Monday, March 2, 2009

A Long Look at Philanthropy (Part IV)

In my last three blog posts, I asserted that the best way for an organization to raise the most money is to commit itself to rich, long-term relationships with its donors. This is not an idealistic assertion; it is one of pure practicality. Those organizations that engage in only short-term, high intensity fund raising post far less impressive results than those that dedicate a significant portion of their time and budget to patient, authentic relationship building. “Well, of course,” you say, or as my teenage children might say, “Duh!” And, yet, every time I give a seminar, the majority of conferees tell me they work in a “churn and burn” environment in which they are instructed to ask as soon as possible, often on the first visit. That approach fails to acknowledge the time that human beings need to make significant decisions. If we ask before prospects have had the time to convince themselves of the importance of our cause, we greatly increase the probability of receiving a very small gift or just being told, “no.”

After a while the "churn and burn" system begins to feed on itself. Sophisticated, sincere relationship builders are driven away because there is no opportunity for them to do their best work. Turnover increases and donors become frustrated with the institution sending one "hired gun" after the other to secure their support, and giving declines. But "churn and burn" practitioners respond to declines in private support by placing even more emphasis on short-term fund-raising quotas, which leads to more turnover, greater donor dismay and, eventually, significant attrition.

So, in this series, “A Long Look at Philanthropy,” I used higher education as a case study to demonstrate the efficacy of the long-term approach to fund raising, of building and deepening connections even during times when the immediate return will be small or non-existent. Institutions of higher learning, I said, must think in terms of 50-year relationships to fully optimize the potential of their donor base. The most important periods of time within that 50-year period are, in order, the undergraduate years, the first five years after graduation and then any fifteen-year period of sustained annual support. Beyond that, there is no other period that is as important as those three. It’s just a matter of institutions keeping in touch, listening, adjusting and keeping faith with their most loyal supporters. In the early years, colleges and universities “raise” philanthropists, often giving more in terms of counseling, encouragement, recognition and programming than they get back. But, at some point, the young philanthropists must come of age, realize all that has been done for them and begin to “give back” within their means. They must not only give back to the institution that raised them, they must understand the importance of their example. As they were once mentored, they should offer to mentor. As they were once provided career opportunities, they should offer them to others. As they once benefited from programs with little or no costs, they should seek to underwrite programs for those who cannot yet afford them. I don’t mean this to sound like a lecture coming from an entitled institution; I mean it to say that this is the only way the system can work over time. Any of us who receive a gift from a previous generation must give it “back” to the next.

But, the institution still has an obligation to those who are now in a position to give back. It must give them a structure for doing so. It must show them where we can make the greatest difference. It must put them together with those that might follow in their footsteps. It must create an inter-active, inter-generational community focused on a great purpose. It must remind them of the institution's highest calling and how it can be best served. And, most importantly of all, the institution must dedicate itself daily to most cost-efficient, selfless pursuit of its ideals. Yes, the most productive path to philanthropic support is, will, and always has been the assiduous application of institutional ideals, the sheer, sustained determination to make difference where a difference most needs to be made over a long, long time.

And, yes, I realize that very few fund-raisers will serve a single institution for 50 years but that's the point. For however long they do serve and for whatever they seek to accomplish, they must make sure that they do their best in their time to strengthen the set of relationships entrusted to their care. The best fund raisers are not those who raise the most in their tenure; they are the ones who insure that the institution is positioned to raise even more after they leave.

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