Can We Talk About Money?

When I accepted a position as the Development Director for a small Austin nonprofit, I thought that my years of service in the sector would inform the role. I had been a nonprofit founder, board member, leader and consultant. Surely, I could effectively apply these experiences to this new role. But, as it turned out, it was older lessons — learned when I was a financial advisor — that would serve me best.

During 14 years managing portfolios for my clients, I learned from the trenches how to, and how not to, talk about money. Being a Development Director is all about money, right? Now, as a Philanthropic Advisor with Rodman & Associates, I work to serve the interests of non-profits and foundations, corporations, families and individuals. We are still talking about money, specifically how to do good in the world through philanthropy.

There are similar practices among non-profits and the world of business and finance, some that work well, and others, not so much. I’d like to share what I learned about three of them: Building Relationships, Making the Ask and Donor Retention.

Building Relationships: As a rookie broker, I was required to make 30 cold calls each day. That is how I would build my business, I was told — by calling strangers and asking them to buy the stock pick of the day or open an account with me. This strategy was as ineffective as sending mass mailings to strangers asking them to support my non-profit. Or shooting off a quiver full of grant requests and hoping to hit the bullseye once or twice. The statistical return on efforts like this is abysmal, less than 3 percent. I soon left this investment firm, joined another, and my new boss offered a different strategy: “Get out into the community, serve, let people come to know and trust you. Then, when they need financial advice, they will come to you.” I did, and they did. As a representative of Rodman & Associates, or of a nonprofit, there is no substitute for having a presence in the community, being of service, sincerely telling my story and listening to those of others. When those stories intersect in passion and purpose, they serve to continue the conversation for the benefit of all.

Making the Ask: Nonprofit board and staff often tell me that fundraising is tortuous, awkward work. They do not feel comfortable asking for money. I think there is a different way to view this conversation that again relates to the financial services. What if this conversation is about an investment rather than a gift? If I effectively share the story of my organization’s mission and successful outcomes, and if the potential funder has priorities that intersect with our work, they may want to make an investment in our organization. This investment would pay off for them by seeing their own goals realized through our efforts. The key, also drawing from the client/broker relationship, is that my role as their representative is a pledge to be a responsible steward of their investment — to ensure that their funds will be used wisely in service of their intent and the organization’s mission. If you view the conversation this way, the awkward discomfort can be diminished. Not the least because there is no pressure on either of you. If your nonprofit’s work does not intersect with this funder’s priorities, then they should not invest with you, nor should you ask them to. If it does intersect, then the ask may not be necessary. Rather, they may inquire: “What can I do to help?”

Donor Retention: The stock market is easy to track — we see reports on it every day, many times a day. But an individual client is not necessarily informed by the action in the market. Each portfolio is unique and ideally matches the client’s personal financial needs, risk tolerance and goals for the future. Reports to my clients, and how often they were given, were tailored in content and timing to their portfolio. The more personal and targeted my communications, the better the chances of retaining my clients and engaging in deeper financial planning for them. Likewise, each nonprofit funder is unique, from the individual donor, to the foundation, to the corporate grantor. We on the receiving end need to communicate with those on the giving end according to their interests, priorities and timing needs. The email newsletter, annual report, or generic grant report may be only one needed communication. As we look at fundraising activities, getting dollars in the door is just one goal and if we think that is our scorecard, we may struggle to retain that donor’s interest. Consider having a coffee date to share news of a new initiative, writing a brief note about a recent accomplishment, doing research into a donor’s area of passion or asking for advice in their area of expertise. All these actions can contribute to that important person or organization feeling valued and included, and staying engaged.

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