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The Importance Of Being Donor Centric
Tony Poderis

November, 2006

An organization becomes donor centric when it recognizes donors as its lifeblood and makes their care a central aspect of its endeavors. Notice that I have said "a" central aspect, not "the" central aspect. It would be a sham non-profit organization that centered its existence simply on raising money. The mission of all non-profits should be to do good works in some way, shape, or form.

However, if an organization is to build donor loyalty and develop the strong donor relationships that will assure its long-term growth, it must make cultivating donors and managing its relationships with them a core organizational value. Donor cultivation must be embraced as an objective by every department, staff member, and board member.

If your organization is to be donor centric you must avoid isolating fund-raising from the rest of the work the organization does. The organization must acknowledge that fund-raising is a shared responsibility. If board chairs and executive directors recognize fund-raising as one of their top three responsibilities, they will infuse their organization with a positive view of fund-raising. If the boss says fund-raising is "Job No. 1" or darn close to it and then walks the walk, others in the organization will buy into an inclusive fund-raising culture.

An organization whose staff and volunteers accept successful fund-raising as a critical, shared objective is halfway to being donor centric. Think about it. If fund-raising is so crucial that it must be a part of everyone's thinking, then so are donors.

We're not talking here about turning non-development staff into campaign solicitors. Their fund-raising role is to help make friends for the organization - to cultivate donors. Just as program staff and leadership have to recognize their roles in making the organization donor centric, development staff must be broadly involved in the organization. Don't allow development staff to adopt a "siege" mentality. Too often, development staff will self-isolate. A development staff that does not involve itself in the non-development activities of its organization can do little to influence and assist program and other staff in cultivating donors.

A donor-centric organization recognizes fund-raising and program successes together. If a non-profit wants its program staff to view fund-raising and donor cultivation as an organization-wide responsibility, it needs to show that it sees programming and fund-raising successes as equally valuable. Staff meetings, press releases, annual reports, and annual meetings, are places and events where fund-raising efforts and programming success can be linked or recognized together.

Without donors, most non-profit organizations would be unable to operate. Hardpressed program staff may not always have that fact in the forefront of their minds at every moment of every day. A donor-centric organization encourages all staff members to appreciate the value of donors to the organization's mission - to realize the absolute necessity of donors to its daily operations. Donors are partners in fulfilling an organization's mission.

Lessons To Be Learned From For-Profit Businesses

In the for-profit world, customer relationships are the equivalent of donor relationships. In recent years, there has been an increased concentration on each employee of a company recognizing the importance of each and every customer and working to build customer loyalty.

Few companies have higher customer loyalty than L.L. Bean. Visit the headquarters of the catalog merchandiser and you will find a poster stating five customer imperatives displayed throughout the building. We in the non-profit world would do well to adapt Bean's five customer imperatives to reflect how we should approach donors.

The first of the five is: "A customer is the most important person ever in this office in person or by mail." What if we were to make that read: A donor is the most important person ever in contact with this organization.

L.L. Bean's second customer imperative is: "A customer is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him." How about: Donors do not need us. We need them.

L.L. Bean's third customer imperative is: "A customer is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it." How about: Contact with donors is not an interruption of our work. Donors make our work possible.

L.L. Bean's fourth customer imperative is: "A customer is not someone to argue or match wits with. Nobody ever won an argument with a customer." How about. Donors are not people from whom we demand support. No organization is entitled to its donors' money.

L.L. Bean's fifth customer imperative is: "A customer is a person who brings us his wants. It is our job to handle them profitably to him and ourselves." How about: Donors bring us their resources and philanthropic desires. It is our job to use those resources and meet those philanthropic desires efficiently, effectively, and as we have promised.

L.L. Bean's five customer imperatives, after a little editing, make fine trail markers for the donor-centric path. But it is a path that may have to be cut through a forest where people would rather ignore donor cultivation and leave all fund-raising responsibility to the development department.

The donor-centric path is blazed by the development director, executive director, and board chair. It is then walked by department heads and board members until finally, it becomes a road to organizational success well traveled by all staff and volunteers. Our job as development professionals is to show our organization where the path can take it.

For 20 years, Tony Poderis was the Director of Development for The Cleveland Orchestra and its Summer Home, Blossom Music Center. He was responsible for Cleveland's largest annual institutional fund-raising campaign. Since 1993, Tony has been a fund-raising consultant serving all non-profit institutions' needs to develop and to maximize their potential to raise Annual, Endowment, Capital, and Sponsorship & Underwriting funds.



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