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).


Try this one day.

After an event where you’ve talked to a lot of interesting folks, sit down and write an individualized follow up note to everyone with whom you had a substantive conversation.

It can be short. It just has to be real and personal, meaning that there actually has to be a next step in the conversation/relationship that would make sense.

Now pay attention to how everyone responds. How quickly, how clearly, how personally.

In my experience the people who seem to have the least time are often the ones who respond the most quickly and in the most genuine way.

Makes you wonder which came first: the amazing people they are today, or the behavior of making sure that real connections get acknowledged and amplified.

Following up on my follow up

I no longer try to reply immediately to every email. It’s not only impossible, it leaves me reactive, tired, and less productive (though very busy). I still try to be very responsive most of the time, and even this only works if I’m pithy while also being predictable and clear when it will take me longer to reply.

Everyone has their own approach to managing their communication flow, and part of the trick is to get my flow and someone else’s flow in sync. This boils down to is a series of pairings: my communication has a tone, a style, and a cadence; and, when a communication flow is working well, that evolves into a nice groove of clear mutual expectations (again, in terms of tone, style and cadence) with the people I’m in touch with regularly.

Where things get dicey is in higher stakes, infrequent communications – and these are the ones that we want to be getting right: reconnecting with a (potential) donor; reaching out to invite someone to speak at your conference; asking for advice from someone I don’t know.

The unspoken reality is that, in the absence of a strong existing relationship, the person doing the cold call (email) is taking advantage of the email medium to interrupt someone and borrow some of their attention. The only way this works is either by being exceptionally brief and clear in these sorts of notes (which seems to happen almost never), or by writing a note that itself adds value in exchange for that interruption (by being interesting or useful to the recipient, not to the sender).

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of bad email etiquette that wrongly supposes that no one will notice or care about being interrupted and asked for something. This feels like the unintended consequence of an unstated but widely-followed norm that personal emails merit a personal reply, even when they don’t.  The result is more and more people asking for things without stopping to think about how to complete the circle of the ask they are making.

Hints that this is going wrong are phrases like: “I know we haven’t been in touch for a while, but…” “I realize I’m emailing out of the blue, but…” “Things got busy on my end, but I’d like to continue the conversation we started…” and, the worst, “You don’t know me but…” Essentially, any first sentence with a “but” in it is a problem.

(Even worse is any chain that contains any of the above phrases and is followed, one day later, by some version of “Hey, why haven’t you replied to my out of the blue email that I wrote on my timeline in the hopes of getting your attention?”)

Email can be quick and immediate, but relationships are not, and trust is earned or unearned each and every day. Don’t be confused by the medium (quick, easy, immediate) and the expectations of the people who are reading your notes.  The technology has evolved very quickly, but our expectations march to a different drummer.

Anatomy of a thank you note

We are all emailing and messaging each other a zillion times a day, yet people seem to be writing fewer thank you notes than ever.  In a professional setting, there’s no good reason not to write a short, substantive email* thank you note within 24 hours of an important meeting.

I suspect that people don’t send these for two reasons:

  1. Lack of discipline in choosing to write the note every time; and
  2. Lack of confidence than one can write a note that will productively add to the relationship.

On the discipline point, well, that’s up to you.  But I’d suggest that not writing the note is akin to skipping an at-bat in a baseball game, intentionally double faulting once in a tight tennis match, or taking one fewer penalty shots at the end of a tied soccer game.

On the content of the note, writing a great note is an art, and like all art it takes years of work and lots of practice to master your craft.  But writing a good note is not hard.  A good note goes something like:

Dear Samantha,

Thank you for meeting with me.  I left our meeting feeling [ADVERB] because [SOMETHING POSITIVE THAT HAPPENED IN THE MEETING.]  In fact, our discussion of [SPECIFIC THING WE DISCUSSED] really made me think about [SUBSTANTIVE NEW THOUGHT OR REFLECTION YOU’VE HAD SINCE THE MEETING.]  As a result, I really hope that we can [DESCRIPTION OF WHAT THE FUTURE MIGHT HOLD IN THE CONTEXT OF THIS RELATIONSHIPS.]


Thank you again for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.



On the one hand, this looks like a MAD LIBs, paint-by-numbers undertaking.  But of course it isn’t because first you have to distill:

  • The emotional content of the meeting
  • One specific highlight that is meaningful to both participants
  • How the meeting affected your thinking
  • What you are hoping to build together
  • Agreed-upon next steps
  • What you will do to contribute to the relationship, with no expectation of specific return

The heavy lift is this level of reflection.  It’s the work that illustrates that you want to build something beyond a simple transaction.  Reflecting in this way gives you and your counterpart a glimpse of what you could build together and, in doing so, you go way beyond gratitude.

The note itself, though, is short and sweet, and there’s no excuse for not writing it.  Indeed, the faster you build towards fifty pounds of clay here the better.




* I have recently come off the fence on my internal debate email versus handwritten notes.  For personal invitations (dinner parties, gifts, etc.) handwritten is still the way to go, but in a professional setting, time passes too fast these days to wait three or four days for a handwritten note to be delivered.

So, you looking?

Not long ago I bumped into a headhunter at a cocktail party, a woman I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade.  Her second sentence (second!), after, “How are you?” was, “So, are you looking for a job?”


The easy questions in fundraising are around tactics, as in, “when is the right time to make an ask?”  There’s nothing wrong with “three-meeting before making an ask” and other rules of thumb, but questions like this one essentially miss the point.

(By the way, my take on this particular rule of thumb is that it is better to ask sooner than you’d like and better to and ask for more than you feel comfortable asking for.  This is primarily about getting through our own fears about asking – we usually take too long – and about recognizing that we are giving the person across the table an opportunity to do something important, and we should help them do something big, not small.)

No matter what approach you take, you’re never going to get out of the starting blocks until you’ve done the internal, personal work of getting out of that space where you see the person across from you as a transaction, as simple dollar signs.  No matter how you dress up your language, if you see your “prospect” as a means to and end then she’ll feel that way.  Whereas if you treat her as a person with whom you are building a real and substantive relationship, you can (counter-intuitively) talk comfortably, early on and directly about money.

It starts with you and how you see the world.  Are you building something, or just taking?

24 hours

I keep wondering what people are getting at when they put a huge effort into shaking hands, making conversation and swapping business cards and then disappear off the face of the earth.

Almost as bad is following up days or weeks later to say how nice it was to meet.  By choosing to (re)start your conversation weeks down the line when you have the option to do it within 24 hours you’re communicating that lots of other things are more important to you.  This conversation is low on your list.

That may be right.  Just be clear that it is a decision.