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My Way or No Way – Fundraiser Nightmares and How to Wake up From Them

By Tom Watson on July 31, 2008No Comment

My Way or No Way, Lilya Wagner

(Continuation of last month’s major gifts saga, available here.

James’s search for the “just right” job finally ended. It seemed like a good fit: a small college with fairly good alumni participation, and a set of goals that seemed reasonable. Best of all, the attitude of “show me the money and show it to me now” hadn’t been prevalent at his interview. Maybe this organization had a realistic perspective about fundraising, James thought, and reasonable expectations of major gift acquisition. In fact, he felt so positive about the fundraising goals, the job in general, and the organization itself that had been presented to him, that he signed on with Ballard College as vice president for advancement.

However, he quickly realized that his interviewers had forgotten to tell him about some plans for fundraising, and that he had neglected to ask enough pertinent questions. He soon learned that Ballard College was planning for a $6 million capital campaign, but without a feasibility study in place. Because the campaign had already been announced, James promptly immersed himself in serious prospect research to identify potential donors, and began to meet with volunteers who could join the core development team.

A name that quickly surfaced was Max Smith. At 82 years old, he was looking back toward his roots and trying to find meaning and involvement for the rest of his life. He had made small annual gifts and was an alumnus. After graduation from Ballard, he’d had a rocky start as a teacher, which disillusioned him about his ill-chosen profession, so he developed machinery that would harvest cotton much more effectively and over a short time became a millionaire. Until retirement he had lived the typical Type A life. He was driven to succeed and had decidedly done so. Now, in his retirement years, he was at a loss on how to fill his days and find fulfillment. He had no children or grandchildren on whom to lavish attention, so he began attending homecomings at his alma mater.

After developing a short prospect report, James and rest of the development staff shared this information with the board development committee. Susan, a member of the committee, said, “I know Max. He’s hard to work with but he means well. I think he has great potential for sharing his expertise and for becoming a significant volunteer, and of course, he has the means by which to make a lead gift.” The staff began laying out a plan on how James could introduce the campaign idea to Max, what information he should take with him, and when a visit should take place (Max lived in a distant state). James followed through. He made an appointment with Max and his wife, presented him with a book written by an emeritus professor whom Max had admired, took him to his favorite restaurant where the ambiance was such that it wouldn’t interfere with the conversation (Max was hard of hearing and the staff had carefully researched what was the best site for the evening meal and conversation). Both James and the staff followed up with thank you letters as they laid plans for the next step. In the meantime, Max volunteered to fund the redecoration of the president’s office and doubled his annual fund gift.

With these promising actions in place, Max was invited to serve on the campaign steering committee. The rest of the committee quickly saw he intended to dominate and the staff had to develop guidelines for the committee so that it wouldn’t create an agenda of its own. Once that was straightened out, Max offered to make a $1000 gift. The staff and James discussed this gift with him and stated the goals of the campaign, explaining that if he would make a significantly larger gift he would also be the lead donor, thereby providing a strong impetus to the first stages of the campaign. Max demanded to see the campaign plan which the staff, with a consultant’s assistance, had developed. Satisfied that the plan seemed sound, he still made some suggestions and then signed a pledge for $3 million.

Elated, the development committee and James invited Max to serve as a campaign chair, which he did with vigor. He made phone calls and solicitation visits without informing the staff, which caused some disconcerting moments for prospects as well as staff. As time went on, the staff and leadership of the organization, who were minimally involved with the campaign, began to grow uneasy with Max’s demands. Although Max had many of the “right” qualities as a major gifts donor, as a lead giver for the capital campaign, as a volunteer with clout and connections, his behavior caused concern. “Give me the segmented lists, by state, of your donors,” he said to James, “and I’ll have my volunteers call on all the donors.” James quickly realized that Max intended to use donations of insurance policies as major gifts for the campaign, and that the “volunteers” were actually insurance sales persons from a company whose track record left considerable doubts as to ethical practices and viability.

Not willing to offend the lead donor and campaign chair, James demurred. “We have to maintain a carefully organized campaign,” he told Max, “and need to ensure that all contacts are directed from Ballard’s advancement office.”

Incensed that his judgment wasn’t trusted and his intentions were questioned, Max bypassed Ballard’s president and promptly went to the board chair. “If James doesn’t release those lists and let me do my work, I will withdraw my $3 million pledge for this campaign.” Jane, the board president, promptly called James. “What’s going on? Here we have a board member ready and eager to work the ideal volunteer, in my experience but you won’t cooperate with him. Can you please explain the problem to me?”

James sighed. Not only was this unreasonable and even potentially harmful to the campaign as well as to all fundraising at Ballard, but it also caused concern about donor retention. He had already received complaints from prospects and donors who said, “If you send Max after me one more time . . . “ and James could easily fill in the blank by a variety of reactions to Max’s arm twisting of possible donors worse yet, of long-time donors.

James realized he was caught in a runaway situation, one that seemed like a no-win dilemma. Max had already made demands such as, “Since I’m giving the major lead gift,” and here he always paused for effect, “of $3 million, the largest this college has ever seen, it seems like you would allow me to decide on naming opportunities in the new building.” Now James was faced with a very willing volunteer but one who marched to his own drummer, refused to play by the rules of the campaign, openly did not respect James’s position and role in the organization, and threatened to withdraw his lead gift if the organization, from the board chair on down to the development staff, did not cooperate.

What should James do? What is the best way to handle a volunteer who wants things done his way, who won’t be a team player, and who makes demands that are unreasonable while threatening to withdraw the major gift that would kick off a $6 million campaign and make it possible to present that lead gift as a challenge, truncating a lengthy campaign and ensuring success as much as possible? And just as importantly, how can James begin to gain Max’s respect as a senior person in the organization and the chief fundraiser for Ballard?

Your comments and suggestions are invited. Next month we will compile these from our readers and present some possible solutions.

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