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Fundraising's Worst Mistake

Excerpt from How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise

After decades of fundraising, I'm sometimes asked, "What's the worst mistake you've made in your career?" It's a question I can answer without hesitation because the mistake is one I made not just once, but countless times ... and at great cost. Simply put, I didn't pay enough attention to my donors' children.

Don't get me wrong. I've spent more hours than I'd care to admit bouncing little Johnny on my knee or listening to Missy play the piano. I've paid my share of fulsome compliments to donors about the extraordinary qualities of their children and their grandchildren. That kind of behavior is a given, and anyone who misses the opportunity to praise a donor's offspring probably lacks the temperament of a good fundraiser.

But as the years have passed, I've come to realize that noticing and complimenting children isn't enough—at least not for the long term. All that effort, I finally understood, is aimed at making the donors happy. It has nothing to do with fostering an enduring relationship with the children. And this can be a missed opportunity of colossal proportions.

Needless to say, donors age and in time leave us. For those with a good deal of money, much of their wealth will live on after them. Where there are children, it's the younger generation who will ultimately control where the family philanthropic dollars are directed.

I'm not suggesting we cultivate friendships with six-year-olds. But youngsters turn into young adults quickly and establish their own philanthropic preferences. When their parents' estates are finally passed on, the kids in many cases have already established loyalties to organizations different from the ones their parents supported. Simply put, befriending the children can help prevent the family philanthropy from straying once the parents are gone.

Surprisingly, even when a family foundation is involved, the children don't always respect the preferences of their deceased parents. For years I worked with Valerie, who had created a foundation independent of her husband for the very reason that she was interested in areas he wasn't.

Valerie had a clear pattern of giving with which her children were familiar (they had participated in many of the grantmaking decisions as co-trustees). Surely, I thought, they would continue supporting her favorite charities as a way of honoring her memory.

But Valerie was dead less than a year when her foundation turned to new organizations that were of interest to her children but didn't really align with Valerie's interests. Quite frankly, I was shocked and felt personally betrayed. I was sure this situation was an anomaly and that other children behaved with more respect until I saw the pattern repeated again and again.

Not all children are so iconoclastic, however. In fact with Pete I was luckier. His mother, Elsie, was one of my most generous—and idiosyncratic—donors. Originally a modest contributor to the music organization I was running at the time, I received a call from her one afternoon asking why a visiting pianist had used his own piano for a concert.

"Well to be truthful," I said, "our concert grand just isn't up to his standards." Elsie's response was immediate. "Then I'm going to give you a new one that's as good as they come." I hinted that tens of thousands of dollars would be involved. "That's fine," she said, and a few months later she wrote out a check.

Her son Pete was someone I got to know well over the ensuing years, and we became good friends. As Elsie aged and he took over her finances, Pete, who by now was interested in our work, too, was scrupulous about making sure her philanthropic support continued in a way she would have wanted. By the time she died, Pete had exceeded her track record as one of our most important donors.

Generally, if you wait until the children of your donors come into their family's money, it's too late—and far too transparent—to begin cultivating them for your cause. Even when their parents are alive and active, your approach must be creative.

One of my donors was interested in the arts. Judy's son, Henry, who was employed by a prominent financial institution, was not. Henry's philanthropic focus was education, especially the needs of at-risk kids. One day I had the opportunity to talk with him and our conversation turned to the challenge of helping poor children acquire the skills they need in the contemporary workforce.

"All this emphasis on memorization and testing is so often misguided," said Henry. "Much of what they're being taught will be irrelevant or simply wrong 10 years after they graduate. Then what? They need to be flexible and creative—they need to be able to problem-solve at a very high level. But that's not what they're learning."

I steered the conversation to various organizations that were helping schools deal with that deficiency by offering enrichment programs heavy on creativity. I mentioned how tests showed that these programs were successful in providing many of the workforce skills he identified.

Henry was fascinated and wanted to learn more. I sent him material and we talked about some opportunities that fit his guidelines for support. Judy and Henry ended up supporting many of the same organizations, albeit for very different reasons. Judy was thrilled—it gave her one more point of contact with her busy and successful son and enhanced her standing with the organizations she loved.

The opportunity of involving donors' children in actually developing philanthropic goals was something I came to believe was so important that I drilled the idea into my staff. I talked about it constantly and was always on the lookout for chances to put theory into practice. "Don't just ask the kids for money," I stressed. "Make them part of the fundraising team. If they give advice, chances are they'll give money."

Then one day, I was told about a new procedure our organization was implementing—direct withdrawal from donors' bank accounts. At the time, I wasn't familiar with the practice and was unsure whose idea it was to set it up. Our director of development explained: "Remember how you told us to seek advice from our donors' children? Well we did," she said impishly. "We approached your son. And you were right. Lex advised us to set up electronic funds transfer ... and gave us a nice gift too."

Thomas Wolf
© 2011, Emerson & Church, Publishers. Excerpted from How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise. Excerpted with permission.

Dr. Thomas Wolf's career encompasses the fields of philanthropy, nonprofit management, education, and the arts. After serving as the founding director of the New England Foundation for the Arts for seven years, he established a consulting firm in 1983 (now called WolfBrown) to assist nonprofit organizations and the philanthropic sector and assisted 10 of the 50 largest U.S. foundations and various government agencies with their grants programs. The author of numerous books and articles, Wolf is also a professional flutist listed in the International Who's Who of Music.

Topics: Fundraising