Know Thy Donor

We got the S.O.S. call a few weeks before the auxiliary’s fundraising event. The big one that benefited our nonprofit. Due to a string of unfortunate circumstances, the committee in charge of raising underwriter support was not meeting expected goals. With a funding gap so wide, it was doubtful they could pull it off in time. Could our development department step in and step up to lend a helping hand? “Yes, we'll get on it immediately,” we responded. Hanging up the phone, we realized this was one of those all-hands-on-deck moments.

It was midmorning. The countdown clock had started ticking. Which of our donors could we approach to come to the rescue, and ask them to make a significant donation to help in this emergency moment?

At noon we had a scheduled lunch appointment with one of our newer donors. A recently retired CEO of a major corporation, this gentleman was already sharing his generous philanthropic support. Plus we had started tapping into his business acumen to gain perspectives on opportunities or challenges our nonprofit was facing. We suspected his wisdom, honed throughout a successful corporate career, was translatable to our sector.

Maybe he would be interested in helping avert the unfolding crisis with the auxiliary’s fundraising event. Or maybe not. Based on his giving history to date, it seemed he was certainly capable of making a major gift for the cause. Perhaps we could bring the subject up at lunch.

We met him in the restaurant lobby at noon sharp. Waiting to be seated, the donor and I found ourselves jumpstarting the lunch conversation. “How are things going,” he inquired. From the few conversations we previously had with him, I knew he appreciated straightforward updates on current issues. So I sketched out a brief description of the crisis du jour; the auxiliary’s underwriter deficit.

Then I raised the question. Would he consider making a significant donation to help save the day for the auxiliary and, ultimately, for our nonprofit?

His answer: “Joe, I don’t give to fundraising events. And helping with emergency funding or bailing out nonprofits is not my preference. However, this one time, and this one time only, I’ll make an exception. On this condition. Don’t ever ask me to do this again. Fix the issue so that you’ll never be in this bind. Now, let's have lunch.”

Succinct and well said by someone whose expertise was growing efficient processes, maximizing capacity and mitigating risk. With a slight sting, to make sure I got the point.

The S.O.S. episode with the auxiliary and the subsequent exchange with the retired CEO proved to be a pivotal moment.

  • The good news: the very generous last-minute support from the retired CEO helped save the day;

  • The better news: we began assisting the auxiliary to fix the issue, helping them find better ways to secure underwriter support for fundraising events;

  • The best news: our understanding of donors' motivations was enhanced by a quantum leap.

While it is imperative to know why a donor will give, it is just as imperative to know why a donor will not give. Projects and programs that appeal to one supporter may trigger an adverse response from another. Topics easily discussed with this funder may be out of bounds or strictly off limits with the other. Understanding and staying within the parameters is essential.

Bottom line: Know Thy Donor.

Like the donor who warned us to never broach the subject of an estate gift with her. Never to ask her to consider including our nonprofit in her will. Her reason? While she understood the merit of philanthropy with the long view in mind, her predominate interests were the urgent and the utilitarian. A deferred gift may change a life in the future. But, as far as she was concerned, it will not change a life now. If we didn't need her money now, she would engage with another charity that did.

Or the donor who was turned off by sentimental and heartwarming stories about our program's participants. While sharing one such story with him, the donor interrupted us mid-sentence. "Save the story for somebody else. I’m only interested in the numbers. Now show me your outcome measurements,” was his retort. A provable social return on a philanthropic investment was his metric. Rightfully so. He wasn't about to waste his valuable time or his hard-earned resources on the underperforming or the mediocre.

Or the foundation representative who deftly guided us through the grant application process, explaining how perfectly acceptable phrases we used to describe our programs might be misunderstood or misinterpreted by the trustees. Or, worse, misconstrued. “You might want to think of other ways to say that.” This foundation expected grantees to be skilled at nuancing the meaning and message of mission. For a broader, more universal impact. Would we make the grade by heeding the suggestion of their representative?

All of these memorable exchanges regarding donors' likes and dislikes were notated and filed away. Literally. Referenced often, and tended to with the utmost respect and discretion. With experience behind us, we knew which of our donors would be open to considering a planned gift. Appreciate the latest stirring testimony from a program participant. Champion our cause for its face value. Or help us during the crunch times.

We also knew which ones wouldn't.

That's why we never reached out again to the retired CEO to come to the rescue. That would have been disrespectful and inconsiderate. But he did continue to support our nonprofit, focusing on those projects and programs that interested him most. He did continue to ask, "How are things going?"

Going forward we made it a point to update him on our steady progress to grow more efficient processes, build capacity and mitigate the future need for emergency funding. And, knowing this donor, we made it a point to thank him profusely for his reply in the restaurant lobby that day. When he said, “Don’t ever ask me to do this again. Fix the issue.” Letting him know his business acumen, perspectives and wisdom, honed throughout a successful corporate career, translated beautifully to our sector.

To truly save the day.

#DonorsMotivations #DonorRelations #Philanthropy #DonorCultivation

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