Donor Engagement as Coaching

Last night, Pat Summitt, the legendary women’s basketball coach from the University of Tennessee received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPY awards.  If you missed the live broadcast, you would do well to take a few minutes and watch the video here.

For those that may not know, Coach Summitt recently retired as a head coach because she was diagnosed with early-onset alzheimer’s.  A career that was cut far too short.  Not only is the Courage Award well-deserved, but the ESPY piece commemorating her distinguished career was remarkable.  Her career stats as a coach are simply eye-popping:

  • 1,098 wins – the most ever by a Division I college basketball coach (men’s or women’s)
  • 16 conference titles
  • 8 national titles

But the numbers aren’t what caught my attention.

If you are a sports fan you know that Coach Summitt is known as an intense, in-your-face, no excuses kind of coach.  She yells, she challenges, she demands, and she has an icy stare that has brought tears from many of her players over the years and has brought heart burn for many officials I’m sure.  She is no-nonsense.

And yet, what struck me as I watched the video were the many student-athletes she coached talk about (and to) her about what a positive difference she made in their development as people and in their lives generally, far beyond the basketball court.  More than one of her players made the tearful statement:

“I wouldn’t be the woman I am today if not for you.”

What a legacy. What an impact.  What a life’s work.

And this response coming from players who played for a coach that some said could be too harsh, too critical, too unfeeling, too demanding.

In development work we sometimes think of ourselves as solicitors or askers.  If we believe ourselves to be sophisticated, we may think of ourselves as facilitators.  But rarely do I hear development pros refer to themselves as teachers, as educators. . . as coaches.

Just like a development professional, Coach Pat Summitt asked something of her student-athletes every single day.  She was a solicitor.  She asked for absolute excellence, commitment, and effort.  And she didn’t even ask  nicely most often.  She demanded it. And yet, those same people praised her for the difference she made in their lives because they knew that she cared for them as people first, and basketball players second.

Just like Coach Summit, we ask donors every day to help our institutions succeed.  And when we know our institution’s donors well enough to inspire them and challenge them, we have the opportunity to be more than a solicitor or a facilitator.  When our donors know that we care for them as people first and donors second, we have the chance to become a coach.  And, then, we have an opportunity to help change their lives.


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