Recently I have been giving a lot of thought to how donors can take more initiative in the fundraising/funding process. I have noticed that in our culture we seem to expect fundraisers to do all the work of initiating conversations and contact – which seems quite one-sided, when I think of the commonly held purpose donors have with their grantees to achieve a particular end. Donors and fundraisers truly are partners and perhaps there are ways we could step up to act that way more effectively.
What do I mean?
Let me suggest nine things that we might consider.
- TAKE THE FIRST STEP. If you are interested in an organization, take the initiative and contact them. Set up a lunch visit, a site visit, go to an event, volunteer there – take steps towards them, don’t wait for them to come to you.
- CHECK IN BEFORE MAKING A LARGE CONTRIBUTION. Once you have connected with an organization, and you decide to engage with their works, go ahead and make a contribution. If it is a large contribution call them to find out how that contribution could be most useful to them: might it be a matching grant, or come in at a particularly slow cash flow time? Would they prefer the gift in chunks throughout the year or over the span of a few years? Confer with them.
- MAKE COMMUNICATION TRANSPARENT AND EASY. Development staff are working with donors with many different preferences about how to be reached (email, text, phone), how often to be contacted (annually, monthly, etc.), with what materials (email newsletters, annual report), and by whom, (the ED, development person, a participant in the program). I have sympathy for fundraisers who are constantly trying to figure out what a donor’s preferences might be. We could make it so much easier for them if we would recognize these differences, state our preferences, and listen to what the organization can best handle. Like any relationship – you articulate your needs, they state theirs, and you find the way through.
- CONSIDER MAKING A GENERAL SUPPORT CONTRIBUTION INSTEAD OF A PROJECT-RELATED GIFT. It is so helpful for organizations to have general operating funds, particularly from individual donors, since so many foundations tend to be project-oriented. How is staff going to be paid, and who helps pay the rent and utilities? Donors do and happily so. Also – while we are at it, in smaller organizations, realize that overhead is absolutely necessary for getting the job done! Yes, be concerned about what percentage of your funds might go to administration when you are funding large organization with big salaries and budgets; but many organizations need money to pay people decently, to provide health benefits, and to have enough supplies to carry out the work you both want done in the world.
- TELL THE ORGANIZATION HOW LONG YOU PLAN TO FUND. It’s useful for you and the organization to be clear how many years you will donate – especially if you are a major donor. Everyone can plan better knowing this, for you the donor, you can re-assess your funding goals at the end of your pledged giving period, then shift your funding without feeling like you are abandoning an organization.
- “BREAK-UP” WITH CLARITY. If you decide you no longer want to make a regular major gift to a particular organization it can be very helpful to them if you tell them why you have made this decision. It might have nothing to do with how they are doing their work – just that your interests have changed. If this is so, you might consider recruiting another person to donate at the rate you were giving. If you do have a critique, it can be very useful for the organization to hear it. We all want to grow and benefit from clear communication and understanding. Organizations know yours is one perspective and other donors may well feel differently than you.
- LISTEN AND DIALOGUE. Donors can learn so much about the challenges and possibilities of making change happen when we listen to those on the front lines. We may have a vision of how an organization should be running that is different than what we see. Before we stop funding organizations because of those perceived differences, we can benefit from the mutually respectful exchange of points of view; we might learn about the factors influencing an issue that we hadn’t known before. Ask sincerely how things are going for the organization, and invite and allow an honest response.
- INVITE SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER. As we invite groups to honestly tell us what is going on in the organization, we can also ask staff to be honest with us about how we are fulfilling our role as donors. Are we too demanding? Do we sound condescending to frontline staff sometimes? Is there anything that we might consider as we play our roles in moving the organization’s mission forward? When we as donors remain open and un-defensive we are apt to learn and increase our power as responsible, aware philanthropists. If we react strongly to a differing opinion or critique we will close ourselves off and our funding will be less informed. We are also in danger of be reinforcing unequal power dynamics that weaken cross-class, social change collaboration. Talking about these issues openly and honestly can be liberating.
- RESPECT WHAT GRANTEES BRING TO THE EQUATION. Frequently, I see donors treating grantees as employees who should do their bidding – particularly if they are a large donor. Organizational staff and board are NOT our employees; neither are we the “customer who is always right.” They are our partners in achieving goals and changes in society about which we both are passionate. Organizations do the day-to-day work and donors help with providing financial and other kinds of support. Financial support is important but it is not the be-all and end-all.
It important to remember that we are living in a time of unparalleled wealth and income inequality. There are many organizations needing resources while large amounts of money are in the hands of a few. Those of us with more than enough, need to understand the pressures and dynamics inherent in this scenario and do our part to bring about healthy new models of relationships, with transparency, shared learning, accessibility, and mutual respect.