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Fundraisers Under Pressure

Kathy LeMay


Synopsis: A donor tells you they're cutting back on supporting your organization or they won't be making a gift at all. What do you do? How do you respond?

March 22, 2018 — 

If you're a fundraiser, you've likely encountered this scenario once in your profession: A donor tells you they're cutting back their gift to your organization. They share that they're philanthropic priorities have shifted in response to a change in their own lives or in the the national landscape. In the past few months fundraisers representing a range of social causes from the arts to the environment and economic development have heard from philanthropic supporters that they are altering their philanthropic course. These philanthropists have shared that as the United States shifts its domestic policies and human rights are at a greater risk of infringement that they are changing their philanthropic path: "We're going to be giving to domestic reproductive rights and to support low-income immigrant families." If you for example work in South Africa on youth development you're first instinct when you hear this is: 'We've just lost a donor.'

Take a deep breath and listen.

“Each of us wants to be part of something that matters, that's making a difference, that's innovating, that's removing barriers, that's creating something not before seen or experienced. Each of us is seeking a tribe of people who share our values, our hopes, our aspirations.”

In this moment as the donor is sharing you freeze. You're thinking, "Oh no. We were really counting on that gift." You're listening as they share and simultaneously noticing within you a slightly increased resting heart rate and increasingly perceptible panic. 

What next? What's the best response in the moment? 

When presented with what feels like loss in almost any situation or circumstance many of us respond internally with "Nooooo, don't go. Please don't go." Luckily, we rarely utter what if stated allowed would fall in the camp of awkward. 

Once composure regains and breathing steadies you may say something like this: "We really do need you still. The efforts you're mentioning are so important and we've lost funding as people are shifting their priorities. We can't lose this momentum we've begun and this work is critically important for all of us and our future."

It is extraordinary how we can name a truth and simultaneously miss the opportunity squarely in front of us. I've done it on more occasions than I care to recall. 

Your reality in that moment feels compelling and powerful. It is compelling and powerful. And, it's not an island unto itself. By viewing your organization's priorities in direct competition to the donor's changing priorities you're losing out on the opportunity to learn, grow and design our shared futures. The donors' values are not in direct contradiction of yours. If you had all the money you needed for your organization and the donor said the same exact statement about shifting priorities, you would likely celebrate them. You would likely thank them for being a champion of two such important and pressing issues. You would likely breathe easier and more deeply knowing that while you are focusing on a critical social issue someone you respect and admire is funding two other critical social issues. 

How then do you step into the kind of leadership that transforms fundraising, that deepens relationships, that creates a sector where one day all of our missions will be funded to their ambition? 

1. Walk a mile. Forgive me for calling on a golden rule but turns out this one is accurate and helpful. Leadership invites us to "seek first to understand, than to be understood." We hear this and believe in. In moments of stress, strain, and scarcity this is a difficult philosophy to enact. It can be done. Simply take a deep breathe and remember that you are talking to a living, breathing person who cares deeply about the world. If you listen and seek to understand you will realize that she isn't saying, "We don't care about South Africa anymore." She is sharing with you the urgency she and her family feel. If you listen you'll likely hear concern and maybe even worry in her voice. I've advised more than 100 philanthropists. The number one common trait they share: wishing they could do more. Just like you and me. We wish we could raise more; they wish they had more to give. 

In the United States alone there are 1.6 million non profits. This averages 32,000 a state. Deciding the causes to prioritize, the gift amounts, the longevity in an always changing national and global landscape provides mountains of challenges. Walk the mile in that person's shoes. Ask what you'd like to be asked if you shared this with an organization you care about. Thank the person who has been your partner in this work for standing up for human rights. Ask her which organizations she's seeing who are doing the best work? Great questions, great conversations generate great ideas and next level possibilities. You never know the partnerships possibilities between organizations that can be created through one generative discussion with a philanthropists. Imagine the call from their perspective, walk a mile in their shoes, envision how you'd like to be engaged if you were making the call. More will come of this approach than you can imagine. 

2. Understand we are each seeking community and connection. If you're reading any news source in the United States these days you might have noticed that one or two or five hundred thousand donations have been made to the non profit organization, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Planned Parenthood. Both organizations have shared how the millions in new capital are equipping them to adopt and enact new grassroots strategies. This support will unleash new approaches for safeguarding human rights. Philanthropists interested in these issues have risen up. A few philanthropists that I personally know have recently shared that they will direct their funds to other smaller, local organizations given "the huge amount of money already secured by these two national organizations." Others will continue to give to these groups and have told me they plan on making additional gifts. 

I was talking with two stellar fundraisers about this philanthropic windfall for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. One said to me: "These two organizations have made their budget and then some. Why do you think donors are continuing to give to them knowing that they are flush with resources and other organizations are struggling to make budget?"

It's a good question. It's a smart question. And, it's not the right question. The question is:

"What about these two organizations is activating philanthropists and philanthropy around and creating the kind of momentum needed for successful movement building?"

Each of us wants to be part of something that matters, that's making a difference, that's innovating, that's removing barriers, that's creating something not before seen or experienced. Each of us is seeking a tribe of people who share our values, our hopes, our aspirations. We want to look back on our life and say "I was part of that." Juxtapose this offering to "We need your help to make budget". Of the two which would compel you? Which are you offering to your trusted donors who give from $5 to $5 million? 

Philanthropists are seeking community and connection and disruptive approaches to the most pressing social issues of our time. Even colleagues I know who back in college teased those who were supportive of the ACLU (remember the card carrying liberal phenomenon?) are today looking at the ACLU's approaches and strategies with interest and curiosity. Momentum and movements that reflect the times in which you live attract and activate those seeking societal change. 

At your organization, ask yourself if you embody this approach, if in the face of despair your mission offers hope and possibility? Not hope and possibility through a lens of naivete or denial but in spite of barriers and hurdles. Do you invite donors and philanthropists to repair something that is damaged or to design with you the unwritten future? Of the two which invitation would you accept? 

3. Remember that we are seeking the same future. While in the short term losing a donor to another organization may seem like a loss, change how you perceive this capital shift. It is to each of our benefits that the causes we care about are funded, supported, and championed. If you examine your own giving history you will likely see you have changed organizations. If our resources are moving throughout great world changing organizations this in the long term is what we're seeking. Share with them your feelings about the state of the world, the causes you care about. If it's true what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said "We may have come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now", you can have voice. You can share your passions. Your hopes. Your commitment.

Think less about the check associated with the person you're on the phone with and more about the person you're on the phone with. This leadership will change how fundraisers and philanthropists connect. And this just might be one of the disruptive innovations we are seeking. 

*Originally published on*

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