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What type of friendship is a donor relationship? Is it really “not about the money”?

Ever since Thales’ told us to “Know thyself,” humans have loved pithy sayings. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” . . . “Let go and let God” . . . “Just do it!”

Our industry of fundraising is not immune to this phenomenon. Here’s one that I particularly dislike: “it’s about the relationship not the money.” How’s this for direct: relationships aren’t going to keep your organization’s lights on or put food on your table. If you get to the end of your fiscal year and your CEO asks you why you brought in 50% less money than your goal, telling her that you formed a lot of great relationships and that it’s not about the money won’t get you very far.

I understand what the expression is getting at, but it’s lazy. It’s a therapeutic line to paw away recognition of the necessarily transactional component of being a fundraiser. It’s warm and reassuring—as most all of these expressions are—and it has elements of truth, which adds to its instinctive appeal.

In his seminal Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes three types of friendship. A friendship of utility is based in the benefit each party derives from the friendship, and ceases when that benefit does. A friendship of pleasure is grounded in mutual interests, such as following the same sports team or sharing a hobby. This type of friendship is shallow and subject to change as tastes change. The first two are forms of pseudo-friendship. Finally, there is friendship of the good, which is based on mutual appreciation for, and pursuit of, virtue. Such friendships are deep and enduring and—this is key—also contain aspects of utility and pleasure. Moreover, a friendship can progress from being one of utility or pleasure to one of virtue.

Under this Aristotelian model, what type of friendships are donor relationships? The vast majority begin as friendships of utility, at least from your standpoint. You are reaching out because they have a track record of charitable giving to your organization or the capacity to give more. But elements of a friendship of pleasure are also inherent from the outset. After all, the donor knows why you’re reaching out. You are a development officer at an organization that she cares about and has an interest in.

A lot of donor relationships stay at the utility and pleasure levels of friendship. And that’s fine! Sometimes a donor will consciously keep the relationship there. Other times, the ingredients for a friendship of the good just aren’t all there for whatever reason. Maybe you and the donor don’t click on an interpersonal level, but you recognize that your relationship is about the organization, not you.

If you’re doing a good job, though, chances are that some of your relationships will venture into the friendship of virtue realm. After all, if you and the donor both believe that your organization’s mission has a virtuous purpose, then you have a strong foundation for this type of friendship. But that’s not your job. It’s the result of your doing your job. If that donor suddenly lost everything, you would have certain obligations to him as a friend, but you would actually be reneging on your responsibilities as a development officer by investing as much time in the relationship (while you’re on the clock) as you did before.

This last point is why people like to say that it’s about the relationships not the money. It’s more reassuring and a much simpler rubric. In reality, donor relationships are a very delicate combination of the relational and the transactional. Simplifying that combination makes our job seem a lot easier.

But we owe it to the organization we serve, and, frankly, to our donors themselves, to eschew simplistic conceptions of the donor relationship and its purpose. The example above crystallizes the weakness of the “relationships not money” approach by highlighting a scenario in which the two are in tension. The nuance I hope to add is the recognition that one’s responsibilities as a development officer need not crowd out one’s responsibilities to a friend. This is a different paradigm from “relationships not money,” which ends up being a false dichotomy.

More to the point, the thing that truly begins to deepen a donor relationship, in my experience, is an ask. They know why you’ve reached out to them. Your title has “development” or “gifts” or “donor” in it, for goodness’ sake. Before you start talking about giving, there’s typically a bit of guardedness, understandably, on the part of the donor. They know why you’re here, but they don’t know when, for what, and for how much you’d like to ask. Once you introduce the topic of financial support, the donor begins to breathe easier. You’ve given them clarity, and the conversation starts to open a bit.

A relationship forms. You can take it from there.

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