Too many answers?

Someone I know recently stated – with absolute certainty – that the Ford Foundation, established with a fortune that was made in Detroit, has turned its back on that city.  That’s harsh!

Is your first impulse to dismiss the statement, the speaker, or both? What if it came from a donor, or a board member, or a prospect? It would be a mistake to toss it aside too soon, no matter who said it.

We  can easily shoot this down, right?
Detroit has and is currently receiving substantial, coordinated support from Ford and other local foundations…The Ford family has 12 foundations based in Detroit..All the assets of all area foundations could not save Detroit…How much is enough, anyway?…The best use of foundation grants is leverage…Who says a foundation, or even a donor, is obligated to support its home town?…, Would it make any difference if Ford moved to Detroit?…Foundations themselves have been grappling with these issues since the beginning of time…etc.I unloaded my entire arsenal; it didn’t work. Too much inside baseball. Getting stuck in who’s right and who’s wrong is useless.  And who likes being told – explicitly or implicitly – that he doesn’t know what he is talking about?   In the context of building relationships –  which is what fundraisers do – you’re missing the point if you take it only as a statement about Detroit or The Ford Foundation, and stop there.

The romance of questions and answers
My source won’t like this, but I see it as hypothesis - a question - rather than a statement. As such it becomes loaded with value: from the role of private foundations in our society, to the plight of decaying cities, to how nonprofits and private foundations are viewed by the general public, or -especially important for fundraisers – to an opportunity to get inside a donor’s head.


I love questions; they are so much more fun than answers. Questions keep things moving; answers create the illusion that our work is finished. Rather than coming up with answers, most successful research raises new questions. Questions are essential to building relationships of all kinds. Questions are powerful. A recent New York Times article, quoted President Obama raising the Heisenberg principle of physics: “...Me asking the question changes the answer.”

 I’m suspicious of answers because I think it’s dangerous to stop asking. It’s also dangerous to stop listening because we think we know better.  And listening is an essential skill for fundraisers – or anyone else, for that matter. Facts can fool you by. masquerading as answers.The comment that started all this may tell us the speaker is not a prospect.  That’s an answer; it will bring things to a halt. And if that is the case, we should stop there.

Can we get real?
Pressured to come up with answers, we often respond by positioning ourselves as experts – expert fundraisers, expert social service providers, expert educators, expert art curators, etc. That can stop the questions and diminish our effectiveness.

I’m currently helping a client identify new prospects so we can get the right people to attend an introductory event. What’s the best way to present this organization to a New York constituency? I didn’t have the answer.  And I’m supposed to be the expert!  I told them I would have to meet with as many of their supporters as i could and ask them to tell me how they view the organization.  I did just that. As a result, I came up with a much richer and more meaningful case for support than I could have produced on my own, relying only on the staff and existing materials. Fundraisers will recognize this as a variation on the feasibility study, but it’s a waste to use it only for capital campaigns.

In Marketing 101 we learn that it’s not about what we want to tell them; it’s what they want to know. More questions! On behalf of the same client, I’m now asking the host committee, who are inviting their colleagues, for advice on the content of the evening’s program. Everyone who plans to attend will get an email giving them an opportunity to tell us what they want to know. Keeping the questions alive will be the key to our success.

This is often a risky strategy for a fundraiser, or a nonprofit seeking support. Many executive directors and board members don’t want to hear it.

But we have to get somewhere.
At the same time we can’t stay with questions if they are not leading to some kind of meaningful resolution. Nonprofit organizations are under increasing pressure to prove their impact.  This pressure will only increase as young donors take a more hands-on, investment oriented view of their philanthropy. While we can’t say we will eliminate poverty, or get everyone a job, or make everyone smart, we have to show that we are taking meaningful steps to address important aspects of the larger problem – which will remain loaded with questions for a long time to come. This is, by the way, actually a good way to build a grant proposal.

So what about Detroit and the Ford Foundation?
 I don’t have an answer, but I’m sure there are a great number of hypotheses in play.   I hope we don’t come up with too many work-stopping answers  too soon. When we stop questioning, we stop learning. This issue, like so many  nonprofits face every day, will not be resolved effectively unless we hold on to the questions as long as we need to.


All the best,


P.S. If you want to add your questions, answers, observations, or whatever, you will enrich the conversation for everyone by responding to this email. You can also chime in on my website,, where I will be posting this letter and your comments as a blog.

P.P.S. Let me know if you need fundraising help. The first meeting is always free.


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