View Your Donor as a Partner for a Healthy Relationship

Second in the Series: Six Traits of Healthy Donor Relationships

The planet and its people are hurting.  We’re living in a broken world with a lot of things that are not going well. This is why good and decent men and women worldwide are trying to do something about it in large and small ways.

Think about this.

The sole reason a non-profit like yours comes into existence is because a person (or a group) decides that they are going to DO something about the hurt, the pain, or the brokenness of our planet and its people. They form groups like your organization, and they become your partners to take action.

I would put support of the arts right in this same large category. People are motivated to form groups to support it and give money to promote it.  Let me take a little side trip here to explain why support of the arts, which is a huge philanthropic category, fits comfortably with what I am writing here.

Aaron Gervais, a Canadian composer of contemporary classical music, writes:

“artists often put forward the flattering explanation that careers focused on generating wealth are inherently unfulfilling, that art is highly fulfilling, and that therefore philanthropy is a way to live vicariously through an artist’s work. This explanation has an element of truth but it misses the big picture. Yes, art does hold a special status for humans, and it has been intertwined with the other ‘special’ vocations — religion, magic, medicine, and a few others — since its appearance in the archeological record. More specifically, art is a mechanism for strengthening bonds between members of a community. We’re hardwired to believe the feelings that art stirs within us, and to believe them very strongly. Art draws us to others who feel strongly about art and makes us more willing to sacrifice our own personal gain to meet the common goals of the group. This social cohesion in turn rendered our art-loving ancestors better suited to survival, and despite our societal advancements over the past 30,000 years, the specialness of art remains.” (read more…)

So support of the arts plays an important role in bringing people together for the common good, just like every other category of philanthropy.

And all of these philanthropic expressions worldwide are the collective voice of every person in every remote location, hamlet, town, village and city in our world.  When you think about it this way, you can see that the primary actor in this play is the individual donor.  He or she has joined others of like mind and agreed to DO something.  That, and nothing else, is what results in the formation of the non-profit and the continued support it receives to do its work.

This is why Jeff and I repeatedly assert that the donor is a critical part of the mission – probably of greater importance than the people IN the organization who are performing the work of gathering resources and providing solutions to our society.  Those people – the board, leaders and staff of the non-profit – are the “brokers of love” who are channeling resources and help on behalf of the donors.

When you think about it this way (as we think you should), you can see how important the donor is in the whole enterprise.  Once you see it this way, then you can never regard the donor as simply a source of cash.  Because if you do, you reduce the donor to an object to meet YOUR need, not the living human being who is relying on you to help fulfill his or her deepest passions and longings.

This reality is why Jeff and I place this trait – viewing donors as partners – as a critical piece of a healthy relationship with the donors on your caseload.  Please take this all in and then let it affect how you think and act towards donors.




  • I’ve been working almost exclusively for the past 30+ years for arts organizations. I have found what you have written to be so true. The best donors we cultivate are those that we treat as partners and not as a pocketbook.

    I recently took over as Executive Director of the Jackson Symphony Association in Jackson, TN. Within my first week I had learned that the previous several years the organization had gone back consistently to their 3 top donors to help with the deficits they had consistently been running instead of looking at the budget and determining why they kept in the red and how to improve their fundraising strategies to meet the organization’s needs. Shortly after that I was introduced to one of these top donors and the first words out of his mouth was that he wasn’t going to provide any more funding for the current year to keep the organization out of the red. My response was that I wasn’t going to ask him or our other top donors (yes, they talk to each other) to do so this year. That I was going to look at the budget and determine what really needed to be done to keep us out of the red. My response shocked him as he was ready for a fight. The good new is that we still have enough funds to get us through March, when in the previous three years they were out of funds by the beginning of December.

    • Richard Perry says:

      Refreshing, Cheri. Very refreshing. And you will quickly experience that that donor will become your best friend.

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