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.

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