Philanthropy should be personal, not pitched

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Recently we had an orientation for new members of the board of directors at the Community Foundation. We were talking about various fund types and options for donors, and it was suggested that we give our standard "sales pitch" to them so they could use it with others.

Sounds reasonable, right? We multiply our "sales" force, and board members are able to help grow the Community Foundation, increasing the dollars supporting the community.

The challenge? We don't have a standard pitch.

When potential donors approach us, the most important thing is that we determine what they want to accomplish. What is their passion?

When we understand that, we can determine what tools and resources we have to assist them - or not. There are occasions, after all, when the donor is better served to look elsewhere for help.

We can be many things, but we cannot be everything. And sometimes we could do what they want, but it could be done more efficiently or most cost-effectively elsewhere.

When I worked as an academic advisor in higher education, there were times when students came to me for one thing - permission to quit, or change their program.

Parents or their employers wanted them to attend. The student was unhappy, and wanted me to fix his or her unhappiness.

My "clients" were working adults in the graduate programs I managed. And working adults need to make their own decisions. I gave them permission to do so. After all, they knew what they wanted.

Sometimes, I even suggested a different university, where the program offerings were more aligned with their real interests. Sometimes I suggested a delay in completion of the program, knowing that a wedding or pregnancy or a new job were interfering with the timing of coursework.

Some of my best work was in sending people elsewhere, or simply giving them permission to delay. Happily, as a result, they sent others to me, telling them that I would be "straight" with them and give them "truth." And our programs grew.

Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful when board members want to help draw people to the Community Foundation; they should.

But it should be based on their own passions and experiences with us, and the knowledge that if their passion for our good service can draw people to the staff, we can provide our best service to community members interested in philanthropy.

I suggest to all nonprofit organizations: Be a resource, not a sales pitch. Donors are attracted to your organization because what you are doing speaks to them. There is a reason they are drawn to the work you do and the solutions you propose.

Be real. If you win the pitch, but eventually the donor is dissatisfied because in the long run you aren't what they expected, it will be worse for you and for them.

People live generously based on their passion and expectations, and it is better to meet them and be real than to "sell" and disappoint.

Denise K. Spencer is president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry. cf-lowcountry.org

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