Last week a colleague and I met a donor for lunch for a stewardship visit; the donor’s recent gift had been generous. My colleague has known this gentleman for some time.

The donor is a humble man who gives regularly but this last gift had been an exceptional one. As we talked about the impact of his recent gift, and about his life and family, it became clear that he wanted to recount his experience making this gift.

This gentleman, now in his 70s, had been an immigrant to Vancouver from Uganda in the early 1970’s – just ahead of Idi Amin’s purges. Arriving in Canada with his wife and two children and very little else, he had to start over. He found work, then started a business and slowly built his fortune. When his children were teens, his family split apart and he gave nearly everything to his wife and children.

Once again he had to start over.

And this is how people remember him, not at the peak of his wealth but starting over.

An important memory of this donor’s young life was a gift his father made to a local school. He remembered how much it meant to his father to support education. He the donor himself never finished his degree. Although he won a scholarship to a university in England, his father had died suddenly and he was called back to Uganda to run the family business.

This donor wanted to make a difference too, and to continue the legacy of his father.

how-muchSo he asked someone at his local organization, where he had made regular, smaller gifts, if he could make a special gift. “How much?” the person asked. The donor confided that he didn’t like this question. [As a fundraiser I can imagine this staff member was wondering which was the most appropriate staff member to speak with… but still such questions can obviously be off-putting.]

So this staff member suggested the donor talk to someone higher up in the organization. And that gentleman asked, “What size of gift are you considering?”

“You know,” the donor turned to me and gestured to emphasize the point, “Why does it matter? I didn’t want any recognition, I just wanted to make a gift!”

So he was then connected with my colleague. They met and talked. My colleague listened. My colleague offered different ways to give. He talked generally about the needs in the education areas.

The gift ended up being $1 million. What a surprise! No one knew this gentleman had so much to donate.

Afterwards I was thinking about how as fundraisers we sometimes “measure” donors. Where do they fall along the donor pyramid, we wonder.

We may treat the donor differently, or thank them differently depending on how much the gift is. We “peg” the appreciation to the “appropriate” level: lavish thanks and recognition for a major donor, a mail-merged letter for the mid-level and or direct mail donor, the pre-printed postcard with the amount written in, or – horrors – the notice that “we don’t send letters for gifts under $20.”

As fundraisers, we need to stop and re-calibrate.

  • Let’s stop asking, “How much?” and let’s start asking “How long and strong can this relationship be?”
  • Let’s stop producing more efficient (and less personal) thank you letters and start showing true appreciation for gifts donors share – whether it be time, talent or money.
  • Let’s stop thinking in silos  – such as “special event participants,” “direct mail givers,” online donors, major benefactors, monthly supporters, etc. – and start thinking about each donor as a whole person who may give many types of gifts, at many amounts over many platforms.
  • Let’s stop luring donors to fall in love the first time and start creating lasting relationships.

Fundraisers are in the relationship business, building relationships between the supporter and the nonprofit. And that authenticity and trust allows the donor to feel free to support the cause, wholeheartedly and without reserve.

Stop with the, “How much?” even when it is in your head.

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