Are you an isolationist or relationship-builder?

Development professionals: how do you describe the work you do? Do you tell people that you raise/earn money for a good cause? Or do you tell them that you build relationships on behalf of a good cause? Do you find prospective donors and “sell” the organization to them? Or do you help connect prospective donors with opportunities that match their passions and interests?

Here is the crux of my post: do you see other nonprofit organizations that serve a similar clientele or focus on similar issues as yours as competition or partner? Foe or friend? Are you an isolationist or a relationship-builder? almost seems that the isolationist fundraiser sees the work they do and their arena in very limited terms, as if the community of prospective donors and friends can be likened to a birthday party pinata. When the pinata breaks, children scramble over each other to grab as much candy as they can, knowing that there is only a limited amount and once all of the candy is grabbed… it’s gone.

I believe that the relationship-builder philosophy is a much healthier way to view what we do in development. Prospective donors want to support organizations with missions that excite them, speak to them, and are important to them. Our job is to connect these prospective donors with the most appropriate giving opportunities… even if that means not our organization at the moment. This is relationship-building — being responsive and considerate of the donor’s desires and wishes, respecting their decisions and continuing to maintain our friendship with them. My favorite movie scene that best describes this is from the mid-90s remake of Miracle on 34th Street (yes, I know, not the original, please don’t hold it against me). when Allison Janney goes to the manager of the department store to report that Santa sent her to another store for a better price on a toy? Her speech to the manager sticks with me: “Tell Santa he made a Cole’s shopper out of me. I’m coming here for everything but toilet paper. Any store that puts the parent ahead of the almighty buck at Christmas deserves my business.” My point is that if prospective donors choose not to support your organization at the moment, it most likely means that it was not the right time to ask for a gift and/or it is not a good fit… but focusing on maintaining the relationship and continuing to engage them (at a level they are most comfortable with) is still a win-win.

Here is another reason isolationism can backfire — seeing other nonprofit organizations as your competition for that limited pinata candy. The fact is, the vast majority of donors give to more than one organization. According to Cygnus Research, 46% of donors aged 65 and older gave to 11 or more charities in 2011 alone! That is a lot of pinata candy to go around! Viewing other organizations as competition is unnecessary since donors give to more than one charity at a time. It is true that the economy has had a negative effect on donations the last few years (though indications are that giving is up again), but for the most part, donors are choosing to stop their support of an organization for other reasons: poor stewardship, lack of communications and engagement, a relationship management misstep, or they were simply not asked for another gift.

What are the benefits of being a relationship-builder with other organizations that do work similar to yours? There are probably 1,000 reasons why these relationships are important, but here are a few off the top of my head:

  1. Other organizations may be more willing to refer clients or better-suited donors to your organization;
  2. Making friends allows your staff to exchange ideas on best practices and network with the other staff;
  3. Since you are focused on the same issues or clientele, collaborating and joint problem-solving will help strengthen what you offer your community, and make the organizations more efficient;
  4. Grant makers often ask if you work with other organizations and in what capacity.

Plus, a philosophy of competitive isolationism may mar your organization’s reputation and standing in the community. You don’t want to be known as the kid who doesn’t play well with others, do you?

Let me know what your thoughts are on this subject.


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