The Fundraising Executive

RULE OF RECIPROCITY: Exchanging the Currency of Philanthropy

By Eddie Thompson | September 20, 2017 | Donor Communications

There are social rules embedded in our culture that influence our decision-making processes and our interactions with others. One of the most powerful and sometimes almost irresistible is the rule of reciprocity. When we receive gifts, favors, invitations, or random acts of kindness, it creates a very real sense of personal indebtedness—a felt-need to pay back the favor.

Compliance practitioners (including some fundraisers) are well aware and highly trained in these “weapons of influence” and employ them regularly to get people to comply with their requests. Have you ever been gifted with a free vacation, the only requirement being to sit through a time-share presentation? It’s a classic example of combining the rule of reciprocity with five other compliance tactics (social proof, reverence to authority, liking, commitment and consistency, and scarcity) in order to create an appeal that’s extremely difficult to escape without complying (see Dr. Robert Cialdini, Influence at Work)

These rules of behavior are deeply embedded into the cultural norms of civilized societies. Consequently, those unwilling to reciprocate after being gifted are viewed negatively as takers, ingrates, or freeloaders.

Now if you think I’m about to provide some hints on how to weld the weapons of influence to raise more money, that’s not where I’m going with this. There is indeed a lot that can be said about how to use these principles in an appropriate way. Perhaps I’ll write about that on another occasion. My first concern, however, is not the influence the rule of reciprocity has on donors but the personal impact it has on fundraisers. If receiving gifts creates such a strong feeling of personal indebtedness, then career fundraisers are on the unfortunate side of that equation.

If receiving gifts creates such a strong feeling of personal indebtedness, then career fundraisers are on the unfortunate side of that equation.

The same social pressures that work so powerfully on those who have been gifted to reciprocate, weighs heavily on the self-image of fundraisers who are always on the receiving end. Their job is to ask, and ask, and ask—then go back and ask for more. Some fundraisers, particularly those new to the profession, have to overcome the perception of themselves as takers or even beggars. Unfortunately, it’s a feeling that is sometimes reinforced by others.

I am convinced that there is no more noble occupation or position in this world than one that champions the causes of people in need or one who passionately advocates for things that better our world (see Noble Occupation). They ask consistently, unashamedly, and (by the way) quite successfully. Their success as fundraisers is because they’ve come to understand “the currency of philanthropy”—what it is of such great value that they have to offer in exchange for donors’ time, advocacy, and repeated gifts.

The best fundraisers know how to use this currency of philanthropy to build genuine reciprocal relationships among major donors. Below are a few examples of what they have to give and how they make the exchanges.

1. A Genuine Sense of Fulfillment
Not surprisingly, donors often feel the same weight of reciprocity, as do fundraisers—the compelling need to gift back. Some are motivated to give back to particular organization that has impacted their lives. We did that very thing when we made (what was for us) a large gift to the hospital where our grandson passed away.

Many years ago, as a rookie fundraiser with barely two nickels to rub together, it was hard for me to empathize with donors’ sense of reciprocity. On one occasion, I was assigned the task of making an appeal to a major donor for a $5,000 contribution. I summoned up as much courage as I was able, but, truthfully, I couldn’t imagine someone writing out a check for $5,000—no matter how much they loved the university. However, after thousands of conversations with donors and with the growth of Thompson & Associates, I now have a much better understanding of the obligation of reciprocity. I also understand the sense of fulfillment that comes from investing in a worthy cause. Fundraisers facilitate and satisfy donors felt-need to give back in response to how they have been blessed. That genuine sense of fulfillment is what fundraisers are able to give to their donors.

2. A Genuine Sense of Partnership
Nonprofits often refer to donors as their partners. Some organizations are so devoted to that terminology that representatives are frequently reminded, “They’re not donors, contributors, givers, funders, or supporters—they are always to be addressed as ‘PARTNERS!’” It’s good if you genuinely think of them that way, but it doesn’t necessarily mean donors see themselves as actual partners. That’s because they’re often not really treated like actual partners. It’s just a nice word some organizations use to imply a collaborative relationship that really doesn’t exists.

How you label donors seems to be a minor point, but keep this in mind: calling every donor a partner only reinforces what some may already feel—that they’re in no real sense partners, just contributors to the organizational program. Donors will almost never think of themselves as genuine partners with the organization until organization representatives do something that causes them to feel that they are. Fundraisers who can convey a sense of being engaged together in conspiracy of kindness, give donors an invaluable sense of purpose. Providing a genuine sense of partnership is a negotiable currency of philanthropy that is good as gold.

3. A Genuine Sense of Appreciation
A major donor with whom I served as a consultant once commented to me, “I wonder how long they (the nonprofit organization) will love me if I quit giving to them?” A few days into my first fundraising job, a big stack of file folders was unceremoniously dropped onto my desk.

“These are our first-time and lapsed-donor files,” my boss said. “Good luck.”

And with that word of sarcastic encouragement, he disappeared, and I rarely saw him after that. Since I was kind of left alone to sink or swim, I was also free to draw up my own plan on a 12-foot roll of butcher paper (see Managing Development). I started visiting these low-priority donors with no intent of making an appeal but simply acknowledging in the difference they had made and thanking them for what they had done for the university.

Lots of organizations give to their donors—dinners, retreats, branded apparel, and even cruises, event tickets, etc. Most of those gifts, however, are simply preparing for the next ask. One donor commented, “The only time they come to see me is to take me to an expensive lunch and ask me for another donation.”

The rule of reciprocity can be a very subtle form of influence. Major donors, however, have been solicited many times. Consequently, they’re often more alert to the subtle principles of influence than fundraisers themselves—to gifts that are designed to set up the next ask verses gifts as a genuine expression of appreciation.

“The only time they come to see me is to take me to an expensive lunch and ask me for another donation.”

With regard to the donor files dropped onto my desk, I began working down the list, meeting with lapsed donors and talking about the advancements at the university, and thanking them for the part they had played. I made few if any appeals to this group, rather just showing some genuine appreciation for what they had done through the years. From one of those donors came the largest gift the university had received to date. The process landed me and my 12-foot roll of butcher paper in an office next to the president.

4. Genuine Sense of Friendship
From the commitment to show appreciation to first-time or lapsed donors I learned a lot about the art of saying, “Thank You!” (see Cultivation Strategy).  The most effective expressions of appreciation to a major donor are those that are highly personal, unexpected, and/or very thoughtful. They seem to say, “I was thinking about you as a friend, not just a donor.” Once that idea gets into your head, you begin to recognize examples of it as being something very powerful.

A university president in Florida sends a box of favorite chocolates each year to a donor in Tennessee. The annual chocolates were in recognition of a very significant lead gift she made three decades prior.

A friend of mine gave a little book on a topic that he knew was near and dear to the heart of his client. It wasn’t about any new negotiation or contract. The attached note simply expressed his appreciation for what he had done in the past.

A Thompson & Associates vendor is working on a gift for our extended family. He’s already under contract and not trying to negotiate anything new. While I keep trying to let me pay him for his efforts, he insists that it’s his genuine appreciation for past contracts. I think my vendor is trying to work the rule of reciprocity on me.

Any one will give a gift if they expect a reciprocal gift in return. It’s those thoughtful, meaningful gifts with no connection to future asks that deepen and sustain friendships.

Understanding the significance of the chocolates, the little book, and the gift for our extended family came from lots of conversations and a commitment to build long-term relationships with donors and clients.

A SENSE OF FULFILLMENT, genuine partnership, sincere appreciation, and thoughtful expressions of friendships—these are just a few examples of what fundraisers have to offer their donors. It is the currency of philanthropy.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.
Founder and CEO, Thompson & Associates
Copyright 2017, R. Edward Thompson