There are many misconceptions about working with donors that seem to be grounded in fear. However, the natural donors for any nonprofit organization are not distant strangers; they are the people living out the mission of your school alongside you. They are parents, grandparents, alumni, community leaders, and church members who align with your mission and vision for a preferred future. This means that how you engage donors around your mission, how you ask them to give financially or participate by volunteering, and how you appreciate those same donors are all pivotal points of connection. Over the years, school leaders and boards have shared many of their fears and misconceptions about working with donors, below is a list of those I hear most often.
Engaging major donors will cause mission shift and unhealthy levels of influence.
Major donors are regular people with a high capacity to give and a desire to make a significant difference through their financial contributions. While some donors and foundations look for naming opportunities, they still seek first to engage with organizations that are a strong mission match for their own philanthropic goals. This is good news. You want to engage with donors who understand and are passionate about your mission.
A donor who tries to take your organization off mission or seeks to make unrealistic operational demands before considering a gift is not a desirable strategic partner. Having gift acceptance and naming policies in place prior to launching a large campaign can help set expectations and safeguard the organization against donors who try to exert undue influence through their giving. A general rule is to pass on any gift that comes with a list of demands.
Outlining our desperate circumstances will inspire donors to be more generous.
Donors give to opportunity rather than need. Outlining a school’s desperate financial circumstances broadcasts a mismanagement of funds. This is unlikely to inspire donors to give more, and will more often alienate donors into not giving at all. If donors are concerned about how resources are being allocated, they will look to other worthwhile organizations for their charitable giving.
Casting a vision for the preferred future of your school and communicating how life will be better for students, families, and the larger community once that vision becomes a reality is a far better and more lucrative path forward. Help your donors understand the great things that can be accomplished by working together. Engage them around the mission, inspire them with the vision, and invite them to be a part of something that will change lives. Donors enjoy joining a winning team in doing great work. Advertising a losing financial season will not inspire generosity.
Breaking ground on our new building will motivate donors to give.
The 1989 film, Field of Dreams, has created chaos in the fundraising community since its release. The resounding tagline of, “If you build it, he will come,” has often been misquoted as, “If you build it, they will come” (P.A. Robinson, 1989). This has led to the mistranslation by many nonprofit leaders and boards to mean, “If we build it, they will give”. Unfortunately, building campaigns do not typically work this way.
Major donors, who can give significant amounts to help move building projects toward completion, are often familiar with the timeline and process. Perhaps they have helped with another building project at their church, alma mater, or a local hospital. If a donor has significant capacity to give and a generous heart, then your campaign is probably not their first. What these savvy donors have learned from their experience in other campaigns is that a groundbreaking signifies that 85 or even 100 percent of the funds have been committed for the project. This means donors can only assume two things when you break ground: 1) Your school has all the help it needs, or 2) Your board does not know the fundamental principles of fundraising for a capital campaign. Neither of these two conclusions is helpful for a school still in the midst of fundraising to meet a multimillion-dollar goal. The first assumption invites donors to look elsewhere to make a difference. The second, erodes confidence in the leadership of the organization and causes donors to think twice about entrusting the school with large sums of money.
Encouraging everyone in the community to give a specific amount will make fundraising equitable.
Over the years there have been countless leaders who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to get everyone to give a dollar to some cause or another. Crowd funding is the most recent version of this premise. It allows large numbers of people to give small amounts for a greater collective impact. This works for causes that have a global scope, or a highly relatable and compelling case with a wide-open constituency in a campaign designed to benefit an underserved or suffering population.
Raising funds for clean water is a prime example of this type of funding. Everyone needs water. It is a highly relatable cause because most people hearing the case will have benefited from access to clean water in some way within the past 12 hours. Donors can imagine how horrible it would be to walk half a day just to reach water, and they do not have to give a lot to make a big difference. This means that donors can give little effort, from a great distance, and give a small amount, yet reap the maximum warm glow benefit of doing something positive for others.
Even asking a large number of people to give small amounts does not make fundraising equitable. The difference in giving capacity for a minimum wage single parent is much different from that of a senior vice president serving in corporate America. While their desire to make a difference may be similar, the sacrifice determined by a set giving amount is far from equitable. This is why campaigns are built with a structure that allows donors to give at a level that works best with their budget, circumstances, and desire to contribute.
Focusing on a multimillion-dollar goal will exclude many of our school families.
While large campaigns do engage donors with influence and affluence, a strong school campaign provides an opportunity for everyone to be involved together in prayer, planning, and giving. The objective is not just to raise large amounts of money. A great campaign builds community and connection, and allows the school family to cross the finish line together. Every gift is important, and every donor relationship should be valued and honored. It is inspiring to see large gifts that will transform the future of a school, just as it is moving to see how even the smallest gift by the humblest of donors will inspire others to action. The goal is to help every donor find a place within the campaign that is most meaningful for them and their family.
Donors are your partners in the journey to your vision of a preferred future. They should be asked for their advice, and appreciated for their participation, prayers, and financial giving. Major donors may understand the process of a capital campaign from previous experience. Make every effort to value their insights and expectations, but do not allow donors to make unrealistic demands or take you off mission.
There are many myths about engaging donors in a multimillion-dollar effort. Knowledge is powerful and dispels fear and false expectations. Know your donors, know what they care about, and seek to understand their philanthropic goals. The key ingredient other than God’s provision and generosity for your school’s successful campaign, is the willing hearts of your constituents and stakeholders. It is only through the intentional and sacrificial giving of donors that multimillion dollar school projects become a reality. However, make sure to include a place for your entire school community within the campaign structure. A truly transformational campaign is something that includes everyone.
Robinson, P.A. (1989). Field of dreams. Universal City, CA: Universal studios.
Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on fundraising myths and misconceptions.