Major Gifts: Getting the Heart Along With the Cash
"I hate the giving of the hand unless the whole man accompanies it."
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
The giving and getting of gifts is a difficult thing for me. Here’s why.
I was sent off to a boarding school in another country when I was 6 years old. I rarely saw my parents. I did not really know them. I felt abandoned, and this has been the subject of many a counseling session throughout my life.
The few times I was home, my mother showered me with gifts. I soon learned that the gift-giving was a sincere and generous attempt on her part to make up for sending me away. But it did not replace the yearning I had in my little heart to be with her and Dad, and to know I was valued and needed.
So the gifts became hollow and shallow physical objects that had no meaning. I’ve carried this wound all of my life. But rather than wallow in self-pity and darkness, I have come to learn that I can turn this painful part of my personal journey into a positive force for good.
And here’s the point as it relates to life in general and to major-gift fundraising. People and donors—all of us and all of them—desire meaningful relationships, not transient symbols of relationship, like gifts. Everywhere Jeff and I turn, we see this play out. And we see wonderful ways these delicate transactions are handled. We also see a lot of abuse.
I was talking to a friend one day about the topic of gifts and relationship, and she said, “Gifts can often be a path to relationship—a discipline to remember the other person—a reminder to re-engage.” That was really helpful. And I realized that I am not really against gifts, I just desire to give and receive relationship. That’s an important distinction.
This same dynamic applies to each and every one of your donors. When they part with a gift, they are reaching out to give relationship. That’s why the whole transaction is such a sacred thing—it is the giving of the whole man, as Emerson stated, not just the giving of the hand.
Now, as you read this you might be saying, “Nice thought, Richard, but honestly, not everyone really wants relationship. They are giving out of guilt or the need for a tax deduction, etc. So, don’t tell me that relationship is the planned objective of their giving.”
Well, I disagree. Those might be their conscious, top-of-mind reasons. But I don’t think they are the underlying desire of the donor. I’ve had many discussions with donors, of all socioeconomic levels, who initially give a superficial reason for their major gifts. The conversation that follows (shortened for space) is true, and illustrates what I am saying here:
“So, what was the reason you gave that gift, Ann?”
“Well, my husband and I were talking about the need that was presented and we agreed we needed to do something. And that’s why we gave.”
“So when you say ‘we needed to do something,’ is the underlying reason one of obligation or guilt?”
“I wouldn’t say guilt. [long pause] Well, we are obliged to do something. I mean we have been blessed. So, we should do something, don’t you think?”
“I suppose. So, it seems you are saying that because you are blessed you feel obliged to do something about this need. Is that right?”
“Well, to be honest, it goes a little deeper than that. You see, several years ago our teenage daughter got caught up in drugs. It was one of the most painful things that has ever happened to us as a family. We got her into rehab and, thank God, she came out the other end free from addiction. [Pause as Ann relives the pain and seeks to get control of her emotions.] Now, we want to help other kids—we want to provide the help we got to other parents.”
You can see in the dialogue above that if you stopped with the initial reasons Ann and her husband gave, it would simply be guilt or obligation. But when you “look under the blankets,” you find the real reason. There is a desire to provide real healing through their giving. There is a desire to give another opportunity—a desire to give themselves to others. That is really what is going on.
In this situation, as in so many we see, donors are not giving gifts. They are giving something of far greater value. They are giving relationship. You just need to find those real reasons in every donor relationship.
So, how does all of this apply to you and your donors? Two ways:
- Look for relationship in every gift. If you adopt a mentality of seeking relationship in every gift you receive, you will treat the gift and the donor with respect and honor. It will affect your behavior and your systems in so many positive ways.
- Ask for “the whole man, not just the hand.” When you are asking for a gift, make it a practice to seek the involvement of the whole person, not just the gift. It will mean so much more to you and the donor. This doesn’t mean the donor has to drop everything and become physically involved with your organization—it simply means you are in touch with the heart reasons for the giving and you are actively in dialogue with the donor about them. This brings relationship into the giving. It brings the heart along with the cash.
Just do these two things with your donors. It will change you—and it will change them.
Lastly, there are two things Jeff and I wish for you:
- That your life will be filled with authentic relationships. When you are giving a gift, always be sure you are also giving yourself. That is the most important thing you can do, and it will mean so much to your children, your friends, your partner, your spouse, your employees, etc. Just give yourself—this is the true path toward authentic relationship, the very best gift you can give.
- That you will fill your donors with authentic relationship. Do the same with your donors as you are doing in the significant relationships in your life. Find a way to build the relationship that is behind the gift. It will radically change each donor relationship.
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.