Language Matters: do we ‘manage’ or ‘respect’ our donors?

Yesterday I enjoyed taking part in a lively online discussion organised by the Guardian newspaper’s Voluntary Sector Network. The topic was ‘Managing Major Donors’ and a good panel of experts was assembled to field questions on this topic, which is of increasing importance to charities up and down the country.

Over two hours, we addressed issues such as how to initiate relationships with people who have the potential to make major gifts, how individuals differ from corporate donors, and the extent to which impact reporting matters. The transcript of the whole discussion is available here and I hope it makes useful reading for people looking for advice in this area.

But all through the session I had a niggling worry about the title. Do the generous, wealthy people who choose to share their resources (including money, time and expertise) with good causes really want – or expect – to be ‘managed’ by the charities they support? This is part of a wider problem of the language used in the fundraising profession, whereby anyone we hope might support us becomes a ‘prospect’, who is then put into a ‘prospect pipeline’ and invited to ‘cultivation events’ before becoming a donor who is ‘managed’ or ‘key worked’.

One of the worst examples I heard was a senior fundraising consultant say – in front of a seriously major donor – ‘how can we extract more funds from people like X?’ Extract? Are we taking out teeth or inviting people to join us in creating a better world?

I am just as guilty of making flippant comments and using intemperate language, and was rightly put in my place a while back by a major philanthropist who gently suggested that perhaps we could all have a bit more respect when talking about the people who choose to use their private wealth to promote the public good.

So my mid-new year’s resolution is to stop saying things that I wouldn’t say if the donor could hear me. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has noticed a similar problem in their organisation.

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