It Starts with You: Traits of Healthy Donor Relationships

It starts with you!

First in the Series: Six Traits of Healthy Donor Relationships

“I just don’t understand her. She doesn’t talk to me. She doesn’t share my interests. She prefers herself over me.”

I know you’ve heard some version of this statement in a relationship you have been in or are currently in. The old cliché really is true – it takes two to tango. No matter what the relationship is, whether it’s personal or business, there are always two stories, two dramas, two streams of facts and emotions that make up the entire play. This is a fact.

This is why I’m writing this series on the 6 Traits of Healthy Donor Relationships and I’m starting with you, not with the donor. Because this whole thing – this relationship with your donor – starts with you. It is true that any donor will bring their stuff into the relationship with you. I will deal with that “stuff” in this series. But I want to start off in the right place in this new year. I hope this new place will be a path to restart some or all of the relationships you have with the donors on your caseload.

Three weeks ago I was visiting a client in the Midwest. After a long day of meetings, I went to the exercise room of my hotel and got on the treadmill. The treadmill had a television and it was tuned to Dr. Phil. I had just joined the part of the program where a frustrated Dr. Phil was telling a guest who wasn’t “getting it” that he lacked insight. “Insight,” he said, “is the ability to step back and see what you are doing to create the problem you are in.”


I have been on a long journey to gain more insight into why I do the things we do. I have gathered around me people who will help me by providing insight when I am “blind.” My wife is a good partner on this journey; so is Jeff. They regularly tell me what I am not seeing. It is good. I recommend you seek sources of insight in your life as well.

But bringing this back to the donors on your caseload – here is what I recommend you do to make sure you are checking your behavior and attitudes related to your donors and those who work with you:

  1. Check on your core motivation for doing this work. Why are you in this job? Ask yourself the question. I’m sure you need the money. That is basic. But you could get the money most anywhere. Why this job? Why this organization? If your answer is something along the lines of “I just love what this organization does, and I love helping donors fulfill their passions and interests,” then your motivation is right on track. If your answer is more focused on the money, then there might be a problem. Would you rather be somewhere else if you could? If so, get on a careful path to get there. Because you will not be happy here, and your relationships will reflect it.
  2. Look at how you deal with rejection and failure. There is no doubt that this job is full of rejection and failure, IF you chose to look at it that way. But if you choose to look at a “no” as a pathway to a “yes,” and you see “I don’t want to meet with you” as a sign that you don’t quite yet have anything to present to the donor that she values, then you’re on the right track. You’ll begin to see that this major donor thing is about helping donors do what they love to do; and you’ll learn that rejection and failure are simply signs that you just don’t have the right match yet – you don’t have a donor offer that the donor will accept. It is also true that you will have setbacks. You may not reach your goals. You will be disappointed. Things will not go right. So how do you handle that? Does rejection and failure cripple you? If so, this is something to work on. Because if you don’t, you will take your attitude about failure and rejection into every relationship with every donor on your caseload. And that will not be good.
  3. Examine how you deal with pressure from your boss and others. You need to reach the goals you have set. So does your boss. The finance people are also counting on you. And don’t forget the program folks – they can’t even deliver the program without you reaching your goals. So there IS a lot of pressure. And a ton of expectations. That is how it is. Most of the people will be reasonable and fair about this. Some won’t. Move away from the ones that won’t. And in general, accept that you are part of a team that is finding the resources to make the program you love happen.
  4. Analyze how you deal with a donor (or anyone) who does not agree with you. I used to get really uptight when someone did not agree with me. That is until someone pointed out that my defensiveness was not helping me get to a positive and constructive end, which I valued. So I learned not to react when disagreement surfaced. I learned to ask questions and then go away and think about what I had heard. I still fail in this area, but not as much as I used to. How do you react when anyone does not agree with what you are saying or proposing? Or the timing you are suggesting? Or the terms of your ask? Examine your response – your knee-jerk reaction – when this happens. Is it helpful and constructive? Or are you blocking progress with your defensiveness? It is important to know this and manage it, especially when you get any sort of pushback from donors.
  5. Check your attitude on how you react to accountability and input. “There is wisdom in counsel,” a wise man once said. It is true: we all should always have our palms up and our hands out, seeking more from those around us. Even if we are experts in our field, there is another nugget out there that someone will give to you if you have an open hand and an open heart. Do you do that? Do you listen to, enjoy and receive the input of others? It is good for you. And accountability – it is needed and important. How do you react to it? It is good to be reminded and be held to account. Do you bristle when your manager tries to hold you accountable to the goals and plans you made? If so, you will carry negative energy into your relationship with your donor, not to mention the bad blood that will begin to rise between you and your manager. And that will not be good.

I am asking you, as we begin this series on traits of healthy donor relationships, to start with yourself and gain insight into how you operate in the five areas I have written about above. This is important because if you aren’t right in these areas then you won’t be right with your donor. And you know where that goes.



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