#TextGen Episode 3 Interview with Claire Axelrad

James Martin
#TextGen Episode 3 Interview with Claire Axelrad


In this episode, Claire Axelrad, the founder of clairification.com and the Clairification School, shares with us her journey and insights over her impressive four-decade career serving the social benefits sector. Claire is an avid learner, writer, and teacher who brings clarification to the world of philanthropy.

I truly have enjoyed getting to know Claire, and I know you'll find our time both informative and encouraging. Her writing and wisdom have helped shape our products and approach at Rally Corp. For that, we are grateful!


#TextGen Podcast

James (00:08):

Hi, there. James from #TextGen, and I am very excited today to introduce you to a special guest. As I set up our time today and introduce Claire here in a minute, I just want to remind us that #TextGen is for non-profit leaders looking to mobilize their mission. What that means to us is, of course, we have the technology like mobile phones, all too often, we start from a place of tools or tactics, and we really don't get into the much of the strategy. But even more important than even the strategy is the ''why''. Like, why do we do what we do? How do we really connect with people in the moment? How do we activate them and mobilize them to our mission and to really march with us in our cause as we move forward. Mobilizing our people really is more than just the technology and the tactics and the toolset that we're using. That, my friends, is why I'm so excited about our guest today. I've been following Claire for a long time. Look, I reached out to her and I said, ''Claire, we have a small little podcast, we just got started here. But it's very important that in our early, early episodes, we embed a strong, purposeful DNA into our time here.'' Well, we really bring some clarity to what it means to do what we do as we mobilize and activate people. I was very grateful to have so much time with Claire leading up to this time with you. I think you'll get a lot out of our session today. We're going to go into the difference between fundraising and philanthropy, kind of how Claire sees those two. Claire's going to share her experience of nearly four decades of working in various roles around development, fundraising, philanthropy, and her own journey. We're going to learn about the clarity that she brings to the topic. Let's get started.

James (02:03):

Hey, there. James with #TextGen, and I am excited today to be here with a new friend named Claire - Claire Axelrad - and she is with Clairification. Claire, I just want to get to know you and your story, spend a little bit of time with you and see what we might learn in our time together. Welcome to #TextGen.

Claire (02:23):

Thank you for having me.

James (02:23):

Claire, you and I have actually had the pleasure of having a couple of conversations now, and I've been a long time follower and fan of your blog. I want you to tell the audience a little bit about who you are and we'll get into your story here in a minute. Take it away. Let's learn a little bit more about the woman named Claire.

Claire (02:44):

Okay. I'm a California girl who is nothing like the stereotype. The only thing I surf is the web. I can't believe it, but I have worked in the social benefit sector now for four decades. I just welcomed my first grandchild to the world, so time flies.

James (03:03):

Yeah, it does.

Claire (03:03):

I think one of the things that makes me different than a lot of other people out there is that I've worked in the trenches for 30 years for five different organizations. I was always the head development honcho, I think, maybe because I'm just bossy so I just naturally flowed into those positions. I've had the opportunity to do every aspect of fundraising and marketing: annual giving, major gifts, legacy gifts, grants, events, marketing and communications. I've always been a big picture vision person. I mean, don't get me wrong. I can be very detail oriented, but that comes later. If you're ever in the room with someone who says, ''Wait a minute, before we get to that...'', I'm that person. I always ask ''why'' first. I'm always like, ''Okay, well what if dah, dah, dah'', which I know it gets really annoying, but it's a good person to have in the room because you want to get to the ''why'' before you get to the who, what, when, where and how.

James (04:22):


Claire (04:22):

Go ahead.

James (04:24):

No, I love it, Claire. As you're speaking, I'm thinking about several of the articles I've read and some of the writings that you've put out. But you really are. It seems you get really quick to the ''why'' and really dig for the information. With your story I love that you have a background even before you worked in the philanthropy world. Tell us a bit about where you started your professional career.

Claire (04:49):

I started as a lawyer. My mother wanted to be a lawyer, so I kind of accommodated her desire to live through me. I thought it would be a good way to help people, but I fell into civil procedure, which is no surprise, very procedural. I found that the wheels of justice turned very slowly, so I didn't enjoy it. I complained to everyone I know. One day, somebody said to me, ''Claire, you ought to do what I just did.'' She had gone to this career change weekend where everybody went in and they had a pseudonym and that no one knew what they did. We did these exercises like what color is my parachute, where we described experiences that we had had over every five-year period of our lives that made us feel successful. We talked about those. It was just so interesting because skill words would come out.

Claire (05:55):

Those were the skills that you enjoyed using. For me, it was probably analyzer and evaluator and creator. What I learned from that experience is it's all about playing to your strengths. There are lots of things that you can end up doing and can do fairly well, but it doesn't mean you're going to enjoy them. From that experience, they brainstorm several fields for me to look into. Fundraising's certainly wasn't one of them. Nobody ever, ever heard of that. But over the course of my journey where I did research interviews with 200 people -- I told you I can be very detail-oriented -- somebody, at one point at a corporation where they did their corporate philanthropy, said to me, ''I think you might be interested in the flip side of what we do.'' I think I just looked at him like, ''What are you talking about?'' He said, ''Development''. I was like, ''Oh, yeah''. I didn't want to admit I've never heard of development. But then I started doing research interviews with non-profits and it really clicked. It was like, ''Yes, this is really what I want to do.'' Lo and behold, I've been doing it now for four decades.

James (07:21):

Claire, I love it. It sounds like your quest for clarity and getting to the ''why'' not just shows up in your writing, but really even in your own life story. I mean, getting to the heart of the matter of what you actually want to do and what activates you. That's an incredible story. Tell us a bit about what you do today. You've mentioned some time with philanthropy and you've got lots of roles. Let's talk a little bit about what you're doing now.

Claire (07:50):

I was told numerous times by people that I should do consulting. Ten years ago, I decided to do it. I was ready. I founded Clairification. Again, I think Clairification is not just my name; it's my job. I like to clarify. I've always been a good analyzer. I get to the heart of the matter,. When people are in therapy, they come in with a presenting complaint, and I always go beyond the presenting complaint. Often, when I work with someone, they'll come and say, ''Not enough people know about us''. I will counter with, ''Why should they know about you?''.

James (08:40):

Good question.

Claire (08:40):

If you were to cease to exist, would people mourn your loss? I wrote an article right after Notre Dame burned. You remember, people were just out there in the plaza singing hymns,. I said, ''Would people sing hymns if you were to cease to exist?''

James (09:01):


Claire (09:01):

I really like to find the big problem, the real problem, the one that's really keeping people up at night, and then help them brainstorm solutions. Not stick with the solution that they've come to me. ''We need an awareness campaign. We need a brochure.'' We need, we need, we need. I say, ''Why do you need that? What makes you think that is the best way to accomplish your outcome? Who else needs to be on board to get that done? Why do you need to do that now?'' All sorts of questions before we get to building a plan. Then, of course, want to build a detailed plan with strategies, with tactics, with the timeline, with responsibilities, because big visions are great, but you got to turn them into action. One of my favorite quotes is from Peter Drucker. He says, ''The best plans are only good intentions unless they degenerate into work.''.

James (10:02):

I love that quote. I love it. Claire, in these conversations with clients and the folks that you run in to, do you feel like there's some people that are maybe more big picture visionary versus those that are more tactical kind of boots on the ground, working on the tools or the tactics that you mentioned? Do you feel like people fall in those two cans? Or do you think people really flip between the two with a little bit of helping and coaching?

Claire (10:32):

I think it depends on the person. I think that we are who we are. If you've ever done the Gallup StrengthsFinder exercise, I think they have about 36 traits, skills. If you take the test, you'll have a Top 5. That means you can do all of those things, but there's a Top 5 that come to you more easily. Again, I like people to play to their strengths. What we do is we do a performance review and we hone in on that one thing that a person doesn't do very well. Then their whole review is about how they can improve in that area, rather than saying, ''Hey, maybe take this off your plate. Let's give this to someone who does this more easily, and let's focus in on the things you're doing really well and do more of them.''

James (11:30):

It sounds like really getting to the ''why'' of really how they're built or personality, their traits, and activating that within them to really realize their potential. Is that what I'm hearing you say?

Claire (11:42):

Yes. Absolutely. I mean, I think -- yeah.

James (11:47):

That's great.

Claire (11:47):

I'm trying to do that myself in my own practice. I told you, people said I should always consult. But the digital revolution has made it possible for me to do that in the way that I most enjoy, which is not just one-off consulting projects that help a few people, but really being by people's sides in an ongoing way as a coach, as a teacher, as a writer. My motto is really, ''If I know it, I want you to know it.''.

James (12:21):

I love it.

Claire (12:21):

When I was in the trenches, I remember the place that I stayed the longest had a big going away party for me. My staff got together and wrote a song, which they sang to me.

James (12:35):

[Laughter] Sweet.

Claire (12:35):

I really should dig it out because it was pretty funny. But one of the things that ran through the song was, ''She ran her own fundraising school.''

James (12:46):

[Laughter] Seems fitting.

Claire (12:47):

I started Clairification. I started blogging. I started writing. I started sharing a lot of what I know. But Clairification school grew out of that notion that I was running my own fundraising school anyway, so I might as well share simple in-depth practical content that's both theory and practice so that I can help as many people as possible fulfill their personal and professional missions.

James (13:15):

Claire, would you say that that's your ''why'' -- creating clarity in the hearts and the minds of your readers, your clients, and the people that follow along with Clairification and doing it at large scale, right, because you have a significant reach into so many different minds and hearts? Is that what keeps you up at night? Is that your ''why''?

Claire (13:37):

I think my ''why'' is the ability to share. Like, really when I worked in the trenches, I always shared. Anytime I would see an article that I thought was interesting, I would copy it, I would distribute it, I would write it in the margins. ''What do you think? How could we do this?'' Once I left and I was on my own, I just didn't have people to share with every day, all this stuff that I was learning and thinking about. That was really my impetus for beginning Clairification, the lack of folks with whom to share. I have Clairification School, but I also have a newsletter that I send out every other week and it's called my Clairity Click-it. I curate information across the web because I'm a voracious reader. I'm finding great articles, e-guides, webinars, podcast like yours, that I want to share with other people. If anybody wants to sign up for my Clairity Click-it, you'll get that, too.

James (14:45):

I love it. I get it. I followed along and read much of your work. What I loved about your writing and your style, even just putting things together in a Clairity Click-it, was that you had a knack for just finding the most helpful articles and building themes around them, really helping kind of bring thoughts. If I was looking at ''donor, thank you'' initiatives, you seemed like you had a nice curated subset of that. It really saved me a lot of time from having to go out and find all that on my own. [Laughter] Incredible work.

Claire (15:16):

Well, good. That makes me happy.

James (15:17):

Good. Claire, in our previous conversations, it struck me that you love to learn. Really, the natural extension of that is to teach and to share with others. Claire, these days, what are you working on now? You mentioned Clairification School, you've mentioned your various writings that you're doing. What's some of the things that you're working on the next 30, 60 days that you're real excited about?

Claire (15:45):

I would say, really, I'm focused on helping people to re-frame the way they look at their roles. There are probably four different areas that I've discovered kind of cut to the heart of why people are having difficulty doing whatever they are doing in the non-profit world. Certainly, fundraising. One of those is the tagline for clarification, which is philanthropy, not fundraising.

James (16:20):

I love that.

Claire (16:21):

Really, fundraising is seen by so many people as an F word. People would rather do anything else, but fundraising. It comes from a real deeply ingrained fear about talking about money.

James (16:38):


Claire (16:38):

Money is like the biggest taboo in our society. When you think about fund raising, it sounds like it's all about money.

James (16:46):

It doesn't sound very fun, does it?

Claire (16:50):

No. But philanthropy, which literally translates from the Greek to mean ''love of humankind'', that's all about love. If I can encourage people to think about their role as a philanthropy facilitator, a facilitator of love, people start to become much more not just comfortable, but actually excited because they feel like they're doing something good instead of something evil. I work a lot around that type of frame. Then, I also take that to the next step, which is a culture of philanthropy. I really feel like development is a team sport. You can't do it by yourself. It's just no fun. It's just too hard. The culture of philanthropy is something that permeates the organization. It's really the golden rule: ''Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'' If you don't want them to cut you out -- you don't, you don't want to be competitive. You want to be walking down the hall and saying, ''Hi''. Not just, ''How was your weekend'', but ''Hi, how can I help you today?'' This sort of willingness to help other people as opposed to, ''That's not my job.''

James (18:20):

I love that, Claire. The re-framing of philanthropy from fundraising is really, I think, gets to the heart of what we're really doing. We're activating people and we're connecting with them and their innate desire to really help others. Whereas funding, it feels like it's not the person at the center or their ''why'' as much as it is maybe their act, right? They were moving it from their heart to their wallet when we talk funds versus philanthropy. That's an important distinction. How did you come to that clarification, if you would?

Claire (18:53):

I think it's really remembering that we're in the people business. People are people first before they're donors. It's important to not kind of label people, categorize people, think, ''They're a donor so I'm going to treat them like a donor'', which means, basically, treating them like a wallet or an ATM.

James (19:15):


Claire (19:15):

I think I wrote an article once, which is, ''Don't treat them like gumballs where you chew them up and spit them out.'' You're done with them. You want to say where your gumball. You want to taste the flavor. You want to find out more about it. Part of that is, again, this attitude of gratitude, which is another way that I like to re-frame the work, which is that you're always thinking about what you're grateful for. Very specifically -- I tell people, ''Keep a gratitude journal, but not the traditional kind where you write down all the things you're grateful for yourself, but a donor gratitude journal''.

James (20:00):

I love it.

Claire (20:00):

Honestly, l would write in it every day just one thing that I thought about. Like, ''I'm grateful to Bill for bringing a coffee cake to our meeting today.'' It's just a practice of starting to look for what it is that you are grateful to to two different people for and within your office, too. Then remembering to let them know. Just that because you've cultivated that in yourself, the next time you see them, you remember, ''Oh, I wrote that down. I'm going to tell them.'' People love to be thanked.

James (20:36):

Thank you.

Claire (20:36):

There's so much research on the benefits of gratitude. It's good for the giver and it's good for the receiver. It's all good.

James (20:47):

Claire, I love it. As you're talking, I feel the excitement because you're really opening our hearts and our minds to think in possibilities. Whereas, sometimes I feel like we focus too much on scarcity or the funds themselves. Moving into the heart and moving it to an openness in that way does foster more gratitude and a better connection with with those that we're serving, right? Outstanding thoughts. I'm taking lots of notes over here. This is good.

Claire (21:14):

I think it's interesting that you mentioned scarcity because very many non-profits operate from a culture of scarcity. The overhead's not supposed to be too high. We have conditioned donors to look at that. They're like, ''Oh, they spend more than 10% on fundraising? That's terrible.'' But it's not terrible. If you spend 15 cents to raise a dollar, that's a pretty good return. If you spend 20 cents and raise more than a dollar and you can help more people, that's not a bad thing.

James (21:51):


Claire (21:51):

This scarcity mindset is what causes so much turnover in the non-profit world, because people are told, ''Do with less. Be lean and mean. Work hard. Wear a hair shirt. When you're working in a non-profit, you're supposed to suffer.'' That's no fun.

James (22:11):

It is no fun.

Claire (22:11):

This shouldn't be about suffering.

James (22:14):

No. Really, to your earlier point, Claire, philanthropy is really enabling people to be part of what you're about and to get onboard. I think, at the end of the day, people want to believe in something; they want to belong to it. Ultimately, they want to benefit from it. That benefit could simply be beyond just the participation in an event or even volunteerism. But it's really being able to see your story and for me to be part of that story, which is a phenomenal opportunity that we have with all people, right?

Claire (22:46):

Yes. Absolutely. It's thinking about donors as mission central. They're part of your mission; they're not a means to an end. They are, in fact, an end. I worked many years for a comprehensive human services agency. Nominally, we're all about helping people thrive, feel better, feel healthier. Yet, we forgot that we should do that with our donors, too. We have the ability to help donors feel better, to feel a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose, a sense of joy. I always say that the business that we're really in is the happiness delivery business.

James (23:33):

Happiness. Love it.

Claire (23:35):

You may know that they've done MRI studies where they show that when people even contemplate giving, they get a shot of dopamine. The pleasure centers of the brain light up. It's a feeling that is very akin to eating chocolate or having sex. It's like a very joyful feeling. But we have to keep that feeling going. It's not just a one-shot transaction. You have to build relationships with people.

James (24:12):

And have a long view. I love it.

Claire (24:13):

You have to have a long view. When you understand that - that donors are part of your mission and that your business as a philanthropy facilitator is to deliver happiness - then all of the other tactics that we use just fall into place naturally of figuring out ways to discover your donors' needs and their passions so that you can help them meet them and enact them more. It's more about helping them, not selling to them; listening and empathizing and being human.

James (24:49):

Absolutely. I love it. It seems like we're moving from a transactional relationship to a full-on a deeper relationship, which is incredible. I love it. I love everything you're saying. This is great, Claire. Let me ask you this: as you think about when you started out versus where you are today, what do you wish somebody would have told you when you were new to your roles? If you could go back in time and coach and mentor young Claire, what would you tell her to do?

Claire (25:17):

Well, it's interesting because somebody actually gave me some really good advice. They said, ''When you get your first job, insist that they send you to the fundraising school.'' The fundraising school was about the only course at the time that you could take because it wasn't in university programs like it is now. I did that. I got super lucky because Hank Rosseau, who I think of as the daddy of fundraising, founded that school. He became a personal mentor. I would say also, find a mentor. There really is a right way to do this and a wrong way or a not so good way to do this. I would say, invest in professional development. Consider this a career. I mean, you can try to wing it; you can try to re-invent the wheel, but why would you want to do that? Working smart is much better than working hard.

James (26:16):

Yes, Claire. I couldn't agree more. It's interesting to me that every performance athlete, every senior level executive, they all invest in coaching and education for themselves, right? That's really about having somebody that can help you ''see your own golf swing'', right?

Claire (26:34):


James (26:34):

As we think about how we can level up as individuals, what better way than to invest in yourself through coaching, through schooling, through subscribing to your your Clairification School where I can really get a lot of clarity and a lot of helpful resources to really shape me and and my cause, because it is very important to the work that we're doing. If we are to be effective and perform at our optimal level as a philanthropist, it comes down to having that coaching, doesn't it, and those resources to help us?

Claire (27:15):

I hope so. I mean, I don't think anything is very fun if you're doing it all alone, particularly with development where a lot of people are hired and then put in a corner and told, ''Go raise money.'' That just doesn't work very well.

James (27:33):

It could be a very lonely place.

Claire (27:33):

It's a very lonely place. It's not just lonely, but it's just not very fulfilling because you never feel like you really feel like you know what you're doing. You want to have that confidence. You want to feel like, ''Wow, I'm doing the thing that's right, and this is ultimately going to work. I'm going to bring other people along with me. I know it for sure'', as opposed to, ''Why am I failing? Why are people always upset with me?''

James (28:04):

[Laughter] I love it, Claire. No, don't go at it alone. We've mentioned clairification.com, but what are some other ways that we can get ahold of you, Claire, and learn more about the work and the writing that you're doing?

Claire (28:19):

Go to clairification.com. Get on my mailing list. You'll get the Clairity Click-it, the curated content every other week. You'll get a little free download about how to thank people. If you're interested, I would really hope that you would join us for Clairification School. It's not expensive. It's just my way of covering my costs so that I can continue to share and help the most people that I possibly can. Then you also get access to all my webinars and other content and bonuses, and I give you monthly tips and stuff like that. Then check me out on Twitter. I'm @CharityClairity, and I've spelled clarity like my name, C-L-A-I-R-I-T-Y.

James (29:10):

I love it. Clairification.com and @CharityClairity. I'm starting to see a theme here, Claire.

Claire (29:20):

[Laughter] Yeah.

James (29:20):

[Laughter] Well done. Thank you. Claire, I'm going to wrap up here. Is there any closing thoughts as we wrap things up in our time together? I really appreciate you taking time for us today. Is there anything that you would leave us with as we round out our time here together?

Claire (29:37):

I would say, don't stay with something that doesn't make you happy. I find a lot of people who are not happy in their development work, and it really makes me unhappy because I have had such a wonderful career in the field, and I know that you can. I would say either learn to do it better so you feel more confident and more control and more authority, more success, more joy. Or learn to re-frame how you approach your work so you can tweak it around the edges. So you don't sweat the small stuff. So you can focus on what you can do, not on what you can't. Then finally, if you need to move on, if this isn't your thing, do yourself the favor of figuring out why you need to move on so that you don't just end up choosing the carbon copy of where you're at now. I think that a life well lived means mistakes happen; you just have to learn from them.

James (30:38):

You just have to learn from them. Well, Claire, again, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate you and the work that you do. [I'm] an avid fan and reader of your work at Clairification School, so thank you so much for taking some time with us today.

Claire (30:51):

Thank you, James. I want to thank everyone who's listening for doing the wonderful and important work that you do. It makes a difference.

James (30:58):

Thank you, Claire.

James (31:00):

There you have it, Claire Axelrod. You could learn more about Claire at clairification.com. It's clairification like she spells her name, as she said. Claire, you're such a gift to the community and your writing style. I'm just so thankful for you, so thank you so much for your time. You are truly an amazing person and soul, so thank you so much. Have a great day and looking forward to our next conversation. Bye-bye now.


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