One of the biggest news stories in philanthropy last year was McKenzie Scott’s series of huge donations. They certainly were seen to many as a gift from above - lightning strikes from which some were fortunate enough to be beneficiaries. But Slate recently conducted an interview with the president of an institution that received $8 million from Scott: Donna Brown of Turtle Mountain Community College in South Dakota. According to President Brown, the gift process began with an inconspicuous email signaling “a donor who’s potentially interested in giving money to the college.” Scott had done research into TMCC, their situation, and their mission of bringing education to the Chippewa community. But President Brown still had to communicate their vision and what their unmet needs were to ensure her institution met Scott’s criteria.
The “angel donor” is every fundraiser’s dream, but there must be some lessons to be learned from this exchange. The circumstances Scott researched, as well as the questions President Brown was asked about the school's vision and needs, are common enough concerns of major donors. Why do donors have to find out about these details on their own?
In an age of digital communication and hyper-personalization, there’s no reason that all donors can’t stay “in the loop”. But many fundraisers put the burden of learning this info on the donors when it should be the fundraisers themselves starting these conversations. The point of this interview isn’t that a huge gift might be nice, it is what drew Scott’s attention to TMCC and how other organizations can learn from her priorities to communicate what matters.
Organizations can’t count on donors to do their own extensive research and wait for gifts to fall into their lap. Proactivity is key to helping donors stay current and aware of organizational needs now. If you leave all the legwork to them, a small segment may maintain loyalty, but you risk information getting misconstrued or not even communicated at all. Soon enough, those donors become distanced from new priorities.
This exact situation occurred at the University of Texas last year when major donors threatened to pull their gifts due to conflicting public and private messaging from school leadership in regards to football players leaving the field before the playing of the alma mater song. This sparring match could have been softened with better communication. A consistent dialogue with donors, rather than sporadic reactionary headlines, makes for a deeper relationship and potentially a more loyal giver.
Many fundraisers understand this and are on top of their messaging to their managed donors. But how many unmanaged donors are out there that aren’t being reached? Being able to communicate personally with more donors through the giving pyramid can prove beneficial in the long term, and even in the short term if that unassigned donor was considering making a major gift. It may not be an $8 million gift, but reverse-engineering McKenzie Scott’s decision-making process to better understand the donor mindset may guide communication for a holistic understanding of your organization and increase giving.
Of course, finding the time to dive deeper into the giving pyramid can be a daunting task. Managing a full portfolio doesn't leave fundraisers with much time to take the necessary steps to start building more relationships. Make sure you check out our fundraising toolkit "Reprioritizing A Fundraiser's Time" to learn how to create efficiencies within your existing workday to give yourself more time talking to donors, and ultimately, closing new gifts.