The practice of donor-centrism has morphed into a wholly-disconnected concept from its original intent.
Gone is the admonition that donors and philanthropy should be embraced and celebrated as an important thread making up the fabric of an institution’s culture – that institutions should actually care about donors. In it’s place is the widespread misunderstanding that being “donor-centric” means individual gift officers should ask donors what gifts they wish to make and for what purpose, while making the gift giving process as frictionless as possible.
In other words, give the donor what she wants.
Among the number of problems with this general misunderstanding of donor-centrism, there are two that stand out, even for the gift officers (and their bosses) who believe this myth.
First, many donors have no idea what “impact” they can make, should make, or are interested in making through philanthropy. Many haven’t thought much about it, candidly, and so, therefore, the responses can be opaque and uncertain.
Second, for those donors who have thought about their giving more deeply, they may have conceptualized a giving “solution,” that isn’t the most effective, or isn’t even feasible, or, can be less than helpful. This is the donor who tells you exactly the type of restricted she wants to make without the knowledge that the strings she is attaching are actually not allowed by IRS code.
The point is this: If being an effective gift officer rested simply on asking people where and how they wished to give and, then, serving as cheerful gift receivers, our efforts wouldn’t require any more professional sophistication and skill than that of a movie ticket taker.
The truly effective gift officers and advancement professionals are far more like generosity sherpas than they are movie ticket takers.
The best advancement pros guide donors on a journey of generosity. They deftly learn about the values, interests, and abilities of the donor, they point out giving opportunities that will offer deeper meaning, they offer critical suggestions along the path, and they help donors reach the summit of joyful giving in support of something (or someone) other than themselves and their family.
Yes, skilled advancement professionals explore “what the donor wants,” but they don’t stop there. They listen for understanding and creatively connect donor passions and beliefs with institutional mission, vision, and priorities. They engage their experiences with other donors to craft donor encounters that enhance meaning and shape new and positive understandings of our world.
When we stop at the question of “what does the donor want?” we run the risk of relinquishing our role, our experiences, and our knowledge in support of their experience.
In short, we run the risk of not giving them what they actually want.