“What’s more important, Richard,” the major gift officer asked,  “a relationship with my donor or the money they can give?”
Well, I couldn’t answer that question easily.  So, I didn’t.  Instead I started where I always start.  And that’s in talking about the role of money.
What is money?  If you go with the classic definition, money is a medium of exchange.  It has no value other than what it is exchanged for.  When money didn’t exist I gave you two chickens and you gave me a sack of potatoes.  Or, I made you a door and some furniture and you put a roof on my house.  We exchanged values.  Hang on to these thoughts for a second.
How does a person secure money these days?  Through labor.  (I know… investments, stealing etc. are also other ways – but stay with me here).  We work.  We get money.  So, we are providing a real value and getting value back.
This is the core reason why the use of money is so personal and emotional.  It represents the core of who we are – our labor.
So, if money is a medium of exchange and I get money through my labor, then when I give money I am transferring my labor to get something done.  If I send you my money it’s because I want to get something done that YOU are doing.
This means that I must believe that you are doing what I want to do in a manner that satisfies me, my values and my expectations about the outcome, etc.
This is how the whole thing works.  And it explains why donors join your cause (they want to get something done that matters to them) and why they leave your cause (they don’t believe it is worth it to send you their money anymore).
So, back to the question.  Is it about relationship or money?  It’s both.  And here are the operating principles:

The donor related principle is this:  if you are properly serving the needs and passions of a donor and there is genuinely a match between those passions and interests and the needs of the organization, then the money will follow.  The lack of money is usually symptomatic of there not being a match; the donor not feeling properly cared for, or; a financial circumstance that prevents them from giving as they did in the past or as they would like to do now.  If there is not a match of donor needs to organization needs, then it is time to move on.  If there is a match but the relationship is bruised because you have not properly served the donor, then you need to repair that.  If there is a match but there is a mitigating financial circumstance, then you need to stick with the donor provided the criteria of principle  below is met.

The organization related principle is this: You only have so much labor as a major gift officer (MGO).  And stewardship requires that you use that labor wisely.  The core objective of the job is to secure funds for program.  Without the funds you cannot do what you are supposed to do.  So stewardship and accountability requires that a MGO focus on those relationships that will generate the most funds for program and have the best return on investment (ROI).  I truly believe donors understand this.  They do not want us spending time ($) with them when that time spent does not benefit the organization financially.  This principle is what drives the rigorous review of caseloads to see that a MGO is talking to the right donor.  The right donor is defined as (a) One who has capacity to give, (b) One who wants to talk to us – i.e. is qualified, and (c) One whose passions and interests match the needs of the organization.

Putting these two principles into one big “sort” results in making decisions that are a confluence of relationship and money.  It is not always easy.  And it is not always objective.  But a lot of the data that informs the decision is available.
My question to you is: Do you know your donors?  If you do, you know the answers to the questions set forth in these principles.  Do they want to relate to you?  Do they have the capacity to give?, etc.   If you know all of this, it is relatively easy to know what to do.
Since money is a medium of exchange and donors are giving it to you because they want to help you get something done that matters to them, then how do you figure out who, in your donor base, to talk to?
Here is what I suggest:

  1. Make sure, when selecting the donors to consider for a caseload, that you are selecting off the donors at the top of the giving pyramid, i.e. those that are giving the most and giving most frequently.  This is a bias towards inclination of the donor vs. capacity.  Inclination is a tangible and actual demonstration of value given.
  1. Jeff and I have said this before, but it is important – make sure the donors actually want to relate to you personally.  In my experience, over the years, I have discovered that only 1 in 3 of the donors meeting the metric for major donor consideration (point #1 above) actually want to relate more personally.  So, if you don’t take the steps to actually find that one of every three, then you will have, conceptually, 2/3 of the caseload that does not want to relate to you.  This is a huge waste of MGO labor and poor stewardship.

We have a whole process of qualifying that is quite tedious, yet thorough, which we would be glad to share.  Just let us know.  It can take 7 to 8 months to systematically go through a pool of donors that met the metric to find a caseload of 150 qualified donors.

  1. The third area of caseload make-up is, once you have a fully subscribed caseload of 150 qualified donors, we do not allow prospecting of any kind. A good MGO is usually a good salesperson.  Always optimistic.  Always seeing opportunity.  So, there is always some donor or prospect that “has a lot of money” and “I think they are interested” and “it doesn’t hurt for me to add them” etc. etc.  The grass is always greener….  we are very strict about NOT allowing this kind of behavior.  Why?  We have proven economic value in the donors that are on the qualified caseload.  And we want a single laser like focus on them.  Once a year we will look at all of them and decide to move some of them out because higher potential actual donors (not just possible donors) are available.  The donor attrition of many caseloads we see is unacceptably high because MGO’s are allowed to “fish outside the pond”.  This area causes a fair amount of tension with an MGO because they are constantly told to turn back and mind the caseload.  It’s funny how attractive the new donor/prospect is and how ugly and boring the current donor can be.  Familiarity breeds contempt. This is something to strictly manage!
  1. The last area of caseload make-up is that we don’t want to have many so called “stewardship” donors on the caseload as an extra attachment.  Here’s why.  Many MGOs just cannot let go of donors they need to let go of.  You have experienced this.  I do agree that a donor that has supported us well, who now has unusual mitigating circumstances, needs to go into a stewardship mode and not be moved off the caseload.  I also agree that a donor who has given us a good portion of his or her estate and who now cannot give much in current giving, should be in a stewardship mode.  But, if all you can say about a donor is “well, they have a lot of influence”,  or, “They are such wonderful people”,  or, “They have a lot of potential”, I can not support putting them in a stewardship mode.  The whole concept of the stewardship category is both good and dangerous and needs to be managed very carefully.  Otherwise you have  MGO’s “turning their heads” toward something that will not have an economic yield.  And, sorry, that is what the job is…..to secure revenue for program.

Well, there you have it.  Money is a way that donors do what THEY want to do in this world.  We, on the organization side, are simply agents of theirs.  And that is why you need to be very careful about how you think about all of this and how you use your time.