Gorge Non-Profit Day: Mike Westby’s Take on Development
Mike Westby Comments
Nov. 3, 2011
Gorge Non Profit Day
The Dalles, Oregon
So a chicken and a pig get lost on a hike in the woods, and by the time they make it back to the
trail head they’re both starving. They see a restaurant just up the road and decide to stop. The
sign outside the restaurant says: Breakfast Special, Eggs and Bacon, and the chicken says
“man, that sounds great, let’s go in,” to which the pig replies, “I really can’t do that.” When the
chicken asks him why the pig replies: “You don’t understand, for you it’s a donation; for me it’s a
The job of development is not to merely collect donations, it’s to generate commitments.
Commitments are by their nature, deeper than donations, commitments are more meaningful,
commitments often define and defend a personal interest. Commitments endure.
Commitments are evergreen.
One of the services our consulting firm offers is executive searches. On one search in a
community somewhere here in the Pacific Northwest I was interviewing one of what we call
“ambassador referrals,” these are recruited community leaders who agree to help us discover
talent. One such community leader was telling me just last year that he – sadly – had no one
within the development field in his community that he could refer for a particular Vice
President of Advancement position.
He described the development people whom he encountered, which were numerous for he
was a man of deep capacity … he described them as “mostly interested in my money, and not a
lot of fun to talk to. They lack imagination and creativity in their work,” he said. “They are so
busy trying to get to my wallet that they will never get to my bank account. No, he concluded,
you would be better off getting someone fresh, with no development experience, who is a people person. Someone who wants to put up with an old codger like me. Then he looked at me with a sparkle in his eye, and he said sincerely: “who really wants to – not who fakes it. Do you get the difference?”
Oh, I get the difference. The man’s comments weighed heavily on me and influenced our work on that search. We did end up following his advice and included a “fresh face” to the candidate pool, and that fresh face successfully competed for the job and holds it today.
Now in retrospect, I consider his indictment of non profit advancement was not accurate in the
broad brush, although it most certainly was his real experience in that community at that time.
I do encounter people in development who get that they are not in the money business, but
rather in the people business. That relationships are more important to build than new
facilities or endowments. But those people – the ones who get it – are too rare for the good of
Development staff work in a fish bowl, which is to say that their work is highly visible. And
most often the metric that gets measured is how much. It can become a numbers game: the
numbers of donations and the numbers those donations add up to.
I can see that referral ambassador covering his wallet with his hand and smiling. “Too busy
trying to get to my wallet,” he said.
So how do we elevate our game? How do we get past donations to commitments? Past what’s
in our wallets, to what’s in our bank accounts – and beyond?
Raising money isn’t the challenge. Raising a vision is. . And once we raise our vision it changes
our conversations … from awkward and pedantic, to inspiring and passionate. We can talk
more about possibilities than projects.
I had a client once – a university – and its president, who was my liaison on the contract was
responding to one of the questions I routinely ask when starting my work. “Our vision, Mike?”
he said. “Oh now that’s exciting. Our vision is to build a new science wing on campus.” And he
poked a finger though his half open blinds to a flat green spot next to the administration
Now he was a tenured professor who had ascended the presidency through the academic track,
but it was at this point where I became the teacher. It was a short – and careful – lecture in the
form of a question . “I am not sure that you understood what I was asking,” I said. “I suppose I
am interested in why you need a new science wing?”
“Oh,´he said. “That’s easy. We need to meet a huge need in the region and in the whole
country for that matter, for entomologists.” And he went on to make a beautiful case for the
“And that is what we call a vision. The science wing,” I submitted is just a means for
accomplishing the vision. “Ahh,” he said with a smile. “I get it.” And he did get it. The
message and – ultimately – the science wing.
Mission Statements. Vision Statements. Value Statements. Case Statements. We use this
vernacular to describe ourselves in the organizational world. I find that in the non profit world
we often in fact mis- use them. In our work, we routinely encounter mission statements
written through rose colored glasses that inflate an organization’s purpose, or vision
statements that merely enhance the mission statement.
A recent workshop that we routinely conduct on establishing or refreshing mission and vision
started in an interesting way. We were told in a few of our one-on-one interviews with board
members beforehand that the organization had only recently re-written their mission and
vision statements, that they were deeply committed to those and did not really see the need
for the workshop, but were going along with the majority.
I started the workshop by passing out copies of the mission and vision statements. What I
didn’t tell them at the time was that I had switched them; meaning that under the word
mission was actually the vision and vice-verse. I asked them if those were the correct
statements and to a person they all nodded confidently in the affirmative. Then I told them
that I had switched them. They looked – puzzled at first, then glancing down at their sheets I
saw the lights start to come on. They began smiling and chuckling even.
I offered that when we were finished refreshing their mission and vision statements there
would be no way that could ever happen again. If I switched the new statements it would
throw the whole organization in reverse.
A mission is who you are and what you do. A vision is – or at least should be – where you are
going. A proper vision should be more than an internal document, it should be a community
impact statement. It should answer two questions. Who is our market in five or ten years?
And what will they need from us? … Who is our market in five or ten years? And what will they
need from us?
And if our mission is who we are and the vision is where we are going, our priorities – our
projects, whether they be bake sales or capital campaigns – are just a mode of transportation
to get you there. To get you to your vision. In this metaphor your values – your set of beliefs –
act as guideposts.
How do you decide what your priorities are? Good question. I get asked that a lot, actually. My
answer is: those strategies or initiatives that ground themselves in the mission, take you to
your vision and align with your values. Those that do that best are your top priorities. How
many priorities should you have? Well I would submit that having too many priorities actually
means that you have none.
A gentleman gets a call from his doctor following a recent medical exam. The doc says I have
bad news and worse news, I’m afraid, which would you like first? The patient swallows hard
and says resolutely, “I’ll take the bad news.” The Doctor says with compassion, “You only have
two days to live.” The man gasps as the words settle in, and from the fog in his brain says, “two
days to live, doc? What could be worse than that?” To which the doctor replies, “I meant to call
Obviously, the doctor didn’t have follow up with patients as a priority.
To keep from majoring in the minors, we suggest three to four priorities to provide sufficient
focus. At a sub-strata level of course, departments and programs within an organization should
have their own priorities. Priorities are needs, not wants. They are mission and vision centric,
critical to success.
But remember … the priorities are only the means of transportation.
When you tell family or friends about an upcoming vacation, do you tend to focus on the
destination of the transportation. (Cruisers are disqualified). Now, how you get there is
interesting for sure. It needs to be safe, affordable, practical, hopefully comfortable. But it is
usually only important in its relationship to the destination. Our vision is a destination. And it
should be exciting. It should also lead to a question about the transportation.
“Going to the Grand Canyon, huh? How ya gonna get there?” “Flying to Flagstaff and renting a
car.” “Oh, we did that trip once,” and off you go on a conversation, not a presentation.
The case statement should not be a cumbersome sales pitch about a project. It ought to sound
more like an exciting conversation about vacation plans. The more that it does, the more you
will separate yourself from the wallet grabbers of the world. And the more you separate
yourself from bad, or even average practitioners, the more you will separate your organization
Just out of curiosity, how many non profits do we have here today? And how many people
have a responsibility for some are of fund development? Take a look at yourselves as I tell the
following little story.
A group of execs are off on a company retreat out the woods of Oregon. Two of them take
advantage of a break and head out on a day hike. They have their brand new Northface day
packs and Danner hiking boots on as they tromp along. Suddenly they hear a growl behind
them and see a flash of fur that they instantly recognize as a bear. They begin to scramble to an
upper trail and take off running, still hearing growls behind them. One of the men abruptly
stops and pulls his running shoes from the backpack. Incredulously his friends stops and asks:
“What are you doing, Hal … you’ll never outrun that bear. Hal pulls on his second running shoe
and jumps to his feet in stride. From a distance his buddy hears Hal yell … “I don’t have to
outrun the bear!”
We need to pull on our running shoes. We need to create distance from ourselves and those
who can’t or won’t do the work. This does not just speak to the person who carries the title of
development officer or director. It applies to the whole organization, including the top staffer
and the board.
Many organizations view development as a department. It is really an organizational mindset.
The priority starts with the board and the executive office. In the education world – especially
higher ed – the president is really the top development officer. He closes the really big gifts. In
all non profit work, the top staffer needs to be integrally involved in development.
A small part of development is actually asking for money. Ninety five percent of development
has nothing to do with asking for money. It is all relationships, specifically managing
relationships in a systemic way to explore and expand involvement and investment.
Effective development is stunted by the fear that everyone has to ask everyone for money all
the time. Board members fear being turned into pariahs – or Amway Salesmen – which is sort
of the same thing.
Good development concentrates budget and firepower on cultivation and stewardship, not on
solicitation. … I will say again … Good development concentrates budget and firepower on
cultivation and stewardship, not on solicitation.
There are five steps that should be in your moves management system:
Identification is the point where you are surfacing potential prospects; we call them suspects at
this point. This is followed by the information stage, where you are gaining information about
them, and sharing information about you. Invitation is as simple as it sounds. Find creative
ways to interact with them … events, tours, work days. You name it. After the successful
invitation – by successful I mean that they accepted and attended – you have the basis for a
relationship, which we call involvement. When investment follows these steps it is more likely
to on the commitment end of the scale, as opposed to donations. Donations happen when the
process is ignored, short circuited, or rushed.
Good development is good discipline.
All that said, the five I’s … Identification, Information, Invitation, Involvement, and Investment
are only a system. An effective and proven system, for sure, but still only a structure.
Ultimately your organization will be judged on a prospect’s affinity for your mission and vision
as meaningful compass points, his or her alignment with your values as guideposts, and a
confidence in your “chosen form of transportation” – your priorities – to get there.
Where is your organization going in the next five to ten years? How confident are you in that
direction? Is the destination a place worth getting to? And why?
These are the questions that when answered provide for the exciting conversations that make
our work less challenging; more enjoyable, and most rewarding.
These are the answers that remind us that what we are doing has great purpose and meaning.
I don’t know about you, but I need those reminders.
A policeman is following a couple cars behind a pickup with a camper on the back of it. At every
stop sign the driver gets out of the truck with a baseball bat and gives the camper a few whacks.
The cop finally decides to pull him over. “What’s the problem officer?” the driver asks. “Well,
I’ve been watching you at the intersections and while it is not exactly illegal I do have to ask you
what you’re doing.” Oh that, the driver,” says. You see I bought a ton of canaries today and
they’re loaded the camper of my half ton pickup there.” “So …” the officer shrugs. “Well, it’s a
ton of canaries as I said, and I gotta keep half of them flying.”
Development is a lot like that, I think. I wish you luck good luck keeping half your canaries flying. Thank you for the opportunity share some ideas with you this afternoon.