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The Beverage of Choice for Major Gift Professionals — Lemonade!!

In a previous newsletter, Timmy fell into the well and Lassie went bounding off for help…
No, wait. I remember now…

In a prior issue of Major Gifts Review, two scenarios were presented. One detailed an unhappy encounter between a private University’s planned gifts officer and a disgruntled alumnus. The other offered a “twist” to a major gifts campaign for a conservation organization, when an opportunity to acquire land cropped up that was not part of the original fund raising priorities.

This MGR author threw down the gauntlet and asked what you would recommend. Here are your thoughtful insights and suggestions — with some editing for space requirements and readability:

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Concerning the alumnus with an obvious need for an attitude adjustment, from Sherry Stein, Director of Development, The Fraser Institute, offered the following:

The alumnus who vented his anger obviously wants to be heard. He is a prime candidate for “relationship building.” He needs to be brought into the loop and made to feel important. I would invite him for a special visit to the University… to hear first-hand how the University has changed and how he can continue to make a difference. I would tour him around campus and encourage him to talk. There needs to be lots of relationship building first. Along the way, you will get to know more about him and what triggers his anger. Once his anger is diffused he should be presented with an opportunity to make a difference — and a gift.

Several readers thought that the alum’s still-simmering anger was tied to an underlying, almost primal experience he may have had as a student. Jane Bowers of McCormick Bowers Associates (Boston, MA), observed:

I think the alumnus’ openness to a visit indicates a desire to have his opinions heard and acknowledged by the University. In fact, what he had to say may indicate something that he wants to effect. For instance, did he say he was unhappy because of financial constraints as a student? Maybe he would be interested in funding a scholarship for students who are having a similar experience. Did he say his University years were lonely because there was no support for immigrants/easterners/older students/etc., like himself? Maybe he would like to contribute to the new immigrant/ easterner/ older student/etc., program or center.

Likewise, Ann Grometstein, project coordinator for the Bellevue Schools Foundation, thought our “sour” alum would be turned on by the chance to effect change on campus:

This donor, though not fond of his University experience, may want to make a donation that would change things for current and future students. If the gift officer could help him identify where the University experience failed for him, maybe he would consider making a gift to ensure that other students do not repeat his experience. The opportunity to make a lasting contribution and to make his mark on the University may help him heal. He would be leaving a legacy.

Gayle M.Snell, Eldercare Inclusive Foundation (Los Angeles, CA),
is another optimist when it comes to making this alumnus a “true believer:”

Even though the poor guy who visited him was raked over the coals, I believe there is a possibility for a future gift. As the article stated, the alumnus didn’t ask not to be contacted again or removed from the alumni list. He didn’t ask the gift officer to leave. That makes me think that there may be water in this rock. Coupled with the fact that a man’s home is his sanctuary, it doesn’t seem logical that if he alumnus wasn’t willing to consider a gift at some point that he would invite a gift-seeking member of the University to his home and take the time to explain his business and those things that are important to him. It was noted that he did all of these things prior to letting the gift officer have it with “both barrels.”

I would suggest that the same gift officer continue to develop a relationship with this potential donor. Visit him again in 6-12 months. Use the next meeting to focus on the alumnus’ stated priorities. The “angry alumnus” said he didn’t give the University credit for his current success and furthermore wouldn’t give them a dime! It’s important to remember that even though he doesn’t give the University credit for who he is now, the University was a stepping-stone along his path, a path he traveled successfully. I would ask him, if he were to consider a gift, how he would like to see his contribution used to make the University a better, more pleasant, educational experience for up-and-coming students.

If his University experience was so profoundly negative, perhaps others currently attending the University feel the same way. What would have made his experience at the University better? Would he consider being a “change agent” for the University today?

Kevin D. Feldman, Director, Foundation & Grant Development, The Christian Broadcasting Network (Virginia Beach, VA), considered the alum an angry “customer” and advocates some tried-and-true sales techniques to win his trust and favor:

I have a feeling that this alumnus also vents at waiters, sales clerks and telemarketers. For him, venting is therapeutic, so there is something else causing his unhappiness. The gift officer should not take this man’s complaints personally. I would put his complaints in a memo to the appropriate University official. I would visit the alumnus again and let him know his complaints and comments were taken seriously and welcomed by the University. The hope is that he will respond positively. If things are still difficult, ask to meet with him again and bring a more senior University representative to answer his concerns. You can’t just walk away from a disgruntled customer. If he knows other influential people, he could become the University’s worst nightmare. Spend time, respond to concerns and keep visiting as long as he is willing to see you. Who knows — he may become your best friend and donor.

An unidentified correspondent addressed both the Campaign issue and the experience with the angry alum. He or she thought the Campaign “twist” was a solid-gold opportunity:

The Campaign Scenario: I think it is very important to stick with the original goal — being good stewards of the donations already received. I don’t know how long this campaign has been in process, but if it has been a long time, it might be beneficial to share this new piece of information. I think looking for other donors who might be interested in supporting this new acquisition is appropriate. Hopefully, donors who have given to your campaign already will consider an additional gift, too. I think honesty is key. You have to look for new donors and involve people in this great opportunity. Maybe you want to sit down with your lead gift donor and discuss this new opportunity and get some advice/feedback. It’s important to know what our purpose and needs are and it sounds like the case statement was developed nicely. So I’m assuming those investment opportunities are still top priority. Stick with being good stewards, but keep in mind that sharing, communicating and involving donors is the best thing to do in a situation like this. It’s a good thing!

This same writer had this to say about the alumnus with a big chip on his shoulder:

The Angry Alum: I would definitely write him a thank you letter and let him know you appreciate his time and his comments, that you heard him, and that you’ll be in touch. Then I would present this to the University President and/or VP for Advancement and brainstorm the issues this prospect brought up. I would want to go through all of the concerns he expressed, think about why he might have them and want to express them after so many years, and determine what the next steps should be in resolving his concerns. I think the best thing that could happen would be for a University higher-up and the gift officer to visit with this donor again, maybe on campus if he is willing. I would again thank him for his time and comments. I think involving him and letting him know he has been heard are critical. Asking strategic questions would be important: how did this happen, what do you think we could do to change this, etc. Only after the issues have been solved (if they are solvable) would I then begin to develop solicitation strategies. I would want to make sure he is still receiving stewardship information (i.e. newsletter, stories, etc.).

Kevin Johnson, CFRE, CSPG, Retriever Development Counsel, LLC (Portland, OR) also commented on the environmental campaign issue and noted his “been there” experience:

Concerning the conservation group “distracted” in the middle of a campaign by a potential opportunity: This happened to me. We had started an endowment campaign and, as the first step in that process, spent 12 months doing a lot of donor cultivation visits. All of a sudden, the piece of land still owned by the original family came on the market unexpectedly. We changed course and challenged the city to buy it. They responded to our challenge by asking us to raise a million dollars in 90 days and they would then put it on the ballot. This group, in a rural town of 50,000 — without major funders or movie stars — raised in excess of a million dollars in that 90 days and won the bond issue 65-35. Total funds leveraged: almost $8 million dollars. The cultivation work with donors really paid off but in a way not originally anticipated by the organization. Now, one year later, we’re getting back to the endowment with an even bigger and stronger donor base and a much more impressive organizational resume. So, can you make lemonade out of lemons — definitely yes.

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A Note from the Author, Sue Smith:

Thanks to all of you who took the time to write and comment. If any of you decide to leave the nonprofit world, you should consider going into counseling/therapy. I’ve always thought that people engaged in fund development would make great therapists or clergy. We hear much, actively listen, are attuned to the nuances of human emotions and have a real interest in resolving problems and issues.

For taking the time to contribute, we’re pleased to send you a free subscription to The Major Gifts Review. No, wait… You already get that. Well, please accept our thanks and the knowledge that your responses may help others wrestling with a sticky major gifts issue…

About the Contributor: Susan D. Smith

Susan D. Smith is a consultant in philanthropy, providing consulting and training for nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses including, strategic planning, board development, leadership training/coaching; and writing (business writing, technical report writing). She is a member of the adjunct faculty at Mohawk Valley Community College.

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