When donors cry (literally)

Have you ever been engaged in conversation with a donor and they spontaneously erupted into tears? This had never happened to me until recently, and I need to talk about it because it really shook me right down to my resource development foundation.

While I need to be sketchy with the details as not to embarrass anyone, I can provide some conversational context and set the scene. The conversation was about a specific non-profit organization that they had been donating to for a very long time.  Long story short . . . the non-profit organization is now talking about going out of business and the newspaper is covering the story.

We talked for a long time as the tears flowed, and I was given one of the greatest gifts that any resource development profession could ever be given. I was allowed a glimpse inside the soul of a donor. Here is what they were saddened to tears over (this is their thoughts and not my analysis):

  • They believed in their heart in the mission of that organization and were mourning the possible death of something they loved.
  • They believed that their financial contributions had been making a difference in the lives of people. Now they have doubts and feel deceived
  • They personally solicited friends and asked them to also make a contribution to this organization. Now they feel like they perpetuated a fraud against their friends and aren’t sure they can face their friends.

I was given a gift when I was allowed to bear witness to the raw power of philanthropy. It affects me, and I wanted to share this with you because there are some important lessons that all non-profit professional need to take away from this story:

  1. What we tell donors regardless of whether it is during cultivation, solicitation or stewardship efforts is like a sacred promise. Many donors take it to heart and deposit it in their emotional bank account. We need to remember this at all times.
  2. There are people who “go to bat” for those non-profits that they love. They leverage personal relationships all in the name of mission. They are out there making promises to their friends, and we need to do a better job of recognizing that investment. They tell their friends that your agency is a wise investment, and we owe it to them to make sure that is true by always focusing on sustainability and organizational capacity building efforts. Just focusing on programs for our clients that our mission calls us to serve is simply not enough.
  3. We need to be very careful about what we say publicly in the press about the present state of our agency. Donors take those things to heart. It can affect them deeply. Cavalierly talking about the possibility of closing your doors is the equivalent of playing with someone’s emotions. It isn’t nice and will cost you donors.

I decided to write this blog post because this tearful conversation was impactful. I can’t get it out of my head. It made me profoundly sad and even a little angry. I had hoped that sharing this with others would make me feel better and get beyond it because of my belief that we can all learn from each other. While I do believe this, I am also not feeling any better about things. In fact, I think I am a little sadder as I fight back some tears and a little angrier as I clench my teeth to get through this post.

There can be no doubt that I am physically experiencing the power of philanthropy, and I hope I become a stronger more donor-centered fundraiser because of this experience. My holiday wish for you is that you walk away from this blog post feeling the same way and use this story to become more donor-centered, too.

Have you ever had a similar experience? Has any donor interaction ever affected you in a way that you’ve embraced it and used it to become a better professional? If so, please use the comment box below to share because we can all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC

About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on November 18, 2011, in Donor-centered fundraising, Fundraising, nonprofit, resource development and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I cry after just reading your post. During my career in resource development I have had the honor of working with 400 wonderful organizations and their boards and hundreds of thousands of donors.

    However, as resource development director I’ve met with thousands of donors “who believed in their heart in the mission of the organization and were mourning the possible death of something they loved.”

    Who “believed that their financial contributions had been making a difference in the lives of people. Now they were expressing to me in their home or a restaurant a deep sense being deceived. At times they had supported the organization for the life of that organization of 55 or 75 years. Many times I had cultivated their annual fund, capital fund, and/or their deferred gift.

    These donors had enrtusted me and the organization for 55 or 75 years and then witnessed cavalier boards make decision that led to the organizations demise.”

    And finally “they personally solicited friends and asked them to also make a contribution to this organization. Now they felt like they perpetuated a fraud against their friends and aren’t sure they could face their friends. ” Several times I was the the resource development director that had to share” that the President or CEO had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

    Yes, I still cry for those donors while taking great satisfactions for what huundreds of my organizations achieved!

    • Larry … thanks for sharing your personal story. Sharing today’s post has been emotional for me and your story validates my feelings. I’m looking at donors very differently today. I’ve always espoused a donor-centered philosophy, but it feel a passionate and renewed commitment today.

      I always felt like donors were members of my extended family. I’ve even attended a few funerals for donors I felt very close to, but what I’m feeling today is even more intense. You’ve moistened my eyes again with your story and I thank you for that because you’ve strengthen my resolve to be an even better RD professional. Keep your chin up and let’s both commit to helping others change their approach to philanthropy.

      Here’s to your health!

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