Sunday, March 8, 2009

Smart, Tough Donors

I have spent many years watching fund-raising hopes take shape within institutions. They usually begin with what someone inside that institution wants rather than with an obligation to serve someone or some interest outside. Once a want is identified within there is a very human tendency to assume that there are legions of wealthy people outside just waiting to be asked for exactly what we need. After a few minutes of self-reinforcement, the wanters within convince themselves that their ideas are so righteous and so eminently fundable that the only possible flaw in their thinking must be that they are probably not wanting or asking for enough. And those wealthy folks outside? Well, they're probably outraged that the institution has never approached them. And they will only grow more indignant if we don't rush out immediately and ask ... no forget the ask ... just tell them that this is what they should do!

As I listen to such ideas form within, I want to do all I can to encourage aspirational thinking while trying to get everyone involved to understand there are no wealthy people out there just waiting for us to appear with our great ideas. Yes, there are many philanthropists but anyone of any significant means has been identified by numerous organizations through various wealth-screening software systems. Those organizations have then turned their wiles toward the wooing of said philanthropists. By the time we rush in with our bright idea, these philanthropists will have heard every pitch about every conceivable need from no end of glib, garrulous fund raisers. They will have already reviewed and dissected lots of proposals, funded some, monitored the effectiveness of their gifts and toughened their criteria for future support. As we approach they will lay out their conditions in no uncertain term. This, for instance, is the verbatim response from a prospect, introduced by a third party, to my request to meet.

However there is no reason to get together if the strategy is, "Yes, we are already doing a lot of that just sign here," or "That's fascinating we could take your money and design a tangential program that would allow us to satisfy you while funneling capital to areas that are more important." Or, "let's get together so we can convince you to give to another worthy area." Actually, I am happy to meet anyhow on the basis of Scott's high recommendation. I have begun working with three schools, so I must warn you that the odds of doing something are low- but all these have been pilot programs, and none has been super successful yet.

There you go. There's a hardened donor, a generous man who has been through the fund raising mill, who has begun to believe that institutions humor you, take your money and then apply it to the things that they are already doing. He's weary of being approach by those who have not taken the time to study what he's interested in, who only hope to get him to give to what they want. So he fires a shot across the bow of approaching fund raisers. Who can blame him?

I struck up an e-mail conversation with this prospect by convincing him that I would actually listen and only seek his support if we could come up with an idea that aligned with his funding criteria. I sent him an opinion piece from the New York Times about the importance of institutions to continue our conversation. He replied:

Yes, we need institutions, but they are only worth our respect when they are ASPIRATIONAL. When they become utilitarian, no matter how well they serve their purpose, they do not offer us anything of value. Efficiency should be an institutional means not an end. This is what is so awful about our colleges and universities- they have become factories. They are great at producing what we want and awful at producing what we need.

This, I submit, is a good and generous man who is providing us very cogent advice. He is saying, "Stop telling me about what you want. Tell me what you aspire to. Show me how you are listening and responding to what a changing world needs, not what you have been doing all along. Tell me that you are willing to engage me, incorporate my ideas and align purposes."

But are we really listening? As we conceive of plans are we asking if they will stand up to smart, tough donors or are we continuing to conjure up weak concepts in hopes of securing support for the status quo? Do we really want donors who stand to make us smarter and tougher or just a few more loyal, undemanding souls who will give us what we ask for? And if we are not just seekers of support but builders of institutions that will prove their value to future generations, do we really have any choice?

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