This is a question I’ve heard frequently in my recent coaching conversations: fundraisers seeking exceptions for their donors to changes in institutional policies. Whether the policy is about giving thresholds, donor recognition, or any other standard that supports our work, it’s often fundraisers who must help our supporters understand these changes.
And sometimes, it’s fundraisers who seek exceptions. Imagining a donor upset about a new named scholarship threshold, recognition standards, or any other issue, some folks are seeking a way out rather than a way through. They seek avoidance rather than the type of critical conversation that deepens relationships and builds shared understanding.
As fundraisers, though, one of our most important roles is to serve as a philanthropic advisor. And as a true advisor supporting the interests of our institution and our donors, we must step back, understand the larger picture, and represent it accordingly.
After all, when we request the exception, who is it for if not ourselves? When we avoid a conversation, it’s rarely because we think the other party can’t handle it. It’s because we don’t want to handle it.
When we ask for exceptions instead of engaging in conversation, we are robbing supporters of a meaningful discussion. And we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to better understand them, and to build the relationship on trust and transparency.
So, what does having the conversation look like? First, let’s remove the stories in our head (the donor will be upset, the donor will no longer make a gift, I will ruin the relationship) and instead start with courage.
Next, make sure we know why the change happened — these evolutions always have a back story, and they are often in alignment with what our donors hope to accomplish. Then, ask your colleagues how they’re approaching conversations.
And let’s remember the donor perspective. If we know why the donor has engaged with us, that’s our starting point. Anchor in their “why,” and then use that as a foundation to align their desired outcomes with ours:
“We’re in awe of your passion for making sure new researchers have the resources they need to pursue really ambitious ideas. You know how resource-intensive that is. To make sure we keep up with today’s needs, the university is discussing our fellowship endowment levels.”
Be direct — be transparent about the why — and ask them what they think.
If you don’t have deep knowledge about the donor’s relationship, this is an opportunity to requalify, making a match from their passion to our work before moving to the critical conversation.
And let’s remember, changes don’t happen for change’s sake. They are often in alignment with what it truly takes for a program, scholarship, or endowment to work. Giving thresholds are tied to actual costs and ensure we can achieve the impact our donors care about. Changes in recognition standards may provide greater consistency. A larger scholarship threshold may attract more applicants. The examples are countless.
Our organizations are going to continue to evolve. Donors partner with us because they want to make a difference, and that requires evolution. To give them this opportunity, remove exception from your vocabulary. It’s an excuse.
Instead, engage in the discussions that lead to greater understanding and generosity. And recognize that courage is where we grow, and one of the most rewarding parts of our role.