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The Perfect Donor–or the Perfect Recipient?

Resource from Insights Newsletter
Resource Library

The Perfect Donor–or the Perfect Recipient?

Insights Article

Written By: Meredith McNabb

Recently, a clergy leader was describing a “perfect” giver they knew: the giver loves the congregation and deeply identifies with its mission, annually gives very large financial gifts, and, perhaps most notably for the clergy person and the board putting those gifts to use, this “perfect” giver gives these gifts without any strings attached. That clergy person was not alone in applauding the generosity of unrestricted gifts; many have positively noted the example of megaphilanthropist Mackenzie Scott’s unusual step of giving very large gifts without restrictions to institutions whose missions she values. 

The freedom of that lack of restriction in a gift carries with it its own challenge of wise discernment on the part of the organizational leaders—a challenge many organizations would perhaps be glad to take on!—but the emphasis on that lack of conditions on the gift calls up the perennial dilemma about designated giving in nonprofit institutions.

The Complexity of a Gift

On the one hand, from the assessments of philosophers and theologians to the edicts of Emily Post, it seems to be a necessary element of a “gift” that, once given, it’s the recipient’s privilege and responsibility to do with it as they see fit. But those same thinkers and etiquette experts each acknowledge that there are complex, culturally-rooted systems around giving and receiving gifts. Does a gift carry with it a future obligation of reciprocity or loyalty? Does it implicitly or explicitly buy influence or advantage? Does it come from a generous heart or a desire to show off—and does it matter? 

In everyday life in congregations and nonprofits, these kinds of questions come to life around conditional gifts—those given “for so long as [blank] does [or does not] take place in this location”, as numerous gifts of land have legally required of the recipients, as well as more common designated gifts—those given to purchase specific items or fund specific efforts. So long as the recipient definitely will (or won’t) do the thing demanded, or wants to have the specific item or accomplish the specific mission, there’s no issue: the gift can be given and accepted with good feeling all around. But if there’s a misalignment, it can lead to significant ill feeling—from resentment about mission creep or unwanted gifts on up to the pain and peril of lawsuits.

Clarity of Mission, Vision, and Values

Some organizations have taken the stance simply that no designated gifts will be accepted, but more have recognized that there are middle paths available to navigate the challenge of accepting gifts with various strings attached. First: clarity of mission, vision, and values helps immensely for the organization to know and share what it exists to do. That clarity can provide a foundation for simple “wish list” plans that can offer potential donors channels into which they could direct their gifts—ranging from pre-set options on a digital giving platform like “scholarships” or “building fund” to the often-advised list of ideas one should have in one’s desk drawer in case someone shows up and unexpectedly wants to give your organization $1M.   

That clarity can also help to build meaningful gift acceptance policies—documents approved by the board to identify what kinds of gifts of land or stock, for instance, can be received, and the process by which gifts of a certain size will be handled and used. These policies can head off some of the ill feeling that could come from a rebuffed gift, and they can prevent some of those lawsuits over gifts used in ways the donor did not intend. 

At its heart, clarity about mission, vision, and values helps congregational and nonprofit leaders know when they need to say “no, thank you” even to generous gifts—perhaps when the gift would lead the organization down paths where it is not prepared to go, or when the gift’s origin is deeply out of alignment with the core values of the organization.

The Perfect Recipient

Most of the time, however, that clarity helps leaders to say “yes!” to gifts. It gives such a firm foundation to the congregational or nonprofit leader that it’s easy to speak from that strong center rather than from a position of trying to chase a gift. It can help launch meaningful conversations about what a donor values, and give insight into their generosity. It offers would-be donors guidance and confidence about what impact their gifts will have—whether (thoughtfully) designated or undesignated. 

The congregational leader describing their “perfect” giver may have emphasized the lack of strings on the donor’s gifts—but that freedom stemmed from the first point in their description: the giver’s love for the congregation and identification with what it’s doing in their community. May we all find such “perfect” donors—and may we all be such “perfect” recipients of their gifts!


Expanded Perspective

Written By: Ronnie Plasters, Lake Institute Graduate Assistant & IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy Ph.D. Student

As a runner, I enjoy exciting, challenging races. I select races for a multitude of reasons, but regardless of my rationale, each race includes a well-defined route with starting corrals and a clear finish line. The multitude of predetermined elements, however, does not implicate my autonomy. Beyond race selection, I determine my clothing, sneakers, and ultimately my pace.

As a practitioner of philanthropy, I often apply lessons from running the race to the art of donor engagement, which does not involve the chase. The art lies in bringing donors to the starting line, describing the route, and conveying the strategic needs achieved by the end. Like a marathon runner selecting a race, donors still practice agency: they select the organization, their contribution method, the timing, and even stewardship preferences. But like runners who trust race managers, donors should trust the organization to manage the twists, turns, and scenery surrounding the organization. The perfect donor, then, emerges from relationship as an informed donor…one who knows the mission, understands the boundaries, and appreciates the organization’s current starting point and determined finish line.

Every organization requires gift acceptance guidelines that, like a strategic plan or a determined race route, provide necessary guidance and insights that become especially helpful when exhaustion sets in. And, let’s face it: those of us working in the philanthropic field often feel like professional marathon runners—even if we’d prefer to avoid running altogether! Our field creates moments of joy—a runner’s high, if you will. But, there exist moments of tunnel vision, lost appreciation for the scenery, or stumble-inducing distractions. However, with agreed upon acceptance polices, organizations—regardless of size—ensure stability, unity, and the support required to remain on course, especially when our minds or bodies may feel weak…perhaps, when presented with a sizeable, and likely even considerate, investment from one of our congregants that comes with stipulations too far outside our thoughtfully crafted parameters.

As a runner, I don’t question my route at mile 11 or alter my attire at mile 17, and I certainly don’t equivocate at mile 25. I determined all of that (with the help of race officials!) before I began. As a practitioner, I similarly follow the organization’s guidelines so that I can avoid the chase. Instead, I bring donors inside the organization to understand not just the mission, but the parameters of the institution and the ways in which their investment will create impact—particularly when they allow those with the knowledge, skill, and expertise to apply their investment strategically.

If strings remain attached to a donor’s investment, it may indicate misalignment. After all, not every race works for every runner. But, rather than acquiescing to restricted or complicated gifts that fall outside of strategic priorities, consider developing the relationship further. Think like a runner who has to stretch, train, and fuel properly. As a practitioner, come alongside that donor and invite them into a deeper appreciation for the organization; build trust. Take the time to exercise with them and over time, you may both run the same race free from the burden of the chase. You will cross the line together: perfect donors in alignment with perfect receivers.

DATE: February 9, 2021
TOPIC: Organizational Leadership
TYPE: Article
SOURCE: Insights Newsletter
KEYWORDS: Values Mission and Vision
AUTHOR: Meredith McNabb, Ronnie Plasters