Some Donors Need To Be Fired

Below is a recreation of a honest-to-goodness telephone call I had with an alum donor – we’ll call him Mr. Smith –  some years ago:

Mr. Smith:  Hi Jason, I’d like to establish a named endowment.

Me:  Great!  Tell me a bit about what you’re thinking.

Mr. Smith:  I’d like it to go to scholarships to support financially-needy students and name it for my mother.

Me:  That’s wonderful.  How did you come to this decision?

Mr. Smith:  Well, I came into a little money and am talking to a few places about how they might use it.  You all came to mind because I think scholarships are important.

Me:  Yes, scholarships are very important and over 95% of our students receive some type of need-based institutional scholarship aid.  So, your gift would help us provide more of this important support each year.  Let’s talk a bit about the specifics of your gift. . .

Mr. Smith:  Well, I have $10,000 to fund the endowment.

Me:  That’s a generous gift.  Many of our donors decide to add to their endowment, especially in the early years, to increase the impact of their gift annually.  Are you planning to continue to make gifts to this endowment?

Mr. Smith:  No, this is it, $10,000, one time, no more.  I know it’s not much, but I know you all can set up an endowment for a gift like this.

Me:  I want to thank you, again, for thinking of us.  However, I must let you know that we have Board policy which governs these decisions.  Currently, the Board has established $25,000 as a minimum threshold for establishing a named endowment.  However, this is fundable over 3 years.  So, is there an opportunity to include family members in helping to get the total to $25,000 over the next three years?

Mr. Smith:  I can’t believe this!  You aren’t going to set up this endowment for $10,000?  Don’t you all care about the “widow’s mite?”

Me:  Yes, we value every gift, regardless of size.  But establishing endowments at the school is governed by Board policy.  However, there are some other options that, I believe, meet your needs of supporting scholarships that don’t involve establishing endowments. . .

Mr. Smith:  I’m not interested in options, I want to establish a named endowment in memory of my mother for $10,000.

Me:  I understand, and I’d like to figure out a way to make this work.  Let’s think a bit more about how we might add to your generous gift over time.

Mr. Smith:  No, it’s $10,000 that’s it.  I’m really surprised and upset that you are refusing this gift.

Me:  We aren’t refusing your gift, Mr. Smith.  My aim is to work with you so that we can create a gift that works for you, your family, and the school.

Mr. Smith:  Well, you aren’t doing a very good job. . .

Now, I smile when I recall this episode.  At the time?  Not so much.  Here’s what happened next:

  • He never made the gift;
  • He stated he would never support the school again, because he was so offended;
  • While I was at the school, he never did give again.  Not sure if he has given again or not.

At the time I was a young gift officer and this interaction was upsetting.  However, I’ve developed a different perspective as experience and years have washed over me.  And here is how I now think:

Some donors need to be fired.

Yes, this sounds harsh, but really it isn’t.  Most development professionals possess a servant-leader demeanor.  We learn early to accept, with a significant measure of gratitude, every single gift and respond to donors with a super-charged “the customer is always right” attitude.  But, I believe some donors do need to be fired and here’s why.

There are some who, for a variety of reasons, are far more headache than aspirin.  They disrupt and create no-win situations for you and the organization.  They are what I call the Constant Complainers.  And, by “fire,” I don’t mean, never reach out to them again, or never take their calls.  What I mean is that you don’t expend valuable emotional, mental, or physical energy or resources attempting to meet their needs.

And there is no need to fret about what you may be losing if you fire these donors.  The Constant Complainers typically have almost non-existent giving histories.  They are small people with tedious ambitions.  They project and attract negativity.  They are the opposite of generous.

Mr. Smith was a Constant Complainer.  That’s the rest of the story.  He complained about Homecoming schedules, alumni events, and the color of the paint on the alumni house walls.  And take a guess at his lifetime giving total.  Yep, almost non-existent.

Now,  to be clear – I’m not talking about firing “difficult” donors.  Donors who may argue with you about the strategic direction of the organization or who wanted to see a second wing put on the athletic facility.  These donors may not be easy to please but their fundamental disposition is to care for your organization.  They are supportive and any criticisms they lodge emerge from a place of genuine affection and concern.  We need to and should work diligently with these donors.  They add value.

Here is what I’ve discovered – at least 1-2% of your donor database will be Constant Complainers, like Mr. Smith.  Identify these 1-2% and then, “fire” them.   Instead, spend your time and energy working with donors who sincerely care about the organization and want to make a positive impact.  Grow those positive relationships and watch how the time you spend on cultivating these individuals, will crowd out the Constant Complainers.  You’ll gain a whole bunch, and not lose much at all.

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