Donors for Life: How you Hear Them
Updated: Apr 7
Don Keel and I offered a seminar on January 12, 2022, to talk about the issue of donors and how to understand their motivations when giving to a charity. Motivations are related to the strong support of a cause; emotional support due to services rendered by the charity, prestige through arts groups or even engineering successes or just to help. Some donors like to get involved in projects related to the donation, but in almost all cases, donors want to understand that they offer more than simply having a monetary influence. Our discussion revolved around Don’s experience as a VP of Development for colleges and universities and the impact of major gifts by understanding their donors and the donors’ expectations. In essence, Donors for Life came down to the donor’s perception related to their gift and the charity’s response. We had several examples where the response was less than could be expected. A few years ago, published on this site, my article spoke to a high-value donor who felt discarded once dollars had changed hands. To this end, we looked at the landscape of the charitable sector and what we called Undiscussables. Organizations in Canada and the USA give high marks to charities where they deliver successful outcomes. Donors often use these sites to ensure their dollars are well used. I spoke to one of these organizations and asked a question. ‘Do you ever look into how the charity functions from a development perspective?’ My question resulted from a charity on their list whose donor information was so incredibly disorganized that it was surprising they could function successfully. My thoughts went to the beautiful home with the manicured lawn; you opened the front door, and it looked like hoarders resided inside. The charity in question had senior staff that had been there for years. What would happen when they left? What would be the real legacy of their time with this charity? They had developed good relationships but would those relationships be there once new staff arrived? The ‘UnDiscussables’ we mentioned briefly lacked process and job requirements to ensure valuable Knowledge would not be lost. Charities are knowledge-driven organizations supported in many cases only by charitable dollars. We addressed senior managers delegating all responsibility to development staff who, although well-meaning, may not be well prepared to manage at this level. Hence the problem of staff turnover, which in its frequency is another blow to sustainability. The final and most stressing question we came to understand was, ‘Is there a solution?’ Charities receive billions of dollars annually. Should there not be requirements for a more rigorous process?
A few years ago, a report came out from a consulting group in the USA. It spoke to executive directors not feeling supported by their Board of Directors; development staff not feeling supported by their executive directors; those interviewed were already looking for new positions. It was a sad state of affairs, and the survey that supported the report was taken from charity staff across the US.
I spoke with one of the report’s authors, and I was told the answer to all the problems was, in their view, leadership. We have worked in the charitable sector for over an accumulated 70 years. We have both had the opportunity to work with the best-intentioned and in many cases the most disorganized people in the role of Executive Director or CEO.
Staff training was too costly; guessing was the preferred method to run the donor management software. Job descriptions and information retention was left up to the person who held development positions. Ask to view the electronic tools they were using to support initiatives, and things were everywhere and in duplicate!
Staff turnover could be explained by people trying to meet organizational goals in a chaotic environment where performance levels differ between team members. Stress was an added factor. Too much time was required to pull together an accurate profile for a vital donor meeting leaving too little time for meaningful work.
Can we expect better as donors? Yes, we believe we can. With the number of charities that exist, turning to ones that employ a high-performance work environment supported by well-defined job requirements may be necessary. We found it was us.
The question becomes how does a charity retain a high-performance environment with staff and board members driving an organization where old fashion common sense or order does not list high on the priority scale?
Solutions, suggestions, we would like to hear your thoughts!