The Problem with “Donors”

We use the terms “donors,” “funders,” and, in some instances, “giving units” (yuck!) to refer to those individuals, businesses, foundations, churches, and other organizations that provide our institutions with gift income.  Each of these terms is incomplete and, I believe, short-circuits our thinking about how we should relate to these important individuals and organizations.

When we label those who are financially loyal to our institutions as simply “donors” and “funders” we conceptualize the relationship as one-way.  We deliver the services, they write the checks.   We are the experts, they are the bank.

Perhaps that was once an accurate portrayal of how philanthropy occurred.  Some might point to Andrew Carnegie as being a “donor” or a “funder.”  He gave money to libraries, schools, and universities.  He didn’t tell the librarian what books to purchase.   Perhaps. . .

But, those days are gone.  Think about your donors today.  They want more say.  They want to participate and be involved in ways that make our institutions uncomfortable.  They want to start new programs that cause our institutions to recoil.  And they want results – fast.  And at most institutions, “fast” is not part of the lexicon.

Of course, the poster-children for this type of engagement are Bill and Melinda Gates and their work to eradicate malaria.  If you click the link you will see that they provide an overview of the issue and they also outline their approach to solving the problem worldwide.  They are not simply “donors” or “funders.”  They are not willing to simply support someone else’s work in this area.  They have their own ideas and approaches and they are enacting their strategies.   And while your institution may or may not be getting millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation, your major donors are following their lead.

Instead of viewing them as “donors,” we need to start conceptualizing those who provide gift income as “collaborators” who can provide ideas, creative energy, strategic thinking, and other assets.

When we switch our thinking from “donors” to “collaborators,” we change the way we view our work.   We begin to engage, instead of simply ask.  We seek new opportunities, instead of simply seeking to meet our metrics.  In the end, when we embrace our “donors” as “collaborators,” our institutions will become richer – in all ways.


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