You would think that in this period of economic difficulty now would be a time of extraordinary gratitude. After all, while donors are making difficult decisions about what they support, nonprofits are undergoing unprecedented challenges. To my surprise (and it’s hard to surprise me), I have been particularly struck by an attitude of ingratitude recently. Following are just three examples of what I’ve personally encountered in the past month. Multiply this by the thousands upon thousands of donors worldwide, and you’ll begin to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem. A year ago I gave $5,000 to a university for the president’s discretionary use so he could respond immediately to last minute needs such as the swim team meet or a faculty member who just got invited to a present a paper. When I was a development vice president at three universities, this is what the president always needed. I explained to the president and the vice president for “advancement” (we can’t seem to use the word “fundraising”) that I had been rethinking my own support of small college endowments. My view (and this is only my view) is that too many of these institutions make the mistake of measuring their presidents’ success by the size of the endowment at the peril of the day-to-day needs of the university. Right or wrong, this was my view as the donor. So a week ago I got a letter from the vice president telling me that the president hadn’t needed the cash for discretionary use and she took the liberty of moving my gift to something I specifically instructed I did not want—an endowment fund. That university is going through severe state budget cuts and is asking for support to overcome that loss. Is this the time to build an endowment? Regardless, where is the adherence to donor intent? My only consolation is that at least she told me. I have heard way too many stories in my career about the abuses of donor intent.Another example: I and four friends and leaders of a national organization gave a total of $1 million to fight a major problem in our society. The challenge requires the organization to raise $2 million in the next two years. In the first 100 days they have raised $242,000. Rather than receiving a standing ovation at a recent national meeting, these caring individuals who are each giving very large sums of money were met with criticism in public meetings. The national officer, current president, incoming president, nor treasurer said “thanks” to any of these men. Instead, these donors were reprimanded for not having their pledges completed; shamed publicly because one of them had already been giving and “all he was doing now” was pledging five more years; and many demanded to know why these men didn’t give the money now rather than pledge it.I have been raising money for nearly 40 years and I have seen my share of ugly treatment by not-for-profit leadership with an entitlement mentality.Finally, as a company we support many professional fundraising functions in various cities. Most are handled with appreciation and respect. But one local officer—I am sure harried by a deadline—emailed to ask for a $1,000 sponsorship. We agreed. A month later we received a call: did we have a logo we could send? Could we do it today and approve copy for a sponsorship brochure? He said a number of things, but “thank you” was not one of them. I’m sure I don’t need to point out that whether this was considered a “sponsorship” or a gift—whether a donor or a customer—gratitude was in order.Where did the common courtesy we are taught as children go?We wonder why some people don’t give. We wonder why other people don’t give at their potential. We wonder why people look upon the nonprofit world as unaccountable.
Will You Be There When John Shamberg Calls?
A big part of fundraising is showing up and being available. I learned this lesson on a very memorable New Year’s Eve, a very long time ago.
As an eager young fundraiser working for Washburn University, I didn’t know that it was unusual still to be at work in the evening of December 31st. But, there I was.
Earlier that year, a graduate of Washburn University School of Law told me he was going to give a gift of land to his synagogue, a private K-12 school and Washburn. John Shamberg, who has since passed away, made millions of dollars for institutions all over the world, and he wanted to give a significant gift to organizations he valued. His 40 acres of land on the outskirts of Kansas City were valued at $450,000, and his intention was to give $150,000 each to three organizations.
He’d left the task to the last day of the year, but now he was ready to make it happen.
He called the synagogue. No answer.
He called the K-12 school. No answer.
Then, he called Washburn and got me.
“Bob,” he said, “you just won the jackpot!”
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