Let the Donors Decide

Over the past several weeks we have been telling people “it’s the donors’ money, shouldn’t we let them decide what they want to do with it?” This has largely been in response to boards and staff who believe that the economy is bad so they should not ask anyone to give. But even if many people have less than they had before, shouldn’t we still give them the courtesy and opportunity to make up their own minds about how to deploy it? (And some people are actually doing well!)

We have seen this same line of thinking applied to the planning of capital and endowment campaigns as well. Museums that were planning campaigns have decided to shelve feasibility studies because of the economy and feeling that they won’t get good information. But, our experience in conducting these studies over the past six months does not support that thinking.

We’ve completed four such studies in the past 30 days, all of which had interviews conducted from November to April, right in the heart of the stock market freefall. In two of those studies the donors overwhelmingly encouraged the organizations to move forward with plans for a campaign, in spite of the economy, and indicated levels of support sufficient to floor those campaigns. Among those were a number of donors making gifts that would represent the largest gifts the donor had ever committed to the organizations. In the two other cases donors did not advise moving forward or indicate support for the proposed projects. However, in those cases the “problem” was not the economy; the problem was poorly conceived plans and/or lack of donor cultivation or engagement. In short, those donors were not saying “not now, because of the economy,” they were saying “not ever, because I don’t buy it.”

We’ve found that with well-phrased questions, we can determine what donors are willing to consider contributing – now and when things “improve” – and that, while the economy is certainly a challenge, it has not completely eroded donor enthusiasm for well-thought-out and necessary projects.

So, what’s my point? My point is, let’s not make the assumption that our donors can’t or don’t want to make gifts – to either annual, capital or endowment efforts – because of the recession. They were smart enough to wind up with all that money, so I’ll bet they are smart enough to figure out how to use it as well. After all, it is their money, shouldn’t we be allowing them to decide what to do with it and when?