Donors must come first. They are more important than people, issues or cause. When the nonprofit in whom you’re investing understand this, everything changes…the way it operates, the way it spends monies, the way it allocates resources, even its name!
Here’s an example. There’s a spectacular charity in one of our Southern towns that supports and provides for women, children, and teens who have been ravaged by the horror of rape.
It’s named Tri-State Rape Crisis and Sexual Trauma Center* (TSRCSTC). The executive director and board of TSRCSTC attended National Development Institute’s Major Gifts Ramp-Up Conference, where they were asked the question, “Who is your customer?”. It basically came down to one of two groups: women, children, and teens in crisis with no money, or donors with finances who care about people who’ve been hurt.
This led to a “sacred cow” discussion around a possible name change, and whether or not their current brand worked for the organization and the community they served.
Those against altering the name were adamant. “If we water down our name, we’re watering down the dreadfulness of this crime. We can’t compromise.” One person declared, “We must keep the ugliness of rape front and center in the minds of our citizens. Besides, those who need our services are able to access them more readily because our name clearly tells the public what we’re about.”
Though I understood their passion, they were passionately wrong. You see, it’s not about the ugliness of rape, but rather the beauty of how this group lovingly supports people in need.
Major League Baseball had one of their AAA farm teams in this town, and had built an amazing ballpark. During each game, it donated a portion of ticket sales to a local nonprofit. Families from all over the region brought their kids to experience America’s favorite pastime. Each year, the owners gave a significant annual gift to this organization but were NOT comfortable having a Tri-State Rape Crisis and Sexual Trauma Center Day to raise additional funds from their fans. Simply put, the question “Mommy, what’s rape?” was not the type of query these business owners wanted raised while entertaining families in their facility.
In another instance, a major car manufacturer who employed over 1,000 workers made a decision not to share a gift with TSRCSTC. You see, any time they made a charitable investment, they also purchased a major billboard announcing their support of that particular nonprofit. Simply put, they didn’t feel it was wise to have the terms “rape” and “trauma” blazoned on a sign that also contained their brand.
The center’s executive director (after attending one of our National Development Institute events) invited me to help them tackle this issue. I met with thirteen different staff, board members, and administrators around their conference room, and started by asking them to take a leap, and, for the sake of this exercise, agree that donors, not their clients, were their actual customers.
They nodded their heads, so I asked the group…
“Who are our customers?”
Someone bravely said, “Donors are our customers.”
Pressing on, I asked, “Ok, if donors are our customers, what do they buy from us? Is it a product or service?”
The executive director thoughtfully replied, “It’s neither a product nor a service…
…they pay for an experience.”
“What type of experience?” I asked.
She replied, “Donors to our organization share their kindness with others and are loved in return.”
(That was some higher-level thought. There was a collective gasp, followed by a big group “wow”, indicating agreement.)
“Okay, who do they love?” I inquired. She answered, “Women, children, and teens.”
I countered, “Be more specific.” She expanded, “Women, children, and teens who’ve been abused.”
I countered again, “Be more specific.”
She took a second or two, and then replied,
“Okay…her name is Cassandra Duncan.”
“Who?” I asked. “Cassandra Duncan,” she replied.
“Who’s Cassandra Duncan?”
With a measure of satisfaction in her voice, she replied…
“Cassandra was the first person to walk through our doors, April 9, 1972.”
“Wow…tell us about Cassandra.”
The ED stood up, walked to the head of the table (inviting me to move out of her way), and began sharing:
Cassandra was thirty-three years old and had been sexually abused by a playmate’s father between the ages of nine and twelve. She was stable when we first met her despite the fact that she had never told a soul about her childhood trauma. She came to us because she feared her abuser (who was still alive, twenty years later) might have still been active in the neighborhood where she grew-up. She wanted to do the right thing but needed guidance as she faced this emotional challenge. After months of work with the center’s counseling cohort, Cassandra navigated many complex obstacles, shared the truth with her family, and worked with law-enforcement to confront her abuser.
She took a step that not only secured healing for her own wounded heart, but she protected her community as well.
That was just the beginning. Cassandra began volunteering at the center and made herself available to other women who needed to know they were not alone. She became active in and eventually led a weekly Life’s Worth Living Group, providing women a safe place to process their experiences. In 1977, Cassandra was interviewed by both local newspaper and television, and was instrumental in raising the level of visibility of the realities of child abuse and rape in our community. She agreed to share her story at fundraising events, and even partnered with the board chair to visit a large manufacturing corporation. The corporation’s owners gave the center their largest financial gift ever. Finally, in 1996, Cassandra joined the board of directors, and after thirty years of service to both women and her community, she passed away in June of 2012 at the age of seventy-three.
There was silence, and then another “WOW!”
I jumped back in, “Now remember, we started this exercise based on the premise that supporters are your primary customers. So, would it be fair to say you empower donors to love, care, and support women like
The executive director said, “Everyone loved Cassandra…especially our supporters.”
The board chair (who hadn’t said a word all morning), matter-of-factly chimed in with…
“Ok, let’s call ourselves the Cassandra Duncan Support Center.”
There were startled looks around the room. The silence broke when the executive director quietly (yet existentially) said…
“Of course…Cassandra Duncan Support Center…
…that’s exactly who we are!”
After consulting with Cassandra’s family, Tri-State Rape Crisis and Sexual Trauma Center hosted a press conference with media and hundreds of donors in attendance, and announced TSRCSTC would now be named the CASSANDRA DUNCAN SUPPORT CENTER. Of course, on that day, and for years to come, each time someone asked, “Who is Cassandra Duncan?” their mission to support donors who cared about hurting women was shared with enthusiasm and passion.
Years later, they dropped “Support,” introducing a new statement of mission that read…
…Cassandra Duncan Center supports concerned citizens of the Tri-State, ensuring victims of sexual violence recover and grow strong.
Remember where we started. Donors are our customers…not clients or causes.
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