Early in my career I worked as a fundraiser for a small charity. We had a small but established fundraising program with around a thousand annual donors who gave consistently through our newsletter program.
Despite the success of the fundraising program, and the fact that I was brought on board to make it bigger and better, my Executive Director still wasn’t convinced it was worth investing in.
In fact, I was pretty sure he felt some disdain towards our donors.
I tried to ignore this, and instill some excitement about fundraising around the organization. And I began to build on the work the previous fundraiser had done. I took the newsletter program and designed a well-rounded annual fund, an entry-level major gifts program, and a volunteer program to support the work.
I was about a year into my role when I overheard my Executive Director on the phone. He seemed to be talking to a donor.
I strained to listen and wished I had one of those Extendable Ears from Harry Potter.
From what I could gather, he was speaking with a donor who was frustrated that they didn’t receive a tax receipt for their last gift. I could hear the defensive tone in my Executive Director’s voice. I could feel the anxiety bubbling to the surface of my stomach, as I realized my ED was planning on handling the call himself.
He didn’t know how to check our database to confirm the details of the gift, and he didn’t think that customer service made a difference in our fundraising. People would happily give to us because it was a worthy and important cause. Of course! No need to keep our donors happy. *rolls eyes*
I tried to casually walk past his office, hoping he’d call me in to help him resolve the issue. Didn’t work.
I crossed my fingers hoping he’d transfer the call to me. Nope.
I listened as my ED got more and more irritated and aggressive, insisting we sent out the receipt and it must have gotten lost in the mail. That could be the only possible explanation. Even though I could only hear one side of the conversation, I knew the donor was upset, and even yelling. And I felt helpless.
And then it happened. My Executive Director hung up on the donor. I nearly slammed my face against my keyboard.
I guess I should have seen that coming. And I really shouldn’t have been surprised when he stormed over to my cubicle.
My Executive Director: “I hung up on this woman. She was yelling and I couldn’t get a word in.”
ED: “You need to call her back and sort it out.”
Me: “Ok. Why was she yelling?”
ED: “I don’t know. Something about a tax receipt. Just fix it.”
I called the donor back after giving her a few minutes to calm down. We got the issue sorted out, and she continued to donate until I left that job. But that donor continued to be seen as “difficult” by my ED.
In the last year of my time at that charity, I realized the importance of having a culture of philanthropy at all levels of the organization, and I learned how hard it is to build that culture among staff when the leadership don’t buy into it. Our Executive Director did not appreciate the donors who supported our work – donors who funded over 80% of our operating budget. And not only that, he actively disliked most donors, and didn’t feel that a $50 per year donor was worth spending any energy on.
Keeping your donors happy isn’t rocket science. Gratitude and customer service go a long way. And when you work hard at making your donors feel valued and appreciated, the fundraising dollars will flow. It’s too bad not every leader understands this.
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