Being a donor is often the best way to learn how to be a better fundraiser. I've experienced this on many occasions, particularly when I was the Foundation Director for Flagstaff Medical Center and was responsible for giving away a half a million dollars a year.
But right now, I'm learning a lot for another reason.
My mother-in-law, Rose Marie (Ogden) Ferris, passed away on Friday, July 19, 2013 after a long battle with emphysema. She passed peacefully with her surviving sons, Steve, Bill and Dave, nearby. While no one is ever prepared for the loss of a parent, the Ferris men are handling the transition and arrangements as well as they can.
Of course, I was wondering how to help. I figured the things I knew how to do were planning the lunch after the service and the donations in lieu of flowers. I am a fundraiser, after all.
Here's my experience so far with the selected charitable organization:
- It took three attempts to get in touch with someone in the development office. The volunteers and staff were uncertain who to call and asked many questions as if to "filter" me away from the development staff.
- The person I spoke with was very nice, but neglected to get my contact information, even after I asked if she wanted it.
- Even after I asked about naming opportunities in honor of my mother-in-law, they still don't have my contact information.
In "Under Developed: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising," conducted by CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, the analysis identified a lack of a culture of philanthropy as a key weakness of the sector. Fund development and philanthropy needs to be "understood and valued across the organization."
So I write this not to "flog" the organization in question; they took very good care of Rose and we're working out the details of the donations. But how can this, or any other, culture be improved?
Here are my suggestions:
- Make regular contact with your "directors of first contact." Who is the first person who will interact with a potential donor? Make sure they know who you are and you know who THEY are.
The first volunteer we spoke with on site didn't really know what we were asking for. The second volunteer that we were referred to looked through the binder at the front desk and said, "I can't remember the lady's name who does this sort of thing." The third volunteer was almost protective--"Why do you want to speak to them? Can you give me more information?"
Highlight a handful of key people in this role--people who are willing to participate and receive additional training. As they develop their persona of "brand ambassador" for the organization, their enthusiasm will eventually spread throughout the rest of the front line.
- Assume that your team isn't as comfortable interacting with donors as you might be. More often than we care to admit, our teams are terrified of our donors. Many of the staff don't know what to say or how to act around donors, mostly because they're afraid they'll say something wrong. Help your team understand their role in thanking donors, whether they are current, past or future. Provide them with regular training on how to communicate with external audiences as well, as communication skills are critical.
- Make sure you understand why they work for your organization. It's not just about you: what makes your colleagues tick? What are they passionate about related to your cause? If you understand that, you can help them find their own story that they can share. You can also help them relate to a donor, saying, "Our donors are excited about our organization, too."
- Collect donor information, even if you're not sure where the relationship will go. Especially if the donor initiated the contact. They want to start a relationship with you--at least have a way to follow up.
- Be a donor to your organization on a regular basis. Do a little "secret shopping." Call your main line. Find out what happens when someone asks to donate. Then use your experience to improve.
Culture of philanthropy is a challenging thing to build and maintain at any nonprofit organization. It requires a consistent investment of your time as a development professional, but you never know when a donor will not be as persistent as I am.
In memory of Rose Marie Ferris, mother, grandmother, wife and author, 1938-2013.