Wealthy Donors (and the 'Ick' Factor)
As you know, capital campaigns rely on very big gifts for their success. In most campaigns, 10 big gifts account for more than 50 percent of the campaign goal. So to have a successful capital campaign, you’ve got to be able get some very big gifts from a few wealthy donors.
If that makes you anxious, you’re not alone.
Most people are uncomfortable when they know that their success rests on judgment and behavior of a very few people. And that discomfort is all the greater when their power stems from their wealth.
In fact, many organizations are designed intentionally to have a culture that includes, values and empowers all people whether or not they have money. For organizations like that, the idea of being beholden to very wealthy people makes them uncomfortable.
As a client of mine said the other day at her board retreat, “Our organization’s very fiber is about community inclusion and not exclusivity. So for us, the idea of treating people differently just because they have money feels icky!”
And in the abstract, she’s right.
It does feel awkward and uncomfortable to imagine that your future depends on someone because they have lots of money. You may worry that those wealthy people are going to throw their money around and push you to do things you’re not comfortable doing.
Sometimes those concerns are justified. Wealthy people do sometimes wield their financial power in ways that are unacceptable.
But in my experience, most don’t. In fact, many people who have a great deal of money would rather not have their relationships be based on their wealth. They, too, are uncomfortable with the imbalance of power their wealth confers.
How to Get Rid of Your Sense of Icky
Though people seldom discuss it, I believe that sense of discomfort with wealth is common and deserves more discussion.
You see, capital campaigns and major gift fundraising are and should be designed to treat people who can give big gifts with special care. But that doesn’t mean that those people are better than or elevated above everyone. It simply acknowledges that they have the resources to invest that could make an outsized difference.
It’s your job in development to do everything you can to learn about your largest donors and help them find opportunities to invest in your organization. To do that well, you’ve got to understand lots about those donors…
- What are they interested in?
- How do they like to give and to be recognized?
- In what ways would giving a large gift to your campaign serve those donors’ needs?
You’ve got to get over your own discomfort with wealth and whatever personal judgements you have about it—and most people do have judgements about wealthy people. You’ve got to get curious about what makes them tick.
Real Stories About Wealthy Donors
When you develop a healthy curiosity about your wealthy donors, you’ll find out that wealthy individuals are about as different from one another as non-wealthy people are. Some have values that fit well with your organization and some don’t. Some prefer to be quiet and not let people know they are wealthy. Others rather enjoy the status their wealth brings.
Here are some stories about wealthy people I’ve run into over the years. All of the names are fictitious, but the stories are real.
David Didn’t Want to be ‘Outed’ for his Wealth
I recall my friend, David. When David was in his fifties, his father died; and David, an only child, inherited a great deal of money. But to meet David, you’d never know he was rich. And he liked it that way. In fact, he continued right on with his job.
David didn’t want to be known for or stand out because of his wealth. He didn’t buy a new car or move to a bigger house. His wife didn’t buy fancy jewelry or fur coats. They just kept right on living the way they had been living.
When an organization David supported started a capital campaign, he decided he wanted to make one of those big gifts. He just didn’t want people to know.
How did David keep from being "outed" for his wealth? He made many separate anonymous gifts to that campaign. Collectively his gifts amounted to more than any other donor, but David wasn’t listed at the top of the donor list.
In fact, the one gift David made with his name was a relatively small gift. He wanted people to know he had made a gift, but not the extent of his giving. No one ever found out, other than the development director and me! And that’s the way David wanted it.
Diana Accepts the Mantle of Philanthropist
Diana was a young woman in her twenties who came from a wealthy family. Her father encouraged her to get involved in philanthropy. He knew that she would become a very wealthy woman and wanted her to learn how handle her wealth and be a philanthropist. He encouraged her to serve on the capital campaign committee of an organization the family had helped over many years. And she did.
Diana worked hard on that campaign. She attended meetings and did all that was asked of her. And yes, she and her family made the largest gift to that campaign.
Unlike David, Diana stepped forward, announcing the large gift she made. She was nervous about being so visible and public, but willing to pick up her family’s tradition as being leaders and donors. She took her place as a philanthropic leader, but didn’t throw her weight or her money around.
Tania Married Money
Yes, Tania married into her wealth. Does thinking about her that way make you feel a bit icky? Does it make you think a bit less of Tania?
For many years, Tania felt a little icky too. She didn’t much like being known for her husband’s money. She didn’t like it when people came to talk with her and her husband and only gave her a passing glance.
Tania was an equal partner in their philanthropic decisions. She was a smart, capable woman and her husband was more than happy for her help in giving their money away. And over the years, people came to see Tania as who she was—not just “eye candy.” But unfortunately, the icky feelings lingered with her for quite a while.
It’s Not Easy Being Green
I’m sharing these stories with you to help you think a bit more clearly about the people behind the money. To help you start to see that it’s not always easy being wealthy.
Wealthy people have wonderful opportunities to make a big difference in the world, but like most opportunities, they come with a price that’s higher than you might imagine.
If you want to get over your sense of “icky” about raising money from wealthy people, you’ve got to start thinking of them as people with fears and hopes and anxieties—just like you.
3 Key Fundraising Practices to Crush the Ick Factor
Here are three things to work on that will help you get over your discomfort with wealthy individuals. They’re essential ways of being in the world that, if you practice them, will change much more than your fundraising success.
1. Throw cynicism out the window.
You can’t be a good fundraiser if you let yourself believe that people are motivated by self-interest and not trusting their fundamental goodness. To the extent that you find and see the generosity and goodness in your donors, you will bring out more of those characteristics.
2. Become curious about your donors.
As in the stories above about wealthy folks, there’s lots to learn about your donors that may surprise you. Don’t assume that they feel one way or another about their money or their philanthropy. Find out who they are and what they want to accomplish with their money. And if you can see a way to help them do that, then you have a non-icky way to work with them.
3. Don’t assume anything.
It’s easy to assume that other people see the world the way you do. But if you drop your assumptions and start noticing how people behave and start asking questions, you’ll be able to create a more accurate sense of who your donors are and what they want to achieve.
Beyond the Ick: Healthy Donor Relationships
Practice those three things and you’ll find that your sense of ick goes away.
You’ll begin to see and appreciate the people rather than their money. You’ll feel it and so will they. And that will go a long way toward building healthy donor relationships.
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Andrea Kihlstedt is an innovative leader and expert in capital campaign fundraising. She wrote "Capital Campaigns: Strategies That Work (4th ed)," often referred to as the “bible” of capital campaign fundraising. She founded Capital Campaign Masters and co-founded Capital Campaign Toolkit, an online capital campaign resource and platform.