How Major Gift Officers Can Handle Uncomfortable Conversations
A major gift job is personal and intimate, and a major gift officer is often in situations, which can get really uncomfortable if the donor wants to take it there. I’m talking about racial and bigoted comments, sexual innuendo and inappropriate behavior, aggressive statements on political or religious views and any number of other situations that a MGO often finds themselves in.
And the dilemma the MGO faces is summed up in the comment of one of our readers who says: “These are the real world situations many of us encounter, but because our primary goal is to represent the organization and secure/manage the gift, we won't speak up.”
It is true that most MGO/donor relationships are just fine, and it would be easy for a manager or person in authority to just say to a MGO who has experienced an uncomfortable situation, “Ah, don’t worry about it! It’s not a big deal. Just ignore it. Remember, we all have to put up with a little discomfort to get that gift in the door.”
That kind of logic, which has the MGO suppressing their need for respect and safety in order to “get the gift,” is never right nor should it be tolerated. But what if the boss demands this kind of compromise—what should you do? After all, you need the job and you can’t just say no or you might lose it. I understand. Some of these situations can get really complicated.
I think the first underlying principle is that you should never stay in a situation where you are uncomfortable or fear for your safety. So, if your boss is one of these characters who diminishes your need for respect and safety, you need to find another boss. I realize that may take time, and you will need to be the judge on how to handle your situations until you can get out. But getting out is important.
An old proverb from a Robert Frost poem brings me to my next point. He writes: “Good fences make good neighbors.” This is about setting healthy boundaries with everyone—donors and bosses. Here are some boundary setting principles you can apply to your relationship with your donor and your boss:
1. There is a line that divides right from wrong. Seems obvious, I know. But I constantly have to think about this, and you should, too. Often, I will let people cross the line because I don’t want to offend them. This is not right. I remember a social event my wife and I went to last year where one person was making inappropriate racial comments. I was watching the right/wrong line, and, when this person would cross it, I would consciously let him cross.
Why? Because I feared the price I might have to pay if I spoke up. My wife taught me a lesson that night that I will never forget and that I now practice. When this person crossed the line she said: “You know, Ralph (not his real name), I really don’t feel comfortable with the comments you are making and would appreciate it if you would stop.” And Ralph stopped. I have processed what would have happened if Ralph had not stopped. We may have gotten into an argument. Or maybe we would have left. Who knows? But the point is that when I allowed myself to come face to face with the worst consequence of speaking up it wasn’t that bad after all. I had to conquer fear itself. So, actively manage the line between right and wrong.
2. Set Boundaries. Decide in advance how far you will let something go, then manage it. The reason to do it in advance is because you will not be objective in the moment. So, think about the situation(s) you face then process through, in a logical and calm way, what the consequences are for you if and when you verbalize the boundary and ask the person to respect it. There may be some long-term consequences. But if you have thought it through you can then be in control of managing it.
3. Enforce the Boundaries. In the article on enforcing boundaries, Kristi Holl shares some very good points on staying on track with the boundaries you have set. While Kristi’s article is about boundaries for writers, I find her six points on enforcing boundaries very helpful.
Now I realize all of this sounds very simple and, some might say, simplistic. It’s not. Boundary setting is one of the most important things you must do in every relationship. And when you do you get “good neighbors because of the good fences.”
A donor does not have the right, because of the money they give, to do and say whatever they want. Some managers and folks in authority may compromise on that, reasoning that getting the money is “worth it”. Well, it’s not. Your self-respect and safety are critically important. But only you can manage it. And if your boss won’t help you will need to go somewhere else.
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.