Tuesday, December 02, 2014

A nonprofit sacred cow: The December Mailing

With Giving Tuesday upon us, there is no doubt that we are in the throes of the holiday giving season. Traditionally, this is the time when many Americans make their charitable gifts (end of tax year + holiday season = donation season). It is also the time when many, if not most, nonprofit organizations are in a frenzy of year-end fundraising.

Nonprofits will move mountains to get their December “appeal” in the mail (and email) on time. They will lose sleep. They will lose focus. They will sometimes even lose sight of what’s best for the organization, or their key messages, or their organizational priorities, just so they can get that appeal out the door.

I recently posed a question about the December appeal to some fundraising groups on LinkedIn, and boy, did the fundraisers come out of the woodwork to share their two cents! In service to the larger nonprofit/fundraising community, I’m sharing my discussion topic, and a sampling of the responses, with you:

“Avoiding the December Mailing: Not Getting Lost in the Shuffle”

I recently counseled a client, who is in the midst of developing a new case statement, NOT to stress out about doing their biggest mailing of the year in December. Their organization has another major milestone in the spring, and they can craft their biggest mailing around that. Not only will this give them time to thoughtfully complete their case statement and accompanying materials, but it also will avoid the problem of their mailing getting lost in the shuffle of the overwhelming amount of appeals that get sent out in December.
What are your thoughts? Is December truly the end-all, be-all of the annual campaign mass appeal? Have you had success with doing your biggest mailing at another time of year?

[Let me start by saying that there was a bit of a misunderstanding about my question – my fault, no doubt. This client is not completely forgoing a December mail and email appeal. They are still sending something in December. But they are waiting until spring, around a milestone in their organizational calendar, to do a larger mailing that will serve as a rollout and announcement of a new fundraising campaign.]

A sampling of responses:

I've wondered this myself as it a) seems risky but b) makes sense. Everyone is zigging so you zag. I'd say you should do something, simple case and reminders but you don't have to do your big thing. I think that time and quality piece is in play here too. Crap in December can't be better than quality in the Spring.

I've never been a big fan of end-of-year solicitations or appeals that rely heavily on deductibility in their argumentation. As a result, I've encouraged clients (and students) to time appeals for occasions or events (ideally annual ones) that make sense in terms of their organizations' work. That being said, even if their "big" appeal is at another time of the year, organizations with older constituencies should generally still to do a major appeal by US Mail & Email during 4th quarter. There are still just enough habitual 4th quarter givers out there to make this worthwhile.

There are so many reasons the year-end appeal works, and I would suggest cautioning them away from giving up on this tried and true approach. If they feel the direct-mail approach is too cumbersome, they might consider tasteful email solicitations with direct links to an online giving page.

Year-end giving is actually less effort because donors are, to put it simply, in the mood! The media - and now social media - around the holidays provide plenty of encouragement to give. Further, savvy philanthropists put aside money to make charitable gifts at this time of year.

I would also caution not to forego year-end giving, as statistically, donors give at year-end, and it's that psychological momentum and habit (along with the tax deduction) that gets donors to give. Perhaps the organization can do a controlled experiment, and at minimum, mail the donors who have historically given in fourth quarter. If the organization buys mailing lists, they can split the mailing, doing half in December as usual and the other half with their event.

Has the organization looked at their own data for the last three years and seen which of their appeals are the most successful? Our Thanksgiving and year-end appeal is substantially more successful than our February and April appeals.

Your client should send both mailings. Save the big case statement for the spring, sure, but allude to it in the winter mailing. You can't miss the opportunity to be a part of a family's year-end giving decisions. Those same people may well give again in the spring.

I wouldn't be comfortable giving up the December mailing altogether. As [name] mentioned above, hesitant to give up on something so tried and true. 

One of my smaller organizations that is ten years old started with a general appeal at year end. We know that many if not most people make their charitable contributions at year end so we are going to continue to do it. But we have a lot of events in the summer and last year we added a mailing targeted at that time to larger donors only. Using highly personalized letters, we asked for specific, larger amounts to start a major donor society... So I agree that a year-end mailing is not necessarily the end all and be all. There may be other great opportunities during the year for special appeals, even major appeals and you can target them to specific parts of your donor/prospect base.

I think those who say it's the only time that most people give might be assuming peoples' habits without really checking with them to see if that's truly the case. I would suggest that all nonprofits do a survey of their donors to see when THEY would like to give.

It depends on the cause of the NPO, but generally speaking most of the Social Service NPO's I've known generally receive roughly 40% of their annual donations during the November-December time period. NOT doing an appeal in December, could have serious impacts to annual revenue. But, if your client is let's say, Easter Seals, well then obviously a differently timed campaign could be more effective. So, again, depends on the NPO, but from what I've seen, tapping that good ol' Holiday Spirit typically proves effective. 

What conclusions can I draw from these responses?
  • We fundraisers are, for the most part, reluctant to give up our sacred cows. Especially when those cows have a tried-and-true track record of being lucrative. Conventional wisdom is conventional wisdom for a reason.
  • If you're going to follow conventional wisdom, do it strategically. We have the technology to easily track when people give, how much they give, if they are repeat donors, etc. Use that information to send a December mailing that is targeted, tactical, and creates an imperative to give. 
  • We also have the capacity to be more donor-centric when designing our mass appeals. If our donors don't really care about giving in December versus giving during an organizational milestone/touchstone in the spring... then ask them in the spring. If they really want to give in December, follow their lead. To that point: 
 Really, it's not about December. It's about giving when people are in the habit of giving. It's about riding the wave of a spirit of generosity that is in the air. We can target our appeals for whenever that spirit is most alive. Customization, my friends, is key.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tell your story!

I just read about this resource in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and I can't wait to share it with all of my great nonprofit pals!

It is "a web platform to help organizations gather, curate, and use stories to effect change." Check it out here:

Storytelling is having a moment. For years, research has shown that people (i.e. potential donors) respond more, and more generously, to the story of ONE person who is being helped by a nonprofit's work, rather than a barrage of statistics - even if those statistics are really impressive. 

Now, it seems like storytelling is everywhere:

The Chronicle of Philanthropy's November 6, 2014 edition included a major spread on nonprofit storytelling (sorry, most content is currently limited to subscribers, but that will likely change).

A Nonprofit Storytelling Conference in Seattle earlier this month was completely sold out.

NPR correspondent Shankar Vedantam (yes, I'm a superfan) recently told us "Why Your Brain Wants to Help One Child in Need - But Not Millions."

Through Consumer Union's stori.es, your organization can gather stories through the use of questionnaires, curate the answers, and develop meaningful stories to share with your stakeholders, including potential donors.

All nonprofits know that they have to do this - gather and share stories - but they don't know how, don't have the staff to devote to the task, can't get organized, etc. Hopefully, this new resource will make it easier to tell the world about the great work you do!

My own resources on creative grant writing, which can help you tell your organization's stories in more compelling and impactful ways, can be found HERE. Check out Grant Writing for Creative Souls.

Happy storytelling. Once upon a time...

Friday, November 07, 2014

Foundation giving hits an all-time high

A new report from the Foundation Center, among other things, foundation giving in the US has reached a record high of $54.7 billion. The report estimates that foundation giving will continue to grow at a few points above inflation in 2014, with independent and family foundations showing an even higher rate of growth. According to the report, in 2012 the US was home to more than 86,000 foundations.

The link above will take you to a one-page infographic/summary. From there you can download the 8-page report, which is also very graphic-heavy and easy to digest.

I put less stock in the numbers related to how/where foundations are giving (e.g. to education, health... or to economically disadvantaged, women and girls...), mainly because the sample size was relatively small - 1,000 larger foundations. However, I do think that the scope of the foundation world, the total amount of foundation assets, the rates of growth, and other statistics are interesting, revealing, and even surprising.

In my own work with foundations, I haven't necessarily seen that foundations are giving more, or are giving more easily. Securing foundation gifts still requires a skillful approach to cultivation and solicitation, ideally a partnership between foundation and grantee. While foundations may be giving more, my sense is that they are giving in a more focused, specific way, and there are more organizations out there doing the asking, which makes for a highly competitive field.


Wednesday, September 03, 2014

How to help your fundraising consultant help you

How to help your fundraising consultant help you

I recently wrote a post called “Your fundraising consultant is talking about you behind your back,” highlighting some of the things that fundraising consultants (and other types of consultants, for that matter) say about their clients – the good, the bad, the ugly.

Now that I’ve offered you a peek behind the curtain, I humbly offer a few words of advice. What can you do to help your fundraising consultant help you thrive? How can you be a strong partner and get the very most out of the consultant you’ve hired?

Tell the truth

You don’t need to impress us, and you don’t need to evade us. Just tell us what’s what, so we can get down to the business of helping you strengthen your business. Your last fundraising mailing was a total bust? Tell us. Executive director and board chair refuse to ask people for money? Tell us. Your board doesn’t have any bylaws? Tell us. You don’t really trust consultants? Tell us. Not telling us the truth just delays the inevitable – you being frustrated with your consultant, your consultant not delivering on what they said they would deliver, and lots of your organization’s hard-earned money going down the drain.

Ask yourself: “What do we already know?”

In my experience, many organizations hire consultants to tell them what they already know, but they don’t want to say out loud, or don’t want to say themselves. For example, they may already know that they need to fire the founding executive director (the founding executive director herself may already know that!), but no one wants to be the one to drop that bomb. So the organization hires a consultant to do a detailed analysis, co-create a strategic plan, and come up with the same solution that everyone suspected was right in the first place. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that path. Sometimes, it is healthier for the organization to bring in an outsider to uncover, and speak, these hard truths. Big organizational decisions can’t just happen on a gut level; they require some deep thought and investigation. If you start your consulting engagement by thinking about what you already know, you may come to some clearer, more efficient, conclusions. You may get to the same place, but you and your stakeholders may understand the decisions more deeply.

Start with real numbers

If you want your fundraising consultant to help you raise more money, you need to tell him how much you have raised. You need to tell him how much you want to raise. You need to know how you plan to sustain and grow your organization, so you’ll know how much money you’ll need, so you’ll know how much money you need to raise. You should tell your consultant how many donors you have now and how many potential donors you have now. And if you don’t have these numbers – real numbers, not guesses – just tell your consultant. He’ll help you figure it out. (see “Tell the truth,” above)

Establish shared expectations and shared accountability

When I start a consulting engagement, my clients know what they’ll be getting from me, and they know what I’ll expect from them. We have a shared timeline for deliverables. So, for example, my clients know that if I’m writing a grant proposal for them, and they miss an editing deadline, I can’t necessarily guarantee them online delivery for the proposal (though I almost always pull it off anyway). And I know that if my clients aren’t happy with a proposal draft, I’ll have a defined number of subsequent drafts to get it right.

I put all of this in writing with my clients before we get started on a project. Some consultants and clients eschew that level of formality, but I find that everyone is more comfortable, and trusting, if we are clear about what’s going to happen.

Of course, life gets in the way! Plans shift, deadlines change, new opportunities come up that we decide to pursue. By laying the groundwork up-front, through shared accountability and expectations, we create an environment where shifts in schedule and priority can happen more seamlessly. And we are better able to hold one another accountable – it’s a two-way street.

Know that, sometimes, hiring a fundraising consultant means more work for you in the short-term

If you hire your consultant with the expectation that she will solve all of your problems for you, and you will not have to do any fundraising, you are in for a disappointment. And if your consultant takes on the job knowing that you have that expectation, shame on her. Here’s another hard truth: sometimes, your fundraising consultant will create more work for you. But it’s better work. Your consultant will help you figure out the logistics and tactics, so you can get to the more important work of building relationships with current and potential donors. Sometimes, with consultants, some short-term pain will lead to a huge long-term gain. If you are matched with the right consultant, and you are a willing and enthusiastic partner, it will be worth it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Your fundraising consultant is talking about you behind your back

You do it, so don’t you think we do it, too? While I cannot speak for every fundraising consultant, I can tell you, based on my experience in being one for 11+ years and knowing lots of them... we’re talking about you. It’s not all bad, though. Some of it is nice, some of it is neutral, and some of it is really helpful for you and your organization. Here’s a peek behind the curtain:

“I don’t know what to do.”

I don’t want to shock you, but (brace yourself for this one): your fundraising consultant does not have all of the answers. Not by a long shot. In fact, if I were you, I would be wary of any fundraising consultant who tells you she has all the answers. If she says that, she’s probably full of it.

There is great value in knowing what you don’t know, and in having a strong network of other fundraising consultants and professionals to which you can turn for advice, feedback, and suggestions. If your fundraising consultant doesn’t have that network, or if he only wants to stick to the things he knows, your organization might be missing out on some powerful growth opportunities.

“Why won’t they get back to me?”

This is one of the great mysteries of the consulting world. You spend money to hire us, we create plans for you, and then you won’t return our calls or emails. I’ve noticed that this happens more frequently when we both have deliverables for which we are accountable, e.g. I need you to answer these 5 questions about your program in order for me to draft the grant proposal you asked for. This is probably because I’m not one of those consultants who will promise to do everything for you, and you won’t have to lift a finger to raise any money. If I were you, I would be very wary of those consultants, too.

Yes, we know that crises come up, organizational fires need to be put out, etc. We also know that you get sick, your kid gets sick, your computer servers go berzerk, your board chair is visiting the office, and the dog ate your homework. Here’s the thing: your donors will not wait for you. If you want to raise money in a sustainable way, to have the operating dollars you need on an ongoing basis, you’re going to have to make the time for this. Even if it’s your least favorite thing to do.

“I’m not a magician.”

Once you hire us, you cannot wash your hands of the whole dirty business of fundraising. We are not magicians. We cannot wave our magic wands and produce huge fundraising numbers for you, as if by sleight of hand. For better or worse, we are in this together. It’s a partnership, and you are going to have to be in it with us. You will have to share your information, contacts, and passion for your work. You probably are also going to have to ask people for money. Don’t be afraid! We will do everything we can to prepare you for this. We will arm you with all of the information and tools that you need. We’ll coach you through it. But to be really effective for your organization, we cannot do the whole thing for you.

(As a side note: Yes, we are going to hold you accountable. But you should also hold us accountable. Hold us to the high standards to which you hold yourself. This partnership is a two-way street.)

Oh, and that whole “golden rolodex” thing? The idea that we have a list of donors whom we can call up and ask for money at the drop of a hat, and they will just open their checkbooks and checks with huge numbers will come fluttering out, like doves at the end of a fairytale wedding? It’s bull. It’s an urban myth. Trust me, you are better off letting go of that rescue fantasy.

“They do really good work.”

Your fundraising consultant believes in you and your organization. We think you do great work! If we didn’t think that, we wouldn’t have taken the gig. I have never met a fundraising consultant who is not passionate about their clients and who does not want them to succeed. Actually, not just succeed, but thrive. It might not seem like it when we are pushing you to do more and do better, but we really do want you to do well. Believe in us. We believe in you.

Find my fundraising tips, including my e-book, Grant WritingQuick Tips, and my audio file, Grant Writing for Creative Souls, click HERE.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Your Grant Proposal is Boring. What Can You Do About It?

After nearly 20 years of writing, editing, reviewing, and evaluating grant proposals, I’ve seen my share – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Some grant proposals leap off the page, painting a vivid picture of the problem at hand and the proposed solution, while also providing an elegant, accurate (and not overwhelming) description of how, when, and why the solution will be carried out.

Some grant proposals get the job done, but don’t do much more than that. They answer the who, what, where, when, and why, but they never draw the reader in. They are the workhorses of the grant writing world: efficient, but forgettable.

Some grant proposals are real clunkers. There’s just no better way to say it. Not only do they not give the required information, explain the problem or the solution, or draw you in, but they are just... limp.

If you don’t activate the reader’s interest with your grant proposal, someone else will. Most individuals who are reviewing grant proposals and deciding what to fund, or deciding what to pass along to their boards or grant review committees, are reviewing myriad grant proposals. You must be memorable in order to not be forgotten.

In the preceding paragraph, I’ve broken one of my own rules about how to write a better, more effective, more engaging proposal. Read on:

1.            Tell a Story About One Person, One Program, One River, One Bird...

Storytelling is having a moment. Most grant writing books, blogs, and articles advise telling a story in your proposals, in order to help the reader envision your program. Research has shown that people remember stories more than statistics. Fundraising letters and appeals that tell the story of one person are more effective in raising funds than letters that assault the reader with a barrage of statistics, even when those statistics are compelling. Storytelling humanizes a proposal.

To make your proposal more interesting, creative, and lively, tell the story of ONE. One child who will be fed by your soup kitchen. One immigrant whose job training helped her transform her family’s life. One block in one neighborhood. One bird species. One river in a watershed. Drill down; get small in order to have the big impact.

2.            Throw Away Your Thesaurus.

Enough with the S.A.T. words, OK? Please stop saying “myriad,” as I did, above (and while you’re at it, if you MUST use that word, please learn how to use it properly). Proposal writing is like poetry; every word counts. But big words are not necessarily good words. In fact, throwing a big word into a sentence in order to sound smart can be like a tranquilizer dart to the head. Isn’t the preceding sentence more interesting than: “Use of advanced vocabulary to create the impression of intellectual prowess can have deleterious effects.”

Choose good words, not big words.

See more of my tips on what never to write in a grant proposal HERE.

3. Make It Shorter. Yes, Even Shorter Than That.

Writing long is easy. Writing short is hard.

Every grant writer knows that staying within an RFP’s page limit can be difficult, even maddening. When you do not have a formal page limit, it can be like driving on the highway with a full tank of gas. Freedom! You can keep going and going and going!

Except you can’t.

In my experience, at least quarter of most grant proposals can be cut out. Often, the longer your proposal gets, the more you are repeating yourself. Keep it short, focused, and powerful. Long can be boring. Short can be intense and vivid.

This rule of thumb also applies to your paragraphs and sentences. Watch out for run-on sentences, which seem to be the plague of the grant writing world. Mix it up. Throw in a short, impactful sentence every once in a while, just like I’m doing in this essay. When your reader has to read compound sentence after compound sentence, with no breaks, their mind tends to drift. If you mix it up with shorter sentences now and again, it’s a little burst of energy that makes you take notice.

In the spirit of following my own advice, I’ll close here and encourage you to give some of these tips a shot, even if it seems scary to get out of your usual grant writing groove.

Find more of my tips, including my audiofile, Grant Writing for Creative Souls, and my e-book, Grant Writing Quick Tips, HERE.

Friday, August 08, 2014

What yoga taught me about being a great fundraising and philanthropy consultant.

No, it’s not what you think. This isn’t about some hippy-dippy, Ohm chanting commitment to serving a higher universal power. Although that’s a nice thought, too. There are specific elements of my 11+ years of a consistent yoga practice that feed my work as a fundraising and philanthropy consultant, both consciously and unconsciously. Some of these thoughts were bubbling up “on the mat” yesterday, so here they are:

Precise attention to alignment.
In yoga, where you put your pinky toe can make all the difference. That pinky toe can help you open up and stretch your whole body, or, if ignored, it can leave your yoga pose stale and stagnant.
When I’m writing a grant proposal, precise attention to the details makes all the difference. Do the number of participants on page one match the number of participants on page seven? Does the budget narrative reflect the program we have described throughout the proposal? Are we answering all of the questions that the potential funder has asked? A dedication to details shows that we are committed to accuracy, thoroughness, and follow through.
In a philanthropic context, alignment also has a deeper meaning. For example, is the project we are describing really aligned with the potential donor’s interests? Is our proposed project aligned with the organization’s mission? Is it aligned with the needs of our clients/constituents? Does it align with our values?

In yoga (as in life!), the breath is your constant. When it gets tough, breathe. When it gets uncomfortable, breathe. When you feel off balance, breathe. When you are reaching your “edge” or your limit, breathe. When you want to celebrate how fantastic or expansive or light your body feels, breathe. Through every distracting thought, you can return to the breath to get grounded again.
Fundraising can be a stressful profession, with deadlines, unanswered questions that need immediate answers, donors or staffers who must be placated, financial goals that must be met in order for clients’ needs to be addressed... the list goes on. Going into panic mode doesn’t help. In fact, going into panic mode can cloud judgment and nudge nonprofits towards quick fixes that may alleviate stress in the short term but cause bigger problems long term (e.g. asking a donor for the wrong amount of money, cutting a program that’s mission critical, wasting time on shoving proposals out the door that are unlikely to lead to funding, etc.) When the going gets tough, breathe. This is not only a literal suggestion – inhale, exhale – but also represents need to return to the things that keep the nonprofit alive, that keep it functioning and healthy. What are the organization’s “constants”? What can’t it live without? What keeps the nonprofit grounded?

Stretching in a yoga pose can feel amazing. Expansive. Invigorating. But stretching beyond what your body can handle, or what you have carefully prepared your body to do, can create pain. That pain can last for days, months, or even years. (Just ask my sacroiliac joint. Ouch.)
When I work with clients to set new fundraising goals, train their boards, or envision new programs to integrate into their existing work, I encourage them to stretch. Pushing beyond their immediate comfort zones keeps the organization vibrant and healthy. But stretching too hard, doing something that they are not prepared to do, can cause pain, or even damage. The wisdom comes when you can figure out how much of a stretch is too much.

            Many people think yoga is all sitting on the floor and chanting Ohm. Not so! Some yoga practices are vigorous and sweat-inducing. Even if you are not moving a lot, just holding a pose in one place can bring on a serious sweat. Sweat is good. It cleanses you, cools you off, and shows you that you’re working.
            It’s also good for an organization to sweat a little. Even doing the same thing it’s been doing for a long time (like holding a yoga pose for a long time) can make an organization sweat, if they are doing it well and with the right level of effort. Trying new things (like trying a new yoga pose) can make the organization sweat. And that’s a good thing. It keeps the organization healthy. And a little bit of sweat and nervous energy never hurt anyone before going in to meet with a donor for a major solicitation.

Practice, practice, practice.
They call it a “yoga practice” for a reason. Every time you return to the mat, it gets a little more familiar. The mat seems to feel a little more like home. Every return to the mat is an invitation to take things deeper, challenge yourself a little more, find out what feels really juicy and right in your body. A yoga practice is called a practice because it’s never really “done.”
The same is true of fundraising and philanthropic giving. It’s never really done. As soon as you feel you’re on top of it, you’ve accomplished your goals, you’ve mastered a new skill, that’s your invitation to take it deeper. It takes practice to get really good at asking people for donations, writing a grant proposal, or deciding how to give away your charitable dollars mindfully and carefully. And as soon as you’ve done what you set out to do, that’s your invitation to learn a new skill, expand your nonprofit’s work or influence, or explore how your charitable giving is really moving the needle on an issue that’s important to you. It’s a practice, one that gets more rewarding each time you return to it.

Monday, August 04, 2014

August at Your Nonprofit: Gazing Back, Looking Forward

As I spend this August morning working in my favorite local cafe, I realize that I am engaged in some of the same planning and reflection that I encourage my clients to undertake during this time of the year.

On a rare day not filled with deadlines, appointments, and phone calls, I am taking a couple of hours to review and update my annual plan, assess the progress I am making towards my goals, remind myself of new projects I wanted to undertake that seem to have fallen by the wayside... in other words - get energized for the last few months of the year!

August is a great time to review goals, track progress, and get revved up for the fall months. So many nonprofits just throw up their hands at the beginning of August and say "Oh well, we can't get anything done this month. We'll just pick up our fundraising in September." Not so! This is a great time of year to gaze back and look forward. And it is an important time to plan for September, which can be a vital fundraising month. If you don't engage in some planning now, you'll be behind the eight ball come fall. Here's my August checklist for nonprofits:

  • Revenue goals: are you on track? If so, can you do more of what is working? If not, can you course-correct?
  • Donor stewardship: When is the last time your donors heard from you, not to ask for something, but just to offer an update? Should you send a friendly update in September or October? Can you start writing that now?
  • Grant proposal and reporting deadlines: Which of your grants are expiring in the fall or early winter? Should you be planning to reapply? Can you set up a time to talk to the grantor about a reapplication? If you need to gather data for grant reports, now is a good time of year to do that.
  • Government grants and contracts: For those nonprofits that get funding from government agencies... the government's fiscal year ends soon, which often means that they will release RFPs in August. Should you be on the lookout for these? Or, better yet, should you be proactively searching for opportunities?
  • Twitter and other social media: Imagine your donors sitting on the beach with their smartphones, checking Twitter or Facebook. While they are scrolling through vacation photos or updates from friends, will they see updates from your organization? 
  • September milestones: Are back-to-school time or the Jewish holidays important times of year for either your donors or your organization? If so, what do you need to do now to capitalize on that time (late August - early October)?
  • Board: When your board goes back to work or back to school in August and September, will they also be turning their attention to the latest accomplishments and needs at your organization? Should you schedule a board conference call, meeting, update packet, or training?

Wishing you an August filled with dips in the pool, cool lemonade, and the pace and expansiveness that allow you to do some great planning for the fall!

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

8 Years, 819 Hours: Reflections on Volunteering at Georgetown University Hospital


Due to some life and schedule changes, today was my last day (for the foreseeable future) of volunteering with cancer patients at Georgetown University Hospital. When I signed out from my volunteer shift, I saw that I have volunteered more than 819 hours over the last 8 years.

Volunteering at the hospital every Wednesday morning has been a huge part of my life and my routine over the past 8 years. I’ve arranged my work and personal life around this commitment, and on the weeks when I was unable to volunteer (traveling, unmovable professional commitments, being sick – I can’t be around cancer patients if I have a cold or other illness), I felt a bit unmoored. Volunteering became a consistent, grounding touchstone.

The actual tasks of volunteering have been pretty simple: make coffee, hand out drinks and crackers and sandwiches, organize the waiting room, help with paperwork, and, most importantly, visit with patients. The tasks have been simple; the rewards of volunteering have been profound. Many of my friends have heard me say that it is the highlight of my week. Why? Perhaps sharing some individual stories will help paint the picture of what this has meant to me:

  • A patient I befriended was a master crocheter. I brought in my own crocheting projects, and we would sit together, crafting and talking. She showed me the shirts and skirts and even a wedding gown that she had crocheted, and we shared stories about our lives. She also made beautiful folded paper swans for me and my nieces.
  • A woman who lived on a farm with her children and grandchildren brought in fresh produce from her garden to share with those who cared for her at the hospital. She called everyone “baby.” I can hear her now: “Hey, baby. How you doing?”
  • One couple told me all about their grandchildren, and I shared stories of my nieces. Though the wife was sometimes in intense pain, they always greeted me and the nurses and staff with a smile. Of all the patients at the hospital, I knew them the longest.
  • I got to know a patient who was an avid sailor who took his kids out of school so they could sail around the globe as a family. We often talked about politics, and when we really got into it, his blood pressure always became elevated! We had to limit our talks to brief intervals so that his pressure would stay even.
  • A couple that came in every week was a model of kindness, devotion, and faith. Though from a different religious tradition than mine, we spent many hours talking about God and commitment to a faith community. We shared a lot of laughter, and some tears. I referred to the wife as “my angel.”
  • I once went out on a date with a cute guy I met on match.com. He said “you look familiar to me.” He was a patient at the hospital. We only went out once; a few weeks after our date, his cancer returned, with a vengeance. I was at his bedside on the day he died.
  • A single dad would sometimes bring in his young daughter, who was a ray of light and her father’s pride and joy. Sometimes I would bring her crayons, and we would sit and color together. She colored a sweet holiday card for me that had its place on the front of my refrigerator for many years.

While many of these stories sound “heavy,” there are so many light, fun moments at the hospital. The patients and I have talked about everything under the sun: movies, TV, current events, fashion, our families, our friends, and lots of little things that have made us smile. I’ve found that the patients don’t necessarily want to talk about their disease; they do that all the time. A simple “hey, how is that book?” or “anything interesting in your newspaper today?” can lead to some great conversations that take patients’ minds off of what they are going through, even for a little while.

The staff and volunteers have been a source of connection and joy, as well. We’ve celebrated birthdays, weddings, and new babies. We’ve eaten way too many cookies and candies and snacks brought in by grateful patients. We’ve said goodbye as staff have moved on to new jobs or new towns. When I told another volunteer I would be vacationing in Tahiti, she said that she had family there, of all places, and she connected me with them – they were spectacular hosts for two days. A big world made small.

Many of the patients I’ve met over the years have beaten their cancer and stopped coming in to the hospital. The hospital is the only place where I can genuinely say, “Goodbye, and I hope I never see you again.” Other patients have not been so lucky. They continue to come in for their chemotherapy, or they have died, and their faces, words, and spirits have stayed with me.

Why has volunteering at the hospital been the highlight of my week for so long? All the stories above, and more. Yes, it puts my own problems in perspective. Yes, it has been moving, and cathartic, and sometimes fun. Yes, it feels good – great, in fact – to do a little something to lighten someone else’s load. But really, in a nutshell, it has been the one time of the week when it is totally, completely, 100% Not. About. Me. There’s a lot to be said for that.

I have volunteered in honor of my mother, who died of leukemia in 1994. We talked about her illness, we celebrated her ups and worried about her downs. Even so, I wish I had done more to help her when she was sick; I wish I’d been more present for her. (Although my father has told me many times that she wanted me to be living and enjoying my own life back then, when I was in my late teens and early 20s, in college and working my first jobs. She didn’t want me to be focused on her. But still, I reflect back and think “I could have done more.”) I hope she would be proud of my volunteer service. I know she would have loved meeting some of the extraordinary people that I have met at the hospital. I miss her so much, and getting to know these patients has helped me understand her more deeply.

If you have the opportunity to volunteer somewhere on an ongoing basis, long term, I urge you to do it. Yes, the “one shot deal” volunteer projects are fun, feel good, and do help those in need. But volunteering somewhere consistently for an extended period of time creates a deep, profound connection and a meaningful shift in yourself. I know it is not feasible for everyone’s life and schedule and circumstance. I am grateful that it could work for my life for these past 8 years. Hopefully, someday I’ll return to the hospital to continue my own commitment. Until then, I have a treasure trove of memories and experiences. I hope that when some patients and staff see a coffee cup, a package of graham crackers, a plastic-wrapped sandwich, or a stray magazine in the waiting room, and they will think of our talks, and smile.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Top fundraiser pay - how high is too high?

In catching up on my back issues of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, I came across some articles in the April 24 edition on pay and bonuses for top fundraisers at some of the largest nonprofits in America (Sorry, I can't link to it. It's subscriber-only content). At some of these organizations, particularly universities and hospitals, fundraiser pay has exceeded half a million and, in a few cases, one million.

Let me start by saying that I am not one of those top fundraisers!

There was one datapoint that really stood out for me:

At the University of Nebraska, the 2011 total compensation of the head football coach was $2.8 million. The total revenue brought in to the university from the football team was estimated at $55 million. Therefore, the compensation per $1 million in university revenue was $50,396.

At the same university, the top fundraiser's total compensation in 2011 was $221,083. The amount of private money raised that year (presumably not just by him, but by his entire team - the article doesn't clarify) was $172 million. His compensation per $1 million raised was $1,285.

Is this fair?
Is this a good business practice, in terms of employee retention?

Some of the top fundraisers profiled in the article are managing departments with 100+ staff, raising billions of dollars (yes, billions, in the case of institutions engaged in capital campaigns), overseeing complex data systems... and have decades of experience in negotiating complex, delicate transactions. Why would one of these top professionals be paid so much less than the football coach, or another staff position, when she/he is bringing in so much more revenue for the institution? It will cost the institution a lot of money to lose this top professional, so they should be incentivized to stay, right?

Well, maybe not so fast. These institutions that are kept afloat via donations. Should charitable contributions be used for these (relatively) high salaries? Should donors be made aware of this? And should they care?

(I don't know for sure if fundraisers' salaries are paid by donations or by tuition, health insurance reimbursements, etc. But it goes without saying that fundraising is a huge part of these institutions' revenues.)

The Chronicle article says that "although the bonuses may seem high, the total compensation of [those mentioned in the article] is less - in some cases much less - than 1 percent of the amount their organizations raise each year."

So, as a donor, should I be outraged that top fundraisers are making such high salaries at top nonprofit organizations, hospitals, universities, etc.? Or should I be applauding these institutions for investing in and retaining professionals who are so good at their jobs and are being compensated at such a small percentage of the revenues they bring in?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Declining Volunteer Rates in America - What's it All About?

This week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published an article (sorry, only available to subscribers) about some stats that were released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics back in February. Despite efforts by the White House, the Corporation for National Service, and many nonprofit groups to boost the rates at which Americans volunteer, the volunteerism rate fell in 2013 to 25.4%, the lowest rate since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began collecting this data, back in 2002.

While one might think that an improving job market might bring the volunteerism rate down - more people working could mean fewer people available for volunteering - that is not the case. The volunteerism rate peaked in the early 2000s, when the jobless rate was higher than it is now. (Click here for an article that summarizes some of the key statistics).

The Chronicle of Philanthropy's article suggests, among other things, that the volunteerism rate is low because many nonprofits still have not covered from the recent economic downturn, and they don't have the capacity (staff, funding, etc.) to manage lots of volunteers.

As someone who volunteers regularly (I volunteer at a hospital once per week, and I help with several committees and boards), I know that it takes a lot of time and effort to manage and train volunteers. And this requires money, as well. But I doubt that is the whole story. What else could be going on here?
  • Are people volunteering in different ways, e.g. internet research, starting online petitions, etc.? (and, is that really meeting unmet needs in the community?)
  • Did people used to use volunteerism as a way to connect with others, make friends, etc... but now social networking has taken this place of that?
  • How might this decline in volunteerism relate to any declines in things like membership to religious organizations (churches, mosques, synagogues, etc.)?
It is a disappointing trend, to be sure. While it costs nonprofits money to manage volunteers, it also costs them money not to have them. At many nonprofits, volunteers do things that would require staff to replace them. In addition, those who do not volunteer are missing out on so much - connections with others in the community, the satisfaction of a job that is much-needed and well done, and the joy and fun that can come from giving to others.

How can we turn the tide?

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

What's just as intimate as sex?

I really like this essay in Forbes called "The Intimacy of Money."

When I lead workshops on personal philanthropy - helping individuals and groups give away their money in ways that reflect their passions and interests - I always like to start with an "OK, let's talk about money" session. People REALLY don't like talking about money. And I find that the more money people have, the less they like to talk about it.

Why is this subject so taboo in our (American) culture? Is it because we use it to assess people's value, or importance? Is it because we were raised to not talk about it, so we continue that tradition? Is it because we feel uncomfortable if we have less "stuff" (money, material goods, etc.) than others in our social circle, and we feel even more uncomfortable if we have more "stuff" than others? Is it because we have anxiety or fear about not having enough money, and if we talk about it openly, we will be showing our weakness? Are we embarrassed about having more than we think we deserve?

In this Forbes essay, the author starts by saying:

Money is like sex: Americans are taught it should be private, discussed only in hushed tones, 
behind closed doors.

And, yet, our society seems more and more willing to bring our sex lives out into the open, whether that's in TV and movies, magazines, or just cocktail party chit-chat. Are we willing to discuss money - what we have, what we need, where we give it away (both willingly and unwillingly) - just as openly?

We all have to spend money on things we don't like, and on some level we may always feel that we don't have enough money. Some of us truly are living paycheck to paycheck due to circumstances beyond our control, and others are sweating every last dime due to circumstances entirely within our control. "Disposable income" is a tricky thing - one person's disposable is another person's essential. That said... most of us have the privilege of making at least some decisions about where our money should go and how it should be spent. If you've bought a $4 cup of coffee any time recently, you've got a choice.

For those of us who are able to make those choices, until we come to terms with our relationship to money it will always feel like the Big Bad Wolf, ready to strike and wreak havoc at any moment. It will remain a mysterious force for us to fear, rather than a resource or tool that we can use, and about which we can make choices. Including philanthropic choices.

So what does it mean to come to terms with our relationship with money? I think it starts by asking some questions, such as:
  • How do I feel when someone says "we need to talk about money"? What goes through my mind? Does my body react?
  • What messages did I get about money from my family?
  • Which of my life choices have been driven by money? Which have not?
  • How do I feel when I know I have more money than a friend? When I know I have less?
  • How do I spend money to make myself feel better?
  • When does spending money make me feel worse?
  • How do I really feel about giving money to help a cause or another person?
I've had my own struggles with these questions, and I'm still coming to terms with some of them. What are some of your answers to these questions?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The creative genius sitting four cubicles away

There was a great little (4 minute long) story about creative ideas on NPR this morning. In a nutshell: people rate ideas as more creative when they come from far away sources, rather than nearby sources. An idea that came from halfway across the world is perceived as more creative than an idea that came from the guy sitting four cubicles away... even if it’s the exact same idea.

University of San Diego researchers ran an experiment that showed that where the idea comes from influences, in a significant way, the degree of creativity that people assign to the idea.

When things are nearby, they are more concrete, and we are more likely to think about the details. The detail-oriented mindset is more likely to shoot down a creative idea because, among other things, we focus more on the risks of the idea.

When considering ideas that are generated from a far away source, the ideas seem more abstract, and we are less focused on the details and the risks. The first question we ask is not “will this work?” We are more open to the creative possibilities.

In the story, they say that managers more often shoot down ideas from close subordinates rather than ideas that are generated from far away, less familiar sources.

What are the implications for nonprofit fundraising generally, and grant writing specifically? (My own bias is that grant writing, in order to be successful, must be a highly-creative pursuit!)

1. While this trend seems to be shifting, there still are many foundations that would rather fund the “new and exciting” idea, rather than supporting current programming that works. If a current grantee reapplies for support of a great program that is having measurable success, is that program seen as less creative or innovative as compared to the new idea from a new applicant that the foundation has not funded before (even if the new idea from the new applicant isn't all that creative)?

2. Do funders ask tougher, more detailed questions about an initiative that is more familiar to them, versus an initiative or field that is less familiar or less “close to home”?

3. The research highlighted here demonstrates that a more “abstract mindset” (versus a detail-oriented mindset) allows people to perceive ideas as more creative. As grant writers, how do we provide the high level of programmatic detail that funders want in grant proposals while still enabling the abstract mindset that allows potential funders to view the idea as creative or innovative?

And, finally – what is the difference between “creative” and “innovative”?

You can hear the NPR story HERE. What are your thoughts?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Philanthropy for happy and healthy hearts

In honor of Valentines Day, I've decided to share with you some causes that keep our hearts healthy and happy. Maybe making a donation to one of these charities would be a great way to celebrate V-Day in a meaningful and generous way!

Do you have any heart health and/or fitness related charities to add to the list?

Monday, February 03, 2014

Nominate an organization for a Tranquil Space Foundation grant

I'm proud to be on the Steering Committee for the Tranquil Space Foundation, a DC-based nonprofit that is dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and girls to develop their inner voice through yoga, creativity, and leadership activities. The Tranquil Space Foundation's values include leading a balanced lifestyle, reflecting on one's place and impact in the world, and selfless service to others.

The Tranquil Space Foundation's annual grant making cycle is officially open! Each year, the Tranquil Space Foundation awards small grants (typically $500 - $1,000) to organizations that are doing great work for and with women and girls.

Past grantees have included Community Bridges, DC Rape Crisis Center, Girls on the Run, Girls Rock! DC, Nest, and many more.

Anyone can nominate an organization to receive a grant. You just have to fill out a brief nominations form, which can be found HERE.

Please consider nominating a worthy nonprofit! The deadline for nominations is February 28.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The biggest night in music, and...

... a pretty big night for activism, and activists.

I watched the Grammys last night and was blown away on a number of levels:

1. There was a time when I knew most, if not all, of the bands on the Grammys. Now I'm lucky if I know 50% of them. I am blown away by my own waning coolness!

2. There were some terrific performances. I was particularly wowed by Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons. Both artists are new to me, but now I'm a Kendrick Lamar superfan! He. Turned. It. OUT.

3. I LOVED the wedding ceremony that was performed during the show. 30+ gay and straight couples, in front of an audience of millions, with some of the biggest performers in music saluting them (and performing the ceremony!) Boys embracing boys, girls girls girls, boys and girls embracing... love is love is love. If you want to get your message out there (backed up by an award-winning song that salutes love in all its forms), that's a heck of a way to do it.

4. During the ceremony, I live tweeted some of the charitable causes that the performers support. Here's a recap:

@taylorswift13 has supported @centrepointuk, an organization that helps homeless youth.

@johnlegend founded the @showmecampaign to use education to break the cycle of poverty. #grammys

When @Pink had a baby, she donated all money from the @peoplemag pics to children's charities, incl @autismspeaks and @RMHC. #grammys

@Beyonce is joining forces with @KingCenterATL on their "100 days of nonviolence" initiative. #Grammys

In addition to being my mom's favorite Beatle, @ringostarrmusic is helping to save endangered rhinos with @DSWT. #Grammys

@kendricklamar: killing it at the #Grammys. And changing the world by supporting tons of charities! Incl @Habitat_org & @AmericanRCross

@blakeshelton supports our troops through @the_USO. #Grammys

Wish I'd heard this @StevieWonder charity concert. "Songs in the Key of Life" = soundtrack of my childhood. #Grammys http://www.contactmusic.com/story/stevie-wonder-performs-classic-1976-album-in-full-at-charity-gig_4006283

It was great to jump online during the ceremony and learn about the causes that these artists care about. Impressive, and inspiring. Do you have others to add to the list? What are some of the causes that your favorite artists support?