Saturday, July 2, 2011

Fund Raising Carts and Relationship Horses

The vast majority of philanthropy-seeking organizations profess a desire to “build a relationship” with those that might support them. All too often, however, the only part of the institution professing it is the fund raising arm. That places a powerful condition on the proposed relationship. The real message is, “We want to have a relationship with you if and as long as you give.” Or, to put it even more baldly, “We want to have a relationship with you as long as you do what we want.” Change those “we’s” to “I’s” and imagine the same thing being said on a first or second date with someone with whom you aspired to have a second or third date. If you were on the receiving end, I submit it would not warm the cockles of your heart or cause you to want the courtship to continue. How many of us would enter into, or stay long in, such a one-sided, conditional relationship?

It is one of the greatest and most prevalent weaknesses of many philanthropy-seeking organizations. They profess the right things but behave like a bad date. They advance their conditional agenda before a relationship has had a chance to form. Ironically enough, all the evidence shows organizations will raise far more money and over a longer period of time if they lead with the relationship horse but many continue to put the fund raising cart before it. It makes for a useful mental image – a lot of nags nudging errant but ornate carts from behind while being routinely out-paced by a few horse-driven carts, with the caption over the former saying, “Do they have better carts than us?” rather than musing “Maybe this would work better if we pulled these wheeled things behind us.”

What do you think? Am I being unfair? Well, let’s look at higher education. The colleges and universities that have done the best job of building relationships with their students and sustaining them with their alumni enjoy the highest rates of annual alumni giving year after year, decade after decade. There is so much to be learned from them about creating and perpetuating communities of shared purpose and shared rewards. Yet, as alumni participation across all institutions of higher learning has declined for seventeen straight years, notwithstanding some creative accounting done by some to improve their rankings by U.S. News & World Report, most of the institutions going in the wrong direction have not studied the exemplary learning communities or surveyed their own students and alumni to gain an honest assessment of the state of those relationships. I cannot feign insight into every institution or pretend that I have studied them all but I have interacted with hundreds in conferencing , training, consulting and researching capacities; there the trend is quite pronounced: The fancy carts continue to draw far greater attention than the magnificent creatures pulling them.

Yes, I know institutions have to be practical. Those that lead them have to be wary of investing in abstract ideals at the expense of practical return. They can’t go around building relationships with anyone and everyone and hope it will bring in more support. But if they do well by the constituents currently within their fold, if they listen to them and attempt to respectful and responsive in building communities of shared purpose, and if they selectively and substantively sustain engagement with those who believe they have an obligation to society, they will realize the greatest returns. Doesn’t it make sense that the better we care for our horses, the faster and farther our carts will go, week and after week, year after year, decade after decade.

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