I will never forget the day I sat in a meeting with a group of leaders of a major non-profit and said to them, “OK, I want to stop for a moment of reflection and ask a question. Think carefully about your answer.” And then I asked the question, “Who owns this non-profit?”
There was an eerie silence in the room as this group of thoughtful, professional and competent leaders processed their thoughts.
“George does!” blurted out one person. “He’s the founder.”
“No,” said another person. “It’s the board of directors. They own this organization. They are elected and appointed to govern it. They own it.”
“Well, it’s the staff and leadership, including the board that owns this organization,” the program director said, putting a finer point on the statement of the person just before him. “They really do represent the interests of the cause we are committed to.”
I remembered asking this same question of the leadership of a Christian faith-based organization. Several people confidently asserted that God owned the non-profit. That was an interesting discussion that wound its way around the core thought that, for a person of faith, God actually owns everything. So, we really didn’t get too far there.
After about 15 minutes of heated debate and discussion, the room got quiet again. So, I jumped in and said: “OK, let’s look at this from another point of view. Who owns United Airlines, Apple, Microsoft or Exxon? Pick any company, not privately held, and tell me who owns them?”
“The shareholders do,” said the finance director. And after processing that some shareholders own more of a stake than others, we all agreed that that was the correct answer.
I continued: “Who are the shareholders in a non-profit?”
“The donors,” said the CEO confidently. “The donors own it.”
“Then why do we act like we own it?” I asked.
And then we jumped into the most interesting and helpful part of the discussion, making some very good points like:
- What does it really mean to be donor centered? What implications are there for program, finance, operations, fundraising, marketing etc.?
- Could we do a better job of responding to donors when they ask questions or express concerns?
- Why wouldn’t we let donors sit at the decision making table of the non-profit?
- Is there a more representative way to govern a non-profit that gives donors a stronger say in how it operates?
- What areas of the organization would be impacted more if donors were involved in decision making?
- Why don’t we fundamentally trust or value a donor’s view or opinion about how we operate?
We did a lot of soul searching. And it was good.
Here is how this applies to you and major gift work. You may not be able to substantially change the course or leadership culture of the organization you work for. But you can change the style, tone and content of your relationship to your caseload donors.
And that is where it would be good to start treating each donor as a shareholder of the organization, not just a source of money.