The Importance of Being Gracious

Maybe it’s the aftermath of the presidential election. Maybe it’s the disappearance of the dot.coms as the hot new source of funds. For some reason, my friends and I have been inundated with unbelievably poor fundraising solicitations over the last six months.

Here is a small sampling of correspondence and phone messages from organizations I actually support:

  • Left on voice mail: “I’m just trying to find out what you are going to give by the end of the year. Call me.”
  • By letter: “Kim – I am just doing what you taught me – asking.”
  • Note attached to a letter: “You have it and you know we need it.”
  • Handwritten note on a personal letter asking for $500: “I know I should call but I don’t have time. Be a good friend and send the money.”
  • As a thank-you note for a $200 gift: “Every little bit helps.”

Then there are the five groups I have never given to that wrote personal letters asking me to renew my gift. One wrote, “You haven’t given since 1997.” I haven’t given since I was born. Another wrote, “Hope we can have lunch again sometime,” signed by a person I have never met, let alone eaten with. Finally, there was the Invasion of the Body Snatchers approach: “Kim, please join me. Together we are unstoppable.” (That may be true – who are you again?)

Friends and colleagues have been having similar experiences. One was told, “You better give some stock before it tanks altogether.” Another told me that when she asked about future plans of the organization, the solicitor replied, “We haven’t had time to make any because we are so busy visiting donors.”

Even sensible people lose their balance when it comes to asking for money, but these approaches define a new low in fundraising. Personal appeals are degenerating into demands, complaints, accusations, prophecies, and guilt trips. Those strategies have never worked and aren’t working now. Otherwise we would have a slew of articles on “The Subtle Threat – Key to the Big Gift,” or “Guilt Works Every Time,” or “Donors Need Less Attention Than Previously Thought.”

Back to Relationships
It is important to remember that, at its core, fundraising is about building relationships. And, at the risk of sounding like a pop psychologist, relationships take time. If you don’t have time to build relationships with donors, you don’t have the time to have money. Further, I don’t really think it takes that much more time to write, “Thank you so much for your generous gift – it means a lot” rather than “Thanks – every little bit helps.”

Amaran Tarnoff, a management consultant and trainer, teaches that what gets people off track in their work is starting with the wrong questions. For example, prior to writing a personal note or making a phone call to request a gift, many people consciously or unconsciously ask, “How can I get money from this person?” Or, when in a hurry, “What should this note say?”

To prevent the atrocities above, you need to reframe your mental question to “What result do I want from this interaction with this person?” You may find yourself saying, “Money.” But what you most want from donors is that they feel good about your group and their interactions with it. This feeling will lead the person to give, to give again, to talk to friends about the group, and to be open to other kinds of requests, such as time or advice.

Helpful Tips
Here are a few do’s and don’ts that will help your keep your fundraising on a relationship-building track:

DO: Invite donors to things you do anyway. For example, a small school, a group home for people with developmental disabilities, and a program that works with juvenile offenders all invite a few donors once a week to join the students for lunch. Another group invites donors to staff trainings on subjects of interest. The secret is introducing the donors as friends and only having a few at a time.

DO: Stagger your contact with donors over the year. If you jam all your personal contacts into an end-of-year appeal or a last-minute spring campaign, you’ll be cutting corners. To help, give each reliable board member a “portfolio” of donors – not more than a dozen. Their job is to be in touch with these donors two to three times a year. This can be accomplished by a note, a phone call, a visit, or a combination of the three. These donors become the “buddies” of those board members.

DON’T: Write letters or make phone calls to donors when you are tired, resentful, have a headache, or have already written dozens of letters. Instead, set it aside, go home, take a hot bath, play with your cat… and come back to it fresh.

DON’T: Forget to be consistently gracious, for gifts both great and small. If you are warm and friendly when you get your first gift from someone, they’ll expect you to be that way for all their subsequent gifts. And that’s a good expectation to meet.

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