INSTEAD or AND philanthropy

This is the age-old cannibalization question, the sleeping giant we are terrified to wake. It’s the specific story, the individual program that connects with a donor in a deeper way BUT might pull them away from precious, scarce, unrestricted support.

Do we, in telling that story, lose the donor forever to the cause as a whole?

I don’t think so. Not most donors, not most of the time. But it is a risk.

It boils down to a question of share of philanthropic pocket and share of philanthropic mind.

Most of the time, for most of our funders, we are a small portion of their philanthropic mindshare and their philanthropic pocket. This is because most of our donors are under-engaged, because they are busy and because, for most of them, we show up when it’s time to ask for something and then we disappear. Shame on us.

The more specific story – or more specific program – is powerful because it’s usually more visceral and it feels more real. In telling that story in the right way, we have the opportunity to create a deeper connection. And, when we do it right, we will tell the specific story as an illustration of the whole, and ask for funding for the whole. This is the best way to fundraise, and it requires passion, discipline and practice to get it right.

But that won’t work for everyone. Some funders – either because that’s their mindset or because that’s where they are in their philanthropic journey with your organization – want the more specific. That’s OK too if the more specific will ignite their passion, will enable their deeper connection to their work, and will transform them from passive to active supporters. Even if the dollar amount of their support remains unchanged, a wildly passionate supporter is worth ten times (a hundred?) an unengaged but consistent supporter.

If you succeed (yes, succeed, because it’s a win) in generating this sort of shift, your job is to recognize it and invite that person fully over to your side of the table, to take their newfound passion and energy, along with your much-clearer understanding of how you can truly partner with them, and enlist them in the countless ways they can help: to improve your thinking, bring other resources to the table, help spread your story…whatever else they can do beyond writing a check that will really help the cause.

While all this is true, it’s also true that sometimes this is a tradeoff – an INSTEAD rather than an AND.

Some funders are engaged and care already and are giving significantly, and then they hear a particular new story and they will choose to trade between the broad (or unrestricted) and the narrow – at least for now. That’s OK too. In this case, the only thing to do is to have a clear conversation about what’s going on, and, if there’s space for it, to ask whether they would consider an AND rather than an INSTEAD donation for that new program. Even when you do this all perfectly, don’t forget that sometimes resources (time and money) are finite, which means that sometimes one thing gets traded for another.

I believe that this last case is the rarest, and that even when it happens it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because this is a long-term game, and ultimately our job is to build an army of supporters who care deeply and are with us for the long haul, not an army of check writers who care a little.

All of this is to say that there’s a lot of nuance here, and a huge amount of space between “support the whole cause” (which is wonderful, powerful, and is the way we hope all philanthropy will happen, but is hard to sustain) and “we have 18 programs you can support and if you support just that we’ll run out of operating money in 6 months.”

It’s up to us to manage this gray area with grace, clarity, and love.

(Oh, and in case you haven’t yet been a passionate, engaged, connected reader of this blog, you can still spread the word to your NYC friends about the Catalyst for Change event this Thursday at 7pm where I’ll be speaking.)

It’s all personal

You can read every webpage about every foundation’s strategy.

You can scour CSR reports to see about a company’s social priorities.

You can analyze an individual’s past giving and the boards they serve on to understand their philanthropic priorities.

That all will help, but don’t be fool yourself.

Philanthropy is and always will be personal, deeply personal. There’s no such thing as the best place to give a donation, and there is no analysis that gives the philanthropist the right answer.

This is why all the best philanthropists 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, 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 score, ‘you’ is not just the founder or the CEO, not by a long shot).

A Means, not an End

There’s construction going on in the hotel by my office, and union members are outside protesting the use of non-union labor. There’s was giant inflatable rat on 9th avenue and now two guys have been passing out fliers with a headline that talks about “desecration of the American way of life.” Powerful stuff.

Sadly, the guys passing out the fliers didn’t show the same passion as the words in the flier. Far from it.

In fact, here’s one of the guys who was handing out the fliers. (And no, he didn’t just glance at his phone for a second.)

A means not an end

Sure, he’s just a bored guy on the street early one morning, but it felt like a metaphor to me.

I worry sometimes that the online tools at our fingertips are so powerful and so engaging that, even when we use them in support of our cause, they can become an end in and of themselves. That the quest for members, followers, likes and retweets massages away the blood, sweat and tears that brought us here.

The moment we trade in our conviction, our outrage, and our commitment is the moment we’re just standing on the corner looking at our phone…just like everyone else.


Strong ideas, loosely held

One of the best pieces of advice I got about five years ago was that I should have “strong ideas, loosely held.”

The feedback I was getting was on the “loosely held” part. At the time people experienced me as having “strong ideas, strongly held.” I think I’ve made some good progress on that.

Five years hence, as I come back to the central paradox inherent in this notion, I’m understanding that the suggestion isn’t to have any less conviction around my ideas. Indeed nearly all of the time we need more conviction, more passion, greater commitment, and greater follow-through.

The real point here is that the passion we have for our own ideas must be coupled with a core, deep-seeded belief that most ideas, most of the time, get better when they interact with, and are changed by, other ideas.

Extremist for Love

Monday was Martin Luther King Day in the United States, an opportunity to celebrate the life and leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  One of the many great pieces he wrote was the Letter from a Birmingham JailKing wrote this piece in the margins of a newspaper and on scraps of paper while imprisoned for nonviolent protests on April 10th, 1963 in Montgomery, Alabama.

The letter is a response to a statement made by eight Alabama clergymen condemning the Montgomery protests, describing those leading the protests as outsiders and rabble-rousers, and positioning themselves as reasonable men wanting “honest and open negotiations of racial issues in our area.”  Most of all, these clergy argued that they “do not believe…that extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.”

King’s letter is a clear, measured, but also deeply powerful response to these clergy.   His language, his eloquence, his clarity of thought and his refusal to compromise on issues of morality, rights and dignity inform the conversations we are having today about inequality and social justice.  King writes:

The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations.  He has to get them out.  So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit-ins and freedom rides.  If his repressed emotions do not come out in these non-violent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence.  This is not a threat; it is a fact of history.  So I have not said to my people “get rid of your discontent.”  But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channelized through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.  Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist.  I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually grained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.  Was not Jesus an extremist in love – “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”  Was not Amos an extremist for justice – “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ – “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”  Was not Martin Luther an extremist – “Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist – “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.”  Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist – “this nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question Is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be.  Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?

We discuss this passage at length with the Acumen Fellows, pushing one another on what it means to be an “extremist for love” and asking one another if, where and when we are willing to be extremists for causes we believe in.

Are you an “extremist for love?”  Do you aspire to be one?

The glimpse

The thing that gets people over the line isn’t how persuasive your argument is.  It’s certainly not because they see a big need in the world.

The thing that gets them over the line is passion.  Ultimately their passion, but before that happens they need to see your passion.  They need to glimpse something raw and unbridled and real.  A deep belief in what is possible.  Conviction.

In order for them to see that, they need to see you first, to understand who you are.  They need to be able to relate to your passion and have it mean something to them.  They need to appreciate that if you’re all fired up about something then it must be something worth getting fired up about.

The biggest mistake fundraisers typically make is to take themselves out of the story.  It’s a natural to try to step aside since what seems to be on offer is the story, or, worse, the need, and not the person telling the story.

Need is overwhelming and paralyzing to most people.  Need seems insurmountable.  We all are looking for real, grounded, plausible passion, possibility, potential and hope.  People begin to see that by seeing what you see, feeling what you feel.

If they don’t glimpse that in you, how are they ever going to feel it themselves?

It’s not personal, it’s business


Feels to me like that’s a big part of the problem.