Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Fundraiser As Concierge

You’ve Got a Friend

By Adam Corson-Finnerty

Occasionally I am at a cocktail party and the following scene ensues:

Absolute stranger, extending hand: "Hey, I'm Lester Winsome. Haven't seen you before."

Me: "Adam Corson-Finnerty. Nice to meet you."

Lester: "What do you do, Adam?"

Me: "I'm a gift officer for VeryGoodCause."

Lester: "How 'bout that? A fundraiser… Well…. Say, I believe my wife is calling me. Gotta go."

Actually, taking a powder is one of the more polite responses when I tell people what I do for a living. There's the awkward "Oh…" followed by a long silence. Or the especially witty, "A fundraiser, huh? You must be good at picking pockets!"

But the joke is on the Lesters of the world. To paraphrase J.P Morgan, If you are worried about what a gift officer might cost you, then you can't afford one.

Seasoned philanthropists know that they have nothing to fear from a gift officer. Quite the opposite. The sole task of a fundraiser is to make donors happy. The best analogy would be with the concierge of a first-class hotel. His job is to make sure you have a good experience while you are sojourning, and that you want to return.

A top fundraiser is charming, polite, and accommodating. She has excellent social graces. She is a good listener, and is well-informed about the cause or program that you are considering for your investment of time and treasure. She respects the fact that you know how to manage your money (otherwise you wouldn't have any!). She knows that the decision to make a gift to her organization, or to another--or not at all--is completely in your hands. Her job is to let you know what you could accomplish by working through her institution. She wants you to be confident that your gift will be effective.

Don't get me wrong. I am not arguing that gift officers are selfless saints. Virtue is not the point. Functionality is the point. The function of a gift officer like me is the care and nurture of people like you. To put it simply: I am paid to work on your behalf.

Here are some examples, drawn from real life.

At International Relief Agency X, a major donor is interested in learning more about on-the-ground conditions in Laos. The development officer can obtain and clear raw field reports for review. When a member of the field staff returns to the U.S., a private briefing can be arranged for the donor. It is even possible to arrange a full-scale field visit, providing her with an opportunity to see and learn things about village life in Laos that would never be included in any tourist package.

At Prestigious University Y, a donor has endowed a professorship in Political Science. The concierge—oops, I mean development officer—can make sure that busy Professor Peabody writes to the donor at least once a year with details of what he has been up to. Or, how about lunch with Professor Peabody at the Faculty Club? And, while you are on campus, a meeting with the Dean to discuss the future of the Department or whatever is on your mind.

At Cancer Research Center Z, a donor family has underwritten the research of a very promising young doctor. In addition to reports on her work, the development officer may be able to provide personal access to other researchers, tours of the labs, and early information about new research plans. If the donor is seeking a cure for some form of cancer, the development officer can scan the literature and interview front-line researchers to bring the latest information about progress.

Thus far, what I have described may sound like standard major donor operating procedure, and it is. The "concierge" aspect comes in when the donor realizes that the development officer can provide assistance in all of his interactions with the institution, even very small matters. For instance, parking in a convenient location while visiting. For instance, getting an interview for the daughter of a close friend at good old Y University. For instance, finding out what clinical trials are coming up at Cancer Center Z, and what the criteria are for admission into the test group. For instance, making sure that no other development officer from his institution knocks on your door.

I have introduced donors to people they want to meet. I have taken an alum's college-age children out to lunch in faraway cities and then reported back to the anxious parent about how they are doing. I have tracked down books, obtained tickets, and advised them on donations to other institutions. I have petted their dog and made a fourth for bridge. It's all in a day's work.

But don't get carried away. There are limits, as one of my donors discovered a few years ago. He called one afternoon to ask if I would pen a few paragraphs for him on the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. "You can just email it to me," he said, explaining that his daughter was practicing for a big tennis match and was behind in her homework. I declined the honor.

So, the next time you meet someone at a cocktail party, and he or she says that they work in development, shake their hand and ask them to tell you about their institution or their field of service, just as you might if you had met a cancer researcher or a college professor. Don't worry about having your pocket picked. This is not about loose change. This is about big bucks, and if you have them, then you are in the driver's seat. If you don't, well then, have another drink and enjoy the free food.


Adam invites comments on his posts, and welcomes suggestions and tips for future "inside" looks at the art and practice of fundraising.

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