Buying Solutions Instead of Efficiency

At a recent conference I attended, Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, bravely took another stab and debunking the nonprofit overhead myth.

Antony’s simple framing was that we – as nonprofits, as funders, and as partners to both – need to decide which question we should be able to answer:

Question 1 is, “Are you efficient at delivering your programs?”

Question 2 is, “Are you effective at turning funding into results?”

Further paraphrasing the example Antony gave, he described two conversations a funder could have with a homeless services organization. In the first conversation, the funder asks the service provider, “If I give you this money, will you, in fact, put in 10 more beds to the homeless shelter, as promised?” Alternately, the funder could ask, “If I give you this money, will you make a dent in the homelessness problem?”

It’s easy for us to smile and nod and say, “Oh, but of course, it’s question 2!” but that is not how we behave. “Don’t waste my money” is the prevailing message coming from most funders who demand “accountability,” a conversation that often ignores the distinction between efficiency and effectiveness.  And most social sector organizations are all too willing to play the game, communicating back, “Look! I’ve done what I told you I would do!”

This is such a low bar and is so fundamentally disappointing.

And while it’s easy to point fingers at funders who “just don’t get it” or at social sector professionals who either can’t be trusted to aim higher (so why are you funding them?) or who aren’t able to explain exactly how they are in fact delivering results (again, why are you funding them?), the truth is that the only way we get out of this dance is if we all truly pull up a seat to the table and do real work together.

The real work of deeply understanding the problem.

The real work of exploring what it would take to make progress on that problem.

The real work of recognizing that our organization, no matter how great we are at what we do, is probably not going to make much progress alone.

The real work of pulling together the people and organizations who could make some progress if they found the right ways to work together.

The real work of being honest about what we do and don’t know, about what part of the problem we are trying to chip away at right now, and about what success would look like now and in the future .

As we have these much deeper, more honest conversations, it will become clear that things like how much an organization spends on fundraising and management (aka “overhead”) could either be excellent or terrible proxies for judging the organization’s effectiveness.

For example, imagine you really, truly understand the problem you’re working on and discover, together, that you’ve got all the answers but are $100 million short of being able to make the change you’ve been trying to make. In that case, a massive investment in fundraising, or in a partnerships strategy, could be the single smartest thing you could do.

Or, imagine that you discover that what looks like an expensive and inefficient services model is actually a conscious strategic choice on the part of a nonprofit to focus on the hardest cases because that’s where they can make the most difference.

The list of examples goes on and on.

It’s time to stop talking about overheads and ratios, and it’s also time to stop talking about how efficient we are at doing what we said we would do.

We must hold ourselves to the much higher standard about turning money into solutions and about creating results, not activity.  The people you aim to serve will thank you for it.

Fundraisers in the Digital Age

One of the characteristics I don’t see people talk about as much when looking for successful, modern-day fundraisers are writing skills and digital proficiency.

It’s easy to think that the traditional job interview is a great way to find good fundraisers, and it is a good place to start. Fundraising meetings have a lot in common with job interviews: the potential funder is trying to figure out your story, your motivation for being there, and whether she connects enough with you and with what you’re saying to make a commitment to investing in a relationship with you and, over time, with your organization. A lot like hiring.

But it’s a mistake to stop there.

We know that today everyone lives on their devices. This means that a big part of the modern fundraiser’s job is to maintain and feed a web of relationships: a good fundraiser invests heavily in a core group of 20 relationships but is keeping a lower-touch pulse on as many as 100 relationships at various stages. This has gotten much easier thanks to technology – if you do it right.

The modern fundraiser’s secrets weapons are things like the ability to quickly craft a great email before or after a meeting; to sift through a lot of information online and find that one story that’s going to further the conversation you just had with a potential funder; to know when to call or to text or to write a handwritten note, and what tone and style to use in each medium.  If you can do this all fast and without breaking a sweat you can feed the network and be present and top of mind in many people’s lives.

This means that great fundraisers do more than just create connection in the room. Great fundraisers are a sense-makers, companions on the philanthropists’ journey to understand context and where their own philanthropic efforts fit in and can make a difference.

Put the gloves down

What does it mean to say that real fundraising is about building long-term partnership?

It means that some of the most important meetings you have with long-term funders are the ones that cover topics that don’t require their funding support:

The amazing, fully funded project that you’re just kicking off with a few other partners.

The great piece of work that you both know is outside of their formal strategy that you’re really excited about.

The new initiative where you’d value their experience and input.

Some funders are so used to – and so tired of – being pitched constantly that they end up behaving protectively, as if the only thought running through their head is, “how many times will I have to say ‘no’ in this meeting?”  I’ve had funders start sentence after sentence with, “we’re not doing any new funding this cycle” long before I’ve asked for anything. There’s no hope of building a relationship if someone has their gloves up protecting themselves from an onslaught of asks.

Fundraisers can be part of the problem, acting as if that every meeting should include a financial ask, and fearing that they’ve made a mistake if they don’t ask for money each time.

Every meeting should help deepen the relationship and, even better, should give everyone around the table the chance to contribute meaningfully to making positive change happen. Often that’s not about money.

Taking a stance that you’re not constantly, desperately on the lookout for funding is one of the best ways to allow the partners you hope to work with to put down their gloves and actually listen.

How philanthropists really decide where to give

The natural place to start, as a fundraiser, is at your desk. You judiciously read every webpage, article and report about a potential funder’s strategy in search of the best fit between a donor and the work you are doing.

And then, research completed and grant application submitted, you’re surprised to figure out that the fit isn’t there after all. The pieces don’t snap together cleanly, your proposal has been turned down. Then what?

Perplexed, you may head back to your desk to do a little more research.

Please don’t, because the answer you’re looking for is not somewhere on the screen or hidden away in a Google cache.

Philanthropy – whether a $25 donation to an Indiegogo campaign or a multimillion dollar grant from a huge foundation – is always personal. The published philanthropy strategies you are researching are a sensible narrative that pulls together a bunch of threads, but they are not the whole truth. Far from it.

Think of it from the other side: there simply is no such thing as the best place to give a donation (heck, there’s no such thing as a best car) so there’s no analysis that gives the philanthropist the right answer no matter how much they spent trying to figure out the problem.

All the best philanthropists I know have a healthy dash of angel investor in them. Angels invest in people above all else, because they know that when you can find that rare combination of grit, belief, tenacity, vision, people skills, humility, audacity, courage, and, and, and….

You see, that’s the point.

The list is too long, the unicorn-like combination of attributes so rare, that it’s always, fundamentally, about someone’s belief in you.

(and, for those keeping track, ‘you’ is not just the founder or the CEO.  Not by a long shot).

Imagined Distance

Every nonprofit fundraising campaign is about closing the imagined distance between a person and an issue.

The imagined distance between health today and a potential disease tomorrow. Or the imagined distance between you and someone who is suffering from that disease today.

The imagined distance between the safety you feel today and the potential of being a victim tomorrow. Or the imagined distance between you and the person who is a victim today.

The imagined distance between the rights you take as a given today and the loss of those rights tomorrow. Or the imagined distance between you and a person who does not have those same rights today.

The imagined distance between me and you, when “you” is someone I think I don’t know, someone I think is different from me, someone I have been choosing to look away from.

Once it’s revealed and felt that this distance is just a mirage, a construct that allows us to hide from our shared connection and shared humanity, then and only then is it time to explain why your organization, your intervention, your solution is going to make a difference.

But step 1 is to break down those walls – walls that create safety but that also create separation.

Because, ultimately, while safety creates comfort, it doesn’t hold a candle to what people really crave: connection, meaning, and a sense of purpose.

Getting through the troughs

I was talking to a nonprofit Executive Director last week about fundraising. We spent most of our time unpacking the heart of every fundraising meeting: the energy you bring into the room.

It’s not just important, it is everything. No matter the words you say, if you say them without the other person being able to feel them then the meeting has already failed.

But what do you do if you’ve had a bad run and you’re not feeling the mojo? Maybe it’s been a tough month or quarter and you can’t seem to put a smile on your face and “stay positive?”

My take is: don’t try to fake it.

Of course you have to be professional, and fundamentally you have to retain your long-term optimism and your deep belief that you’ll get big things done—if you don’t believe in you, no one will. But overly polishing and buffing your delivery will fail most of the time.

Inauthenticity is like a single poisonous drop that contaminates the entire cup of water. Rather than slap on a can-do attitude, bring your truth in that moment into the room. Be willing to lay it bare.

If things are hard, if you are feeling frustrated, if you don’t know how you’re going to storm the next hill, don’t complain, but don’t hide that away. Show faith and trust in the person you’re speaking with; have the confidence to share the real.

Sharing this truth might help you discover what’s really going on, and it will certainly communicate that you need actual help and that this meeting isn’t just another meeting. That’s an honest ask for support that, at a minimum, will be met with humanity and, in most cases, action.

People are craving this sort of connection, and they are more likely to help if they understand that they can, actually, help. Seeing your willingness to be authentic lets them understand the kind of partner you’ll be to them in the long haul—especially when the chips are down.

A philanthropy problem

The easiest thing to forget when you are raising funds is this:

Philanthropists have a philanthropy problem

By “philanthropists” I mean people who consistently engage in philanthropy–people for whom philanthropy an important part of what they do and who they are.

Someone who has the means, the values and the practice of being active philanthropically has, by definition, a philanthropy problem. She has a set of things she is trying to make happen in the world through her philanthropy. Her problem is that it is hard to do great philanthropy, it is hard to find great people and great organizations, and it is hard to make change in the world.

Fundraisers and nonprofit professionals forget this. Maybe we find it hard to relate because we don’t feel like we have a philanthropy problem (though that’s an easy issue to address: the more we give philanthropically the more we will get in touch with this feeling.)

But mostly I think it’s a comingling two things: an overall sense of fear and intimidation (of the philanthropist—which neither she nor we want) and our lack of empathy.

The fear is connected to our misplaced sense of worth–that somehow this thing we are doing might not really be “worth it” (in every sense) and, by association, worthy of support–and, as a result, a sense that we’re intruding on the philanthropists life and time.

The lack of empathy is connected to that fear–this time our fear that we will fail in this meeting, which causes us to be centered on our selves and our worries. This chatter overwhelms our clear thinking and our open hearts. So we close our eyes to the experience of the person with whom we are trying to connect, and we lose sight of the fact that we are showing up with a solution to her problem.

Since colorful stories and images are the best way to cement memories in our brains, here’s a too-loud version of this situation from This American Life Episode 319: Cars. It’s not a perfect analogy by any stretch–there’s not a lot of heart opening and genuine connection in the car-buying business–but it shines a light on how easy it is to forget that the person in the “showroom” is there because she is has a problem she’s come there to solve.

The speaker is Sal Lanzilotta, a manager at the Chrysler Town & Country dealership in Long Island. He’s giving his salespeople a pep talk:

Sal Lanzilotta

Customer says they’re not ready to buy a car. They’re all not ready to buy a car. Let’s go over it again. They’re in a car dealership.

They got in their car, drove through hell to get here, looked for a parking spot for 10 minutes, parked, got out of the car, and walked into a car dealer, not because the coffee’s good. We went over this, because the coffee here is not good. They came here because we sell cars, and they want to buy one.

The philanthropist is sitting across from us with a philanthropy problem to solve. We are sitting across from the philanthropist with a solution that makes difference. Why do we act like we have to start with an apology?

When we boil it all down, I wonder if where we keep tripping up is in forgetting that what we have on offer is way more valuable than a car.