Last week the Dutch Fundraising Institute announced the winner of the first Young Fundraising Talent essay contest: Marlous van Oorschot!
The theme of the contest was “Donors don’t commit”, and the winning essay moved the jury with a passionate look at the essence of fundraising. We are therefore pleased to publish an English translation of this beautiful essay titled “He who gives shall receive”. We wish Marlous success as she travels to the AFP Congress in San Diego — the prize for the winning essayist!
Every Saturday he stands next to the door of the local discount supermarket. A small stool has been placed for him to sit when he gets tired, and his bag is on the ground underneath a pile of newspapers. Before him is a large square – a coming and going of weekend grocery shoppers. Cars wait to win one of the few free parking spaces and the bike racks are piled full with weathered bicycles.
Children play in the square – the seesaw is especially popular – while inside the parents grab in boxes for generic, cheap spaghetti or rice. Dogs, chained to street lamps while their keepers run into the store, bark loudly and try to pull free. A delivery truck is parked obstructively at the store entrance with new pallets of fruits and vegetables for delivery.
Sometimes the sun shines and sparrows swoop from the roof; sometimes it pours; and in the winter it is so cold that he – buried deep in his winter coat, gloves and hat – tries to warm up with a cup of coffee from a kind-hearted stranger.
His place is strategically chosen, next the shopping carts. For shoppers without a coin to unlock the carts he has one to lend. He helps the older ladies to free their carts from the locked row, and easily repairs stubborn wheels.
He has a smile for everyone and wishes each unfailingly a great day. Coming or going – everyone is greeted with a grin and nod.
The regular customers stop to chat and some even call him by name. Sometimes he talks about his family, how proud he is of his daughter and that his wife is sick. He lives here close by, in one the poorest neighborhoods in Rotterdam. He helps out where he can – in the store, with the shopping carts, and shoveling snow when it freezes. As thanks he receives coins from the shoppers, a loaf of bread or pack of rice; cups of coffee and tea from the workers; and to his delight the occasional pint of beer from a generous soul.
This is how he supports his family and contributes to the household – no longer able to work. When someone asks, he shares his story. But the lines in his face, his crooked back and his stiff hands all betray that his life has not been easy. You don’t need to know his story to be moved.
He seems to have become part of the store. I miss him when he is not there, and I wonder whether something has happened. If perhaps his wife is really sick and he must take care of her. Or if something has happened to his daughter.
After all these years, he has become part of my grocery shopping. His target group – his donors – come just as he from the neighborhood and often live on welfare benefits. No wealthy folks that come around with money. (They don’t have much of it themselves.) But when they walk past him with their carts their gaze says enough. They realize that it could be worse; that there is someone who has it worse.
But he doesn’t ask for money or stick out his hand to beg. There is no placard next to his chair with a plea or hat on the ground for coins. He is in fact the one who helps the passers-by, building a relationship little by little with his friendly conversation. Carrying a bag, fixing a wheel, keeping the sidewalk free of ice, giving his time and energy. He asks nothing in return, shows only how fine it is to help someone else. That it puts a smile on your face. And the shoppers give. Because they care about him – his story, his wrinkled, leathery face; that he carries the bags and helps with the carts. They do not give every week, and maybe not even every month. But because he is always there, always investing in another, they become connected to him.
The man at the discount supermarket is not much different than a fundraiser. We are all just looking to do our part, just as he tries to support his family. We want to fight poverty, protect the innocence of children, save endangered species, and stand up for human rights. We want to contribute to the world by raising money, resources and time. And our donors are like the shopping passers-by, crossing the square, distracted by a million things. On the way to an appointment, lost in thought – and we, trying to get their attention.
But we are also in crucial ways different than the man. We actively ask for money. We hold out our hand and beg. We ask valuable time and attention from our donors. We ask them to make a monthly contribution from their meager salaries and we expect them to support us year after year without asking too much in return. And in so doing we fail to make real contact and get to know the person behind the money. We think that we have a relationship with the donor simple because he or she gives.
And if after a number of donations the source of the money dries up, we are quick to declare the fickleness of the donor. A donor does not want to, and will not, commit. We conclude that a donor wants to support a number of different causes and charities in different ways, and does not want to commit to a single problem in the world. We claim that donors these days bore quickly and want variety, and therefore don’t stay with one organization for too long. And as icing on the cake, we conclude that in the current economic climate it is no longer possible for people to donate as much to charity.
We absolve ourselves because the loss of donors lies not with our organization or (oh, horror!) with the individual fundraiser. It’s the donor that’s the problem.
But every day the man at the door of the local discount supermarket receives enough in donations to make his own world, and that of his family, a little better. He has a difficult target group and operates in a poor market. And yet he is successful. The excuses and explanations for why a donor doesn’t commit seem not to apply for him. What is the difference between him and us? What explains his success – and could it work for us? I believe so.
If we want to learn from him and become aware of what giving is really all about, we won’t dare just to beg donors for money. Instead of merely holding out our hands and thinking that we’ve completed our job with a ‘thank you very much,’ we’d invest instead is what is good for the donor. When we realise that our relationship with the donor is not one-sided, but reciprocal, we have the world at our feet. We have become afraid to find out what really moves the donor to give, and even more fearful to harness and invest in it.
In true reciprocity, a gift would be returned in kind. Donors don’t just give money, but invest in our organizations, in us, to bring about the changes is the world that they alone cannot.
In the business world, an investor is important. He or she is celebrated and pampered. Attention is paid. And when an investor has something to say, everyone listens. And she expects a return on her investment – a profit. But this form of reciprocity is largely foreign to us in the nonprofit world. “And besides, we don’t make a profit,” I hear the fundraiser think.
But is that really true? Do we not offer any return on an investment? Logical, than, that no one wants to invest in us for the long-term. And that we think that donors don’t want to commit.
But the problem is not in the donors not wanting to commit. We as fundraisers and our organizations show too little return on the donors’ investments – perhaps even none at all.
A donor, our philanthropic investor, should expect for his or her financial investment a social return. The man at the supermarket shows his investors a return: he lends a coin for the shopping cart, which makes it easier to do the shopping. He carries the heavy bags so that a mother can help her daughter cross the street to the car. He smiles and says ‘hello’, asks how it’s going and is interested, making the passer-by feel that much better. The social return on a philanthropic investment, large or small, must enrich the life of the donor.
The fundraiser therefore must know what is important for each donor (or group of donors) and no longer hide behind generic statistics. We must pay attention and dare to take a step further. Show the results of the investment, not just in general, but specifically. Ask the donor personally in what specifically he or she wishes to invest. Invite him or her to be a part of the organization and ask his opinion. Think about her instead of for her. A philanthropic investor gives only where there is a click with the organization and when there is a real chance to develop a long-term relationship.
When we dare to begin a real relationship with our investors and we ourselves dare to invest time, money and above all attention – that is when a donor will commit. Our smile and nod is a ‘thank you’ letter with a personal message to him or her. We lend our shopping cart coins when we, at a get-together of our investors, share the developments within our projects and show how their money is being used. And we carry the heavy bags of groceries to the car when we organize a trip for our ‘major investors’ to see the good work they are funding. This costs time, money, a strong will and determination, but this is how we can truly help make a difference in the world.
Treat your investors not as a euro – a necessary evil and merely something that you want in your wallet – but as a crucial part of your organization: a colleague and a stakeholder. Then a donor will want to commit to you, the fundraiser, and to you, the organization.
Recently I needed to do some grocery shopping for the whole week. And since we were expecting company in the weekend, I had stocked up. I had two full bags in my cart, full of food and drink. Suddenly he appeared next to my and hefted up a bag. “Where is your car?” he asked, smiling broadly. He helped to carry the bags and load them into my car.
Then he nodded and walked, whistling happily, across the square and back to his trusted spot in front of the door. In his hand, my shopping cart coin.