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I cried for the donor | Creating your organization’s culture of philanthropy

Disclaimer: The following is a true story and is intended for mature audiences only. This writing contains strong language and graphic scenes of lack of regard for donor rights. Those who are faint of heart should refrain from reading further. You have been warned.

Like many of us in the nonprofit industry, long ago, I had the misfortune of working as a development associate for a charity rife with dysfunction. If I were to mention them by name, you would no doubt be astounded by the tale I’m about to relate, for they are a beloved institution.

Let’s just refer to them as an organization serving young people.

Upon walking into their headquarters, the dysfunction was so palpable that you could feel it in the air. Eyes were downcast, ideas and morale were routinely quashed, and five o’clock saw everyone rushing for the doors.

And yet, despite their numerous issues, including the changes in leadership, the utterly shabby treatment of donors, and the loss in revenues, this organization still retained a surprising base of loyal donors – a donor base many organizations would envy. These loyal donors, who made yearly gifts of $25, $100, and $500 every year without fail for five, 10, 15, or even 30 years, remained loyal to the organization primarily because their children and grandchildren had benefited from this organization’s marvelous volunteer base.

This particular arm of the organization treated their volunteers like dirt.

The nationally known consulting firm they’d hired put all their focus on this organization’s “major” donors, the majority of them recent — and brought in by the CEO, a woman of considerable charm when speaking to the “right” people. In fact, when I expressed my concerns about the fact that the stewardship of their loyal donors was virtually nonexistent, the consultants told me that, in their experience, “Donors are lucky to get a postcard.”

And don’t even get me started on the silos. Or the two databases that never spoke to each other.

At one point, a gift arrived in the mail. The shaky handwriting indicated to me that the donor was an elderly woman. The gift she sent in, a small donation of less than $100, was designated specifically for a memorial program honoring her daughter. I set out to ensure that our donor’s gift was directed as intended…only to learn that there was no record whatsoever of any such memorial program. It took days of research to learn that this donor’s daughter had passed away at one of our facilities many years earlier. On one of the camp cabins, a plaque had been placed, honoring the young woman, and a scholarship had been established in her name. Amidst all the organizational chaos throughout the years, the plaque had been lost and the scholarship long forgotten.

I cried for the mother.

And I cry for you. Every week, I receive calls and emails from readers – many who are in-the-trenches fundraisers, trying to do right by their donors. They know the statistics on donor attrition and they work hard at their profession. But creating the lasting change, the culture of philanthropy necessary for exemplary donor service, cannot be done alone. It starts from the top down.

Where does your organization stand? Remember, as the development director (or executive director), you are primarily responsible for building a culture of philanthropy. Don't ask for permission to lead. Take the reins, and be prepared to lead your organization's staff, board and, yes, even your executive director.

What are some ways you can begin to lead?

  1. Ask a program staff member his or her advice on your appeal letter or email campaign. People love it when you ask for their advice, and it's a lesson in the importance of story gathering. (Please note that I didn't advise you to necessarily take their advice).
  2. When you receive special "thank-yous" from clients, copy them and send them on to board members.
  3. Keep a desk drawer full of cards — birthday, anniversary or "just because" — to send to your board members.
  4. Schedule thank-a-thons, where your board members make thank you calls or pen thank-you notes to donors. Make it a fun experience by scheduling 20 to 30 minutes within the course of a board meeting, serving refreshments.
  5. Spend one-on-one time with board members getting to know them individually.
  6. At every staff and board meeting, share your latest "story," whether it's about one of your agency's clients, a donor or even a recent visitor to your organization. Encourage staff members to share their stories as well.
  7. Shadow a member of your program staff for several hours or even a day.
  8. Think outside of the proverbial box. I recently attended a United Way branding workshop on behalf of a client. Among the participants, I was delighted to see that one organization had sent program staff in lieu of marketing or development staff. I spent some time chatting with the program staffers, and it was clearly an eye-opening experience for them in terms of how they could better share their own work with their development department.
  9. This tip came via my friend Andrea Kihlstedt, principal of nonprofit consulting firm The Kihlstedt Group. Create a habit of celebrating every little success. When you reach 100 percent board participation, celebrate it — perhaps with a pizza party at your next board meeting or by breaking out a bottle of champagne! Has a board member brought in three new donors? Send a thank-you gift or present a token of your gratitude publicly at your next board meeting. Celebrate what you want to see more of!

What can you do as an organization? In her book, Donor Centered Leadership, Penelope Burk notes, “the best antidote to a dysfunctional Development workplace is a Donor-Centered Fundraising Strategy — a plan for raising money that refocuses everyone’s attention on reaching ambitious, yet achievable goals, coupled with management training.” Everyone in your organization needs to understand that to be a successful, healthy, vibrant nonprofit, they must be as committed to funding their mission as they are to their mission. Commit to building a donor-centered organization.

Consider enrolling your organization in a comprehensive training program, such as Simple Development Systems, one that brings everyone from EDs to DDs to volunteers to program staff to board members together, sharing stories, interacting with donors and sharing what they (the donors) are making possible.

Building a culture of philanthropy absolutely will not happen overnight. It takes patience, consistency and commitment. But the rewards are well worth it.

Pamela GrowThe preceding is a cross-post by author, coach, copy-writer, and nonprofit marketing consultant, Pamela Grow. Pamela is the author of Five Days to Foundation Grants, the first online grant-writing guide, the author of Simple Development Systems, and the founder of Simple Development Systems | The Membership Program, monthly training created exclusively for the overwhelmed fundraiser in the one-person marketing and development shop. 

Topics: Fundraising Donors Philanthropy