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True Donor Relations Horror Stories—And How You Can Avoid Them


Halloween is almost upon us—and I have a love-hate relationship with this holiday. I mean, I love trick or treating and watching the sweet kids run from door to door getting candy. I love the creativity of old and young alike dressing up in amazing costumes. I love carving jack-o-lanterns and roasting the pumpkin seeds. But I hate—and I mean hate—being scared. he horror movies, the haunted houses, even spooky music—GAH—I hate being scared.


I am sure I am not alone in my loathing of being scared. I think what I hate the most is the not knowing what is coming next. Is something going to jump out at me? How will I react to that in the moment? It got me thinking about some of the scary situations I have been in with a nearly 30-year career in development and donor relations. There have been some scary moments to be sure. I handled some well and some not so well but always learned something from the experience. I thought maybe I could share a few of these scary moments with you in the chance you could learn from my mistakes (or at the very least get a good laugh):


  • Double check everything—especially phone numbers. My team was getting ready to host an amazing event and we proofed the invitation many times over to ensure we had the right date, time, location, etc. We all felt good about it and sent it to out. A week later I received a call from a very VIP donor who said he was having trouble calling one of the phone numbers. He said he was getting the wrong number. I called the number and it was a 1-800 OMG phone number. I nearly died – the blood drained out of my body. We checked everything but did not call the actual number to make certain it was right. With one simple type-o we transposed two numbers in the sequence and ended up somewhere we did not want to be. SCARY! Now, we double and sometimes triple check numbers before we send anything.

  • Hide and hope nobody comes looking—We did an audit of all our endowed funds. We wanted to know how well we were doing and if we had any issues. We found several funds not being spent. Some for a year and some for even longer. When we started asking more questions about why things were not getting spent we received some frightening responses. We began educating our colleagues about donor intent and then told them we needed to inform the donor. I have never seen so many scaredy-cats in my life. They did not want to call and admit a mistake was made. Many refused and told me to do it. So, I did. I do not like to share bad news either but hiding it seemed worse. So, one by one I made the calls to explain what had happened and what we were doing to correct it. And do you know what happened? The donors said thank you for informing me. And many asked if they could add on to their endowments. I raised $3 million in new funds that year just by being bold and calling the donor to share our mistake.

  • Have a bad weather plan—One spring we were hosting a beam signing event and put up a tent to protect guests from forecasted rain. As we were about to bus over some of our guests from another location the tornado sirens started wailing. The winds picked up fast, chairs were blowing around under the tent, one struck my event planner in the head and knocked her out cold, the tent blew down and it she was trapped underneath. Historic trees were uprooted near the event site. Some of my students were hit by blowing debris. The wind was so strong the huge metal beam was lifted off its brace. We kept our donors and most of our staff away in safe locations but talk about a horror scene. The event was obviously cancelled so to honor the donors who gave to the building we had gifts made from the fallen tree on the event site. They loved it and had a great tale to tell for years to come.

  • The ultimate donation—One time a donor’s daughter reached out to me in tears telling me her mother had just passed away. We knew she was ill and we were prepared for this news. But what came next was a request I had never heard before. She asked me who to call so her body could be delivered to campus. Her mom donated her body to science and the daughter thought our university was where she was to be taken. The issue is our university does not have a medical school so we could not accept it. When I explained that to her she cried even more wondering what to do. I told her I would make a few calls and get back to her. I called two medical schools nearby to tell them about the situation and thankfully one was able and happy to take her. I called the daughter back and walked her through the “donation”. She was so grateful that we helped her out and we were able to ensure her mom’s final wishes were followed out. It was unplanned and unusual but it was the right thing to do and a few months later we learned her entire estate was left to our university.

Dealing with our donors is a great privilege—it is also unpredictable and sometimes downright terrifying. The key is to keep watch, stay flexible, and be brave. You may not know what is coming but as a strong donor relations professional you will be ready! Happy Halloween! Boo!

P.S. We would love to hear your horror stories—please share!!! We can all learn from each other and if not, we can all laugh together at the absurdity of it all!