Many years ago as a young development officer I naively decided to probe a bit when an upset alum donor said to me: “I’m not pleased with the direction of the institution and I’m going to withhold my giving until things change.”
The specifics of the situation are unimportant. It could have been that she didn’t like the President. Or it could have been that she didn’t like the way a course in her major was being taught now. No matter. Something wasn’t sitting well with her and she was letting me know that she was taking her toys and going home. I’m sure you’ve encountered this type of threat before as well.
So, I responded, “I know you care about your alma mater, so I’m a bit confused by your intentions. You are planning to get much less involved by not giving, but don’t you think getting more involved would give you a better opportunity to influence the changes you think need to happen?”
I honestly can’t remember her response (or I would re-create it here!). But, I do remember that it wasn’t especially articulate and it was brief. Her response, though, isn’t the important part of this story. This is:
I said I was naive to probe her thinking. You may think I was naive to attempt to change the mind of an upset donor in such a confrontational way (and you’d be right). But that isn’t why I was naive. I was naive because I had no clue of what I would find out next, and over and over again throughout the years.
When I went to her giving record soon after this episode I found it to be almost non-existent. She had made two small gifts over the 25 years since her graduation. Two.
I was naive to think that a donor – a steady, significant donor – would resort to such a threat. Instead, what I learned over the years, was that significant donors rarely, if ever, pull the “I’m no longer giving if you don’t do X” card. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are rare. What I also learned is that inconsistent or non-donors will say it with more ease and with more frequency than a naive development officer can imagine.