In the past 15 years, I have been in countless conversations with givers. I’ve listened to stories that exemplify practically every personality type you can imagine, from quiet and thoughtful to loud and opinionated. A thread of embarrassment runs through all the stories. For some, it’s about too little to give; for others, too much too late. Other stories hint at long-held family beliefs that it is shameful to talk about giving, wrong to boast.
On one day, a woman sat in my office and discussed an expected sizeable gift that a terminally ill friend with no living family was leaving to her, trusting she would do something significant and impactful with the gift. She had no role models for giving at this level and embarrassed she didn’t know where to get help.
On a different day, a gentleman sought me out at a fundraiser event to let me know he and his wife needed to talk with someone about several giving decisions. What was remarkable about that short conversation was how smoothly he went from a normal tone speaking with a friend to a hushed voice I could barely hear as he caught my attention while passing by me.
Talking about giving is uncomfortable for donors, and yet a subject of frequent discussion among nonprofit executives and fundraisers. In fact, they make a study of the topic. They study donor behavior, talk about it among themselves, attend conferences on the subject and read about it all the time.
Why is it that the donor, who should be an expert on giving, knows less about it than the nonprofits in search of donors? It’s akin to hunters knowing more about lion behavior than lions know themselves. Something seems terribly wrong with this picture.
From the outside looking in, the donor looks humble and modest about their giving. On the inside, the donor feels self-conscious about their questions, confused with the answers, more puzzled than informed.
In college, I had a professor who had transitioned from the real world of law enforcement to attaining a doctoral degree and going on to teach at several universities. His class was interesting in a real-world sense. By the end of the semester, we felt better prepared for what lay ahead in our own real world. He had done both, become an experienced law enforcement officer and then studied it to understand how to be an even better officer.
He shared many experiences from 10 years of policing, which included 10 years of mistakes and lessons.
Follow his model, and donors can ward off the embarrassment that impedes their ability to learn what will make them a better donor. A better donor is excited about the opportunities they have to make a difference.
Talking about philanthropy with another donor should not be invasive. How much they give isn’t important. Learning about their why and how is important. It’s an opportunity to let someone share with you what they are passionate about. That’s not embarrassing; it’s gratifying.
Here is a starting place to get the conversation going.
Ask a fellow donor why they give to a particular organization. What attracts them to the work they do?
Ask if they’ve been giving for several years. Have they increased their donation over time, and if so, why?
Ask if they have a particular goal in mind, something they want to accomplish with their donation.
When donors talk about philanthropy, they learn from each other, they learn with each other, they influence the giving decisions of others and they become what Dame Stephanie Shirley calls an ambassador for philanthropy.
Dame Shirley is a leading English philanthropist. In her words, donors become “philanthropic leaders, when open and articulate about why they give, have the positive power to influence others in ‘the crowd’ to follow suit, becoming, in essence, an ambassador for philanthropy.”
Since many organizations list their donors in newsletters, it’s not hard to make a list of those from whom you would like to learn. Look for opportunities to strike up a conversation and listen to their giving stories. Remember to listen for why and how, and what you learn will help you give well.