Fostering Conversations with Major Donors

Fostering Conversations with Major Donors

February 10th, 2011

by Ted Grossnickle


A recent NY Times article articulates something we have seen growing the last several years in the world of philanthropy . . . more donors desiring a louder ‘voice’ in how their money is spent.

In “Donors Demand a Bigger Voice in Catholic Schools,” Paul Vitello captures issues we hear frequently in our discussions with major donors. Impassioned donors today are less willing to sit by the sidelines, write a check and hope for the best.

More people today approach philanthropic decisions as they do major business decisions.  They want to see ROI.  They want to know their funds are being used efficiently and effectively to have a material impact on the issues they support. And to some extent, that is really a good thing.

The question for non-profits is how to facilitate and engage with this desire for input.  How do we provide meaningful involvement for major funders that facilitates input and discussion rather than a dynamic of dictatorship? Or one way conversations?

Part of the solution, as noted in the article and implemented by the New York archdiocese school system, is appropriately matching those donors who wish to be more involved with those areas where they can implement more change. In New York, this involved matching donors with schools in an “adopt-a –school” type program where donors are given greater input into the nuts and bolts operation of the schools.

Managing the solution, however, demands that you have enough of a relationship to have authentic dialogue with your major donors. And it also means as a donor you had better be prepared to learn. What works in your business does not automatically work in a non-profit!

It is the dynamic between a non-profit CEO and a major donor that is really at issue.  Are you willing to spend the time it likely will take to be able to speak honestly to one another about how gifts can have their best and largest impacts? It means the CEO must let the donor know about how the organization really does its work. And the donor has to keep an open set of eyes and try to understand the context in which the organization must perform its mission. 

This stuff takes time.

It can make a huge difference.

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