Posted February 1st, 2010

A Brain, a Heart and Courage

As many readers know, 2009 marked the 70th anniversary of the 1939 epic film “The Wizard of Oz.” While watching the movie again recently I was reminded of the timelessness of its message—and its surprising applicability to those who work with donors considering large philanthropic commitments.

On the road again

On Dorothy’s journey to see the wizard, she encounters three friends, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, each facing a particular challenge that is keeping him from fulfilling his potential. Over the years we have been privileged to work with many talented individuals who face similar challenges as they pursue excellence in their roles.

In order to help donors realize their desire to make substantial contributions, whether given outright or over time, it is often necessary to combine knowledge of how best to structure gifts (the “brain”) with an understanding of the complex mix of motivations that drive donors (the “heart”) and a willingness to go out and engage donors and prospective donors (the “courage”).

Achieving balance

All too often we encounter programs of all sizes and missions in which the “brain,” the “heart,” and “courage” are out of balance in one way or another. For instance, some organizations excel in the technical aspects of gift planning. Their staff members are prepared to give donors the latest updates on pending tax legislation that could affect charitable gift planning and are unsurpassed in their ability to use sophisticated software to prepare complex gift illustrations. Unfortunately, these same organizations sometimes lack an appreciation of the non-financial motivations for gifts, and donor relationships and the volume of gifts completed suffer as a result.

Often no one is out seeing donors, or the persons who are working directly with donors do not have sufficient knowledge to help donors and their advisors best structure their gifts. In either case, important potential gifts are often lost.

Other organizations are highly skilled in understanding donor motivation and have quite professional stewardship efforts in place, but their staff is often unable to assist donors with the mechanics of gift planning. As a result, many donors who would like to give but cannot see a way to do so given their personal economic challenges never learn of the options that would make a gift compatible with their financial situation.

Finally, in the most unfortunate cases, we see programs in which “fearless” staff members highly trained in sales skills are given ambitious goals and a list of prospective donors, but have little understanding of the organization’s mission or knowledge of the ways to help donors best make their gifts. Potential donors can sense this lack of authenticity and may instead respond to another organization’s more sincere appeal.

To succeed in major and planned gift development work in today’s complex and challenging environment, fundraisers must achieve a balance between technical knowledge, interpersonal skills, and the courage to go out and get the job done.

Is it a “no brainer”?

That being said, it is not necessary for everyone on the development staff to be capable of highly complex computations such as determining the tier structure of income reporting for a charitable remainder trust or the exclusion ratio for payments from a gift annuity. In today’s environment, however, with an aging donor base and fluctuating investment markets, it is increasingly necessary that all persons interacting with current and prospective major donors know at least the basics about the most beneficial ways to structure larger gifts.

For example, when a large check is received, instead of immediately depositing the check, take a moment to consider if the donor’s gift could be funded in a more efficient way.

Imagine how impressed a donor would be to receive a call from someone in the development office suggesting that it may be more cost-effective to make the gift in the form of stock that is still worth more than it cost. The staff member could explain how to use the cash originally given to repurchase the stock at a new, higher cost basis. The donor could make the same size gift he or she had originally planned, but could structure it in a more beneficial way. The donor may even decide to give more than was originally planned after realizing it is possible to give more stock at the same cost as a smaller gift of cash. He or she could then turn to an accountant or investment advisor to execute this plan.

Depending on the size of your organization, the amount of technical expertise on your staff may be limited. Any organization, however, can simply encourage donors to seek advice from their own advisors before completing a larger gift. Regardless, it certainly helps to point donors and their advisors in the right direction.

Taking heart

Perhaps more important than knowing how to structure gifts is understanding why donors make them. The reasons people make gifts are as complex as the human mind and spirit. Many different emotions can motivate a charitable gift. In some cases, donors give because of religious or political beliefs. Tax savings and other financial benefits can also be a part of the mix—though since they are “fungible” and the same for every organization they are rarely the root motivator.

In our experience, one of the best ways for a new staff person to learn why donors give is to contact some of the organization’s most faithful donors and simply ask them about their motivations. Open the conversation with something like the following: “I am new here, and my job is to encourage people to support XYZ Charity. I understand you have supported us for a number of years and wonder if you would be willing to share your thoughts.”

This type of interaction helps build courage to make calls on others who have demonstrated less commitment and will also help develop ideas about the best ways for people to make their gifts. For example, some donors may express a desire to give more during these calls but feel unable to do so as they have seen their income shrink recently. These donors may appreciate learning about gift annuities and other gifts that may supplement their income.

Finding courage

Finally, it is not uncommon to encounter wonderful people who have learned all they possibly can about how to plan gifts and have great empathy for their donors and their motivations for giving, but just can’t seem to make the phone call or get out there and see the people they need to see. This lack of “courage” is not uncommon. It is perfectly natural for many and is nothing to be ashamed of. As noted above, one way to overcome this fear is to start with the most committed and motivated donors and let them share their enthusiasm with you. You may find these seeds will take root inside you, and your confidence and courage will grow as a result.

Don’t think of what you are doing as a form of “selling” something that is unwanted. In reality, no one will give who does not want to do so for some reason. As a fundraiser, what you are really doing is finding people who have a desire to support your mission and helping them discover the best way to do it. People who began this work with natural and understandable fears often tell me after a short time that they love what they do and can’t believe they get paid to do it.

The role of the wizard

At the conclusion of “The Wizard of Oz,” the wizard bestows a diploma, a shiny heart, and a medal of courage on the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion. But did he really give them a brain, a heart, or courage? No. That is one of the primary lessons learned. The wizard simply helped them realize that what they sought was inside them all along.

That is the role of a good manager or “wizard” in the world of fund development. In the best programs, those in management monitor staff members and look for signs that more knowledge, more understanding of programs and motivations, or more encouragement is needed to help them fulfill their potential and best serve donors.

All of us want to “get back to Kansas” in some sense. In the final analysis, we can take heart from this classic tale, learn its timeless lessons, click our heels, and be on our way.

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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