Is fundraising the same thing as sales?

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

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

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

Sure it is.

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

Well that’s selling too.

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

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

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

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

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

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If free is the new black

If free is the new black, because there’s no friction left in the system.

If our major sources of information are going to radically upend their business models because they’re competing under a completely new set of rules.

If the future of newspapers and magazines looks like National Public Radio, whose listeners decide what something is worth through the donations they make.

If our major sources of information are going, in one form or another, to become nonprofits.

Then when, exactly, is it time to learn how nonprofits do it, how they look someone in the eye and say, “This thing we do is worthwhile, and I’d like you to support it.”

Do you think the time is tomorrow or today?

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The toughest sale

Here’s a riddle: all good product sales are not about the product, they’re about the story about the product, right?   (Method soap tells a story about the kind of hip, environmentally conscious, non-ostentatious but still a little bit fancy consumer you are;  there’s a whole ethos and culture and world outlook story that surrounds each iPhone (and, soon, iTouch) ; JetBlue sells an attitude about flying along with free TV.)

What about selling something that has no product?  That seems hard to do.  In fact, it seems so hard to do that if you could find someone who knew how to do that, you’d know that they were pretty darn good at their job – probably better at selling that someone who has a product AND a story to sell, right?

Selling philanthropy seems to me to be a product-free sale.  It’s the pure sale of an idea, of an ethos, of who you can be.

So the riddle is: if philanthropy is a product-free sale, why aren’t the people selling philanthropy the best salespeople around?

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The 100th fundraiser

How do you decide how many fundraisers you need at your nonprofit?  Do you need 5 or 6 or 15?  What about 100?

We know how much a fundraiser costs – say $100,000 including overhead and management time and whatever rounding we need to do to keep the math simple.

Knowing that, it seems like you have two options:

  1. Keep hiring people until the next person you hire can only raise $99,999
  2. Keep your fundraising team at some “reasonable” proportion to everything else you do

Either approach has its merits.  But more interesting to me is that I’ve never heard anyone approach this question in this way.

Instead, we tend to work backwards and say: “here’s how much we need to raise this year, let’s throw our team at this problem… ” and then if you come up short you tinker with the team or the approach in one way or another.

Two quick conclusions:

  1. If you are a fundraiser (nonprofit Board Member, Exec Director, CEO) why exactly do you not hire that next person?  Do you not actually believe you can bring in an additional person who can raise more than they cost?    Because to raise $200,000, that person would have to raise $1,000 a day, and I’m pretty convinced that you can hire someone to do that.
  2. Want job security in the nonprofit sector?  What if you could walk up to a Board Member or an Executive Director and say, “I’ve got some big ideas and I’d like to come work with you to make them happen.  I can raise $1 million in the first year to for what I plan to do.”  You’ve just written your own ticket, and it has nothing to do with anything that’s on your resume.

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How can I help?

I’ve found myself asking people this question more often lately.

“How can I help?” acknowledges that every interaction (a sales call, an introductory lunch, a brainstorm, a request for an informational interview) involves (at least) two people who could create something of value for each other.  It’s not a one-way street, ever.

“How can I help?” recognizes that, as a boss, my job is to empower others and remove barriers; that I work for me team and not the other way around.

“How can I help?” is often the best thing to say when someone is frustrated or angry or unhappy with the service they received or the response they heard.   (and it’s about a million times better than “let me explain.”)

And “How can I help?” is about leading with generosity.

I only wish I had started asking it sooner.

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Blue Hill – if restaurants were nonprofits

The other night I got to eat dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, easily one of the best restaurants around.  Chef Dan Barber has radically shortened the time and distance food takes to get from the farm to the table, and the tastes that result are simply exquisite.

But more interesting than the tastes, to me, was the meal – and that’s something completely different from the food.  The meal was the experience, the meal was a story about what food could be.

Just one example:  near the end of dinner, to kick off desert, our server came to the table with a full honeycomb, covered with honey, that she placed on the table.  It’s kind of a big, messy, natural thing – honeycomb within a wood frame.  She explained that Blue Hill started harvesting its own honey last year; they started with six hives and are up to twelve.  This was the last of the late fall honey, she said, and it is richer and deeper than the early spring honey.  And it would be part of our next course.

Then she disappeared.  A few minutes later, four waiters, with the precision of synchronized swimmers, simultaneously placed four white bowls in front of the diners.  Each bowl had no more than two tablespoons of a concoction with “homemade tofu, bergamot, and honey.”  Then, for the final flourish, each of the four servers simultaneously whipped out a stainless steel garlic press with a piece of honeycomb inside, and each squeezed the press to drizzle fresh honey over our dessert.  Performance, panache, surprise, story, and a little bit of magic.  And it was delicious.  This was one of a hundred moments that made the meal exceptional and memorable.

After dinner we got to peek into the kitchen, filled with the cooks who make this spectacular food.  No surprise, things feel different when you pull back the curtain…cooks and staff are busily washing dishes, or heads-down prepping and running food.  They’re the engine that makes the magic possible, but the kitchen, of course, isn’t magical.  It’s a shop floor.

The interactions at the “front of the house” (with the maitre d’, the waiters, the sommelier, the honey-squeezers) and the “back of the house” are distinct.  The front of the house is populated by storytellers who are creating an experience.  In the back of the house, amazing food is created.  But the skills required of folks in the front and the back might have very little overlap.  And you need them all to create an exceptional dining experience, and to deliver it night after night.

*                           *                               *                                 *                                 *

So now, with the restaurant story as backdrop, fill in the blanks at your favorite nonprofit.  Who’s who?   You can do your own, magazine-quiz-style “match column 1 with column 2”:

1. Waiter                                                              A. Program staff

2. Line cook                                                        B. Head of Development

3. Chef/owner                                                    C. Fundraiser

4. Maitre d’ / General Manager                   D. CEO

Who creates the reality?  Who is doing “the real work?”  Without whom do you fail? (hint: it’s everyone).

To take the analogy a step further, if restaurants were run like much of the nonprofit sector:

  1. The only job anyone would ever want would be to work in the kitchen
  2. It would be impossible to hire waiters
  3. There’d be no set menu – diners would pick what they want; and over time the kitchen could end up serving tons of dishes that they don’t best know how to cook
  4. Before choosing a restaurant, diners would ask whether the restaurant spends more than 10% of its operating budget on waitstaff.

Bon appetit.

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What the Vook?

In case you missed it, Vook has a new iPhone app that creates a fully immersed, multimedia experience for books.   It’s really for the iPad but you can already start playing around and glimpse the future: text and audio and video all in one place.  Books like Seth Godin’s Unleashing the Ideavirus, The Call of the Wild, Alice in Wonderland, and The Brother’s Grimm Fairy Tales, from 99 cents to $2.99.

This is what the future looks like – so you may as well be one of the first people to check it out, before the iPad starts shipping in on April 3rd

And if you don’t have an iPhone, you can impress your friends: “Hey Joe, curious what the future of publishing and magazines and newspapers looks like?  Check out Vook.”  (Won’t you look cool?).

This is already what newspapers are becoming, and magazines aren’t far behind.

And eventually things will look like this, and won’t that be cool:

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