As professional fundraisers, we will spend a large portion of our lives managing relationships between donors and non-profit organizations. That sounds like such a simple thing to do. But as you know, both ends of that relationship at times can be complex and unpredictable. Although donors come in many types and temperaments, there are two basic questions about the donor-organizational relationship that every major donor wants to ask. Whether or not they actually verbalize them, those questions are almost always there.
QUESTION #1: Are You Sincere?
While some people try to appear far more affluent than they really are, many try to hide their wealth by living far below their means. One reason for their relative austerity is that the appearance of wealth complicates their relationships.
“Do you love me as you say,” they wonder, “or do you just love my money?”
To whatever extent they are suspicious about relationships in general, they are far more suspicious about the motives of non-profit executives. The very nature of that relationship simply begs the question.
What she really wanted to know was whether or not I would have been her friend and would have taken her to lunch at that teahouse if she had not given so much money.
I have had numerous moments in my career that have stuck with me. One was over lunch with an extremely generous donor. She commented on how nice it was of me to take her to her favorite teahouse. I was the only man in that extremely feminine restaurant; maybe the only man who had ever been in there. After we finished our tiny sandwiches, which were accompanied by three grapes and a strawberry, she began expressing her appreciation for the organization and how kind we had been to her. At one point, she became very transparent about her deepest feelings. What she really wanted to know was whether or not I would have been her friend and would have taken her to lunch at that teahouse if she had not given so much money.
I knew that was an important moment and that she would be listening carefully to my answer. There was no getting around a straightforward answer in this situation. So, I simply told her the truth. Spending time with donors was my responsibility as a fundraiser, and apart from it we probably would have never met. But I went on to explain how much I enjoyed becoming friends with her and others like her. It was one of the perks that came with the job.
I have thought about that conversation a number of times through the years. It is as if the expression of her deepest concerns were branded into my thinking about donor relationships.
QUESTION #2: Do You Value My Opinions?
Don Elliot was a fundraiser at Vanderbilt University; the best with whom I have ever worked. Many non-profit executives try hard to look like the major donors they solicit. The president with whom I once worked bought a new luxury sedan, thinking it would help him relate. It did not, however, endear him to his best donors. On the other hand, Don made no such pretense. Frequently, he looked a little disheveled; wore the same old blue trench coat, rain or shine; had abnormally big ears, a big nose, and giant hands. Don kept track of people and important information on little scraps of paper wadded up in his pocket. When he began digging for something he was trying to remember, all kinds of things would come falling out, including pocket change, granola bars, and an occasional banana. Yet, donors related to him and trusted him. Don was an amazing fundraiser who raised millions for Vanderbilt.
Don taught me one of the greatest lessons of my career. He told me what he so well understood —that people want to give you advice before they want to give you money. I think he understood this better than I ever have. A donor will give you advice as a way of testing your motivations. They are the kind of people who will call the president and say, “I drove by your office last night, and someone left the lights on.” Or they might comment, “You spent way too much money on that brochure.” Some might even arrive unannounced with a critique of the institution’s strategic plan.
He told me what he so well understood —that people want to give you advice before they want to give you money.
As you know, some donors and their advice can be a little abrasive. And some fundraisers (like me) tend to get defensive of the organization or even offended by these kinds of comments. Others might even begin murmuring to themselves, “This donor has no idea about know how large organizations work.” Whether or not they are intentionally testing you; whether or not the criticisms are justified, donors are always quick to pick up on a condescending attitude about their advice.
Will Simons was an accountant and a donor to the university where I once worked. We used to meet for some real fast at local restaurant every December. Each year he wanted to know about the organization’s investments and wanted me to explain why we were not getting a better rate of return. He would give me a check each December, but only after the annual grilling.
In addition to being very generous, Will was a very bright guy — one of those donors who always wanted to make suggestions about how we could improve the university. But he was not a smooth conversationalist. In fact, he was pretty gruff.
What I understood as being unwarranted criticism could have been seen as a donor’s sense of ownership and identification with the institution.
Finally, one year after breakfast, he asked me to come by his office. Will was giving a lot of money, so I was a little shocked when I walked in. He sat at one of those old grey metal desks in a chair with armrests patched together by duck-tape. Apparently, frugality was not just something he recommended to others. What I understood as being unwarranted criticism could have been seen as a donor’s sense of ownership and identification with the institution.
I am a little amazed that Will kept on giving in spite of the university’s development representative (me). And I am sure he sensed my reaction to his questions each year. Eventually, I began to see that this cranky old curmudgeon was really trying to help. I wish I had realized that much earlier on. I could have “managed that relationship” much better. Instead of being defensive and dismissive, I could have fostered a relationship that would have meant so much more for the donor and the organization.
Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.