The Whole Wide World

As an election year in the U.S., 2016 has certainly seen a plethora of hashtags on social media. One of the less political ones this summer was #firstsevenjobs. I didn’t post to this conversation, perhaps because for me, at least five of those jobs would be “waitress.” I like to think that says more about the era in which I went to college than it does about how I got to where I am today.

More recently, as a response to a Washington Post article about college majors which I shared on Twitter, Jen Filla started a little Twitter trend among prospect researchers to share their college majors, which she Storified here.

This all happened as I was in the middle of my first foray, as a consultant, to identify potential new donors. And not just any new donors. I needed to seek prospects in a number of different countries and cultures who might be interested in funding a client’s international project.

This wasn’t the first time I’d ever done prospecting for people who were not already in the donor base for one reason or another. In fact, the brief for this project brought back memories of one of my former bosses, who liked to say, “Sarah, I just need you to find some new $25,000 donors.”

It also wasn’t the first time I had done research on international prospects, or the first time I had done prospect research in a language I don’t speak or read. I had Yahoo’s currency converter bookmarked. I knew Google’s “translate this page” feature would be my new best friend, in part because it would give me at least one good laugh every day.

So, I did have some tricks up my sleeve, and some ideas of how to get started.

I’d go the whole wide world
I’d go the whole wide world
Just to find her
I’d go the whole wide world
I’d go the whole wide world
Find out where they hide her
~ Wreckless Eric, 1977

But it wasn’t going to be that easy. After a bit of trial and a lot of error, I realized that I couldn’t simply “export” the strategies I was comfortable using when prospecting within the United States. It wasn’t just that I was searching in different cultures and languages. Most of the countries in which I would be searching for prospects have histories of conquest and colonization, and several are now seeing an influx of refugees and immigrants.

I needed to acknowledge something I never thought much about in prospect research: my own cultural bias and privilege.

Back to that Washington Post story, and even, perhaps, to my #firstsevenjobs. I like to think that college majors shouldn’t exist solely to prepare us for jobs in our fields, but more importantly to provide a very narrow platform upon which we can learn how to think deeply and critically. And thinking about my own cultural bias and privilege was something I had learned to do in my college classes.

So for each country and culture I explored I first needed to re-think what “philanthropy” might mean. I needed to learn each day again what a “charitable foundation” looks like, and how wealth and prestige were acquired, measured, and honored. I learned to look for the little British flag or “EN” on corporate websites that toggles between English and the native language, for which most U.S. websites have no equivalent. All of this helped me to identify a fairly diverse list of philanthropists from nearly every country. People of all colors; men and women; gay and straight; Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus; descendants of slaves, colonists, immigrants, and indigenous people. Acknowledging privilege doesn’t make it go away, but it’s a small step.

As Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, reminded us recently on the foundation’s Equal Change Blog, ignorance and the power of privilege are the enemies of justice. We cannot make progress without first asking ourselves:

“Who am I forgetting? Which of my assumptions are flawed? Which of my beliefs are misbegotten?”

His words resonate with me, and I will craft my strategies more carefully next time I get a prospecting project, here or abroad. After all, the gender neutral word for “waitress” is “server,” and some of the most essential skills in food service are listening, empathy, and respect.

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First color photograph of the whole Earth (western Hemisphere), shot from the ATS-3 satellite on 10 November 1967

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No Trespassing? Privacy, Property, and Prospect Research

Home, home, sweet, sweet, home!
There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!
~ Home Sweet Home by John Howard Payne (1791-1852)

According to a recent Pew Research study, only 22% of Americans are comfortable with government putting data about individual mortgages online, while 54% are comfortable with the government sharing real estate transactions online.

Just think for a moment. What might this perception mean for the practice and ethics of prospect research, where online access to property data can be our bread and butter?

When I’ve given how-to presentations about prospect research, I have always advised my audience that prospect research “begins at home.” A double meaning is fully intended. I recommend that they begin with the constituent records housed in their databases, and with their prospects’ homes as the primary identifiable asset. And, for the great majority of the prospects we look at, those whose philanthropic capacity is less than $1 million, a home or homes may be the only hard assets we find to construct that capacity number. In fact, the wealth in homes and neighborhoods can be such reliable predictors of capacity, that the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association uses Census tract data as a placeholder for capacity in prioritizing unrated prospects.

As prospect researchers, we know that transformational gifts are more commonly given from assets than they are from income. So the property assessment or mortgage data we find is often just the beginning of our prospect research story. Many of us will try to take a look at pictures of the property on Google Street View or Zillow, looking for amenities like swimming pools, tennis courts, lake access, and long, winding driveways. In a similar vein, we will comb through contact reports and internet searches for information about things like art collections, boats, and antique cars. All of this helps us refine the asset inventory which shapes our philanthropic capacity calculation, and – often more importantly – provides a glimpse into the interests and passions of our prospects.

So how can we reconcile this Pew Research report with our practice of prospect research? For, just as a home serves as a bellwether for philanthropic capacity in prospect research, it also serves, for many, many people, as the bellwether for their own personal privacy. And I don’t imagine that they would be reassured knowing that the registrar of deeds has paper, microfiche, or electronic copies of all their property transactions and mortgages.

Every year or so there will be a news story about prospect research and advancement offices digging into their donors’ private lives. Jen Filla, of Aspire Research Group, presented an on-point analysis and resource list of this phenomena in 2012. There is no shortage of more recent stories any of us could add to Filla’s bibliography, like this one about social media which appeared in the New York Times on Jan. 4, 2015.

In his book, Privacy (Picador, 2012), Garret Keizer conducts a wide-ranging philosophical and historical analysis of privacy. In discussing the history of the concept of privacy in American law, Keizer points out two important moments, both of which frame their definition of privacy with the home. The first is, of course, in the Bill of Rights, in particular, the Fourth Amendment. This is the amendment which guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search and seizure.” The second moment is in fact the first American court case in which the word “privacy” actually appears: DeMay v. Roberts in 1881, in which the court wrote “the plaintiff had a legal right to the privacy of her apartment.” Keizer describes how American case law equates the home with privacy:

As the judge in Payton v. New York (1980) noted, there is a “zone of privacy” in America that is nowhere “more clearly defined when bounded by the unambiguous dimensions of a person’s home.” (82)

The home can be a symbol of privacy and a measure of wealth. But, in the words of John Howard Payne, the nineteenth century poet and songwriter with whose words I began this piece, it can also be a place of comfort:

To thee I’ll return, overburdened with care;
The heart’s dearest solace will smile on me there;
No more from that cottage again will I roam;
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

A comfortable home: one which offers private solace, and which signifies a certain level of wealth.

It is telling that Pew Research also uses the word comfortable to describe how people feel about the government publishing property data. Does the word “comfortable” suggest that the boundaries of privacy are relative – different for every person – and not simply that which is not public? And, with these hard numbers to show us how people feel about their property data and privacy, is it enough to tell ourselves that the data we access and use in prospect research is always and only public data? I’m afraid I don’t have the answers.

Really Simple Stewardship

After I wrote and posted this, I checked Twitter. All Thanksgiving-week long, Milwaukee Film Festival sent out simple, 140 character acts of stewardship like these, which demonstrate just how well they know their donors, and how deeply they appreciate them. Well done, Milwaukee Film, well done!

 

Giving Thanks

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April may be the cruelest month, but November – with Veterans Day, National Philanthropy Day®, and Thanksgiving – may just be the most appreciative.

 Years ago, gift processing was a large part of my job, especially at the end of the year. Back then, part of me always dreaded this time of year – as the amount of daylight got ever shorter, the length of my working hours got ever longer. And while my co-workers were using their remaining vacation time for last minute errands, I was rolling mine over into the New Year. And yet, even though I was doing a lot of data entry, booking all those year-end gifts, I also got to do one of the most special things we can do in fundraising. I got to thank people – a lot of people.

 I’ve used this quote before, but I never get tired of it. A colleague at one of my favorite organizations says that gift processing should really be called “gift stewardship.” Indeed, stewardship and gratitude often begin long before a gift is made, and continue with properly booking the gift, but they come to fruition in the thank you letter. And letter it should be. A thank you on the landing page after an online gift is submitted, an automated email, or even a printed receipt will bring efficiencies to your process, but how different do they make you from Amazon? Those automated acknowledgements are simply too transactional. They are just too much about the tax language and not nearly enough about the donor’s very personal philanthropy or aspirations. To my mind nothing beats a real letter for expressing gratitude and building the relationship.

 So take a pause after you run the acknowledgement mail merge. Think of this moment as an opportunity. You’ve probably already customized your merge template to allow you to segment your acknowledgments so that your text is matched to donor intent. And once your file is output to the word processing program, you will make sure the right name or nickname is in the salutation, the gift amount and allocation are correct, and that there are no typos or weird merge effects. But you should also take this opportunity to make the letters more personal. Longstanding donors? Add a word or phrase which recognizes and appreciates their loyalty and faith in what you do. New donors? Thank them for deciding to place their trust in you to help them achieve their vision.

 A letter offers an additional opportunity that no electronic communication ever can. You can add a handwritten note. Back in my gift processing days, I attached a sticky note to the letters with little nuggets about the donors (“donor since ’95,” “3rd gift this year,” “father was a trustee,” “missed the gala for the 1st time in 7 years.”). This gave the agency’s president, who signed all of our acknowledgements, a quick reminder whenever there was something special to acknowledge in a handwritten note.

 In the last few weeks I’ve come full circle, back to writing thank you letters, this time to help steward my client’s scholarship donors. And I’m thankful that, once again, as the days grow shorter and colder, and friends and families gather closer, I get to use my time to thank others.

 

Spelling Counts

In the fundraising niche where I do most of my work, donor-centricity requires effective database management and attention to detail: data entry standards, quality control measures, and thoughtful, respectful documentation of donor information. But speaking as a former English teacher, in every area of effective database management, spelling really does count.

Penelope Burk and Cygnus Applied Research created the concept of “donor-centered fundraising” based their 1997 survey which showed:

87% of Cygnus’ study respondents said they would give again the next time they were asked, 64% would make a larger gift, and 74% would continue to give indefinitely, if they received the following every time they made a gift:

  1. prompt, meaningful acknowledgment of their gifts
  2. reassurance that their gifts will be directed as donors intend
  3. meaningful results on their gifts at work, before they are asked for another contribution

~ http://cygresearch.com/about-us-3/becoming-donor-centered/

To ensure that the three guarantees of ongoing giving identified in the Cygnus study, proper stewardship often begins before the first gift is even made. Proper stewardship begins with good spelling.

The donor’s name must always be spelled correctly – and that means as they have chosen to spell it. Don’t assume. And if you did initially enter it incorrectly, change it when you receive the first correspondence or the first gift. (And yes, I’ve seen a $1M proposal sent out with names misspelled. I just wish my red pen and I had seen it before it was sent.)

Proper spelling goes beyond proper names. The post office may not deliver mail which carries an incorrectly spelled or formatted address; messages will not be received by misspelled email addresses or mistyped phone numbers. Misspellings in prospect research deliverables or contact reports may simply embarrass the writer among their colleagues, or worse, convey and perpetuate incorrect information. Query and reporting syntax will nearly always require the correct spelling; the hardest searches to effectively run are the ones where the search criteria or the source data contain typos. It is essential to develop data entry standards, quality control processes, exception reports, and data update schedules, but it is just as critical to correct individual errors whenever and wherever you spot them – that’s true donor-centricity.

More broadly speaking, isn’t “spelling” just another word for meticulous data entry and strong data integrity? In fundraising, names and contact information are where precise data entry begins, but gift entry and acknowledgement are where scrupulous data entry practices must flourish. As a colleague of mine said recently, “gift processing should really be called gift stewardship.” Individual gifts must be accurately entered; attributed to the correct donor; allocated to the proper funds, campaigns, appeals, proposals, events, memorials, tributes, and matching gifts; receipted for the correct legal amount; and thoughtfully, meaningfully, and promptly acknowledged with the donor’s preferred salutation and address correctly spelled. Tracking fundraising results absolutely depends on accurate gift entry, and confidently communicating success and sustainability to donors and stakeholders is another aspect of stewardship.

Finally, “spelling counts” not simply because it is required by your finance team or the IRS, or by your own pride and responsibility, but because it matters to donors: it is a measure of care and respect.