"Always remember," the visitor said to me, "the donor needs to give more than your organization needs to receive."
I didn't know it then, but this advice came from Jay Gerber, a Naperville, Illinois Rotarian and, more important, founding partner of the distinguished fundraising firm, Gonser Gerber [Tinker Stuhr].
Thanks to Jay's wisdom – as well as my naiveté and a natural curiosity about what makes people ‘tick’ – I approached my next fundraising visits wanting to answer the question, “Why does this donor need to give?” As I began to ask more questions and listen better, the answers came. And, when they did, it always was through personal stories shared in private, ordinary places and at unexpected times: across a kitchen table, sitting in a church pew, resting on a porch swing, riding through an orange grove, or over a casual lunch at a small-town restaurant.
These often were emotional visits as donors recalled pleasant, once-forgotten memories while others summoned the courage to share challenges, regrets, and disappointments.
Each donor’s story, however, revealed a concern for legacy – a desire to leave or to do something on behalf of a cause bigger than themselves.
When the topic of wealth came up, it almost always was in the context of their sense of responsibility or need to ‘give back’.
Through their stories, told in the confidence of personal relationships built over time, donors showed me the depth and power of Jay’s wisdom:
Every gift is part of someone’s story about the search for meaning. The “need to give” is an innate response to the deep human need we share for meaning, to make a difference…to matter.
Donors needed my organization's help to provide meaning. The work donors make possible through their generosity 'breathes life' into their deeply held values; something hard to accomplish on their own. My organization's mission provided donors the opportunity to find meaning by being part of a cause larger than themselves.
We find meaning through the stories we share. Fundraising success comes through authentic relationships that connect donors to my organization's mission using powerful, personal storytelling about shared values, beliefs, and aspirations. The relational work of fundraising is how we weave many stories told in different voices into one common narrative that inspires generosity that is abundant, sustainable, and – most importantly – meaningful.
Jay Gerber’s wisdom allowed me to develop and practice a fundraising philosophy that guided my career in ways that were meaningful to me and to each donor, beyond what I used to measure only in dollars and cents:
The relational work of fundraising is a personal process for providing meaning to donors searching for significance through philanthropy
Today, however, this work is in trouble. As more organizations look to fundraising as the answer to budget shortfalls, cuts in public funding, or competition for charitable dollars, it becomes a high-stakes endeavor in which board members already reluctantly participate, professionals don’t last in their jobs, and donors fatigue. Within this environment, a new, ‘digital’ generation of nonprofit leaders finds it hard to resist the allure of nearly instant and relatively ‘easy’ online fundraising success.
Although a vibrant digital presence is essential today, nonprofit organizations settle for so little when online connections – views, ‘likes’, even some gifts – take precedence over the relational work of fundraising done in person, over time, and around values shared by donors and the organizations they support. This is the timeless work that fully engages the hands and hearts of board members in fundraising, allows professionals to flourish in their proper roles, and – most importantly – inspires a generosity that is abundant, sustainable and meaningful.
Whereas online fundraising often is delegated to social media experts, everyone in the organization participates in the relational work of fundraising. And, it’s the the lay person – board members, volunteers - whose work often shines brightest.
Here, success belongs to those who approach this work as a ministry of helping donors find what we all want - the meaning that comes from fulfilling our unique purpose. Success belongs to those who use powerful stories to help donors live out deeply held values...and, they know how to help others discover their own stories.
By continuing my consulting, training, and coaching - and by having a 'voice' through my blog and podcasting - I hope to encourage the next generation of nonprofit leaders to give their best effort to the relational work of fundraising. How? By equipping them with the perspectives, strategies, and skills that will guide their careers – as they did mine – in ways where we measure success, not only in dollars and cents, but in emotional currencies, as well.