E5 – Making a difference every day with Paul F. Morris
In this episode, you can hear my interview with Paul F. Morris. Paul works as a professional fundraiser for Elevate Oregan.
You will hear about how Paul found his calling within fundraising as a young guy, and how the words he uses when speaking with potential donors have a huge influence.
The transcribed version of the interview is available further down.
Paul F. Morris
Diana: In today’s episode I am speaking with Paul Morris and he has years and years of experience within fundraising. So I’m very, very excited to speak to Paul. Welcome to the podcast.
Paul: Well, thanks very much for the invitation. Fundraising is the most fun activity that I can possibly think of having. So, I’m really excited to be talking with you today.
Diana: I am so glad to hear that. I think it’s so important to make fundraising fun hence the title of the podcast. But Paul, tell me a bit about how you got into fundraising and what it is that makes you tick within fundraising?
Paul: Yeah, sure. I started raising money because I could not get a job cleaning swimming pools for a summer while I was in college. My plan originally was to go to law school and, be a trial attorney, but I needed a job and I thought, well, I’ll just, find some kind of summer job because I had a great work/study job on the campus, of the university that I attended and I’ll go back to that. Lo and behold, I could not find a reasonable summer job. I contacted our student employment office. They said You can do work/study, here in the local area. One of the jobs that had just come in was in the development departments, of the local organization that supports people living with HIV and AIDS. It seemed intriguing.
The two main criteria that they were looking for was a student who is working towards a degree in marketing English or communications and knew how to use a Mac. That was like literally the only two qualifying criteria. I have a degree in communications. I know how to use a Mac computer and so they hired me, on my first day, the Development Director, who was the only other person who was in the development department gave me a quick tour, said, here’s your desk, here’s a phone, a list of corporate prospects to do some follow-up on for sponsorship of our annual event. Can you do it? And me being very eager to make a good impression and all of 19 said, absolutely.
So, I started calling and I left a lot of messages and then I got some nos and then a supporter that had been a supporter previously, they actually picked up the phone. Told them who I was while I was calling and they said, yes, they would be happy to continue their support and that felt really great. Then I left a bunch of other messages and got a couple more nos and that was kind of it for the day. I did that, got through the list, and about three weeks into my job, I realized there was just something that clicked for me. I realized that working in non-profit fund development was what I was meant to do. This is what I was called to do.
The idea of going to law school went right out the window and, and I’ve now been working in the non-profit development field for, almost 30 years. I’ve worked in a wide variety of organizations at that time, but it comes back to every day I get to feel like I’ve made a difference for something important in the community that I’m living in. I wouldn’t have it any other way to be perfectly honest. I mean, it’s hard work. Don’t get me wrong. It is really hard work and I still get told no a lot, but I know that this is what I am supposed to be doing. I feel very grateful that I was able to discover very early on something meaningful and deep and, sustaining. So, even when it’s been difficult, I know that I’m doing the right thing. In my mind, there’s no other alternative. I’m not going to go and do something else because I would miss it too much. It would feel like part of me was missing.
Diana: I’m a bit envious of that feeling I do have it now, but I’m 37 and I’ve just found it. I think it’s amazing that you found this at such a young age like you’re saying, can you tell me what was that feeling that made you say, this is just what I am going to spend my life on? Is it the yeses or is it doing something for something bigger
Paul: That’s a great question and I would say, I think that anyone can fundraise. It’s about, if you have a passion for something, if you see something that you want to change, I think anyone can find the ability to fundraise and fundraise well at any age. I just happened to be very fortunate to discover it at a very young age. For me in my experience, it’s about the game of it all, or the process, because asking where you’re going to get a yes, a no, or a maybe it’s a very small part of the overall process. Think of it like a puzzle the picture that’s on the box that finished picture. That’s the mission or the cause that we’re working towards. What I get to do every day is find the pieces and connect them to create that finished picture and that’s really exciting to me.
It’s exciting to identify potential supporters, figure out how to engage them, talk with them, hear what they want and need in their community and figure out where those interests and needs intersect with the mission of the organization that I’m working in. Then being able to say to someone where your interests are and where our plan is this is where they align and I’d like you to consider making an investment that will get us to that shared place. When someone says, yes, that just reinforces all of the work that goes into getting to that point where it’s time to have that conversation. Getting a yes, and being able to see a donor get really excited about a change that they’re able to make in their community, something that’s really important to them.
That just keeps me going when there are nos or maybes, or it just feels like an entirely overwhelming day. There’s too much to do, not enough time. But it really isn’t so much about the yes, but it’s about that whole process and being able to find the pieces and find the people and put them together and know that that work which is often very intangible is creating something bigger. And so that’s really what has continued to fuel my desire to do this work. It’s not something I can really say, well, it’s X, right. It’s this thing or it’s that thing. It’s this feeling of being part of a greater purpose and then on a tactical level knowing that the skill set that I’ve developed over the years puts me in a position to really know how to identify potential supporters, engage with them in a very authentic way and not fear asking.
Then after that really knowing how to continue to deeply engage them so that they feel really great about this investment that they have made in our mission and they can see the impact and the difference that they’re making. But I think it really starts with the intangible sort of esoteric sense Of purpose, which it probably sounds terribly cliché, but it’s really true. I mean, I wake up every day wanting to do this work.
Diana: And isn’t that what we all dream of?
Paul: I will be the first to tell you that I feel incredibly fortunate to have found something that even on the worst day, I still know that this is what I’m meant to be doing. I feel very fortunate that in the organization that I work in currently, in other organizations that I have been able to work with professional staff and volunteers who share that similar… They may not articulate it the same way. It may not run as deeply within them, but they still feel like they’re part of something bigger and they want to be part of something bigger and they’re very, passionate about it and that’s really exciting.
Diana: I think that would make also the best work environment, working with people who you can really feel that their job is the best for them. I’m just thinking that would be a great place to work.
Paul: Yeah. Well, it sure helps because there are some days when we look at one another and we’re like, why are we doing this? But we still do as we all have. I’ve worked with people who don’t share a similar point of view or similar vision and sense of purpose, and it can be difficult. But, you know, I feel really fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to be in more places than not where the people around me, whether staff or volunteers share that sense bigger purpose and, they pour themselves into it and that just, you know, continues to inspire me. I think that’s the other thing is that on almost a daily basis I get to interact with someone who is passionate about a cause and creating change and they’re excited about it. That is just incredibly inspiring. So I get to feed off of that and I feel a great sense of gratitude.
Diana: Amazing. You used the term investment instead of donating. Is it on purpose that you used that word instead of donating?
Paul: That’s a good question because a lot of fundraising, a lot of development it’s about the words that you use the language that is used and, you know, I don’t believe that there’s any right way to talk about giving. A long time ago. I think I was working with a lot of individual donors who worked in business, you know, whether it was finance, or they owned their own small business, or they, worked in banking. So, they would talk about their work and talk about philanthropy in terms that they were familiar with investment, return, things like that. As I got to thinking about it, it just felt to me, again, no right or wrong way, no right or wrong words.
It felt to me that in talking about giving as an investment, I think it was two things. One is that I felt that that positioned fundraising and giving and making a philanthropic investment as something more serious, in the sense that… I mean, don’t get me wrong giving is a very conscious act. It’s serious. No matter how much you give you’re making a choice and I respect that. But I think at least in the United States, I think that sometimes the nonprofit sector giving it’s perceived as not as important or valuable as something else. But in the United States in 2019, charitable giving came in at. Almost $480 billion. The nonprofit sector is I think the third, third, largest sector right behind retail and manufacturing.
So it’s very legitimate, but it’s often either perceived or treated as or, continued as something like, oh, please give. It’s very sort of Dickensian. Oh, Please may I have some more and we’ll take whatever crumbs you can give us. It’s not that, it is not that it is powerful. It is important. It has an impact. Philanthropy, whether in the United States or anywhere else fills critical gaps that the public sector and the private for-profit sector either cannot or will not fill. So, I believe very strongly that the philanthropic sector needs to be perceived as just as important as retail, as manufacturing, when I’m asking you to make a gift to a cause that you are passionate about it is serious and I recognize that.
The second point why I talk about it in terms of investment is that if you’re giving me money, to achieve a mission, a shared purpose. I want you to feel like you’re a partner in this work. I want you to feel as though you can expect some kind of a return You’re not going to get a financial return, but the return that you can expect is related to mission and impact. You can expect from me that I’m going to come back to you and say this is what your investment achieved.
We saw a 10% increase in literacy. We served 100 more people with food. We housed 50 more people, and I just feel for me, that talking about giving in terms of investing, it feels more active. So, now you’re an active partner in this and this means that we’re going to have an ongoing conversation and you can expect some type of a return. It’s not that you’re just giving me money and it goes off into this black hole and, you have to cross your fingers and hope that you’ll hear from us about what your contribution accomplished.
Diana: I like that approach actually because it’s feeling like it’s more important in some way. I’m not just giving money away. I’m actually getting something and whether it’s the feeling or if its updates or if whatever it is, I am actually getting something for the money. I’m not just giving them away.
Paul: Yeah, exactly. And again, this is something that works for me. It works just for my style, how I think about things, how I talk about them and it seems to work with the donors that, I’ve worked with over the years. I just think it’s an easier way for them to see the impact of their giving to that particular mission, which is what they’re wanting to do. The reason why people give is first off because they are asked. If you don’t ask someone to give or make an investment, a charitable investment or whatever, they’re not going to give.
So, the first thing is that they are asked to give. The second reason why people give charitably is because they want to feel a part of something bigger than themselves even if they make a small investment, $5, $10, they’re still contributing. They’re contributing to something bigger than themselves. So, I think that talking about it in those terms that you make an investment, This is the kind of return that we’re going to achieve.
It just gives people this sense that they are really part of something. It’s also a good way to do ongoing engagement or stewardship after our contribution has been made, because then even if the return didn’t work out the way that we had said or envisioned. That happens and so I find that because it’s more active because people feel more as a partner they’re more understanding.
I don’t know why, they just seem more understanding if something didn’t quite work out the way that we had envisioned. It’s something I picked up. I don’t know exactly when it happened or where, but it seems to work. It seems to work and asking is really hard. There’s a lot that goes into it. There’s like a lot of misperception, a lot of dynamics that go into it and so why not find a way to ask that allows you to be confident. So, if I’m able to be more confident by talking about giving in terms of investing, I should do that because then when it comes time to ask, I’m going to ask either without fear or with a lot less fear.
Diana: That makes sense. Asking can be hard. I want to dig into the process a little bit. Where does that start? Does the process start with the ask or does it start way before that?
Paul: For me, the whole process starts with some initial identification of who would be a good potential supporter. That can come from looking at our current supporters and maybe who hasn’t given for a while or who maybe could give more. It could come through our board. They’re going to introduce the organization to people that they know and we’re going to talk about and create a plan to engage with that person. It could come from people who come to our annual event or just reach out to us.
It could be someone that I meet on a Facebook group or at a party. It really starts with identification and then some qualification of is this person or company a good prospective supporter and is it that therefore worth the time to put a plan, a prospect management plan together to go from identification down to the asking. So, then the next step in the process is what I would call engagement because again, I want this to be a two-way street.
I want you to feel like you’re a partner in this and that I’m really hearing what your wants and needs for the community are. I can articulate to you how those wants and needs intersect with our mission. Then we can start talking about what that could look like. That engagement, that back and forth, that can take a while. It can take a month, two months, it could take a couple of hours in conversation. I don’t put a lot of time limit on it. I would say that if we’ve identified a prospect, we’ve done some engagement after maybe six or eight months if it just doesn’t seem, if the conversation doesn’t seem to be making progress, then I’m going to rethink that plan.
But let’s say just sort of typical prospect, well-qualified, they’re really interested. They’re excited about who we are and what we do. They’ve seen our program in action. After that, then it’s time to ask. I’m really upfront with someone, that I want to talk with them about making a charitable investment to our cause. I don’t want people to feel surprised. I don’t want them to be caught off guard. I prefer to ask in person if I can at a particular gift level. So, they need to know why I want to meet with them. The ask itself, the process of asking has its own process within that. Get the meeting, decide when to meet, get together. It might be myself. I might bring someone that this person knows and trusts along with me.
We’re going to talk for a little while, catch up, and then we’re going to kind of get into it. I’m going to drill into what their wants and needs are, how those align with the vision that we have, and what the plan is, which we’ve already talked about. We’ve already illuminated as something that they’re excited by. Then I’m going to say I’d like you to consider an investment of, and then there’s going to be a number and it’s going to be specific. Then I’m going to stop talking and I’m going to let it be quiet. The reason for that is because hearing yourself being asked to make a charitable investment, especially a larger one is not the most natural thing in the world. They know it’s coming, but the supporter that I’m talking to needs to have the space to process what I’ve just said.
So I’ll ask. In this case, let’s say, Diana, you and we’ve met, we’ve talked, you’re really excited about the work that Elevate Oregon does and you’ve agreed to meet. We’re talking about, an afterschool project and I’m going to say to you, would you consider an investment of $10,000? You need, even though we have a good rapport, you’re familiar with what we’re doing, you’re excited by this. You still need time to process the fact that I’ve just asked you to make a significant investment. If you were not expecting that number, which, often people aren’t, you need to kind of wrap your mind around gosh, do I have that to give, and am I willing to give it?
So, I’ll stop talking and I won’t say anything until the person that I’m meeting with says something. Then once they start talking, there’s only three potential outcomes. They’re going to say yes, they’ll say no or they’ll say maybe. If they say yes, I’m like, fantastic. Thank you so much. This is so awesome. We’re going to be able to do great work together. Then we figure out how they want to be recognized, how they’re going to make their gift. If they say, no, I might probe that a little bit. Maybe the amount is too much. They don’t have it. Well, okay. I always have a second ask in my pocket. I might downshift to like half of what I asked previously or ask them to just renew at the level they had given out previously or it’s just not the right time. A no is okay. I learned early on from a really important mentor who his phrase was, “No is never forever.”
I’ve never forgotten that because it’s so true. Just because someone says no, that doesn’t mean it’s no forever. I mean, unless they tell you that right there. They’re just like not into it. It’s just not the right time. So, then if someone says, maybe that’s an opening to take the next easy step and that is typically when they say maybe they need to think it over a little bit more. Maybe they need to talk with their spouse, partner, friend financial advisor. I’ll ask what kind of information can I give you that will help you towards a decision? Usually, they’ll say, you know, I’d really love to see XYZ and I always say, I can do that and I’ll have that back to you in the next 72 hours.
I try to put a time limit on it or they may have a lot of questions and if I don’t have the answer to the question, I’m going to say that’s a great question. Let me find out and get back to you because the worst thing to do is just make an answer up on the spot. There’s nothing wrong with saying that’s a great question. Let me get back to you with a really solid answer and I’ll get back to you within some defined period of time. That’s the process of asking, but it’s such a small piece of the overall whole. I would say it’s somewhere between three and 5% of the entire development process and everything else around that.
The other 95 to 97% is really about establishing and maintaining and deepening relationships with that potential supporter or current supporter whether it’s an individual or a company or a founder station that a grant’s coming from. It’s really about the relationship that you’re establishing and creating the kind of partnership where that person or company they feel engaged. They feel part of the process. They really understand what’s going on. They understand the impacts that their participation has and we can talk about ideas or strategies and who else to involve. That’s my process.
Diana: I have a question about the ask and more specifically on the amount. How do we figure out what amount to actually ask for in the first place?
Paul: That’s a great question and I don’t think that there’s really any hard and fast rule. Fundraising, there’s a lot of science to it nowadays. It can be very sophisticated, lots of automation, lots and lots of research into effective initiatives and what donors are interested in, and how to talk about the impact and things like that. But there’s a lot of art to it because this is a human endeavor. We’re not pressing out widgets for sale. I do not believe that if I ask you for $10,000 and you immediately say yes, that I’ve somehow left money on the table. What that says to me is that I’ve made the right ask because you’ve said yes. What it means to me is that you’re really into who we are and what we do and if we have a really effective engagement in a relationship then there’s probably more that I could ask for in the future, but you were comfortable at that moment to say yes to that amount.
So, I look at people’s previous giving and I look at how long they’ve been a supporter to see if I can divine whether or not, they’re giving at a particular level and that’s comfortable. Maybe they’ve given for a long time and it’s been cash. So, probably they have more disposable income. I will do some research on where else that person is giving, or I’ll ask them directly. I won’t ask them how much, but I’ll ask what their other philanthropic interests are. I think everyone has them and at the end of the day, I’m making an educated guess based on the conversations that I’ve had with this supporter.
I’m really upfront about what our needs are and what the costs associated with those needs are. They might ask about that. They’re going to say, well, how much does it cost to do X? And I’ll tell them, and I’ll be very honest about it. That’s why that initial engagement, that before you ask is so important and valuable because if you listen if you’re talking with someone and you’re really listening they’ll tell you about where they’re at far as what they’re willing to give. I take all of that information in and I think it over and I make an educated guess. I mean, really at the end of the day, I’m making a pretty educated guess at what I believe someone can invest.
But it really is about what our organization needs and being unafraid to say, hey, we need a $100,000 to do this program. Would you invest 10,000 of that and get us a little bit closer. I will confess that there have been times when I’ve been asking an individual for support where I have changed the amount that I’m asking for either up or down based on the moment that I’m in with them. I have rolled into an ask fully intending to ask for a pretty significant investment, but because of what the person is saying, I’ve, ratcheted that number down because I want to get to a yes and if I ask too high, then we’re going to end up at a lower number anyway.
I have also done the opposite where I’m talking with someone and they’re really excited Unbeknownst to them I’ll increase the amount that I’m going to ask them for because it just feels right in the flow of the conversation. I really do think that it starts with just how much you need for your cause like really need. Don’t undervalue yourself or what you’re doing. Then it’s…
Diana: That sounds like practice, practice, practice.
Paul: Yes. Oh, I am so glad you mentioned that. So, here’s the other thing that, especially for people who are starting out in their career or they are volunteers, or they’ve come to nonprofit fund development for whatever reason. Practicing and ask out loud is so critical. I still do that. I’ve asked thousands of people for money over the years but for a certain type of ask a certain amount of investment that I’m looking for, I will literally practice what I want to say. I will practice it out loud so that it feels natural and I can be confident at the moment.
There’ll be a moment in that conversation where the ask has to happen, that I can get those words out. So practicing, there is a lot of value in that and I think that people, they feel like, asking is some mystical or magical thing. It’s no. It just takes some being methodical, being persistent, and being willing to say out loud I know how important this is for you. It’s incredibly important for us and will you join us by investing X or whatever it is.
Diana: It’s a really good idea with saying it out loud actually because I could see the first time that I would be asking someone to donate $10,000. It would be really hard. So, actually practicing saying that that’s a really good idea. I really wanted to hear about… You wrote to me about this annual event that you do that has amazing results. So, I really want to hear a bit about what that is and how you do that before we wrap up.
Paul: Sure. So, I am not a big fan of events as fundraising tools. The reason for that is because they can be really expensive. They can take a lot of time and it’s really hard to engage with people in an authentic way, sort of face to face. I’ve done plenty of events over the years and inevitably, I want to talk to people who are there. I want to introduce myself here about why they are there, what they’re excited by and I get pulled over way to adjudicate the color of the napkin or deal with people who did not RSVP for the event and now they need a seat or something.
I don’t get to engage with people in that moment. That plus just the cost of events for their return typically, I’m just not a fan of events as fundraising tools. They can be a great, great, great way to engage people. I mean, we can talk for another two hours about how to do terrific engagement events although there are people who are far more expert in that than me. But we do one event and I love it. I cannot take credit for its design. The organization had done it once or twice prior to my joining the organization on the staff level.
What it is, it’s a happy hour style event and so it is a Thursday evening, starts at 5:30, goes until about 8:00 or so. We do not charge people to attend. It’s beer and wine and heavy hors d’oeuvres, maybe a little dessert. We do make an ask at some point in the evening about halfway through, maybe a little bit later into the evening we will do an ask. I think the reason why we’ve had such great success is it’s really easy to come to this event, invite a couple of people you know. You’re only going to be there for an hour, maybe two. It’s not this whole big sit down thing and it’s a lot of speeches and time and the salad course and entrée and dessert and then an auction. It takes like five hours and wipes out your whole night.
You can come right from work. It’s casual. It doesn’t cost anything and then you can go on with your evening. That’s one thing, but then the other thing and why I love this event so much is it is super mission and program-oriented. We don’t do a lot of speeches. We have our kids performing. Our kids are talking. We bring out 20 or 30 kids who participate in our program and they talk about, with people who are in attendance why they’re involved. What’s exciting about Elevate. What they’re planning to do in the future. You can meet our program team and talk with them and it’s very unscripted.
So, when it comes time to ask I think people are feeling really great about that because they’re getting a sense of who we are and what we do directly from the kids that we serve in our program team, and it’s not all polished up with talking points and blah, blah, blah. I’ve observed this event now and I watch it and I watch people get really excited and then they’re talking amongst themselves and the kids are really excited talking about their future and why Elevates important or their teacher/mentor. Then we are unafraid to ask and we’re changing up how we’re going to ask this year to make it a little bit more exciting, even more mission-oriented.
We do a lot of work in advance to secure support prior to the evenings starting. A big part of it is identifying and securing gifts in advance that we can talk about that evening. Then to really make it go we have been very, very fortunate to have a relationship with a foundation that offers a matching gift. So, when we talk about investing in our work either before the event, or that evening, you’re going to be matched. So, they’re going to go even further and there’s a lot of power in that.
The other reason why it does so well on return, both in a sort of an intangible return, people really excited about who we are and what we do and knowing us and wanting to continue the conversation and get more involved. Also, a real return is because it costs us not a lot to produce this event. We keep it very spare. It’s a happy hour style event so beer, wine, heavy hors d’oeuvres aren’t very expensive. We have some terrific corporate partners who really underwrite the real costs of doing this event and it’s fun. It’s different than other events that are happening in town. There’s music. It’s just casual. It’s not this whole big thing.
Diana: How many people would attend?
Paul: It’s actually not heavily attended. There are about 100 people that attend, so not a ton. The room looks full and that feels really great. There’s just energy in the air and, music and our kids who are awesome and our program team who are incredibly passionate. We’ve been very fortunate to have found something that works really well for us as an organization. It feels authentic. It feels like who we are and when we talk about who we are and what we do this event really reflects that. It’s not a black-tie gala with 350 people in this huge ballroom. It can be a little messy, it can be a little, quirky and that’s okay because people leave feeling like they’ve had a great time and they’ve supported a really important mission and something that they feel really, really good about.
Diana: I think it’s amazing. I really look forward to sharing this idea with people because I think it’s all so easy to do.
Paul: Yeah. You know, you’ve really hit it there. It’s easy. It’s an easy event to get to, it’s an easy event to attend. You don’t have to be there the whole time. You can come enjoy, see some people you know, have a glass of wine, and then be on with your evening and we’re looking forward to doing this. We do this event in the spring so we’re really hopeful that spring 2021 things will be more settled down and we’ll be able to do this event in person again. We just beat the lockdown order here in Oregon. We beet it by like a week. So, we’re very fortunate. But we are actually looking at how do we run a parallel online event if people are still concerned about coming out in person because we don’t want someone to miss out.
Diana: If people want to follow you or follow your charity where would they be able to find you?
Paul: I am the Deputy Director at Elevate, Oregon and you can find us, on Instagram at elevateoregonmentors, all one word. On Facebook, we’re at Elevate Oregon and our website is elevateoregon.org. If people want to be in touch with me directly, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always happy to continue the conversation.
Diana: That’s really great. I will link all of this in the show notes and then I just want to say, thank you so much for sharing all of your wisdom on the subject. It’s been really interesting to hear. Thank you for joining me.
Paul: Oh, well, thank you.
It was really interesting talking to Paul and I just love the fact that he found his calling at 19 years old and the sense of purpose that he has. I also find it very interesting instead of donating then using investment and having this kind of different take on it. Hey, let’s see what the investment is. I’m going to think about how to incorporate that into my own fundraising and then also the thing about practicing. I think it’s a really good idea to actually practice. Maybe you can do it in front of a mirror, or you can just record yourself and listen. How does it sound when you are making the ask for this and practice, practice, practice. It’s amazing.
In next week’s episode, we’re going to hear from Elizabeth who founded her own charity after losing a child. So, that is a really hard story, but she has done something amazing with her story and her grief. I hope you want to listen in and be inspired by her story.