They See Dead Donors, Do You?

I was in the CEO’s office. Stephen’s window faced the Manhattan skyline, ten miles distant. In the past three years, under his tenure, the nonprofit had experienced wild success raising millions in new funds. As we talked, he shared distress. If only he were located in Manhattan, he would have access to millions more. Looking out to the horizon, he focused on what he lacked. He failed to see the 2.3 million people who lived—many with significant means—in his borough.

The movie The Sixth Sense features Cole, a child who sees dead people. Like Cole, Stephen saw “dead donors.” He imagined that if he were in Manhattan, fundraising would be easier. Like earth from space, Manhattan from a distance looked more attractive. His point of view failed to see that fundraising in Manhattan generates its own set of challenges.

With amazing frequency, likewise, you wish you were in someone else’s boots. You wish you had different locations, donors, and causes—all, you believe, would make your work easier. Ironically, when I talk to “them,” many envy your advantages.

Why do so many of us see dead donors? Is it that distance makes other locations, causes, or connections appear more attractive? Is it because our donor pools are too shallow? Or, is envy part of a process we use to motivate ourselves to dig into our own donor work? I hope so.

Dead Donor Sightings

You’re in a meeting, and this time it’s Peggy’s turn to bring up dead donors. Everyone feels sad that you can’t access the other nonprofit’s benefits. When unnamed, dead donor envy sucks power out of the room. The solution? Name it. Then ask, how is this helping or hurting progress? Why do we do this? And most importantly, what advantages do we have over the organization we envy? Watch the energy in the room refill.

Left unchecked, dead donor thinking creates low expectations. Given your constraints, you plan for the income you think you can get. Instead of assigning yourself the lead in your income growth story, you take the victim’s role.

Letting dead donors weigh you down both distracts you and wastes energy. You focus on what you lack instead of being curious about your potential donors and how to meet them. To keep the energy high and your organization in control, recognize envy for what it is —what we think others experience. Almost always, other nonprofit’s donors are not and never will be yours. We know this intellectually, but we forget it emotionally.

How to See Living Donors
1. Name it.

When Peggy or anyone wishes for someone else’s fundraising circumstances, call it “a dead donor sighting.”

2. Identify the cause. Is it envy? Discouragement? Confusion? Do you know why people donate to them? Is it the same reason or reasons they donate to you? (If it is the same reasons, you might have a branding challenge.) Finally, ask if it’s true—do you know that they really have an easier time doing development work than you? Could it be that they’ve worked at it for years?

3. Listen to the rest of the idea. Listen to what you would do “if” you had their situations. Is it to hold an event? Make a few phone calls? Find ways to do it. Seek your donors amongst the living.

4. As you meet professionals from organizations that you envy, ask about the challenges they face. Stephen can ask, “What difficulties do you face working in Manhattan? How do you overcome them?” He will learn it’s exciting and challenging, and he will be encouraged to see and tap his own opportunities. So will you.


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