Relationships, People! Focusing on Personal Relationships Yields Revenue

Either because of or in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, this academic year seems to have flown by. I’m finding it difficult to believe we are just weeks away from fiscal year’s end. Because I began my career in the development office of my alma mater, my heart still races a bit the closer we draw to June 30. The term “year-end giving” ignites internal excitement and panic simultaneously. In that spirit, I’m inching out into some uncomfortable space for me. I’m writing today from my personal experience and perspective as a donor; not only am I going to talk about money publicly, I’m going to talk about my money (how gauche is that?). I’m usually able to chat with you from a more academic or reasoned perspective based on my studies and more than 40 years of experience including 30 years as the principal of RHB (time flies when you are having fun) serving more than 300 colleges and universities. Today I’m writing about how it feels to be a donor and I’m hoping this opens a window of insight to you. Or at least reminds you of something truly important about the work you do. More significantly, I hope it encourages you to examine your own processes and habits as you anticipate many gifts coming your way in the next month or so—and I hope, for your sake, they come in big truckloads and digital uploads.

Each year, we make it a practice to give a portion of our profit to great causes. As we talk about what organizations need financial support, we evaluate how their causes support one or more of the values we believe to be important. I find it interesting to observe the follow up that comes in response to our gifts. 

We give regularly to some organizations who have great track records in delivering on those four values; and because we are fairly regular or frequent donors, they’ll usually respond as though we are friends—and we are. Sometimes, we’ll receive a standard form letter even after we’ve been supporting the organization for years. That always surprises me, mostly because that’s not how I typically respond to my friends (except at Christmas with the family newsletter or photocard). Friends text, pick up the phone, drop a handwritten thank you note; they don’t send form letters. And when I receive a form letter from an organization that knows us well, I’m disappointed because I pick up that they may or may not appreciate my gift and they may or may not consider me an interested friend. The form letter doesn’t indicate the importance of our relationship. It only indicates that I have been processed. Sending our gift was predicated by thought, consideration and weighing the trust we have in the recipient to be a good steward. I don’t want to be creepy or pompous (frankly, I’m reluctant to write about our giving because it’s such a private matter), but I think it’s important to make the point of equal transactional exchange. Personal giving should be reciprocated by personal response. 

I am even more surprised by those organizations whose radar we are not yet on. When we have researched organizations who deliver on at least one of our four values (truth, beauty, love and justice), we occasionally discover providers that are new to us and who we’d like to support. We’ll vet them by examining how they operate, where they invest their efforts and their gifts, how successful they are in achieving their mission, how they measure effectiveness and what others believe to be true about them. We may feel like we know them quite well by the time we send a gift. They, on the other hand, may feel like our gift came out of the blue. They don’t know us and aren’t certain what to make of our gift. The responses are varied. 

In some instances, we received calls shortly after the gift was received. An attempt was made to ignite a relationship, (though I’m certain with the hope that we’d keep sending checks) which I appreciated given the personal nature of a call. For the record, I would have welcomed an email requesting an appointment to speak prior to the call, but we can’t have everything we want, right? I appreciated when asked, “Why us? What prompted your gift?” Usually when I explain our four value buckets and suggest how we believe the organization satisfies our investment interest, they seem delighted. 

At least two times, I’ve been asked by first-time recipients if they can write a magazine feature about our gift. My response is “yes, but…” I think that’s a premature request because they don’t yet know us sufficiently. They don’t know if we reflect their ideals (unless their ideal is the ability to make a gift). They don’t know the level of our commitment (and haven’t asked). They don’t know if something in our story would reflect poorly on theirs. They don’t know if our influence would be meaningful in attracting other gifts. In other words, they didn’t do enough homework to ask about publishing a story about our gift upon the first occasion. It’s a bit off-putting, honestly; and begs the question about their credibility, their deficiency in donor news, and their integrity for long-term relationship. On the other hand, if we were regular and faithful donors and there was rationale for including our story in their publication, that request might be more likely perceived as an honor.

Often, we receive a personal note from the executive director welcoming us into the donor family; occasionally, the gift amount qualifies for some giving society membership. In those cases, we may also receive a welcome letter acknowledging installation to that group of donors. We’ve likewise received hand-written notes from executive directors, presidents, or trustees. All of these represented appropriate responses in our opinion as relationship-building measures. Gestures to express appreciation without going overboard serve as useful avenues to launch a relationship.

We’ve been invited to events; in 2020-21, these have been hosted on Zoom. The stay-at-home rules have facilitated these early encounters with new donors particularly well and there is much to be learned by these limitations. Several of these events have been helpful in gaining greater familiarity with the organization and its people, and easing into relationship without substantial commitment. Had all of these events been in-person, we certainly would not have had the time or inclination to participate. Virtual events provide the right amount of early engagement. These events have been interesting and helpful to us; some are introductions to the organization for new donors (brilliant!); others have been more social in nature and still others have showcased what gifts make possible.

We’ve likewise been served form letter responses—always accompanied by a request for another gift. As a donor, while I’m not offended because I know the importance of asking, I am a bit put off. As a first-time donor, I’d like to think you want to say thanks and get to know me a bit before immediately soliciting my next gift (assuming there will be one). The immediate second request sends the vibe that I am perceived as a gift spigot rather than a colleague or partner in achieving a mission.

My favorite response came from a university advancement officer who responded immediately with an email of thanks and request for a conversation. When we spoke, he asked what our interests were, asking where we felt passion about what his university delivers. When we expressed our interests, he followed through first with information about some funding options we might wish to consider. He followed that with a newsletter that featured information and stories about our interests. That was followed by an invitation to attend an upcoming (virtual) special event showcasing faculty research and programming efforts around our interests. He has since followed with personal emails, notes and connection to others on his team. He is building a relationship with us—one that is motivating us to give again in the future. He’s set a pace for increasing familiarity and earning the right to ask again.

As a consultant, I tend to keep my own experiences and encounters tucked out of sight. I don’t want to be a sample of one. (It’s the same reason I didn’t use my own kids as recruitment guinea pigs.) Rarely does my own experience matter. That being said, as I’ve given greater consideration to the importance of relationships for our clients in generating revenue (tuition or gift income), my personal test measures have given me pause. I’m thinking of the Golden Rule, the wisdom spoken by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount ( recorded in Matthew 7 ): “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” 

If you need revenue, remember that you will also need relationships. And if you want to build relationships, practice behaviors that you hope others will practice with you. Be grateful. Ask what’s important to them. Learn more about them. Be personal beyond personalization. Pace yourself, leaving someplace to build toward. Say thank you again and again.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.