After managing several campaigns, I have come to the conclusion that the most critical skill any development officer can have is what I have coined “the empathy factor. " That is, in order to build solid relationships with donors that lead to ultimate (or even beginner annual fund) gifts, development officers have to know their donors and to the extent possible, put themselves in their donors’ shoes.
I can recall vividly going along with a president to solicit a major donor who knew we were asking him for $1 Million and it would be for an endowed chair. He was a proud alumnus from our engineering program and we knew that the skills he obtained from his alma mater enabled him to build a chemical company in Ohio with sales well into the tens of millions. It was now a family business with his daughter running it and his son in senior management.
At our meeting, the president put the ask on the table: John, can I can count on you to help us finish the silent phase of the campaign with a $1 Million commitment for an endowed chair in engineering?" John got teary-eyed as donors often do when contemplating the meaning of gifts that large. John's response however, surprised all the rest of us in the room. John said: “Ed, I would be delighted to make that gift. However, I want to fund a chair in family business as that's what I've got here that means so much to me. " He cited his love and admiration for his daughter running the firm in particular, and that business schools needed to expand expertise and programming in family business. Finally, after some dialogue, the president agreed.
What can be learned from this story? Yes, we got the $1 Million gift. But no, we did not properly envision what motivated John. This situation helped me to reframe development work, solicitation in particular, to be completely donor-centered.
How does one do this? I suggest that there are six basic principles to help development officers build better relationships with donors which will assist both parties to close on gifts.
First, as mentioned, is the “empathy factor. " Development officers must put themselves in their donors’ shoes. This is not always easy because donors often have very different lives than development staff members. Critical factors include: doing your homework (prospect research), and meeting with donors in their territory so one can absorb everything possible about the donors’ lives: photos, paintings, vases, furniture, books, cars, boats, etc. , - all of those things tell you about what the donors love. I recall one time that I noticed a photo of a prospect's motorcycle and we got into a great conversation about the fact that we both loved to bike and had bikes.
Second, make sure that the conversation is always about the donors. Often times they will ask staff about their lives and families. While it's important to be courteous, the work to be done mandates that the focus and attention are foremost on the donors.
Third, make sure that you ask good questions and listen carefully. To have empathy you need to know the donors. So asking questions about how they met, what were their favorite college experiences, which alumni do they stay in touch with (very important for reunion giving), what other family members attended their alma mater, etc. , - will all give you a better flavor for what might motivate them to give. (Be sure to complete a contact report as soon as possible so that you have as much information recorded as possible for future work with the donors. )
Fourth, accept anything they offer graciously. Coffee, tea, muffins, etc. While you might not like what is offered, you need to accept their hospitality, even if you just take a few sips/bites. Often times the donors have thought about your visit and planned these treats so it's important to acknowledge and enjoy them. If you are eating out, usually donors will offer to pay the bill and they should be allowed to do so and be thanked.
Fifth, always make it easy for donors to say “yes. " If you have any hesitancy in a solicitation it's probably for a good reason - that you are not sure you are going to succeed. You have to go with your instincts and if you feel donors need more time then you need to be respectful and give it to them. Additionally, if you are not completely confident about the level of giving you are going to propose, give them a few options to make it easy for them to say “yes", and, of course, hard to say “no. "
Sixth, stay in touch. Some of my fondest moments are sending a Mother's and Father's Day cards to donors - a married couple - who as parents, lost both (and all) of their children to the same degenerative disease. Unimaginable. I know that my remembering them on these lonesome days means the world to them.
Empathy goes a long way in building a relationship with donors that makes it easy for them to say “yes" and to be satisfied that their gift opportunity was truly designed to meet their needs.
Learn more about Development Consulting at the Meliora Group LLC.
Carol Wittmeyer, Ed. D.
Carol is principal of the Meliora Group LLC, a firm devoted to serving leaders passionate for philanthropic success. She has been active in this area for decades and has national clients including colleges and universities, foundations and non-profits.
Carol served as Interim VP for Newman University, where she led a $14.25 million campaign for a library. She served as Associate VP for University Relations at Alfred University where she managed the New Millennium Campaign raising $82 million, $7 million over goal. She served as VP for College Relations at Medaille College where she restructured the staff and procedures to model best practices. Annual giving, participation and trustee membership increased.
For two years she served as President of the Raymond Family Business Institute, dedicated to serving family business owners. Along with colleagues from the Kauffman Foundation, London Business School, Babson College, and Kennesaw University, she coauthored projects in the 2003 Global Entrepreneur Monitor and the 2003 American Family Business Survey.
As acting dean of Education at St. Bonaventure, she was responsible for external relations and academic programming.
As a board member of the Olean General Hospital, Montessori, YMCA and the Warner School of Education, Carol has been active in her community. She is the Resource Chair for the Genesee Valley Association of AFP.
Carol was awarded the 40 Under 40 Business Leader Award from Buffalo Business First in 2001.
Carol earned her doctorate from the University of Rochester where she has endowed a scholarship in honor of a deceased classmate. Her dissertation was: Decision-Making Processes of Private College Trustees. She has served as a visiting research fellow at Babson College, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Rochester.
She earned her MBA specializing in Accounting and her BBA in Accounting from St. Bonaventure.
She is an assistant professor of management at St. Bonaventure University.