“The Things We Think and Do Not Say”

By: Ilan Mann

April 21, 2020

At the beginning of the great sports movie Jerry Maguire, the eponymous sports agent, in the throes of a night of inspiration, writes a mission statement, called The Things We Think and Do Not Say, and distributes it to all of his colleagues. In it, he proposes a radical idea: actually caring about their clients.

If for whatever reason, you haven’t seen the movie, do yourself a favour and remedy that. It will have you at “hello.”

Most of the nonprofit fundraisers that I have met claim to understand the importance of relationships.

I do not doubt their sincerity, only their understanding of what a successful fundraiser-donor relationship looks like.

Yes, a transactional relationship is a type of relationship, but I think that that’s neither what they infer when they hear nor what they imply when they say “relationship management.”

If they were in business, it would be obvious to them that they can’t claim to have a “relationship” in the meaningful sense of the word with their customers, if the entirety of their relationship consisted of them offering products, however tailored, and the customer giving them money.

It is no different if your business is nonprofit fundraising. You sell a luxury good – meaning, impact, making a difference; it may be unflattering to think about your work in that way, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re helping to empower something wonderful in the world, it’s just a helpful reminder that fundamental business principles apply.

One of those principles is that if your relationship is based solely on the transaction, you don’t have a relationship.

So how do you build a relationship with your donors without making it all about their gift? The same way you build a relationship with a friend or colleague:

For starters, you care about what’s going on in their lives. That means that you invest in knowing who they are, what they care about (beyond and including your mission as an organization – they support you; why?).

If you’re telling me that you care about your donors, but you can’t tell me what they do for a living, what their kids and spouses names are, or at least why they chose your nonprofit over any other, then you don’t care about them, you care about their money.

Texas Senator Phil Gramm said that his education policies were based on the idea “that I love my children more than you do.” He often told the story of meeting a woman who insisted that she loved every child – including his children, as much if not more than he did.

“Okay,” he is said to have responded, “what are their names?”

That’s why I tell my clients that birthday cards are as important, if not moreso, than thank-you cards (okay, thank-you cards are “table stakes.” If you’re not going to send those, we are really putting the cart before the horse talking about relationship management).

The best fundraisers I know send condolence cards, because they are plugged in enough to know when their donors lose someone in their lives. The best fundraisers never send anything boilerplate.

You may be thinking that it is a little bit aggressive to focus all of your communication around the individual, and not around your organization; after all, you’re a fundraiser, not their oldest friend.

But there is no reason that you can’t talk about the organization while still keeping the focus on them.

Most importantly, never make an ask without tying it back to the thing that brought that donor through the door in the first place, and kept them there.

It’s an easy thing to lose sight of, but no one donates to your cause because they stumbled across your website and thought you had a nice logo. Donors have nothing but choice; they can give anywhere, everywhere, or no where, based purely on their own discretion.

So find out what brought them through the door in the first place. If you’re fundraising for a hospital foundation, and they donated in the first place because because you gave their child great care in the neonatal ward, tie every ask to that experience, rather than trying to get them to give to the campaign to build out geriatric inpatient care (no less important, but not why they showed up on your radar).

To paraphrase the Senator, I’ll believe that you care about your donors as much as you say that you do when you tell me who they are.


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