Posted March 1st, 2007

What Have You Learned from Your Donor?

I have learned that donors are very selfless. When people are thinking about a planned gift, they are looking back at where they’ve come from and what they are going to leave behind once they’re gone. They’re at a stage in their lives where a lot of their worries are over—they’ve raised their children, they’ve retired so there are no more work pressures. Many of them have valued their education and found that Manhattan College helped open a lot of doors for them, made their lives easier, and made their career choices richer.

Our mission for 150 years has been to educate the poor and underserved. In many cases, our donors were the first in their families to attend college. When they plan their gifts, they really want to be sure that they benefit needy students. This goes back to our mission, which the donors realize is as relevant today as it was when they were at Manhattan College.

Our donors have taught me the value of stewardship. Donors who arrange for planned gifts are making Manhattan College a priority in their giving, and it is very special that they are thinking about us when they are considering their end-of-life gifts. We work very carefully with these usually elderly donors because they are not going to have the opportunity to change these gifts or do them better the next time. A planned gift has to be done right. You have to integrate the donors’ goals into your mission. To do that, you really have to listen to them, ask about their family, and find out what is going on in their lives.

I have also learned that people leave little instructions behind through their gifts. These instructions aren’t necessarily written down, they are just there. The instructions our donors leave behind are to remember others, live your faith, get your wings and soar, and then help somebody else soar after you.

I have learned from donors I’ve worked with that there are many faces of philanthropy. For example, I’ve recently transitioned from Drexel University, a 106-year-old Philadelphia institution, to the Kimmel Center, a much younger arts organization founded in 2001. I would describe many of the Drexel donors as wearing the “repayer” face of philanthropy. They feel they owe a debt to the school which provided them a very practical education. Now they want to pay it back in some meaningful way, such as through endowed scholarships, gifts to bricks and mortar projects, or supporting a particular college initiative.

In the case of the Kimmel, I think the donors are predominantly two other faces of philanthropy. Many are extraordinarily civic-minded, believing Philadelphia is a first-class city deserving a stellar performing arts venue, even if they do not necessarily have a deep passion for the arts.

Then there are those who invest with philanthropy. For example, a businessperson or corporation invests in the Kimmel with the anticipation of a return in terms of recognition through a corporate sponsorship, such as having their company’s name on a series of performances highlighting the world-class artists appearing with us. Once you determine which face of philanthropy your donor might be, then you can begin assessing their inclination to do something major in support of your organization and find the best fit for their goals and yours as well.

My donors have also helped me understand that I am an important source of value when it comes to working with them to satisfy their philanthropic needs. Many of our constituents are self-made businesspeople. They have gone from scarce resources to being multi-millionaires or, in some cases, centimillionaires many times over. Most of them don’t regard what they do as work, and that’s what has enabled them to make huge investments of time to build, grow, and sustain their business enterprises.

When you’re working with such people, you don’t need to be intimidated or feel like you are “begging for money.” As a development professional, you really must look at your work as consultative, because in many cases your role is to help match the needs of your organization with the needs and desires of your potential donors. Donors often have very clear ideas of what they want to accomplish with their philanthropy and take it very seriously. They really do feel that when they pass on, they want to leave their communities in much better shape than they were before they became involved. I think that is a very noble ambition, and that’s why gift planning is something to be very excited and passionate about.

And some of that passion has infused me. My wife and I decided to honor my Mom on her 85th birthday by creating an endowed scholarship bearing her name at a Jesuit prep school we all hold dear. So we can never overestimate the effect the generosity of others has on us.

One thing I have learned from working with donors is to be a good steward of donors’ assets. Most of our donors did not inherit their assets—they built up significant assets on their own through hard work. These individuals have worked 60 or 70 years to amass the assets they have, and they have read about nonprofits that are not managing their money well. Before they give to us, they want to be sure that they can trust our organization not to squander their gifts.

For seven years I worked with one man who was 93 years young before he decided to include us in his estate plan. He told me, “Roger, it took me 70 years to build up these assets. I need to be sure I can trust the organization I give this to.” Not only do they have to trust the organization they are giving to, but they need to be confident in the leadership of the group, and at the Ranches that’s me. As good as an organization may be, some donors still want to look someone in the eye and be able to say, “I trust you personally with my assets.” That is a big and sobering responsibility.

Another thing I have learned from older donors is that they have a wonderful sense of humor. They don’t take themselves too seriously. They will say anything, and we are constantly joking and laughing. They enjoy being able to speak their mind and ask very direct questions.

Donors also teach me great spiritual lessons. Most of my donors know that I was ordained as a minister, so I think that frees them up to have spiritual discussions with me. Watching them deal with what their advanced years may suggest is their fairly imminent death, it is inspiring to see them putting their affairs in order in all areas of their life—working on their relationships with family and friends, contemplating spiritual matters, and preparing their assets for final distribution. There is a lot of thought and preparation in this last stage of life. So the individuals who contact us about potentially making a gift through their estate are not just preparing their assets for a gift, they are preparing to make their final statements in life.

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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