Christina Attard writes the “Ask Better-Give Smarter” Blog. As a philanthropic adviser, she helps both nonprofits with their development programming and individuals planning tax-smart donations. She has been a Gift Planning Officer at two Canadian universities and is currently the Development Director for a Christian diocese in Regina, Saskatchewan. The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of and a frequent contributor to the .
MKC: How did you manage to get to this place of semi-guruhood from a B.A. in mediaeval studies?
CHRISTINA: How it actually happened is that I was starting university and paying my own way. I had some money saved, but not enough. When I went to see my Dean, a Sister of St. Joseph, she said, how do you plan to pay for your year here? I said, I’ve been praying about that and hoping for an answer soon. She said, that’s very nice, do you have a resume? (Yes.) Go get your resume and go to the financial aid office. I’ll call ahead, go see a woman named Pauline and we’ll see if she can get you through with some cash from a bursary. Pauline saw me and said, we have this bursary and you’ll be eligible for it, it’s still not going to be enough, do you have your resume? (Yes.)
Well, go across the street to the alumni office, talk to a woman named Mary Ellen and see if she’ll give you a job. Mary Ellen gave me a job in the fundraising office, and at graduation they said to me, we’d like to keep you, come tomorrow, we’ll offer you a contract and you can come on as a full-time fundraiser. They did a lot to train and build me over a period of several years. Eventually, I followed my partner when his job transferred to Kingston, Ontario and I became a Senior Gift Planning Officer at Queens University, which has one of Canada’s top fundraising shops, and I got to learn from some of the best in the country. I just got very lucky.
MKC: When did you start your blog?
CHRISTINA: I actually started with a personal blog, about re-thinking the do-it-yourself mystique. That was maybe August 2010, and I got to like it. Then in the spring of 2011, I decided I had a lot of passionate ideas about fundraising and thought I’d like to share them. It was driven for me by Seth Godin, whose book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, I read last year. He says what we do is an art and what we do in our work is a gift, and to become a good artist, you have to be ready to give your art away as a gift. If you paint a painting, people will be benefiting from the gift of your work after you’re long gone from this world. I thought a blog would be a way for me to take what I’ve learned and some of my ideas and thoughts and share a bit of that which is my own art.
MKC: How has the blogging worked out?
CHRISTINA: I would like to get more comments on my blog. Creating discussions is probably the next level of technique you learn as a blogger. My readership has been very good and my colleagues in the community mention that they enjoy the posts. I try to make my blog as rich as possible with links, so that readers can see the information I’m curating daily. It was a bit of a risk for me to share some of my reflections that at times may be contrarian, but it seems to have gone over well.
MKC: What are the issues that keep your clients awake at night? What are they really concerned about?
CHRISTINA: I think everybody’s worried about operating budgets as the bottom line. The CEO of an organization said to me, we’ve cut everybody’s budget so thin because of fundraising shortfalls that we’re actually impeding them from being able to do the jobs we’ve hired them to do. For a lot of people in that CEO or senior leadership role, what keeps them awake at night is how are they going to meet the financial costs of achieving the charitable mission. What keeps fundraisers and development directors like me up at night is that the fundraising revenue goals and expectations for these organizations can be very challenging, and sometimes even unrealistic.
MKC: Do you have solutions to offer when people find themselves with these issues?
CHRISTINA: When I talk to potential clients or colleagues looking for advice, I ask a lot of diagnostic questions. I like to use a solution-finding process that helps people own and understand their own outcomes and expectations. I help them focus on what’s working for them and have them take that leap of imagination to understand what could be working better from their own perspective. Part of my approach is always, if we’re going to do more with less, what are we going to do differently? What have your successes in the past been? I find that kind of thought process helps the client evaluate their own expectations and how they might be instrumental in change.
One of the drums I’ve been beating is that philanthropy is changing. People have started using this new term “philanthropreneur.” I think we’re looking at social investment instead of donation. Non-profit and not-for-profit is changing to “Social Profit.” It’s a Baby Boomer thing, but I think it is a Gen X and a Millennial thing as well. We’re not the civic generation, the generation of World War II and the Depression, who felt a civic duty to give to institutions and trusted in their management and delivery of services. I think we really see ourselves as investors in social impact. That’s where I see the push for transparency and accountability in the charitable sector coming from. Millennial donor surveys show a huge connection between volunteerism, board membership – in other words, meaningful personal involvement – and giving. In a sense, that’s very entrepreneurial. You want to have your hands on what’s happening and, in a sense, become an investor in this project.
MKC: You describe yourself as a passionate storyteller. What does that mean to you?
CHRISTINA: Gift planners and those looking to bring gift planning to their fundraising efforts tend to get caught up in a focus on technical expertise. As a gift planner with a technical background, I understand gifts of life insurance quite well. Can I explain a complex charitable gift with several financial vehicles and the associated tax considerations? Yes. But so can many financial, insurance, legal and accounting advisers.
The problem with a focus on technical gift planning vehicles is that were a fundraiser to come to visit your grandma, that information would not make her decide to make a gift. Rather, people like to imagine themselves or others in a good or better situation. They like to remember their own good fortune and possibly share that feeling with others. When you tell stories, you allow them to reconnect their own experience with what’s happening today. In university fundraising, 80% of my gift planning conversations were not tax conversations. They were conversations about what happened to that person in the four years that they were at the university. What was that like? What did they love? And people 80 years old would tell me about things that happened to them when they were 17. For example, one man told me, I only had one pair of pants, so on Sunday afternoon I’d go to the laundress and she’d wash and press my pants and I’d sit there in my boxer shorts doing my homework, then I’d get my pair of pants and go to the Student Union and have dinner and go home. And someone helped me out, or I got a bursary, or there was a woman who made sure everyone got through okay, by hook or by crook. And I would tell my story about Pauline, who made sure every year that I could pursue an education thanks to the financial support of the donors to that university. Then I would talk about what’s happening at the university now, and find a way to connect it back to that person’s experience in 1948 or 1957, and tell them there’s still a need, in a way that’s personally connecting it to my experience and his experience.
I think that person gets excited, and I know I get excited telling them about it. Then, the ”ask” becomes, what are we doing today at our organization that matches what you care about, and would you consider participating in either maintaining that or changing that for other people? The technical gift planning discussion about “how” comes afterward. That’s what I mean by passionate storytelling.
You can follow Christina on her blog.
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com.
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.