are, how they feel, really what the way that I sort of see it is that I think that most fundraisers would really prefer and this is not all of them. I have the boards that I’m part of, and the groups that I work with are the ones that are different. But the vast majority, I think of nonprofits and fundraisers, I think that if you really ask them, they’d say that they prefer that a donor was just like a piggy bank. And the reason why I’m using a piggy bank metaphor is a piggy bank is an inanimate object and doesn’t talk back. And I think they’d really like that. And the idea is that you just find the piggy bank, you find the right piggy bank and you smash it, you take the money and you run. And, you know, I don’t know about dictionary terms, but that is not a relationship.
Boris Kievsky 9:49
Yeah, so I would say, you know, there are lots of different kinds of relationships out there. And I would say I do know, like you many development directors and people in fundraising and nonprofit communications That they are trying to treat people like people and talk to them. But there is sort of this invisible divide between well, I’m not one of them. They’re not like me. And so how do I really relate to them versus trying to think, well, this is what a donor might look like, and not necessarily actually talking to them and knowing what they would like. So what should they be doing in terms of bridging that divide? How do you get inside the donors mind besides perhaps reading your book?
Lisa Greer 10:31
Thank you. Well, yes, if you read the book, there’s a lot of about 40 different people, academics, fundraisers, donors, who actually we got to talk about how they feel. And so as well as my story, and I think, and it also gives a lot of practical information. So there’s a part in every chapter and one or two sections where it says, instead of doing this, why don’t you think about doing this or that of doing that? And when people read it, our initial readers read it. They say, oh, gosh, that’s so obvious. I didn’t think of that. So I think that the academic piece got in the way of the obvious and we need to go back to just sort of human nature. So I think one of the most important things really has to do with what you do for us, which is storytelling, and everybody has a story. And if you can find out your donor’s story or stories, all of a sudden that appears, and if you can also be a little bit more transparent and human yourself as a fundraiser, and you can tell some of your stories. How did you get into this? Why did you get into this? That’s really great. And all of a sudden, the relationship I think, will develop on its own if you can do that.
Boris Kievsky 11:33
And so I’m teaching and working with organizations now and on teaching them the storytelling formulas, and how to extract these formulas, both from their own staff, but also from donors and other constituents, where you really ask a series of questions, essentially, ideally, it’d be great to have these conversations in person. But however, you can have them including even like online, you know, having just a question and answer thing. Here’s a question for you as a donor, how do you feel about being asked for more information? Do you feel like Well, I’m already giving you my money? Do I also need to give you my time? Or do you feel like oh, this organization really wants more from me in terms of myself like a person, rather than just by money?
Lisa Greer 12:17
Yes, that and there are organizations that I believe that most people most younger people, most younger donors, which in this case is people, anybody under 70, or 80. But they really do want to give more of themselves to the organization. They don’t want to be just a checkbook. I hate to say just a checkbook because most people don’t write checks anymore. But we understand what that idea is, and so the more that they, they really get to know each other and the more you might find out from that donor that they happen to have a special power, they might have something that they do that you didn’t even know about as a fundraiser that could really help you. The problem that comes up and it’s come up for me and it’s really, really disturbing Is that there are a lot of organizations that don’t want to use that part of their donors. They just want their donors for their money. And they want to keep that very separate from donors, volunteering and most. It’s funny because volunteers have all the research shows that volunteers, but most organizations, especially longer term volunteers, they are the most devoted to that cause, I mean, absolutely devoted. And if they get a little bit of money, by the way, they’re the ones that put the money away, and all of a sudden, you get a bequest years later and you say, Gosh, I didn’t know that person. They weren’t one of our donors. They were just a volunteer. I don’t know why people don’t spend more time with volunteers. It’s because I know why it’s because they don’t have money now. And that’s really a very short-sighted way of thinking. But the other part is that if you are a let’s say, you’re an accountant, and you can help with the accounting for the organization, there are some organizations that just say, No, no, we want to keep that very separate. We want to keep our volunteers in a box. We want to keep our donors in a box and we want to keep our professionals inbox and those boxes never meet. And especially in this day and age when men’s resources sometimes are a little bit challenging. Yeah, you might want to take that step and actually use them. It doesn’t mean you have to with some people will say, well, what if that account isn’t a good accountant, and then I have to use them. And then I’m committed, again, go back to their people to if you’re not the right fit, just say, it’s not the right fit, we’ve got somebody else. And we really love this or could you take a look at this and tell us what you think about this that our accountant provided? And if you don’t want to use the information, fine, but at least you asked and by asking, it’s going to make that donor feel much more engaged.
Boris Kievsky 14:28
It’s interesting that you talk about volunteers, eventually giving a large amount of money, perhaps, or bequeathing a large money, I actually know of stories where that has happened. But it completely makes sense because psychologically, there is a phenomena where the more you invest of yourself or invest in various ways into a relationship, the more invested you are in it, right. So with every session that volunteers volunteering with everything that they do, they actually put more of themselves. into your mission in your organization. So they are reinforcing their own connection to it with each session.
Lisa Greer 15:06
Right and, ignore, I guess I would say ignore that at your peril if I’m talking to talking to fundraisers like we are today, because that’s just it’s it. But that, again, is relationship. And that is you’re allowing it to cross those lines into the different areas. And as opposed to just say, donor checkbox, see you by thank you note, you know, that kind of thing. And there’s gonna be ways to
Boris Kievsky 15:28
track this kind of data, if you will where once you ask someone once or twice or you ask, Are you interested in these types of opportunities, if they are great, if not a little check, Mark goes into their CRM entry, and you don’t bother them with that kind of stuff anymore. You periodically tell them about what’s happening. Let them OPT back into it if they want. But you don’t need to feel like you’re bothering people who aren’t interested if you just really pay attention to what their responses are to what you’re doing.
Lisa Greer 15:56
Right. So let me give you a couple of examples of a fad or ways to be cautionary area. So yes, ask them what the difference different things are that they’re interested in and actually act on them. So don’t ask somebody how one of my biggest things that I tell everybody, and really, this comes to my sales background, and it’s not just philanthropy, but any kind of sales or anything where you want to be persuasive. In this day and age, ask somebody how they like to be communicated with, how often would you like to get updates from us, ask them that information. And then but then if you ask them the information, or you say, how would you like to be involved? And then you ignore them, then it’s worse than having not asked it?
Boris Kievsky 16:34
Absolutely, because then they feel like, well, I thought it was gonna be an opportunity. And there’s almost a rejection there. Right? Well, I said, I want to do this. And now you’re not letting me do it, not giving it to me. Right. So it definitely creates the opposite reaction.
Lisa Greer 16:48
Right and to assume that a donor is going to get upset if you don’t use them. I think again, back to back to the beginning. If you realize they’re human. If you have a friend and you say to the friend, Hi, can you help me on this and the friend You realize didn’t really do everything I needed, I need to now get another consultant, you still have the friend who talked to the friend and you said, You know what, it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, I need to find somebody else. Thank you so much for your help. For some reason, most organizations don’t want to do that with their donors, they don’t want to, I think the big piece of it is they don’t want to take the risk that the donor is going to get upset. And I don’t know how you have a relationship without risk. So it’s just part of the same deal.
Boris Kievsky 17:25
So let’s talk a little bit about building these relationships and specifically with younger generations than the average donor these days. I know and research has shown there’s several studies that show that millennials are most interested in organizations with some sort of a mission alignment to themselves. They want to be involved, they want to feel connected and part of that community. That is, perhaps psychologically anyway, a big change from the donors of the past where they were just these you know, Omni powerful, you know givers that would just, you know, let you do the work that you want to do, and maybe advise you along the way. Now, younger generations are more interested in being part of it from the ground up and having their hands in it, if you will. Right.
Lisa Greer 18:17
Right. And so there’s a whole gamut of younger people, of course, and everybody, again, they’re regular people. So there are all different types of them. But yes, if somebody wants to get involved, if somebody it is much, much more common for a contemporary donor to say, I really want to get behind the curtain, I really want to know what’s going on with your organization. And if you tell me everything is perfect, I am not an idiot. And I know that that’s not possible. It’s just not it’s not It can’t be real, and therefore, I’m not going to trust you. And trust is the number one problem in fundraising, period. Every research study, you can find talks about trust being this kind of attribute that there just isn’t enough. And so because of that, there’s lots and lots of people who just don’t, don’t donate at all is really an unfortunate thing. And I’m trying to change that. But you need to, you need to actually say, if you say I want to know what’s going on with the organization, I’d like to see, whatever I want to see a budget, I want to see the impact report. And I will be able to see because most donors, as in most people are intelligent humans, and they can see if you’re giving them something that has been cut into nothing because it’s just going to be you know a problem, because it’s, you don’t want them to know any of the bad stuff. You don’t want them to know any of the detail. And so I as a donor, if I say, look, I really want to know, and maybe it won’t be numbered, maybe it’s just, gee, I want to know your work with kids in Africa. I would like to know what’s it like when you go talk to the kids in Africa, just tell me, you know, sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. And sometimes it works. And sometimes it doesn’t, that will elicit trust, and if you just say everything’s great, they’re wonderful, they love everything, then I’m going to know I need to go to a different organization. So it’s really important to give that information that they’re looking for and you can give it in a responsible way. One of the things is, that’s a really good idea is to just ask the donor, what part of that? Are you interested in it? Like, why are you asking and in a very nice way in a very respectful way that is that something that you’re interested in? Like, what do you like to see? Are you looking at this? Because you want to know what percentage of administrative costs? Are you looking at it because you want to see what our impact is? And what you might find out. And what I’ve heard from a lot of donors, including some that are in the book, a lot of younger donors, they actually want to be much more hands-off than any ones anyone would assume. They want to believe they want to do all the research upfront, they want to make sure that this is the organization so that the older people didn’t really do. So they really want to look behind the curtain. But then once they’re convinced that the organization is something that they trust, they will very often say I’m giving you money for 10 years and I’m hands-off, which is a really different kind of thing than what we’ve been used to.
Boris Kievsky 20:52
For sure. Yeah, trust is built through empathy and vulnerability. So if your donor can’t empathize with you And vice versa. And if you can’t be vulnerable with them, then why should they trust you? And you are just this inanimate almost object, right? Because anything alive has challenges and has problems and is vulnerable. So that’s incredibly important for any kind of communications and relationship building is to have that kind of vulnerability, which builds empathy, which builds trust. Right. You also talk in the book a lot about ways to be transparent from the outset. Is that also in the capacity of trust-building?
Lisa Greer 21:31
Yeah, I think it is I look at it’s all in the capacity of trust, relationship, Integrity, Authenticity, all of it’s in the same kind of basket. And that’s what we’re trying to get to and again, it shouldn’t be hard. That’s how we work with our friends. That’s how we interact with in most cases, family members, that’s how we interact with people that we respect and for some reason this donor fundraiser relationship is different. And we know some people say it’s because fundraisers actually just don’t like talking about money, which is I think is a very strange and ironic kind of thing. But, we just need to get past it. And the fundraisers need to be taught that the donors are real people, they need to be taught the trust is the biggest issue and that it’s okay to let down your hair, they will still like you, if your mission is an important mission, it’s okay, they’re going to like you. And if they like you, and they feel comfortable with you, and you can bring them to a point where, because they have a little bit of interest where they are super engaged with the mission, then they’re going to give you money. And they need to understand that as opposed to the way of thinking now I think is, is if I, you know, call them 500 times, and I send them a whole bunch of emails, and I tell them that we’re desperate, they’re going to give me money, not a good thing. So it has completely different. So I think it’s and one of the really, really big opportunities, by the way now is that because of COVID and because of where we are, there are people who are donating who have never donated before people and there are all sorts of research studies and people are well aware that I’ve talked to a lot of these people, and they’re out there saying okay, Taking the first baby step I kind of like this. I feel like I’m helping people with PPE or with helping homeless people or getting lunches to kids who aren’t in school. But then what do I do and they are primed. And we now need those fundraisers and organizations and go find those people affect them and get to know them as humans. And I think that is going to reap all sorts of benefits long term.
Boris Kievsky 23:23
Absolutely. Get that during times of hardship, everybody’s empathy goes up. Everybody can relate to someone else who’s in trouble and wants to go out there and help. But it does need to come from some sort of authentic need and authentic connection. You talk just a minute ago about, you know, wanting every donor to like you. I think it’s okay that not every donor does not every donor is your ideal donor. It’s better to build a tribe and to use Seth Godin word of people who actually love you what you’re doing, the way you’re doing it, then trying to get us many people out there as possible that might potentially like something that about what you’re doing and give you even a little bit of money to support it. So the more you can connect to the right people, and you know, in storytelling, I talked about avatars and target audience profiles, basically. But the more you can identify that person, and what they believe in and what you have in common with them, the easier it’s going to be to connect with the right people for the long term.
Lisa Greer 24:25
Right? And everybody doesn’t need to be your friend, but they do have to share your passion. And we have some issues there, which I’ll go into briefly. I go into more in the book, but most fundraisers stay in their job about 18 months so that is a bit of a problem. You kind of wonder, Well, if they’re only there 18 months, and in fact, a huge number of them something like 50% 40%, something like that don’t even want to continue to be fundraisers ask the next year or two. So if that’s the case, are they really passionate about the mission and if they’re not that passionate about the mission, because this thing, is, they’re probably not passionate about the mission, especially if they go to different kinds of organizations. If that’s the case, then how can they convey passionate about the mission to the donor if they don’t really have the passion for the mission, so so you need to have the right people in the right place as well. But if you do, you will find that a very large percentage of people actually want to donate its human nature to want to give and want to make other people happy and want to take care of the world. I just think most people believe that. But when you have to go through this gauntlet of people treating you like you’re an alien, it makes it very difficult to want to continue to donate.
Boris Kievsky 25:32
Absolutely. So this is not an easy thing to flip. It’s not like a switch. Someone can just say, Okay, now our nonprofit does this for a lot of nonprofits might assume that they’re already doing it. So what, where should they start? However, is there something they should start looking at and evaluating in order to create change?
Lisa Greer 25:52
Right? So you know what my answer is going to be here. It’s just looking at the book and you can pick whatever chapter it has to do with what you’re talking about. There’s a board chapter There’s a gala chapter, there’s whatever, look at the problem that you have to go to that chapter. And it will actually say to you, we’ve spent three years working on this book and tons of research. And it will actually say to you, here’s some research that shows some things that you can do to make that change. But what it boils down to, again, is what we talked about at the beginning is integrity and authenticity, and trust and honesty, and all of those things, and treating the person as a human. And really once you do that, the rest of it kind of starts falling into place.
Boris Kievsky 26:27
So with each email with each statement on your website or blog posts, with each social media post with each phone call, right it’s are you talking to someone like they are your friend who believes in what you’re doing? Or, are you talking to someone like they are a potential source of money? Do right?
Lisa Greer 26:46
They don’t even have to be your friend. Just somebody respect, I think, I don’t think it has to go as far as your friend. It’s just somebody that you’d like to have a nice conversation with and know more about, but if you really don’t want to know more about them and you pretend to want to know more about them that never works. So I think it has to be In authentic conversation, and, for example, somebody called me the other day from one of my, she’s seen one of my posts, and works at a large university. And she said, I’m sending out this email, I’m now nervous that my emails are going to be condescending, and they’re not. They don’t feel authentic. It was a very simple email blast it had about, I don’t know, two paragraphs in it, and a subject line, she said, Can you look at it and tell me if any of this is offensive or demeaning to a donor? And unfortunately, the answer was most of it was, and we took it apart. And when I said to her, look at the subject line, let’s just look at this. And here’s one really easy thing that your watchers Can, can can can do a look at your email box in the morning. Think about all of the different emails that you have on your email box, put the email that you’re thinking of sending out with that subject line, just the email and the subject line, put it in your email box, and say, Would I click on that? And for some people, they told me that was life-changing. So because if you’re not going to click on it, and then some people say, well, it doesn’t matter what I think I’m not a donor. And that’s worth getting back to this thing that there are different kinds of people. But if you want, click on it yourself, how can you expect somebody else to do so. To put it just put it in, you can even send an email to yourself with that subject line, have it sit in your email box for a day and look at it and say, is this something that is going to make me want to click on it? And is it going to feel be compelling? And then if you graduate from that part, you can then go into whatever the body of the email is, and say, is this something that I would actually respond to? And I think that’s a really easy first step.
Boris Kievsky 28:31
Absolutely. That’s a great kind of like quick litmus test, you know, we all get hundreds of emails a day these days. Is that subject line from this organization going to make you open that email? Or will it sit there? Will you go, oh, maybe I’ll open it later. Or will you just delete because you’ve got too much else going on? Right.
Lisa Greer 28:48
Right. One of my best examples is that I have all sorts of pet peeves, which you’ll see in the book, but but but when you see an email and it says, end of our quarter, we need to make our numbers and our look at that, I think what does that have to do with me? Like, why? why I’m sorry, if you didn’t make your numbers, then maybe you didn’t do something right a month or two ago, or maybe you didn’t budget correctly but that doesn’t have to do with me. And so I’m going to not open that email. So, so there’s and then there’s, there’s some, in fact, I’ll give everybody a big one of my big, big tips that I’m doing right now. Something that you’ve accomplished during COVID is a really big deal people other than other people are suggesting this to say something that you accomplished during COVID or our something or relate to COVID because otherwise, you look like you are completely tone-deaf if you don’t even and there are plenty of solicitations I’ve gotten that literally don’t talk about COVID at all and don’t talk about Oh, it’s mean we know it’s been a difficult summer they just go straight forgive us money. And I think whether you like how there is no relationship there. You guys are completely out to lunch and you think that I’m like living under a rock or something. So that’s not okay.
Boris Kievsky 29:55
Absolutely. And of course the message about COVID needs to be authentic. You can’t just say something that’s completely unrelated to your mission is suddenly being important. Although you can recognize that like all human beings, we’re going through something right now and that you are a human talking to a human again. So that’s absolutely valid and relevant. And when you said, you know, we didn’t make our fourth quarter, we need help that that just sends up so many pet peeves, alarm bells, in my own mind to you’re absolutely right. It’s not about what did the organization do or not do in terms of their funding? It’s what’s going on that I should want to help with? What so even if it’s about a budget shortfall, which of course happens, and I think is going to happen a lot more next year? What is it that you’re not being not able to do because of that? Talk to me about the people that I can help rather than your organization needs money.
Lisa Greer 30:53
That’s right. And that’s why there’s been a lot of big change with the attitudes towards operational or unrestricted giving versus giving for particular programs, I think both are important. I don’t think it’s one or the other. But some people I got kind of a little bit attacked online the other day because I made some just generic comment. And somebody just assumed that because I was a donor, I must be. I was saying I wanted to we were talking about thank you notes. So I think it’s important to have some sort of people need to say thank you. And there are people out there who think that it’s inappropriate for fundraisers to say thank you because donors basically have money and so they don’t deserve it. And you shouldn’t be pandering to rich people, therefore, you shouldn’t say thank you, which I think is just from another planet. I don’t understand that. I think when you’re for you, actually, I think it’s I read an article in like parents magazine, I think when you’re 18 months old, you’re taught to say thank you. So it’s not okay when you’re 30 or 40, or 50, or whatever. So you say thank you. But, but this person immediately when I wrote that thought that what I meant was that for some reason, I was a donor and I was saying please say thank you. Therefore, I must be one of those people who’s saying money that I donate should only go into programs and shouldn’t go into administration costs. And operational expenses or be unrestricted. And I didn’t say that at all. I didn’t even come close to saying that, but yet I was accused of being that person. And I think again, both are important. I think I think the idea back to back to look at the other person as a human being the idea that a donor is going to look at a fundraiser across the table or across zoom, and think and think that that person works for free, is ludicrous. It makes it seem like the donors are complete that the fundraiser must really think of donors are idiots if they are afraid to if they’re afraid to ask for operational money if they’re afraid to make it clear that they’re professional and they make money just like anyone else. And I was a donor, I really don’t want to sit across the table or across the room with somebody who’s making $15 an hour $5 an hour because I have nothing against those people but I want to know that this is a professional who’s done this for years and who’s who really knows what they’re talking about. And I know that that you have to pay people like that’s just a general thing. If you want somebody something quality, then you must pay for them. I don’t think I think pretty much any donor would know that. And the idea that fundraisers think that donors don’t know that and are crazy. They did a study and it’s about 80% of fundraisers are uncomfortable. This was last year uncomfortable asking for operational support. They just don’t want to ask for it at all. Yeah, it’s too bad. operational support, right? Well, it’s not a sexy ask, but it’s gonna mean that the especially gosh, look at it. Now. It’s if you have really great people running your organization, chances are good that you might have had some rainy day money in the bank and you might be okay. And you might be able to get through COVID. And you might be able to get through economic downturns because you have a really incredible group of devoted people who are really smart and have figured this stuff out. So it actually is protecting my money to know that you’re making a decent wage.
Boris Kievsky 33:48
Yeah, and the better professional you are, the more you do deserve to be paid and the better you’re going to be at your job and bringing more money in. It is a lot of that has the TED talk about an object I blogged about it before I’m in 100% agreement.
Lisa Greer 34:02
It’s about 10-11 years old, but it still works. And I send that to people all the time because it really gets your mind right about that. And I’m very pleased that there’s some movement in the last six months with different organizations that rate charities to really look at them not so much from this operational expense point of view, but from an impact point of view.
Boris Kievsky 34:24
Absolutely. At least I feel like we could talk for another five days and still not cover nearly half of what we can’t talk about. But I do want to be respectful of your time and our listener’s time. in the show notes for this episode, which are already up online, some of them will have more up, obviously, and once this is over. You recommended several different tools and resources like inside philanthropy, Chronicle, philanthropy candid, which I love and have worked with several times. Alliance magazine and board source. Anything that specifically organizational leaders should go to, besides going to buy your book, which we’re also going to have links to in the show notes, anything that they should do when they’re done watching this episode?
Lisa Greer 35:09
Well, I think looking at my blog would make a lot of sense because and I, in fact, had a guest, another donor philanthropist who did a guest column just a couple of days ago. So it’d be interesting to look at somebody else’s point of view. But I’ve done them for about a year, there’s maybe, I don’t know, 40 or 50 of them. And they’re on all different subjects that are a quick read, it’ll take two or three minutes. And they’re all they all talk about, from a donor’s point of view, things that you might do differently. And I think just talk to donors, I think that’s the most important thing. Go. It’s almost like pick up the phone today and talk to a donor and say, how are you doing? That would be a wonderful thing. And that will get you on the right track.
Boris Kievsky 35:45
Actually, right now during COVID. That’s a great practice because it shows that you care about them and you’re actually interested because maybe some numbers, especially if they’re older, and at high risk in terms of COVID, right. You want them to know that you care about them, and not just to pass a check, but also,
Lisa Greer 36:02
but one quick caveat, and then we’ll be done. But, but if you call somebody and you pick up the phone, you’d say, how are you doing? And how are you hanging in there during COVID? And they seem to need help. By making that phone call, you are obligating yourself to actually help them. Because if you don’t, then you might as well not make the phone call.
Boris Kievsky 36:20
Awesome. Lisa, thank you so much for joining me today and sharing all of this amazing perspective that I think is incredibly invaluable. We have so much more that we can talk about, and I’d love to have you back on the show sometime. For those of you watching at home, I hope you got a lot of value out of this or listening later on. If you did, please, please subscribe to us on YouTube on any of your favorite podcast platforms. And leave us a review so that more people can discover this show and people like Lisa talking about these really important subjects. Thank you, everybody. Have a great weekend. Thanks.
Thank you all for watching and listening to the nonprofit Hero Factory. We hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating war heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on Youtube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform and let us know what you think by leaving a review
Concepts and Takeaways:
- Integrity, authenticity, trust and honesty are the key to good fundraiser/donor relationships.
- Donors are people, too.
- Put yourself in their shoes when thinking about the language and tactics you’re using to appeal to them.
- Communicate with them in a way that you’d want to be communicated with. If you don’t connect with the subject line of your own marketing email, for example, chances are your donors won’t connect with it either.
- To bridge the divide (and grow an authentic connection) between fundraisers and donors, tell your story and ask them theirs.
- By building relationships with donors, you might learn that they have more to give than just money. Use open communication to ask how donors want to be involved–and follow through.
- Be transparent upfront, show where your money is being allocated if asked, highlight real outcomes and the right donors will like you, trust you, and ultimately, support you accordingly.
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Lisa GreerAuthor, Philanthropy Revolution, Philanthropy 451
Lisa Zola Greer is a philanthropist, entrepreneur, convener, nonprofit advisor and the author of “Philanthropy Revolution” (HarperCollins 2020).
A former Hollywood studio executive, Lisa has been an active board member, serving on boards including the New Israel Fund, Cedars-Sinai Hospital, Make-a-Wish, Girl Scouts, and many others.
Lisa is the mother of five, and she and her husband Josh live in Beverly Hills, where they have hosted nearly 200 charitable salons and events – bringing nonprofits’ stories to donors and influencers in Los Angeles.
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