I'll never forget the day we met Mrs. N. A typical hectic, busy, deadline-driven day in the Development office. Multi-tasking and in the middle of a capital campaign, planning two special event fundraisers, and putting the finishing touches on a grant application, we had found time to squeeze in her appointment. When she came through the door, we stopped what we were doing. And looked up. In her eighties, she was a rather tall lady.
Sitting down in my office, Mrs. N. began to tell me her story. Looking for a charity to support, a friend had recommended our nonprofit. Then she inquired who our Executive Director was. When I told her, she was surprised. Serendipitously, as a young lady she had worked for our Executive Director's father, employed as his first secretary. The conversation went on, became more interesting, and I lost track of time.
The visit ended with Mrs. N. informing us that she would be making a monthly donation to our mission. Her gifts, however, came with terms. Respect her anonymity. Use the donations to start a scholarship fund for participants in our program. Name the fund in memory of her good friend. We were elated, thanked her for the pledge, and promised to keep the terms she outlined. Oh that every relationship with a donor would have a good start like this one.
And then we went back to our hectic, busy, deadline-driven day in the Development office.
Mrs. N.'s monthly donations started arriving in the mail. It seemed they always arrived on the same day each month. Each month we would take a few minutes and write a personalized thank you letter to Mrs. N. We kept her updated on those benefiting from the scholarship fund she established. We kept her apprised of our mission's activities. We also had periodic phone visits. Stopping what we were doing to keep in touch with Mrs. N. each month became a calming pause. Even on a hectic, busy, deadline-driven day.
No longer able to drive on her own, our Executive Director and I visited Mrs. N. at her home, and later at the retirement community she had moved to. On one occasion we tallied up her support through the years, a remarkable sum. We shared the grand total with her. Though she was modest, she was thrilled we had kept exact records of every gift. I once broached another subject with Mrs. N. Would she consider including our mission in her estate plans? She declined to make a commitment like that, but promised to keep supporting as long as she could.
Eventually an accountant began managing her financial affairs. Mrs. N.'s monthly donations kept coming, and we continued our monthly correspondence with her. One month her donation didn't come in the mail. Then another month went by. We placed a call to her, but no one answered the phone. We contacted her accountant, and then learned that Mrs. N. had passed away. He apologized for not informing us sooner. He also said the monthly donations would keep coming because she had included our nonprofit in her estate plans.
Those monthly gifts kept coming for years.
I share this story, but not for the reason you may think. Yes, this is a grateful tribute to Mrs. N. and many other donors like her whom I was fortunate to know and work with over the years. Beyond that sentiment are valuable lessons learned by going the distance with one donor.
First, does your nonprofit want donations fast, or donors who last? One approach casts the Development professional as a solicitor staring down a funding goal, straining for a finish line. By default, donors are merely the means to that end. The other approach starts a journey that lasts over time. Now the Development professional is a steward of what's ahead. Now the donor is a stakeholder in a story yet to unfold.
Second, donor relations hang on an ongoing couplet of "Thank You" and "You're Welcome." With that first donation and with all the ones to follow come many opportunities for the Development professional to become fluent in gratitude. In turn, donors will readily reciprocate when they know they are respected and regarded for their roles in advancing the greater good.
Third, there are no shortcuts to significant philanthropic partnerships. Slow and steady fundraising may be old school, but it is the only way to develop a serious rapport. When trust and respect between a nonprofit and a donor accrue over time, the exchange goes deeper, longer, wider and higher. When the longer view is held, a legacy of giving might be structured that ripples far beyond a donor's lifetime.
Going the distance with donors is worth the wait in gold. More valuable than the grand total of their giving are the ways they make you stop. Look up. Pay attention. Take a calming pause. Especially on those hectic, busy, deadline-driven days in the Development office.