September 08, 2013

Banning Fundraising Pitches at Galas and Other Unconventional Ideas Could Aid Giving

Jeffrey Walker and Jennifer McCrea.

Jeffrey Walker, a private-equity investor-turned-philanthropist, says he hates “boring thousand-person fundraising galas.”

So when he chaired the board of the foundation that runs Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s elegant Virginia estate, Mr. Walker decided to use the founding father’s genius in marshalling people and ideas to revolutionize the organization’s fundraising and make it more democratic.

Instead of leading big fundraising events for Monticello, Mr. Walker began mimicking Mr. Jefferson’s habit of holding small, intimate dinners for influential people with common interests.

He also borrowed Mr. Jefferson’s practice of holding a tablewide discussion among his dozen or so guests, rather than having people chat in groups of two or three, and he banned fundraising pitches at these “Jeffersonian Dinners.”

“I was looking for ways to connect,” he says. “It’s wonderful for philanthropists to get together at these dinners and be listened to, not preached at. It is a joyful, energizing experience.”

Since his first Jeffersonian Dinners, Mr. Walker has perfected that approach and other unconventional fundraising ideas with his colleague Jennifer McCrea, a seasoned college fundraiser who is now a consultant and teacher of a yearlong course on “Exponential Fundraising” at Harvard University. The result is a book to be released this month by Crown Publishing called The Generosity Network: New Transformational Tools for Successful Fundraising.

Ms. McCrea and Mr. Walker argue for a shakeup in how charities raise money: Rather than concentrating on getting checks from donors, nonprofit leaders should focus instead on empowering like-minded individuals who can apply their talents and resources to meet specific challenges that they themselves—not charities—define.

Building support for a charity, they write, is like forming a jazz band in which each member has an inimitable sound. They say they want to create a world in which donors and charities create bigger and louder “music” than either side could achieve alone, by contributing their time, creativity, personal networks, and ideas—in addition to money.

“To begin practicing this new style of fundraising, move money away from the center of the conversation,” the authors write. “Put the work you are doing and the band you want to build there instead. The result is transformational giving—a connection between donor and recipient that produces learning, change, and psychological, emotional, and spiritual growth on both sides.”

Such relationships, the authors acknowledge, can be more challenging than simply asking people for money, especially when donors want to take an organization in a new or unproductive direction.

But the rewards, financial and otherwise, can be far greater when nonprofit leaders act as a donor’s equal rather than presiding over one-sided transactions in which people give to a project or purpose determined solely by the charity. That means exchanging ideas with donors and providing honest feedback about what does and doesn’t work, they say.

Ms. McCrea and Mr. Walker talked more about their fundraising approach in an interview with The Chronicle:

You say you’ve refined the Jeffersonian Dinner. How do you put one of these events together now?

Ms. McCrea: To do a first meeting or take people deeper into a cause, you invite 10 or 12 influential people who you know are interested in a cause like education or health to dinner. You start with an opening question that allows your professional roles to be dropped. It is more about getting to know who each attendee is as a person, although we often do send out everyone’s bios beforehand.

For a group like Teach for America, we might ask, “Who is your favorite teacher and why?” Every person talks and you literally go around the table. You can feel the web of connection on a human level.

There are a few ground rules: It is a whole-table conversation so no side conversations are allowed, and a moderator guides the discussion.

This approach gets you to the meat of the issue, and you start to see themes emerge as you go around the room. After everyone speaks, the moderator ties the themes together and to the organization’s goals and you open up the conversation.

To end the dinners, I invite people to think about the powerful work happening and say how they’d like to be involved, even if they just want to learn more.

When you do this, the percentage of people who will take a next meeting is very high. When you have 10 people talking in this exciting, engaging way, there is a sense of solidarity. If the 10 people at the table decide to do something, it will get done. 

What makes Jeffersonian Dinners effective?

Mr. Walker: Understanding what true listening is about, being with people and not just thinking about the next thing you want to say. Great doctors and politicians and professors are terrible collaborators. They have to be right all the time and beat all the other guys. These days, those that are successful know how to collaborate and build a team. We are growing in these skills. I cannot stand a gala anymore. Now I know there is an alternative.

Your book advocates letting donors shadow nonprofit workers who have interesting jobs, a tactic that you liken to using avatars in fundraising. What do you mean?

Mr. Walker: Avatars are people in your organization whose jobs donors would like to experience, but they don’t have the time or expertise to fill those roles. Nonprofits can provide meaningful experiences for donors by connecting them to these so-called avatars, the people carrying out their missions. And it’s so much easier now with technology tools like e-mail, blogs, and Skype.

For example, in another life, I’d like to teach, and in my work at the University of Virginia, my avatar is a professor working in social enterprise and health, which is what I really like. I cannot do this full-time, but he connects me with students and others I love to talk to, and I introduce him to companies interested in his work that could make grants to support it.

What else is different about your fundraising approach?

Ms. McCrea: People often say, “As a fundraiser, you don’t want to be friends with donors because it skews things.” I think this is completely wrong. That is an old paradigm. We are peers on the human level with donors, and we care about getting the work done.

Whenever money is at the center of the relationship, there is a power dynamic that puts the person asking for money in the position of supplicant. The ask is not about how you can help me—helping implies weakness—but rather how can we work together?

If you shift the conversation to sharing stories and values in the context of the work to be done, the power dynamic is eliminated and we can learn about our resources and what we all collectively bring to the work.

Fundraisers operate from the view that it is about the transformation of the donor, but it is equally about their own transformation. So fundraisers need to ask themselves, “What is my own role, and what resources do I bring to this?” If everyone does this, the work goes so much further.

Video: Explaining the Jeffersonian Dinner

Send an e-mail to Holly Hall.