Listening to Donors and “Serendipity” Happens

Click to read, “How to Create an Inspiring Garden” from Fine Gardening. Sometimes, doors are inspired by the good work you do, without your being aware of it ….

One of the most insightful ways to understand how donors think about your nonprofit organization and its work is simply to ask them to tell you. By understanding what your donors think – and what has motivates them – you will learn invaluable lessons that will help you tailor your future “asks.”

Having said this, I am also a fan of “unpredictable,” unplanned charitable donation stories. These kinds of gifts occur more often than one might suspect, defying the best efforts of development staff to control the cultivation and solicitation process. Here is one heartwarming story.

Years ago and early in my career (mid-1980s), I worked for a small, beloved art museum that inhabited an historical building surrounding by luxurious grounds. People often came to wander the grounds, as well as to view the exhibitions. The museum had launched a significant endowment campaign, and I was charged to assist with developing the effort.

Click for an article about the health benefits of gardening.

One day a long-time member came to the museum to walk the grounds. There, she encountered the groundskeeper. This likable fellow mowed grass, clipped hedges, cleared pathways and the like. He loved his job. He visited with the member that day, and together, they walked through the grounds and enjoyed the beautiful landscape.

Not long after, an anonymous $1 million pledge was made to the art museum endowment campaign. We are elated, but surprised because no one on staff (nor on the board), had solicited the gift. Eventually, we learned about the walk through the landscape with our humble groundskeeper. That fateful walk had inspired our member to make the $1 million pledge!

One should keep in mind, then, that even the most humble co-worker can positively affect your fundraising efforts. Please keep this in mind and be sure everyone on staff at your nonprofit organization knows their individual role is important to the successful functioning of the whole. It is also helpful if staff members from top to bottom are made aware of your fundraising campaigns and what the development department is doing in that regard (off- and online).

I enjoyed an article that appeared in Nonprofit Quarterly written by Michael Wyland, “Joan Kroc and Serendipity in Giving” (October, 2013).

“Sometimes … donors avoid the limelight, such as when [Joan] Kroc refused any acknowledgement for her $15 million gift to Grand Forks, North Dakota, after flooding in 1997 (inspired, the article says, by Kroc’s seeing the mayor on TV wearing jeans two sizes too small).”


  • I enjoyed this article by Drake Baer of Fast Company, “Success Is Random, So Court Serendipity” (August, 2012). “We cherish chance encounters in our romantic lives – but mostly discount them professionally. ‘The Click Moment’ author Frans Johansson argues that behind every success story is a fortuitous meeting or an unexpected insight.” Food for thought.
  • Mathew Ingram of GigaOM, “On Social Media and the Power of Real-world Serendipity” (October, 2012).Here’s a refreshing look at serendipity, especially enlightening during these challenging times! Mathew notes, “The way that social-media tools like Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram have changed our lives is often taken for granted, but the way that they can inject some much-needed serendipity into our lives is often overlooked — even by those who use them a lot.”
  • Kasia Moreno wrote an article all nonprofits should read in Forbes, “What do 77% of Philanthropists Have in Common?” (May, 2013). “Promotion of philanthropy is a tricky category, as it can conflict with a sense of modesty—the promotion of one’s charity may well be misunderstood as shameless promotion of oneself. No wonder then that 41% of philanthropists surveyed said that they insist on remaining anonymous, and another 36% said that they don’t hide but don’t actively publicize their giving.”
  • As we know, not all donors wish to be publicly recognized; not all donors wish to be “cultivated” in the traditional sense. The best nonprofit staff members can do in these instances, is continue doing a great job, in the hope of inspiring generous contributions – whether or not they know about them. Jay Yarrow has written for Business Insider, “Steve Jobs’ Family Has Secretly Been Giving Away Money for 20 Years” (May, 2013).

One thought on “Listening to Donors and “Serendipity” Happens

  1. Jane Pulaski September 3, 2012 / 3:32 pm

    Nice piece, Carolyn. Perhaps we all have our very own groundskeepers in our organizations.

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