HETRICK: When it comes to developing leaders, you gotta ask

August 7, 2010

In these dog days of summer, the waters are warming fast for the fall fundraising season. In select organizations around our town and nationally, United Way “pacesetter” campaigns are underway, giving an early indication as to how well the full campaign may fare.

This and other acts of solicitation are invariably eye-openers for campaign organizers and front-line solicitors. Eager to do something to address some need or another, they set goals, arrange appeals and plan opportunities for potential donors to get involved—even if they can’t (or won’t) give money.

Early, on, it’s as though they’re humming the old carol:

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat.

Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

If you haven’t got a penny a ha-penny will do.

If you haven’t got a ha-penny, then God bless you.

Then reality sets in. Because asking for donations—like any sales pitch—is often met with dead stares, lack of interest, rejection, procrastination or even anger.

In the worst cases, it’s like Ebeneezer Scrooge dissing the do-gooders in “A Christmas Carol.”

“A few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when want is keenly felt, and abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?” [said the gentleman.]

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” Scrooge said. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” Scrooge said, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Facing (or fearing) such rejection, many once-eager solicitors feel like the fellows shaking cups on downtown street corners.

Thus, when the “Not-for-Profit News” arrives in my e-mailbox each week from Charitable Advisors, the help-wanted ads more often than not include multiple openings for development officers.

And otherwise engaged board members duck donor calls, delay donor visits and otherwise defer or delegate the act of asking.

And once-eager volunteers make the campaign-solicitation role a one-and-done proposition.

Yet the experience of succeeding with a campaign—of making an impact for those in need, advancing a cause, overcoming rejection, building camaraderie, surpassing a goal—can be remarkably rewarding.

For the 10th consecutive year, our little firm achieved “company that cares” status with United Way. That’s a tribute to the young professional who mapped out our campaign, arranged a half-day of volunteering at a local not-for-profit, and did the asking. It’s an honor shared by the long-time staffer committed to buying and stuffing backpacks for school children and holiday gifts for families in need. And it’s a tribute to every employee who pitched in to help—especially in a tough economy when we’ve faced cutbacks of our own.

A few years ago, I helped lead a research project funded by Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment. We looked into the impact of strategic corporate philanthropy—the notion that companies these days are giving less because it’s the right thing to do and more because they want something in return.

Among the campaign objectives for many firms: leadership development for young professionals and team-building for those around them.

In other words, the skills involved in fundraising—organizational ability, creativity, persuasion, persistence, overcoming objections—are skills that can help in many aspects of one’s personal and professional life.

What’s more, contrary to popular belief, the need for such skills is not about to disappear behind some magic curtain of online solicitation.

Indeed, a 2010 national study conducted by Indianapolis-based Achieve and Johnson Grossnickle Associates (JGA) found that Millennial Generation donors want to be engaged in a different way than baby boomers or Generation X donors. 

“Though we often associate people ages 20 to 40 with texting, Facebook and other high-tech communications,” the study found, “donors in that age group say that, when it comes to requests for their time or money, they put high value on face-to-face communication.”

In fact, researchers found, “91 percent of Millennial donors are at least somewhat likely to respond to a face-to-face request for money from a nonprofit organization. Only 8 percent are highly likely to respond to an e-mail request.”

JGA’s Ted Grossnickle said, “These responses suggest that if fundraisers want to attract Millennial donors, they’re going to need to change their approach and become more relationship-based.”

Besides, it’s harder to say no to a person than to an e-mail.

To paraphrase the Beatitudes (and swipe United Way of Central Indiana’s slogan), “Blessed are those who ask, for they serve us all by addressing today’s needs and reducing tomorrow’s.”•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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