What Kind of Friend are You? Building Relationships That Last

The world lost a noted philanthropist over the holidays with the death of Robert Wilson, who in his lifetime gave over $500 million to various charities. And while we generally don’t use this space to comment on the giving habits of individual philanthropists, there was an interesting fact in his obituary that we felt was worth some discussion.

World Monuments Fund, an organization dedicated to preserving architectural and cultural heritage sites worldwide, was a significant beneficiary of Mr. Wilson’s generosity. At the height of his support, Wilson gave a $100 million matching fund grant to the organization which ultimately generated $300 million in support for the organization.

According to The Washington Post article, Mr. Wilson’s relationship with World Monuments Fund began when he received a “direct-mail appeal from the group seeking donations of $25 or more.” According to Bonnie Burnham, the president of the organization, he responded with a check for $5,000.

It goes without saying that Mr. Wilson wasn’t the typical direct response donor. Nonetheless, it is clear that the team at World Monuments Fund did a lot of things right in order to parlay a $5,000 gift into millions of dollars of support.

And that is worth thinking about.

Because the only way to make the most of your direct response program is to think about how to build a deeper relationship with a person that you have never met.

I’ll be the first to say that this is not an easy task. But my own recent experience as a donor demonstrates how important it is that we try.

As I spent time over the holidays planning my own year-end giving, I looked back at the groups I had given to last year. I was astounded to note that my relationship with many of these groups hadn’t really progressed at all. In fact, it was unclear to me whether my gift made any difference to them at all. And for that reason, some of those groups were going to be replaced this year.

I wonder how many donors have that same experience, and if that is why so many groups struggle to hang on to their donors.

So I’d like to suggest that now is a perfect time to think about the relationships we are building with our direct response donors – and to make some New Year’s resolutions about the type of friendships we want to build. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Be the kind of friend who says “thank you” when you receive a gift.
  2. Be the kind of friend who keeps in touch with good news and accomplishments.
  3. Most of all, be the kind of friend who realizes that great relationships are built when each party thinks about the other more than themselves.

If we can turn these resolutions into strategies, then 2014 will probably be a much better year for our organizations and our donors.

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