Major Gifts: How to Love "The Same Old Thing"
It’s called "The Grass is Greener Syndrome." Everything else always looks better. Anything old is always boring. If it isn’t new, innovative and cutting edge, then it can’t possibly work.
I suppose it’s the human condition—we constantly compare what we do to others and try to define ourselves by how new, how cutting edge and how different we are versus how effective we are.
If it’s familiar and tried-and-true, then it must be old and outdated. If it’s flashy and high profile, then it must be good. Bigger is better. The bigger the number, the more costly the car or house, the larger the salary, the more power a person has—it’s all far better.
Believe me, I know what this is about.
Early in my career I was in a director of development job. I was young and new to fundraising. When my boss told me we really needed to grow the organization, I went out to the marketplace to interview nonprofit direct marketing agencies that could come alongside us and help us get to our growth objective.
These were some of the best direct marketing agencies in the country. And I studied them all very carefully, including the proposals they had sent me. My conclusion? Same old—same old. It was boring, classic, same-old strategies and approaches to donor acquisition and cultivation. I had seen it all before. It was tiring and boring. Certainly there must be a better way.
So, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. I began looking for a commercial (not a nonprofit) direct marketing agency that was considered to be the best in the United States. I found one in New York City. And I went to see them to explain who we were and what we wanted to do.
They told me they did not have any nonprofit fundraising experience, but “direct marketing was direct marketing.” So, not to worry, they would bring their considerable experience and track record to bear on our situation.
It was quite a ride. We had writers, producers, strategists, media planners—goodness, it was something. It was impressive.
And it was a total disaster!
Some good was done, but more than a million dollars later it became clear that the new, innovative and wonderfully cutting-edge solution I had brought into the organization was a total failure. And it started me down a very painful path of ultimately losing my job.
Now, as I look back, this whack in the head was one of the best things that ever happened to me, because it taught me a very important lesson—one that I want to pass on to you.
The lesson—simply put—was this: Don’t ever search for a replacement to a tried-and-true formula for doing anything. Instead, use the formula or approach and innovate within it.
Had I hired an agency that was doing “what really works” well and tried new things within that context, I would have been further ahead.
Here’s the other lesson that parallels this one—call it the other side of the same coin: Be sure that your search for a solution is truly a desire to be effective versus a desire to self-express.
This is subtle.
In the case of my hiring the hotshot New York City boys, what I later discovered through some management coaching and personal counseling was that my core motivation in making the decision was to lift myself up versus actually getting anything done.
I used the organization’s money and goodwill to shore up a damaged self-image. And in the process I caused harm to the organization and myself. Stupid.
After I was ushered out of that job, I worked in commercial new ventures and acquisitions for a company based in Chicago.
Still smarting from the whipping I got through my earlier experience, but having learned the lesson, I sought out some of the best new ventures and acquisitions people in the country. I sat at their feet and learned how they did what they did in their Fortune 100 companies. And I copied what they did. In other words, I did the same old, same old thing. And it was successful.
So what does all this have to do with major gifts? Well, there are few simple points:
1. Effective major gifts work is, at its essence, serving the interests and passions of a donor. This may sound formulaic—it may sound basic and boring. But, just do this (and do it well) and you will be wildly successful.
2. You must stay focused on a select group of donors who are current givers to the organization. This means that all that snazzy attraction to all the other things you could be doing with all the other high-potential donors on your list or in the community must be disciplined and controlled so you can stay focused on the good donors that have proven they want to be with you.
3. Donors need to know they are making a difference, so you had better be about telling them they are, in great detail and with great frequency. None of this slight of hand where you think you can just say general stuff or, if something is not going right, you can just ignore it. Nope. These important relationships demand authenticity, integrity and care.
4. There is no silver bullet. None. Nowhere. Stop looking for one. There is no grand strategy, innovative scheme, wonderful approach or something yet undiscovered that will make you successful. You will not discover it because it isn’t there. So, stop looking.
Does this sound pretty basic and same old, same old? Yes it does! And it is. Which is why Jeff and I keep repeating this over and over again. Stay with the basics and you will find yourself experiencing success.
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.