Don’t I know you from somewhere?

Published by Paulien Boone on

YOUNG-TALENT-logo-e_news3Recently the Dutch Fundraising Institute  announced the winner of the second annual Young Fundraising Talent contest. You can read the essay from last year’s winner here, and below a translation of the winning essay this year, by Paulien Boone.

This year’s theme was “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” and Paulien, with her entry, has won a trip to the AFP Conference in San Antonio, Texas. We wish her luck and lots of fun!


That familiar and addictive icon popped up on my phone: new message alert. It’s from a friend I used to see nearly every day for years; when we were both students in Groningen and did everything together. We’ve been trying to connect for weeks and with no luck. We live 250 kilometers apart and don’t get to see each other so often these days. And with so much distance I don’t quite know how to begin a conversation and I default to the easy questions: “How are the kids?” and “Have you finished your thesis?”

Fortunately we know we’ll see each other again, but our friendship stands in contrast to those that I can easily maintain — thanks to lively WhatsApp groups, evenings in the bar, happy hours, dinners, parties and sporting events, I usually know exactly what my friends and family are up to. And vice versa. That’s why we are always there for each other, whether it’s for a restaurant tip, help with a move or to check out the latest film that we’ve both heard so much about. I’m always moving effortlessly between the different groups of people in my life: different groups of friends, my sports teams, my family, my in-laws and my colleagues.

It’s always a challenge as a fundraiser to have real relationships. Professionals try it on the street with opening lines and questions that serve an end: that you will offer up that you too want to save rainforests or put an end to AIDS, at which point there’s only one clear answer: fill in the pledge form that suddenly appears. It’s the nonprofit equivalent of the old pick-up line, “don’t I know you?” And it must work, because so many organisations continue to use it.

A line like that on the dating scene can lead to any one of many possibilities. The dreaded cold shoulder one on hand, and the resulting dent in your ego, and the softer, friendlier and yet still bruising “I’m already taken”. On the other end of the spectrum: success and its many possibilities, from a new number in your phone to a one night stand to a new relationship.

Rejection happens a lot on the street, and I admire the fundraiser that can keep smiling and simply try again with the next passer by. To improve the odds, the offers get easier: the shopping public can help with a one-time SMS donation. It’s the one-night stand of gifts: it means a score for the fundraiser, but short of any further cultivation of the donor, there’s little chance of a second gift. It’s a shame… the donor could very well have been interested in more.

The low value of this particular fundraising technique is well considered. The easiness of it makes it so difficult to refuse, and clever tactics are used in the conversation on the street to seal the deal: connection to the issue, feelings of guilt, haste, discomfort and generosity all come into the mix. As passer by you are simply one sent SMS away from doing good and getting on your way. All you have to do is grab that telephone burning a hole in your pocket.

This type of method fits the times in which we live. The choice to support is no longer simply made once, with decades of gifts in our lifetimes and a legacy at death. These lifelong loyalties are for most fundraising organisations a thing of the past. Donations are more often scrutinized, for example when planning one’s finances or when an organisation is marred in the media. Donors no longer marry an organisation, for better or for worse. We can no longer expect exclusivity in the donor markets in which we fundraise, and maybe we don’t deserve to. We ourselves are in fact constantly playing the field, looking around for other sources of funding. And the donor gets the short end of the relationship with a newsletter and an annual holiday card – including a request for an extra gift. Our own partners would be long gone if we behaved that way at home.

It’s high time we rethink our relationship with the donor – neither going out for a flirt, nor for a marriage, but what we really need: a friendship.

When it comes to donor relationships, friendship is the perfect basis from which to build. Friendships are dynamic, with both room to grow or, when needed, to give each other space. And most important, based on a genuine caring for one another. The interaction that we have with those around us makes friendship a crucial contribution to our happiness in life. We are inspired by others, but can also give back by helping each other, buying a round, or organising a get-together. Countless studies have shown how fundamental the needs are that we fill by being social, both giving and receiving.

These basic human needs apply to our work as well. In fact it’s why we chose our field: we want to contribute to the world we’re a part of, and we do our small part via the organisations for which we’ve chosen to work. It’s no different for those outside of our sector. They also want to be seen, contribute to their community and be valued as the unique individuals they are. And simply to label each as donor and book them away in a database with a twenty each month is a huge missed opportunity for us and for them.

timthumb.phpWouldn’t it be wonderful if we were able to actually develop a warm friendship with the donor? One in which we get to know each other because we really are interested. Not so that she will send that €20 or because we send a pen with the newsletter, but because we like each other. That is the kind of friendship that will last and grow. And it’s also forgiving: when we are friends, there’s even room for mistakes. When the friendship is thick, we are even each other’s champions. Someone who is excited about an organisation talks about it at parties and insists that her friends sponsor her in a walk-a-thon. And organisations that are really excited by the support that they receive show it in everything they do.

There must be a basis for a strong friendship, whether it’s between two people or a person and an organisation. Every friendship is unique, and there are as many beginnings as there are friendships. Sometimes they start at a party of a mutual acquaintance. Some start with a shared interest like sports or theatre. Sometimes two people inspire each other in life or work. From that beginning you get to know one another and the friendship grows to other parts of your life: your teammate becomes your business partner and your colleague becomes a tennis friend.

It’s the same for fundraising organisations. When there’s a basis for a relationship – a monthly donation, volunteer work, participation in an event – there’s a basis for growth. The chances are unlimited: the donor turns out to be a marketing specialist, the volunteer becomes a coordinator and the event participant brings along 20 extra runners the following year. In their own unique ways, each of the relationships evolves.

We as fundraisers need to ask ourselves what makes us good friends to others. That starts with valuing the donor, being open to more and taking a genuine interest. What can we offer that enriches his or her life? Can we make ourselves approachable, just like we would do in any other friendship? We does the donor expect from us and how can we exceed her expectations? Once we have the answers to these questions, our work can really begin.

It is easier than it may seem. Show who you are and what you stand for. Not solely with strategies thought up by marketing teams, but throughout the whole organisation. Call it in meetings the “donor experience” and “contact strategy” if you need to, but mean it. Be honest about the challenges you face. Ask the donor what he wants to contribute with his support. Show the results of your efforts. Put people in the spotlight when they – sometimes literally – go the extra mile to make the work possible.

When we’re honest about it, donors understand that the work of our organisation can we be challenging and that we need their support. When we make our ambitions clear, help can come from unexpected places. And when we demonstrate how grateful we are for what our supporters do and give, the chances are better that they will keep helping.

Especially in this time of global connection, social networks and increased transparency, we have everything we need to have a real relationship with our donors and work together with them to achieve our aims. When we are authentic and incorporate our natural interest in others in our work, we and our organisations will be truly able to turn our contact with the donor into a warm friendship. And only then is it okay when it’s sometimes difficult to stay in touch: we know the foundation is good, even if we would prefer to speak more often.

Well, I know when I need to do: somewhere in Groningen a telephone is ringing.

Paulien Boone

Paulien Boone is the winner of the Dutch Institute of Fundraising's 2014 Young Fundraising Talent essay contest. She currently works as a fundraiser for CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality in the Netherlands.


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