The Fundraising Executive

Giving Donors a Genuine Sense of Partnership

By Eddie Thompson | November 15, 2011 | Donor Communications

Many non-profit organizations are very strict about their terminologies. Some of them never make reference to donors, contributors, or supporters. “Partners” is the only term allowed. It’s a good communications policy because it is the relationship concept they are trying to reinforce. In many cases, however, donors are partners by name only with no real sense of partnership in the minds of the organizational leaders or the donors. That’s unfortunate, mostly for the donors because it robs them of very meaningful and rewarding relationships. The good news for you is that donor communications is often so impersonal and insincere that on this one point, it is not hard for you to make a big statement.

Gregg Tipton was a star quarterback in the late 1980s who until recently held most of the passing records at the University of Hawaii. After college Gregg became a missionary and today is the director of Ten Days Mission Experiences. He began with a team of donors who he insists on calling “financial partners.” Gregg has gone a long way in perfecting that donor-organization partnership relationship, evidence by the fact that most of the original group of “financial partners” have continued on as donors for twenty-four years, many of them significantly increasing their financial involvement. Over time Gregg Tipton has instilled in them a very real sense of partnership. He says,

“The partnership relationship is a shared experience. Donors are not really partners until you can make them feel it, until the light bulb goes on in their minds and it hits them — We are really partners together to change the world!”

When speaking to people on partnership development, Gregg says,

“Personal communication with those who have contributed to your mission endeavors begins with one question: ‘Are you willing to be just as diligent, just as sincere, and just as serious about the donor-organization partnership on the backend of the gift as you were on the frontend when you felt such pressing, desperate need to secure that gift?’”

In the minds of some donors, that is the true test of your sincerity. What you do after the gift (and after the initiative it funds) shows whether or not you really believe all this talk about partnership.

Ownership, Stewardship, and Accountability
Developing donor partnerships requires more than tweaking the language in the monthly newsletter. It starts internally with the development of the organizational culture. That organizational value and mentality will be inevitably revealed in the general attitude about ownership, stewardship, and accountability.

That organizational value and mentality will be inevitably revealed in the general attitude about ownership, stewardship, and accountability.

Concerning ownership — if we think of people simply in terms of contributors, then contributions become property of the organization with no rights retained by the contributor. Even with designated gifts, the use of those funds for the designated purpose is at the discretion of the organization. Deviate for that strict interpretation of the Federal Tax Code, and the Internal Revenue Service will disallow the tax deduction.

If income is derived from dues associated with membership, then contributions are simply payments for services received. Whether contributions, dues, or fee for service, the organization owns the money.

Executives with a partnership mentality don’t simply think in terms of donor, membership, or alumni relations. 

Concerning donor communications an organization’s true mentality about donors is subtly but consistently revealed in the way it communicates with donors. Executives with a partnership mentality don’t simply think in terms of donor, membership, or alumni relations. They think in terms of investor relations. The assumption is that we are reporting to those who have ownership in the enterprise. They are not just concerned citizens but those who have a vested interest. That is what is implied by partnership. They are “vested.” It doesn’t mean that donors own you or the organization. Partners are, however, part-owners in the endeavor. Their money plus your time, expertise, and service equals a partnership.

Concerning accountability — how organizations perceive the relationship with donors will determine their sense of accountability. The flipside of that idea: What organizational leaders really believe about the relationship is revealed in how they give account.

What organizational leaders really believe about the relationship is revealed in how they give account.

Can you imagine an entrepreneur asking a venture capitalist to make a significant investment in his big idea but with the following stipulation? The investor will receive a sincere thank you letter each month and gets to feel good about the fact that the financial investment is probably helping the big idea. However, the investor will receive no details on the status of the business, progress toward or regress from objectives, or any measure of the investor’s return on investment (ROI).

How silly! No investor in his or her right mind is going to do that. Yet, donors do that every day because they don’t see their donations as investments. And they don’t see donations as investments probably because they have never been in donor–ministry relationships where they were treated like true partners.

A number of years ago I worked with a University President who believed that donors “should be informed how we planned to spend their money and then informed about how we actually spent it.” That seemed to some a little too much donor communications until a little old man came to visit one December day at almost closing time. He brought letters from the President and two annual reports with him. The purpose of his visit was to ask our staff two questions. The first question was how much would it take to set up and endowed fund. The second question was a request to continue to receive the annual report that described in detail how gifts had been used. Both questions were very easy to answer.

I found out later that the man had been to four nonprofits to see if they would give him a breakdown on how gifts were used. Each organization was either unable or unwilling to do so. It was not that they just refused his request, but it was (as the man described) “the tone of their voices.” It was as if they were shocked that the man would want to know how they spent “their money.”

With his questions answered, the man left our office but left behind several boxes filled with stocks worth about $300,000. All he wanted was to know how “HIS money” was going to be spent and that someone would be as careful with it as he had been.

With his questions answered, the man left our office but left behind several boxes filled with stocks worth about $300,000.

There is no true financial partnership without accountability. Without reporting and accountability, “partnership” is just a word we throw around. Because so few organizations or individuals give account regarding donors’ return-on-investment, those donors are rarely made to feel like partners. That is generally unfortunate for donors. However, it can be very fortunate for you because your efforts to build genuine donor partnerships will stand out as unusual but refreshing. That kind of relationship will reap benefit for both for a very long time.

— Eddie Thompson, Ed.D, & Gregg Tipton