From Communicating

True gratitude

Henrietta White-Holder, Founder and CEO of Higher Ground International

We talk a lot in fundraising circles about gratitude. We hear over and over again how we need to honor all of our donors.

But then organizations revert to form and tier their gratitude based on how much money they receive. The biggest gifts get the most personalized thank yous. The biggest donors get priority mention in the annual report and appear at the top of the donor wall and are forever fixed in our minds, remembered by name and amount.

The little gift donor barely registers.

Yet that small gift may be a much bigger act of philanthropy than some of those large gifts on which you heap recognition and praise.  How often do you celebrate that small gift? Do you stop to think how much of a sacrifice that tiny amount might have been from someone of limited means or on a fixed income?

So when I saw this message bubbling with gratitude on Facebook, I knew I had to share it with you.

With the permission of its author, Henrietta White-Holder, founder and CEO of Higher Ground International, I bring you a close-up, truly authentic example of loving your donor for their act of generosity:

“Lounging around and I received a notification on my phone that someone had made a donation to HGI via our website.

“I checked, and there it was – a wonderful woman had donated $10.00 (ten dollars).

“I found it very significant and heartwarming that she would think of us in such a loving and kind way to donate what she could. It is not the amount that matter[s] but the fact that she contributed in such a thoughtful way means a LOT to us.

“Now, her generous gift of $10.00 is going to help purchase ice melt to help keep the premises of the HGI’S Rukiya Center safe!

“Oh, Happy Day! ❤”

Thank you so much, Henrie, for reminding each of us that donor love starts within our own hearts.

Who Took the Farmer’s Hat and how reflective dialogue can be good for your board

Tuesday night I started the board retreat with a reflective dialogue based on reading the children’s classic Who Took the Farmer’s Hat?

I sent the book around the room, with a different board member reading each page. The reading took about five minutes.

Then I asked this question:

Why would a board consultant ask you to read this book? 

After a brief pause and a few blank looks, one board member launched in which started the conversation:

  •  “One theme is the need to incorporate different perspectives as different people (er, animals) see the same thing in different ways.”
  • “Reacting to change you can’t control or anticipate is another theme.”
  • ” ‘The farmer ran fast, but the wind went faster’ describes so many of the changes we encounter and the need to be extremely adaptive”
  • “Sometimes you just have to let go of those things you’ve always done and the way you’ve done them”

And so it went. We spent about 20 minutes discussing and applying themes to the board’s role, getting deeper into the themes as we went along.

Using reflective dialogue to spark deeper thinking

As often as I can, I try to incorporate reflective dialogue into my work with organizations, especially boards or work groups.

Brain research tells us that we can’t scold, argue or out-fact our way to change in others. But we can open the door to it by helping to spark moments of insight. In my selection of materials, I’m hoping not only to spark discussion but also to open minds to new ideas, to new possibilities.

As the conversation facilitator, my role is to create a safe space for participants to share their ideas, to pursue concepts that might not be fully formed or are even a bit contrarian.  I also come equipped with questions to help spark reflection and move conversation forward. A good resource for questions you can use is Making Questions Work by Dorothy Strachan.

Reflective dialogue for team building

I sometimes get push back from groups when I select adding a poem with discussion into their board meeting or retreat. Yet, those same groups are wondering how to develop stronger personal relationships among their board members.

I’m all for physical bonding exercises at the right place and time.  But I have a deep love for these reflective discussions that allow board members to enter a topic through a different frame. We tend to compartmentalize our board members based on their professions, failing to create space for them to share their many gifts and knowledge from other aspects of their lives. My clients are always pleasantly surprised that their retired banker taught philosophy in his youth, or that lawyer was a race car driver.

Since a great workshop I attended given by Adam Davis, executive director of Oregon Humanities and former director of the Center For Civic Reflection, I’ve added A Bed for The Night, by Bertolt Brecht into my work with so many nonprofits. And I regularly assign Adam’s provocative essay What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about service to my graduate students before we jump into any community projects or service learning.

Selecting resources

Sometimes I use a poem, a video or short story like the one above. TED talks can be great reflection starters or a reading from the relevant organization development literature. Other times we might reflect on a research report. Many of my colleagues have used movie clips.

The Center for Civic Reflection has a list of resources on different topics that you might consider as well as questions for you to use. For example, you might want to read Maimonides From Laws Concerning Gifts to the Poor to start your next fundraising discussion.

I’d also like to give a shout out to my colleagues at Creating the Future, who have launched a worldwide experiment “to determine how much more humane the world could be if the questions we ask in our day to day lives are bringing out the best in each other.”

Please share your own experiences and resources that you’ve found helpful with us and with our readers.



Your nonprofit has problems? Watch Mozart in the Jungle

Jon and I just finished binge watching the first two seasons of Mozart in the Jungle on Amazon. violin-1085606_640

The cast includes Bernadette Peters, Malcolm McDowell and Gael Garcia Bernal who just won a Golden Globe for best TV actor in a comedy or musical.

It’s rare that any TV show brings us into the wacky and soul-fulfilling world in which we spend our days and many nights. This charming romantic comedy touches so many themes many of us have confronted.

Spoiler Alert — sharing some content

What’s not to love:

  • Crazy charismatic but unpredictable new artistic director
  • New artistic director succeeds long time and beloved director
  • Board infighting
  • An Interim Managing Director who is also the Board Chair
  • Fundraising, fundraising, fundraising challenges
  • Nurturing wealthy donors
  • Traditional classical arts program grappling with cultural changes
  • Staff-management relations (and relationships! not advised)
  • Vision/mission/ values conflicts
  • And many more

You’ve heard me preach that you need to create transforming emotional experiences for your donors and your board members. Without getting into the details, the fundraising scene in Episode 4, Season 1 is priceless.

It’s worth dissecting that one scene with your fundraising staff and board volunteers. For what works, and what doesn’t.

While I’m not recommending that your nonprofit conduct itself as the NY Symphony does in this show, I think you’ll find yourself relating to some of the challenges they face.

Are you already a fan? Why?

If not, let me know what you think.

P.S. My musical friends tell me not to get all crazy about whether the musicians are playing their instruments correctly. And for those who abstain from watching  shows with some nudity and drug use, not for you.

Renaming board committees

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.”

The theme of the November Nonprofit Blog Carnival is abundance. Oranges

Moving from scarcity to abundance means we need to reframe how we see and think about our communities.

I worked at City Year many years ago. City Year’s founders embodied the abundance mindset. To instill that point of view in others, they skillfully deployed two powerful motivators: story and symbolism.

At City Year, what things were named really mattered – from programs to positions. And each implied a story.

For example, the middle school program that our corps members ran back then could have been called the “middle school afterschool program.” Or City Year’s middle school program.

Instead, it was called Young Heroes.

See the difference? If you were a tween or a potential sponsor, wouldn’t you consider signing up?

Recently I was working on the agenda for a board retreat designed to roll out the newly approved strategic plan. The CEO was eager to redo the committees during the retreat.

As we talked about how to do this, a light bulb went off in my head.

What if we gave our board committees new names. Names that captured the essence of the strategic plan goals.

Here’s what we came up with:

Renaming graphic.pdf - Adobe Reader 11282015 40209 PM

At first skeptical, board members soon warmed to the idea of new board committee names.

Why not. The particularly problematic Fundraising Committee lacked for members – fear of asking for money kept people away.

More folks could envision themselves serving on the “Inspiring our Community” Committee. They could see the work differently. They could even feel they could invite others to join.

With more volunteers, more focus on what they could do, they were inspired to reach out. An abundance mindset.

I’ll let you know how it goes. But from now on, I’m definitely recommending name changes.

P.S. If you’ve developed more engaging board committee names, please send them along. I know we are all interested in how this may have influenced their work.

Note: The quote which begins this post is usually attributed to Confucius. The actual saying by Confucius may be “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.” (Zi Lu, 3)


Wear your allegiance on your name tag

I’m on the board of WaterFire Providence.

At our meeting last week, I got a good chuckle out of the name tag fellow board member Peter Van Erp was wearing.

An architect, it wasn’t surprising that Peter designed his own custom tag.

Knowing him as I do, I guessed immediately Peter’s board commitments — WaterFire Providence and Habitat for Humanity of Greater Providence are on the ends. Can you guess the organization in the middle?

I can’t begin to count how many name tags I end up disposing of and feeling terribly guilty about. I try to give them back when the organization wants them. I even own one of those long permanent pin-on name tags from a peace trip I went on to the Soviet Union back in 1981 — I think I know where it is but I always forget to bring it with me.

I thought Peter’s name tag was a commendable example of efficient reuse.

He said I could share it with you.

Do you think maybe I’ve been in this business too long… getting excited or irritable about name tags? This is my second post. My first Preparing name tags – a facilitator’s lament was about how crazy I get when the name on the name tag is so tiny it’s basically invisible.

Reminds me of the long conversation on a facilitator’s list serve a few years ago about what flip chart markers people used. It was one of the most engaged discussions I remember on that list.

Answer me – dammit!

How to infuriate your Executive Director

Point of collectionDon’t answer me!

Ignore my emails.

Don’t return my phone calls.

It seems there is a rash of this going on these days. In the last few weeks, this has been at the top of the frustration list among executive directors I’ve been working with.

What work gets stymied?

  • Can’t get a meeting date arranged.
  • Can’t get some input on an important decision.
  • Won’t confirm their pledge or the date they are sending it.

I hear the lament… ” I simply can’t get them to call me back.”

Doesn’t make you feel very important, does it.

How many phone calls and emails are enough to make you respond?

Having just spent hours trying to arrange three committee meetings myself, I so totally understand this frustration. And that was using a Doodle meeting set up helper. I even ended up texting.

I don’t have a strategy for this.  I do have an answer… stop dodging the question.

Of course, I understand that in some cases the Executive Director is hounding board members and they might be trying to avoid him or her.

But really, a better strategy would be to tell your executive director why you feel like he/she is hounding you. Then arrange a better way to communicate.

What do you think?


Preparing name tags – a facilitator’s lament

20150429_081715Yes, this is a blog about preparing name tags. Name tags or badges are those simple and remarkably effective little tools that introduce us to each other at conferences or other events.

Name tags help us overcome our shyness about talking to someone we don’t know by removing the need to ask their name. Or, even if we’ve met before, avoid the embarrassment if I’ve forgotten your name. They help people new to a group navigate faster.

I depend on name tags.

I want and need to know the names of the people around the table or around the room at the retreat or meeting I’m  facilitating. Or across the dinner or lunch table at the conference or special event I’m attending.

If your team isn’t too large and our work together long enough, I’ll learn your names a short time into the meeting. Having the printed name with the face helps me learn. Even in the college classes I’ve taught, I’ve needed name tags for at least three classes for the ones with 20 students before I finally remember who you are.

Unfortunately, most of the time I’m silently cursing the person who picked the type size for the name tags.

You see, my eye sight isn’t what it used to be – Read more

Strategically crafting your Letter of Inquiry (LOI)

ABCI recently revived a training on basic grant seeking. I thought I’d share some of the components with you as they are useful not just for grant seeking, but also apply to other aspects of your fund raising.

Let’s start with the Letter of Inquiry.

Crafting your Letter of Inquiry (LOI) for a foundation or other institutional funder is good practice for developing your case for support.

The LOI is a preliminary, shorter version of a grant application. In one to three pages, you need to convince the funder that your proposed project is important and worthy of a more thorough review.

In the LOI, you need to make your case against strong competition (hundreds or even thousands of proposals) in order to advance to the next round of consideration.

In a very short document, you need to answer these questions:

  • What good this will accomplish (problem/need) and for whom (target audience) in keeping with the objectives of the grant guidelines
  • How it accomplishes the funder’s goals
  • Who you are and why you are the best organization to solve this problem/address this need
  • What you plan to do, when you plan to do it, who will do it and why you believe it will be effective
  • What will have changed/improved as a result of this project
  • How much the project will cost, how much you want from the funder, and how you will pay for the other costs

And up the ante by also ensuring that your LOI is:

  • Well-crafted
  • Evidence-based
  • Reasonable on its face, likely to succeed
  • Extraordinarily compelling
  • Logical
  • Competitive
  • Using language that resonates with the funders theory of change
  • Complete (includes everything the funder requested)
  • Compliant with the length and space limitations of the funder

While we aren’t in the proposal writing business (at least not recently), we can help you develop your case for support and assess your readiness for grants funding.  Just give Jon a call at 401-331-2272 or email Jon

See also:

10 grant seeking tips from a program officer

How we got the grant


When thank-a-thons go bad

Two weeks ago I received a thank you call from a board member of an organization of which I have been a long-time supporter.

It kind of went like this:

Hi, How are you.

I’m making my thank you calls to supporters. I wanted to thank you for your support.

Okay, that’s all.

Here I am two weeks later and this is what I remember:

  • I’m scratching my head trying to remember what organization it was and who called me. And I knew the person who called me. (Of course, this can just be my own bad memory).
  • I remember that the call felt forced and kind of painful. I felt uncomfortable for the caller.

I don’t think this is exactly what the organization was trying to accomplish.

Here’s what Penelope Burk, researcher and author of Donor Centered Fundraising,  advises around thank you calls:

” A true gesture of thanks is one that happens immediately after the gift has been received…. Calling donors to thank them for their continuing loyalty long after their most recent gift has been received can also be effective, but it requires more careful scripting and timing.” [emphasis added]

What would have made this more satisfying for me:

  • A bit of news. What’s up that I might be interested in hearing about? I’ve been the board chair, an event supporter, connected into a focus group, and lots of other stuff. I’d be interested.
  • Maybe a question for me.  Say, it’s been almost 10 years since you rotated off the board. Yet, you’ve been such a loyal supporter of ours in all that time. What keeps you connected?
  • Or maybe just a more personal thank you message. Haven’t seen you since that really engaging event that Susie led. But I still remember how great it was to have you there contributing your perspective. I’m just calling today because I’m remembering how fortunate our organization has been to have you with us all these years. Thank you.

Saying “thank you” to a donor definitely matters. Organizational indifference is one of the leading reasons people stop giving.

But perhaps put a little more thought into the strategy behind your next thank-a-thon?


Claiming your promise with your mission statement

IMG_3038I read a lot of mission statements. Most nonprofit mission statements are focused on how the organization goes about its work.

Too rarely does a mission statement confidently offer up its promise of betterment for its community.

Don’t get bogged down in all the stuff you do. You don’t need to throw the kitchen sink at your mission statement.

Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation threw down a mission challenge in  “The Eight Word Mission Statement” in the September 18, 2012 Stanford Social Innovation Review. The eight words: “a verb, a target population, and an outcome that implies something to measure.”

I agree that “razor-sharp” clarity about where you are going enables you to be strategic, adaptable and clear on where you are heading. That’s why I’m such a stickler for developing a clear theory of change/logic model and include its development into the strategic plans I work on. Plus, I learned long ago, that having a theory of change and logic model upped Read more