Listening to Donors and “Serendipity” Happens

One of the best ways to understand how donors think about your nonprofit organization and its work is to ask them to tell you. This seems like simple, straight-forward advice, but it is a step that is sometimes overlooked by nonprofit staff. By understanding what your donors think – and what motivates them – you will learn invaluable lessons that will help tailor your future “asks,” and acknowledge them properly. Don’t be shy!

Having said this, donors do not always tell you what they prefer, and sometimes, you do not even know who they are.

I am 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.

“Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I can walk undisturbed.”

Walt Whitman, American poet (1819 – 1892)

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.

Gardening Supplies
Click to read Maria Popova for Brain Pickings, ” The Healing Power of Gardens (2019).

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.

  • Brittany Britto for the Houston Chronicle, “Baylor Receives $100 Million from Anonymous Donor,” (May 4, 2019). “A significant portion of the $100 million gift will be used to launch the Baylor Academic Challenge, a matching program that encourages donors to create endowed funds to increase the number of faculty positions and further build research and teaching opportunities.”

  • 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.”

  • Deborah L. Jacobs for Forbes, “How To Stay Anonymous When You Give to Charity” (2012). “Still, many other wealthy people (and ordinary folks too) may prefer to keep their giving a secret–for example, because they shun the limelight, are concerned about kidnapping attempts if people find out they are wealthy, or want to avoid hostility from people philosophically opposed to the causes they support. One of the few surveys on anonymous giving concluded that the primary reason donors like to keep their identities a secret is to avoid getting badgered by fund-raising requests.”

  • 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.”

Anonymous giving has a long philosophical and religious history, and the privacy interests of donors to non-profit originations are connected to the right of free association under the First Amendment.

Philosophical examination of anonymous giving goes back at least as far as the first century with the Roman philosopher Seneca, who wrote that anonymous gifts allow a person to avoid both praise and blame for the gift. Anonymity in charity also has a strong history in several religions. The medieval scholar Maimonides placed anonymous giving among the highest forms of charity. In Christianity, the Sermon on the Mount preaches the virtue of secret giving (Matthew 6:1-4). The Koran also describes the value of private charity: “If you disclose your charitable expenditures, they are good; but if you conceal them and give them to the poor, it is better for you” (Quran 2:271).

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