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It's the Donor's Ballgame

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

A little old man shuffles up to the ticket office at the University of Michigan and asks whether he might buy a ticket for the big game with Ohio State the next day. "Something near the 50 yard line would be nice," he says.

The ticket seller guffaws. "There hasn't been a ticket available for that game for weeks ... anywhere in the stadium."

"Okay," the little man says and walks away.

About an hour later, the athletic director and the football coach are summoned to an emergency meeting. The president is apoplectic. "An alum just walked into my office a few minutes ago and is talking about giving the University a hundred million dollars. In our conversation, he mentioned that he couldn't get a ticket to the Ohio State game tomorrow. I don't care if you have to bounce the president of the United States or the Pope, give him anything he wants."

By the time the little man returns to the ticket office, the band has been assembled and they're playing the school song. The athletic director apologizes for the previous error and says, "There was a misunderstanding. Of course we have a ticket for you—the seat is in the president's box, will that suffice?"

"Well I don't want to put you to any trouble, but that would be fine."

"And the president's limo will pick you up and bring you to a special brunch before the game. Will that be okay?"

"Yes, very nice and much too generous," is his modest answer.

"And is there anything else we can do for you?"

"Well can you tell me when the game starts?"

"What time would you like it to start?" asks the athletic director.

This delicious, over-the-top story makes an important point—if you want to be successful with donors, give them what they want (assuming you can, of course).

Start with the easy stuff—a birthday card, a note of congratulations when a child graduates, a get-well note when the donor is sick. Then there are other small gifts that can make a big difference—the more personal the better.

In the summer, for example, I make homemade vinegar with herbs from our family garden and concoct an apple rose-hip sauce from our orchard. I make little gifts of these for friends, including some donors. I enjoy doing it and, because the gifts are totally unnecessary, they give the recipients obvious pleasure.

In some cases, a donor may request a favor—one that could provide a special opportunity for you. "Any chance you can get a ticket to your sold-out opening for my friend Bob?" "Could someone at the office give me a lift to the board meeting?" "I wonder if one of your curators would come with me to a gallery as I'm thinking about buying a particular painting."

In each of these cases, the favor may simply be a way of doing something nice or it may lead to more substantial long-term results. Friend Bob may be another prospect. The lift to the board meeting might be a chance to talk about a special project needing funding. The trip to the gallery may result in a painting that ultimately is bequeathed to the curator's institution. Whether or not any of these things happen, the nice gesture will certainly be remembered and probably reciprocated in some way.

But the question of how to cater to donors' wishes takes on a different cast when the request directly impacts your organizational activities. Sometimes a donor may want you to hire a friend or family member, or take on a new program, or build something. That poses no problem if these are things you're going to do anyway. But sometimes it's a little more complicated. The request may actually run counter to your plans or policies.

One of my own greatest regrets was hiring an individual based on the urging of a donor. Not only was the decision wrong initially, but undoing it alienated the donor far more than simply saying I'd take his opinions into account when we looked at the candidates.

At other times the dilemma of trying to please (or appease) a donor emanates from a situation over which the organization has no control. My friend Barbara Bentley, who for many years has headed the Friends of Baxter State Park in Maine, told me of one such situation.

"We have a generous member who carefully reads all our minutes and publications and then asks if he might help out, make our lives a little easier by helping us to pay for such and such. He loves to identify the project and then write a check. He's done this a number of times, and of course we're grateful.

"But although the Park we support is an independent entity, it's regulated by the State of Maine and we're not allowed to earmark gifts. Our donor has always found this hard to understand. For close to 25 years, he tried to give a large sum for trails and maintenance but wasn't able to make it work legally.

"Then, during the Katahdin Lake Campaign a few years back, the Governor and Attorney General got together—when time to raise the necessary millions was running out—and figured out a legal vehicle for accepting almost $10 million from this gentleman for a designated purpose."

Wow, you might say. That's a no-brainer! What took them so long? Of course they should have done what the donor wanted. But the issue was a legal one and the complex actions were only worthwhile once it was clear that an extraordinary gift was in the offing.

Yet even when a gift is large, the situation isn't always so clear cut. Sometimes what the donor wants is simply not in the best interests of the organization. One of my mentors was Boris Goldovsky, whose eponymous Goldovsky Opera Theatre was supported by many public and private funders. In training me, he recounted what he called his "least favorite fundraising story."

"I remember sitting down with people from a major foundation who told me they were willing to give a six figure gift if I'd undertake a national tour of the opera 'Carmen.' In my heart I knew it wasn't right for us—the production was too big given the size of the gift—but I took the money anyway because it was a prestigious foundation.

"It was the largest gift in the Opera's history. I wanted to list the foundation in our group of supporters, so I told myself it would all work out in the end. But I was wrong. It didn't work out. A year later was the only time in 40 years the Opera came close to bankruptcy and all because of a gift I shouldn't have taken."

In such cases, how do you say no in a way that doesn't leave a sour taste in a donor's mouth? My mother, Irene, was a master at this.

At a dinner party one evening, she was describing an organization for which she volunteered to a slightly inebriated elderly gent.

"Brilliant, brilliant," he'd exclaim every few minutes, often interrupting her in mid-sentence, and then, "I have a great idea how I could help." He launched into a slightly incoherent description of a totally inappropriate idea for a program. I caught Irene's eye and smiled as if to say, "Let's see how you get out of this." Meanwhile the gentleman claimed to have a blank check in his wallet and was prepared to write it out on the spot.

"How wonderful," exclaimed Irene. "You are truly inspired. And I hope someday our organization will have matured to the point where we can accept such a gift. If we took it now, we couldn't possibly do your idea justice. But I can't tell you how grateful I am. You've given me such good ideas to bring back to the board to inspire them and I will mention this at our next meeting."

I don't know whether it is what she said or how she said it (or both), but the irony is that despite turning down the donor's request, Irene received his generous gift anyway.

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