Donor Relationship Manager vs. Change Agent: The Quest for the Perfect Balance

envelopeBy Diane Scherer

How many of you, like me, daydream and strategize for hours at end about how your Jewish organization can change something in their operations to be a real innovative change-agent for the betterment of the Jewish community? And while you are fantasizing of being that professional at the helm, you are also charged with raising the dollars necessary from donors, which often means, making the donor happy and connected no matter what. And, some of these donors tend to lean towards doing things as they always have been done; the dichotomy of being a change-agent. Sound familiar?

I recently proudly facilitated an event with 220 people in attendance that had excellent content and engaged the audience in my organization’s mission. It was a prime opportunity to have a conversation with the event Chair on innovative next steps. However, what stopped us from proceeding with a brainstorming conversation was the fact that I brought the wrong return envelope for pledge cards, which he felt was so important, it needed to be rectified at that exact moment. The choice that I was faced with: 1) Do I race to the nearby Kinkos, in the pouring rain, to re-do the 200+ envelopes before this event was planned to start or do I 2) persuade him that the envelope I did bring would do just fine (which it would have; the type of envelope he wanted to use could be an entire different blog post topic), and return to our larger strategy discussion

I have learned that it takes years of experience and proficient professional finesse to achieve the ultimate balance of being a donor relationship manager and a change-agent. I entered the field of Jewish communal service believing in retrospect, perhaps naively, that it was seamless to be an excellent fundraiser while getting donors to listen to innovative ideas that often fluttered my train of thought. According to the Bridgespan Group, the definition of Donor Relationship Manager is “the process of thoughtfully and proactively cultivating relationships with new donors and stewarding current donors in order to maximize donor retention, engagement and investment.” According to one source, a Change-Agent “is a person from inside or outside the organization who helps an organization transform itself by focusing on such matters as organizational effectiveness, improvement, and development. A change-agent usually focuses his efforts on the effect of  … interpersonal and group relationships in the organization. The focus is on the people in the organization and their interactions.”

When a professional and a donor have an open relationship and work in partnership to achieve financial goals as well as propel new, innovative ideas, it is exhilarating when it works seamlessly! And, I have had a few recent examples of this occurring of which I feel extremely proud. However, it is often a delicate balance of simultaneously being a donor relationship manager and a change agent. It is the role of the professional to ensure this balance by surveying the entire picture of each circumstance before deciding on what steps to take next. Should I have ignored the donor’s request to run to Kinkos so that my “change agent” hat could win-over, or did I need to run to Kinkos to keep the donor relationship manager hat at the forefront? The definitions of “donor relationship manager” and “change-agent” can inherently conflict. Of course, there is no question when the donor’s suggestion will hurt the reputation, or ethical nature of the organization. That should never be allowed to happen.

Assessing the following criteria can be helpful to professionals in determining which hat to wear when faced with the decision of wearing the donor relationship manager hat vs. the change-agent hat.

  1. The life-cycle of your relationship with the donor: Building trust takes time. As idealistic as we all might be about new ideas, we should take into account how long our relationship with the respective donor/chair has existed. I would suggest to air on the side of the donor’s wishes at least for the first 6-9 months of the working relationship. Once a professional demonstrates expertise, a “can-do” attitude and trust, new ideas for the donor’s consideration can be introduced.
  2. The donor’s feelings about change: Some people love to lead a life of thrill-seeking, risk-taking, and trying new ideas, with the understanding that failure might occur under their role tenureship. Other people are more risk-averse and feel more comfortable with the status quo. And, I have learned that generational differences matter. At the risk of generalizing, I will suggest that as some people reach older adult-hood, they tend to like to do what has always been done and change is more difficult for them. Before suggesting a new idea or approach to a donor, a professional should have a clear understanding of how he/she reacts to change; thus, the professional can foresee how the conversation might unfold. By practicing the conversation in your head, you can anticipate the donor’s reaction and be prepared with appropriate responses. For those professionals who have a Masters in Social Work, certain teachings about stages of life and conscious use of self, can help assess the relationships we have with our lay leaders.
  3. The donor’s reach; monetarily and in community social connections: In essence, the suggested change needs to offer clear benefits for the organization’s mission or community (and conversely, a donor’s suggestion should never hurt an organization’s reputation or credibility as a nonprofit entity). These benefits should outweigh the costs of possibly losing the donor, which will hopefully not occur if done correctly, but might. Certainly, the donor’s donation carries weight, as does the donor’s social reach to others. Even if the donor is not the largest giver monetarily, one must ask himself if the donor is an important gate-keeper to other prospects?
  4. Take out the emotions/power-struggle: When one is so committed to their innovative idea, he/she tends to put emotions behind it; power struggles can follow even if that’s not the intention. When a heated conversation begins, it is difficult to take the emotions out of the sphere; we are all human. However, taking the emotions out is important. This can be done by politely stopping the conversation, taking out a piece of paper and systematically writing out the pros and cons from each person’s perspective; donor and professional.
  5. Timing is everything: Nothing in life is permanent so even if you, as the professional, for-go the strategy/change-agent conversation to appease the donor’s current wishes, there will always be another time to bring it up. And the conversation will probably have a better outcome if the timing is right.

In my example above, I rushed like a crazy person to the Kinkos 30 minutes before the event to re-print what the donor wanted me to. The Kinko’s staff person clearly thought I was a maniac, but probably doesn’t understand the nonprofit work of maintaining a donor relationship.

Even though I didn’t feel like this envelope issue would make or break our event or our organization’s mission, I put my beliefs aside because rectifying the situation was important to the donor. This was our first event as pro-lay partners; I know from previous conversations he is not good with change; and he is the gate-keeper to a large Jewish social circle; as he was getting emotional, I was staying rationale; and timing is everything! After he saw that I have a “can-do” attitude (and don’t mind rushing in the rain to get something done for him), he was appreciative of the outcome and I’m sure this first-impression experience will lead the path to larger strategy conversations as we continue to build trust.

The donors in our Jewish organizations enable the ideas to come to fruition. As professionals, we are trained (some at Masters and Phd levels) to strategize macro Jewish communal issues; yet, we sometimes need to do that Kinkos trip. It is our job to ensure these roles ebb and flow in a finessed manner. May we all have the days where we can brainstorm “out of the box” initiatives to meet the demands of the Jewish future, but also be ok doing the mundane errands that keep our donors happy. I would love to hear if this article resonates with you, so please share your comments and stories so we can learn from each other.

Diane Scherer has been working in the Jewish communal sphere for over 10 years after deciding that her short career in the finance world was not fulfilling enough. She is a graduate of Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work with a Masters in Social Work and Certificate in Jewish Communal Studies. She is currently a development professional for American Friends of Magen David Adom. She is the proud recipient of the Jewish Federation of North America’s FEREP scholarship and has previously worked for the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, UJA-Federation of NY and the Union for Reform Judaism.