Philanthropy must lead, and other measures of donor success

November 2018

By Ken Strmiska, Ed.D.

Vice President, Philanthropy and Donor Stewardship, Experimental Aircraft Association

As the final quarter of 2018 winds down, it’s the time where good causes great and small look to make the final connection with their supporters for that important year-end ask.  While all nonprofits, including EAA, strive to build relationships with their donors throughout the year, societal influences and traditions make the holiday season especially important for many charitable causes.

For EAA, that giving provides the foundation for youth education, such as the more than 2.1 million young people who have taken a flight through our Young Eagles program or have participated in STEM programming, an aviation restoration and preservation opportunity, or attended a museum program or KidVenture. Every organization has its mission-based programs that are essential to their individual visions.

While some experts suggest that we might see a significant decline in personal giving as a result in recent tax law changes, I stand by the research that for decades has reaffirmed that the number one reason that people give is because they are asked to give and/or they feel a personal connection with the cause – not a tax deduction.  This means that it’s time to double down on the stories we tell of our organizations, developing a stronger connection with possible supporters as we approach December 31. There are thousands of compelling stories out there; how we attach them to our mission and programs is the role of fundraising professionals and it is what ignites donor connection to our cause.

Philanthropy must lead in non-profit organizations. For most organizations, fundraising will never achieve its potential if it merely fills a budget hole (e.g., the gap between earned revenue and expenses). It must connect an organization’s vision to the ideals of those who support it.

If there is a secret to America, it is everyday people thinking and acting beyond their self-interests and becoming stewards for communities, organizations, and programs. Although trends, causes, and tax codes evolve through the years, there are some bedrock tenets that remain true when identifying, developing and encouraging that potential support:

  • Linkage. When considering the possible community of support, we start with those who might have a connection with it. For instance, with EAA it makes no sense to expend resources to expect an interest from a person without ties with aviation, youth education, or one of our core initiatives. One might believe that there is a band of wildly enthusiastic donors just around the next corner if just approached with the right message, but that is a waste of time.The closer to the proximity of the cause – which in our case would be youth aviation and STEM education, aircraft preservation, or another core activity – the more linkage is established.
  • Ability. Although many people may philosophically support a cause, there is a finite percentage that are able or willing to turn that into a meaningful financial commitment. Can the donor do what we need them to do?If not, we are asking them for the wrong thing.
  • Interest. Why would someone be interested in the cause that you are promoting? Has their family been impacted by the organization or is the organization’s mission a passion for them?If you cannot figure this out about a prospective donor, they are not a legitimate prospect.

Among the elements I’ve discovered in working with an aviation organization, and being involved in aviation before that, is the pure passion that infuses those who fly. Those who discover it also find two other things: first, it is a life-changing pursuit that affects them to their soul, and second, they want to share it with others. In talking with fellow pilots through the years, nearly all of them want to ensure that others have the same opportunity they did.

We can relate to those personal accounts when we hear them. We then can find a way where those people can provide that possibility for others in a way that is tangible and measurable. This often takes time. The best fundraisers that I know are people who possess both passion for a cause and patience for an outcome. As with any relationship, trust and commitment are built via both of those virtues.

Whether is it through welcoming young people into aviation, the preservation of history, or the growth of opportunities that benefit society at large, we seek to be a conduit that connects a mission with the dreams and aspiration of individual donors.

For most people, philanthropy is not a business transaction – it is a personal transaction. It becomes part of that person’s legacy; in the case of a bequest, it is a strong statement of their ultimate wishes. I am always humbled and grateful by such commitments, and we celebrate the success stories they enable.

Philanthropy is, at its core, a way to appreciate what we have. Our role in helping donors to connect with our organizations not only allows us to achieve our missions, but is also incredibly fulfilling. We do something that makes the world, or our little piece of it, a bit better. That is a pretty good way to spend your days.

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