How close is too close? Keeping it professional with donors

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Fundraisers often create relationships with donors, which can be quite personal and while this can be great from a fundraising perspective (knowing your donors’ interests, what projects they might be likely to fund and their connection to the organisation), it sometimes begs the question ‘How close is too close?’

It is perfectly acceptable to take a potential donor to lunch and ask them about how they became involved in the organisation and what they would like to see your organisation achieve. It is also professional to follow this meeting up with a hand-written thank you note to show your gratitude for them giving up their precious time. But, when does this relationship become too close? And how should we as fundraisers handle it when lines become blurred?

These are questions I had to face as a very young fundraiser in my first role. I had made a great connection with a donor, who was interested in our work, wanted to be further involved and was attending events regularly. It began professionally enough, with emails asking how projects were going and phone calls to confirm details of meetings. However, at one particular drinks reception, this particular donor pushed the level of our professional relationship to an uncomfortable level. Throughout the evening he consistently tried to hug me, put his arms around me and say things to other attendees like ‘Isn’t she great? Hasn’t her work done well?’ whilst firmly keeping hold of me.

As someone who is not keen on physical contact, this entire evening made me very uncomfortable, to the point where I even mouthed to a senior member of staff to ‘help me’. But, as a young, relatively inexperienced fundraiser, I had no idea how to handle this donor. After all, he was making significant contributions to our work and giving a great deal of financial support. If I had asked him to remove his hands from me, would I have ruined the relationship and perhaps triggered his withdrawal of support? Was it my job to smile and go along with it to ensure his support continued? I didn’t know!

Following the event, I spoke with my line manager and expressed how I had felt during the evening and she kindly reassured me that it would have been perfectly acceptable for me to clearly ask him not to touch me. She also assured me that if his contributions to our work had ceased as a result of my actions, I would not have been held accountable and that my integrity and security were more valuable than any donation of any size. Going forward, she took over all contact with this donor and my contact with him came to an end. I attended some training and felt much more confident in being able to maintain my professionalism with supporters in the future.

But, as a fundraiser there can be such enormous pressure to keep the donor happy, that we forget that our own security and comfort should not be put at risk. I truly feel that training surrounding appropriate relationships with donors and clear guidelines on how to assert yourself should be provided, especially to young, less experienced fundraisers before they find themselves in this kind of scenario. After all, no donation should ever be at the expense of fundraisers integrity.

Have you ever felt pressure to behave a certain way to ensure a donation is received? Do you provide training around issues like this? Do you think organisations should take more responsibility ensure their staff’s safety and comfort? Let me know your thoughts and comments!

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2 thoughts on “How close is too close? Keeping it professional with donors

    1. Victoria, thanks for sharing this. It is not discussed often enough. Your early manager sounds like she did a great job of keeping you safe and reassuring you that that was the most important thing.

      Organisations can develop an engagement charter which encourages staff to feel protected and makes it clear to donors that their donations are valued but they are trusted to behave with equal integrity to staff.

      Well done you for speaking out.

      Liked by 1 person

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