Okay, I have to be honest. This wasn’t my worst day ever, but the day it happened it felt like the worst day ever. And, if I really think about it, it may have been my worst professional day ever.
So, here is what happened:
I had just started my second job as a development professional. I was in my late 20’s and ready to make my mark in the world. I was hired to be the development director of a small non-profit that trained people with disabilities in computer technology. It was a great mission. Take people who are on public assistance or on disability, train them, and find them high-paying jobs in the computer industry. Awesome, huh?
Since this was a small shop, I basically had to do a little bit of everything. Annual fund, events, grant-writing and cultivate major gifts. I loved it.
About a month into the job, after having reviewed all of our major donors, I came up with a list of donors who hadn’t given in a while…like maybe a couple of years.
One of these donors was a board member. I was salivating. Board member…hasn’t given in two years, and this guy had money!
I talked with the President of the non-profit and told him I wanted to meet with this board member and get to know him. The President was more than happy to have me get out and meet him.
So, I set up the meeting to go out to his workplace. Getting to know him??…all I’m thinking about on my drive over there is how I’m going to ask this guy for $20,000 and come back to present the check to my boss. I knew this guy had money and for goodness sakes he was a board member…how dare he not give?
I just knew when I got back to the office with that check the President would shake my hand, pop the champagne and wonder why he hadn’t hired me years ago. Oh, what a joyous day this was going to be.
I finally get to the office and sit down with the board member. For some reason this guy goes on and on about his work, his wife and kids, vacations…I’m not paying one bit of attention. All I’m looking for is the right opportunity to ask him for the money.
Then, a pause in the conversation…I jump on it, like white on rice. “Soooo”, I said, “you’ve been a board member for about 4 years and I noticed you haven’t given in the last couple of years…I’m wondering if you could make a $20,000 gift today?”
YES! I said it. I did the big ask…
“Wha?, um…I don’t…wait, hum…yeah, I think I can do that, I might need to move some things around, but I, I think that’s doable.”
I shake his hand, quickly say goodbye, pat myself on the back and speed back to the office to tell the President the great news!
“I’m awesome”, I thought. “Here I am only one month into the job, and I’ve already landed the biggest individual contribution in this non-profit’s history!”
I get to the office and the President is out the door ready to greet me…however, he doesn’t have a smile on his face. “Jeff, could you come into my office?” Huh? This isn’t sounding so good.
Then he goes on, “Jeff, what the hell happened with Tom?” (not real name) “ He just called and said he met with you and you blindsided him by asking for a $20,000 gift! He said he was so taken aback by your brashness he felt obligated to say yes. Jeff, he just resigned from the board!”
No knot in the history of humankind was wrapped so tightly around a stomach as it was mine at that moment. I thought I was going to pass out and die right there.
Luckily, my boss was a man of great compassion and grace. He knew my intentions were good…but my methods were….well, let’s just say it doesn’t smell good.
Needless to say, I learned a lot that day. The worst day of my professional career. But things eventually got better. Actually, some time later, I was able to go back to that board member and ask forgiveness. Soon afterward he came back to the board and gave us that $20,000.
If you have read any of those “Ten Reasons why Most Major Gift Programs Suck” from my previous posts, I think I butchered just about all of them with that one visit.
Here’s a quick recap of all I did wrong:
- I went after the money, not the relationship-all I was thinking about was bringing that check back instead of developing a relationship with this donor.
- I didn’t do my research—had I done my research I would have realized that Tom started a new business 2 years ago and was struggling financially. What a bonehead I was.
- I didn’t listen to the donor—Tom was trying to tell me who he was and all I was doing was thinking about how I was going to make the “ask.”
- No Plan—I didn’t have a real plan for Tom or any of the other major donors. I just was going to go at them and make them cough up some money.
- I didn’t look at this donor as a partner—I only looked at him as a source of cash, and even worse, as someone who “owed” the organization because he was on the board and hadn’t given in awhile. Gosh, how arrogant could I have been?
I guess you could say I grew up a lot that day. While it was an incredibly painful experience for me, it allowed me to reflect, learn and change the way I approached major gift fundraising.
I also learned a lot about grace, forgiveness and second chances. I always have appreciated the way my boss handled that situation. He allowed me to make a huge mistake and learn from it. For that, I will always be grateful.