Saturday, January 28, 2012

Where Credit Is Due

I’ve been fortunate enough to be in positions where I was able to help a number of organizations secure a large number of private gifts. Some of those gifts were remarkably large. Some were awe-inspiringly generous when contrasted to the donors’ means. All of them were a privilege to witness.

And, yes, I fell into the trap of saying, “I raised” those gifts. When others congratulated me for doing so, I was all too eager and happy to take credit for them. It was a trap because the more we, as fundraisers, take sole credit for private gifts, the more apt others are to assign us sole responsibility for securing them. The more that happens, the less effective we will become because the organizations we represent will fail to attend to the conditions that truly inspire, sustain and grow philanthropic support over time.

If, on the other hand, we think of ourselves not as fundraisers but as agents of philanthropy, we can help create a virtuous cycle that will promote the growth of a culture of gratitude and accountability, which will make our work more productive and rewarding.

When a gift commitment is made, we must give great credit to the donor. But we must also acknowledge and be grateful to live in a culture where so many donors feel an obligation to “give back” to society. Nowhere is that obligation felt more, or expressed more generously, than in North America. We must understand how that came to be and make sure that fundraising practice or institutional smugness do not chip away at an unparalleled human phenomenon.

Second, we must give public credit to all those who built value into our organization through their dedication and hard work over many years, if not generations. Their efforts greatly strengthened our organization’s relative societal worth and, in so doing, convinced others that it is worthy of significant and sustained philanthropic support.

Third, we must honor and acknowledge all those in our organization who contributed to the building and deepening the relationship with the donor. The giving of significant support is not an impulsive act; it evolves as a result of numerous positive impression and interactions with our institution’s representatives and beneficiaries. The alumnus who gives a million dollars to his or her alma mater, for instance, has been giving and interacting with various college representatives, on average, for 15 years previously. If we take credit for a big gift because we asked for it or cultivated that donor for months or years, we cause others to believe that the key to securing such gifts is to have a fundraiser ask for them, not commit themselves to building mutually productive and satisfying relationships over time.

If we choose to be agents of philanthropy, not just fundraisers, we take the least credit for the gifts we help secure, no matter how long or hard we work on them. We do so not to be falsely humble or self-sacrificing, but to educate our organization about the anatomy of private support. We do so to encourage others to continue to add value in the organization and to work with us to develop productive, multi-faceted relationships with those who have and might support us. We do so that we create a richer, deeper culture of accountability and gratitude so that our efforts might be more productive and our lives might be more full of joy and meaning.

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