Category Archives: Fundraising Myths

Donor Insights Study Analysis (NOT a Feasibility Study): My response to Board Member’s Erroneous Statements in National Media

Elizabeth Wyatt’s June 3, 2015 letter in the Wall Street Journal, “We Tried Hard but Sweet Briar’s Problems are Terminal”  and Diane Dalton’s letter in the Washington Post called me to both respond to the article as well examine some of its points.

Given that all parties in the Sweet Briar College matter are gathering in good faith in mediation facilitated by the Attorney General, I continue to find it surprising that the Board’s Vice Chair would pursue stories like this.  It seems the very opposite of having a good faith effort towards mediation.

What disturbs me most about the letters by Elizabeth Wyatt in the New York Times and Diane Dalton in the Washington Post  are the continued use of questionable “facts” and figures.  They are using figures which Sweet Briar itself now questions.  They are using reports (such as the Sax Report) that do not meet academic standards.  Now that I have READ several of the reports, I interpret that the Board saw a “falling sky” where others saw rays of sun.  The Donor Insights Survey (which the board members erroneously refer to as a “Feasibility Study”) is one such report.  As fundraising is where I spent my professional time, I found this report particularly interesting.

 

Donor Insight Survey, February 2015 - delivered just one month before the College Board voted to close.
Donor Insight Survey, February 2015 – delivered just one month before the College Board voted to close.

This survey was conducted by a very reputable firm, Grenzebach Glier and Associates; however, the consultants themselves were not used for the actual interviews (which is customary in an actual feasibility study).  The College sent staff members to visit donors.  As a result of this methodology (which the consultant discloses in the report), the results were bound to be a bit suppressed (more on that in a moment).  Kathleen Kavanagh, Senior Executive Vice President of the firm, and a Sweet Briar alumna, is a well respected leader in the field.  I put great stock in her work product and I see the merits of the report she provided. She has provided consulting for a long time at Sweet Briar including when I worked there.  What I disagree with is the misunderstanding of the purpose of the report, the misuse of the findings and the Board continuing to use the report as a compass pointing towards closure.  As I read the Donor Insights Survey, I actually see many hopeful things which the Board obviously chose to disregard or overlook.  But the real issue is this — whether this report was used as justification not to do fundraising and to close the College or not — WE NOW KNOW THAT A FUNDRAISING EFFORT IS INDEED POSSIBLE.  My question now is this… WHY DON’T YOU LET US TRY???

The following is a response to Ms. Wyatt’s opinion in the Wall Street Journal (and elsewhere)….

Dear Ms. Wyatt,

Further to your opinion in the Wall Street Journal, in which you say:

“We Tried Hard… but Sweet Briar’s Problems are Terminal”: The numbers were not in our favor. Any effort to reinvent the college would require significant investments of time and money.

 

Ms. Wyatt, help me understand as a Board Vice-Chair, Sweet Briar alumna and business leader how you and your colleagues on the Board would not have read further into the studies for which you paid.  Help me understand how you repeat the same facts and figures based on figures your own team is now revising?  Help us understand why you did not undertake a fundraising campaign.  It seems that this Board saw storms where others saw rays of sun.

We now know that the alumnae of Sweet Briar College are WILLING to”expend the NECESSARY investments of time and money” to which you refer.  It is clear you “tried hard” and that is just not good enough.  Step aside, Ms. Wyatt, and take the rest of your Board colleagues with you.

As someone who has worked in higher education for the majority of my career (including at Sweet Briar), I continue to find the behavior by this Board and the actions of the current administration very hard to understand.  You continue to repeat the same facts and figures (most of which have been debunked by numerous experts) and fail to provide copies of the reports on which you base your decisions and with which you used substantial Sweet Briar College funds to secure.  Fortunately, some of your reports are making their way to the public eye and they do not reflect well on your analysis, decision-making or choice of staff.  Yesterday I received a copy of the Donor Survey cited in your recent article.

Since you refer to the reports as the basis for your decision-making, let me focus primarily on the Donor Survey since that is the area I best understand.  I will leave the analysis of your financial stewardship to other experts such as Dan Gottlieb, a professional forensic accountant and your own legal team now restating its finances with a $17 million rounding error and misstatement.  I commend to your reading, Jay Orsi’s piece “Sweet Briar’s Own Expert Uncovers Misrepresentations In Its Financials”.

Ms. Wyatt, I have served as an Executive Director of a Board, I have served on nonprofit boards and I have worked at Sweet Briar under fantastic financial and development leadership.  While the hiring of such people is left to Presidents, the review of their work product is the work of the Board.  The Board has clearly failed in its review of key documents as well as its vetting of reports provided for its decision making.  I understand that the firm who did this study was NOT charged with testing the ability of the College to raise funds.  Rather, their charge was to test with the College’s generous donors their reactions to various strategic planning priorities.  The firm was just as stunned as the College stakeholders to learn of the decision to close. To refer to this report as a “feasibility study” (as you do in your article) is misusing the report and is not fair to the firm who conducted it.

Methodology:  Gift officers were deployed to interview constituents in person and by phone (usually this is done by a consultant for confidentiality).
Methodology: Gift officers were deployed to interview constituents in person and by phone (usually this is done by a consultant for confidentiality).

With respect to the Donor Insight Survey, I have several comments.  I make these having hired over 20 consultants over the years and utilizing fundraising consultant’s studies in my work for over 25 years.   This is a very good study and an interesting report – this Ms. Wyatt, is NOT a feasibility study.

Let me first focus on the methodology. First, the survey was conducted by gift officers (staff).  I presume this was a cost-saving measure because it is widely considered not to be a best practice to use anyone other than the consultants themselves for donor interviews.  The reason for this is that donors will not usually make a candid comment to a staff member regarding what “best gift” they might make because there is an inherent feeling that a solicitation is being tested.  In fact, in the section “Influence on making a gift”, only a small percentage of alumnae (13%) said that a development officer or College leader influenced their philanthropy.  It is clear that these same donors were not likely to discuss their giving with the people who visited them. I have spoken to many reputable consultants on this topic and have received unanimous feedback that using staff would clearly skew results in a negative direction when assessing capacity of a donor and even inclination.  To draw conclusions from a survey with this methodology would make me question both the findings and your use of them to support closure.

The only conclusions you could legitimately draw from this survey (based on what the consultants were charged to do) is assess your donor’s reactions to possible changes.  That is it.  It is not fair nor appropriate to say that this survey could be used to show that a fundraising campaign would not be successful.  Grenzebach Glier and Associates would have been delighted, I am sure, to conduct an actual feasibility study.

12 donors were capable of making a commitment of $1 million or more OF THE IDENTIFIED FOR THE STUDY.
12 donors were capable of making a commitment of $1 million or more OF THE IDENTIFIED FOR THE STUDY.

The financial analysis stating that “Only 12 donors were RATED (emphasis mine) as being capable of making a $1 million gift” is not a basis on which to evaluate fundraising potential.   12 donors of 139 is not a bad percentage.  This figure of “12 donors” has been repeated by you and President Jones as if to say that there were only 12 $1 million donors in the entire population of Sweet Briar.  This is not what the report is saying!  There are MANY in the Sweet Briar community capable of major gifts and there are many capable of making smaller gifts adding up to a greater total.  Work directed at both ends of the spectrum seems to have been lacking with key positions unfilled (I know this because I interviewed 18 months ago and the position was never filled). There was greater capacity when I worked for the College in the 1990s.  That capacity should have grown since then, not gone down. Since that time, a greater percentage of our alumnae are working and capable of giving.  There has been an intergenerational wealth transfer widely written about since that time. Donor after donor after donor report that they have been “hardly asked”, “asked for low-level gifts” and “ignored”.  Many major donors report how badly treated they were by former Presidents — one was asked for a $3 million gift after no previous cultivation.  The donor then gave a $25,000 gift in response — and the check was never cashed!

Interviewees identified as major prospects (by the staff interviewers).
Interviewees identified as major prospects (by the staff interviewers).

On page 25 of the report, it appears donors in the survey were evaluated for potential with a “yes” or “no” question as to whether they would make a major gift.  I hardly think yes or no questions asked by staff would provide enough data on which to base a “no go” for a major gift effort.  Furthermore, the majority of the respondents actually answered “yes” that they WOULD make a major gift in the Campaign.  It is baffling how it could be determined that a fundraising campaign wouldn’t be worthwhile.  If 48.2% (95 of your 139) could or would make a major gift — surely there would be some hope once you actually started talking to donor #140 and beyond.  Your own consultant leads the way for a campaign to take place.

I have used wealth screening by the same firm you used for your study.  Throughout the survey, wealth screening “ratings” are used as filters for data. Wealth screening is only ONE measure to base capacity for fundraising success.  I am currently using “Wealth Engine” data in my daily work and routinely find people rated extremely low who are capable of making very generous gifts.  A donor rated by GGA wealth screening as being capable of a gift in the range of $1,000-4,999 made an eight-figure transformational gift of a building to my institution this past year.  Had I relied on the rating, I never would have even spoken to this person.  This is not the fault of wealth screening – electronic tools can only see so much.  Professional fundraisers know this is a tool of many in a tool box and not a tool used to spear possibility.

Most respondents indicated that they would continue to support Sweet Briar College philanthropically in light of ANY (emphasis mine) potential changes.
Most respondents indicated that they would continue to support Sweet Briar College philanthropically in light of ANY (emphasis mine) potential changes.

The biggest issue I have with the survey is the questions it failed to ask and the issues it failed to raise.  If this report was being used as a litmus test for whether the College might close, stronger questions could have been tested to indicate how alumnae might respond.  A study is only as powerful as the questions and issues it tests.  Stating there are “mixed feelings” about “changes at the College” such as going co-ed or focusing on STEM fails to ask the most obvious question — what would the donor do if the future were uncertain?

I am not ill-informed about the power of questions in a feasibility study.  I once worked at an institution facing closure — an all-woman educational institution.  We, like Sweet Briar, hired a consulting firm for development coaching and a fundraising feasibility study.  That consultant, a Sweet Briar alumna, had a huge task ahead.  She had to work with the Board to come up with the questions that would be tested with the alumnae.  She had to work with my fundraising team to solicit gifts with integrity not knowing what the future held.  She pushed very hard for candor and testing the “tough questions”.  There was a lot of anxiety about being honest and whether or not it would send out fear that would harm donations.   I am sure Sweet Briar and its staff faced the same questions (however, you actually were not honest with your staff who were out asking the questions since most of them were also shocked at the Board’s decision).  But here is the difference.  In the feasibility study to assess fundraising potential, there were very difficult questions asked.  I remember they went something like this,

“What would a world be like without _____________” and “What would you be willing to do if the future were uncertain?”

These types of questions give a donor the chance to tap into how much they love a place.  It also gives a glimpse as to what the donor might be willing to do if she felt it were threatened.  It also allows them to realize that the future may NOT be certain. On the heels of this, a question about what a donor might be willing to do – when a neutral consultant is speaking to them – elicits the kind of information that truly assesses what might be possible.  Guess what?  That institution thrives today.  Sweet Briar missed an opportunity – and continues to miss an opportunity – to be candid and to allow its alumnae to help.  Conclusions about closure drawn from a survey that never actually asked about what a donor might do to avoid it is at best a missed opportunity and at worst, flawed analysis.

"The large majority in the middle were open to the idea of (change, emphasis mine)... with a preference for remaining all-women's, but preferring a co-educational Sweet Briar to no Sweet Briar at all"
“The large majority in the middle were open to the idea of (change, emphasis mine)… with a preference for remaining all-women’s, but preferring a co-educational Sweet Briar to no Sweet Briar at all”

We now know what alumnae and others are willing to do when they think the College’s future is in peril.  They give.  They give a LOT.  As of this writing, they have given $16.5 million.  A different wealth screening conducted by a reputable firm has reported a conservative estimate of capacity of over $100 million.

The “resistance to change” cited in the report cannot be relied upon when the very donors with whom you spoke were not given the consequences of a lack of change — closure.  The report clearly hints at the fact that “financial stability” was a key driver in why the report was written.  Furthermore, ways the College might change should really not be solely in the arms of alumnae to hold and consider.  Testing the ideas with potential students and industry partners — and then presenting that data to alumnae — would be a far better measure of what directions might be embraced.  Sweet Briar 2.0, a collection of experts and passionate supporters of Sweet Briar, provides numerous ideas for future consideration.

Your biggest clue in what alumnae would be willing to do lies in the “majority” of those who answered the question about Sweet Briar going co-ed.  On the bell curve cited, a small percentage said they would stop giving if Sweet Briar went co-ed.  A small percentage said they favored co-education.  The report cites, “A large majority in the middle (a majority of your MAJOR DONORS mind you, emphasis mine)…would prefer a coeducational Sweet Briar to no Sweet Briar at all.”  This section should have flashing lights around it for the boldness it contains.  Even though you did not test the question of closure — the majority of your alumnae would rather see a changed Sweet Briar than none at all.  Remember, this is only 197 people, not the wider community of alumnae who would likely have fallen into the same bell-curve.  Of the 197, the report states, “Most indicated their willingness to support Sweet Briar in light of ANY of the proposed changes….”  Did you just overlook this part?  In short – the majority of your alumnae would have preferred ANYTHING to “no Sweet Briar at all”.

This survey asking alumnae to make commentary on the weaknesses and strengths of Sweet Briar is both helpful and also not relevant.  The alumnae interviewed had already CHOSEN Sweet Briar and are committed to it.  Again, a market study of incoming Freshman is a far more valid source of information on the strengths and weaknesses of Sweet Briar. Note – to date that report (the Arts & Sciences report) cited has NOT been released. Having just been in Lynchburg this weekend and seen the thriving Randolph College and Lynchburg College, clearly there are many who choose this wonderful region for education.  There are also many women who choose women’s education.  It seems Sweet Briar stopped recruiting from the markets who would consider it, particularly Internationally.

I have always respected the firm who produced the Donor Insights Survey — and I still do.  In terms of timeline, my understanding is that this study was commissioned by the prior President, Jo Ellen Parker, but was not completed when she left.  The current Board asked the firm to complete it, but without new direction for how it might be used.  Again, the charge to the consultants was to help design a survey to test reactions to strategic planning priorities – NOT to conduct a feasibility study for a possible Campaign.  Certainly not to do a survey that would be used to show no possibility of fundraising success.  I have heard positive reports on the other consultants utilized by the College. Evidently another report addresses the enrollment issues, but that report has not been made available to alumnae.  The Dr. Sax report has been debunked for its sample bias.  The financial statements are now being amended with $17 million errors.  It seems that a combination of flawed advice and, even worse, flawed conclusions led to where the Board sits today.

You don’t need a study at this point to know what is possible — those working to save Sweet Briar College have proven that a fundraising effort is possible.

Back to your own words Ms. Wyatt:

“We Tried Hard… but Sweet Briar’s Problems are Terminal”: The numbers were not in our favor. Any effort to reinvent the college would require significant investments of time and money.

I do not disagree that you and the Board “tried hard”.  The problem is your version of trying isn’t adequate.  In the movie “The Empire Strikes Back”, Yoda (George Lucas) says the famous words which ring true today:

Do or do not…there is no TRY

Those working to save Sweet Briar College are WILLING to make the “significant investments of time and money”.  On that point, we agree…that is what it will take.  I am willing to give that time and money (and raise it) and I know there are thousands just like me.  One of the first calls I would make would be to the very consultants who provided the road map to a positive conclusion — which you and your colleagues on the Board refused to see.

It is clear you already made up your mind and you continue to keep your eyes shut to possibility.

Respectfully,

Stacey Sickels Locke, `88

Note:  Article updated throughout to include information verified by a representative of Grenzebach Glier and Associates who confirmed the timing of the study and the charge.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE, is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment and she feels a sense of duty that those donations are not used for the closure of the College or for any other purposes than the donors intended. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, she has served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement.  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), is affiliated (through the University of Maryland) with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

 

 

 

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Would You Like to Save a College, Be a Hero? An Open Letter to Philanthropists Everywhere…

"O.K., I know its a long shot, but if we can convert just one lion..." by KANIN
“O.K., I know its a long shot, but if we can convert just one lion…” by KANIN

As a fundraiser working on fundraising campaigns, there are always suggestions that perhaps some very generous person might step in to “save” the Campaign.  My response usually goes like this:

While that is a really great suggestion, research shows that the way we will meet our goal is to first look at ourselves and ask if we have given our very BEST gift.  Then, we turn to those closest to us and ask if we have thoughtfully met with those individuals and encouraged them to make their very BEST gift.  Beyond that, we divide up names of those previously generous and reach out to them to ask them to consider additional generosity.  Then, and only then, would I suggest looking outside of our Community to someone previously unaffiliated. Because usually someone unaffiliated with our cause is not likely to respond.

Even when I give this response, there is always someone who says, “What about Warren Buffet?  Perhaps HE would be willing to contribute.” or “(Insert Wealthy Person’s Name), surely would want to be involved???”  Usually this stems from the person feeling so passionate about their fundraising effort that they cannot imagine EVERYONE wouldn’t want to give.

Forget what I usually say.  It is time to throw caution to the wind…

THROW CAUTION TO THE WIND!
THROW CAUTION TO THE WIND!

In the case of saving Sweet Briar College; however, it is time for bold and courageous action.  It is time to reach out beyond our community.  The issues at stake here are relevant to anyone who cares about  nonprofits; who loves a place that might face closure; who feels a sense of duty to give back; who puts trust in a governing board and feels betrayed by them; who counts on their charitable gifts to be used as intended; whose children start in Freshman year and expect to graduate as a Senior; who applied to and was accepted to a College only to learn from social media that your application is now worthless; who believe a will should be held in trust…

Forget what I said.  It’s time to point over the fence, declare we will hit a home run and make some bold calls.

1960: Mickey Mantle hit a home run over the right field roof.  Babe Ruth is famous for pointing before hitting a homer.
1960: Mickey Mantle hit a home run over the right field roof. Babe Ruth is famous for pointing before hitting a homer.

In the effort to keep Sweet Briar College open, I am throwing caution to the wind.  I am open to any and all suggestions.  I am telling people to look at themselves, each other and their community.  I am pointing over the fence, over the right field roof and WAY outside of our community.

This past week I was called about a potential donor who it has been noted has considered (and retracted) nine-figure philanthropic suggestions — $100 million to be exact.  When it was first explained to me, it came across that this donor actually might be interested in contributing to Sweet Briar.  I WAS SO EXCITED!  Turns out, this lead came from a consultant of a friend of a Sweet Briar alumna — and the consultant had heard there was a donor in Richmond we might look up.

That old mantra in my head nearly kicked into gear.  Not this time.  Instead, I put some of my fellow alumnae to work on finding contact information and perhaps shared contacts.  Then I decided I would write an open letter to him.  Because – really – this letter could go to anyone.

"The Long Shot" - Greenberg
“The Long Shot” – Greenberg

Dear Supremely Philanthropic Person,

Have you ever wanted to be a hero?  I can tell you how.

Would you like to make an impact on the world?  I can tell you how.

How would you like to save a College?

I know this may sound crazy.  I know I should have taken you to at least 10 lunches before having this conversation.  I know I should be making this appeal with the President of the College sitting next to me on a chair in your office.  I know this should have come from someone you know well.  I know all of this because I have worked at Sweet Briar where I was well trained in how fundraising “should” be done, but we have realized that we must break from what we know — and who we know — hence this letter.

I imagine you have heard through your local, regional and national media of the efforts to keep Sweet Briar College from closing.  Founded by a generous woman, Indiana Fletcher Williams, in memory of her daughter, Sweet Briar has served as a woman’s College for over a century.  Its fate is now uncertain based on the decision in March by a small group, the current Board.

Since that time, thousands including students, parents, faculty, staff, alumnae and the community have rallied for a different future.  For the future to unfold, it will take a tremendous act of generosity and vision.  We hope you might consider this act. YOU will be part of history — and beloved by thousands.

I am sure you have many questions.  Allow me to hit the most important:  Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.

WHO are you saving?  

STUDENTS - the reason Sweet Briar exists and the primary reason it should be saved!
STUDENTS – the reason Sweet Briar exists and the primary reason it should be saved!

WHAT are you saving?

3,000 acres, historic buildings, renovated state-of-the-art facilities.
3,000 acres, historic buildings, renovated state-of-the-art facilities.

WHEN?

WHERE?

  • Sweet Briar College sits next to Amherst, Virginia.  It is an hour south of Charlottesville and a half hour from Lynchburg.
  • The historic architecture designed by Ralph Adams Cram sits on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • The alumnae of the College live all across the globe providing a strong network of philanthropy, admissions recruitment, volunteerism and community.  You will never be a stranger in the home of a Sweet Briar woman.
  • They serve Starbucks on campus, so you don’t have to worry about proximity to a good cup of Joe (in case you, like the Board, were worried about that).

WHY?

  • The why is the WHO (see above), but it is also….
  • Woman’s education produces leaders, particularly in fields with shortages of women and diversity.  The world, corporate America, the nation’s classrooms, the world’s boardrooms needs MORE women’s college graduates, not fewer.
  • Diversity. Sweet Briar recently (and many feel finally) became more diverse in all ways and including race, ethnicity, socio economic levels.   Research shows the benefits of a diverse student body for the entire community.  The current board cites this change as one of the reasons it must close and that this trend is not sustainable.  Diversity is one of the saving graces and strengths of Sweet Briar today.  These students deserve this education and the world needs these students.  Philanthropy is one of the ways diversity can be maintained.
  • Faculty – Sweet Briar College faculty are exceptional.  Unlike larger Universities, they are also approachable.  Classes are not led by teaching assistants.  From the moment students arrive on campus, they are surrounded by an exceptional faculty whose accomplishments are summarized here.  It took years and a century of establishing a strong reputation to attract, hire and retain these amazing leaders — we must not lose them!
  • Sweet Briar College is regularly listed as one of the BEST Colleges in the country for:
    • Student Engagement
    • Quality of Education
    • Liberal Arts Education
    • Alumnae Network
    • Beautiful Campus

HOW?  For the future to unfold, it will also take change.

  • Change. Change which all associated with the College (who wish for it to continue) are committed to embrace.  This change is in the form of solid plans, talented administrators, dedicated board members and loyal students, parents, faculty, staff, alumnae and the wider community.
  • Plans.  There is a strategic plan thoughtfully crafted by experts in their field.  This plan addresses all aspects of College operations from admissions to development to land use to facility management.
  • New Leadership. Several potential Presidents with proven turnaround track records have been vetted and willing to lead. A slate of board members both nominated and recruited for their dedication and professional expertise stands ready to serve.
  • Retaining Talent. Sweet Briar has amazing faculty who are willing to stay.  Talented administrators including some loyal and currently serving and others identified for their proven expertise can step in to manage.
  • Legal.  Saving Sweet Briar secured Troutman Saunders to assist with the legal work.  To date they have secured a 60 day injunction.  Another attorney, Elliott Schugardt, secured a six month injunction.
  • Dedicated Alumnae. I, along with thousands of others, are willing to do all in our power for the future.  We do not ask you to consider a gift before giving ourselves.
  • Charitable Status!  Saving Sweet Briar has been granted its 501(C)3 status.

Generous donor, would you consider making Sweet Briar College one of your philanthropic priorities this year?  Would you help save this College?

Thank you so much for your thoughtful consideration and for all you are doing for the causes important to you.

PLEASE consider this request.  PLEASE save Sweet Briar College!

Very sincerely (and with strong desperation),

Stacey Sickels Locke, Class of 1988

I, Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE, am a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  I served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, I solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment and I feel a sense of duty that those donations are not used for the closure of the College or for any other purposes than the donors intended. Since then, I have spent my career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, I have served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement.  I am a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), am affiliated (through the University of Maryland) with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and hold a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE

 

 

 

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Bursting the Fundraising Bubble… (Insert Wealthy Person’s Name Here) Isn’t Going to Save Us

"Bursting the Fundraising Bubble" -- the idea that someone else is going to step forward and my support isn't needed.
“Bursting the Fundraising Bubble” — the idea that someone else is going to step forward and my support isn’t needed.

This post is inspired by the incredible outpouring of support in opposition to Sweet Briar College’s Board announcing they plan to close the College, but its themes can be relevant to anyone who has or is working on a fundraising campaign.

As a fundraiser for over 25 years working with all types of groups — schools, nonprofit boards, church stewardship groups, etc. some dynamics often occur.  I thought I would gather them together in one place for consideration (and debunking).

Executive Summary (a.k.a. My articles are long so I am summarizing for you here :))

  1. Warren Buffet or Knight on a White Horse will help us….Nope, while tempting, it is the key stakeholders of any Campaign who will ensure its success (or not).
  2. A Major Corporation or Foundation will help us….Not likely.  Corporations and Foundations have specific goals which often aren’t in sync with a charity and they have complex timelines and grant procedures.
  3. Bystander Effect…someone else will help us….If you think someone else will step forward — and you don’t have to – you are wrong.  Buck the trend and the bystander effect.
  4. Buy-A-Brick Efforts…and pretty much anything that has a fixed price tag….Cute, fun and good for public relations, but not a sustainable fundraising strategy.
  5. Major Gift Campaign & Baby BoomersMajor gift campaigns are critical, baby boomers are important, but all ages and demographics can and should be pivotal!

Now for the non Cliff-note version…..WHO can help a fundraising campaign be successful?  WHO is essential?  YOU!  Give now — to your favorite charity or if you want to help Sweet Briar avoid closure, give here.

Warren Buffet Syndrome

The "Knight on a White Horse" (artwork by Zetallis) Phenomenon
The “Knight on a White Horse” (artwork by Zetallis) Phenomenon (P.S.  It is REALLY hard to find images of women on a white horse)

The “Knight on a White Horse” or what I also call the “Warren Buffett Syndrome” (my term) occurs when a group discusses how to meet its goal and looks outside of itself.  It sounds something like this:

Who knows Warren Buffett (insert wealthy person’s name here who is not affiliated with the institution)? I’ll bet HE would support our cause.

It is true that those who can be the most generous are critical to any fundraising campaign’s success — 80% of the funds come from 20% of the people and sometimes it is an even narrower margin.  But in nearly all cases with only extreme exceptions, the supporters of a fundraising campaign are the stakeholders of that institution:  students, service recipients, parents, alumni, community.

The exception to this is when someone has a close personal or professional relationship to a celebrity or benefactor and can make a personal appeal.  I have ONLY seen this work when someone has a long-time personal relationship built on trust with reciprocity when their request for support is in alignment with the benefactor’s charitable goals.  A person not associated with an individual trying to get a message through has never worked in my experience.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying, but I would never want others to sit back and not think their own contributions were important when they hear of a possible “savior”….

The exception to this is when someone has a close personal or professional relationship to a celebrity or benefactor and can make a personal appeal.  I have ONLY seen this work when someone has a long-time personal relationship built on trust with reciprocity when their request for support is in alignment with the benefactor’s charitable goals.  A person not associated with an individual trying to get a message through has never worked in my experience.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying, but I would never want others to sit back and their their own contributions were not important when they hear of a possible “savior”….

"A Large Corporation or Foundation will help us..."
“A Large Corporation or Foundation will help us…”

A Large Corporation or Foundation will help us….

Charitable Foundations and Corporate Foundations are another often misunderstood source of support.  People hear of large holdings of Foundations and see large grants and think:

If ONLY we appealed to (insert name of famous Foundation), I’ll bet THEY would help us….

While it is true that Foundations and Corporations make generous gifts to institutions, it is always aligned with the core mission of those entities.  In Corporations, there is usually a return-on-investment goal meaning they give, but they also wish to boost their brand, hire talent, etc.  Foundations have specific missions to achieve and their grants come with complex reporting requirements which institutions often find onerous and sometimes realize to accept the funds they are diverting from their mission.  There are also timetables for submissions and often closed processes for inquiring about support.  In a fundraising Campaign with any sense of urgency, large foundations and corporations are rarely a solution.  Family foundations, on the other hand, are often a good solution to a short-term need; however, there is always a personal connection to someone serving on a family foundation for a gift to come.

Bystander Effect

Bystander Effect -- everyone thinks someone else will step forward (image courtesy University of British Columbia)
Bystander Effect — everyone thinks someone else will step forward (image courtesy University of British Columbia)

The other dynamic that causes fundraising campaigns to be sluggish is the phenomenon of bystander effect and bystander apathy.  This socio-psychological effect is when a bystander will offer no assistance to a victim of something if others are present.  The more people there are, the less likely someone is apt to step forward.  In fundraising, it is the idea that someone thinks others are stepping forward and their support isn’t needed.   The more successful the Campaign, the more people assume others have stepped forward.

Buy-A-Brick - great concept, but usually at the end of a successful campaign.
Buy-A-Brick – great concept, but usually at the end of a successful campaign.

Buy-A-Brick Efforts…and pretty much anything that has a fixed price.

People love buy-a-brick efforts.  And there is nothing wrong with them.  The problem is this:  Anything that has a price tag takes a donor’s charitable ability and reduces it down to a fixed price.  Successful campaigns rarely succeed on these efforts alone. I’ve seen fundraising committees thrilled that they got a $100 brick from someone when that individual is giving six and seven figure gifts to other charities.  Furthermore, usually the profit that comes off of an item is a small portion of what actually comes back to help a cause.  This is not to say that the efforts aren’t worth it, they ARE (particularly for public relations purposes such as anything visible that helps get the brand and message out for a cause).  It is just important to know that funds allocated to the cause itself and given outright and tremendously important and should be considered first before purchasing items where a percentage is given.  The other down-side to these efforts is that the portion that could be tax-deductible is usually negligible.

I have been absolutely delighted to see the outpouring of support in response to the Saving Sweet Briar College movement.  There is an entire website dedicated to all of the various things people are doing to help the College from t-shirts to stick-on nails to even tattoos.  This is absolutely wonderful and inspiring.  The important thing though is that people who purchase these things also make sure that they can – if they are able – make a direct and generous contribution to the cause itself.  Here is a sample of the amazing creative and dedicated projects devoted to Saving Sweet Briar:

https://www.facebook.com/Sweetbriaralumnaegoods

Major Gift Efforts & Baby Boomers…ALL ages and demographics count.

Baby Boomers represent 43% of giving, but that does not mean all ages can't be pivotal.
Baby Boomers represent 43% of giving, but that does not mean all ages can’t be pivotal.

It is true that 43% of total giving by individuals comes from Baby Boomers, but that also means that 57% comes from all other generations.  Millennials are an incredibly passionate generation volunteering for causes they care about at a faster and larger rate than all other generations combined.  Millennials are also generous.

Friends of Diversity is a movement within the Association of Fundraising Professionals -- successful because it recognizes the strength of diversity in fundraising success.
Friends of Diversity is a movement within the Association of Fundraising Professionals — successful because it recognizes the strength of diversity in fundraising success.

It is also false that “changing demographic trends” lead to less giving or an inability to conduct a fundraising campaign.

Sweet Briar determined in 2011 that the alumnae’s changing demographics made it impossible to effectively conduct a large-scale fundraiser, Sweet Briar’s vice president for finance Scott Shank told The News & Advance.

This. Is. Bunk.  In fact, diversity of institutions has strengthened giving and communities.  Furthermore, socio-economic diversity DOES NOT mean families and alumni cannot give or become donors themselves.  In fact, data shows that some of the most generous donors to Schools and Colleges are not from wealthy families, but rather are those who received scholarships and felt a duty to give back.  Scholarship recipients are also far more likely to be loyal donors — critical to an institutions long term success.

What is missing from the Saving Sweet Briar College efforts is a major gift effort.  Peer-to-peer, alumna-to-alumna requests to give, to give generously and to give more than the individual thought possible.  These types of efforts are the backbone of any strong fundraising campaign.  It is the next step in Saving Sweet Briar reaching its goals.  How can you give a major gift?  Give monthly, seek matching gifts, enroll your friends.

A small group of committed women can do amazing things, great example:

Saving Sweet Briar has raised over $3M since the Board announced its intention to close the College.
Saving Sweet Briar has raised over $3M since the Board announced its intention to close the College.

In the meantime,  WHO is the best person to reach a fundraising goal?

YOU!  YOU are the person who will meet the fundraising goal!
YOU! YOU are the person who will meet the fundraising goal!

If you have read this far, PLEASE make a donation at this link.

Stacey Sickels Locke is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment and she feels a sense of duty that those donations are not used for the closure of the College or for any other purposes than the donors intended. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, she has served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement.  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE

 

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