Fundraising on the edge

Published by Ken Burnett on

Just because they make verbs out of intuition and alchemy doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re about.


I’m sitting in a circle of nine apparently sane people at a beach resort just outside San Diego, California and I’ve just been passed the talking stick. As I grasp its fur-covered handle the eagle’s feather attached to the other end wiggles slightly, indicating that I have to speak. I’m told I have to end my thought, which I’m not allowed to prepare in advance, by saying ‘I have spoken’, to which in unison the group will respond ‘A-ho’, Native American for ‘So you have’. In the near background a barefooted guy with bells on his feet is playing a didgeridoo. These are so-called ‘wisdom circles’ and I’m in a workshop on transforming philanthropy, where on their business cards the organisers have job titles such as the questor, the integrator, the potentiator, the torchbearer and the tribal chief. Fear grips me as I grip the talking stick and wonder ‘What, in the name of sanity, am I doing here?

It’s the night before I’m due to give a three-hour presentation called ‘the essence of great fundraising’ to an audience of CEOs, board members and development directors from America’s massive but under-funded health services sector. These guys run big hospitals with budgets like small cities. And I’m thinking, ‘Beam me up Scottie, they’re all nuts’. What I don’t know is I’m about to experience a fundraising workshop that will alter my approach to fundraising training forever. But if you think I’m being critical here you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Weird and whacky though this may appear, something extraordinary really is about to happen. These people are working right on the edge. Don’t go there unless you are prepared to change the way you think.

The wisdom circle. Many minds make light work.

I was in southern California at the request of a small and quirky outfit called the Kaiser Institute, run by Leland Kaiser, his daughter Leanne and son Kevin. Collectively, they are futurists. Kevin teaches intuition (I thought this was something you either had, or hadn’t, intuitively). They’ve created a verb from the word intuition and encourage us to ‘intuit the future’. They ‘alchemize’. They say unsettling things of Leland like, ‘Be careful, he can read your mind’. And when you meet him, you believe it. Leanne seems alarmingly normal. In my earshot terms are bandied about including ‘dialoguing with our donors’, ‘sleep or die’ meetings and, of course, ‘futuring’. I hear talk of ‘transformational giving ‘ and ‘philanthrepreneurs’ (for full impact it has to be said with a Texan drawl).

And I thought we spoke the same language…

But the workshop lived up to its promise to be ‘a voyage to the extra-ordinary’. My session apart (what do I – a Scotsman living in France – know about the American health sector?), the presentations and discussion groups were all unconventional but brilliant. I experienced the best case history of fundraising turnaround that I’ve heard for ages (from Mary Anne Chern of White Memorial Medical Center, East Los Angeles), learned how to create and nurture a brave new board (from the brilliant and visionary Kay Sprinkel Grace) and while supposedly mentoring Oakland’s Children’s Hospital on message development and major gifts, I learned at least as much from them, if not more. And with 35 others I took part in the truly extraordinary collective writing of a case statement amid a level of debate with which I found it truly hard to keep up.

I’ve always believed that if you come away from a fundraising workshop with just two or three genuine nuggets of wisdom, or an equal number of usable new ideas then the event was well worth its cost. On this occasion I came away with a lot more than that. But beyond everything else, before its end the workshop had me thinking differently and challenging everything.

Here are just a few of those useful thoughts.

  • Today’s philanthropists give to issues, not simply to institutions. So successful fundraisers must capture their donor’s imagination (this sentiment fitted neatly with my session, which was all about inspiring the imagination).
  • The new donor-investors bring new expectations and values to philanthropy. Those organisations that work with them must venture beyond traditional fundraising to establish real partnerships. And the focus must centre on compelling ideas and new opportunities rather than organisational needs. (I pinched this observation directly from the Kaiser website, but it neatly sums up my own experience.)
  • Even in the most unlikely neighbourhood it is possible to find and develop celebrity supporters and major donors.
  • If you dig deep enough you’ll be amazed at how well connected your friends and colleagues can be (particularly true of seemingly unassuming medical staff).
  • However poor the community is, people love, even revere, their local hospital. If you consistently get your clearly branded message out to enough of them, they’ll be your best ambassadors.
  • Local businesses and community groups can be made to find the appeal of their local hospital irresistible.  The fundraiser’s job is to galvanise, harness and direct that energy. Successfully done, the results can be astounding.
  • An effective board is a priceless asset (no surprises in this one). In many cases turnaround just couldn’t happen without one.
  • Although the American economy is in a downturn, the golden age of philanthropy is still ahead. (The Kaisers predict philanthropy will quadruple in the next 50 years. That’s mega – though perhaps, it has to be said, counter-intuitive.)

In my workshop I was advising these fundraisers to do much more mundane things like thank their donors properly, to put themselves in their donors’ shoes so that they only send what their donors want to receive rather than what their organisation wants the donors to have (not at all the same thing, actually),to do more research so they can place hand on heart and say, ‘Yes, I really, really understand my donors’, and such stuff. But I sensed these high-powered folks already knew all this. They listened politely, even attentively, saying things like, ‘Well it’s always good to revisit the basics’, but I suspect if it hadn’t been for my quaint Scottish accent they’d have thrown me out. (True conversation, ‘Would you mind saying that again? Which bit? Well, gee, I guess it doesn’t really matter – I just like the way you talk.’)

But these open-minded people also seemed to appreciate my message that even such seemingly small and obvious things are often neglected. That with a little care and attention these things could have big impact on the future of philanthropy. And that what seems just common sense is often not very common in the fundraising profession. Believe me, the sense of learning in those rooms was palpable.

The point of sharing all this with you is that I suppose I’ve had a timely reminder that in fundraising it pays to keep an open mind. If I’d known in advance what was going to happen at this workshop I probably wouldn’t have gone nor read Seth’s book (see opposite), so I would have really missed out. Even with what’s going on there now, this workshop reminds me why I love America and why I want to learn there. One of the participants said to me, ‘I don’t need more lists of things to do, but this opens my mind to much bigger possibilities’. After more than 20 years participating at fundraising workshops I don’t often get a glimpse of the bigger picture, which is why I found this course so fresh.

On CNN the night I left I heard a phone-in where a caller despairingly asked, ‘Why is it that there is unlimited dollars for bombing Iraq but not enough dollars to provide ordinary Americans with an acceptable level of health care?’ The Kaiser course didn’t answer that, but if these people were to turn their attention from transforming philanthropy to lobbying their Government for a reassessment of priorities, I bet they could.

I return to my wisdom circle, only to discover someone has pinched the talking stick. We look at each other in silence wondering,  ‘Who ‘ll  be first to break the mould?’ Not me, that’s for sure…’

(This article has been adapted from a feature that first appeared in the US journal Contributions magazine in 2003.)


This blog post is part of a series where Ken Burnett takes us back into his own blog archive to share his best timeless posts. These gems are hand-picked by Ken himself.

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett is an author, lecturer and consultant on fundraising, marketing and communications for nonprofit organisations worldwide.


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