What a Lost $75K Check Tells Us About How We Treat Donors
"What do you mean you lost the check?" the manager almost yelled. "How could you do it? It was $75,000, for goodness sake! $75,000 of someone’s life!"
It was not a pretty situation. I wasn’t there, but I heard about it in great detail just a week after it happened. Someone had lost a donor check for $75,000! It was gone. Vanished. Vaporized.
And as we dug into all the reasons for this mysterious disappearance, the whole thing boiled down to what Jeff and I are constantly talking about—treating donors as partners versus sources of cash.
Here’s what happened.
A good major gift officer (MGO) had been working very hard to develop a relationship with her special donor. Meals, telephone calls, emails and conversations had raised the level of trust and interest of the donor. She was not only ready to do something, she was ready to do something big and was excited about it.
Securing the donor’s trust over time is no small thing. You know that. But this MGO had done it. She had communicated several key points that has stuck in this donor's heart and mind:
- You (the donor) have a very special role to play.
- You can trust us.
- We value you.
- This cause matches your passions and interests.
- Giving now is important and valued.
- We will honor you and your giving.
That’s a boatload of promises, isn’t it? Goodness. Anyone really believing all of that would have had to develop a pretty serious level of trust.
So the donor sits down and writes a hefty check. Now, as I think about just this act alone—sitting down and writing a check—I can imagine the donor’s first thought: "This will be a good thing to do. And it’s exactly what I want to do." So, she sits down and, with warm and trusting feelings, writes the check.
The donor, then, makes sure it gets out to the mailbox and puts the little flag up informing the postal person that there is mail here ready to go.
The postal person comes. It’s been a busy day. He or she is slightly behind schedule, but grabs the letter and tosses in a pile in the truck, not realizing that he or she is carrying the hopes, passions and dreams of the donor. There’s a lot of power packed into that letter. Power that’s going to be put to use in the next few weeks. Power that is going to reach in and change someone’s life. You can almost imagine the letter warm and glowing with the expectant energy for doing good.
The letter gets to the organization and a clerk in the mail room dutifully throws it into a pile. It’s just another check from a donor. The process of dehumanizing the donor has begun. What was sent as a valuable expression of goodness and hope for the poor is now just something that needs to be processed.
But the letter is put in the wrong pile and it goes to another department—one that deals with things other than fundraising. And the person there opens the letter. "Oh, it’s just a check from a donor. Nice amount. Wonder why it came here? I don’t have time for this." And it is set aside to be lost on the desk and eventually thrown away. The donor, again, is reduced to a nuisance—a wayward piece of work that does not merit time or attention.
No one is sure that this was what actually happened. But I am sure that it was something like this—a careless processing of money to get a job done versus the careful and honoring caretaking of a donor’s desires and dreams for helping others.
If each of the people along the shipping and processing channel had actually sat with the donor, and felt his or her passion and trust, I think things would have gone differently. That letter would have been handled as if it were a priceless treasure. But they didn’t know. Nor did they care.
This is what Jeff and I get very concerned about—the dehumanizing of donors that happens day in and out in every nonprofit around the world. Where all the handlers lose sight of that very special and spiritual thing that happens when someone gives. The whole thing degrades down to just processing money and transactions.
Well, the MGO had to go back to the donor, confess that her check had been lost and ask her to write another one. I can imagine the donor thinking:
- You said I had a very special role to play.
- You said I could trust you.
- You promised you would value me.
- You told me that my giving now was important and valued.
- And you said you would honor me and my giving.
- How can you lose my check if all these things are true?
It must have been a difficult thing for the donor to process. But she took the high road and issued another check. I am sure that in her heart she wondered if all those promises were really true. And, at some level, she felt diminished. It makes me sad to think about it.
When will we stop this careless focus on the money? When will we develop a culture of truly honoring and valuing the donor? I think we can do it if each of us commits to be a voice for the donor in our organization. It just takes one small voice to make a difference. Will you do it?
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.