OP ED: Philanthropy Revolution – How to Inspire Donors, Build Relationships and Make a Difference (Part 2)

publication date: Mar 3, 2022
author/source: Maryann Kerr

Philanthropy Revolution: How to inspire donors, build relationships and make a difference is a highly readable first-person account from philanthropist, Lisa Greer and co-author Larissa Kostoff, that speaks to much that is broken in the way we “do” fundraising and philanthropy as professional staff.  It left me optimistic for the sector and hopeful that philanthropists, board members and staff will read the book and take Greer’s advice to heart. Nothing Greer writes is particularly new, however, coming as it is from a philanthropist, instead of a consultant or career fundraiser – perhaps it will be heard.  

I worked with a fundraiser, “Layla,” who changed the tone, tenor and volume of her voice every time she spoke to one of our “major gift” donors. Her voice became sugary, high pitched, condescending and thoroughly inauthentic. It was so clearly “put on” that during a conference call with one of our most generous donors, the donor snapped at Layla to “please stop using that horrible, saccharin voice!” 

I was shocked at the donor’s outburst and after the call went to check in on Layla. Layla was fine. Unfortunately, Layla failed to understand what this donor was talking about and did not take the feedback to heart. She figured the donor was just being her “usual” cranky self. 

I say “unfortunately” because I’d been wanting to raise the issue with Layla for some time. As I thought about how to empathetically deliver some much-needed course correction, this donor beat me to it. This left me feeling some responsibility for the scolding Layla took. I could have helped her avoid the donor’s wrath and frankly, I could have kept the donor from being spoken to like a child in need of kid glove treatment. Clearly it wasn’t the first time the donor had experienced this, and her frustration bubbled to the surface. 

Getting beyond archetypes

In Philanthropy Revolution Greer writes, “If you treat me like an archetype, I can tell. I can see it in the restaurant you’ve picked for our meeting, or the tone of your voice on the phone – especially how your tone rises in pitch, about three seconds in, the moment I say: “This is Lisa.” I’m not fancy like that, and I don’t need your deference.” (p. 55) Those words are a gift. And, though I believe Greer seeks to represent donors in a general sense, generalizing about donor motivations and expectations is never a good idea.

In my experience, there are many donors who do expect deference - donors who believe their wealth, and privilege afford them deference from others. This is what makes Greer’s approach to philanthropy a breath of fresh air. 

Greer wants to engage with social impact sector staff on a purely human level. Person to person. Not “person of wealth” to “person wanting a piece of that wealth for their cause.” Essentially, Greer is talking about stripping away the barriers of “class” that keep us from having authentic conversations. If you were raised to believe that “having money” makes you somehow better, that your life’s goals should include bigger, better, and more or if you get weak in the knees at the idea of meeting someone famous, then you may struggle with the idea that people just want to be treated like people. And I wouldn’t blame you. 

A plea for trust

While we may believe that the class system is a remnant of the days of Downton Abbey, it simply isn’t true. Our society is still stratified based on “income, wealth, education, and occupation.”   Most of us buy into the idea of a six-tiered class system – upper, upper middle, middle, lower middle, working and lower classes, even if only subconsciously. While it is out of fashion to speak about society in these terms, it doesn’t mean the stratifications don’t exist. 

Greer’s family experiences over their first ten years as philanthropists are an embarrassment to our work. Yet, every example of poor behaviour Greer shared was entirely believable. Greer speaks to lunch meetings where fundraisers: failed to have even the most basic knowledge about Greer’s philanthropic interests, fawned over her handbag, stuck to a prepared script and failed to answer even the simplest of questions about their organization’s work. Admittedly, Greer points out “Fundraisers have told me time and again that a single, unwitting slight to a donor can jeopardize years of relationship-building, not to mention that donor’s support. Hence all the scripted, superficial, spiritless interactions that are designed to leave no room for error.” (p.23)

In some ways, Greer’s plea is simple. Treat us like the fully functioning, educated adults we are. People with passions, interests, skills and ability, not just money. She writes, “Wouldn’t it be great to get to a place where organizations trust donors enough to be transparent, and donors trust organizations enough to let them lead? That place is where we realize that we want the same thing: organizations that are as effective as they are visionary, and outcomes that change the world.” (p. 48)

Social status and class

There are two things I share with all new fundraisers. First, meet folks where they are. If they call you by your first name, you call them by their first name. Second, as you build a relationship, be authentic about your “why” and remember it is about being friendly – not friends. Does that mean that donors never become friends or friends’ donors? Of course not. However, it is a slippery slope and brings us full circle to the conversation about social status and class. 

Our relationships with donors are professional in nature. If the professional relationship morphs into friendship, it is important to set boundaries around that. Here’s a story that illustrates why. 

I joined an organization as the Chief Advancement & Alumni Relations Officer. I worked with the top tier of donors and alumnae, one of whom was a woman in her mid ‘70’s whose husband died and left her extraordinarily wealthy. Far wealthier, she shared with me, than she realized when he was alive. 

The person who previously worked with this donor, let’s call her Sue, had moved to a new area within the organization. Sue often inserted herself in the relationship between the donor and the organization, to ensure the organization engaged the donor as Sue felt we should. As the “newbie” to the organization, this posed some challenges.

I came to learn that Sue’s relationship with this donor crossed ethical boundaries and created unrealistic expectations from the donor, of the organization and of her new relationship with me. I came to learn that the donor, who had lots of family but no children of her own, spent Christmas, birthdays, and other holidays with Sue’s family and was godmother to one of her children. Sue and her family vacationed at the donor’s Florida home. 

Sue, whose children are set to benefit personally from this professional turned personal relationship, had no intention of doing anything unethical. She was kind, friendly and trying to help a donor have a good experience with an organization that mattered to her. However, Sue lacked the training to understand the difference between being friendly and being friends. The lack of boundaries in this donor’s relationship with Sue created a multitude of complex challenges that exist to this day. 

When philanthropists like Greer and her husband seek to break down some of the social norms and proprieties that the class system upholds, it can cause confusion (even as it is received with a sigh of relief from this career fundraiser). Greer writes, “Most donors probably figure that nobody wants to hear a rich person kvetch about how hard it is to give money away.” (p 308) That did cross my mind, but it was my own bias kicking in.  

Bad behavior exists on both sides of the philanthropic relationship. To achieve Greer’s vision of fundraisers and philanthropists being transparent and engaging in authentic dialogue will take considerable effort but will be worth the journey. It will require us to examine our own relationships to money and power and, as Greer suggests, empathy is key. 

The love factor

Greer speaks to the late Peter Karoff’s work. Karoff, known as the “father of philanthropic advising” believed that empathy was at the root of the most effective philanthropic partnerships. He believed empathy moves relationships “out of the arena of power and dependency and into something much deeper.” (p.307) Karoff writes of the relationships between donors, organizations and the communities they serve saying: “These are the ‘influences’ of a pretty complex system that is part cognitive, part non-cognitive, and therein lies the ‘love’ factor. Therein lies the art.” Greer writes, “I love the idea that there’s a ‘mystery’ in gift relationships and that if you add enough empathy, the outcome moves beyond measurable evidence.” (p.307) 

Indeed. For me, this comes down to remembering that in spite of current rhetoric to the contrary, intention does matter on the learning journey to co-create a new philanthropic sector. If we envision a sector that is not about those with power, wealth and influence deigning to share their riches, but about all of us (donors, fundraisers and the communities we work with) putting our biases aside to engage for all of our greater good, than we will see each other as equally imperfect human beings – not tropes.

Maryann Kerr, is Chief Happiness Officer, and CEO with the Medalist Group and an Associate Consultant with Global Philanthropic Canada. Maryann has worked in the social profit sector for 34 years and helped raise over $110M for small to mid-sized organizations. She is passionate about her family, feminism, and continuous learning and is seeking a sponsor to fund her Ph.D.  Her first book Tarnished: Let’s rethink, reimagine and co-create a new social impact sector was published by Civil Sector Press in 2021.

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