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Check’s in the Mail: Why it’s smart for organizations to clarify donors’ goals at the outset

Check’s in the Mail: Why it’s smart for organizations to clarify donors’ goals at the outset

Picture of William Heisel

Let’s go back in time.

You’re still the CEO of a successful hospital. And you still have a donor eager to help you expand your operations. But before you ask your assistant to buy you that perfect hard hat. Before you start stringing the yellow tape for the groundbreaking ceremony. Before you agree to call the building the Kyrgios Center for Childhood Cancers, you talk with Mr. and Mrs. Kyrgios about what is driving their donation and what they hope will happen as a result.

That kind of conversation might keep you from losing the donation down the road and from ending up in court fighting over broken promises.

Understand what the donor wants. In fundraising, experts often talk about connecting a donor’s passions to a charitable organization’s cause. Kelly Stewart, the vice president for client solutions at fundraising consultant Pursuant, wrote on the company’s site:

The more you can connect your cause to the donor’s specific passions and interests, the more successful you will be when it comes time to engage them as a donor and ask them to support your organization.

The classic case of this is a situation known as “the grateful patient.” Someone had a good experience at your hospital, and so they want to donate to make sure that others can have the same experience. A successful kidney transplant can lead to a new transplant center. A difficult childbirth with a healthy child at the end can lead to a new birthing suite for mothers in difficult situations. A child treated for leukemia can lead to a center for childhood cancers.

It’s harder to make those connections when you don’t have patients and their families coming to you. Instead, you are out trying to meet new donors who may have never heard of your organization. You need to explain to them what your organization does in the hopes that they might find something they like and want to fund. You meet a lot of people and most won’t give you a dime, so it’s understandable that you would rush to close a deal when someone shows interests.

In all cases, though, it’s critical to lay out your needs and draw out of the donors their needs and expectations, too. In 2005, country music superstar Garth Brooks agreed to donate $500,000 to Integris Canadian Valley Regional Hospital in Yukon, Oklahoma.

Brooks later said that he and the hospital’s president, James Moore, had an agreement that the money would be used to build a women’s health center named after Brooks’ late mother. Moore said that the gift was unrestricted, and the hospital chose to use it on other priorities.

Brooks sued, and a jury ordered the hospital not only to give the donation back but to pay Brooks – a millionaire many times over – an additional $500,000. As the Associated Press reported in 2012:

Jury member Beverly Lacy said she voted in favor of Brooks because she thought the hospital went back on its word. As far as the punitive damages, she said: 'We wanted to show them not to do that anymore to anyone else.'

There are two lessons here. One goes back to my first post on these types of donations. Put everything about the donation and its uses in writing.

But, more importantly, the hospital should have really understood what was animating Brooks’ donation. If he wanted to honor his mother first and foremost, then the hospital should have made certain that it had a way to use Brooks’ donation that was consistent with the hospital’s mission and also would adequately honor his mother.

Now, you might think that the best way to handle all of this is to sit a donor like Brooks down, look him in the eye and ask, “Why do you want to donate this money?”

Fundraising experts caution against being too explicit in how you handle the “why” of the matter. One of the best in the business, Advancement Resources, for example, says flat out: Don’t ask why.

We should keep in mind that ‘why?’ can feel interrogational rather than friendly and conversational – and can quickly derail the conversation and prevent you from discovering the donor’s philanthropic passions.

Instead, an organization can find out more about what’s driving a donation by asking what the donor is hoping to achieve. What does success look like? How does the donor hope to have an impact? And what is your organization doing right now that the donor feels most passionate about?

Those are the things you need to settle before the check is written to avoid a withdrawn pledge and potential lawsuit in the future.

Related posts

Check’s in the Mail: Why you shouldn’t count your donation until it’s banked

Check’s in the Mail: Why suing over a failed donation could hurt

[Photo by Pictures of Money via Flickr.] 

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