Exponential growth through collaboration

My great-great grandmother was a pioneer.  She actually rode in a Conestoga wagon across the great plains to Oklahoma. Like right out of one of those Civil War era Matthew Brady photographs. As kids, my sisters and I were regaled with stories of her bravery and self-determination. She lived to be 113 years old, and family legend has it that on her 100th birthday she picked 100 bales of cotton to prove how strong and self-reliant she was. Her last name, appropriately, was Steele.

I live in NYC. Unlike my great-great grandmother, my nearest neighbor isn’t 200 miles away.  In fact, my nearest neighbors live 200 feet away and I have never met them.  This is a well-worn cliché in NYC, but I think it’s true in lots of places. We have grown up as a culture so valuing independence and self-reliance, which was critical to survival for a pioneer, that we resist depending on others, of asking others to be there for us, to support us, to truly be part of our lives.

I see this “pioneer mentality” all the time, even with some of our greatest visionaries.  They have a brilliant idea, but they are simply unable to let go of the belief that they have to do it themselves.  They may have a few people working with them who will execute their vision, but that’s it.   And, of course, that’s precisely what keeps their ideas from truly spreading, from exponential growth.

Just having a great – even visionary – idea isn’t enough.  We need partners to grow. We need to ask others to join us and support us, even if it means letting go of some of the illusion of control.

Real, enduring strength lies much more in partnerships, in community and interdependence, than it does in trying to go it alone.

The 30-second elevator pitch and the mirror

At your next board meeting, ask each board member to articulate your organization’s “30-second elevator pitch.” In my many experiences of this exercise, most can’t do it.

I’ve been to lots of board meetings where we’ve spent hours drafting and redrafting the 30-second elevator pitch. We’ve obeyed, step by step, marketing positioning templates from the best communication companies. We’ve worked with the board to practice the pitch, to make sure they were all comfortable delivering it.  Our goal was to get everyone to speak with a consistent voice and say the same thing.  We were sure that once we got that, everything else would fall into place.

It rarely works.

By forcing people to speak with a consistent voice you’re actually creating an obstacle. It’s as if you announced, “OK, it’s clear we all love independent films but to raise funds for our Indy Film Society we need to agree why the work of the Indy Film Society is important and we need to speak with the same voice. So let’s all agree on one shining example of a powerful independent film and go out and tell that story.”

Good luck.

Not only will that meeting never end but you’ve just wasted all the rich experiences and talents of a presumably gifted board by limiting and packaging their individual passions into some marketing communication box. It often results in a “pitch” that could be applied to any one of a thousand different organizations.

Of course, everyone needs to be heading down the same path strategically. But I’ve discovered that it’s more important to help your board learn to speak from their own experience, with their own voice and passion.

Do this through narrative. We’re all aware of the power of a good story. Stories move us, they touch us deeply. They speak to who we are, what is possible. They remind us that there is a deep well of resources within us that can rise up and meet challenges. Despite this we seldom spend time showing people how to use this most simple of tools. How to tell their story.

The next time you have a board meeting, ask people to share their stories. Ask why they are involved in your organization. Not from a metrics level – ‘Because I’d like to extend the reach of indy films’ – but from a personal, emotional level.  Like, say, ‘Because after watching Sideways I learned something about myself, that I had let my daily routine quiet the passion I used to have for life. Sideways woke me up.’

By all means, create your strategy statement. Make it clear and convincing. But before the board sallies forth and reveals your mission through the lens of a ‘case for support,’ they should all, first, hold up a mirror.

When a piece of them colors the 30-second elevator pitch, the telling – and the results – will be far more compelling.

Hanging 101

One of my favorite fundraising tips is this: simply spend time with your partners.  Quincy Jones calls it “Hanging 101.”   There is tremendous creativity and trust that builds when you spend time with people with no set expectations and no agenda. It’s a true spontaneous exchange.  Meeting your partners right where they are.

Dick Parsons, the former CEO of Time Warner and current Chairman of Citigroup, told me years ago that Quincy is one of the only people in his life who calls him “just to check in.”  That simple comment was a huge ‘aha’ for me since I had been, up until then, under the impression that I didn’t want to bother the busy philanthropists with whom I worked. Also, my own save-the-world agenda was far too busy for leisurely conversations. I needed a reason to call or meet with someone.  And in those calls and meetings, I had better be efficient and task-oriented.   After that talk with Dick, I realized just how much power there is in this simple act of spending time with my philanthropic partners.

Now I rarely, if ever, meet with people in their offices.  Aside from the fact that people are often “in character” in the office, it’s usually simply not conducive to allowing conversations to unfold in an organic and leisurely manner.   I would much prefer to meet someone over a meal or a coffee where we can explore things on a deeper level, where we can imagine new opportunities for collaboration and where we can build a more authentic, lasting relationship.

Hanging 101, a freshman course in Exponential Fundraising. Don’t cut it!

To Gala or Not to Gala?

I am not a big fan of using galas to raise money.  Never mind the potentially uncomfortable corners organizations paint themselves into (Event Planner: “Should we go with the gold-flecked mousse or the Tuscan Cheescake?” You, Executive Director of “PeopleGottaEat.Org:  ”Seriously?”) Rather, I want to look at this from a pure ROI point of view which I’m convinced is far below many other activities. Nonprofits that hold an annual gala are generally overly dependent on them for operating support.  In addition, the toll they take on staff and the Board’s time and resources is immense.

If you are hosting a gala, though, be sure to find efficient ways to leverage it.   My special event golden rule is this:  nobody should ever drive away from your event and think, “well that was nice.”   They should know exactly what you are asking from them and why.  Use the power of narrative to inspire people and then invite them to specific action.  Tell stories of hope, show them glimpses of what the world might look like when you are successful, and then give them clear opportunities for engagement.  This isn’t a generic ask, though.  Even if they are inspired, people who just paid $1,000 for a seat at a gala will think that they’ve made their gift.   It needs to be specific and actionable.

While galas are among my least favorite fundraising strategies, I am a big fan of the “salon” idea. At the salon invite a small group of 10-12 people to engage in an intimate dialogue.  There may be some food, wine and a chance to socialize with your most promising partners but that’s certainly not the main attraction.  The dialogue is the centerpiece.  I like to hold these in someone’s home and they run about 3 hours.   To focus the discussion ask people to consider a question before they arrive or give them something to read.

The goal is to get everyone talking on a deeper level.  As an added benefit many ideas are generated.  It is a simple yet tremendously powerful experience where people share and listen generously and roles and egos are left at the office.  In this setting, people can truly explore their passions and get clarity on how they can be a part of a much larger story.

If you’re looking to wean your organization off the gala, visit the salon.

Try this line on your prospect

Try this:  instead of asking prospective partners “Will you help me?” ask them “How can we work on this together?”  ’Helping,’ even when grounded in clarity and passion on your part, sets up a kind of inequality, not a partnership. This simple shift in language from ‘helping’ to ‘working together’ is a powerful way to set the conditions for collaboration.

This is quite useful, for example, when you are organizing a site visit for potential partners. Whether visiting a developing village in Africa or a school’s new music program in the Bronx, ask them right up front to go through the experience not as movie critics, but as partners. Tell them you are not here to sell them on the idea of why you are better than other organizations. Rather you want to give them the opportunity to discover, as they get to know you, how they can uniquely contribute and collaborate. This straightforward ask is an amazingly simple and powerful tool.

Many nonprofits wring their hands about this approach. They worry that asking people “How can we work together?” will result in donor meddling or that they have to come up with ideas just to placate. Similarly, philanthropists often feel as though this question is mere lip service. They are frustrated at being assured that an organization wants more than their money, yet their experience has been that most organizations are black belts at keeping them at arm’s length.

The way around this is to set a clear frame of reference for the partnership right from the beginning. When you ask someone, “How can we work together?” – mean it.  Invite them to leverage their skills and experience to compliment your technical expertise and take your organization to the next level. This is about mutual accountability and working together.  If you don’t set this framework from the beginning, you are very often asking for “the gift that keeps on costing.”

To make the ask, clear the elephant

Try this: when meeting someone for the first time, consider clearing the elephant out of the room by saying right up front, “I’m not going to ask you for a gift today.”  I find this to be effective in eliminating one of the main obstacles to building a relationship: not listening.

If you know that I am meeting with you to talk about supporting my organization you’ll often spend the entire meeting half listening, wondering “when is she going to ask me for money?”   Or, if I don’t ask, you’ll wonder, “why didn’t she ask me for money?”

Similarly, as fundraisers, we are often anxious during a first meeting. Because we’re unsure when to ask and for how much to ask, we are also not listening with our whole selves.  We aren’t completely present.

When I clear the elephant out of the room, I can make some space at the beginning of a relationship to really listen, to get to know you and vice versa.

Now, that said, I always ask for something during every meeting.   Always. I never leave a meeting without asking for something, because this is what relationship is.  It’s a series of exchanges. At first, small conversational exchanges and then deeper and more impactful exchanges. So I always ask for something, most often a follow-up meeting in the near future.  And if there’s been a spark lit inside, you’ll be eager  to get together again, sooner rather than later.

Clearing the elephant shouldn’t make you a deer in the ask headlights.  I usually ask on the second or third visit. I recognize that people don’t get completely committed to my organization and then give. Rather, they give and then they begin to develop their real commitment, which if I’ve laid the proper groundwork, will be built on a solid foundation. Think about it: isn’t it the same with you?  It’s after you’ve written a check that you’ve  built your commitment.

So clear the elephant, listen generously, then make the ask.

Philanthropy from the inside out

My friend Sasha Dichter wrote a thoughtful response
http://sashadichter.wordpress.com/2010/03/31/is-
fundraising-the-same-thing-as-sales/ to my post “Fundraising isn’t selling.”

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

A product of our consumer driven world, however, is that people tend not to look inside to discover what they need.  Rather, they are told and influenced about what they need from external sources.  They are sold on what they need.   Need is precipitated from the outside in.

As a fundraiser, I don’t think of my job as selling you on what you need (even the “need” to give).  I see my job as more of a guide than a salesperson, offering you a new way to look inside and discover what you already have. This allows you to develop your passion for ways in which you can make a difference with your life and your philanthropy.

Philanthropy from the inside out.

When you work from here, the fear of rejection, which is the number one reason why people won’t ask for a gift, simply dissolves because if your true passion isn’t aligned with the work we’re doing, then it’s not a rejection of my organization or me.  When we are aligned, we can form a lasting partnership that isn’t based on need, but on shared commitment to discovery and impact.