What Volunteers and Donors Don’t Always Know

Steve Jobs, the former CEO and co-founder of Apple Inc., is quoted to have said,

“Get closer than ever to your customers.  So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.”

I’ve reflected on this counterbalance to “the customer is always right” perspective for years.  I can recall, for instance, the first time I encountered the internet when a work colleague signed up for AOL service at his apartment back in the early 1990s. He excitedly took me to his computer and began showing me images of newly-released cars and trucks on Ford.com and I was dumbfounded.  I simply couldn’t figure out how those pictures were getting into his computer in real time!

As I think back on that experience, if someone had asked me in the late 1980s if I, as a consumer, would have “wanted or needed the internet,” I could have very well said, “no.”  I hadn’t experienced the internet so I wouldn’t have had much of an idea regarding how it could impact me, my work, and my life.

My guess is that most everyone would have answered the same way about Mr. Jobs’ iPhone prior to its release in 2007. We wouldn’t have known that we wanted all that functionality and connectivity in the palm of our hands because we hadn’t yet experienced it.  And today, well over 2 billion on those devices have been sold.

Recently, I was presenting a virtual workshop through the Gonser Gerber Institute on the topic of volunteer engagement in the higher education setting.  During one point, a participant spoke up and said, “We have surveyed our Board members and they do not want meetings to go beyond 2 hours.  So, we don’t have meetings that go longer than that.”

“But, what if,” I responded, “you had a meaningful, well-planned, interactive Board meeting which was designed around a compelling and strategically-important theme. A meeting which included a well-respected, engaging presenter who educated them on how other institutions are adapting with respect to this theme.  A meeting in which you placed them into small groups so that they could respond to carefully-crafted questions regarding how your institution could better maximize your resources in support of the stated theme. A meeting in which you thoughtfully built-in social time so that Board members could get to know each other much better. And, what if that meeting I’m describing took 4 hours or even most of the day?”

“Do you believe that your very best volunteers – your Board members – would still complain because that meeting took longer than 2 hours?”

Volunteers (and even donors) can’t always know what they want because it’s quite possible they haven’t yet experienced it.

This is the same reason why leading a donor with a, “how do you want to make an impact?” type of question isn’t always the most fruitful approach.  While such an approach appears thoughtful and “donor-centric,” the reality is that many donors simply have not yet been introduced to the experience of making a gift that aligns with their values and is meaningful for them. They simply don’t know.

But, on the other hand, as advancement professionals, we’ve seen how other donors get emotional when they meet their endowed scholarship recipient. We’ve witnessed donors express deep satisfaction listening to a professor share the impact of their current gift to enhance a program or help start a new program.

We know (or we should know) what is needed for volunteers and donors to have high-satisfaction experiences.  The research on volunteerism and donor-satisfaction (and decades of practice) is clear.  People want meaning, engagement, and opportunities to make a difference with institutions that share their values.  Those are the variables that drive volunteer and donor satisfaction, not our blind adherence to a request volunteers and donors might make out of their unawareness.

Our role has never been to simply do what volunteers or donors demand or even suggest. Our role is to creatively propose and implement experiences that we know from practice and thoughtful study will give us the best opportunity to leave volunteers and donors delighted and ready to do it all again.

Or to re-phrase Steve Jobs:

Our role is to be “so close to our donors and our volunteers that we understand what they need well before they realize it themselves.”


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