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Season 2, Episode 31

In this episode, capital campaign expert Andrea Kihlstedt is joined by Sarah Plimpton, Chief Happiness Officer of the Capital Campaign Toolkit. They discuss the importance of focusing on truly seeing and noticing people as the best way to make them happy. They discuss practical strategies for incorporating happiness into your development practice.

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This episode was recorded as part of a live webinar held Monday, March 21, 2022. To participate in future webinars, register at ToolkitTalks.com.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
As you perhaps know, you probably know, I’m Andrea Kihlstedt and I am a co-founder of the Capital Campaign Toolkit. I am not here with my wonderful co-founder-partner, Amy Eisenstein, who is in Florida, at Disney World with her kids who are on spring break, and her husband. So she has taken the whole week off. I am disciplining her to work only one hour a day because she works very hard. So I get this flurry of emails from her in the morning, and then we don’t hear from her anymore. We have invited our amazing colleague, Sarah Plimpton, to join us today and you will know why in a second. Sarah, you’ve been with the Toolkit about a year now?

Sarah Plimpton:
Yeah. Yes.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Why don’t you tell everybody a little about you, Sarah?

Sarah Plimpton:
Sure. Well, first of all, hello, Toolkit Talks. It is a pleasure and a delight to be with you all this afternoon. My name is Sarah Plimpton, as Andrea mentioned, and I have been with the Toolkit for about a year, wearing two hats. My first hat with the Toolkit, I joined about a year ago as an advisor, which brings me great joy to work with some of our clients. And in the fall, this past fall, I joined with the second hat, which is Chief Happiness Officer of Toolkit which allows me to work closely with many of our clients, if not all of them, and also work closely with Amy and Andrea. That is a bit about my role.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Wouldn’t you love a job called Chief Happiness Officer? Amy and I thought long and hard about what role to give Sarah as she came on, and we came up with that one, and it’s been amazing, actually.

Sarah Plimpton:
Yeah.

Why Making People Happy Matters

Andrea Kihlstedt:
So what we’re going to do, what we’re going to talk about today, because Sarah has joined us, we have changed the topic. The advertised topic was to talk about Mini-Campaigns, which I still wrote about in the blog post, which will come out this week. But because Sarah’s here with us, you know what we’re going to talk about today? We’re going to talk about happiness. Happiness, how to make people happy and why it matters.

And how in your fundraising practice you, too, should be thinking about making people happy, and what kind of a process it is to think about that. And Sarah has led us down this amazing path of actually thinking quite seriously about how to make people happy, both inside and outside of the Toolkit. So, that will be our conversation. Sarah, you are amazing in our role of Chief Happiness Officer, and one of the things that makes me laugh about what you do is that you send people brownies.

Sarah Plimpton:
I do.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Talk about sending brownies. How that came about? What the response is and what you’ve learned about making people happy in this time?

Sarah Plimpton:
Sure. Let’s talk about brownies, but let’s start before brownies.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Okay.

Sarah Plimpton:
So when I think about happiness and I’m curious to know what you think about when you think about happiness in this way, Andrea, I think about the base human desire to be seen. Right? If you are happy, you are seen, you are known, you are understood. And I think that any true effort to make someone else happy, has to begin with an effort to really see that person and understand that person. And I think that there’s some nuance here in that, the grand gestures, the brownies of the world, if you will, are one way that you or we see people, but just relating with people, with the disposition of wanting to see them and to know them, I think carries so much value. And in fact, allows you, or allows us, to pull off the grand gestures, the brownies, if you will, in a meaningful way.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Sarah, I think it’s such a wonderful approach to what makes people happy. And it sounds so simple, but I think in reality, it’s not simple.

Sarah Plimpton:
It’s not.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Seeing people is not simple, getting outside of yourself enough to really be present with other people, which is what it takes, it is not so easy, right? We’re often so in our own heads and in what we’re trying to get done, that you can spend a long time with someone and realize how little you actually noticed, right? That it’s a practice, like many other things in life, that the more you practice it, the better you get.

Sarah Plimpton:
The better you get. Yeah, for sure.

Making People Happy Requires “Seeing” Them

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Do you have tips and tricks for getting good at actually seeing people?

Sarah Plimpton:
Well, I think that questions, I always think about what questions, and not yes or no questions, but open-ended questions, what questions can I ask people to learn more about them or learn more about their motivations, or their aspirations or hopes, fears, all those kinds of things, I think, can we really reveal a lot and help you understand what makes a person tick.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Right. Yeah, I think that’s right. I used to spend a fair amount of time trying to think about questions that would do that, questions like, “Who were your heroes?” … get people to tell you who their heroes are, you really get a window into who they think, how they think and that. But working from the Gestalt model, as you know, I’ve done some work at the Gestalt center on Cape Cod, and one of the things I learned there is that you can learn a huge amount about people just by actually looking at them, that you don’t need to know what they think. You can learn a huge amount just by noticing the color of their face and how they, whether they’re flushing or not flushing, whether they’re coming towards you or receding away from you, how their hand gestures are, how they’re expressing themselves, and even paying attention at that level, I think, can be so profound.

Sarah Plimpton:
Yeah.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
It sounds so simple and we so often miss it. And in some way, watching people on Zoom, we have a better opportunity to do that, because you really do look at people on Zoom, right?

Sarah Plimpton:
Yeah.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Your range of vision is very limited to a headshot. And if you notice, if you give yourself permission to notice what’s going on, you can tell a huge amount about, not about what people are thinking, but about what emotionally is going on with them.

Sarah Plimpton:
Yep. Yep.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
And you’re very good at that, Sarah. Through the Toolkit, we have small-group sessions on Wednesdays, and with some frequency after one of those sessions, you’ll say, “Gee, I was worried about so-and-so,” “I wondered about how so-and-so was feeling,” or, “Wasn’t it exciting to see so-and-so feeling so cheerful.” I think that’s because you’re a very good observer on those calls.

Sarah Plimpton:
Well, thank you. That’s a… I think, though, something you said that I want to highlight is the noticing. And so, a takeaway or a thing for some of our viewers to think about is creating a culture of noticing. And I think, actually, this role, the Chief Happiness role helped me in my own sort of culture of noticing, coming off those group coaching calls and thinking about what did I notice and how am I going to act in response to what I noticed?

Sarah Plimpton:
Think about where you notice, in your day, people being kind around you, your colleagues, your donors, your board members, your volunteers, people being resilient, or working hard, or persevering through circumstances that are not desirable, shall we say, or frustrating. People going the extra mile. And you think about, “How can I notice these things or how many of these kinds of things can I notice?” You do start to notice them. And when you start to notice them, you can point them out to people. You can act on them. You can send the brownies for the person who’s persevering through obstacles that are less desirable, shall we say?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Right.

Sarah Plimpton:
But I think it begins with noticing.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Let’s get back to brownies, because I think that’s an interesting segue that, it’s one thing to think about sending brownies or something to someone that’s gotten a big gift, right?

Sarah Plimpton:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Acknowledging Struggles with the Power of a Gift

Andrea Kihlstedt:
When one of our clients has achieved a milestone, for example, when their campaign has gone over a certain amount or when we hear about something great that’s happened, we try to send something or recognize that in some way. But, I think in some way, it’s much more powerful to send brownies or whatever it is you’re going to send, because you saw that someone was really struggling, right? You saw someone was really disappointed or was wrestling with something that they were dealing with or seemed down, right —

Sarah Plimpton:
Yeah.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
… or that indicates that you really saw them.

Sarah Plimpton:
Saw them. Right. Yeah.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
And how rarely we do that in our fundraising practices. I mean, all of you on this call, I want you to think about that a little and think about what do you recognize your donors for? What kind of a program do you have that gets you thinking about donor recognition, that actually is more meaningful than putting people’s names in lists according to giving amounts. I mean, that’s where most people start, right? How are we going to recognize people? Where are we going to put their names? Right?

How Happiness Pertains to Donor Recognition

Now, it’s an interesting question about whether people really care if their names are anywhere or what kind of impact it has, and maybe they do and maybe they don’t. But if you can get much more granular about actually watching to see notable things and recognizing people, even in a little email. It doesn’t need to be as fancy as sending anything, but just even in a little email, saying, “Are you okay? You seemed down,” or, “I was so excited to see you being full of excitement today on the call.” That matters.

Sarah Plimpton:
It matters. Yeah.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Right? … matters.

Sarah Plimpton:
And it’s so rare in our world today to have someone who’s not your partner or your best friend really see you and it feels good.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Sarah, before you came to the Toolkit, you were at a private school in Maine, and the name of which eludes me at the moment. But I’m wondering what you did for donor recognition there, and if you came to this job with a history of thinking this way.

Sarah Plimpton:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). It was certainly the part of my job that I loved the most. I loved the relationships. I loved working with the donors, figuring the donors out, not so much as pocketbooks, so to speak, although that was obviously part of my job as the director of development, but really figuring out how does this donor’s hope for our mission, and the work that we’re doing with our students, align with our vision? And how can we work together to achieve something that makes them really excited and feel really great about their philanthropy and that also advances the school?

So I think, in terms of what I was doing for donor recognition, I had a small team, relatively small team. It’s all relative. I had a staff of, I think, four, which is huge to some people, but tiny to other people. We didn’t have a huge budget. We were really busy, as everyone working in a school is. You have a million pots flying, so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for grand gestures above and beyond business as usual.

But what I tried to do every day, or most days, because some days were crazy, was really see people and be with people where they were. Trying to be in partnership with my donors and making the giving secondary to the partnership, always being authentic, best and direct, understanding the expectations that my donors had, both for me as the person who was kind of the facilitator of their giving to the institution, but also of the institution as a whole. And then, making sure that those expectations were both attainable and communicated elsewhere in the organization so they could be met.

I tried to always have context around conversations when I was speaking with donors. So I would know as much as I could about a situation and didn’t necessarily wear that on my sleeve, but had it at the ready, which I think is important. I made things personal as much as I could. So I had a rule in my office, not a rule, that sounds a little more authoritarian than it actually was.

But we did a personal note on every single thank you letter that went out. And not just, “Thanks so much for your gift,” but I took 60 seconds, looked up the kids’ names, “Hope Susie’s having a great time in second grade. I love watching them on the playground out the window of my office,” or something where that parent is going to say, “Oh, this person knows my kid’s name and has some context for how my child is connecting in this community.”

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sarah Plimpton:
So yeah, I think that the grand gestures… I’ll sum up my long-winded answer by saying this, that in the world of development where we all have a million things to do, resources are not endless, they’re limited. It can be very overwhelming to think that you have to do more and differently in order to be successful with your donors.

And I think that no matter how busy you are, no matter how limited your resources you are, we can all be intentional. We can all slow down, listen more and connect with the people who are right in front of us. And that is the foundation and the basis, I think, of any strong relationship.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Right. Right. I so appreciate that. I just think it’s so important and I think it is facilitated, or I have noticed in your working with the Toolkit, that knowing that you are there, and if I notice something that I can pass it along to you, and you can follow up on sending something or doing something tangible, that just knowing that you are there to facilitate that, gets me thinking and seeing more, right?

I mean, it really, it’s interesting to me to see how your being in that role has enabled me to be better at noticing what our clients are doing and what our advisors are doing, and what’s going on and to be able to say, “Hey, Sarah, I just saw this. Can you send somebody, can you send so-and-so something?” And it’s easy for you to do that, because you have it all set up.

So, rather than wanting to put my head over, my hands over my head and say, “I don’t have one more minute or one more brain cell,” able to stop what I’m doing and actually figure out how to send flowers or how to do something, that having it organized and having someone who actually has made it simple to follow through on this, on the motivation to do it, has led us at the Toolkit to be much better about making those things happen.

Sarah Plimpton:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrea Kihlstedt:
So I think it works both ways. One, is being able to see something and the other is having the bandwidth, when bandwidth is not so available for many of us. I mean, my bandwidth, I think is just, I’m getting older, my bandwidth seems to be shrinking these days, right?

Sarah Plimpton:
Indeed.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
So, fascinating… It has been in this year of working with you, Sarah, it has been fascinating to me to see how much more I notice about people, because I know that we want to recognize people for things that they do that are good, or that if they’re in trouble, we want to recognize that and we want to do what we can to make them feel better, right?

Sarah Plimpton:
Better. Yeah.

On Staff Recognition and Happiness

Andrea Kihlstedt:
That’s a big deal, I think. Let me wrap it up with just one more thing that has given me some pleasure. We, at the Toolkit, have about, I think, nine advisors. We have a staff of 12 now, and they are the heart of this business. They are terrific. They work with clients. They’re just so capable and so smart. And they have been this a long time and we know them all well, they’re terrific. And we’ve decided that we want to be able to recognize them, too, but we were trying to figure out how can we do that in a way that feels real.

So last week we sent out a survey to them, each one of them, asking them to fill in things like, “What’s your favorite restaurant in your community?” “Where do you go in your community when you have, when you want to do something special?” “Is there a bookstore that you particularly like to frequent?” “Is there…?” We came up with a list of several questions so that they could tell us what gives them pleasure, particularly in their community for them, and we can now keep it in a file.

And when we see somebody’s birthday coming up, we can actually look and see, not just sending brownies, but we can actually look and see, “”Oh, maybe, we can send Xan a gift certificate at her favorite little restaurant.” Right? And that would be fun. So, the idea of how do we capture information that is specific to people’s pleasure, I think, is an interesting one. I mean, at the Toolkit we could do it because… And everybody filled it out, Sarah. I don’t know if you know that. Everybody filled it out.

Sarah Plimpton:
It’s awesome.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Of course, it’s not surprising perhaps, but I was pleased. Sarah, I think this has been a, just such a good reminder and I just… One could do worse in the notion of making people happy than just setting aside some time in the office once a month, for example, to have a meeting to talk about how to make donors happy, how to make staff happy.

Sarah Plimpton:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Do you ever have a meeting like that?

Sarah Plimpton:
Yeah.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
So, it’s such a great topic.

Sarah Plimpton:
Absolutely.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
And I think we often let it just go away without putting some serious brain power into it. And I encourage all of you, even if it’s just 20 minutes in one day to say, “Let’s brainstorm all the things we might do that’s going to make, that are going to make us feel great and are going to make our donors feel great, whether they’re little or big. Why don’t we have some fun just brainstorming and see if we can get ourselves to act on that and to report back what we’ve done.” Just that would help.

Sarah Plimpton:
And maybe you, also, order in lunch, for your team, for that discussion so that you feel a little happy, too.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Right.

Sarah Plimpton:
Right?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Are you advocating a glass of champagne?

Sarah Plimpton:
I am.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
All right. All right.

Sarah Plimpton:
Great.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Thank you, all. A pleasure to be here with you today. Next week, Amy will be back and we will talk about what marks the start of, the actual start of your capital campaign, how to think about that. It’s an important topic, actually.

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