April, 2012"Why did they give?"
Is your charity all wrong ... about donor motivations?
"Simone and I are major legacy donors to our local community foundation," I stated. For the record, that would be the Rhode Island Foundation.
It was 9 AM. The coffee was fresh. The croissants were fragrant.
I stood in jacket (no tie) in front of the development and communications staff at a large Midwestern community foundation. We had just begun an all-day training session on "donor-centricity," which is nothing more than fundraising's twist on customer-centricity.
"Can you guess why we did that?" I continued. I.e., Why were my life partner, Simone, and I leaving most of our estate to our local community foundation?
"Because you believe in the mission," a development officer piped up right away.
"Well, I believe in the original mission for community foundations, established by the Cleveland Foundation in 1914. I'm not sure our local version does it much justice most of the time. So: no, not really."
The head of web communications tried out another selling point commonly heard in community foundation marketing. "Is it because they have the best overview of the nonprofit community?"
"Hardly." I might have even giggled. "Granted, they may have the biggest Rolodex. They give away money, for god's sake. But Simone and I know more about all sorts of local nonprofits than our foundation does, I'm willing to bet."
Pause. "Let me give you some background: except for five years spent working as the marcomm manager for a cutthroat international high-tech firm, I've always earned at least part of my living from nonprofits. That's a clue."
"That I know the nonprofit sector personally. Because I've worked in it."
A foundation lawyer who deals exclusively with ultra-high-net-worth donors wondered, "Is it because you trust them?" Them being community foundations.
"I don't distrust them," I said. Many older community foundations including my own were once held in trust by banks. Trust bankers are the most conservative, buttoned-down people on earth. Impeccable DNA. Yet, I had to admit.... "No, it wasn't trust. That wasn't why we decided to put a large gift in our will for our community foundation."
"Was it because the foundation can help you fulfill your philanthropic dreams?" the chief development officer asked, quoting a stock phrase seen in the ads of more than one major community foundation.
"'My philanthropic dream?'" I echoed skeptically. "I honestly do not know what that phrase means. With all due respect to my own community foundation: I have never had a philanthropic dream in my life ... to my knowledge. I had a dream last night where I missed an appointment. That was upsetting. I've had that dream where I'm chased down the street in my underwear by elephants. Heaven knows what that means. But I've had zero philanthropic dreams. So, what are we talking about?"
The questions got a little desperate after that.
"Because the administration was great."
"It was fine. It wasn't a nuthouse."
"Because the program officers were great."
"A few were. The vast majority have made no impression on us. So, no."
"I give up," said Rosmarie, the senior communications person, with a theatrical sigh. That was a cue: the rest could stop guessing.
Of course, Rosmarie already knew the answer. We exchanged a warm smile. "Tell them what I told you last night," I invited. We had spent hours together at a restaurant, swapping tales.
"You gave money to the community foundation because you and Simone don't have kids."
A lot of misled people died to bring the following useful phrase into the English language, and we should remember them thankfully whenever it's uttered: Do not drink your own Kool-Aid.
People give to you for their own reasons. Not yours.
Simone and I give to our local community foundation because (1) we have no heirs; and (2) we happen to know what a community foundation is, since we've both worked with nonprofits. Simple ... but nobody guessed.
Visit Tom Ahern at www.aherncomm.com.