Sunday, October 24, 2010

Emotional Return on Investment

I had a fascinating conversation last week with the incoming chair of a major university’s foundation board. We were talking about the general state of philanthropy in this country when he brought up the topic of “donor fatigue,” a condition that he described as disturbingly widespread. I probed further, trying to understand the dimensions of that diagnosis. He confessed that he shared that feeling so I asked him to describe how it came about.

It was, in part, he said, a function of being asked to give often but that was not that alone. It was also being asked for donations to support various parts of the same university without ever understanding how they worked together to advance the whole. And it was about never really comprehending how he had made a difference. But, there was something else that he couldn’t quite name, a nagging, gnawing feeling about his relationship with the university.

I asked him if the university provided an adequate “emotional return on his investment” and his answer was an immediate, emphatic “no.” But then he smiled and asked what I meant by that term. I explained that all relationships are, at heart (pun intended) emotional, including the relationship that an individual donor or volunteer has with an institution. However, I said, many institutions fail to recognize that phenomenon and think only in terms of rational return on investment. They thank their donors and volunteers, offering examples of institutional progress made, but don’t celebrate the uniqueness or singular impact of the individual. I told him that one of my greatest concerns was the growing emotional barriers between alumni and their alma maters, a trend that continues at even some of our most impressive colleges and universities. I hastened to add those barriers could be transformed into gateways if those institutions learned how to listen and respond in an emotionally-intelligent way. The trustee smiled broadly, as if he now understood that nagging feeling, and related the following story to me.

“My family and I found a sushi restaurant we really like,” he said, “so we go there all the time. I mean, a lot. Yet, no matter how often we go, or how much we enjoy the food, no one ever says “welcome back” when we come in or “we hope to see you again” when we leave. The chef never comes from out behind the counter to let us know that he has some special ingredients in stock that evening or ask if we would like our food prepared in any special way. But the worst thing was when we told our waiter how much we enjoyed our California rolls, especially the cucumber, and asked if we could have one to take home and were told when the cucumber was presented, “That will be $3.”

Look at it through his emotional lens. He has spent thousands of dollars at this restaurant but never been recognized or welcomed as a repeat customer, never been offered any special “valued customer” treatment, and then, most gallingly, asked to pay $3 for a cucumber. If would have been so easy to have given the cucumber to him as a small token of appreciation to a generous patron. The restaurant in question demonstrated a staggering lack of relational intelligence and, as a result, is in danger of losing a big account. No, it’s not enough to provide fine sushi. You see, the repeat customer seeks, without ever defining it or giving it voice, an emotional return on his or her investment. It’s not a quid pro quo, it’s a subtle but extremely important form of reciprocity.

So, what kind of emotional return on investment does your institution offer its contributors? Do you thank them for each gift they give each part of the institution without ever acknowledging them all? Do you thank and steward repeat givers in a different way or speak to the collective impact of their gifts? Do you make repeat givers feel like valued customers by offering special treatment or providing a higher degree of personal attention? Does the relevant academic or administrative leader come from “behind the counter” to ask how they can be brought closer to the institution? And, do you sometimes impose petty charges on donors who have given millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars? Do you tell them that they still have to pay their alumni dues or give an annual gift to attend the annual fund dinner? You see what I’m getting at.

The value of relational intelligence can be under-appreciate within institutions that see themselves as bastions of rationality. Yet, emotion underpins rationality. When the emotional parts of our brains are damaged, we lose the ability to reason. Decisions are rooted in emotionality -- including which organizations we align with and how much we give to them. be it time, talent or treasure. The most successful organizations and institutions of the future will be the most relationally intelligent and provide the highest emotional return.

P.S. I’ll be in San Diego December 6 and 7 to provide a workshop on Board/Advancement partnerships. I’d love to see you and your trustees there. Please click on this link for more details: i=1024&q=6708v274891yT

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