By Dr. Gene Tempel
Hank Rosso, founder of The Fund Raising School, said in his first edition of Achieving Excellence in Fund Raising (1991), that fundraising is the gentle art of teaching (people) the joy of giving. Today, cutting edge research substantiates that there is, indeed, great joy in giving. Sara Konrath, my colleague here at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and others have shown that there is a positive physical and psychological impact of giving on the donor and volunteer.
What is involved in the gentle art of teaching? One way to describe it in practical, realistic, functional terms is fundraising as the difficult work of engaging potential donors in our cause. One of the early scholars in our field, Paul Schervish, found that individuals make gifts when they develop “philanthropic identification,” or when they can see themselves in those who are benefiting from the cause. Individuals, he said, needed to have a framework of consciousness—the beliefs, goals, and values that shape people’s experiences—about the cause and about the public need that the organization serves. In creating a framework of consciousness, no single factor was greater than what Schervish called communities of participation. Creating communities of participation is the difficult work of engagement, and an important task of fundraising.
Communities of participation are active and engaged, not passive. In fundraising, engagement often begins with an annual fund letter to a potential new donor. For example, it can tell the story of a young child being helped through an afterschool program. Research shows that even at this level of engagement it is important for would-be donors to be able to identify closely with those who are being helped. We also engage the first-time donor when we send a stewardship report indicating that first-time donors made it possible to purchase five new laptop computers last year. The donor becomes more conscious of the relationship between gifts and organization response.
The creation of gift clubs is the work of engagement. We think of gift clubs as forms of recognition for donors who contribute, say $1,000 or more. But, they serve well beyond recognition. Social and educational activities for members of gift clubs bring supporters of the organization together around common purpose. They provide opportunity for donors to hear about the impact of their gifts and plans for the future. They also provide ways for donors to interact with each other, hear each other’s stories about why they support the cause, and why they believe in the mission of the organization. Gift clubs can provide a forum for communities of participation.
Women’s giving circles are excellent examples of engagement based on research that women as donors prefer to act together. They see giving as a social activity, and engage with organizations around ideas that can be supported with philanthropy. Giving circles are special forms of engagement and special communities of participation. They can be organized around special interests, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, and around other ways donors can be engaged in a community with other supporters whose values and identities they share.
Engaging donors more intimately with the cause is more difficult for some organizations than for others. Colleges and universities can invite donors to meet with their scholarship recipients. They can invite donors to share wisdom on a special topic with a group of students, or mentor graduates as they enter the workforce. The theatre can invite donors to lunch with an actor, or watch a set being designed or constructed, or tour the costume shop. Engagement may be more difficult for social service agencies who must protect the dignity of their clients, but educating donors about social problems can be done within a respective and caring environment.
Perhaps the ultimate form of engagement is in the act of recruiting a donor—with the potential to provide a higher level of philanthropy—to the organization’s board of directors. Involving development staff in board recruitment makes sense for this approach to engagement. Donors will have knowledge of and commitment to the organization, but they should be recruited to the same level of expectation as others are recruited to the board.
Not all major donors will have time or want to accept the responsibility to serve on an organization’s board. Perhaps they might be recruited to serve on a special cabinet to advise the director on strategic planning, environmental issues, or share their expertise in other ways.
I have looked here briefly at fundraising as the difficult work of engagement. This summary is an oversimplification in a way. Engagement requires listening. It requires empathy and understanding. It requires strategy and action. But only through engagement at appropriate levels do we ensure donor satisfaction and long-term donor retention and development.
Dr. Gene Tempel is founding dean emeritus and professor of philanthropic studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.