It’s Not About the Money—Again
Those who know me have heard this many, many times: Fundraising is about people, not money.
And it’s still not.
Not that well-meaning organizations don’t continue to make it about money—all the time. Because they do.
This truth was on stellar display recently when The Wall Street Journal reported that Duke University had filed a lien on the estate of oil magnate and Duke alumnus, Aubrey McClendon, for the balance of unfulfilled pledges amounting to about $10 million.
Mr. McClendon was a life-long booster of Duke who was exceedingly generous to the university during his lifetime. He felt that Duke was an integral part of his success. Many an institution of higher learning would love to have such a well-healed and generous patron.
You may recall that Mr. McClendon was the colorful figure in the oil industry that struck it rich, building a business empire only to die in a car crash in Oklahoma City earlier this year.
Mr. McClendon’s death shocked many and was a tragic end to a life filled with drama and big bets. In addition to the grief his family felt, it will take months for his widow and children to unwind the complicated business and financial affairs that he left behind.
It’s in situations like this that you’re friends really count. And I’m sure, Mr. McClendon’s family felt Duke was a friend.
However, the university turned out to be just another creditor getting in line.
The reaction from many quarters was swift. Online comments on the original article, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal, were scathingly negative with a number of commentators identifying themselves as Duke alumni and saying they were withdrawing their support.
What used to be limited to the printed page and a few news outlets is now available at warp speed via the internet.
Is anyone really surprised?
What bean counter was allowed to make this call? Truly a triumph of transactionalism in fundraising. I won’t call it philanthropy because it isn’t. The university viewed Mr. McClendon’s commitments—unfulfilled due to his tragic death—as just another debt to be repaid.
You’d like to think this scenario was the outlier—the costly one-time mistake. Unfortunately, it’s played out over and over again. In the drive to make philanthropy about money, organizations repeatedly "cut their nose off to spite their face," as the aphorism goes, for short-term gain.
Relationships are torched cutting off future investments. And not just from those who are being harassed. Attempts to litigate philanthropic pledges have a chilling effect far beyond the organization involved.
For the larger philanthropic community, such episodes create a guarded atmosphere among investors.
Charitable commitments in the form of pledges are, indeed, legally binding agreements. They reflect a serious intent to gift assets for particular purposes.
The venerated capital campaign could never get off the ground without multi-year commitments.
Charitable pledges are not just another debt or obligation, however. The motivations for making these in the beginning are quite different from a conventional loan taken or a negotiated business contract.
Unexpected occurrences—a job loss, a death, a business failure—can and do intervene in the fulfillment of these commitments. Far better to approach the donor with care and concern and come to a solution workable for all concerned than to simply demand payment.
Fundamentally, philanthropic commitments are founded on trust. The trust between giver and receiver that the resources will be used as both agreed. They are the product of relationships: relationships between donor and receiver and, by extension, the families of each.
When you make a charitable gift about money, you tell everyone you’re not interested in relationship. You simply want the resources to fund your project or program. Watch what you ask for. You may very well get it—and then some.
As you probably already know, this is not the reason philanthropists make gifts in the first place.
Principle 1 of The Eight Principles™ is "Donors are the Drivers®." Donors are definitely in the driver’s seat. Gently guide them, don’t put up roadblocks. If you do, no one benefits.
The end of this story is really only the beginning.
The university, facing a firestorm of criticism, withdrew its lien. Thankfully, the McClendon family won’t be subjected to this ordeal but the damage is done. That’s the damage both to the university’s reputation and the cautionary notice their action sent to philanthropists everywhere.
Think about this the next time you’re tempted to really collect.
Success is waiting. Do you really want it? Then go out and get it.
Larry believes in the power of relationships and the power of philanthropy to create a better place and transform lives.
Larry is the founder of The Eight Principles. His mission is to give nonprofits and philanthropists alike the opportunity to achieve their shared visions. With more than 25 years of experience in charitable fundraising and philanthropy, Larry knows that financial sustainability and scalability is possible for any nonprofit organization or charitable cause and is dependent on neither size nor resources but instead with the commitment to create a shared vision.
Larry is the author of the award-wining book, "The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising." He is the Association of Fundraising Professionals' 2010 Outstanding Development Executive and has ranked in the Top 15 Fundraising Consultants in the United States by the Wall Street Business Network.
Larry is the creator of the revolutionary online fundraising training platform, The Oracle League.
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