It's Time to Listen to Your Donors
“Listen to me, please!”
That’s what millions of donors will be saying this year. I was reminded about this important topic when I had a chance meeting with the wife of a friend who, when we met, launched into a five-minute tirade on how she and her husband are mistreated by the major gift officers (MGOs) from their favorite charities.
Paula and Jack (not their real names) are extremely wealthy. I would say their net worth is pushing $750 million. And they are very kind and generous people. They are down to earth, approachable and carry an air of humility about them. They are good people.
I’m telling you all of this, so you will put her comments about MGOs in the proper context. She is not a wealthy snob who is arrogant and pushy. She is genuinely a kind and considerate woman—someone you would like to have as your friend.
So, we are standing outside her home and I said: “So, Paula, how are you doing?” Now that question could have been answered in so many ways. She could have talked about her grandchildren who were visiting and how much she enjoyed them. She could have talked about her sister who stopped in. She could have talked about how she loves this time of year. She could have talked about the parties she and her husband went to and the good times they had.
She could have talked about so many things.
But how did she answer my question: “So, Paula, how are you doing?” Here is what she said:
“You know, Richard, I get so tired of the way these organizations approach us. All they care about is our money. We got one invitation to be on a board. Do they really value Jack’s tremendous experience in business? No. They just want our money. Then they want us to be a chair of this event. Do they think I will do a great job of hosting that? Yes, they do. But, all they want is our money. And then these little ladies [MGOs] come by with nice little gifts and superficial chatter and ask me how I’m doing. Do they really care how I am doing? No, not really. And they tell me nice things about the charity we support. One of them called me and did all of this stuff. Do I hear anything from her about what our gifts last year of $500,000 did in their organization? Nope. I tell you, Richard, I am sick of it. Sick of it.”
And she went on for another three minutes.
I felt very sad as I stood there and listened—sad because I know Paula and Jack. I know they care deeply about the causes they give to. They are not interested in all the whoopla that surrounds much of giving. They simply want to be listened to and valued for making the world a better place.
As Paula continued with her justified rant, my mind went to all the other donors out there who sincerely want to make a difference with their giving. Their hearts are full of compassion, care and concern. And they want to know that their relationship with their favorite charity is bringing hope, healing, redemption, restoration and wholeness to a broken and hurting person and/or an animal, forest or planet that cries out for greater care.
But what is coming back to them is useless chatter about chairing this, showing up to that event, a trinket, plaque or certificate, an email or letter with boiler plate language in it—all fundraising tactical stuff—devoid of any heart or care.
Then I feel angry with this. Why are we in this situation? Well, here are some reasons:
- We don’t understand the role of money. Jeff and I have said it over and over again. Money is a way to transfer value. That’s its only role. It transfers the donor’s values and what he or she cares about to the nonprofit. So, if the people in the nonprofit are simply receiving money and responding to money and all that money entails, they will not give the donor a proper return on their giving. This is not about the money. Money in fundraising is a result not an objective.
- The pressure of financial goals. Managers are so concerned about reaching financial goals that they have set or have been set by their managers to think that the donor is just a means to their end. The donor literally disappears into the fabric of the organization having performed their value of delivering an economic unit. This is so tragic. You would not believe the stories Jeff and I have heard (just in the last 30 days) of the gifts flowing in and the mistreatment of donors in the process. It is unbelievable.
- The belief that “rich people” value these tactics. Buried in the heart of every human being, rich or poor, who is a donor to a nonprofit is the desire to make a difference. It is a core motivation. It is true that some want notoriety, standing and publicity in return for their gifts. But wouldn’t it be better if the MGO serviced the making-a-difference bit first, along with the need to be recognized? Makes sense to me. But we don’t do that. We just keep doing the superficial stuff with the “Paulas” and “Jacks” on the caseload, thinking and believe that is (a) meeting all their needs, and (b) it is all that is needed in the transaction. Crazy.
- Not having real conversations. If there is one thing and Jeff and I are committed to, both personally and professionally, it is authenticity. We often make mistakes in this area, defaulting to trying to get our needs met by chasing meaningless things. But, I can see progress, and that is what is important. At the end of the year, we reaffirm to each other that we will continue to go down this path, not only in our business and personal relationship, but also in our relationships with our spouses and family and all of the people we work with. We also affirm that our greatest contribution to this major gift thing is to help all of those involved to be real in the relationships they have with donors. That is what donors thirst for these days—real relationships, real conversations, real transactions, real value.
As you look at the list of four reasons above, you can see that they are very easy to change. It just takes a mental switch to see that money is a means to an end—not an end in itself. It just takes a decision on your part to wrap the pressure of financial goals and striving with “donor clothes,” so you have the proper perspective. It just takes a thoughtful reflection about rich people—and donors in general—to realize that they are just like you. They value making a difference, and that that is what you should service in your relationship. And it just takes a commitment on your part to be authentic with your donor.
I know this is not easy. But Jeff and I ask you to make these decisions and changes right now so that you and your donors will escape from the “same old, same old” fundraising dynamic that Paula is so exercised about.
Let’s, together, bring light and new energy to this wonderful work we are involved in.
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.