“Listen to me, please!”
That’s what millions of donors will be saying this year. I was reminded of this important topic when I had a chance meeting last week with the wife of a friend. She proceeded to launch into a five-minute tirade on how she and her husband have been mistreated by the MGOs of their favorite charities.
Paula and Jack (not their real names) are extremely wealthy. I would say that their net worth is pushing $750 million. They are very kind and generous people. They are down to earth, approachable and carry an air of humility about them. And they are good people.
I’m telling you all of this so you will put her comments about MGOs in the proper context. She is not a wealthy snob who is arrogant and pushy. She is a genuinely kind and considerate woman – someone you would like to have as a friend.
We were standing outside of her home and I said, “So, Paula, how were your holidays?” Now that question could have been answered in so many ways. She could have told me about her grandchildren who were visiting and how much she enjoyed them. She could have mentioned her sister, whom she loves, and had just stopped in. She could have talked about how she loves this time of year, all the parties she and her husband had gone to and the good times they’d had.
She could have talked about so many things.
But how did she answer my question about her holidays? This is what she said:
“You know, Richard, I get so tired of the way these organizations approach us. All they care about is our money. We got an invitation to be on a board. Do they really value Jack’s tremendous experience in business? No. They just want our money. Then we were asked to chair an event. Do they think I will do a great job of hosting? Yes, they do, but all they really want is our money. And then these little ladies (MGOs) came by with their nice little gifts and superficial chatter. They asked me how I’m doing. Do they really care how I am doing? No, not really. They told me nice things about the charity we support. One of them called me and said a lot of things about this and that, but did I hear anything from her about what our gifts of $500,000 did last year for their organization? Nope. I tell you, Richard, I am sick of it. I’m just sick of it.”
And she went on for another 3 minutes.
I felt very sad as I stood there and listened – sad because I know Paula and Jack. I know that they care deeply about the causes they give to. They are not interested in all the whoopla that surrounds much of giving. They simply want to be listened to and valued for making the world a better place.
As Paula continued with her justified rant, I began to think of all the other donors out there who sincerely want to make a difference with their giving. Their hearts are full of compassion, caring and concern. And they want to know that their relationship with their favorite charity is bringing hope, healing, redemption, restoration and wholeness to a broken and hurting person, a species of animal, a forest or planet crying out for greater care.
But what is coming back to them is useless chatter about chairing this event or showing up at that one, a trinket, a plaque or certificate, an e-mail or letter with boilerplate language in it – all fundraising tactical stuff – all devoid of any heart or caring.
Then I feel angry about this. Why are we in this situation? Well, here are some reasons:
- We don’t understand the role of money. Jeff and I have said it over and over again: money is a way to transfer value. That is its only role. It transfers the donor’s values and what she cares about to the non-profit. So, if the people in the non-profit are simply receiving money and responding to money and all that the money entails, they will not give the donor a proper return on her giving. This is not about the money. Money in fundraising is a result, NOT an objective.
- The pressure of financial goals. MGOs are so concerned about reaching financial goals they have set, or that have been set by their managers, that the donor is just a means to their end. The donor literally disappears into the fabric of the organization, having performed her role of delivering an economic unit. This is so tragic. You would not believe the stories Jeff and I have heard – just in the last 30 days – of the gifts flowing in and the mistreatment of donors in the process. It is unbelievable.
- The belief that “rich people” value these tactics. Buried in the heart of every donor to a non-profit, be they rich or poor, is the desire to make a difference. It is a core motivation. It is true that some may want notoriety, standing and publicity in return for their gifts. But wouldn’t it be better if the MGO serviced the “making a difference” bit FIRST, along with the need to be recognized? It makes sense to me, but we don’t do that. We just keep doing the superficial things, as with all the other “Paulas and Jacks” on the caseload, believing that they are (a) meeting their needs, and (b) all that is needed in the transaction. Crazy.
- Not having real conversations. If there is one thing and Jeff and I are committed to, both personally and professionally, it is authenticity. We often make mistakes in this area, defaulting to try to get our needs met by chasing meaningless things. But, I can see progress, and that is what is important. At the end of this past year we reaffirmed to each other that we would continue to go down this path of authenticity, not only in our business life, but also in our relationships with spouses, family, friends and all of the people we work with. We also affirmed that our greatest contribution to this major gift thing is to help all of those involved to become real in the relationships they have with donors. That is what donors thirst for these days – real relationships, real conversations, real transactions, real value.
As you look at the list of four reasons above, you can see that they are not difficult to work on. It just takes a mental switch to understand that money is only a means to an end, and not an end in itself. It simply takes a decision on your part to wrap the pressure of financial goals and striving with “donor clothes” so you have the proper perspective. It only takes a thoughtful reflection about rich people, and donors in general, to realize that they are just like you – they value making a difference – and that is what you should service in your relationship. It just takes a commitment on your part to be authentic with your donors.
I know things don’t happen overnight. But Jeff and I ask you to begin, little by little, to make these decisions and changes right now, at the beginning of this year, so that you and your donors will escape from the “same old same old” fundraising dynamic that Paula is so worked up about.
Together, let’s bring light and new energy to this wonderful work in which we are involved.
Part 1: Four reasons we’re in this situation
Part 2: How to listen better and be authentic
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 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.
Hi, Dana. Thanks so much for writing. We have written extensively about solutions to this situation in our blog so our best thinking on the subject has already been published and is in the archives which you can access. BUT, your comments and those of others, plus some other ideas that have surfaced, are providing additional information and need to do a follow-up on this subject which I will write for the January 13 post. See you then and thanks for the very good input.