You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover
The frequency of giving from a pair of donors, two elderly sisters living together near Seattle, surprised me. The donor relationship had started as a one-time gift in response to a television show we had produced. It then segued into a monthly pledge, which increased over time. In the midst of all that regular giving, there were other one-time gifts, some $100, others $500.
This all got my attention. So, I decided to visit these two ladies to find out who they were and what was going on. It was quite an experience.
When I called them up, they were welcoming and eager to meet, so we set a date and time. The 30-minute drive to their home took me past some of the wealthiest people in the Northwest into what I would call a low- to middle-income neighborhood.
I’m embarrassed to admit this today, but when I got to their house, I remember thinking that I had made a mistake—that although there was a great deal of frequent and generous giving going on in this relationship, there wasn’t going to be any large gift coming from these two ladies.
Shameful as it was to think that way, it was the truth. I was focused on the money, nothing more.
The house was a simple wood structure, probably 1,500 square feet at best, that likely was built in the 1960s. It was old but neat. I knocked on the door and one of the sisters greeted me and let me in. She was very nice and quite old. As I walked in, the one sister introduced me to the other, and they asked me to come into their little living room for a cup of tea and some cookies.
I immediately noticed that the air in the house was not fresh. As I looked around, I discovered the reason for the musty smell. All the windows had heavy plastic sheeting taped over them. Apparently, this was the way they saved money on their heating bill.
As I got into the conversation and I learned more about these women, I found that they truly fit the spinster stereotype. Every penny was counted. Every expense was controlled. They were conservative and careful about anything related to money. Again, my preoccupation about what they could give shamefully lurked into the forefront of my mind. And I honestly struggled with how to proceed in the conversation.
What I finally decided to do was to just give myself to it. I was here. These ladies were nice. They were generous. They deserved to be treated with honor and respect. So, I gave myself to it.
And we had the most wonderful conversation. They talked about their lives, who they were, what they cared about and why they were so engaged with helping the poor overseas through our organization. I discovered what they were interested in—specific information on their interests and passions—and told them what we were doing in those areas. They were very interested and very engaged.
I remember leaving their home without having made a specific ask or "closing the deal" in any fashion. It had been a good visit where we both shared information and got to know each other. And that was it, I thought. It was a good time—worthwhile and encouraging. But there would be no large gift. End of story.
Before I tell you how this all ended, let me tell you about a guy I met at the dog park last week. My wife and I take our dog to this specially designed place where the dogs can run around and socialize. It’s a great place for the dog and an interesting place to meet people.
As I sat on a bench watching my dog run around, an elderly gentleman came in with his dog and sat next to me. We got to talking. He had been a successful car and truck dealer—a very successful car and truck dealer in a northeastern state. We were talking about cars and car sales, and then said: "But I gotta tell you this story, Richard."
And he told me about the day he was sitting in the showroom with one of his salespeople. It was a rainy and cloudy day. There had been hardly any sales activity that day and the salesperson was bored and defeated. Since it was near the end of the day, things were looking up for the sales guy. It was almost time to go home. And soon he could be rid of the place.
In walks this disheveled, poorly dressed man who had been caught in a downpour between his beat-up car in the parking lot and the showroom. As the man walked in, the salesman sized him up and said to the owner: “Oh no. Here we go. Another looker to waste my time.” And the owner said: “Tell you what. I will give you $20 in exchange for you agreeing that this man can be my prospect, not yours. So whatever happens with him I get the credit. What do you think?” The salesman quickly agreed, believing that the whole exercise would be a waste of time for the owner.
The owner greeted the man and got into a discussion. He turned out to be the vehicle acquisition person for a major local company. After an hour, the owner had sold him 20 cars. The man was so thankful for the good experience that he introduced the owner to his friend, the president of a multinational Fortune 100 company who, after some discussion with the owner, ordered a fleet of trucks and cars worth more than $3 million.
And there were a couple of other referrals that came after that—and more sales. The owner finished telling me the story then said: "You know, that one man, who my salesperson thought was just another useless looker, brought me, either though direct purchase or referrals, more than $5 million worth of business over a six-month period. The sales guy never got over it. And I told him, as I have always told all of my salespeople—you cannot judge a book by its cover. Treat everyone with respect and honor. You never know what will happen."
Well, when I heard that story I knew I had to pass it on to you, along with my story of the two single ladies, because the ending is exactly the same.
Several weeks after my meeting with them, a check for more than $300,000 arrived in our office. They had been so excited by what I had shared about our programs and what their giving could do that they just had to give more.
Goodness. I about fell out of my chair. Then I was thankful I had listened to the other voice that had told me just to go with it and be honorable and respectful. And it impressed upon me that you cannot really tell who people are by how they look or where they live—that it is important to give yourself to all equally and not just go for the money.
So, next time you find yourself judging donors, remember these two stories. And they will help you remember to honor and respect them properly.
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.