Sunday, January 31, 2010

Is Permanence Obsolete?

It used to be that if you named a building or purchased a pew, your name would be remembered in perpetuity.  Your children's children would walk through that building, or sit in that pew.  Every day, or every week, your descendants would be inspired by your accomplishments and would, perhaps, be inspired to follow your example.  Over the past century community foundations have grown quickly by creating endowment funds that distribute their earnings, and the donor's name, forever.  They do so without naming buildings, or rooms, or pews, at all.  While those endowments are not the bricks and mortar of a building they inspire the community all the same.

However, there is a murmur in the meeting rooms of community foundations today.  There is a sense of discomfort like that brought on by a sudden change in barometric pressure.  Is something headed our way?  Was Andy Warhol right?  Is permanence obsolete?

1968, Andy Warhol famously said "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." With the proliferation of reality shows, fragmentation of popular culture, and instant success of YouTube, many social commentators have suggested that he was right, although his quote might be updated to 10 minutes from 15.  I used to think that Warhol's insight was simply a statistical artifact.  We know more famous people from last year than from a hundred years ago.  It just seems like fame is more fleeting because more of the famous people we know are the recently famous.  Now I see it differently.  To be famous forever now takes a different approach.

Andy Warhol's quote has two parts.  Everyone focuses on the 15 minutes part.  Filling those fifteen minute times slots, every hour, on the hour means there are lots of famous folks.  Newsmakers themselves generate this glut of names.  Nearly every nonprofit has "naming opportunities;" from the entire building to the basement mop closet.  With each gift there is the obligate press release.  As a result there is simply too much noise, too many people are being honored, too much news.  What once was shouted from the rooftops (literally, as when the frieze below the cornice is etched with donor names or the donor's iconography) is now shouted from all communication platforms.  Because of the numbers of notables nobody gets more than the 15 minutes allocated to them but each of those 15 minute time slots gets filled up.  Having your name in the news is not leaving a legacy.  Creating a legacy takes more than making a splash.

The second part of the Warhol quote is the "world-famous" part.  We live in a much larger world than ever before.  Our families fragment.  Children move away.  The vast majority of donors who give today through community foundations create donor-advised funds.  These funds convert to general endowment funds at the death of the donor's immediate children.  One contributor to a donor-advised fund said to me:

"It is quite likely that my grandkids will not know this community.  They will not know why I give here.  It is best that whoever runs the community foundation, when the time comes, decide where is the greatest need here in my community."  

We move so easily today that few of us live in the communities of our grandparents.  Naming a building or a park does not mean your children's children's children will see the results of your generosity.  Those great-grandchildren may be living in Kansas by that time...or on the Jovian moon Io.

Our cities and towns are cluttered with monuments.  Our children live away.  What's a legacy-minded donor to do?  The murmur in the meeting rooms of community foundations is that virtual memorials are gaining over those marked in marble.  Not "virtual" in the new sense of electronic, rather "virtual" in the sense of not literally being etched in stone but being honored as if it were.  The explosive increase in donor-advised funds is a result of a desire to create a legacy that  lasts more than 15 minutes and is not weighed down by masonry.  It is not that permanence is obsolete, but rather the obsolescence of the thinking that instant fame means legacy. 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I've Some Bad News...A $100,000 Check Came In Response To Our Annual Appeal Letter

Imagine the scene.  The postal worker drops off some envelopes that are held together with a rubber band.  Most are responses from the recent year-end appeal letter.  The first has a check for $500.  Nice.  That pays for the postage and printing.  The second is for $25.  Okay, that's nice.  A good start for a new donor.  The third is for...wait a minute, $100,000!  That can't be.  There is a handwritten note on the response card: "Your suggested gift categories are not big enough.  Ask people for more."

Gulp.  What would you do next?  I asked the Board of the tiny nonprofit in Georgetown County, South Carolina that got this check about what they were going to do next.  What would you suggest they do?.

Let's start with the obvious...send a Thank You note.  Not just a formal gift acknowledgement, but a thank you note from each member of the Board on their own personal stationary.  The donor wished to remain anonymous so the thank you notes should be addressed to:  "Generous Donor,"  "Dear Friend," and "Good Neighbor" rather than with the donor's name.  The Executive Director makes sure that the notes get to the proper hand delivering them as they deliver their own personal and face-to-face thank you.

It turns out that the generous donor was known to the Executive Director and that they had given before.  However, the harsh reality is that this particular donor was not appropriately cultivated, was not on the radar, was not fully informed of the organization's needs.  This is a warning sign to both the Board and the Executive Director.  They need to get the word out and they need to create a plan to cultivate prospective donors.

To add insult to injury, the direct mail campaign that yielded the $100,000 check had a response rate of over 15% (that in an environment where 2% is considered "good").

While I might be accused of making a sow's ear out of a silk purse, I can think of no clearer signal that the Board needs to get out there and tell the organization's story.  The outsized success of the mailed appeal, while wonderfully good news, also signals trouble.  Something's not quite right when there is too much of a good thing.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Click to connect. Click to engage.

Our new 2009 Annual Report to the Community highlights not only the Honor Roll of Legacy donors, a growing list of funds/endowments, and over 600 remarkable nonprofits who received over $12 million in funding in the areas of arts, education, environment, health, human needs, and neighborhood and community development; but also demonstrates how you-- as a steward of philanthropy-- can find creative ways to be generous, energetic, engaging, and strategic about your role in making the Lowcountry a better place to live.

In this report, you will find that you can connect with the charities that you hold dear to your heart but also learn about new ones. You will see how Coastal Community Foundation engages with a broad spectrum of the community in order stay tried and true to our 35-year old mission of fostering philanthropy for the lasting good of the community. But most importantly, you will see that you can get involved, like others have, to make a difference.

Click to connect. Click to engage.