Benedict Arnold And Your Donors

The value in understanding history lies not in the notion that times stay the same, but, rather, that human nature does.

Take the case of Benedict Arnold.  We all remember him as the traitor during the Revolutionary War.  But for many of us, that is all we know of the story.

When historians attempt to peel back the onion and understand why Benedict Arnold attempted to give the fort at West Point to British forces in September of 1780, lessons for us today are abundant.  Let’s recall the high points of the story:

  • Arnold was born to a prominent family in Connecticut in 1741 – his great-grandfather was a colonial Governor of Rhode Island;
  • He was an old and faithful friend to George Washington, then Commander in Chief of the Continental Army;
  • He was a highly-decorated officer who served the Continental Army for a number of years;
  • He helped capture Fort Ticonderoga from the British in 1775 and was instrumental in a number of other Revolutionary War victories;
  • He was severely wounded in battle and had two horses shot and killed from underneath him!

So, why would someone so committed to a cause decide to become a traitor?

Most historians believe three issues converged in Arnold’s life and made attractive the idea of becoming a traitor to the cause for which he almost gave his very life:

  1. He had personal debt, primarily because he used all of his personal wealth to help finance the war with the British.  The British paid him 6,315 pounds sterling in his blown attempt to hand over West Point;
  2. He was passed over for promotion while other officers took some of the credit for his battlefield efforts;
  3. During the fall of 1777, he played an instrumental role in the victory at Saratoga, but received little of the credit.

Simply put:  Arnold felt as if he had not received the credit he was due.  He felt neither appreciated nor valued.

Do you have Board members, Advisory Council members, or other major donors and prospects who haven’t yet made the gifts that match their financial capacity?  Maybe they have acted cool to requests.  Or may be they’ve just never really gotten engaged fully with your cause.

It may be because they simply aren’t generous.  But if they make considerable gifts elsewhere, that reason becomes suspect.  Perhaps it’s because they just haven’t yet felt truly appreciated and valued by your institution.  Perhaps they feel as though they added value by giving of their time, talent, or treasure and the institution didn’t recognize their efforts appropriately.  Or perhaps they feel as though their interests haven’t been your interests.

The motivational power of feeling appreciated and valued (or not) cannot be overestimated.  Benedict Arnold went from a willingness to die for his cause to being a traitor to it because he didn’t feel appreciated and valued.

Times may change.  Human nature doesn’t.

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