(A fundraiser’s retelling of Tolstoy’s The Three Questions.)
One day it occurred to a certain executive director of a large and famous nonprofit organization that if he only knew the answers to three fundraising questions, his nonprofit would never struggle for money.
What is the best time to ask for a gift? Who are the most important donors to work with? What is the most important fundraising activity to do at all times?
The executive director sent an email to his entire distribution list announcing that whoever could answer the questions would receive a great reward. Many who read the email hit reply all right away, each person with a different answer.
In reply to the first question, a former nonprofit CEO turned consultant advised the executive director to make up a thorough time schedule, setting aside fifty percent of his time for development calls and then following the schedule to the letter. Only then could he hope to do every ask at the right time.
A boutique research firm staffer replied that it was impossible to plan development asks in advance and that the executive director should put all vain amusements aside and research all the information possible about every donor ahead of time in order to know what to do at what time.
A board member insisted that, by himself, the executive director could never hope to have all the foresight and competence necessary to decide when to do each and every task and what he really needed was to hire a consultant and then act according to their advice.
Finally, a vendor on the distribution list wrote and said that certain matters required immediate decision and could not wait for consultation, but if he wanted to know in advance what was going to happen he should consult wealth identifier indices and econometrics data.
The responses to the second question also lacked accord.
One consultant said that the executive director needed to place all his trust in monthly givers, another urged reliance on major donors, while others recommended foundations. A lobbyist at an ad agency urged him to put his faith in government funding.
The third question drew a similar variety of answers. Some respondents said writing appeal letters was the most important pursuit. Others insisted on taking donors to lunch. Yet others claimed the most important thing was proposals highlighting the nonprofit’s tremendous impact and social ROI.
The executive director was not pleased with any of the answers, and no reward was given.
After several nights of reflection, the executive director resolved to visit a retired development officer who lived up on the mountain and was said to be an enlightened fundraising professional. The executive director wished to find the retired development officer to ask him the three questions, though he knew the retired development officer never left the mountains and was known to receive only volunteer executive directors from small nonprofits, refusing to have anything to do with well-established or influential nonprofit CEOs. So the executive director put on an old and natty sport coat in order to disguise himself as a volunteer executive director, and he ordered his executive team to wait for him at the foot of the mountain while he climbed the slope alone to seek the retired development officer.
Reaching the retired development officer’s dwelling place, the executive director found him digging a garden in front of his hut. When the retired development officer saw the stranger, he nodded his head in greeting and continued to dig. The labor was obviously hard on him. He was an old man, and each time he thrust his spade into the ground to turn the earth, he heaved heavily.
The executive director approached him and said, “I have come here to ask your help with three questions: What is the best time to ask for a gift? Who are the most important donors to work with? What is the most important fundraising activity to do at all times?”
The retired development officer listened attentively but only patted the executive director on the shoulder and continued digging. The executive director said, “You must be tired. Here, let me give you a hand with that.” The retired development officer thanked him, handed the executive director the spade, and then sat down on the ground to rest.
After he had dug two rows, the executive director stopped and turned to the retired development officer and repeated his three questions. The retired development officer still did not answer, but instead stood up and pointed to the spade and said, “Why don’t you rest now? I can take over again.” But the executive director continued to dig. One hour passed, then two. Finally the sun began to set behind the mountain. The executive director put down the spade and said to the retired development officer, “I came here to ask if you could answer my three questions. But if you can’t give me any answer, please let me know so that I can get on my way home.”
The retired development officer lifted his head and asked the executive director, “Do you hear someone running over there?” The executive director turned his head. They both saw a man with a long white beard emerge from the woods. He ran wildly, pressing his hands against a bloody wound in his stomach. The man ran toward the executive director before falling unconscious to the ground, where he lay groaning. Opening the man’s clothing, the executive director and retired development officer saw that the man had received a deep gash. The executive director cleaned the wound thoroughly and then used his own shirt to bandage it, but the blood completely soaked it within minutes. He rinsed the shirt out and bandaged the wound a second time and continued to do so until the flow of blood had stopped.
At last the wounded man regained consciousness and asked for a drink of water. The executive director ran down to the stream and brought back a jug of fresh water. Meanwhile, the sun had disappeared and the night air had begun to turn cold. The retired development officer gave the executive director a hand in carrying the man into the hut where they laid him down on the retired development officer’s bed. The man closed his eyes and lay quietly. The executive director was worn out from the long day of climbing the mountain and digging the garden. Leaning against the doorway, he fell asleep. When he rose, the sun had already risen over the mountain. For a moment he forgot where he was and what he had come here for. He looked over to the bed and saw the wounded man also looking around him in confusion. When he saw the executive director, he stared at him intently and then said in a faint whisper, “Please forgive me.”
“But what have you done that I should forgive you?” the executive director asked.
“You do not know me, Mr. Executive Director, but I know you. Years ago my wife gave a one-time donation to your organization. Despite writing on the reply card that she desired not to be added to your mailing list, your outsourced vendors started to solicit her monthly, sometimes through the mail, sometimes on the phone during our dinner time. When she died eight years ago, I sent back each month’s solicitation letter, letting you know that she was dead and that every letter you sent me in her name caused me to relive the pain of her death yet again. Finally, it became too much. I vowed to use my letter opener to carve the words “TAKE ME OFF YOUR MAILING LIST” into your forehead. When I learned that you were coming alone to the mountain to meet the retired development officer, I resolved to exact my revenge on your way back. But after waiting a long time there was still no sign of you, and so I left my ambush in order to seek you out. But instead of finding you, I came across your executive team, who ran a wealth identifier index on me on their iPhones and asked if, given my age, I had ever thought about including your organization in my will. They started to show me a PowerPoint presentation on one of their laptops detailing various planned giving options, so to get out of there I intentionally fell on my letter opener and excused myself to go mop up the blood. If I hadn’t met you I would surely be dead by now. I had intended to ask you to remove my name from your mailing list, but instead you saved my life. I am ashamed and grateful beyond words. If I live, I vow to receive your direct mail appeals and telemarketing calls without complaint for the rest of my life, and I will bid my children and grandchildren to do the same. Please grant me your forgiveness.”
The executive director was overjoyed to see that he had reactivated a lapsed donor and acquired many new potential donors so cost effectively. He not only forgave the lapsed donor but promised to grant he and his descendants middle donor treatment in recognition of their personal encounter and the donor’s reasonably decent future giving potential. After ordering his executive team to take the man home and update his donor record, the executive director returned to see the retired development officer. Before returning to the office the executive director wanted to repeat his three questions one last time. He found the retired development officer sowing seeds in the earth they had dug the day before.
The retired development officer stood up and looked at the executive director. “But your questions have already been answered.”
“How’s that?” the executive director asked, puzzled.
“Yesterday, if you had not taken pity on my age and obvious lack of a pension given my previous occupation, you would have been accosted by that lapsed donor on your way home. Then you would have deeply regretted not staying with me. Therefore the most important time was the time you were digging in the beds, the most important donor was myself, and the most important pursuit was to help me. Later, when the lapsed and wounded donor ran up here, the most important time was the time you spent dressing his wound, for if you had not cared for him he would have died and you would have lost the chance to reactivate him. Likewise, he was the most important donor, and the most important pursuit was taking care of his wound. Remember that there is only one important time and it is Now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion as development professionals. The most important donor is always the donor with whom you are present, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other donor in the future. The most important pursuit is making that donor, the one standing at your side, happily involved with your cause, with your organization serving as the platform for their involvement, for that alone is the pursuit of fundraising.”