Alexandra Pia Brovey, JD, LLM
Zen and the Art of Fundraising: Being in the Moment
We do not remember days, we remember moments.
Some moments with donors are forever imprinted on our minds.
I visited with donors in the greater Washington, DC area on September 11, 2001, when the terrorists struck. My first visit was with a couple who lived north of Silver Spring, Maryland. We had previously spoken on the phone, and they had requested illustrations for a six-figure charitable gift annuity. My goals were to discuss their interest in an annuity, respond to any questions, and hopefully leave with their promise to make a gift.
I can close my eyes and recall the scene as if it were last week: I knocked on their door, greeted them in person for the first time, and asked if they would mind turning on the television. (I have never done this before or since. How rude this seems out of context—but that day was an aberration.) They turned on the television, sat down on either side of me on a three-cushion sofa, and we held hands as the towers fell. I quickly revised my goals as we sat together in silence. A six-figure gift suddenly seemed insignificant in light of world terrorism. I met with two other couples that day, and a few more over the next two days. Our conversations were less focused on gifts and more focused on life and death, war and peace.
Donors share some of their most memorable lifetime moments with us. And sometimes—like on September 11—we involuntarily share moments. A few of these may actually become our own memorable moments. After almost two decades, I am still touched deeply when donors share their hopes and dreams, hugs and thanks for assisting them in achieving some lifetime goals. Donors’ gifts and kindness echo and reverberate across time.
Fundraisers have a front-row seat to our donors’ happiest moments and most troubling hardships. Our donors assist in eradicating some of the miseries of the world (hunger, sickness, illiteracy, homelessness, lost souls). They invite us into their worlds to assist them, and we get to experience their wonder, joy, and happiness. This job is not for the meek! Being in the moment takes courage.
Take a few minutes to recall some key moments with your donors. Are any of them imprinted on your mind? Was the occasion a happy one? A sad one? Or perhaps it was the totality of a day. I recall one day which began with an educational session, followed by a meeting with an advisor to collect a large check, and ending with a shiva for the ninety-plus-year-old spouse of one of my donors. The day was one of intellectual stimulation, excitement, and sadness.
The Path to a Gift
The essence of a fundraiser’s job is determining why someone wishes to give, matching those intentions to the nonprofit’s goals, helping the donor structure the gift, accepting the gift, and then thanking the donor for the gift, both in word and in deed.
Sounds easy, right?
This process is a journey, a “path to a gift” which requires spending time with donors to discover what motivates them. Some of us find it easy to carry on a conversation. We can keep it going, mostly with our own comments, opinions, and observations. While some prospective donors would love to know more about us, this is not the purpose of the meeting. We have to train ourselves to really focus on the donor. We have to learn to be in the moment for the precious few minutes we are together.
All of the latest research and strategy sessions cannot replace information shared directly by the donor. This is a magical exchange! During meetings, we give the donor the important gifts of time and our attention. Donors, in turn, give us the gifts of their time, access to their reasons for giving, and ultimately their gifts.
The Zen concept of being in the moment can inspire us in assessment, cultivation, and solicitation meetings. Mindfulness seeks to calm life down to this moment. We recognize there is a past, and that there will be a future. But we need to learn to focus on right here, right now. We can apply this concept to our fundraising jobs in several ways.
First, when speaking or meeting with donors, we should put aside all extraneous thoughts and simply be in the moment. Actual moments with donors likely do not exceed 10 to 20 percent of our time—but we should give them 110 percent of our attention.
Second, when we practice being in the moment, our attention shifts from extraneous thoughts to what—who—is in front of us: the donor.
The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Third, when you are truly in the moment with your donors, you will be able to enjoy the time developing the relationship and relax. A relaxed state might enable you to make a connection you hadn’t thought of before. Such moments are special and are echoes of the joy and goodness that philanthropy embodies.
Plot Your Donor’s Journey
The path to a gift is in many ways analogous to the plot we learned about in middle school English class. You may recall that plot is defined as events that make up a story or the main part of a story. [Literarydevices.net] Plot generally has five elements: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and epilogue. A typical donor cycle also has five elements: discovery, cultivation, solicitation, closure, and stewardship. I overlaid the elements from a typical donor cycle onto a plot diagram, to plot a typical donor’s journey.
The introduction presents the characters and sets the scene. In a gift scenario, this is the discovery phase during which you gather information about your prospective donor. For example, you may get a phone call from a donor who shares that she is a school teacher, is single, and doesn’t have children. She has taught for thirty years, and cares deeply about children and their health. She is the caregiver for her elderly mother.
The rising action is a series of events that builds up to the conflict. In the gift scenario, the cultivation phase involves getting to know the donor and discovering what inspires the donor, so that you begin to focus on a gift solicitation. You may meet with the school teacher and take her on a tour of the children’s hospital. At some point she shares that she is planning to retire. A few months later, her mother passes away. Both events bring emotional and financial changes for the school teacher. She is likely to have more available time, and perhaps she focuses on her own mortality. She calls to share that she would like to make a gift to help children. She would also like to honor her late mother. She has engaged an estate planning attorney. She may also be interested in volunteering.
The climax is a turning point. In our gift scenario, the school teacher transforms into a donor. She responds positively to a solicitation (which was previously vetted by her and shared with her in draft form) and establishes a fund that bears her mother’s name and will make perpetual distributions to help children with neurological issues. The donor is pleased and your nonprofit will provide medical care to additional children. A win-win scenario for everyone.
The falling action includes events that wind down the plot. In our gift scenario, the donor may have to complete some paperwork. The medical team caring for children can express gratitude and share with the donor the impact of her gift. The fundraiser and others who collaborated on this gift (perhaps some of the children and their parents) can send thank-you notes. The donor may agree to be profiled so her philanthropic journey can be memorialized, shared, and celebrated.
The epilogue is the end of the story. In the gift scenario, the receipt of the gift is both an end (to a solicitation) and a beginning. Like a commencement, this moment is the start of the post-gift, stewardship phase of the journey. The philanthropy seed which began with an idea and resulted in a gift now transforms for the benefit of humanity.
Use Some Kindergarten Strategies
Does your average day and attention to tasks resemble a kindergarten class at recess? Do you feel like you are running in ten different directions and need to play on every piece of apparatus before the bell rings? Perhaps we should borrow a command from kindergarten teachers to “freeze!” Alternatively, a “time out”—even a self-imposed one—can help us focus our attention on this particular moment. Are the steps we are taking right now leading us in the right direction?
When my dog Ferguson nudges me, I am often in the middle of an activity. But he has a knack for redirecting my attention to the present moment and—more specifically—to him. He is most certainly enjoying the “now” when I pet him, and I take a few moments to enjoy being with him. Pet owners are fortunate to get an occasional nudge to savor the moment. When we are away from our pets, we can continue the practice of being in the moment.
Fundraisers work with multiple donors—perhaps numbering in the hundreds—at any given time. We help donors throughout all the stages of giving. Sometimes when we are preparing to ask someone for money, a donor who has already made a gift calls and we need to redirect our attention for a short while. And then a prospective donor calls to begin a gift conversation. We continually need to rebalance and prioritize. Being in the moment with each donor enables us to maximize our time efficiently.
Anytime you feel you have strayed from the present moment or need to refocus, pause and take three deep breaths. Look inward. Usually, change has to happen within our own minds first.
Life is a dance.
witnessing that dance.
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