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The Lifelong Donor

What do we mean by lifelong donor? Does it mean we have to wait a whole lifetime before they make their first gift? Does it mean they take a lot of extra care and maintenance that your organization may not be prepared to give?

Let’s start with the word “lifelong.” That sounds like a long time! Think of other lifelong relationships you have—with friends and family, perhaps with work colleagues. You’ve been through a lot together—good times and bad times. You’ve had moments when you wondered why you stayed connected to this person. Yet something has endured. There’s something about these lifelong relationships that makes them worth it. They add tremendous richness and breadth to our lives.

Now imagine that your donors put your organization in that category. The people and the work are important enough to them that they want to stay connected long-term. We each have organizations like this. I will always have a fondness for the hospital where our two children were born. I consider myself a lifelong supporter of the quality healthcare they provide. The same goes for my alma mater, my faith organization, the search-and-rescue organization that airlifted my sister out of a terrifying wilderness experience, and the schools that have done such a terrific job of educating our kids.

There is very little they need to do to keep me as a donor. I already consider myself to be a lifelong supporter of their work, and in most cases, they don’t even know that. They certainly don’t fawn over me and make me feel as if I could become one of their special major donors.

My story is typical. We each have a handful of organizations like this in our lives—organizations we truly love and to which we are lifelong donors.

Who are those donors for your organization? Who is already out there that cares about your work that much? With them, you have deep permission—permission that you are most likely not even using. I say that to the extent to which you are not fully “taking advantage of” the deep permission you have with these donors, you are not serving them.

We had a woman in one of our workshops who was the director of a major American art museum. She had done a brilliant job of cultivating her donors over the years. She proudly told me that she had at least 20 donors who were ready to give her a minimum of $1 million each. Yet she was afraid to ask them.

As we were meeting in her beautiful office one day, her assistant came in to tell her the sad news that one of these wonderful donors had just passed away—never having been given the opportunity to make a major gift to this institution that she had loved her entire life. Instead, an additional million or ten went to her heirs or to taxes. What pleasure that gift could have brought that woman, to know the lasting impact she would have made on the museum.

Perhaps this story sounds familiar. Whether your donors are ready to give you millions or thousands or hundreds, every organization has donors with whom you have this deep permission—donors who consider themselves to be lifelong supporters of your work.

Your job is to find out who they are, nurture the process, and then ask them to give to whatever it is that most moves them. Furthermore, your job is to develop a pipeline of donors in this category so that the person who comes along after you will have inherited all those well-cultivated potential donors. You are on a scouting mission for lifelong donors, donors who truly get it about your mission and are giving for the right reasons. Then you’ve left a real legacy for your organization.