The Fundraising Executive

PHILANTHROPIC AWAKENINGS: Mentoring Donors in the Art of Philanthropy

By Eddie Thompson | May 30, 2013 | Donor Communications

Eye of Needle 2It thrills and amazes me to witness individuals go through transformations with regard to their giving. Those transformations don’t happen that often, or that easily. Some might say (paraphrasing the Gospel of Mark), “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a terminal materialist to become a generous giver.” But it does happen, and more often than you might think. Jesus’ commentary on the rich young ruler concluded with the words, “Yet, with God all things are possible.”

Transformed by the Tax Code
Often it is enlightenment on the Federal Tax Code that transforms people into becoming generous givers. I’ve seen this hundreds of times as people realize the extent of their giving capacity through wise estate planning. Suddenly, they begin to think of themselves as philanthropists and world changers. I witnessed one of those transformations as the children (parents were our clients) met with all of us to outline what mom and dad were going to do with their estate. The heirs came in resistant and ready to fight for their inheritance. However, after their parents explained what they had decided to do in their estate plan, how it was going to work, and why it was important, the children’s attitudes suddenly changed. They caught the vision for a four-generation commitment to changing the world through philanthropy. It was one of my most thrilling meetings. See full story.

Life Experience and Giving Inclinations
In a previous blog I told the story of Miss Betty, a very nice lady in her nineties, who literally was the “coal miner’s daughter” (title of Loretta Lynn’s biography). In her case, a new understanding of her increased giving capacity had no transforming effect on her willingness to give.

One day I asked, “Miss Betty, how much do you feel you need to live on?”

“Well, how much do I have?” she replied.

“Right now, you have over $14.2 million.”

She slapped her knee and declared, “I need it all.”

Miss Betty was not necessarily a selfish person, but her life story was so deeply scripted in poverty and loss that neither the potential giving capacity through estate planning nor the certainty of estate taxes made any difference. She simply could not bring herself to give.

Suddenly, they begin to think of themselves as philanthropists and world changers.

People’s attitudes toward giving are often the result of their life experiences. As professional fundraisers, we’ve all seen this. The same events that cause some to be stingy, bitter pessimists have caused others to become generous, thankful optimists. A wife dying of cancer can turn into a mournful recluse or into a philanthropist determined to find a cure. It’s all about how they have come to interpret the tragic and triumphal events of their lives.

Remarkable Transformations
Then there was the story in a recent blog of the tight-fisted Mr. X, who was unmoved by any story or statistic I threw at him—until, that is, I told a story about two of the organization’s most extreme donors. Mr. X mulled over that story for weeks and as a result made a $12 million gift to the university on my next visit. To date, it was the most remarkable transformation of my fundraising career.

I’ve seen people during the span of our relationship go from poverty to wealth, from stingy to generous, from reactive giver to strategic investor, from an emotionally detached donor to the champion of an organization or cause. If, for no other reason, that is why it is important to build long-term relationships.

People of great means are more likely than any other group to undergo radical reinterpretations of the meaning and purpose of wealth because of their life experiences.

Here is my big important point. Too often fundraisers think of a donor’s desire and capacity to give as being static—that is, they are fixed in stone. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. I’ve listened to countless stories about the place of money and philanthropy in people’s lives. They are all on a journey with unforeseen triumphs and tragedies. Each experience shapes their story and the way they frame it in their own mind. It is easy for fundraisers to assume that the already-wealthy (those who are “fixed for life”) are simply on cruise control—no struggle, no drama, no change. But I assure you, that is far from being true. People of great means are more likely than any other group to undergo radical reinterpretations of the meaning and purpose of wealth because of their life experiences.

This is where you come in. Many fundraisers, particularly those working in a new organization or one in constant crisis, tend to think in terms of current donors and current gifts. Those who have the organizational margin and flexibility to see the bigger picture are cultivating donors over many years. The right blend of ongoing challenge and inspiration over a long period and through the succeeding stages of a donor’s personal growth can have a powerful impact. As fundraisers you are in a sense mentoring people at all economic levels in the art of philanthropy. Watching the transformations that take place is an amazing thing to behold.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2013 by R. Edward Thompson