Five Minutes for Fundraising with Martin Leifeld [Podcast]

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Amy: Hi, everybody, this is Amy DeVita and thanks for joining us today. I’m really excited to introduce you all to our friend Martin Leifeld. Martin, hello.

Martin: Hello, Amy. So, good to be here with you today.

Amy: Thank you, Martin. I’m glad you could be here too. Today we’re really going to be focusing on fundraising. Martin has a great book called Five Minutes for Fundraising, a collection of expert advice from gifted fundraisers, one of whom he happens to be and he’s going to share some of his best advice for all of us, realizing these are very difficult and challenging times right now. I think his advice will be something we can all kind of look to and strengthen our relationships with our donors. So, before we get started, Martin, why don’t you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself?

You can listen to the episode here:

…before I arrived, there were three seven-figure donors to that campaign. And four years later, when we concluded that campaign, there were 31.

Martin: Sure, Amy. Well, I grew up in Minnesota, a small town in the Mississippi River not far from St. Paul Minneapolis area, and was privileged, fortunate enough to get a college education and so on and kept working. And looking back now, I’m now 65. So, looking back now, I’ve had 40 plus years and leadership roles. 25 of those years, we’re actually working at universities, several universities. And also 25 years of those were devoted to fundraising as my primary responsibility in addition to administrative duties, and they didn’t exactly overlap with my university experience. But I retired from the University of Missouri St. Louis, where I was Vice Chancellor for 10 years, about a year and a half ago. And since then, kind of say I’m an author, coach, consultant, and speaker, and you mentioned the book, I appreciate that. It’s a great book, not just because I contributed but 26 other experts did. But I’m also doing some other work. I’ve got– If people go to MartinLiefeld.com, there’s about 125 videos, actually, they’re mostly brief videos from one minute to full-length presentations, on fundraising, and on leadership. And that’s a part of what I do. I have a fairly big following on LinkedIn, and I post there regularly and it’s all really about trying to give back now, based on the fact that the fundraising profession, the nonprofit sector has been such a blessing in my life.

Amy: And speaking of your life, you know, as I was reading the book, I was definitely struck by the early childhood influences around you through your family and your community that I think may have helped lead you toward a life of helping others and fundraising.

Martin: Well, I grew up as I mentioned in a small town, Hastings, Minnesota was, I think it was less than 10,000, maybe 5,000 back when I was a child. But I grew up in a humble family that was a very value base, spirituality was in the middle of it all and I have four older sisters and younger brother, all of whom are living right now. And we grew up together in a modest home. My mother was a homemaker and my father was a janitor working in elementary schools. And we grew up, I have to say with very little, though I never felt like I didn’t have what I wanted back in those days. Those were simpler times. And we had each other of course, and we had the community that surrounded us and relatives and all. And what was really, you know, when I think about a formative experience for me when I was growing up was, of course, the example of my parents. And my parents tithed their income, 10%, they tithed their income to charities and on a janitor salary. And I’ve got, we, all my siblings now have books of the registers my dad kept with you know, they’d be on a page and it’d be you know, so many cents for breads, so many cents from milk and then so many cents going to the local church or what have you. And we have examples of how my parents did that over the decades. But the thing is Amy, my brother and I went through private high school, all six of us went through private college and our parents helped, of course, shouldered much of that to make it happen on a janitor salary less 10%. And you know, isn’t that–

Amy: Pretty hard to imagine these days. Yeah.

Martin: Well, I think it was hard to imagine actually in those days too.

Amy: In those days, yeah.

Martin: But anyway, you know what that served to do I think for not just me but all my siblings. Actually, all my siblings, their careers were in broadly speaking, helping professionals– helping professions. You know, it highlighted for me that number one, there’s always enough resources somehow. Resources in one sense are limitless or sufficiently present, and maybe we’ll talk about that more in terms of fundraising in a minute. And that there’s nothing more beautiful than giving away what you have in order to help others. But that’s something rarely, a privileged thing to do. And I think that kind of, those kinds of values really served to move me eventually, most all of my career actually has been in the nonprofit sector. And I think I got there without thinking it through, of course, as a young person. But I landed there because of that kind of formative experience with my family and my parents.

Amy: Yeah. And according to research, a lot of people who give have learned it early on in childhood. So, that’s, I guess, not a terribly unusual path. And we’re really happy that you took that. So, over your year, the time you spent specifically at the University of Missouri St. Louis, you headed up some really amazingly audacious campaigns. So, tell us a little bit about what your approach was and things that people can you know, like I said, lean into these times because this, when you started this, if I’m not mistaken, you started this at the basically around the same time as the Great Recession?

Martin: Yeah. Well, little did I know, in August of 08, I started as the Vice Chancellor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and they were in the quiet phase of the campaign and I was to take it public in the next 12 months. And little did I know that a month later, kind of the economics sky would fall, and we would enter into this incredibly dark, confusing period, economically, so much uncertainty with people losing significant pieces of the value of their estates and so on. And in that sense, there’s some similarities to where we find ourselves today. And I noticed, observed in talking with people that you know, any number of organizations were suspending campaigns and others were stopping campaigns. And I didn’t want to do that because I just arrived and they hired me to make something happen with this campaign, the first one ever at the University of Missouri St. Louis, comprehensive campaign. And I remember as I was kind of working through this, reading an article and in that article, Robert Sharp, who is a great consultant in the southeast United States was quoted as saying that some organizations raised more money during the Great Depression than they did beforehand in the roaring 20s. Well, that really struck me. And that, it was like the last piece of permission I needed. And I went to the Chancellor, Tom George and said, we are moving full steam ahead. And of course, you know, that was kind of jumping headlong into darkness.

But we got very busy, very focused, and began engaging with past supporters and so many new supporters because the university was so young. The Alumni really hadn’t been engaged and certainly, in those alumni with you know, greater resources at their disposal really had not been engaged. So, we got busy, and what’s remarkable as I look back on it, Amy is the fiscal year there was July, one to June 30. And at the end of that year, that 2008, 2009 year, we had raised 54%, more than the prior year, which had been the best year at that institution. I was getting calls and requests for interviews as well as our Chancellor, and it just kind of shocked the St. Louis Community because– it shocked everybody, frankly. And of course, we were kind of puzzled. How do we get here? We had put our heads down and worked so hard, but what we found was this, going to donors and making the case, of course, respecting the fact that these were difficult times, we got fair hearings. And those who wanted to invest, couldn’t invest, perhaps to the degree that they had wanted to. Otherwise, or worked with us to shape gift commitments, that would be longer than perhaps the university would have wanted to originally or would have had deferred giving state components that they may not have considered doing otherwise. But the donors wanted to work with us as we wanted to work with them. And long story short, in the first three years of that campaign before I arrived, there were three seven-figure donors to that campaign. And four years later, when we concluded that campaign, there were 31. So, we added 28, seven-figure donors plus lots and lots of donors at more modest levels and lots of lots of more donors than the university had ever had giving to the institution. So, not to again, draw too close up Parallel here, because these are remarkably interesting and very challenging times for us. But I think the illustration can be helpful in that my advice that I’ve been giving to those I’m working with and that other consultants are, as I talk with other consultants is, number one, nonprofits should not stop what they’re doing. And certainly, in terms of how they engage with their donor community, they should not stop. They should be communicating. They should be using this time to talk with their donors, communicate with their donors, and as appropriate ask their donors sensitively, of course, for support during this time. 

Amy: But when you’re suggesting to reach out to the donors, is there a particular channel, medium that you put you suggest is best or?

So, we can’t physically, shake hands literally (because of COVID 19) but we can do that in other means, the more personal the better, of course

Martin: You know, there’s many mediums. The one medium you don’t use right now is face to face as in physically. So, a lot of the folks I’m working with video calls, they’re using resources like Zoom, what we’re using today, FaceTime and other resources to have that visual exchange with their donors. And of course, phone work can work well as can written communications. But the point is that we reach out, we don’t reach out begging, we reach out saying, “How are you doing? How are your loved ones selling? What are you thinking about all of this? How are you kind of adjusting your life accordingly?” And you start there and we listen. I’ve always said if you want to grow a relationship listen 80% of the time and listen, invite them to talk because first of all, donors shouldn’t be viewed as checkbooks, they should be viewed and respected as people, the people that they are. And if we approach them that way, they’re going to reciprocate and say, well, how are you doing? How’s your organization doing and that creates an opportunity, a moment in time to be able to say, well, this is how we’re doing. And if you’re challenged financially because of what’s happened, if you have a particular part of your organization, or maybe the entirety of your organization, like an area Food Bank, is under great pressure and demand to serve clients that serve your mission; you can talk about that and ask for their assistance. So, yeah, we can’t physically, you know, shake hands literally but we can do that in these other means, the more personal the better of course, Amy.

Amy: Absolutely. I love that. I think that’s spot on and the folks who, you know we reach out to during these times with questions of how are you, sincere questions and listening to them; those are the folks that are going to remember you were there for them. What I like too is the listening because oftentimes if you listen to them, they’ll tell you how best to work with them.

Martin: Listening, perhaps is the most powerful tool we have as fundraisers.

Amy: Before you were at the university, you had worked with a smaller– an organization in a more rural location. Can you give us a little insight into that and how the opportunities there differed? And just any kind of general advice for fundraisers who are in a different situation than maybe a university setting?

Martin: Right. Sure. Well, this when I arrived at this organization, it’s in Southern Illinois, it’s a rural situation, and it was– I spent 10 years and kind of learned fundraising soup to nuts, but kind of had to start it from scratch or restart what they had in place. And one of the things I created in the first year on the job was the giving society which recognized you know, gifts of varying sizes, major gifts, so to speak. And in most places as I looked around and did research to prepare this, a major gift started at $1,000, an annual major gift, I should say. And as I assessed the giving history of the group, those that supported this organization, I didn’t see that happening. So, what I did is I started the giving level of this society at $500. And it got a lot of people giving that would not have maybe gone up to $500 a year otherwise. And every year we would ask them to please consider making that gift commitment again, and if possible to raise it. And what we saw over the course of those 10 years is giving, many, many donors continuing to increase their giving as they were able to from year to year.

So, and while we would have loved to have started that society at 1,000 or heck, $2,500 we had to work with who we had and where we were. I think if we would have come out at $1,000 you know, we wouldn’t have had the success ultimately over time that we had by biting engagement and you bringing benefits to people at a gift level that they would feel more comfortable at. And we made that giving available over the course of a year. So, you know, $500 over 12 month is $40 or so. So, it was more affordable for people to think about reaching that level. Kind of once we got the annual giving going, we began doing some special gift work, major gift work and this was my first time doing that. And now to criss-cross southern Illinois, listening to audio cassettes in those days, I don’t know if you know what an audio cassette is Amy, but audio cassettes in the car.

Amy: Of course. Hey, I grew up with eight tracks, so we’re good.

I found it kind of intimidating this idea of going and asking people face to face for money.

Martin: You get it, you know, listening to experienced fundraisers. And I found it, I’m an introvert, by the way. So, I found it kind of intimidating this idea of going and asking people face to face for money. I used to criss-cross Southern Illinois and I would rehearse out loud in my car repeatedly. You know, kinda like John and Mary, would you give $10,000, you can pay this over four years in order to support education for such and such. And I would repeat it and repeat it and repeat it in the car because otherwise, I would get in their home or an office and there’d be distractions or I would feel, I don’t know, timid, and I wouldn’t get the job done and it’s a long ride home across Southern Illinois, if you didn’t do what you set out to do in the first place. And so what I learned through all that, and for those of you who are listening in are just kind of getting into this work, is to be successful in major gift work; it’s all about preparation. And I have to say rehearsals. Prepare yourself as thoroughly as you can, which helps in and of itself to relieve you of anxiety, worry, and fear and then practice the actual paragraph or sentences that you are going to use certainly when you get to the point of asking someone for money. It helps you to get it out, it’s as simple as that. And you know, over time, and by the way, I think I’ve had hundreds of donor engagements in the course of my career. And for each one, I would do that kind of preparation, and not necessarily rehearse to the degree I did. But I would rehearse and I would call in other fundraisers and other people to talk through what I would do in advance, so that I could be as clear and as confident as possible before I went to engage with the prospective donors.

Amy: I think that’s some great advice. As we were talking earlier, I told you that my background is in publishing and that primarily is sales. So, there is definitely something to be said for preparing for your meeting to your client, or in this case, your donor, rehearsing what you’re saying. And now that you feel comfortable saying it, and it’s not like really hard to spit out those words. You know, Martin, can you support us with this gift? And the more you say it out loud, the more comfortable you are and confident. Martin, these are difficult times. I mean, there’s just this, we don’t really have anything to really compare what we’re going through right now to. What advice do you have for those brothers and sisters out there who are fundraising and facing these challenging times?

Martin: To my brothers and sisters, fundraising professionals and volunteers, be talking to one another, reach out to your peers, because we’re all in this together. You know, ask one another what are you doing and how are you facing this, facing that? Get advice and counsel and examples and perspectives that give you a sense of oh well, how might one thing or another apply to my situation? Go to the professional organizations like the Association for Fundraising Professionals or case and you know, I don’t know if you’re like me, Amy, but I get downloads of good advice from postings, I should say and emails from all kinds of consultancies, and leaders that are filled with insight and wisdom, nuggets that can be put to use. I’d also say certainly use this as a time to further educate yourself. You know, get five minutes for fundraising as a book and read it.

Amy: That’s a perfect– Exactly, perfect segue. We all have five minutes, but the book is really phenomenal. So, definitely recommend it.

Martin: Go to websites like MartinLiefeld.com, in fact, I should say back on the call, the preparation point if you go to MartinLiefeld.com and click on the free downloads, there’s a call preparation worksheet, which is a template. They’re available for folks to use. I’ve used it, my people have used it or a form of it for years. But I would also say this on a personal level, you know, of course, this doesn’t just affect us as professionals, this is just unbelievably challenging for us as human beings. And for many of us as we were sharing before, I have somebody very near me as a colleague that’s going through COVID-19 and pneumonia, a terrible challenge for her. We may have somebody in our family, we’re probably a degree or two away from people we know who have passed away because of it or who may pass away because of it, it’s just an incredible moment.

what moments like this give us is an opportunity to reassess.

But even in spite of all of this, what moments like this give us is an opportunity to reassess. And the question I posed to myself and I would suggest others consider is what matters most? Given this moment in time, Martin what matters most? Amy, what matters most to us? Let’s think about that. Let’s answer that question. Let’s write it down. It’s a moment to really reassess. Let’s reach out, you know, depending on our families and how we engage in culturally and so on; we may or may not be more verbal and how we express our affection and our appreciation and our love for others. But now’s the time to do so. Now’s the time to say hey, I’m just calling to say I’m worried about you, I’m concerned. Thanks for what you’ve meant to me. I love you. And hopefully, you’ll receive those kinds of experiences yourself. Because after you strip it away and when you strip it away, family, friends, community, our engagement with other people is I think one of the things that of course matters most certainly to me, and I think too many people.

Amy: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I certainly hope that everyone out there listening is staying healthy and following guidelines and I encourage you to reach out to us, you know, certainly can reach out anytime if there’s, you just want someone to vent to who’s not one of your colleagues or family members that you might be currently isolated with, which is our situation in New Jersey. And also too, we all have our coping mechanisms, so I might have nervous laughter that seems certainly, it’s more of just this uncertainty and providing information like this, it’s a way to keep busy and kind of try to maintain some level of normalcy in otherwise haywire situation. So, I just like to let folks know that that’s the intent here is to be as helpful as we can be, and certainly not ignoring the humanitarian side of all of what’s going on right now. So, that being said, I thank you so much, Martin. I will include that link to your site so that people can download that template for the people who do you want to kind of go head down and get some work to stay busy. But you know, really, that engagement and reaching out to people is such a powerful thing, especially in a time where we’re all so isolated. Martin…particular thought you’d like to leave us with?

Martin: Whether we’re thinking about fundraising or you know, a professional dimension or personal dimension of our lives, here’s what I think about the entirety of my life, and I hope it’s true for everyone. And that is, I’ve been surrounded by goodness. I’ve lived a privileged life. I’ve been surrounded by loving people. I have a wife that loves me unconditionally. I have children that love me unconditionally, siblings and so on. There’s a lot more love around us than sometimes we take the time to appreciate. And we’re also in a position to reach out to love others, however, we express that. And I encourage people during this time to draw strength from one another and draw strength as you think back on your life and all the good that you’ve been so fortunately fortunate to experience and to have.

Amy: Thank you. That’s perfect. All right. And thank you all for all the good that you’re doing every day, and I hope you take some comfort too in all of the good that surrounds you, as Martin suggested. Thank you. Thanks, Martin.

Martin: Thank you, Amy.

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Amy DeVita

Amy DeVita is managing partner at TopNonprofits. A publisher, entrepreneur, mother, wife, social media enthusiast and fan and avid supporter of the do-gooders in the nonprofit/ for-impact sector. She has written for TopNonprofits and Third Sector Today; she has been quoted on pieces about social media and social impact on The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. She was named to the Leading Women Entrepreneurs in NJ Monthly and was a member of Social Media for Nonprofits' Leadership Council. In her spare time she enjoys kayaking, yoga, hiking, traveling, and playing Scrabble. Amy lives in New Jersey with her husband, two children, and three dogs. In 1984 she earned the "Most Improved Average" honor on her bowling league.