My first, and still perhaps one of the most illustrative experiences I’ve had of the importance of a close relationship with major donors, came almost twenty years ago when I was Head of Trust Fundraising at the National Theatre.
News of a legacy came out of the blue from a woman previously known to us only as a ticket buyer, whose husband had passed away. Her note simply said that the legacy was in celebration of the happy visits they had made to the theatre together. I can still remember looking at their box office record and seeing amongst an active attendance record, the multiple visits they had made to Tom Stoppard’s plays. The theatre contacted Tom for me and, thoughtful as always, he sent the widow a handwritten note thanking her for the pledge and offering his condolences.
Not long afterwards, I received another letter telling me how much they had enjoyed and admired Tom’s work and that his note had been a wonderful source of solace at a very sad time. The legacy also increased substantially.
At the time, I had simply been pleased that we’d been able to reciprocate such a personal gift. But when the second letter came and the gift increased, I fully realised something I had implicitly known all along; a gift made openly and managed well can be transformational for everyone involved.
Not every donation can be so resonant with meaning. Nevertheless, the importance of understanding the interests of a donor as an individual is something I’ve kept in mind ever since.
Not everyone perceives major gift giving this way. Recently, a trustee of one of the charities I work with said to me that he was “suspicious of fundraising”. As we explored his concerns, it became clear that what he meant was the idea of altruism. When I explained that I don’t believe in altruism, only philanthropy and a mutual exchange, he relaxed and soon related a positive experience of his own.
Despite the pleasure this exchange seems to bring everyone who engage with it, too many charities I meet only think about their needs and not the possibilities of philanthropy. To put it another way, they think about the money they want and not what they can offer. As a result, they often end up selling products, not advocating philanthropic exchange.
Often of course, this is due to the sheer pressure of workload and the need to operate as efficiently as possible. But I also think it’s a confusion which has set in, partly as a result of the patrons schemes which are a critical part of the voluntary income of many of our major arts organisations. These schemes, which are often used as the gateway drug to philanthropy, can sometimes set the tone for the approach to philanthropy as a whole. If fundraisers developing their skills and experience cut their teeth on patrons schemes, without the aspiration and model of philanthropy in mind, it can be difficult to understand the model at a later stage. I commonly see fundraisers struggle with this idea when supporting organisations in implementing capital programmes and moving to major gift fundraising.
I was recently asked a very simple and direct question by a colleague from BOP Consulting, which I found surprisingly hard to answer: “Why are ticket-driven patrons schemes referred to as philanthropic?” I found myself without a simple response and after trying to coherently explain the lack of appreciation of arts organisations as charitable bodies, the history of arts philanthropy in the UK and the hybrid nature of the UK adaptation of the US model, I ultimately realised that my response should in fact be: “Great question!”
Donors understand the difference between benefits-driven support and philanthropic gifts far better than we commonly give them credit for. When the National Theatre undertook the NT Future campaign, it had concerns (as most organisations would) about the impact of the capital campaign on revenue income. In fact, revenue income increased and became the largest voluntary income stream for the first time, as donors had been waiting to be asked to give philanthropic gifts beyond the benefits-related patrons schemes.
By carefully cultivating and nurturing the individuals who had become involved through ticket access schemes over a number of years, the NT were able to successfully convert them to philanthropy. The hard work they put into getting to know these people paid dividends with the increase in income from individuals and the establishment of a new philanthropic base.
However for some organisations, the kind of investment needed to get to know, build close relationships with and make donors feel part of organisations is both substantial and something few have readily available. We need all the support we can get.
Twenty years ago I peered at a vast computer and was lucky enough to be able to pick out those multiple visits to Tom’s plays in the couple’s record. Today we have a wealth of resources available to us to help record and understand the interests of individuals, making our ability to deal with larger groups of individuals far more manageable. But even if all you have at your disposal is that box office data and even if all you can manage is to care for a small group of people, then use your data to pick them carefully (remembering the combination of wealth, philanthropy and proximity) and look after them as individually as you can. There are great treasures waiting to be found.
This is a guest blog post by Caroline McCormick, Director of Achates Philanthropy.