Monday, August 28, 2017

It's a Good Grind

I often sit at my desk "grinding" through names, desperately trying to find the “stories” that connect our donors to our organization.  The work can be intensive.  Trying to piece together the relationships and eliminate the duplicate records and all the things that go along with the process of learning each story takes time. There's lots of steps and every now and then the process feels overwhelming.  Sometimes, I just lean back in my chair and take a deep breath.  Then, I keep going because in the meantime, “people are dying.”

That’s a phrase straight from our founder's lips.  I remember standing in Pam's office some time ago, venting a bit about something and Pam just said, “In the meantime, people are dying.”  Those words echo in my head every day.  It’s why I Wage Hope.

I just found Samuel today.  He lost his mom – Phyllis .  He wrote this on the PurpleStride page dedicated to her...  “This past March Pancreatic Cancer took my mother Phyllis Taylor, way before she or I were ready. The disease does not care who you are or how you have lived because my Mom was one of the kindest, overall great people to ever grace this planet with her presence. I, along with so many, miss her dearly. She has and continues to have such a huge and positive impact on my life. She is definitely proud of the way my family has showed resilience and bonded together during this time of mourning.”

“Unfortunately, the money that has been raised to this point could not save my Mom's life, but it could potentially save the life of a person you love. Please join us in this fight to end what is undeniably one of the worst types of cancer. “

As I connected him in RE (our database) to his mom and dad, I whispered… “ I got you Sam.”  I was basically sying "I understand and I'm here for you."

His dad just made a nice gift. That's what started me on this particular journey... to see how we might engage the family even more. To do that, it all starts with "the story" - the details of why someone is engaged with us.

It can be incredibly hard to read these stories day in and day out.  That being said – it’s harder to lose someone to cancer…

That’s why I grind away.  I may never meet Sam, but I have his “back.”  Sam is only 25.  He’s raised $2,050 so far.  The team has raised $8,335.  They’re all having an impact. 

I came to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network to have an impact, but the organization, the leadership, the patients, the volunteers, the donors, my colleagues and their stories continue to have an impact on me.  I can’t stop.  I need to keep grinding.

To get to the point where we are raising $50 million a year,  it’s going to take a monumental effort.  We have to grind through a lot of names just to find the ones who can become more engaged at a deeper level.  Then we have to reach them, engage them and eventually ask them.  Picture a huge funnel that is wide at the top and narrow at the bottom.  It’s hard work.  

There are thousands of stories in our database waiting to be discovered and more importantly - to be heard. I am on a mission to learn them one person a time.  Each story helps us find ways to better engage our constituents and at the same time, further our mission.

I know everyone at my organization is doing their part.  It’s inspiring to be in this fight with each of them. 

Together, we Wage Hope.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Showing Pride by Sharing "The Story"

On this, the last day of Research Pride month, I wanted to do something a little different and pay tribute to a fundraiser.  After all, my whole career in prospect development has been tied to making fundraisers more successful.  I have great admiration for the work they do and I love to champion them as much as possible.

I’ve worked with more than 200 fundraisers in the course of my career and I can easily count the number of them who were truly exceptional.  It’s easy to do because quite honestly, only a handful were that great. 

One of those is my colleague and friend - Rick.  I’ve known Rick for nearly 17 years and we’ve worked together for 14 of those years across two non-profit organizations.

I appreciate Rick very much and probably never tell him as much.  The thing I love most about Rick is that I know for certain that once he begins to cultivate a relationship on behalf of the organization, he will at some point get to “the ask.”  I know this for a fact and I never have any doubts that at some point – Rick will do what fundraisers are supposed to do.

I don’t take that for granted.  Some fundraisers never get to that point because they never see the opportunity or they shy away from it. Not Rick.  No way.  All that being said, this isn’t the reason I’m paying tribute to him today.

Another thing that I appreciate about Rick is that he doesn’t need a massive amount of information to get an appointment and start the development process.  Most of the time he’ll simply ask me if it’s a “yes” or a “no.” He trusts me enough to know that if I say “yes” that he’ll take the steps necessary to engage a potential donor. 

I also know that Rick will do a little bit of his own research.  I trust him to come to me when he needs my expertise and although I may get a little nervous that he’s doing some of this without me – we make it work.  The cool thing is that he gets as excited as I do when he finds that nugget that helps him make a connection. 

Still, this isn’t the main reason why I’m paying tribute to him today either.

Great fundraisers are usually great “story-tellers” and let me tell you, Rick has stories.  Boy, does he have stories.  Stories about his family, about the people he grew up with, stories about his vacations, his on-going war with anyone involved in providing customer service and more.  I’ve heard some of his stories multiple times – enough times that I can recite them myself.  I can’t even count how many stories I’ve heard over the years.

So with that in mind – this is where the tribute begins.

Recently Rick came to me with a “story” to share.  As he approached my desk, I knew there was something different about his demeanor.  Rick wears his emotions on his sleeve (for better or worse) and this was a side of him, I hadn’t seen much of.  He was reflective.  He appeared to have been moved emotionally by an interaction he had just had on the phone.

Rick began to tell me about a donor to an organization we worked at previously together.  Not only was this person a donor, but they also had a very personal connection to the institution we worked for.  This person called Rick to let him know that he was not long for this world.  It was sobering news for sure.

As Rick told me the story – he mentioned that as he was talking to this individual, he wondered “why are they calling me?”  Although the two were friendly, they weren’t exactly friends in the true definition of the word.

The individual proceeded to tell Rick that he was reaching out to all the people who had been important to him in his life.

Think about that for a few minutes.  How often, if ever - does anyone get a call like that?

Clearly, this person was thankful that Rick gave him the opportunity to make an impact at the institution we both worked for.  This person realized that even though he made a nice gift to the organization, the true gift was given to him in the opportunity to have a philanthropic impact.

That’s the power of philanthropy.  Not only can a gift transform and impact an organization, it can have an equal if not greater impact on the donor themselves. 

When Rick told me that story, I couldn’t have been prouder of him.  It confirmed what I already knew about him – that Rick does an amazing job of connecting an individual’s aspirations to the mission and goals of an organization.  This is the way philanthropy is supposed to work. 

So here’s the backstory about my relationship with Rick.  There are times when he makes me crazy (which may be news to him).  We couldn’t be more opposite in so many ways and I really mean in so, so, many ways.  We’re just different and yet we work well together. 

Here’s the thing – despite our differences, despite our different approaches to almost everything in life – I admire him and I’m proud to work with him.  I know that when it comes to connecting people to a mission or a cause, he’s going to find the best way possible to make that happen.  I just never have a doubt that he’s going to do what is in the best interest of the individual and the organization he is supporting.

This is why I’m paying tribute. 

Thank you Rick.  You’ve taught me a great deal about philanthropy and you’ve helped give meaning to the work I do.  I am proud to partner with you and to collaborate with you and to watch you do the amazing work you do.  Thank you for allowing me to have the confidence that you will always get to “the ask” and please know that I will never take that for granted.


This is Research Pride Month and I’m showing my pride by acknowledging my work is not about me.  It's about us and us includes all involved in trying to make a difference.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Stepping out of the box

I have always been proud of my prospect research roots, but I often become a little frustrated when that becomes my whole identity and label. Don’t get me wrong – I love research. I love the process and the significance of what it can do for a non-profit organization that needs to elevate its fundraising efforts. 

So here’s the thing – after years (we’re talking a lot of years) of being in development, I’m so much more than a prospect researcher.  I am truly a development professional who continues to find ways to have the biggest possible impact on the non-profit I work for.

How so, you ask? 

Ok, maybe you’re not actually asking – but I’m going to tell you anyway.  Let me start by saying that I’m no one special.  I don’t ever really feel like I’m the smartest person in the room or the guy who has all the answers.  What I do have is a set of life experiences that have prepared me to be where I am today and to operate in a way allows me to be successful.

Now we all define success in different ways and for me – it’s all about impact.  Having an impact requires taking action and often times we find ourselves somewhat paralyzed because we might be afraid to step out of our comfort zones.  When we do that – special things can happen.

So, I’m going to tell you a story and try to illustrate what I’m talking about.

I work at a small non-profit.  Small in that it’s only about 17 years old, employs less than 150 people and raises a little more than $35 million.  Not tiny, but small never-the-less. 

There’s an entrepreneurial spirit here which is amazing, but at the same time – that can cause some growing pains by its very nature.  Sometimes, there’s a little too much “let’s try this” attitude in my opinion.

No organization is immune to that; however, having that kind of freedom can definitely be a good thing.  It just has to be strategic.  It requires thought and if at all possible – data or something to quantify what you’re going to try to do.

Shortly after I arrived at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network – we partnered with Target Analytics to identify the best potential donors in our database.  This allowed us to segment our data in a way that would help us provide a road-map for where we needed to go and who we needed to engage.

Constituents were identified and assigned and the work began.

Calls were made.  Lots of calls.  Tons of calls. And then… silence. For the most part the response was non-existent. Doubt started to set in.  Doubts about the data and the methods used to segment that data became topics of “conversation.”  Doubts became theories – and labels started to emerge.  I heard things like “Our donors are different” and “Our donors just aren't responsive.” 

That’s when the “let’s try this” ideas started to emerge.  I cringed.  I knew better.  I knew that even though lots of calls were made – we really had put our effort into a very small portion of our database and that the process wasn’t given a fair chance.  Basically, some were making conclusions based on a small sample size.  The lack of early success began to breed a bit of frustration and that can be dangerous.  It wasn’t widespread by any means, but it was enough to raise concern.

As I mentioned earlier – our organization is relatively young and our development department even more so.  What isn’t new are the players on the team.  There is a wealth of experience here and in some ways I’m at the center of that.  I only say that because I’ve had exposure to more non-profits than my colleagues.  This is my sixth stop in a long career within the non-profit world.  Again, I’m no one special, but I do have some valuable experience.

I also have more connections in the non-profit arena and specifically in development than my colleagues.  The only reason I say that is to provide some context.  One thing I know (and so do most of you) is that prospect development community is a thriving, living, breathing community and this community does a lot of sharing.  We talk. We listen. We share.  Sometimes we might even over share.

My time in the profession and specifically with colleagues at APRA and CARA have helped shape who I am today.  I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to learn from all of you and understand what works, what doesn’t work and what are truly best practices. 

It’s what we do with all of that knowledge that counts. So… back to my story.

I began to try and change the conversation from who we had identified in our database to our approach to reaching them.  For the most part – much of what I was seeing looked “transactional” to me and not “relational.”  In my mind – it wasn’t about them (donors), it was about us and our approach.

Every outreach from development looked the same.  Every phone conversation.  Every email.  Ok, maybe not “every single effort” – but for those doing the work of trying to qualify constituents – that was definitely the trend. 

I knew we had great people in our database who had a reason to care.  I knew many of them were capable of making an impact on our fundraising efforts.  I saw the data. I believed this with all my heart and I knew in my head – that this was true.

So what did I do?

I took action. 

So here’s the thing.  I like to write.  I think I can be an effective communicator when I put my thoughts on paper.  I also believed people use the phone less and less to communicate; at least verbally.  They’d rather text or email these days.  That’s just the way people are these days.

At the same time, the idea of cold calling someone is somewhat out of my comfort zone and most people don’t like being on the receiving end of those calls.  Again, I like to write – so my approach was simple and it was perfect for me and I thought ideal for those I would reach out to.

I took my research skills and began to look at each record through the lens of a prospect researcher.  I wanted to figure out who each person was, what their motivation was for giving or being engaged and then take all of that information and use it to personalize my approach.  I didn’t spend a lot of time figuring this out – I just needed enough information to make each outreach unique.

I began to write emails.

In my letters, I called out their giving, the way they engaged with us, who they might have honored in their giving and I found ways to connect with them on a personal level.  I found things they had in common with me or our fundraisers. I did anything I could do to let them know that I “saw” them as individuals with a story to tell.  I wanted them to know their stories were important to us and each of their journeys inspire us to do what we do.  I was being relational and not transactional.

It worked.

People responded.  Those emails turned into conversations and then into face to face meetings.  This happened because the approach was genuine.  It was real.  It was relational.

I’ve only reached out to a small sample, but the results have been amazing.  Our major gift team is reaping the rewards of this effort.  I’ve even had the opportunity and privilege of participating in some of these meetings and I’ve been able to add some value to the process.

At the end of the day – the data played a huge role, but how we used that data was even more critical. I love it when that happens.

This is only the beginning.  I’m going to continue to find ways to make our fundraisers and our fundraising efforts more successful.  I’m fortunate in that I have the freedom to do that here.  It speaks to our culture and our leadership that I can step out of the box and do things that aren’t necessarily in my job description.

You know, sometimes we look at a situation and think “if only they would do this…”  Sometimes, we need to just act.  I know that is easier said than done.  Trust me, I know. 

Here’s the thing – I came here to have an impact and I try to do that every day.  The funny thing is that what I’ve found is that this organization has had an even bigger impact on me.  I have true admiration for our leadership and for the work being done here and that compels me to do more. 

I’m not here by accident.  I’m supposed to be here.  We often hear that we (and by “we” I mean all of us in development) are all fundraisers.  We are all responsible for raising money, but how many of us take that to heart? 


Like I said at the top of this post, my roots are in prospect research, but I AM a development professional.  Sometimes, I even act like one.