Last week I celebrated the benefits of experimentation – both in the kitchen and at work. This week, I have been thinking that trying new things should be done in moderation, because too much experimentation can backfire.

For our family dinner last Sunday, I cooked the entire menu using recipes I had never tried before. As a result, the pork shoulder was dryer and tougher than it was supposed to be, I learned that most of my family does not like braised cabbage, and the russet and sweet potatoes au gratin should have been baked in a different casserole dish for optimal consistency. Nobody complained, of course, but I would have been happier if at least one of the dishes had a “wow” factor.

The next day, I found out I did not get a fundraising job I had wanted. I’d never been asked to do an oral presentation during a job search before. I struggled. I had a hard time getting my head around the assignment – I needed more guidelines, or permission to create my own, and I didn’t ask for them. So, I asked some friends for advice, did some online research, put together a PowerPoint show, and figured I’d just go for it and see what happened.

I didn’t rehearse. I didn’t rehearse in front of people. And in a two-day series of interviews during which I met with two dozen people, my presentation experiment stood out like a sore thumb and ultimately played a big role in my not getting the job.

I can console myself all day long with the many examples of failures leading to success – among them, this five-minute talk by my New Hampshire neighbor, the inventor Dean Kamen. But the truth is, sometimes it’s safer to stick to something you know. I know how to make great chicken parmesan, if I remember to pay attention. But I don’t know how to give a great presentation with minimal preparation. Maybe I never will, but today I am going to my first Toastmasters meeting to see if it’s something I can learn.

At least the bbq pork I made from the leftover roast was delicious.

When my brother and I were very young and very bored, around ages seven and 10, we rummaged through our mother’s drab, gray cookbook, looking for something new to whip up.  We weren’t in the habit of cooking at that age; I think we viewed it as a science experiment of sorts. (The book may have once had a gaily printed paper cover, but in a house of six children and constant chaos, flimsy items like book covers didn’t last long.)

At any rate, we wanted to make something we’d never eaten before. After a careful inspection of the supplies on hand, we decided that the one recipe within our grasp was a creamy sort of onion soup. My memory of the soup’s taste is vaguely positive – I think it turned out well, and was certainly different from our family’s normal fare. What I do remember vividly, though, was our sense of adventure as we made it, the knowledge that we were creating something – to us – entirely new and different. And we did it! We succeeded!

That’s one of the reasons I think technology is good for philanthropy. It compels fundraisers to up their game, to think in ways that are unfamiliar, and to trigger the brain-based benefits created by unfamiliar thinking.

For instance, as a former member of a development staff for an art museum, I have seen how challenging it is to secure funding for that segment of the nonprofit industry – especially in a down economy. And here we have crowdfunding to the rescue! Well, sort of. Using web sites to attract large numbers of donors may be, as one of the folks in this article says, a permanent, more efficient way for artists and arts organizations to reach individual benefactors. Or it may be a flash in the pan. But it has people thinking in new ways, and that’s a good thing.

By the way, when I want to cook something I’ve never cooked before, I just page through this, my favorite cookbook and find something I’ve never made before. I guess some things don’t change.

March presented me with some serious challenges in time management, and I’ve had to take some time off weekly posts to attend to more pressing matters. But I’m back! And I want to talk about pyramids.

Not only are pyramids fascinating from a historical point of view, they offer a handy way to illustrate important concepts in today’s world. Most of us grow up with constant exposure to the food pyramid. Fundraisers all know about the donor pyramid. These two have a lot in common.

For example, in the food pyramid, the base is made of the most frequent foods we’re supposed to eat –grain-based edibles like rice, pasta, and bread. Next up are the fruits and vegetables, then meat and dairy, and at the very top, fats and sweets.

Likewise, a donor pyramid starts at the bottom with a large number of donors. Like the grains group at the bottom of the food pyramid, these donors don’t contribute a lot of calories/dollars, and they’re not intensely flavorful. Yet, they are crucial for basic survival. Do you see where I’m trying to go here?

Let’s say mid-range and major donors are like the fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat. Lots of flavor and color here, great caloric/nutritional punch, but you need to start being a little careful … you don’t want too much fruit at the expense of vegetables, or too much dairy at the expense of nuts and beans. You don’t want too many donors at this level interested in capital projects, at the expense of program support.

Finally, the peak. This is where the most delicious food resides, like this chocolate caramel cheesecake I made last Sunday. This is where the most wealth comes from in the donor pyramid – those dense, high-calorie, delicious donors who can supply the seven- , eight-, or nine-figure gift. But like cheesecake, too much of anything so potent can be dangerous. Just as too many Americans choose cheesecake instead of brown rice too many times, too many nonprofits chase top-level donors at the expense of the pyramid’s base.

If you think your nonprofit might need to shift its focus to the bottom of the pyramid for a little while, you might want to think of it as a healthy shift in diet.

(Speaking of which, I highly recommend this weekend cleanse by the ubiquitous Dr. Oz. The photo is my attempt at juicing kale. Not so easy if you don’t own a juicer.)

The summer after my senior year in high school, I worked as a car hop. This was the 1980s, not the 1950s, and the owner of the ice cream shop was nervous about litigation. So, we didn’t wear roller skates.

We wore cute sneakers, and sky-blue satin shorts with navy piping, and yellow scoop neck tees with a little rainbow near the right shoulder and the company name. We also wore yellow balloons tied to our aprons, which bobbed merrily above our heads as we navigated the parking lot, holding ice cream. I’m happy to say that no known photos exist from that time.

But I thought of how that job prepared me to become a good fundraiser when I read this Wall Street Journal article on reading the table. The skills I learned as I served carload after carload of customers are the same ones I use when working with individual and group donors.

Here are a few parallels I found between restaurant work and fundraising – can you think of more?

If you’re grumpy, you typically get better service at a restaurant. If you are a donor that’s hard to satisfy, the person in charge of your philanthropic relationship will make an extra effort to get you what you need to remain engaged.

If you ask a lot of questions about the menu, it may mean you want some guidance on what to order from your server. If you are a donor and ask a lot of questions about the programs and services you’re considering supporting, the fundraiser you are working with needs to figure out how to educate you without turning you off.

Finally, if nobody at the table seems to be in charge, the waiter needs to spend more time and energy figuring out how best to serve the table. Similarly, if a group of donors – say, corporate decision-makers or a reunion committee – can’t get consensus on their philanthropic goals, the fundraiser has their work cut out for them.

If you’re a fundraiser, what tools do you use to “read the table”?

Yesterday I made bread for the first time in years. I used the recipe from the bag of King Arthur Flour. I have never owned a bread machine, so I do it by hand. I was surprised at how sticky the dough was, how hard to knead, and then how gratified I was by the sight of it rising. The loaf turned out fat and brown, as well as I might have hoped, and it was gone in a few hours.

At the same time, I was also reading this post on About.com about fundraising. Joanne Fritz outlines the “bread and butter” of fundraising, and that got me thinking about how deceptively simple the basics are. Bread is made of only a few ingredients – flour, yeast, liquid, and usually a pinch of salt. At the top of the “bread and butter” list on Fritz’s post is annual giving. Speaking as someone who’s spent most of her fundraising years in the annual fund, I’ll say that it often does feel like … well, the sliced white bread, compared to major gifts’ steak and sizzle.

To be fair to the major gift folks, their lives aren’t all glamour, as we learn from this Passionate Giving article. But annual giving – or recurring giving, as it’s increasingly becoming– really is the foundation of most healthy nonprofits. It gives nearly everyone the chance to buy an entry ticket as stakeholders of your mission. It gives your organization a chance to impress them with excellent stewardship, several times a year. It reveals and stewards future major donors and those who will leave bequests. It’s the bread and butter of your campaign.

Have you ever dined at an upscale restaurant, and been served stale, tasteless rolls alongside melted foil butter packets? How did that make you feel about the rest of the meal to come? If bread and butter are the first chance to impress someone, it’s worth your time to make it a quality experience.

I want to talk about dinner parties again, as a metaphor for nonprofit special events. I can’t pretend to be an expert, because I’ve only given a few, and my home is not what you’d call glamorous. (I think “rustic” is putting it kindly.) But I like to think that people can still have as great an experience dining in my rustic abode as they would in a marbled Newport Mansion.

And if we are to listen thoughtfully to editor Jan Masaoka at the indispensible nonprofit newsletter Blue Avocado, we agree nonprofits are all different. In her example, there’s Target, and there’s Williams-Sonoma. Both succeed, but with very different strategies. It’s most important that your nonprofit’s special event is aligned with your mission. (Some great examples can be found at Livestrong,  whose partnered events range from an actual and virtual chance to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro to a fashion show. )

Which brings me back to dinner parties, and the guest list. Who do you invite? Who do you want at the table?  According to my food-writing hero, MFK Fisher, the perfect guest list consists of one long-married couple, one somewhat newly-married couple, and a couple who should be married but doesn’t realize it.

How to use that in deciding on an invitation list for a nonprofit event? Start with dedicated supporters, always. They are the long-married couples of your dinner party. (If you check out Livestrong’s annual golf tournament, you’ll notice it’s been hosted by longtime supporters.)  Add some newlyweds – these would be new donors who have recently come on board, and deserve special attention. Finally, some great prospects — those who should be supporting your mission, but don’t yet realize it.

Finally, for sheer pleasure, I’ll end with this lovely, MFK Fisher-esque musing on dinner parties from one of my favorite style bloggers at Privilege.

Raw potatoes and burned hot dogs. Or maybe it was the other way around – burned potatoes and cold hot dogs. At any rate, it was a camping trip meal my kids will never let me forget. We were in the Franconia Notch State Park, and it was pouring rain. I had a camp stove I didn’t know how to use very well, and a poorly-made pan. Our supper that night was barely edible, to put it kindly.

If you’ve ever cooked under trying circumstances, with tools you didn’t know how to use or that didn’t work very well, you know what I mean.

Similarly, if you’ve ever tried to execute a fundraising strategy without a good, functional database, you face serious challenges.

“At a minimum, organizations should have good demographic data on who they serve,” says  Isaac D. Castillo , one of the speakers in a recent (and interesting) chat with the Chronicle of Philanthropy about using data to boost fundraising. Later in the same chat, his colleague Andrew Niklaus mentions that, with fundraising software, you get what you pay for. As with any tool, this is also true.

In my experience, too many nonprofit organizations don’t even have basic demographic data, and if they do, it’s not in a program that allows you to access it easily. I once worked with a program that required manual entry of a series of date ranges and other data, and would only print – not display – the one resulting data point, using three sheets of paper each time. It was like trying to cook in the rain, with a dimestore aluminum pan.

What are your experiences with the tools and technology you need to do your job?

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