Mailing it in

Today I received emails from class representatives from both my high school and graduate school asking me to give as part of an annual campaign.

Both asks were identical: our participation rates are low, please give so we can increase that number (one of them said that if we got to 40% our class could get a free dinner…we were at 13% and have a few days to go.  Good luck with that).

It’s such a dismal approach that I can’t dignify it by calling it fundraising.  It feels like a bill collector aiming for the lowest level of shame (“give us something”) in the hopes that if you pester people enough with a safe, familiar approach you’ll create enough miniscule annuity streams that it will somehow pay off in the end (it doesn’t – the math doesn’t work).

It would take so little to tell one – just one – very short story:

Dear Sasha,

I know how busy you are and how many emails you receive.  I also know how important [school] was to you, and I wanted to tell you one story that caught my attention last year, and I hope that reading this will encourage you to give as part of our annual campaign [LINK].

When we were students, only 15% of our class received scholarships.  Now that number has jumped to 65%.  Just last year, [name] who was on a full scholarship to [school] was accepted to a [great school], also on a full scholarship.  She is aiming to be an engineer and is already part of an incredible research lab working on bioinformatics.  [Name] was always a leader in the [school] community, and while we aren’t surprised at her success couldn’t be prouder – and it’s a success we can all share in.

We’re hoping you will join your classmates and give this year to support this kind of success.  We all share the sense that the education we received was the foundation of so much we’ve accomplished in our lives.  Let’s do what we can to share that success with others.  Even just $10 to show your participation would mean a lot.

[nice big button – click to give]

– Class representative

This letter I’ve written isn’t even that good, but it’s a start.  It shows respect to the recipient.  It takes a stab at creating an emotional connection and allows the alumnus to ascribe meaning to the action you’re asking him to take.  It reinforces the connection he already feels to the institution.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it” is no excuse for doing something without an ounce of heart, soul, or courage.  Give all of us the respect of showing us why you’re asking, and (if you dare) take the added step of helping us understand that we already are part of something that was hugely important in our lives.

You’re contacting people anyway.  Why not try to make it good?  Lord knows it couldn’t be any worse.

The thing about being generous

Is that most of the time the generosity comes right back at you, except when it doesn’t.

You can lean into that rejection too.

That tiny sense that someone just took advantage of you? It’s a reminder that this isn’t a zero sum game.  It’s also a chance to remember that there are times when you, too, were less generous than you could have been.

Whatever you do, don’t let these rebukes stray you from your path.

(and speaking of paths, here’s Nipun Mehta’s beautiful UPenn Commencement speech on generosity – the transcript of which has been read more than 100,000 times)

No irrational action

I used to dismiss what looked like irrational action.  I’d watch people’s behaviors and, when things didn’t make sense to me, I’d let it go.

“Sometimes people do things that just don’t make sense” was a safe refrain.  Maybe they didn’t have enough information or do the right analysis or sometimes actions just don’t make sense.  My overly-rational mind would see irrational action and deduce that the person had failed to analyze something properly, understand its implications, or explain themselves clearly.

Talk about a misdiagnosis.

People only do things that make sense (to them), and while I know we all make errors of judgment and analysis, these days anytime I have a “that just doesn’t make sense” reaction a little alarm bell goes off.

By way of analogy, I only recently figured out that getting really nervous about a new idea or a project – and feeling like maybe I should just drop it – is a great indicator that I’m on to something really important (nervousness = my lizard brain resisting me doing something significant and worthwhile).

Similarly, every time someone does or says something really irrational that’s a great moment to pay extra attention, to try to figure out what’s really going on – not rationally, on an emotional level.

These are great sensors to have on in fundraising situations, because it is so difficult (and slightly taboo) to talk about why and how real fundraising decisions are made.  You spend time in a long cultivation, building to what seems like a strong, jointly-developed funding opportunity, and at the last minute something veers completely off-course.

There’s no such thing as irrational action.

When I see an “irrational” response, I know that I’m the one whose information about, understanding of, and diagnosis of a situation is not (yet) on the mark.

It’s a great time to pay extra, not less, attention.  It’s a great time to listen more.

Hard skills, soft skills, real skills

There’s a whole set of things that feel concrete and objective and are easiest to talk about: writing, financial modeling skills, project management, writing a decent PowerPoint deck, etc.

And then there a whole set of “softer” skills – skill in building relationships, how well you manage a meeting, whether or not you successfully deal with uncertainty.

And then the real biggies: Are you a great judge of talent? Do you consistently build trust?  Are you courageous?  Does your presence and do your actions make people better at their jobs?  Do you inspire people?

The challenge is that there’s an inverse relationship between how important a skill is for long-term success and how easy it feels to talk about it.

“You’re still not where you need to be in building a cash flow statement” feels safe.

“I’ve not seen you show consistent success in gaining a sense of shared ownership around your good ideas,” feels like emotional thin ice, so we don’t go there enough.

On some level we know that the second conversation is orders of magnitude more important than the first, but since it feels (inter)personal, less objective and harder to talk about, we avoid having it and stay in the safe (today) but dangerous (in the long-term) space of “stuff that you can learn in a textbook.”

Sooner or later, we have to learn how to talk about the real stuff.

ionPoverty with Anne-Marie Burgoyne

I thought I’d share Jonathan Lewis’ ionPoverty interview with my friend Anne-Marie Burgoyne.

Anne-Marie’s portfolio of totally incredible social enterprises is a sight to behold: she funds amazing early-stage social entrepreneurs, and over the course of her three year engagement with them she rolls up her sleeves like no one I know, as a Board member and adviser, to help them succeed.

I know the terms “venture philanthropy” and “strategic philanthropy” fell in and out of favor (for good reason), but Anne-Marie’s work reminds me that philanthropic funding can be off the charts in terms of rigor, seriousness, and results-orientation without sacrificing a deep understanding of everything that makes the social sector unique.

This one-minute teaser conversation will give you a taste of the conversation – you can sign up for an all-access pass to ionPoverty for $15 (depending on where you live that’s one or two sandwiches…it’s a good deal).

Enjoy!

Insight as a spectator sport

I recently reread Daniel Goleman’s 1998 Harvard Business Review article on emotional intelligence .  Goleman’s research showed that as individuals get more senior in organizations, differentials in performance are a function not of intellect and technical skills but of emotional intelligence.

When I compared star performers with average ones in senior leadership positions, nearly 90% of the difference in profiles was attributable to emotional intelligence factors rather than cognitive abilities.

Emotion intelligence, in Goleman’s definition, is comprised of:

Self-Awareness: the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others

Self-Regulation: the ability to control, or redirect, disruptive impulses and moods; the propensity to suspend judgment – to think before acting

Motivation: a passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status; a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence

Empathy: the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people; skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions

Social Skill: proficiency in managing relationships and building networks; an ability to find common ground and build rapport.

So what do I do when you come across something like this – a potentially powerful insight that turns your current thinking on its head?  Do I totally revamp my hiring process?  Do I do nothing?  Or do I tinker around the edges?

As someone who’s constantly on the lookout for these sorts of insights, I know I don’t adopt every great new idea I come across.  Sometimes that’s because I don’t fully believe in an idea, but often it’s because I don’t have the guts (or the willingness to take the social risk) to try it (e.g. conduct all meetings standing up).

There are four possible orientations to great ideas.

  1. Never find them in the first place (don’t read the books, the blogs, watch the TED talks, etc.)
  2. Consume them and ignore them
  3. Consume them and incorporate them a bit around the edges
  4. Embrace them, test them out, and be willing to incorporate them if they work for you

While option 1 (living heads down, actively hiding from all the amazing ideas that are spreading) is the most obvious thing to avoid, it’s options 2 and 3 that are more subtle and just as troublesome.  You come across something great, but you don’t actually do anything to make it yours.

As in, “That sounds great, but we can’t really do it that way because….” or, worse, “Well sure that might work for her but that would never work for us because…”

The moment we have a bias towards action, we read/act differently.  We’re no longer couch potatoes, waiting to be entertained, we’re active learners leaning forward, taking notes in the margins, sharing the bits we like the best, starting discussion groups, having five other people read the same book so all of us can test out new ideas together.

We come across too many great ideas to allow insight to be a spectator sport.

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p.s. Viewed through this lens, we understand a TED talk (or a TED book), a Domino book, a great manifesto or a focused, passionate blog differently.  They are optimized for idea transmission and action.  A 250 page book may be what it takes to wring every last drop out of an idea, but the 80 page version probably gives the reader enough to act on.

Fundraising problem

Here’s the conundrum: transactions happen today, relationships build over months, even years.   Real relationship-building doesn’t conform to rules of thumb or your annual targets.  Also, if you’re building from scratch, it could take years to get from here to there.

Meanwhile, you feel like you have a fundraising problem today.  Your real problem is that you’re the only person who has that problem.  Your potential funder does not have a fundraising problem.  Or a giving problem.  She has, we hope, a “getting something done in the world” problem.

The paradox is that doing this right is a long term build and you have to be clear about what success looks like.  The seemingly contradictory mistakes you must avoid are: 1. Walking around and just seeing your short term needs; and 2. Never being ready with a real, crisp, compelling ask at the right time and the right way.

When is that right time?  It’s kind of a Goldilocks question, but if you’re not sure what your answer is my bet is that it’s sooner than you think (better to ask too soon and fail a few times than to wait too long).  Through it all, you need to experience and communicate a sense of urgency about your mission, clarity about what you’re doing, and readiness to articulate what you are trying to accomplish and how a funder can be a part of it.

But people, like dogs, can smell fear and desperation a mile away.