Dear Kim: Overcoming donor dread

Dear Kim:

We have a really generous but very difficult donor.  He gives about $20,000 a year, and in some years has given $50,000.  He is by far our biggest donor (we have a few donors who give $5,000 and several hundred who give anywhere from $25-$1,000) and it is my job to go see him each year and ask him to renew his gift.  He seems to get meaner and more fussy with each visit and frankly, I am scared of him and I can’t sleep the night before I am scheduled to meet with him.  We are in touch by e-mail three or four times a year and he is fairly pleasant in writing. Since he always gives, I am wondering if I can just approach him by e-mail and stop visiting him?

~Dread that Donor

Dear Dread:

No, you cannot stop visiting him.  I think you know this or you wouldn’t have written.  You have become so focused on how much you dread these visits that you are not thinking of any solutions, which might be some combination of the following:

•    Don’t go by yourself.  Who else in your organization knows him?  Who are his friends? If possible, take someone who likes him and then see if he doesn’t become more likable in front of this person.  If that is not possible, take someone who has never met him.

•    See him more than once a year.  You say he is pleasant in writing and you write to him several times a year.  He may feel that since he has only one in-person meeting a year with you that he has to get out all his complaints in that meeting.  Seeing him a few times a year would allow you to develop a relationship that wasn’t always about asking for money.  A donor that is as important to your organization as this person should be seen at least every other month.

•    Bring another donor with you on one of the visits.  Use that visit to discuss how to find other $5,000, $10,000 and $20,000 donors.  You need to be much less dependent on this person.

•    If you really can’t imagine seeing him without having your stomach in knots, pass him on to other staff and board.  You should not be the only one carrying this (or any other) donor relationship.

•    Don’t take him so personally.  I find that some people who seem very curmudgeonly are themselves shy and insecure and they disguise it by being brusque or fussy.

He obviously values the work of your organization and he seems to like you quite well as he kept on giving with you as the main contact.

Good luck!

~Kim Klein

Read more from Kim at the Dear Kim archives.