It’s All About The Donor, You, and . . . Who?

Just recently I was consulting with a university president when, in a moment of personal and professional transparency, he shared his lamentation that he had “gotten too close” to one of the institution’s most generous donors.   I asked him what he meant by that and here was his all-too-familiar story.

“I’m not quite sure how it happened,” he said.  “But, we’ve known each other now for a number of years and we genuinely like each other – as do our spouses.  And our relationship has just evolved.  It has grown into more of a friendship.  And, now,” he finished, “I’m finding it awkward to talk to him about his giving.”

This is not a new or novel problem.  But, it is one that causes us sometimes to lose perspective.  I asked him if we could talk our way through an analogy for a moment.  He agreed.

“Let’s say,” I started, “that you have a very close friend.  We will call her, ‘Jen.’  And Jen is very important to you.  In fact, Jen is one of the most important people you have in your life, outside of your spouse and family.”

“Jen,” I said, “also is a close and dear friend with your donor.  And Jen was kind and generous enough to introduce you and the donor to begin with.  If it were not for Jen, you and the donor would have never met – most likely never come in contact.  Because you are from two different worlds.  He chose business as a profession, you chose the academy.  He lives far away, etc.  But, Jen introduced you two.”

“Now, Jen, had one stipulation when she introduced you to the donor.  She told you, ‘I don’t ever want to be left out of your interactions with this donor.  I really like and enjoy you both.  If you go to dinner, I want to be there.  If you go to a show, I want to go.  I want to be stay involved.'”

“Imagine, with me now,” I continued, “if you met the donor and began leaving Jen out.  You two met without her.  You enjoyed meals together without her.  You and your spouses went on fun outings and events together, without Jen.  You simply began ignoring and even forgetting about Jen altogether at times.  It actually came to pass that Jen was never invited to join you all any more.”

“If you were to act that way toward Jen,” I stated, “my guess is that you would be viewed – at best – as being rude.  At worst, you would be viewed as being self-promoting, manipulative, etc.  If you treated people in that fashion for long, not many people would want to be your friend.”

“Now,” I finished, “imagine your institution is Jen.”

Sometimes we lose perspective on all of the interests that are involved with our donor relationships.  When we put a human name on our institution, its can be easier to see how our institution has the driving interest in our relationships with donors.  We must continually remind ourselves and our colleagues that the relationships we are building are not, in the end, our own.  We are, instead, playing the role of good steward – facilitating a stronger, deeper relationship between the donor and. . . well, Jen.


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