Last week I wrote a post on listening to donors.  Please read it if you haven’t already.  We’ve had a number of responses, which motivated me to write a little more on the subject.
Dana wrote and said:

“This article articulates a concern of many of us in this field – that our major donors will feel like ATM machines even when we really intend and desire to make them feel appreciated. I wish that this article spent more time and gave more detail on what to DO rather than what not to do. The take-aways that I get are 1) “make the mental switch”/ embrace and understand that it’s not all about their money and 2) be more authentic with donors — which I take to mean strive to have real, warm, empathetic conversations and to put effort towards really hearing our donors and engaging with them as people. Those are two important concepts — and I think many of us doing donor work hope and try to do this. But what else?  How can this dig a little deeper? What does it mean, what are the nuts and bolts, to show authenticity and show donors we care about them and not just their checkbook? I’d love a post that focused just on the solutions hinted at here, and not the problem.”

And Devon wrote:

“While the points you made to improve the relationships are all on-point, I just wonder if we aren’t missing the idea that the donor should feel both comfortable and compelled to reach out to their MGO and give them some insight as to what they want. I strongly feel with some of my donors that they hide who they are from me and hide their wants and needs almost as a test of my ability to guess their wants and needs (which is neither productive nor efficient in the MGO/donor relationship). This is one of the more frustrating aspects of the MGO role, but that is another topic all together which I would be happy to bend your ear on.
My little point is that perhaps we don’t ask the donors for what kind of relationship they want, we just guess. But a little proactive effort on the donor’s side certainly wouldn’t hurt. This is a fine line, of course. We don’t want donors to tell the MGO how to do their job. I’m simply inferring that this isn’t a one-sided problem, and the best MGO/donor relationships are those that have the comfort level necessary for openness and honesty on both sides. This is partially embedded in your fourth point, but I think it could be a point all on its own.”

I’d like to share some thoughts about Devon’s response first, which, essentially, boils down to one question:  Shouldn’t the donor bear some responsibility to build relationship?
I suppose, in a perfect world, a donor would proactively seek out information, and thus relationship, in pursuit of his or her goal, to give wisely.  That makes perfect sense.
To help shed light on this subject, consider this scenario with me. I am a customer engaging in retail transaction in a commercial setting.  I want to get the best phone, computer, vacuum cleaner or whatever, at the best price.  Fundamentally, I think I know what I want and at what price and, with that information, I approach the retail person, either in a bricks and mortar setting or online.
I’ve been thinking about Devon’s question in this context to see how it works in the giving transaction.
So, I go into the retail transaction with a certain amount of knowledge, assumptions and expectations – emphasis on the word “certain” because, often, it is pretty relative in terms of depth or accuracy. The good salesperson takes me where I am – either full of certainty and opinions about what I need, or dumb as a brick – but he takes me where I am and leads me to a mutually satisfying transaction.  I get what I want, which is usually not what I originally intended, and the salesperson gets what he wants – a sale.
Where is the burden here?  Is it on me, the customer?  Or is it on the sales person?  Do I fundamentally care about a relationship with the salesperson when I go in?  Nope.  I want to get value for the money I part with.  Does the salesperson care about me, really?  Nope.  He wants to get value from the product I walk out of the store with.
Now, the really good salesperson will get me hooked on HIM personally as a solution to any situation I face as relates to the product or service he is representing.  You’ve had this experience.  You go into buy something, large or small, and suddenly you’re friends.  How does this happen?  Because the salesperson approached the transaction in an authentic, mutual way and it increased your trust and dependency on him. Plus, you liked him personally because you discovered some shared values outside the transaction and he was so helpful that you felt good about him as a person.  He was genuine.  He really did care about helping you.  And he cared more about you than the transaction.  You truly sensed that if you walked away from the “deal” because you felt it was in your best interest to do so, it would be OK with him.
Well, if you agree with the direction I am going with describing the dynamic in this relationship, you can see that the weight of responsibility, or the burden, so to speak, rests with the salesperson.  I believe that is correct.  And it is true for the MGO as well.
Some donors will want to be your friend because of the great job you did in aligning their passions and interests with the needs of the organization. Others will thank you for just being professional.  Others will view it simply as a transaction, where something gets done and it was a pleasant experience doing it.
But in all of it, it is my belief that the weight or burden to measure which of these relationship levels is the desired level for the donor rests with the MGO.  It is up to the MGO to discover what the donor wants and then deliver that relationship.
Now, moving on to Dana’s comment about desiring to have more actionable points on how to listen better and be more authentic with the donor.  Jeff and I have written extensively about this topic in our blog.  If you have some time, look through the archives for a wealth of material on the subject.  But, to summarize, here is my short list:

  1. Uncover the donor’s interests and passions.  The key to a donor relationship is knowing what he or she cares about as related to your organization.  If you don’t know this, there is no way you will build a relationship.
  2. Realize that there is a limit to the type of relationship you can have.  Most donors do not want a deep relationship with their MGO, although I have seen that happen.  What they want, at best, is an investment counselor – someone who will give solid information and advice on how to fulfill their giving interests and passions.  When you think about the relational dynamics of an investment counselor, you will quickly go to the fact that the key value is giving good investment advice, and then making it happen.  That is what MGOs do.  They understand the donor’s giving needs, they give good advice, they make the transaction happen, and then they service the need of the donor to know what happened with their gift.  This is not about being best buddies and taking vacations together.  It is about fulfilling the donor’s interests and passions.
  3. Ask them what kind of relationship they want.  To Devon’s point above, I think it would be great if the MGO, at the appropriate time, simply asked,  “NAME, what kind of relationship do you want to have with me as a representative of the cause you love and support?  The reason I am asking this question is because I want to be sure I meet your expectations in relation to your giving.”   That would be a great discussion.
  4. Be authentic yourself.  What would be wrong with saying,  “You know, NAME, I am aware that donors often are irritated or troubled by the tactics and strategies used by people like myself to either get close to their donor or secure more revenue from them.  While it is true that my responsibility is to make sure we fund the programs that we both love, I want to assure you, NAME, that I will not do that at the expense of our relationship.  I truly want to be the kind of person in this relationship that is welcomed and thought of positively rather than as a nuisance.  What advice or input can you give me on what to do and what not to do?”  Then, listen.  Somewhere in this conversation the donors may say that you don’t need to ask for money – that they will give when they can.  In our experience, this comment does not mean that you should stop presenting needs that require funding, something we recommend you do – especially those needs that fall right into the passions and interests of the donor.  Presenting needs and situations that the donor is interested in is a soft form of asking that should continue in the relationship, especially if you balance those presentations with a greater amount of “You Made A Difference” touch points – a message that tells the donor their giving matters.
  5. Listen for their concerns or questions – and solicit questions and concerns.  Ask, “Are you OK with X or Y?” when you’re talking about a strategy or tactic you are using with them.  This is another way to gain immediate feedback, which will help you adjust your communication strategy and also honor the donor.
  6. Tell them regularly how their gifts are making a difference.  You can’t do this enough.  Never can you do this enough.  It brings real joy to donors to know they have caused changes in our hurting world.
  7. Ask their opinion.  More and more, donors want to sit at the table and participate with you in the management and direction of the organization.  Doing this is counter-intuitive because you allow the donor in to see the good and the bad.  Plus, they may say something or take a position you don’t agree with or like.  But more donors want to be part of the process on how their money is used.  It seems reasonable, when you think about it, but it is hard to do.
  8. Don’t always ask for money or talk about your organization.  It is so refreshing to be in a relationship when the other party is just being a human being and doesn’t have an agenda.  You’ve experienced this.  The pressure of the person who is always on vs. the pleasantness of being around the person who wants to interact about something you are interested in.  Try this with your donor, and do it often.  If she told you her daughter was struggling in college and there was a big event in this journey coming up, call the donor up and ask how it went.  And say nothing more!  It will be amazing.

I think the bottom-line here is to treat the donor as you would want to be treated.  That is always a good way to think about everything you are doing.  If you have some other ideas that you could share with Jeff and me on this subject, please write us or respond to this posting.
One thing is for sure: we all want more authentic relationships with our spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends, business partners, employers and employees, vendors, retailers, spiritual and life-journey guides, everyone.  We all want to be told the truth and have relationships that are in the light.  You know what that means.  Now it is just a matter of practicing it.

Series details:
Part 1: Four reasons we’re in this situation
Part 2: How to listen better and be authentic