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A Wakeup Call For Non-Profits: Donor Relations MATTERS

By Lynne Wester


Have you ever had someone you love so much disappoint you in a way that you couldn't get over? I'm there this week and I've been there for a while with my dear alma mater.

In case you haven't read about this donor relations disaster, here is the source. But folks, this article doesn't capture or fully understand the struggle donors to USC have been facing. I've had my own, I used to brag on the personal touches, the attention to detail and my treatment as a donor. And you know what? It fell apart. It fell apart in a fundamental way. From the TOP down.


Don't get me wrong, There are employees that are hard working, diligent and care about donors in definite and meaningful ways that work there, I know them and even call some friends. But the systemic dismantling and under resourcing of donor relations at the university can NOT be overlooked. How does this happen? How does this happen with the largest donor in the University's history? It starts with the fact that there are currently no staff in donor relations and those positions have been vacant for a while. It continues with an administration focused on process and budget and not on relationships. It goes further into politics, extenuating circumstances and other occurrences. But it's about more than that.


It boils down to culture. This is a story about grief, about priorities, human decency, and doing what is right at all times. And my alma mater has failed Darla Moore in every aspect of that. A phone call, an email, a note, sympathy flowers, fruit, anything—anything BUT a press release. And the donor has every right to call out the university to the board for their abhorrent behavior. Her name is on the business school and she's given a lifetime total of over $75 million. Her voice carries power and is influential—it makes one think, if this is the way they treat their largest donor, why does my giving matter to them? It's not entitlement, it's common courtesy. And here I sit, more than angry, I'm disappointed in an organization, an organization I love dearly.


So many people on social media have called her a diva, bitch, high maintenance and that she was throwing a fit etc. etc. But when male donors act like this, none of those comments are made. It's been infuriating for me to see people attack her for her response. We don't blame the people we have hurt, it's not their fault. I understand the holiday weekend and the pandemic are all excuses for a development operation that simply wasn't prepared and wasn't thoughtful.


So where do we go from here? What are the lessons we can learn and the actions we can take? I have to turn my disappointment into something positive so here's what I suggest:

  • Fix broken relationships with your donors at the first pain point, don't let it fester and become bigger than it needs to be.

  • Solve the problem. Invest in thoughtful, caring donor relations professionals.

  • Set up google alerts on your top donors and take action quickly when they have major life events.

  • Have a plan for responding to losses. Whether it's their beloved pet, a close family member, or maybe even someone at the organization they were close to, reaching out and expressing sympathy is never a bad idea.

  • Have a plan for celebrating as well. Don't miss those moments.

Relationships with an organization's largest donor are never simple, it's true. There are so many complexities, levels of bureaucracy, personalities, egos, and other dynamics at play. But never let common courtesy and human decency be lost in the fray, no matter what.


Protect your culture, don't let it erode, value your donors, no matter how complex they are. What are your thoughts? What are you putting in place to ensure this doesn't happen at your organization? I'd love to hear from you.