Posted by: David Lawson | July 26, 2013

The Leaders’ View is not 360

“360 Degree View” long ago made its way onto the BS Bingo board at conferences. Vendors and consultants promised a complete picture of your relationships regardless of whether your interactions were on-line or off-line. Millions of dollars, and countless hours, have been spent making the 360 view a reality.

For fundraisers this meant bringing together all of the elements of a successful campaign. For other departmental silos it delivered the view they needed to get their job done. Leaders began to receive more complete data from their direct reports, and for a while it seemed as if 360 had helped organizations do a 180 in terms of having the data needed to make better decisions.

But there was a problem – in fact many problems.

First, the 360 view was essentially a new way to look at all the structured data found in a traditional database of record (known as a donor management system for fundraisers). 80% of data today is unstructured and it has little to no place in the 360 paradigm.

Second, it was a 360 view of each silo – not of the organization.

For leadership this meant they were not receiving all of the information from each silo, and they were not provided the cross-organizational view they really needed.

ShipsBridgeIt is like a ship’s captain receiving reports from each deck at different times – some more complete than others. The captain makes the decision to continue the journey not realizing the refrigerator is broken and the food will spoil soon because that department is late with their report or perhaps doesn’t want the captain to know there is a problem.

For the President of a college this might be the cancellation of season tickets by an alum he is counting on to support the capital campaign. The head of a homeless shelter could be asked to be part of a tour of the shelter for a large donor who she discovers volunteers there once a week. A headmaster of a private school calls on a prospective donor not knowing their daughter just received a very negative report from one of her teachers.

And what about the mission? Are leaders able to see not only transactional elements of impact reports, but also analysis of written responses? Can they see how employee engagement is affecting performance of students?

Leaders understand what they don’t know can, and does, hurt them. For them viewing only what their silo managers can see is not enough. They need a cross-organizational view to confidently, and safely, set a course for sustainability.

P.S. If you are interested in learning more about how you can bring cross-organizational intelligence to your leadership click HERE or stop by the New Science of Philanthropy booth at the APRA International Conference August 7-10 in Baltimore.




Posted by: David Lawson | July 4, 2013

The Power of Disruption to Help Philanthropy Innovate

We are living in disruptive times. From technology to countries, everything is in a constant state of change. Of course change has always been a reality to accept, ignore or battle (ask our British friends as we celebrate our Independence today). The difference is the pace which means you are constantly accepting, ignoring or battling something new in your life.

What got me thinking these disruptive thoughts was a post on the Knight Foundation blog entitled Building better philanthropy through disruption. It began with a compelling thesis:

Disruptive forces are at work in our communities and in our lives every day. Disruption happens in and out of our control; in positive and negative ways. Grantmakers are uniquely positioned to sense disruption. Through their wide networks and reports from grantees, perceptive grantmakers may sense early indicators of disruption before others have a chance to notice.

I love this on many levels: First, hearing a grantmaker acknowledge organizations are working in a constantly changing environment which impacts them positively and negatively on a daily basis; second, the recognition of how powerful the combined data possessed by grantmakers could be for the entire philanthropic community. Sounds like a great job for Big Data.

As good as I was feeling when I read the opening, I felt even better when I read this:

Grantmakers have a tremendous role to play given the resources at their disposal; flexible, unrestricted, long-term funding is crucial in allowing innovation to spring from disruption.


Too often the focus is on what has been disrupted, rather than on what is now possible. When cell phones first came into our lives they were derided as too big, too expensive, and unnecessary. ATMs were met with fears about being robbed, and how impersonal the banking experience was becoming.


Philanthropy is in bad need of innovation and it will only come with serious disruption. If you find yourself commenting about a new idea, technology or strategy with some version of, “What we have been doing has worked just fine for us,” ask your phone a question, and try to remember the last time you couldn’t get money because the bank was closed.

Posted by: David Lawson | June 25, 2013

Making the Mission the Goal of Your Fundraising Campaign

When talking about a fundraising campaign the first question usually is, “What’s the goal?” The higher the number the more impressed we are. I have enough grey hairs to remember when a billion was a big deal. Now a billion seems quaint as USC continues its quest for $6 billion. In the hyper-competitive world of higher education fundraising can the $10 billion campaign be far off?


In the middle of all of this “my goal is bigger than your goal” activity I came across a campaign with no goal at all: The Great Give at Florida State University. A 36 hour on-line campaign, donors could select from 24 programs. There was no overall goal – only a cost next to each program.
Despite the campaign having the misfortune to be launched at exactly the moment the world was focused on the police closing in on the Boston Marathon bombing suspects (April 18-19), it raised nearly $114,000. $57,000 a day is not too shabby for an on-line campaign.

The money is great, but what I like most about this approach is how it centers on mission goals rather than fundraising goals. Donors are exposed to projects often lost amid the hype about reaching the big number. It also presents the costs of the projects, something missed when the conversation is about how much needs to be raised.


This approach has another big benefit – it allows donors to explore your mission and discover where their interests and passions intersect with your needs. This has huge potential for increasing donor retention as people no longer feel trapped into always giving to what they have supported in the past (of course for this to truly translate into long-term giving organizations have to respect the choices donors make).

On the acquisition front, mission-centered goals provide prospective donors the freedom to find their own paths to your organization. This also combats the dreaded restricted gifts for programs you don’t need because you have given people choices, but not the choice to create their own projects. I believe a lot of the nightmare gifts are received because of organizations insisting donors have to give for particular program areas.

As you plan your next fundraising campaign think about adding choice to the mix, and making the goal about the cost-of-mission instead of the cost-of-fundraising.


P.S. Kudos also to FSU for having their Leaderboard focusing on how the projects are doing instead of how much individual donors have given.


Posted by: David Lawson | June 12, 2013

Philanthropy is an Unstructured World

According to IBM 90% of all data has been created within the last two years, and 80% of it is unstructured: documents, videos, images, e-mails, etc. No wonder Big Data is a Big Topic of conversation these days.

Stone Tablet

This all sounds amazing, but to me it feels like technology is just catching up to reality. Most of the world’s data has always been unstructured: thoughts and memories in people’s minds; carvings on stone; or printed on a piece of paper. The concept of structured data came along when databases appeared and data was required to fit neatly within distinct fields. Numbers, dates, names, and addresses were welcomed. Notes, comments, and documents were exiled to live either outside of the database or in unsearchable (and often seemingly unreachable) places within it.

Every time you log-on to your favorite donor management system you experience the consequences of this “Unstructured Data NOT Welcomed” legacy. You search for a person’s name, and if that person is mentioned in a note rather than having his or her own record, you are out of luck. You remember reading a great profile of the person, yet you can’t find it because it was created in MS-Word – one of the biggest prisons for unstructured data.

Philanthropy has been especially hard hit because so much of what it does can’t easily be structured. Think of all the visits with donors and the Contact Reports detailing how the visits went. How much value was lost as you shoe-horned your impressions, feelings, and insights into your database? For too many organizations the simple fact of a visit happening is all that is measured without regard to how it went.

SQL Server Tables

What about all the external data purchased from screening vendors? Was it reduced to a few “attributes” so you could pretend it was integrated with your “database-of-record”? Speaking of DOR, can we make it RIP please?! Your database-of-record is only a record of quantifiable data like donations, and activities. It’s like a cash register – Counts your money, but has no ability to measure what is really making it ring.

And what about social media? According to Gartner 45% of spending on Big Data over the next few years will be driven by social analytics and intelligence. Where does all that data go?

On the mission side of the house where do you store information about impact? Where are the reports from the field? As donors demand more evidence their gifts make a difference, how much evidence is hidden within attachments: a technological innovation invented to keep unstructured thinkers (meaning most of us) at bay while engineers sought to bring structure to everything.

They have failed miserably. 80% of the world (and I would say even higher for those of us in philanthropy) is just beyond our reach. We are left to find our way based on transactional data, data which is misleading at best, and dangerous at worse.

It is not without some irony IBM, the company which first brought us the technology to separate the structured from the unstructured world, is the one now telling us the future belongs to those able to make sense of what their now out-dated technology cannot.

Big Blue has embraced Big Data. It is our opportunity to reclaim all the knowledge lost as we dutifully entered our feelings, emotions, and thoughts into unfeeling, unemotional, and thoughtless databases. It is our chance to free ourselves from searching, and begin finding what matters.

For philanthropy, Big Data provides a platform to enable missions to connect at a deeper level with donors, and to dramatically increase the impact on those it serves. That is an unstructured world I would like to live in – one I believe we have been living in all along.


Posted by: David Lawson | June 4, 2013

For Nonprofits Change Will Do Them Good

The 2013 State of the Sector Survey, conducted by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, has a wealth of data regarding where nonprofits are today – and more importantly – where they are heading. Today I want to focus on the survey question pertaining, “Finance & Operations Actions in the Last or Next 12 Months,” and in particular the 39% which answered yes to “Change the main ways in which you raise & spend money” in the last or next 12 months.


While 39% is impressive, what I found even more striking was the year-over-year change – 15%. Clearly nonprofit leaders are getting tired of doing the same things and being disappointed when they don’t get different results.

What kinds of changes can we expect? A clue is the number one answer – “Attend conferences or network to build relationships.” People are hungry for answers, but they are also looking for fresh ideas and perspectives (or at least 58% of them are). The 46% planning to upgrade technology is another indication of a growing feeling that the tried and true is tired and increasingly counter-productive.

Another intriguing indicator that maybe, just maybe, there is the will to make fundamental changes is the 21% wanting to collaborate with another organization. If these brave organizations start to see the benefits of collaboration then more will follow.

You may be saying, “I have heard the collaboration story before and know how it ends – with nothing happening.” Before you give up hope, take a look at the answers from the Service side of the world:


If 50% of the organizations are planning to collaborate to improve/increase services, then we almost have a majority seriously considering finding innovative ways to work together rather than ways to compete. The missions, and the donors, are the big winners as more people are served and donor dollars are more effectively utilized.

It is heartening to see organizations taking control of their destinies, and moving their own cheese rather than waiting to complain as it is done for them.

P.S. Hope to see some of the 58% at the Donor Retention Bootcamp this summer in Tampa.

Posted by: David Lawson | May 28, 2013

For Philanthropy the Answers Are All Around Us

One of my favorite lessons about faith is the story of a man caught in a flood praying to be saved as the water rises. Two boats, and a helicopter, come and are sent off as he trusts that his prayers will be answered. When he eventually drowns and goes to heaven he asks – why did you not answer my prayers? The simple answer, “I sent two boats, and a helicopter.”

Two Boats and Helicopter

I am reminded of this story when I hear about what fundraisers, and others involved in philanthropy, say is needed to be successful. There never seems to be enough information, technology, personnel, and good donors. Imagine telling this tale at the pearly gates. I’m not sure a sympathetic audience awaits.

Do you really want to make the case for information being in short supply? Is the technology available not amazing enough for you? Good people seem hard to find, but how many good people have left your organization in frustration? And with the exponential growth in wealth is it about the money or what you are (or not) doing to genuinely engage prospective donors?

Flood of Big DataPerhaps the problem is not supply, but rather abundance. Has the value of information diminished as the ease of acquiring it increased? With so many technologies from which to choose, is it more comfortable to stick with what you know even when it’s clearly outdated? With so many people looking for work, is it easier to post a job than to focus on creating a culture that retains talent? There are more people than ever who can support your organizations, and those people come from every generation, gender, ethnic group, and location, but does this create paralysis rather than action?

We may yearn for the good old days when there were fewer answers, and best practices guided our every move. Those days are long gone. Time to get off our knees, be thankful for all we have been given, and start getting in the boats and helicopters.


The IRS report on unrelated business income at colleges and universities reminded me of the potential perils of creating revenue from activities unrelated to your mission. I am not thinking about the tax consequences; I will leave that to the folks in Washington. I am pondering the consequences to the mission, and by association, fundraising.

This issue first came to my attention while I was working with a well-known university. We were discussing the giving patterns of affluent alums when a major gifts officer lamented about people who only made a gift in a year when they went on the alumni trip.

These were not ordinary trips. They were 10-14 day adventures combining exotic locations and encounters with famous people. Faculty who were experts in the areas being explored rounded out the experience.

Soon after this I was at a museum delivering their screening results and heard the same comment. Edu-cations had become all the rage and it certainly made sense for the arts to get in on the trend.

I began to ask questions about these programs and discovered they had become an industry onto themselves with less and less direct connection to the organization. If not for the school emblem and accompanying color scheme, the glossy brochures and splashy websites could have been easily mistaken for a Silversea Expedition.


This is a great example of why being mission-centered is so critical to donor retention. In a donor-centered environment you could think the trips were part of thanking your donors. In a mission-centered world the trip would focus on the relevance to the mission, and always include an honest explanation of why support was needed every year whether a person went on the trip or not.

I can almost hear the cries of the marketing team saying if you mention the uncomfortable truths about the need for on-going support the response rate will plummet. What they won’t share is the even more uncomfortable truth of how some donors actually feel paying for the trip is a gift in itself. That feeling fills cabins and hotel rooms, but it does not fill the classrooms with deserving students who can’t afford tuition.

Unrelated business income is an important source of revenue, and there is nothing wrong with edu-cations, but there should never be a disconnection from the mission or you may face unexpected consequences.

Posted by: David Lawson | May 14, 2013

Distance Does Not Cause the Giving Heart to Grow Fonder

The recently released study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and CCS – The Million Dollar Gift Next Door – revealed that 50% of the donors lived in the same state as the organization they supported, and another 10% in the same region. So 60% of all top gifts come from people who are thinking local.

Good news for local organizations, and schools with a lot of alums nearby. For everyone else it is a wake-up call to find ways to bridge the distance between their missions and the hearts of their donors.


On the face of it there is an easy answer as to why – people want to keep their money close to home. Certainly makes sense, but is there something deeper at work? Are donors saying they don’t trust organizations they can’t see? Is the connection between their mail box and the mission not enough? Is social media failing to make the digital connection? Has face-to-face fundraising become so much about the ask, there is no connection between appeals?

The answer seems to be yes on all counts. We are paying the price for direct mail best practices being to ask, ask again quickly, and be sure to ask again soon thereafter; social media being about speaking at, not with, supporters; and face-to-face focusing on the fundraising goals instead of the mission goals.

Philanthropy is a sector where distance should not impact the decision to engage. After all, the person who gives rarely benefits from the gift itself. Giving is truly about the receiver, not the giver. Whether the receiver is in your neighborhood or around the world only matters if you don’t feel connected and therefore need to see it for yourself.

And what about “seeing”? I remember after the Asian tsunami World Vision told the story of sending videos of people receiving help and hearing back from donors they were happy to know their gifts actually resulted in people being helped. This story highlighted how many donors are not actually sure their gift will be used effectively (or at all).

Today how can any organization not show a donor what the mission is accomplishing with their support? You don’t need a Spielberg production, just a camera focused on your mission. Bridging the distance between your mission and your donors is your responsibility. Imagine direct mail having an ask, mission, ask, mission pattern; social media being a conversation with your mission the topic; and face-to-face meetings being mission-centered with fundraising goals never being mentioned.

Keeping a connection despite inconvenient geographic location is a talent we have all learned. My family stretches from coast-to-coast. It’s not always easy, but you receive a video like this and you are transported to a backyard hundreds of miles away, able to give the slugger a virtual hug.

P.S. For the direct mail folks who fear sending mail without an ask, World Vision received checks along with thank you notes for the video.

The reaction to the Dan Pallotta TED talk has been cause for hope and frustration: Hope, as people begin to accept philanthropy as we have known it is broken; frustration, with so many defending the past for fear of an unknown future.

Reading the back-and-forth about Pallotta’s presentation I’m reminded of the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen becomes so fed up with a person in line pontificating about Marshall McLuhan’s work he brings McLuhan out of the shadows to confront the man.


For all the people believing Pallotta is off track (and his rocker) I give you the opinion of a well-known philanthropist:

“We need to better comprehend this environment and learn how to participate in it. The arts are slow at developing donors online, where much fundraising now happens. We have been slow to attract the new money—the hedge fund and social-media crowds, the new inheritors of wealth. We need these people in the arts, but we are not getting their attention. Large amounts of money are going into donor-advised funds; we scarcely know how to reach those funds. We are late adapters of social media, of the interactive ways of dealing that are now common among the young.

As fundraisers, we are not good at collaborating; we argue for one symphony or one dance company or one museum at a time—without appealing for the arts as a whole, significant sector in American life. And as institutions we haven’t learned to combine tasks, to find common ways of solving problems, to enlist new thinkers in our business.

We are trying to do business as usual, when—in fact—the usual is gone. There is a new usual. We need to make it work for the arts. Without the arts, we would be people without inspiration, without ideas, without ideals. That’s why successful fundraising for the arts in the new economy is essential.”

Agnes Gund – Philanthropist

This was written in July of last year. You can take out the word “arts” and replace it with any sector of philanthropy. Thank you, Ms. Gund, for giving voice to what is on the minds of so many of your fellow philanthropists, and many people who are trying to do good better. In this case it is the messenger, not the medium, that matters.

P.S. For Woody fans here is the whole scene –

Posted by: David Lawson | May 6, 2013

Free Range Donors

Fundraisers love to fight over who “owns” a donor. In the nonprofit world the battle is between direct response and major gifts with some organizations throwing in membership to liven things up. Behind the castle walls of education there is the eternal struggle pitting friendraising (alumni relations) and fundraising (advancement).

I have found in working with people who give of their time and/or treasure they don’t like the term donor (makes them think of missing kidneys and blood loss), so I’m thinking the idea of being “owned” would not go over well either.


Sears once thought if you wanted appliances, toys or hardware they owned you. GM and Ford at one time were so thoroughly convinced of their ownership of car buyers they treated Japan more as a novelty than a competitor. Home Depot, Toys R Us, and Toyota are among the many companies born in no small part because of the arrogance of the former leaders of their industries.

As fundraising bumps along into the 21st century it finds itself in the midst of a consumer revolt. No one is willing to be shackled to a brand or forced to purchase products and services in a certain way. This free range consumer is demanding a frictionless experience unencumbered by arbitrary processes and rules governing how they interact with a company.

Types of Giving

Increasingly consumers are looking for this same experience when they support an organization. Text, website, direct mail, telephone, event and face-to-face are just means to a good end. Saying that one silo or another somehow owns a person defeats the entire idea of multi-channel marketing.

Is major gifts supposed to ask direct response for permission to reach out personally to a donor? Does a fundraiser at a college need approval to attend an alumni event?  This is a farce created by people who believe they can control others. It is encouraged by reward systems which focus on how well each silo performs rather than the organization as a whole.

As donor retention continues to decline too many organizations are re-organizing their silos much as Sears, GM and Ford re-organized their companies, failing to understand it is the silos themselves which must be eliminated.

Social consumers, AKA donors, are not going to put up with this much longer. In fact, younger donors are already telling the old-guard what they think of their approach as they give to non-traditional organizations who have wisely (or because they are too small) not adopted the “best practices” of the industry.

The free range donor is as scary to fundraisers (and perhaps even scarier to their consultants) as the modern consumer was to the big brands of yesterday. Don’t make their mistake of re-arranging the deck chairs as the ship slowly sinks. Be bold, be brave, be mission-centered, and let your donors go where they want to go. You have the greatest products on earth. They want you to succeed, but they are not going to go down with the ship.

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