One of the Most Important Questions You Should Ask

Two recent mainstream news items, and one tweet about a charity, remind me of a powerful lesson I once learned from my father-in-law, Malcolm Rosenfeld. He taught me to ask myself the following important question before opening my mouth or taking action:

What is my objective?”

Now, before I illustrate the value of that question by reflecting on some news stories, I must warn you that the following examples include vulgar language. If you want to bypass the examples, you can skip down to the next boldfaced sentence several paragraphs below.

At The 72nd Annual Tony Awards (2018), actor Robert De Niro walked out on the stage after being introduced. He then said, “I’m gonna say one thing. Fuck Trump. It’s no longer ‘Down with Trump.’ It’s ‘Fuck Trump.’”

What was De Niro’s objective? If he wanted the approval and praise of the Tony audience, he succeeded when his remarks received a standing ovation. However, if he wanted to convince some Trump supporters or independent voters to support the political positions of the Democratic Party rather than President Donald Trump, I doubt he moved anyone. To the contrary; he may have actually strengthened their resolve.

Comedian Michelle Wolf voiced her displeasure with Ivanka Trump in a recent episode of Wolf’s Netflix series The Break. She said, “If you see Ivanka on the street, first call her Tiffany. This will devastate her. Then talk to her in terms she’ll understand. Say, ‘Ivanka, you’re like vaginal mesh. You were supposed to support women but now you have blood all over you and you’re the center of a thousand lawsuits.’”

What was Wolf’s objective? If she wanted to solidify her base of liberal viewers, I suspect she might have succeeded. With the publicity she received for her comment, she may have even attracted some new viewers who share her liberal views. However, if she wants to use her humor to change the political policies of the Trump Administration or to drive independent voters to support Democratic Party candidates and positions, she probably failed.

Whether you’re pro-Trump or anti-Trump is not the issue. What the two examples above demonstrate is the importance of defining objectives. If De Niro and Wolf wanted to diminish Trump’s political support – and I recognize that might not have been their objective — they flopped even as their fans cheered and laughed.

Let me explain. In 2016, I participated in a focus group involving independent voters. It was clear that personal attacks on Trump led many participants to be more likely to support him. By contrast, discussion of specific issues led people to thoughtfully consider which candidate better aligned with their own thinking. Based on my experience with the focus group, I wasn’t surprised when I looked at recent poll numbers.

Despite recent harsh comments by De Niro, Wolf, and countless others in recent weeks, the RealClear Politics polling average shows that Trump’s disapproval rating continues to oscillate just above 50 percent, where it has been consistently since March 15, 2017.

While celebrities leave me wondering about their objectives, many nonprofit organizations also have me scratching my head. I recently read one puzzling example from The Whiny Donor (self-named) on Twitter:

What was the charity’s objective? Did the charity think it was being nice to simply send blanket greetings? Did the charity think it was a good idea to send donors something, anything just to stay in their minds? Or, did the charity hope to inspire loyalty and, perhaps, inspire additional giving?

If the charity had the latter objective, it failed.

The Whiny Donor’s problem isn’t that the charity sends holiday-related emails. The problem is that the charity doesn’t relate its mission to the holiday messages thereby rendering them arbitrary and irrelevant. Furthermore, by trying to be personal, the charity comes off as impersonal. For example, The Whiny Donor is either a mother or a father; so, why send both holiday messages?

If a veterans’ charity sends out a well-worded Veterans’ Day message, it could make sense. If a children’s charity sends out a well-crafted Halloween message, it could likewise make sense. You get the idea. However, sending gratuitous holiday messages risks alienating donors. That seems to be the case with The Whiny Donor.

To communicate successfully with prospects and donors, you first need to ask:

What is my objective?

Then, once you know your objective, you can create a message that will help you evaluate your communication and achieve the desired result. Without a clearly defined objective, you’ll be leaving success up to chance. Actually, you won’t even know how to define success.

Defining your objective before saying or doing anything will help you be a more effective fundraising professional.

When preparing a direct mail appeal, what is your objective? Do you want to acquire new donors? Do you want to renew donors? Do you want to upgrade donors? By carefully defining your objective(s), you’ll be better able to create a segmentation strategy and messaging that will maximize results.

When designing a website, what is your objective? Is it to simply inform people what your organization does? Or, do you want people to donate through your website? Defining your objective(s) will help you design a powerful website that will meet those objectives.

When preparing to meet with a donor, what is your objective? Is it to simply ask for a gift? Is it to learn more about the donor? Is it to cultivate and inspire the donor? Is it to do all of those things? How you define the objective(s) for the meeting will determine what will transpire during that meeting. Failing to set an objective will likely result in coming away from the visit without achieving what you really wish you could have, at best. At worst, you could leave your prospect or donor alienated or baffled about the seemingly random and pointless interaction.

To achieve more, to better evaluate and enhance your performance, you need to know what it is you are trying to achieve.

As philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote:

In the long run, [people] hit only what they aim at.”

If you want to be more effective at your job (or, for that matter, in your personal life), remember Malcolm Rosenfeld’s question and ask yourself:

What is my objective?”

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

2 Comments to “One of the Most Important Questions You Should Ask”

  1. Another thoughtful post, Michael, thank you!
    It makes me want to share a question which I’ve found useful over the years, and that is: “So what?” I find that (coupled with knowing my objective), asking myself that forces me to be intentional. (I don’t always remember to ask myself these questions — nobody’s perfect, right?)
    I also agree with the part about charities (and businesses) sending “holiday greetings”. Sometimes that just reinforces to me the fact that we really don’t know each other! On the other hand, I’m charmed to get a card from a business (or charity) that I really DO engage with.

    • Jill, thank you for your comment and suggestion. I also love the question, “So what?” Many years ago, much of the philanthropy research (not that there was all that much of it) was academic, interesting but of little practical value. As a result, whenever I spoke with researchers, I encouraged them to ask “So what?” before settling on a research project. I wanted them to focus their efforts on research that would have high-value for the practitioner community. Today, though I claim no credit for it, we’re fortunate to have excellent research upon which to base our fundraising efforts.

      The combination of “What is my objective?” and “So what?” ensures that one intentionally focuses on a particular action and that that action delivers the desired value.

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