Retaining and Gaining Donors

by Molly Hetrick

Spring and Summer are a great time to connect with your current donors and attract new ones, because there are so many great programs and activities going on that you can share with them! Photos of your mission in action help donors feel connected, interested, and willing to support more of the good stuff they are seeing.

This is also the time where I hear people say “we need more donations!” or “we need to get more donors”. This is interesting and if you catch yourself with these words, let’s examine them.

“Need” usually means there is a project in the budget with no money to fund it, so someone decided it could be funded with donations. Then, the staff is stressed out and scrambling to figure out how – during the busiest part of the year – they are supposed to fund-raise tens of thousands of dollars to fund a needed project that is ready and waiting for the donations to cover it.

This leads to language that includes expectation and a sense of entitlement that donors should see the value and get busy with sending in their donations, which tends to skew the messaging in a way that actually repels donors. (They don’t owe you anything, which is why this is dangerous budgeting.)

Instead, let’s focus on the three important parts to fundraising for this year!

First, you have to do again this year what you did last year. In other words, hope that the stars align so that you can repeat last year’s fundraising success again this year. And then grow it.

But, we lose donors as well as gain them, so it’s a very delicate balancing act. And nothing – Nothing – is guaranteed.

The important thing to remember: it’s easier to keep the donors you have than to attract new ones. So, here are some things to start with:

1. Keep / Retain: Donors who gave so far this calendar year and during the last calendar year are your most important focus.
a. Have you communicated your thanks adequately?
b. Have you followed up in any way since? Newsletter, photo montage, update on the project they funded, invitation to come for a tour?
c. Consider an emotive photo with a hand-written note on the back to stay in touch.

2. Attract New: This is a source of growth for your fundraising and also a priority. Where are your close but yet not engaged groups of people?
a. Social media or newsletter lists who have not given?
b. People who have taken the time to complain about something they would like to see improved? (They took the time, there is potential there!)
c. Community groups or volunteers at the edges of your organization?

3. Re-engage lapsed: Donors who gave in the past 2-3 years but have not given since are worth taking a look at.
a. Do you know why they stopped giving? You can’t control the pandemic, the economy and the fact that their kids just went to college and needed a car. But, you can reconnect if they felt distanced, correct a misunderstanding if they felt disappointed with you, or show them other aspects of the mission that they may connect with.

Feeling overwhelmed?

Ask your board to help! Give them a list of program participants to divide up and send a personal note to. Either “we wanted you to know about this exciting program” or “we’re hoping the community will support this exciting initiative, will you join us?”
Give simple scripts and some training to your front line staff who interact with the public all day long. Be sure they have the tools they need to talk about the top 3 big projects, and how people can get involved.
Start capturing more email addresses at every single program and event you do all summer.
Communicate – short videos, easy to skim news stories (don’t burden yourself or them with long newsletters), or personal message emails.
Ask your staff to help – can they adopt a short list of 5 people to get to know and steward?
Ask for help! If you are not sure how to proceed or need help with messaging for an outreach direct mail campaign or need help to create segmented messaging for the different donor audiences, please reach out and ask for help.

Have a fantastic summer!


Capital Campaign Prep – Questions to Ask Yourself

Recently, I have had the opportunity to work with several different groups who are considering Capital Campaigns. It’s surprising to see a rise in questions like this, which indicate agencies and departments are considering undertaking campaigns such as this to fund upcoming expansions and projects.

Capital Campaigns can be the right choice and an excellent source of funding for growth, if all of the important factors are in place and come together to have a successful campaign. One million, five million – that is a lot of money. What is the community currently being asked to support and how does your project fit into that?

In this post, let’s talk about assessing your readiness to plan and execute a capital campaign. When you have a project, a goal, designs and plans to explain that goal, and maybe even the start of some community excitement, here are some other questions I’d like you to ask yourself and your team (and your Board!).

How much money do you usually raise each year? How big is your donor list and your mailing list?

If you usually raise $20,000 per year, and are hoping to raise $350,000, you might be okay. If you raise $20,000 per year and hope to raise $8M, that gives me cause for concern. Where will these additional donors come from if they are not already connected to you?

Can you make a gift range chart work? Do you have enough leadership and launch gifts to get your campaign more than half way before you go public?

The silent and public phases are not set in stone, but if you do a gift range chart and stare at it wondering how in the world you will ever get that many prospects at those high numbers, better to face up to it now instead of mid-campaign.

Do you need a consultant? Do you need a feasibility study?

Yes and mostly yes. Okay, so I can see that you might think “of course, a consultant is going to say you need a consultant!”But, what I learned at the Lilly School for Philanthropy is that a campaign runs smoother and more efficiently with counsel to guide it, accurate and experienced advice, and most important – their ability to speak to your donors and explore the feasibility in a way that you cannot. Plus – let’s face it, a consultant is not going to take your project if they think it cannot be a success. They don’t want their name attached to that. So, at least talk to some as you explore your options.

How much money do you have to operate the campaign?

You have to spend money to make money. Campaigns are very expensive: consultant, studies, case statements, printer and postage charges, graphic designers. Also staff to lead the campaign, staff to process incoming donations and operate your CRM, staff to help with thank you notes, tax letters, pledge tracking, etc. Cost of lunches and dinners and other donor engagement… events like groundbreaking and public phase launch.

Do you have staff for this?

If the Director of your agency – who already does operations and oversight and everything else – is expected to be the main fundraiser AND the one who runs the campaign, this is a problem. No one can do everything and be everywhere. You need extra staff, even part time, who  can completely focus on the important tasks associated with the campaigning. Volunteers can help, but staff provide the structure volunteers work within.

Is your Board invested? Will they make leadership gifts in the silent phase? Will they create prospect lists, do campaign asks, solicit their social circle, and support the staff?

All of this is vastly important… One or two staff cannot do this alone, and the higher the goal, the more people are needed. Remember, you need 3 prospects for every successful gift. (See the gift range chart below). So, if you need two $100,000 gifts, you should have 6 names on your list that are capable and likely to make a gift at that size. In visiting the six, it’s statistically likely that 2 will go ahead and make that gift. Now, the good news is, if another person turns you down for $100k but offers $50k then that ripples down through your chart and is still a welcome gift. The 3:1 really helps with planning.

What other organizations are also doing capital campaigns in your community at the same time?

This is a big consideration. In my town, Penn State is always fundraising, and then you have the arts center and the science center and the volunteer/free health clinic all raising significant funds for expansion. Can the community sustain and support all of these projects at once?

A Gift Range Chart for $1 million, using the 3:1 ration for planning.

There is so much more for us to talk about, but these are some things to get you started. Capital Campaigns can be exciting and successful and transform a community resource through the generosity of many, so I do not mean to discourage you. Instead, to help you evaluate and consider the best way to move forward with the resources you have, and know how to talk to your board and directors if it’s not coming together. There are so many worthwhile projects; with the right steps, yours can be the next big funding success!

(If you need help, please reach out to the staff at PRPS. They can connect you to resources, provide expertise, and make note of your needs as they develop future programs and training sessions).

Do you know the Difference between Sponsorship and Fundraising?

I notice that these words are often used interchangeably and that could land you in hot water!

Fundraising is connecting people to causes they love and wish to support with their personal (or business) donations. “No goods or a service” is the phrase that is used in the tax language on the receipts.

“Sponsorship is for the purpose of achieving commercial objectives. Philanthropy or monetary donations, on the other hand, are in support of a cause without any commercial incentives. Money is donated simply for the good of the cause with no ‘strings’ attached” (from

Sponsorship has an expectation of some kind of commercial return, such as generating new business, brand recognition, or another measurable result. The primary piece to this relationship is access to an audience or group of people. In this type of relationship, a sponsorship “package” is offered and sold to a business, and they benefit from the reciprocal relationship. Whether its tax deductible is debatable but that is usually unlikely, because they ARE receiving goods or services at a certain value from you.

Sponsors have access to your audience

Putting a value on the sponsorship package or “deal” is when you determine how much a sponsor should pay for the activities, benefits, and the website and social media exposure they will get, all outlined in a proposal. This is not the same for every sponsor. Understanding the revenue model of the sponsor and what the motivation or benefit is for them is critical to this step. Always be sure you’re not offering something you cannot actually deliver.

This kind of relationship also requires you to provide data or statistics to show them the value they received, particularly if you’re asking for support again in the future.

Now, there are grey areas in between, for example, event sponsors.

An event sponsor is any person or company that provides something free (money, services, products) to increase the value of your event. Sponsors are key to your event because they add incentives that will draw people to your event or help you cover costs.

This could be use of a venue space, tickets or an art item for a silent auction, t-shirts for your gift baskets, or gift cards. They are freely given, they have a value, and what do they get in return? Publicity. Access to your donors, guests, and their family. So this is still a form of sponsorship and providing tax receipts and language in this case can be tricky.

I hear a lot of Parks & Recreation professionals saying that they need to get sponsors and donations. Yes. But I encourage you to take the time to get to know your donors, encourage philanthropic and big hearted gifts that are freely given because someone loves your mission and your impact in the community. These gifts and relationships are the path to the future.

Next, if you can find a business owner who will be a sponsor for an event because they strongly believe in your mission and your event, and want to support you and the audience you serve, then enter into that agreement and accept the sponsorship and happily promote their support to your audience. If you work with a business that is all about the numbers, their marketing dollars and what social media and print media exposure they expect in return, the stats and data they want to see, perhaps a request to access your mailing list or have major exposure at your events — consider passing on those. These companies know what they need for the dollars they are investing in the sponsorships, and unless you are a well-established enterprise who can devote someone full time to “sales” – which is what sponsorship amounts to – it’s a landslide of work and can really get out of control quickly.

This is just a little blurb to get you pointed in the right direction. I encourage you to read more about the differences between sponsorships and donations, and then set up the processes and proposals that work best for you. Good luck!

PS: Refer to IRS publication 1771 for information on tax language and always talk with your tax accountant or solicitor when you are unsure how to set up or word donation and sponsorship language.

Thinking Deeply About Customer Service

by Molly Hetrick

I think I am a good customer. I’m always polite, though sometimes firm, and clear about what I am asking for when contacting a business. I try to also be patient and thoughtful, I will even say “I bet you’re really busy this time of year” or “I imagine the pandemic has made things challenging for you” and many times the person appreciates the empathy.

So, let’s consider a few things:

• I had a return of an item to and when I called customer service, they refunded my money but said to keep the item and donate it. This is a wonderful model… but my thoughts were “How can they afford that?” and “I can imagine other people taking advantage of that”?

• The same thing happened a few months ago with Clinique. They refunded my money, but let me keep the item to gift on to someone else. Great! Convenient for me, a friend got to try the product; maybe she will start using Clinique, which is probably what they hope for. (But again, I can see people taking advantage of this?)

So, why are we talking about this?

This is the “new” kind of customer service model, particularly which the retail world is moving to. Customers now expect free shipping, no-questions-asked returns, an end to hidden fees, and a money-back guarantee. AND Consumers are in control with online reviews. They expect customer service to be instant chat, just a click or two away, and 365/24/7. They expect same day delivery options – they don’t want to wait. They want to ask questions and make their opinions heard on social media, and have a fast response.

Even though in Recreation we are not retail, I firmly believe that this is fundamentally changing the mindset and more importantly, the expectations, of customers. They want easy, they want fast, they want satisfaction and are used to “above and beyond.”

No longer is a small business able to say “I understand you used this product for 3 months, broke it and now would like a refund of your original purchase price. But I cannot afford to do that for customers and keep my small business open. So here is what I CAN offer you…” (Slightly more direct language than is probably used, but you get the point).

Large cyber businesses have cushions, loopholes, and volume to support them. Smaller businesses, non-profits, and municipal based departments who offer services do not have such great options. We can’t give a whole summer of free camps because the child had a bad experience on Week 1. We can’t let kids repeat swimming lessons over and over without payment when the parent says it’s the Instructor not the child that is at issue. If we did, we could not afford to pay staff and keep the doors open, or even stay afloat beyond one or two years.

We can’t afford to designate a staff person to cover the Instant Chat and all the social media channels, the phone, the email and the voicemail too!

Please share other examples in the comments, there are so many more!

So, what do we do?

We are just at the edge of this new change and the new habits big retail is training society to expect. So let’s look at two things.

What do Customers Want?

• Satisfaction (Happiness?)

• Their need fulfilled

• An affordable cost  (sometimes they’ll pay for faster)

• A convenient and fast solution

• Their opinions and comments to be heard

Why do Customers Complain?

• Their expectations did not match what was offered

• Their expectations outstretch what the organization can provide

• They did not feel appreciated or they felt confused

• Service was not fast enough

How can we approach this?

• Clear instructions and expectations

• Matter-of-Fact policies

• Excellent friendly customer service (start off on the right foot)

• Empathy with clear solutions of what you actually CAN do when situations come up

• A work-together approach “I understand what you are asking for, here is what I can give, is there a way we can meet in the middle?”

• Decide how you will handle the small number of customers who are repeatedly asking for something outside the policies. (The 80-20 rule)

We are just entering into this new phase of super-fast, delivered to your door, over the top service. Convenience and demand take on all new meanings, and the refunds or customer service hoops to make people happy after there is a mix up sometimes are beyond belief.

How is your organization navigating these new waters?

How are these new business practices in customer service impacting your recreation services and programs?

Are you ready for Fall Fundraising?

by Molly Hetrick

Fall is the peak time for falling leaves and for fundraising! Here are some ideas and helpful bits of info for you to consider this fall…

Why Fall? What about the Holidays?

Traditionally people give more in the second half of the year as the holidays approach. Here are the important parts:

  • Get your fall appeal letters and marketing out before Thanksgiving.
    • When do other non-profits and big fundraising organizations get theirs out in your community? Try to work around this…
  • Early December is a good giving time IF your appeal is already out. It’s an excellent time to send email or social media reminders that support your original letter to people with a gentle nudge.
    • If not, do not send an appeal letter in the beginning of December. People are busy, holiday shopping is looming, and it will end up in the recycling!
    • At this point, you’ve missed your chance, so, you can try this next idea…
  • December is an opportunity to re-route holiday giving… instead of giving someone a gift that they may not want, people like Alternative Holiday Giving! What options can you offer?
    • Instead of a gift…
      • Put their name on a brick!
      • Sponsor a kayak!
      • Put their name on a scholarship to send a child to camp!
      • Name a wild animal after them…
      • {Insert your unique creative idea here}
      • No ideas? Offer to either send a special holiday card to the person they are gifting for (this requires extra work for your staff, really tragic if you mix things up) – OR offer them a special fun card to give themselves to the person they gifted for.
  • The last week of December is the big giving week – a great time to support your appeal letter with follow up stories, image similar social media or emails, etc.
    • Motivation at this point is often tax breaks and getting final donations made before December 31. With tax law changes, this is not always possible. Many donors still give even if they cannot claim it on their taxes.
    • This is also when donors remember their Top 3 charities. Your work all year long helps to align you to be one of their top three. If it is the end of December and you haven’t done outreach, start planning for next year to connect people and their passions to your mission.

Other Ideas?

  • Remember all year long to collect emails and addresses so you have an easily accessible list to communicate with for fundraising.
  • Is it okay to send fundraising materials to your participant lists? Double check with your Director, Board, or Attorney, but usually the answer is yes. They participate in your programs and enjoy your parks, they care about your organization, so let them know how things are going and the projects you’re raising money for in the future.
  • Remember Donor Centered Language – if you forget, look back at my previous blog posts.
    • Compare:
      • “We can’t wait to build the new picnic pavilion and we need your help to fund it!” (ie: you are the ATM machine)
      • “Your generous support for the new picnic pavilion will provide a large multi-use space for hundreds of community activities!” (warm and fuzzy!)
      • “Your gift last year made such an impact on the children who attend summer camp, will you consider a gift again this year?” (you matter! You make a difference!)
      • How do these messages feel to you? Which one makes you want to support something?
  • If you can’t handle the details of a large Fall mailing, instead:
    • Set up easy online giving and promote it through social media and eNewsletters…
    • Ask your Board Members to write personal notes or make phone calls to ask for gifts…
    • Create a special giving group and call some donors you know to offer them a special opportunity to make an impact gift towards a particular project… (exclusive, small group!)
    • Send hand written New Year’s cards that include a warm message and “please consider a year end gift to support the programs and services your family loved this year.”

I hope these ideas were helpful and got you thinking about fundraising for the Fall. This is a great time to connect with people, keep them up to date on your programs and projects, and ask them to be part of the exciting upcoming plans.

If you’re still feeling stuck, please reach out to me or to Tim Herd, PRPS CEO, as we are always interested to know what resources would be most helpful for you.

Fundraising Review – DIY consultation

I recently had the opportunity at the invitation of a Board President to visit a local non-profit and review their fundraising, in order to make suggestions and help them take their donations to the next level.

What I found was a wonderful warm group of people with a small overworked staff who does amazing work, a super marketing coordinator who puts out some of the best materials I’ve seen in a long time, innovative new programs, ongoing vital community services, and a really exciting new grant funded construction project.

They are rocking! They’ve got this, what can I possibly add to help?

Well, the need to increase their donors and find ways to encourage participants paying program fees to also make donations, plus engage a wider audience to attract new donors.

It occurred to me in sitting down to write this post that what I prepared for them might also work for you. Here are some things to consider:

  1. How is your social media?
    • Consider adding video or images that show how it “feels” to be a donor. Make it look really exciting and enticing to be part of that group
    • Consider using donor centered language. Instead of saying “Help us serve preschool children” say “You can raise up a child by supporting preschool programs” or “You can be the hero for a child!” (See below for more on this)
  2. Do you have a donor database or list?
    • Gather “everyone”: recent donors, old donors, sponsors, program attendees, vendors, grant coordinators, newsletter lists, etc – AND then ask your Board members to each provide 10 names who can be contacted. (They give their valuable time to your organization, why wouldn’t they want others in their sphere to know about your organization too?)
  3. Define Audience or Segments: who are your audiences, or communication segments, and is your message different or the same for each?
    • Insiders – those connected to and active with your programs
    • Connected – those who are familiar with your programs (think grandparents, teachers, etc)
    • Community – maybe these folks don’t know about your programs but wouldn’t it be great if they did?
  4. Make Donating Easy: I’ll say this simply: WHERE IS YOUR DONATE BUTTON? If I can’t click on your website and immediately see it, fix that first. Don’t lose people on their way to give because its not easy enough. After that:
    • Do you allow facebook fundraisers to be held on your behalf? (Awesome when someone chooses you to support during their birthday)
    • Can people set up a monthly gift? (excellent for cash flow)
    • Do you have a wishlist or list of programs/services they can support?
  5. Use Your Board:
    • Having an event? They get four extra tickets to bring people with them.
    • Having a fundraiser? They call people and champion your cause
    • Sending a mailing? They write a personal note on the mailing before it goes out AND write the thank you note when that person makes a gift.
    • (If they don’t or wont – explore why… consider bringing a consultant in to train them)
    • Ask the Executive Committee of the Board to start a “Give or Get” Policy. Each member has 12 calendar months to give or get $1000… if they want to write a check Jan 1, great. If they are not able to or don’t want to, they have 12 months to get creative with their kids, friends, church, pets, neighbors to raise $1000. Sounds fun, right??

If you don’t have time for all of this, then skip it and just read the rest because I want to talk again (like my last post) about Donor Centered Fundraising. In my experience and training, this has been my main focus. It’s a philosophy, a practice, a physiological exploration, and more. AND, it works.

This is the Very Best graphic I have ever seen to clearly show what we’re talking about. Read through – do you see the difference? Does it make you want to give? If you make no other changes, use this and change your wording. The donor wants to know where THEY fit in to the fantastic things you’re doing, not just about the fantastic things you’re doing. The full article that included this graphic is available here, authored by Cathy Elton.

I hope these suggestions were helpful! Please reach out and ask for help if you need it. You can improve your fundraising in small ways, even if it feels impossible now. Good luck!

Customer Service Calm

While I was preparing for the upcoming Customer Service Workshop, I was pondering something interesting: The inner reaction that we each have when we feel that conflict is about to happen.

For example, a staff person stops in your doorway and says “Mr. Jones is here, he has a problem with his pool pass and he wants to talk to you.”

Do you think “Oh good, I love helping Mr. Jones.”

Or, “Oh no, not Mr. Jones again! Can I crawl under my desk?”

Or, do you have that fall in the pit of your stomach, that dread before a confrontation and the pump of adrenaline facing the unknown situation that sounds like it could be difficult.

All of this is natural, so fear not. When our ancestors heard there was a mastodon nearby trying to get into the cave, they probably grabbed their big club and went out ready for conflict. Imagine their surprise when they discovered a baby mastodon sitting on a rock in the sunshine.

I confess, my natural tendency is to dread confrontation and for the adrenaline spike to indicate I think a problem is looming. But I’ve been providing customer service for my whole career and have worked hard to train myself to approach with curiosity instead of dread.

Recently a customer sent a harried email asking a question and I assured her that the project she asked about was completed and in the mail. It was! When she complained again that no mail had come and I went back to review the project, it turns out she was NOT one of the customers who signed up for this. Uh oh! Here she is waiting and waiting impatiently, now I need to tell her it’s not coming ever because she was never on the 2020 list.

I pictured anger, finger pointing, and recriminations. I took a deep breathe, lined up my facts, prepared to call her. Guess what – SHE apologized to ME! Not at all what I was expecting! I wish I had approached the situation with calm and curiosity, instead of dread.

How can we do this?

Confidence: I know my job. I know the range of options I can offer the customer. I can think on my feet when their questions surprise me.

Calm: this customer is having a bad day, but I’m okay. This customer is having an emotional reaction to the situation, but I will keep my emotions calm.

What works for you?

Sometimes its back up – knowing you have someone to help if you need it. Maybe it’s a matter of training or being clear on what options are available to offer a customer.

Sometimes its learning the customer’s name and figuring out what makes them tick. And being aware of your own source of calm to draw on when things do get difficult.

Never Stop Fundraising…

We are all busy, so I will keep this post fairly short. What I have to say is easy to say, and repeat:

You Never Stop Fundraising. Your Board Never Stops Fundraising.

Now, if that sounds like the stuff of nightmares, I understand. It feels like a long road into the distance to crawl with your hand out and your brain weary from fundraising endlessly into oblivion.

Photo by Marta Wave on

It’s not so bad. Some people like to call it “Friend-raising” because it sounds hopeful and fun and better somehow. Sometimes fundraising isn’t the word to use, and your Boards – particularly tax supported entities – don’t really like that word at all. They prefer grants, stipends, and sponsorships.

That is all in the weeds, though. The reason I am bringing this up is from seeing people in non-profit and recreation settings really married to the budget. That little line item #107 says bring in $35,000 in sponsorships and donations this year, so Jan 1 the clock starts ticking and they get busy. (This definitely used to be me, I will admit!) If that amount is amazingly raised by April, they stop, thankful that this line item is met and they can take a break. Others labor away through the year until let’s say October it is finally met and then collapse in exhaustion.

Okay – it’s not that bad, right? The point is, if you meet the goal in April, don’t stop! Maybe you change directions, maybe you take a little break… maybe you pass the task to your Interns (Interns can come up with some amazing Gen Z style fundraising stuff that will blow your mind)… maybe you ask the Board to start Friend-raising for next year’s campaign… maybe you ask a Sponsor for a different type of partnership or to suggest another sponsor. But don’t stop. Your organization needs the money, so keep the momentum and the process going.

In this way, you’re not looking at that line item so much as you’re seeing what you can do. What can the people around you do? With curiosity and a fresh approach, there are a lot of possibilities based on the relationships you’ve created in the community and the willingness of others to give to support your cause. From small opportunities like Facebook birthday fundraisers or a single giving day to bigger opportunities to raise for a park or crowdfund a new feature, there are a lot of chances throughout the year to keep up the communication and momentum with people in the community. This will gather more people and keep your fundraising going without feeling like such a long challenging road. Good luck!

Civility – It Starts with You

Most days, it feels like the world has gone mad. Or at least, it’s tilted on its axis in a new way, so we’re all getting used to things being different.

When my calendar reminded me that way back at the end of 2019 I agreed to write this blog post on Civility in August, I must confess, I literally blanked. Civility? Is it even a thing anymore?

My mind whirled with images: people are angry and afraid – about money, about their futures, about their health, about the state of the country and its leadership, about so many things. And I watch in awe as it manifests in the complete feeling of entitlement to shout at strangers in the grocery store who have a different mask choice than you do (including ramming and injuring that person with a cart or tearing a display of masks to shreds while shouting epitaphs)… to road rage… to writing nasty hateful messages on the Governor’s social media pages or shouting at School Administrators who are not making the choice that most fits your individual family needs.

No need to go on about that. We’re living it.

So where does Civility, Kindness, Compassion, and Humor have a place in this angry, stressed, and in some cases mentally unstable world.

Woman Smiling Photo
Can you see her smile? YES – look at the eyes and cheeks…

Let me suggest a theory – it all starts with YOU. With Each of Us. Because you can only control you, but also because you have influence.

Yesterday I was curving through the strangely laid out parking lot of a busy Starbucks when I came parallel with the drive through and the woman in that car started to pull forward without looking. I immediately slowed and there we were, door side to door side, face to face through our windows, who was going to go first. I confess, the weary part of my brain wanted to say “thanks for pulling ahead without looking” but it was a weary thought, and certainly not accompanied by any hand gestures etc. But the woman saw me and smiled – WOW – and waved me forward. So I then waved my thanks with a happy smile and we waved and laughed and waved again as I pulled my car forward. WOW, how lovely, civility and humor and friendliness in a dark world.

I wonder if we can find our own level equilibrium, take our own deep breath before we go forth into the world, and try harder than ever to be civil and kind in this crazy place.

Even smiling feels hard – with the mask on. I’ve heard people say they are amusing themselves by making funny faces behind the mask, or whispering words. I think a good old fashioned smile is still important. And a verbal hello equally so. (Remember the 5 foot 10 foot rule? Let’s do it!)

I recently attended the Global Leadership Summit (virtually!) and had the opportunity to listen to amazing thought leaders  from around the world speak about the challenges that face us and our world. An additional session that I particularly enjoyed was Vanessa Van Edwards and her theories on human interaction.

Let me share two tidbits that I pulled from her presentation.

1) Your smile still shows behind your mask. Have you ever seen a smile that “didn’t reach someone’s eyes”? It’s like the fake “I will show you my teeth” smile but the eyes are flat. Well, a genuine smile includes the muscles around the eyes, the eye shape, the lines around the eyes (yes!), and the forehead. So SMILE smile smile behind that mask. And say a verbal hello.

2) From back in the caveman days, people are primed to see our hands. If we have our hands behind our backs, the amygdala in the brain starts to wonder, what are they up to? When the hands are visible but neutral, the other person’s brain is signaled that “I am a friend”. Vanessa literally suggested, and this is important for all these virtual meetings too, that when we approach someone we do a two handed wave. Sounds cheesy but she demonstrated with three wags of her right hand and then three wags of the left hand. That “hi-hi-hi” with each hand is a calm and friendly opening to “prime” the other person for a good interaction with us.

Now, if we apply that idea, let’s say you’re walking up to someone while smiling behind your mask, a friendly hello, and both hands lifted in whatever wave feels comfortable. This is priming – you’re getting the interaction started off on the right foot.

I’ll leave you with one last story… My friend was walking into our local Walmart, masked, when he observed at the entrance a middle aged man yelling and swearing at the young female staff person who was asking/telling people they must wear a mask in the store. My friend walked up and said “Hey buddy, back off, she’s just doing what she was told to do.” The guy pulled back, perhaps embarrassed, and then stomped off to his car to get a mask. My friend hung around and chatted with the woman, who confided how frightening and exhausting her job is right now, when she gets abuse every few minutes for the hours that she’s working that post. Can you imagine!? I would be a puddle of tears on the sidewalk.

Now, why did that interaction work? My friend said “Hey buddy” in a friendly reasonable tone, AND put his hands up in front of him with palms out, to show non-confrontation. It very easily could have gone the other way into violence.

What happened next? Two things – the man came back and apologized to both of them. He said things are just really getting to him lately, he can’t keep his cool. He was embarrassed but with a lot of head nodding, he entered the store (masked).

Also, my friend remained, arms crossed over his chest (which is more confrontational) and hung out with the staff person for about 20 minutes chatting. Three more times, he used the same language to defend her but they also observed together that people were less likely to yell at her with him standing there and she was grateful for the break. Interestingly – men were less likely to yell at her and passed by with grumbles, but women still felt completely comfortable to yell, including at my friend. (I would love to do a psychological study on that one).

So, in wrapping up:

Can you be the pleasant one, in whatever situation you find yourself in?

Can you embrace humor and find – and share – laughter in a world gone crazy?

If YOU are the one who is teetering so close to losing your cool, who can you ask for help? Whether that is helping you get groceries so you aren’t tempted to ram people with your cart or just talk with you about the things that are piling up?

Can we be that breath of fresh friendly air for someone else?

Can we help someone who is getting ready to melt down or protect someone (carefully) who is being verbally attacked?

It all starts with You – with US – each of us. We can be the spark for good or ill, and we must make a concerted effort to do just that.

I have an old purple T shirt that says “Build a Better World” in bright script. I’ve worn it for years without a comment, but recently, wearing it while traveling, many many people commented on it. Even a fun and friendly T shirt is a start.

Be well.

Internal Customer Service Challenge

It’s funny when I know there is a blog post coming up about Customer Service, the Universe seems to present me with a variety of examples.

Rather than tell you about the extremely rude behavior that I experienced at a big box store regarding curbside options, which drove me to a store where I paid more just to get good service and ask a few simple questions, I’ll tell you instead a story from a colleague.

The setting of this story is a library, but it could be anywhere. A staff person had a difficult interaction with a customer and was angry and upset about what happened. And it became a problem. The staff person said “I don’t like that woman at all. Every time she comes in here, when I’m working at the desk, I give her the stink-eye. I make sure that she knows she is not welcome here and she’s not going to get any service from me! I will not help her and I don’t want her here.”

portrait photo of woman frowning
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Um… ouch. (I know that is not very eloquent, but it’s the best I can do while my mouth is hanging open.) Where should we start with this one?

Let’s put ourselves in this staff person’s shoes first… we’ve ALL had bad customers. Mean ones, rude ones, sharp ones, forgetful ones, angry ones, odd ones… along with all the wonderful customers. Most of us have never had the luxury (or even considered that it was possible?) to give a customer the “stink-eye” and refuse to wait on her. But this staff person decided that was her prerogative and this was her course of action.

Let’s put ourselves in a Management role. First, we may not know this is even happening, unless the staff person, the customer, or other staff tell us. But once we know… how would you handle this? Imagine that this is happening at the front desk of your Recreation Center and a staff person is glaring at a person coming in for yoga class… or refusing to assist a parent bringing a child for summer camp registration. Imagine this is happening at your swimming pool desk or the service area at the State Park.

Now, the missing puzzle piece is, we do not know what this customer did to make the staff person so upset. But either way, we cannot have our staff behaving this way. How do we convey and train – and enforce – that every customer must be treated fairly and with respect – even when they do not return it to us. Staff on the front line are there to serve whoever needs service to the best of their ability. They are being paid for that job, they are expected to perform it, and are not ethically or personally allowed to decide who they choose to help or not help.

Likewise, this type of behavior trickles to other customers and can affect funding – especially if you’re a tax based entity. Unless the customer is breaking the code of conduct or behavior policy and management has to get involved, that person is still to be served.

Tricky? Absolutely. Especially if you do not have a Code of Conduct (or Customer Service Standards, Civility Standards, etc) that explain behavior for both customers and staff. What levels of respect and courtesy are expected – from both staff and patrons?  Can you ask a customer to leave your facility if they break these standards – yes – and can you discipline a staff person if they break the standards – yes.

Without them, it is much harder to illustrate expected behaviors, outline consequences, administer these guidelines, and get everyone on the same page.

Back to the staff person… while she is on the clock and working in your facility, this is not acceptable behavior. The fact that she thinks it’s her choice to behave this way – and she has the nerve to do so – speaks to her character and may mean this is not someone you wish to have on your staff. No one wants customers to be rude or have conflict with a staff person, and we must support and train our staff on how to successfully work through those interactions. This one, for me, crosses a line. I hope you’ll use this as a thought provoking exercise for yourself and give it some thought. How would you handle this? Or toss it to your managers at your staff next meeting and ask for open dialogue. What needs to be brought out into the open, discussed, explained, written or trained to help everyone have a positive work environment and not let a situation like this occur? It’s a step in the right direction!


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