Do We Really Care About Our Donors?

I admit it! I am not a big fan of the season of award shows celebrating great movies, television shows, and music.  When they roll out the red carpet, I grab my remote control and find something – anything – else to watch.  A great sporting event, CNN, or even reruns of Storage Wars usually grabs far more of my attention than hearing endless critiques of dresses and the often uninspiring thank you speeches.

But there I was this past Sunday night, sitting with members of my Armstrong McGuire team at our annual retreat.  We had finished a long afternoon of planning, had a nice dinner at a little seafood place near the beach, and settled in to watch the Oscars.  These award shows just happen to be a favorite past time of one of my wonderful team members.  We care a lot about her and we wanted to indulge her passion since our retreat was pulling her away from her usual Oscar watching festivities. I'm sure they would have done the same for me if it was Super Bowl or college basketball's Final Four.

Of course my interest grew a little when April pulled out voting sheets and a small wager was announced for whoever got the most winners correct. So I dropped in my $5 ante and started filling in my winning picks.  And I must admit, as I became more engaged in the show, I started seeing and hearing things that I found entertaining and interesting - political statements, some (but not most) of the the jokes tossed out by Oscar's host Neil Patrick Harris; and a moving musical tribute to the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement and that famous walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

My initial apathy for the Oscars reminds me a lot of the apathy many potential donors exhibit when presented with an appeal for a cause they know little about - or care about even less. How often do we seek out donors simply because they have money or because they give to other causes in town?  How many times have we made "the ask" on the first visit, or in the first appeal letter or email that they receive from us?  How often do we invite potential donors to attend our events where all the attention is on what the organization needs rather than spending time showing our mission in action in a powerful way?  

There are a couple of old axioms that I often refer to. The first one goes something like, "If you ask for money, you'll get a lot of advice. If you ask for advice, you'll get more money." The second one is, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."  I'd like offer a hybrid statement that sums up my feelings about donor relations.  "If all you care about is a donor's money, you'll get little of it.  If donors are allowed to care about the things that matter to them more than money, you'll get plenty of it."  OK, maybe that's not an award winning musing but you get the point.  We need to stop trying to convince donors that our needs are their priorities. Instead, we need to help them see for themselves how our missions and the ways we help those in our community are in line with the impact they want to have. Show them your mission in action. Welcome them in and let them get a glimpse of the powerful ways you are changing lives. That is how you will make them want to invest in what you do, instead of being pressured, or shamed, or having their arm twisted by their neighbor or business associate.  

My colleague was patient with me as I eased my way into watching something that I never thought I'd enjoy.  Let's all learn to be patient as we help our donors explore how their interests and our missions fit together.

By the way, I actually won the Oscar voting contest - picked 12 winners even though I'd only seen one of the movies and knew little about most of the nominees.  I took my winnings and added them to a gift I made in memory of a special teacher and coach who passed away this past weekend.  She knew what it meant to care for the people around her.  I will always be grateful for her gifts of time, attention and genuine interest in my son and all of the teenagers in her charge. Rest in peace Coach B.

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