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Habits of Happy Donors

Several years ago, I offered to return a six-figure gift to a generous donor. Here’s what happened.

True Story

The gift was spontaneous, made in a moment of joyful appreciation but without input from the fundraising staff. Restricted completely, the gift was generous but didn’t cover even half the cost. I couldn’t fundraise for the balance because our goals had been set, and the organization wasn’t prepared to pay the difference.

The good news? This story has a happy ending, but how can it be avoided in the first place?

After two decades of major gifts fundraising, I’ve come to believe that the happiest donors are those who practice several simple habits before making a gift.

Three Habits of Happy Donors

1. Ask the organization what they need. Fundraising priorities are often set in concert with leadership and the board of directors. Budgets are built on these assumptions.

So, if you want to support new bleachers alongside the football field, but rain dripping through the roof is ruining the computer lab, the lab is a priority. This is where your gift can make the greatest impact and where you’ll be most appreciated.

Big Hint: Impact plus Appreciation leads to Extraordinary Donor Happiness!

2. Fund the entire project if you narrowly restrict your gift. When a donor provides partial funding for a purpose outside of the philanthropy’s strategy, tension is created, and an unspoken expectation is born: “You, dear fundraisers, go find the balance.”

In my experience, our philanthropy was spent on paper before the dollars were received. To change course and fundraise for a favorite donor project would impact other areas which had received priority.

Big Hint #2: Tension Does Not Translate into Happiness.

3. Prioritize operating needs. What if you came to believe that a major gift to operating expenses equates to funding human needs? I mean, if the lights aren’t on in the shelter, the homeless can’t be fed. If the educational center doesn’t have desks, chairs, and wi-fi, after-school tutoring may not happen.

Also known as “unrestricted support,” general operating pays for more than utilities and salaries. Unrestricted funds maintain buildings, strengthen technology platforms, pay for marketing and outreach, and reduce employee turnover by providing competitive benefits.

Donors are rewarded with a more mature nonprofit organization, which ultimately can make a greater impact.

Big Hint #3: Donors to Operating Funds May Be Happiest of All!

The Conclusion

After a few awkward minutes, I asked our generous benefactor if he would like to discuss alternatives. I knew his true love for our organization, and I’d intentionally prepared for this moment. In my folder, I had options that aligned his gift and his heart with our need.

At this point, he asked, “Is this where you need the money?”

“Yes!” I said. And, we both left happy.

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