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Don't let revenue goals jeopardize donor relations


In a recent article from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, author Maria di Mento wisely reminds us to treat donors as partners and investors.

by Maria di Mento

Pharmaceuticals heiress Ruth Lilly’s planned gift of more than $120 million to Americans for the Arts in 2002 came after more than 25 years of comparatively modest annual donations. It’s a textbook case of how taking the long view when cultivating donors can yield high dividends.

Ms. Lilly started donating to the organization in 1976, giving $15,000 that year and roughly the same amount annually thereafter. But she avoided direct involvement with the arts group, never serving on its board and limiting her input to periodic notes with her thoughts on programs, says Bob Lynch, who has led the nonprofit since 1985.

To Mr. Lynch and his colleagues, that was just fine. They saw Ms. Lilly as a steady, reliable donor and made a point of keeping her up to date about the organization’s activities, sending thank-you notes for her annual gifts and flowers on her birthday. But they never pushed for more.

“It’s always been important to make sure the organization is in front of those people, whether they’re wealthy or not,” says Mr. Lynch. “You’re not just asking for money all the time. It’s more important to update them on what the organization is doing.”

All Donors Matter

The veteran executive believes in keeping a nonprofit in the forefront of all its donors’ minds. He urges fundraisers to stop trying to focus on the wealthy and instead view all donors as partners and investors.

That approach continues to pay off. Americans for the Arts recently received a $3 million bequest from a former board member who led a local arts agency and was not known to be well-off. Had he focused on wealthy supporters, Mr. Lynch notes, he wouldn’t have maintained strong ties with this donor.

Ms. Lilly, who died in 2009, also made an unexpectedly large bequest to the Poetry Foundation — Eli Lilly stock worth around $150 million when she made the pledge in 2002, according to Henry Bienen, the foundation’s president. He says the health of most nonprofits depends on donors who make relatively modest but regular contributions over the years and only later bestow a big gift. That’s as it should be, he believes.

“I don’t think high pressure is a game we should be in, I really don’t,” he says. “Fundraisers need to understand the circumstances of a donor and take their cues from the person.”

As president of Northwestern University from 1995 to 2009, Mr. Bienen says he saw time and again how patience paid off.

In one case, a Northwestern football fan and sporadic donor gave $100,000 when the Wildcats played in the 1996 Rose Bowl, the university’s first bowl berth in nearly 50 years. Mr. Bienen decided to thank the donor personally, so he traveled to upstate New York, where the man lived in a modest rented home.

“I was showing him all these photos of athletic facilities we wanted to build,” says Mr. Bienen. “He said, ‘Henry, put all those photos away. I’m not interested in giving to athletics. I’m gonna give you all my Pfizer stock.’”

The next day, the man gave the university 500,000 shares in the drug company that eventually became worth roughly $70 million.

Keep in Touch

Things like that don’t happen all the time, says Mr. Bienen, but when they do, it shows how important it is to treat infrequent donors with care and attention.

That is something Kea Spurrier, director of San Diego Zoo Global’s capital campaign, says all fundraisers should keep in mind.

“Look at every person as though they could make a transformational gift years in the future, even if they’re not that person who’s having a private meeting with the CEO every month,” she says.

She echoes Mr. Lynch’s belief that keeping donors at all levels engaged by communicating with them frequently pays off in the long run.

Ms. Spurrier recalls a regular zoo contributor who suffered significant losses in 2008 and ‘09 due to the financial crash and couldn’t maintain his giving. She continued to provide him with regular updates on the programs he had supported. When the donor’s finances recovered six years later, he resumed his regular backing and expressed appreciation for her staying in touch during his leaner times.

“These relationships take years, so fundraisers should always consider how the donor would feel if you suddenly stopped communicating with them,” Ms. Spurrier says. “Keeping that in mind can keep you out of trouble.”


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