Jim Lord says he’s worried.
“So much potential is being lost, so much good left undone — because of how people go about raising the most significant money.”
Here’s what Jim has to say about the hidden reasons so many people give so much less than they could ...
To my friends and colleagues:
Every day I hear complaints about how many major donors have tuned out.
They don’t return calls.
They decline invitations to serve.
They give less than they could.
Have these good people become selfish and uncaring? I doubt it.
After all, people have a built-in desire to make a difference with their lives. It’s part of who we are as as human beings. It’s the fundamental reason the social sector exists — and the inspiration for the most significant philanthropic investments.
In fact, what’s going on is much more troubling — and it runs deep in the culture and practices of modern “fundraising.”
Here’s my take: The deep human longing for significance is being squashed by sales techniques, short-term metrics, and the internal focus of most organizations. (Yes, these wounds are largely self-inflicted. I’ll get to the upside of that in a moment.)
So that’s the short version, but this is important enough to take a closer look. Let me start at the beginning, so you have the big-picture context that gets lost in the day-to-day.
When I wrote The Raising of Money, published in 1983, the fundraising profession was in its infancy. Volunteers led the way. Philanthropy was interwoven with civic engagement. Community leaders used philanthropy to make a tangible expression of optimism, civic pride, and hope for the future.
I’ll never forget one of the first campaigns I worked on as a consultant: Shelby, Ohio, 1976. Discouraged board members wanted to cancel the campaign for a new Family YMCA because they thought it had taken too long to organize and engage people. They saw defeat looming.
And then a young leader, Bob Lederer, proclaimed in a church basement: “Yes we can!” (I’m pleased that line has a familiar ring even now.)
After all the hoopla — and two parades — how sweet it was to dive into the new community pool for a few laps, in what had been a cornfield next to the high school. I’m still in touch with Bob after all these years, such is the inspiration I gained from his philanthropic leadership.
Today we find ourselves in a place that would have been hard to imagine back then.
Fundraising has come into its own as a profession, within a vastly expanded and professionalized social sector. (When I was on the team to develop the first CFRE exam, the field had scarcely any literature. My little blue book was one of the first.)
With exceptions that I’ll get to in a moment, many professionals have adopted a sales-and-persuasion model for their work. Pros take the lead and “donors” react to solicitation — instead of being engaged as partners and developed as leaders.
Philanthropy as leadership and civic engagement sounds almost quaint these days.
The most fundamental principles of this work — the “golden rules” about how we treat other human beings as we work together for the good of all — are in danger of being tossed aside (or twisted beyond recognition).
Take “moves management,” for example. It’s commonplace in the field today, but many practitioners don’t know where it came from, how it was first developed by Buck Smith and Dave Dunlop.
Buck told me some years ago that he wasn’t sure he liked the way people had taken their invention. He felt that if people hadn’t studied the spirit behind it, they cheapened it. They just thought of it as a technique.
Dave underscored that when I spoke with him recently. (I last saw him in person years ago, when he came to one of my workshops at Case Western Reserve University.)
He told me, “It can easily be misunderstood, so people start ‘making moves’ and making a game of moves, rather than recognizing the process we’re part of is inspiring people to do the things that we believe they would want to do anyway. Really helping them accomplish what is consistent with their values and interests. It’s a different perspective than fancy asking or skillful asking.”
“Donor engagement” has met a similar fate, becoming what one of my students calls “faux engagement.” Plans are polished up internally, then presented to donors to get their “buy-in.” No more contentious meetings in church basements, everything is tied up in a fancy Powerpoint to run by the “funders.”
In Belief and Confidence, Ron Schiller describes the consequences of this isolation, this avoidance of genuine dialogue in favor of one-way presentation:
Without belief in philanthropic partnership, internal leaders lower their own ambition. They develop strategic plans and set goals based on past fundraising performance, rather than take the risk of dreaming with the donor about what might be possible. They plan within the confines of what they consider achievable, missing opportunities …”
As the sector has become more sophisticated, donors and volunteers have become mere “resources” to be tapped — for purposes and on a timetable decided by others.
At worst, donors tell stories of mistreatment, even breaches of faith, by institutions they can no longer trust. (They may not be telling you these things, but I’ve heard too many of these stories — and you can be sure they tell each other.)
You probably know fundraisers who give lip service to being “sincere” and “donor-centric” but go on to play mind games that destroy trust.
The other day, I was talking with a university CDO. At first, it seemed we were on the same wavelength. But then told me he likes to “get the donor to think a project was their idea.” I hardly knew what to say. (And I did not invite him to the workshop we were discussing.)
This manipulative mindset runs deep. Too many folks have lost the plot — and they don’t even realize it. But the donor does. They know when they’re being manipulated. And more than ever before, they reject people they suspect are “working” them.
To be fair, many organizations operate with more integrity, or at least they try to.
But nearly all still fail to ask donors what matters to them — and to truly listen to (and act on) the answers.
Nearly all use language internally that they wouldn’t want donors to hear. (Fair warning: You can’t keep this stuff just for insiders. It’s like eating too much garlic, it seeps out your pores.)
And almost no one genuinely engages donors in envisioning the kind of world they want — the kind of world your organization makes possible.
What room is left for the voluntary spirit, for personal initiative, for the transformational power of purposeful commitment, when philanthropy and civic engagement are reduced to a series of “asks”?
I shared a first draft of this with a long-time friend, who told me:
I dread the visit from my university’s fundraiser. I don’t want to be solicited, especially in that kind of superficial relationship. I really want to do something significant for the school, but frankly they’re getting in the way.”
To be clear, this is not a call to return to “the good old days” or to de-professionalize the social sector. Rather, it’s a challenge to all professionals to live up to their full ability to change the world, so they can become the professional change agents they were meant to be.
Running underneath all this is widespread loss of confidence in institutions and their leaders … and even doubts about whether it’s worth trying to shape the future.
The social backdrop has changed in remarkable ways since I first started in this profession.
Cynicism is rampant. Trust in institutions (and leaders) is at an all-time low. Every day a new headline questions the integrity of a large philanthropic project.
Our communities seem fragmented, with less sense of shared purpose and a weakened commitment to collective action for the common good. (I’ve seen many a jaded smirk greet the idea that we are “Better Together.”)
In the face of what seem to be overwhelming social and environmental problems, even people of great means doubt they can make a difference.
Not all of this is brand-new, of course. Some 40 years ago, I asked the president of Ketchum (who had hired me as their youngest consultant) why a particularly successful campaign had earned national attention. He told me, “most people have become jaded — but those folks haven’t.”
But people do seem to be more weighed down by world-weariness these days, carrying the burden of more frustration, unease, mistrust. (The implications for philanthropy are profound, but mostly ignored by the profession.)
So much potential is being lost, so much good left undone — because of how we go about our work.
Here’s the good news: People still long for inspiration, for the opportunity to make a difference with their lives, for genuine connection with others in service of a high purpose.
It’s high time to rethink how we do what we do, so we can inspire people to their best in more powerful and meaningful ways. That’s been my focus for decades now, mostly out of the public eye. More on that in a moment.
Granted, there are pockets of what I consider real enlightenment in the profession.
People who know something others don’t. Some are in large institutions, others in small organizations with big agendas.
What they have in common is seeing themselves not as “super salesperson”... but as an agent of positive change, a developer of human potential, a force for optimism about the future.
These most advanced practitioners work from a deeper, more advanced understanding of philanthropy and its place in the life of an individual.
They see themselves as facilitators who draw out the best in human beings.
They intentionally create a culture of confidence and possibility (the essential prerequisite to major philanthropic investments).
They invite everyone — staff and donors alike — to break through the limits of conventional thinking and take bold action for a brighter future.
It’s been my privilege to serve a good number of those folks — professionals, social sector leaders, and philanthropists alike — in my private workshops over the past decades. I’ve been amazed at what they’ve accomplished. (You can see a few of their stories below.)
It started years ago when Del Staecker, then Chair of NSFRE, and Bruce Hopkins, the leading nonprofit attorney, pulled me aside after a keynote to ask me if I would put together advanced programs. Something you couldn’t get anywhere else.
So I started to offer think tanks, and then workshops, that brought together philanthropists, civic leaders, board members and other volunteer leaders, high-level staff, experienced development officers. A cross-fertilization of different perspectives that’s rare in everyday life.
We experimented with ideas and frameworks from social psychology, organizational behavior, and other disciplines.
It’s been a decades-long deep dive into understanding people and their built-in desire to make a difference, far away from the usual conferences and conversations in the profession. (And far beyond the limitations of sales-and-persuasion techniques.)
We found new ways to develop the personal presence, perspective, and mindset it takes to cultivate the kind of leadership it takes to change society. (A different — and more powerful — way to look at “major gift fundraising,” to be sure.)
And always with a focus on action-learning, designed to advance something each person wanted to accomplish. (Unlike generic, one-size-fits all professional development.)
People have gone to great lengths to attend, traveling from dozens of countries to workshops all over the world.
The result of all this behind-the-scenes R&D?
“The Philanthropic Quest,” a proven methodology that moves philanthropy to new heights. (I chose that name to honor the profound human search for meaning at the heart of our work.)
Until now, I’ve shared these methods with a limited circle — by design, from a desire to support only those who share my human-centered and high-aspiration values. I do worry about diluting the power of what we’ve discovered, the way “moves management” (and other big ideas) have been diminished over time.
So I developed criteria to select those who were invited to attend, based on the qualities of those who have found extraordinary success with the way I think this work should be done …
Those who come at this work with humility and a desire to learn.
Those who want to break through the barrier of what seems impossible, who see heroism in taking bold personal initiative on behalf of the greater good.
Those who see philanthropy as a deep human quest for significance.
I urgently want those good folk to have the extraordinary success they deserve (and that I know they can enjoy). But with all the noise and confusion in the profession, all the voices declaring “this is how things are done!” … it’s not always easy to step back and find your own distinctive path.
That’s why today, I’m determined to expand the circle so more can benefit from what we’ve discovered, at the same time continuing to be selective about who is invited in.
The world is waiting for more of us to dream and to act more boldly than ever before.
If this is resonating with you … maybe putting into words what you’re troubled about … I want you to know that you can get support for how you’d rather work with people.
That’s what we do around here: give you a place where you can retreat into experiential action-learning to take your own leap to the next level of your potential, so you know how to do this as well as it can be done.
So if you see greater potential, as I do ... if you want more wind at your back ... if you want to differentiate yourself and your cause in the eyes of those who long to invest themselves philanthropically ... then I invite you to take a closer look at applying for our upcoming programs.
It would be good to meet you, a kindred soul. Heaven knows the world can use more of you.
~ Jim Lord
P.S. Could what I’m talking about here be the answer to the talent shortage and turnover that plagues the profession? Well, I have a hunch this is one answer — to offer a more inspired and inspiring role, a broader and more human view of this work.
Applications are now being accepted from ...
A few of our distinguished alums ...
Jim Hodge, like too many development officers, found himself facing burnout. Exposure to fresh ideas not only kept him in the field, but gave him a new mindset that laid the foundation for an exceptional 35-year career in principal gifts at Mayo Clinic and the University of Colorado. See how Jim energized his career.
Dan Loritz faced unusual challenges in getting his university's largest-ever capital campaign off the ground. A high-engagement approach let Dan skip the conventional feasibility study and case for support, meet the campaign goal, increase it, and then far surpass the new goal. Discover how Dan did it.
Jay Hughes, high-level advisor and confidante to families of wealth, shares insights on building relationships of trust and influence. His mentoring of Charlie Collier, leading philanthropic advisor at Harvard, has had a lasting influence at the highest levels of the development profession. Go behind the scenes with Jay.
MORE FROM OUR COMMUNITY
I am convinced that far more idealistic aspiration exists than is ever evident.
Just as the rivers we see are much less numerous than the underground streams, so the idealism that is visible is minor compared to what men and women carry in their hearts, unreleased or scarcely released.
Mankind is waiting and longing for those who can accomplish the task of untying what is knotted and bringing the underground waters to the surface.