#3 in the Series “Donors As Mission”

donors as mission talkIt was one of those sweltering, hot, humid days in Washington D.C., like only D.C. could produce. I was taking a tour of Miriam’s Kitchen, a client of Veritus who is trying to eliminate chronic homelessness in their city. They are amazing.

I was met by a staff member at the door, and she gave me an incredible tour. I marveled at their facilities, but more importantly I was struck by how she talked about the homeless people that came through their doors every day.

The language she and her colleagues used to describe the people they serve was filled with such dignity, grace and collegiality that it changed my perception of all the people stretched out along the sidewalk as they waited to come in for breakfast. And it made me feel so positive about the staff that serves their “clients” every day. Hearing how the staff described their work with the homeless of D.C changed me that morning.

I tell that story because it makes me think about two things: 1) How we talk about people and the language we use is very powerful, and drives our actions; and 2) Why can’t we use such eloquence about donors, when we obviously have the ability?

William C. Taylor said something that I think is helpful:

“Leaders who think differently about their business invariably talk about it differently as well.”

So what if we just switched out the word “business” for “donors”?

 “Leaders (You) who think differently about donors invariably talk about them differently as well.”

Richard and I believe that non-profits do an amazing job in talking, writing, showing pictures and video, and sharing the stories of the work they do every day. Ultimately, how they talk about what they do, and the language they use, reflects how they do their work.

To view donors as part of the mission of your organization means changing the language you use for them. Changing the language changes your mindset, which leads to changing your actions.

Just recently, I was invited to a donor event at a very high-profile non-profit in my area. I was given a tour of the facility by a couple of major gift officers. (In case you were wondering, they had no idea that I was even in the field of major gifts.) I asked one of them what their position was at the non-profit and what they did.

She responded, “I’m the principal gift officer at [non-profit], which means I only work with donors who give seven-figure gifts.”

My first thought was, “I have no idea why you are talking to me then.” But then I thought, “Wait, this is how she talks about her work and what she does?”

See where her focus was? On the money. My question to you is this: How do you talk about your work to someone that knows nothing about fundraising? Is it more focused on bringing in money, or on building a relationship with a donor?

What Richard and I find over and over again is that when major gift fundraising professionals talk about donors, they overwhelmingly focus on the money. It’s been ingrained in you. “Donors give us money to do our mission.” By the way, I’m not blaming you for using that language; it’s what everyone has used in talking about donors – but we are calling for new thinking here.

I don’t mean to sound trite (so stay with me), but what if every day you repeated to yourself, “my job is to understand my donors’ passions and interests so that I can help them find joy in their giving.”

Or if you just had two seconds to tell someone what you do, the answer would be, “I help donors find joy.” That’s it, very succinctly.

If donors were part of our mission, this is the language we would use. Please forgive me, JFK, but it becomes more about what we can do for the donor, rather than what the donor can for your organization.

It’s totally counter to how non-profits have been relating to donors. Yet it’s time we make this change. We cannot continue to create great projects and programs, and make extraordinary impact in the world, yet not excel in our relations with our donors.

How we talk about donors, how we discuss what we do, how we interact with our donors and the language we use – it all affects the core of our work with donors.

Jeff

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3 Comments

  • caroline says:

    I enjoyed this thank you – my personal bugbear is meeting people who describe themselves as ‘mid-level donor managers’ or worse ‘Ultra gifts manager’….not only is the focus only on the money rather than engaging people but it also immediately puts you as the potential supporter in a category – whilst I may not be able to make a major gift I would hate to be listed as a ‘mid-level donor’!

  • Cheri Friedman says:

    This is so true. I run a symphony orchestra. When I deal with our donors, I’m constantly talking about how they help us bring quality music to our community. That without them we couldn’t do what we do. It’s understanding that you can’t look at these donors as a money source, but rather more like a partner who helps you reach a goal they believe in.

  • Lori Burrows says:

    This article makes an important point. As fundraising professionals, it’s vital that we can relate our work to others. Whether we are speaking to our most loyal partners or someone who has never heard of our organization, including our own personal family and friends, they deserve to understand how they can make an impact through our roles. Our introductions or conversations may provide the spark to engage donors further and transform their giving.

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