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Birthday parties, mother in laws, melt downs and the art of saying thank you.

My mother in law was a product of The Great Depression; as a result she had a certain way of doing things. For example: She really enjoyed her food AND would eat every morsel on her plate – even if she was full. She always had lipstick on and her hair sprayed. On the occasions when she and I would go out for lunch, she would have only two vodka martinis – never three! (A mistake I made only once.) My mother in law expected that children should, at all times be happy, polite and obedient – especially when we had company. There was also a certain protocol around gift giving. Eileen was very generous and really enjoyed giving presents. It took me about six years of marriage to learn the four phases of her gift giving protocol – the most important of which is phase 3: the thank you. If that went wrong the entire visit had an air of tension around it.

As a young mother who believed it was okay to let children run around naked, to breastfeed and sleep in bed with us until THEY no longer felt it necessary and who encouraged them to explore their “independence” and express their real feelings – sometimes my mother in law’s expectations didn’t always match the reality of our home. (Except for the martini part – we did that well together from the beginning.)

Our children were both born at the end of May and were only two years apart so I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that our baby, Chase, often had his birthday celebration tacked onto his older sister’s. This lasted until he started to figure it out. There was one memorable birthday in particular. The year they turned 5 and 3 – 2001. Our daughter Skye was falling in love with horses, so of course both kids had a horse theme, my girlfriend brought her pony to our house and all the kids had a fabulous time riding it.

After the frenzy of the piñata candy, games, cake and pony rides it was time for Nan to give the kids her gifts. Any parent out there will know that I had orchestrated the worst possible time in this busy day for such an important ritual. I take full responsibility for the outcome.

Our guests gone, it was finally quiet and we went into the sitting room where Nan had two big gifts on her lap. It was time for phase one of the gift giving ritual: polite conversation, in this circumstance reflections of the party. When that was done and since Skye was oldest she received her gift first. Setting a prime example for the remaining phases of the gift receiving ritual: Phase two: express joy upon seeing the gift. Phase three: get up, hug and kiss Nan, look her in the eyes and say thank you (sometimes more than once). Phase three: show the world your gift – in this case put on the hat and turn around.

Now it was Chase’s turn. Barely able to contain himself he tolerated the well-intentioned but not so fun teasing about whether he thought the next present was for him. He finally secured his gift, tore it open and found… a cowboy hat. Just like his sisters, only a different colour. At this point, my tired, strung out on sugar three year old son deviated from the gift giving ritual, hurled the cowboy hat to the floor and very sincerely asked. “Is that all? Do you have another present?” Upon hearing a shocked, mortified and jaw dropping “No!” my poor son, who was much larger than most three year olds burst into tears and turned to me to for comfort. Dramatically seeking much needed solace in the only place that my distraught three year old – and many others around the world- can find it in circumstances as devastating as this – under my shirt desperately blubbering our code word: ‘leche’. The party was over. All four phases of the giving ritual had failed miserably and we had given Eileen yet another reason to be appalled and had to scurry upstairs for a ‘nap’.

Now dear reader, you may be asking yourself what on earth this has to do with fundraising? Well, a lot actually. Every time I hear the classic debate about asking for another gift in a thank you letter I think about what my mother in law’s response would have been. Eileen MacKenzie, had a very high opinion of the good work that charities do and was proud of her donations. However, she had a very low opinion of the people who raise the money for charity work to happen. In fact, Eileen had specifically asked me not to talk about my work with her friends. This is not atypical. Fundraising as a profession is still not given the respect it deserves. I have had major donors tell me in person that they don’t feel I should be paid for what I do – that is another blog post. As professional fundraisers we must gently match people who have money to give, with charities that align with their values.

My point is that the majority of donors are from an older generation and we can assume that they share the similar values as my mother in law. With few exceptions, my experience has proven this for me in dozens of conversations with my donors over the years. If my mother in law had received a solicitation in a thank you letter she would have called all fundraisers ‘greedy bastards’ and would have felt regretful about her previous gift. (note: I know we have to innovate, I know donors are changing, but the fact still remains that the majority of funds come in through the mail and in major gifts from donors over 55 years old the data will tell you that)

There are no absolutes in this business, however, I believe that fundraising is not about aggressive direct marketing techniques that have a high churn rate and make more money. I’m happy to leave that with the corporate sector, those days are gone for us. Fundraising and philanthropy are about people making a difference together. When done well it should feel good to give and it should feel good to receive. This is a people based, emotional business. This profession, at the core, is based on good human relationships. That is why a thank you – JUST gratitude and nothing else – is so important. After that we need to pause, report impact and then EARN the next gift.

There has been a lot of controversy lately about this word ‘relationship’ and the idea of ‘Relationship Fundraising’. Since this post is three times longer than recommended I’ll save the bulk of that argument for another time.

I’ll just end with this. I am very grateful that early in my career (2002), through an inter library loan, I ordered a book called Relationship Fundraising by Ken Burnett. It took four weeks to get to me from a small library in Northern Ontario. (Sorry Ken I don’t remember where exactly.) In that book I learned two important lessons that make up the core of how I approach this profession:

1. If we focus on building good respectful relationships between our donors, ourselves and our organizations the money will follow.

2. Money is a means to an end – it isn’t the objective.

I know that data is important for strategic decisions, I also know that good business practices are essential and I appreciate that much of Relationship Fundraising is anecdotal and not evidence based. Except for this: MY evidence. A very small sample I know. Over the past eight years (as far back as I started tracking) and through two recessions, by focussing on relationships instead of dollars the two organizations that I have worked for have consistently achieved double digit growth. In 2010 over 16.5% (it will be more for 2011 the fiscal isn’t over yet) and up to 35% growth on average per year from 2004 – 2009. This is not an exaggeration, I check with the director of finance annually to confirm this track record. By making relationships the priority the organizations I work for have been able to do this during a time when a lot of fundraisers are moaning about recessions.

I am very proud to be a member of what has recently been referred to as the ‘Relationship Fundraising Cult’ because I know it works. Get me the T-Shirt, I’ll wear it proudly. I also know that a lot of people and organizations don’t really understand what it means nor do they do it very well. (Yet another blog post.)

In conclusion, I’m happy to report that my relationship with my mother in law survived the birthday party of 2001 and it was a great privilege for me to be by her side when she died a somewhat peaceful death at 84 after a very short bout with cancer in 2010. You may also be relieved to know that my children are no longer breastfeeding and prefer to sleep by themselves with their laptops for company instead of me. Perhaps that is something else to worry about…

Finally, I believe that relationships between organizations and donors will be damaged if our thank you letters are tarnished with a solicitation. Gratitude ought to be pure, sincere and 100% about what the donor has been able to achieve for the world with their gift.

Thank you for spending time here

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