From Through to With: The Art of Donor Relations

The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s recently released report, What Donors Value: How Community Foundations Can Increase Donor Satisfaction, Referrals, and Future Giving, on what donors want and value from community foundations reminds me of my first week of employment at the Maine Community Foundation some 15 years ago. I had applied for the position of vice president of program, but arrived on that first day, freshly scrubbed and nattily dressed, to discover that the title of my position had changed to vice president of philanthropic services.

If memory serves me correctly, the persuasive and charming president said something like, “We’ve changed your title and tweaked the responsibilities, but we think this makes more sense for where the foundation is going.” While a more discriminating and feisty candidate might have challenged her wily tactics, I was thrilled to be working at a community foundation even though I hadn’t a clue what philanthropic services were.

The logic behind our desire to increase our focus on donors made perfect sense at that time. It still does. Most donors arrive at our doorstep with their own ideas about giving. In other words, our relationship frequently begins with donors working through us. Over time, as we support their philanthropy and they learn more about our community work and its impact, donors gain more confidence and trust in us. With more confidence and trust comes greater willingness to support issues we care about. In other words, the goal has always been to move donors from working through us to working with us. Simply put, we know we are in the relationship business, and we want to exceed our donors’ expectations.

Not fully understanding the job in those early weeks, I nonetheless charged forward, working with staff, donors, and the board of directors in designing and implementing a program to support and engage our donors. While vestiges of that original program remain today, the effort has come a long way. It is much more sophisticated, embedded in our organizational culture and values, staffed by just about everyone in the organization, and led by a capable and creative vice president who spends part of each day thinking about how to maintain high touch, personal service in the face of consistent growth.

As the president of the foundation, I spend a portion of every week meeting, exchanging emails with, and talking to our donors. We share a deep and abiding interest in the future of Maine, and we want to make a difference. We care a lot about our communities. Many of our donors are global citizens whose perspectives on Maine and the world provide new insight. As a result of my relationships and conversations with them, I am much smarter about Maine communities, and I better understand the world in which I live.

We at the foundation operate from a belief that the best donor service staff are those who understand and can talk about our programs and their impact with donors. The vice president of finance is one half of the brain trust behind our impact investing program. The chief operating officer serves on the steering committee of an environmental funders’ network. The director of marketing and communications reviews applications for our journalism scholarship. Yours truly, all of our program officers, all vice presidents, all directors, and a few others have responsibility for a portfolio of donors.

Working with the vice president of philanthropic services and gift planning, we jointly develop goals for the year, which include personal contact, sharing grant proposals that are aligned with donors’ interests and subsequent reports on the progress of those grants, making connections between their interests and our priorities, or just making sure the donors know through our relationship with them that we do not take their philanthropy for granted.

I often tell the story about a donor from the Midwest who established an advised fund with us when she moved to Maine. Familiar with community foundations in her home state, she wanted to learn more about how we worked. The donor’s primary contact on staff made sure her anonymity was protected (none of us knew her name), provided her with funding opportunities aligned with her interests, made sure her grant recommendations were processed quickly, and regularly checked in with her, often with no agenda other than to say hello.

Five years after creating her fund, the donor died quite unexpectedly at a fairly young age. The foundation became the beneficiary of five field-of-interest funds totaling more than $12 million that support historic preservation, the downeast Maine region, traditional handicrafts, natural resources, and animal welfare.

Three years ago we invited a few donor advisors to lunch so that we could share our ambitious programmatic plans. We also invited them to consider modifying the ultimate purpose of their advised fund to give the foundation greater discretion over grant resources in the future. Much to our surprise, the dozen or so donors at the table applauded our request and  several changed the language in their fund agreements so that future generations at the Maine Community Foundation will have an abundance of flexible funds, one of them estimated to be about $40 million. I can think of no more powerful statement of confidence and trust.

While our growth in assets, continuous stream of repeat gifts from current donors, very favorable results of donor surveys, and financial support for some our work – irrespective of donor interests – are all indications that we’re doing many of the right things, we know we can be better. The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s report is a reminder that community impact and donor satisfaction go hand in hand. With few discretionary resources, the Maine Community Foundation depends on donors for their support of strategies we think will ensure the long-term sustainability of Maine communities. And for many of us, nurturing those relationships is one of the best parts of the job.

Meredith Jones is president and CEO of the Maine Community Foundation. You can read her blog at www.mainecf.org.

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