Thank Your Donors: How a Major University Blew It (and a Small Nonprofit Won)
Last year, I was flying on a small plane from Dallas to Midland, Texas, to give a presentation. It’s about a one-hour flight. Sitting next to me on my flight was a big guy who, from his accent, seemed to be from the area.
Now, I have to admit when he sat down, I immediately thought he worked on some of these oil wells. He looked sort of rough, dressed very ordinary, and his giant hands looked soiled and rough.
But as I started talking to him, I find out he’s actually from another southern state. He’s the owner of several oil companies in Midland, and he’s coming in to “check on things.”
Well, we got to chat, and he asked me what I did. I told him about Veritus Group and helping nonprofits with major gifts. Then he says, “Oh. I’ve given a few major gifts in my time.”
Curious, I ask him how his experience was.
He looked at me kind of strange and said, “Hmm… you know, no one has every asked me that before. But I can tell you a story of one bad experience and one really good experience.”
Now, I was really curious.
Then he goes on to tell me his bad story first. He said about five years ago, he gave a $1 million dollar gift to a major university that his wife and sons attended. It was very specific. He gave the money to help build the offices of a new athletic facility.
I asked him why his experience was bad. He said that all he got was a letter from the university thanking him. That was it. Of course I was beside myself.
"Wait," I said. "You mean they didn’t invite you to the ribbon cutting or show you the offices that you funded? They didn’t have you talk to the coaches of the offices you helped build? No call from the athletic director or university president?"
“Nope, nothing. In fact, I had to call them to see if I could come out to see the facility. And, when I got there, they had some young student show me around who didn’t really know much about the new facility. I was really disappointed, and Jeff, I was really upset about all that. But I felt kind of guilty, because I didn’t want to feel like a bad donor that needed attention and all that.”
I told him he wasn’t a bad donor and that for a gift of that amount the university really blew it. I then asked what he has done since he gave the gift. He said, “I told them I was never giving them another penny.”
Wow. Here was a donor worth millions and would have done way more for the university, and they can’t even thank the donor properly. What a total lack of respect for a donor.
Then, I asked him to tell me the good story.
“Well, there is a local veterans organization near where I live. They needed to build a brand new facility, as the old one was not suitable anymore. They asked me for a $1.5 million gift. So, of course, I wanted to give.”
I asked, “What happened?”
“Jeff, you would not believe it. I think I received five letters, all from different people. Two were actually from veterans who were going to use that facility. Now, I don’t cry much, but those letters brought me to some heavy tearing up. Then, they asked me and my family to come for the groundbreaking with other donors. After the building was done, they threw a party for us and did all kinds of speeches. It was impressive. Since then, I’ve been invited back several times. The executive director actually calls me once a month to get my advice on things. I go out there when I’m in town and sit with the guys. It’s very special too me.”
I asked him if he was continuing to support that organization after that gift.
“Are you kidding? Of course! Besides the charities my wife gives to, this is the one charity I’m going to continue to give to. I’ve already put them in my estate to get a bunch of land I have, and who knows what else I’ll decide to do.”
So, there you have it. Here is a donor that wants to give back, but also wants to know his gifts are appreciated. He didn’t ask for a plaque or to have his name on a wall. He just wanted to be recognized properly.
The large university was not donor-centered. They didn’t think about building a relationship. And, you know the result. The veterans group, on the other hand, nurtured and continue to cultivate that relationship and look what happens.
Richard and I see nonprofits all the time that do not thank donors properly. They are not timely or do they “get it” right. They love the money, but forget about the donor.
Don’t blow this great opportunity with your donors. Thank them in the right way. Show them they are appreciated. Remember, it not just about the money; it’s about creating a deep relationship and respect for your donors.
Jeff Schreifels is the principal owner of Veritus Group — an agency that partners with nonprofits to create, build and manage mid-level fundraising, major gifts and planned giving programs. In his 32-plus year career, Jeff has worked with hundreds of nonprofits, helping to raise more than $400 million in revenue.