Fundraisers are a lot like professional matchmakers. They regularly introduce eligible people to their organizations, point out all the most admirable qualities, and hope those potential donors will fall in love and begin lifelong relationships. If they can win hearts and minds to their causes, the money will follow.
So, how do fundraisers get donors to fall in love with the organizations they represent?
Through the years I’ve helped thousands create estate plans that name charitable organizations among their beneficiaries. Since these are planned gifts from net worth, they are typically the largest gifts those donors will have ever made.
I don’t have to ask why or how those donors came to love a particular organization so much; they always insist on telling me. From thousands of estate planning conversations, I’ve counted at least six reasons donors say they’ve fallen in love with an organization.
Reason #1: Passion and dedication for an organization are often the result of an intense life experience. It’s the most common reason donors give when making an extraordinary gift to an organization—medical care for their sick child, a mentor at a critical time in their life, a scholarship that led to their success.
I don’t have to ask why or how those donors came to love a particular organization so much; they always insist on telling me.
On the first day of our estate planning interviews, I ask donors to talk about their most poignant life experiences. It’s in the second-meeting discussions about what they want to accomplish with their estate plans that they begin to explain why they love a particular organization or cause. Almost always, you can draw a straight line between the most intense life experiences and the donors’ charitable intentions.
Reason #2: Donor passion is often associative. The organizational mission may not have had a direct impact on the donor’s life. However, the donor loves someone who the organization has helped, and so they love the organization. Others fall in love with an organization simply because of one of the representatives, usually the president or the fundraiser.
One of the most unusual and unexpected planned gifts with which I have been involved was drawn up by a couple who lost a grandchild. In the aftermath, there was bitterness toward the doctor, anger toward the hospital, and the threat of a malpractice suit. Through it all, the chief executive of that hospital was so gracious and understanding that their relationship and respect for him not only endured but deepened—so much so that there is a very substantial bequest in their will for that hospital. I was astonished hearing the couple tell this story. It’s perhaps the greatest example I have seen of people’s enduring love for an organization because of their affection and respect for one of its representatives.
This gentleman… seems to have fallen in love with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center for the way it was run as much as for the particular cause.
Reason #3: Donors have on occasion talked about falling in love with a standard of excellence. I worked with one such gentleman on an estate plan containing an extraordinarily generous gift to M.D. Anderson Cancer Centers. Like most strategic donors, his approach to business and philanthropy is deliberate, cautious, and skeptical. You could also say he’s a little cranky, with high expectations for himself and everybody around him. His stated reason for giving to M.D. Anderson:
“They’re so well organized. They think of everything. There’s no wasted time. When you walk into the door, they know exactly what you’re supposed to do, and they have someone helping you. You’re not left out to yourself.”
Though it’s hard to think of this gentleman in romantic terms, he seems to have fallen in love with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center for the way it was run as much as for the particular cause.
Reason #4: Some donors talk about being attracted to an organization’s innovation. A lot of the generational wealth transfer comes from successful business leaders who have spent their lives adapting to changing business environments. They see themselves as innovators, who look for that same characteristic in nonprofits. Dr. Paul Schervish refers to them as hyper-agents—wealthy individuals who are generous, confident, and determined to change the world. They are also short on patience with organizations resistant to change. Their relationships with nonprofits are often short-lived and gifts are often current gifts rather than planned gifts.
I consulted with a donor a few years ago who serves as a prime example. His greatest love was his wife, his greatest hatred was the cancer that took her, and his greatest frustration became a hospital’s reluctance to innovate. He was passionate to build a women’s hospital wing, but for one reason or another, the hospital could not reciprocate. As is often the case with unrequited love, he eventually moved on with his $50 million to another hospital more open to innovation and expansion. See “Wealth and Hyper-Agency: Why Strategic Philanthropists Grow Frustrated and Bored with Organizations and Their Leaders”
Reason #5: Other donors at some point became infatuated with an ideal. They had no related personal experiences. Neither had they been personally impacted by the need the organization addressed nor the cure it provided. However, they were intrigued by the cause. The best examples are causes that have gone viral through social media. Multitudes fell in love with the idea because getting involved was a very cool, trendy thing to do. Though a lot of people give to trendy causes, their relationship with the organization is often short lived. It’s as easy to jump off a bandwagon as it is to jump on. Consequently, I’ve very rarely seen a planned gift designated for an organization when donor relationships were maintained primarily by social media and/or direct mail.
Reason #6. People become infatuated with your cause as a form of personal branding. It’s a lot like wearing a designer shirt with a small but recognizable logo on the front—a polo player, an alligator, or a sailboat. In other words, affiliation with your organization becomes one aspect of their personal branding. The purpose of recruiting or hiring high profile spokespersons is to demonstrate how cool it is to be a supporter of this cause.
TAKEAWAY FOR FUNDRAISERS
The farther you go down the list of reasons donors offer as the reason for falling in love with an organization, the less likely they are to make a significant planned gift from their estates.
The farther you go down the list…, the less likely (donors) are to make a significant planned gift from their estates.
The most common reasons donors fall in love with an organization are the first three—(1) They love what the organization did for them, (2) they fell in love with the organization because of one of its representatives, or (3) they love the organization because of the way it’s run (including the way they treat the donors). I’ve occasionally heard the other reasons (innovation, trendy causes, or personal branding), but those motivations rarely led to bequests or planned gifts.
Some donors and organizations seem to be a perfect match, just made for each other. However, it’s hard to tell early on who will fall in love with your organization. What begins as a trendy infatuation occasionally becomes a life-long love affair. It’s only as organizations cultivated relationships with those who are attracted for any of the reasons above that true love rises to the surface.
Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.
Copyright 2015, R. Edward Thompson