Roger’s Rule

The most generous donors don’t want to pay for everything themselves.

When I was a young (still in my twenties) executive director of a small human service agency we had a remarkable older gentleman on our board. Roger had vast experience nationally in finance, investments, the corporate world, and nonprofits. He was wise.  When he spoke at meetings, which was fairly infrequently, people would really sit up and listen. And he was generous, both because he had the capacity, and because charitable giving gave him great pleasure.

But although Roger was sincere in his approach to charitable giving, he was also rather crafty and strategic.

For example: In the late ’80s, we were running a $500,000 capital campaign, which was by far and away the biggest fundraising effort our little organization had ever undertaken. Roger immediately gave $10,000 toward the effort. When we hit a total of $100,000, he gave us another $10,000. He was our largest donor, and I was profoundly grateful.

A few months later, we came to our year-end board meeting. According to our campaign plan, we had hoped to be at $300,000 by that point, and our total stood at $285,000. Frankly, I was pleased – $285,000 was pretty good, I thought, even if we had somewhat missed the mark. That’s when Roger took over.

“I notice you have one $20,000 donor on the table of gifts,” he said at the meeting.

“Yes,” I answered.

“And I believe that’s me,” Roger said.

“Yes, it is,” I answered. (A murmur went up around the table.)

“Well,” Roger said, “I really hate the idea of slipping behind in the campaign. So I’d like to (pause) upwardly revise my commitment to $50,000!”

I’ve probably been at hundreds of board meetings through the years. There have been times when people have stood and applauded when a long-time board or staff member was retiring and getting a farewell gift. But this was the only time I’ve ever seen a spontaneous standing ovation from a board of directors. It was a sincerely emotional response to Roger’s generosity, and (now, some 25 years later) still ranks as the most memorable moment of any board meeting I’ve ever attended. It was also a turning point for the campaign, and we hit our goal easily.

A couple of years later, our same organization was trying to raise $100,000 for a purpose I knew was close to Roger’s heart. I visited him with great anticipation. After all, he’d already given us $50,000 for the other campaign. Wouldn’t he do a similar gift for this effort?

Well, he did and he didn’t. He donated $10,000, very cheerfully. But that was all. As with the larger campaign, he gave 10% of our total goal. He was delighted to be a lead donor, maybe even the lead donor. But he wasn’t about to become the only donor.

On a later occasion I talked to Roger about his approach to philanthropy. “I like to do what I can for causes I believe in,” he told me. “I like to inspire others to give. But I don’t want to take them off the hook. Most people don’t realize they can do more. I try to force their hand. I like to help the organization build up momentum so that the other donors can’t help but jump on the bandwagon, maybe at a higher level than they were considering.”

For each of our two campaigns, Roger had given energy and inspiration (and, of course, money). But he purposefully avoided giving more than 10% of each campaign’s total. He counted on others to come in behind him.

I doubt that most people analyze their charitable giving to the extent that Roger did. Nor, if they had the capacity, would everyone approach it the same way. But I think all of us, to some degree, want to be part of a larger, collaborative effort.

So here’s my attempt to codify his approach into what I’ll call Roger’s Rule for Major Donors: “Give an amount large enough to make a difference and to inspire others to give, but not so much that it takes everyone else off the hook.”

And the First Corollary to Roger’s Rule: “By not giving too much to one organization, you can have a significant impact on many other organizations as well.”

Though I didn’t get it at the time, Roger was right. By needing more people, you get more people. A larger group of folks take a deeper interest in your work. It strengthens your base, it makes you less dependent on one or two donors, and it positions you better for the future.

Indeed, the more donors, the better – especially if one or two of them are as wise and as generous as my friend Roger.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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